From 1997 through 2001, Chicago pizza restaurateur Tony Gillig competed in the IHRA and NHRA Pro Stock ranks, finishing second in the championship standings twice with the IHRA in this classic Oldsmobile Cutlass that well-traveled fans instantly recognize. But, it turns out it wasn’t this Cutlass at all.
Gillig’s Nitrous Pro Street machine, built by the late Don Ness, is in fact a replica of the original Rick Jones-built car, right down to the paint scheme and the late 90s-era wheels — a fact which has stumped many of those who have seen it in competition the latter half of this season.
“The original car was built by RJ in 1995 and when we quit racing NHRA Pro Stock in 2001, we sold it to a guy down south, and he still has the car. I called him about five times trying to buy it back and he wouldn’t sell it. So we found this car out in Las Vegas; a guy was racing it in Top Sportsman. This is the old Mike Edwards, Don Ness car from 1995 that he won Indy with. So we found the car, my dad bought it, we brought it home and we stripped it down the bare chassis. We put carbon fiber wheel tubs and interior in it, updated a few things, and then had it powdercoated and painted to match our old car.
“We bought the car in March of last year and got it done this June. It’s the exact paint scheme, same color, it’s an exact replica,” Gillig shares.
For Gillig, who still enjoys the Pro Stock way — pure, unadulterated horsepower, a manual transmission, and a clutch pedal, Nitrous Pro Street and classes like it have provided the perfect outlet for his return to racing.
Racing Pro Stock in the past, I always liked to do that, racing heads-up without the nitrous and turbos and blowers, and I want a stick in the car, so this class fits us well, the PDRA stuff fits us well.
“Some of the nostalgia Pro Stock stuff has taken off, and the [Outlaw] 632 class. Racing Pro Stock in the past, I always liked to do that, racing heads-up without the nitrous and turbos and blowers, and I want a stick in the car, so this class fits us well, the PDRA stuff fits us well. Some of the nostalgia stuff might not be as competitive as Pro Stock, so to speak, but there are places for us to race it, we’re not limited. The 500-inch Pro Stock racing is ridiculous, and the mountain motor stuff doesn’t interest me, so we thought this would be the best place for us.”
Like former NHRA Pro Stock racer Vince Khoury, who was pitted just down the lane from him at the recent NMCA World Street Finals at Indianapolis, Gillig admits he missed the big stage of the factory hot rod class, but admits at this point in his life, Outlaw 632-style racing fits the bill.
“I do miss Pro Stock, but when we did that, I was in my 20s and we were working night and day. We didn’t think twice, we just did it. But now I’m almost 50, and you only have so much time in the day, and you have kids, and there’s a lot going on, so the slower pace and the reduced schedule works out well for us. I’m glad these classes exist, because it gives us an opportunity to race the way we want to race. I’ve driven some cars here and there since we got out of Pro Stock, but I wanted to race a car like this. But there just wasn’t a class to race it, unless you ran Pro Stock. There’s Top Sportsman, but that isn’t my thing. So this all came together at the right time — these classes have been the saving grace for us to come back and race again.
I do miss Pro Stock, but when we did that, I was in my 20s and we were working night and day. We didn’t think twice, we just did it. But now I’m almost 50, and you only have so much time in the day, and you have kids, and there’s a lot going on, so the slower pace and the reduced schedule works out well for us.
Gillig’s Cutlass is powered by a Madcap Engines-built 622 cubic-inch big-block that he runs naturally-aspirated against the nitrous oxide-assisted entries that comprise the majority of the class. And, fittingly, for a Pro Stock veteran, it’s backed with a Liberty five-speed and a RAM triple-disc clutch — Gillig notes, “I’ve never driven an automatic racecar, so I’d probably screw it up somehow. There’s no clutch pedal. I enjoy driving the car…without punching gears, I don’t think it’s be fun. That’s how I grew up…my dad had me in the car with a Lenco and a big-block and a tube chassis when I was 17.
“It runs good, but we’re still sorting it out,” Gillig adds of his newly-minted machine, which qualified an impressive number two in the show in his NMCA debut at Indianapolis with a 4.373 and went all the way to the final round. “This car has less than 20 runs on it. We’re close, we just have to keep working at it.”
This isn’t Gillig’s first foray into street legal drag racing, as in 2003 he drove to the Fun Ford Weekend Pro 5.0 title driving Tim Huston’s ASSC Ford Mustang. He later returned to the IHRA scene, finishing a disappointing second in the world in a climactic points race a second time in 2006.
“It was cool to be competitive. I always dreamed of driving a Pro Stock car. I’ve lived my dream before I was 30 years old, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. My dad is a big part of that obviously. But it’s such a cool deal to have this car back out — it’s gotten a lot of attention and people say ‘oh my God, you got this thing out of the mothballs.’ It’s a family effort out here…I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t my whole family doing it. It’s brought us closer together and it’s just neat.”