(Images courtesy NHRA/National Dragster)

Veteran Pro Stock racer V Gaines started the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule abysmally.
 
He didn’t qualify for five of the first seven races. The man from the Mile-High City was a mile low in the standings, mired as deep as 18th place by as early as the third race.
 
Today, as the season winds down with two more Countdown to the Championship events remaining, Gaines is in sixth place and staring at the Wally statue on his mantel.
 
It came in Monday’s rain-delayed extension of the Auto-Plus Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa. By then he had his Hemi-powered Kendall Dodge Avenger running with the best of the Pro Stock class. And that’s who he defeated to break his 111-race winless streak that dated back to February 2008 at Phoenix.
 
He plowed to his second final round of the year past three NHRA Pro Stock champions who have combined for a dozen series crowns: Warren Johnson (six), Greg Anderson (four), and Jason Line (two). Then he took on part-time points-wrecker Dave Connolly, who took on a late-season driving role and won the high-profile U.S. Nationals last month.
 
V Gaines — Vieri to his family but simply V to the racing world — has come a long way. And the 65-year-old Lakewood, Colo., businessman knows exactly why he was able to “start making improvements and every week it gets better and better.”
 
It was because of his decision to build his own chassis and prepare his own engines.
 
“It’s so rewarding. You have no idea the pride that we have,” Gaines said of his operation.  “We make the chassis. We build the motors.
 
“I can’t say enough about leasing. We learned under Dick Maskin. We learned under so may people who helped us learn drag racing, as well as leasing us motors. Those were very [formative] years. Leasing is a good, good deal,” he said, “But sooner or later, if you want to control your own destiny, you’ve got to build your own motors, got to keep your development in-house.”
 
Being independent has its personal, emotional rewards. But it has a definite flip side. Not having data-sharing partners makes chasing a championship that much harder.
 
“We really don’t share information with anybody, don’t really have any teammates. A single team, it’s tough. And it’s good — we keep all the information we learned. It’s fantastic to be running this well,” Gaines said.

His own driving has improved throughout the season, but he shrugged that off.

It’s so rewarding. You have no idea the pride that we have. We make the chassis. We build the motors.

“When the car’s working well, it makes the driver look awfully good,” the longtime owner-driver said, laughing. “I wish I could say it was all the driver, but the car is so fantastic right now, thanks to the guys at Lazarus [Race Cars] who make the car, and of course the motors from Madcap [Racing Engines], and most of all our crew. These guys, you know, when things are going bad, it’s tough. But they’ve always been on the positive side and we’ve been able to make the rebound.”
 
It has been gradual. By the 11th race, at Chicago, he had reached a semifinal round. And he had been qualifying in the top half of the ladder throughout mid-season. By the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, his hometown race in July at Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, Gaines had advanced to his first final round since that 2008 Phoenix race.
 
Gaines knew his Dodge could deliver the goods. He was Friday’s provisional No. 1 qualifier at Reading.
 
From this car he pulled a 6.489-second pass at 212.96 mph in defeating Anderson in the quarterfinals. That lifted him into the top-10 list for quickest passes in class history, and it marked both his personal-bests for E.T. and speed.

 
“It was magical run,” Gaines said of his own 6.489. “It all starts out with a 60-foot [incremental time of 0.967 seconds] that I never dreamed we would run. That helped it a lot. Wow – being in the 6.40s club — didn’t dream we would be able to be there. But hey — here we are, and it’s worked out. We’re just excited.”
 
Then the Dodge carried him to a holeshot victory over reigning series and event champion Line, who just had clocked the second-quickest and national-speed-record pass in Pro Stock history.
 
So Gaines was on his game like never before, and he was ready in the final for Connolly, who had reached the finals the last four times he raced at Maple Grove and had won twice.
 
He earned his fourth victory in 10 final rounds and his first victory in two finals this year, using a 6.515-second elapsed time at 212 mph on the quarter-mile for the Pro Stock trophy.
 
Connolly, driving the IDG Chevrolet out of Victor Cagnazzi Racing, fouled out by one-hundredth of a second (.016).
 
“You never want to go red but if you do the math, I don’t know that it would’ve mattered,” Connolly said. “I think V had us covered today. He ran a huge number and was there at the tree [with a .022-second reaction time]. I’m happy for him. You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy to race against in the final.”
 
With that, Gaines improved from ninth place in the standings to sixth as the tour heads to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in three weeks.
 
For Gaines, it was a nearly perfect weekend.
 
“We wanted to hang onto that No. 1 spot, which would have really been something. But I’d rather win the race. We’ll get that No. 1 spot sooner or later.”  
 
Said Gaines, “We’re not worried about cold-weather racing, because we’re from Denver, 5,000 feet high. It showed this week we can compete in the cold weather. And boy, we’re just ecstatic,” he said.
 
And he’s finally in the winning groove.