Although the NHRA’s Pro Stock eliminator has displayed significantly greater competition in the first half of this season than it did one year ago, the class has been unable to escape the grip of the media, the spectators, and the drag racing community at large, who have continued to dissect its downfall and call for its termination. The question asked and debated on a nearly daily basis, of course, is “how did we get here?” What happened to Pro Stock, and could it have been prevented?
Ironically enough, many of those in the racing community ganging-up on the factory hot rods are the very same individuals who, during its prime in the mid-1990’s, were all about the 500 cubic-inch, naturally-aspirated racing. So, what changed?
Let’s take a look at what I believe are the factors in play, in order of importance:
1. The 1990s were a fruitful time for the National Hot Rod Association, although in their unending quest to rival NASCAR’s growth, they and none of us truly realized it at the time. The world’s leading sanctioning body had little competition—Pro Modified, albeit plenty popular in its own right, was tucked away quietly out of the mainstream in the IHRA. There was no such thing as radial tire racing or no prep, nor was there an ADRL or a PDRA. If you were well-to-do financially and wanted to race a full-bodied car heads-up, Pro Stock was the pinnacle, and competing at an NHRA national event was an experience unlike anything else. And believe it or not, it was attainable … but we’ll hit on that in a minute.
As we’ve watched unfold in the nearly two decades that have followed, other, perhaps more attractive and less costly venues, have opened up for drag racers, providing them with limitless opportunities that simply weren’t there before. There are untold millions of dollars invested in Pro Modified and radial tire racing operations, and if those venues didn’t exist, you can imagine that many of those individuals who today are running in Radial vs The World or Pro Nitrous would be Pro Stock racing instead.
You have to remember, even though as many as 50 Pro Stock cars might have attempted to qualify at a race at one time, only half (or less) had a legitimate chance of making the show and far fewer could win the deal. So why did so many racers invest considerable sums of money in their program anyway? Because Pro Stock was THE place to be, and they wanted to be a part of it, on the big stage, regardless of the outcome. We see that very same thought-process today in Pro Modified, in X275, and other classes and venues. … people simply want to be involved, even if they aren’t competitive. And so, again, there are plenty of would-be Pro Stock racers out there today, they just found somewhere else to spend their money.
2. In the early 2000’s, Greg Anderson and and team owner Ken Black raised the bar in a big way in Pro Stock, both competitively and financially, culminating in their first championship in 2003. Black, from Las Vegas, set up shop in stock car country, Mooresville, North Carolina and hired some of the best talent money could buy. Anderson won 12 races in 2003, 15 in 2004, and eight in 2005 and 2006. He and teammate Jason Line were virtually untouchable, and the resources needed to close the gap were far more than the majority of the 40-plus cars that used to show up had at their disposal. One by one, they fell by the wayside.
KB Racing’s dominance wasn’t all that unlike Bob Glidden’s in the 80’s or Warren Johnson’s in the 90’s, neither of which crippled the class, but it simply came at a point in time when sponsorships were becoming less plentiful and the economy was beginning to sag. A perfect storm, if you will.
3. Bob Glidden and Lee Shepherd. Warren Johnson and The Dodge Boys. The nitrous oxide scandals. The race to the sixes and 200 mph.
The personalities, the rivalries and conflicts, and the stories that provided so much of the intrigue in Pro Stock in the past are exactly that: a thing of the past.
4. “Pro Stock” and “cheap” go together like Democrats and Donald Trump. It’s never been an affordable prospect, but at one time, you could purchase a used chassis out of the back pages of National Dragster, lease an engine for a weekend (or buy one of those out of Dragster, too), and pull in the gates with your gooseneck trailer and you were a professional, parked right amongst the Jim Yates’ and Darrell Alderman’s of the world. Nevermind that you were going to miss the field by a tenth and a half, you were a professional drag racer, rowing the gears in front of 50,000 people.
5. I love high-winding, naturally-aspirated racing as much as anyone. I grew up enamored with Pro Stock, Pro Stock Truck, and Competition Eliminator, and the day those categories as we know them cease to exist will be difficult to process. That being said, with the influx of opportunities in our sport, with it has come technology that’s faster, cheaper, easier to relate to, and in the eyes of many, more entertaining. And once those in drag racing got a taste of radial cars in the threes and Pro Mods topping 270 mph, Pro Stock cars casually going mid-sixes just didn’t seem all that hip anymore.
6. As alluded to in my first point, but worthy of its own mention—competing at an NHRA national event has simply lost its luster. Perhaps its the payouts or the four and five days required to compete, but regardless, the prestige just isn’t what it was.
While Pro Stock isn’t what it once was, we’d argue it’s still the most prestigious form of doorslammer racing in the sport, with competition among it’s top 8-10 cars that’s virtually unparalleled. And whether it’s in their current form or something fresh and new, and regardless if 50 cars show up or 12, we’ll continue to tell the stories of those who call the factory hot rod class home.
Do you agree with these points, or do you believe there are other reasons for Pro Stock’s slide? Share your thoughts in the comments and let us know.