Despite Painful Setbacks, Pro Nitrous’ Chris Rini Is Still Driven

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With a new Jerry Bickel ‘69 Camaro, a new Charlie Buck 941 cubic inch engine, and a new ATI Turbo 400 lockup transmission, Pro Nitrous competitor Chris Rini had high, but realistic, hopes for the 2016 season. For the first time, he planned to run the entire PDRA schedule and after having a strong finish in the 2015 season, Rini was showing great promise in one of drag racing’s toughest categories.

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Although Rini was realistic about the adjustment period that comes with debuting new equipment, nothing could have prepared him for the start to his season. Before he could even get the ATI “Black Magic” Camaro to the track for testing, he was involved in an accident at his Chris’ Automotive towing company in New York that broke his shoulder and five ribs, punctured a lung and dislocated his wrist.

[It was my] first race car accident ever. I don’t usually do things small, so in sticking with consistency in how I do things in my life, it was a big accident.

The accident, coupled with a delayed timeline in taking receipt of the new car, meant that Rini missed the top January test sessions. In mid-February, he was finally able to take his new whip to South Carolina’s Union Dragway. Unfortunately, cold weather offered little headway in shaking out the Camaro. So Rini and crew traveled further south for the first NMCA race of the season in Florida. There, his pre season quickly went from bad to worse.

“It was a brand new car so we wanted to put some laps on it and figure it out,” Rini said of his game plan for the event. The car had just ten laps on it when the unthinkable happened. “I took the tire off the car and went sideways quickly. I have no recollection of the accident, no memory at all. I watched the video to see the whole staging process because I have no memory of that.

“The last thing I remember was the burnout. I don’t remember backing up, purging, getting ready or anything. I got loose about 100 feet, it pancaked the wall. It knocked me out. I ended up splitting the helmet open. I hit my head on the lower part of the funny car cage where there’s not really any roll bar padding. The car kept running. I hit both walls twice because the car just kept running down the race track in high gear. I ended up coming to a stop almost to where the shutdown was run out of road.

“[It was my] first race car accident ever. I don’t usually do things small, so in sticking with consistency in how I do things in my life, it was a big accident. It put me in the hospital, broke seven ribs, dislocated my shoulder, and I had a concussion. That put me out for the next two months.”

Incredibly, Rini did not re-injure anything from his work-related accident, which affected the right side of his body.

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Despite the severity of the accident, right away Rini had the Camaro back at Bickel’s to be repaired and was soon rehabbing his injuries. “The car ended up getting a new body, wheels, and tires,” Rini explained. “Jerry did a really good job rebuilding it. It went back in the original fixture. They checked everything. The accident was all on the left side but because I drove down the race track, it skimmed off the right wall two times. I ended up keeping one door and put a whole new body on it. I can’t thank Jerry enough. He turned around the rebuild quick and got me back out there. The car is flawless. It’s as good as it was when it left there the first time.

“I feel good,” Rini added of his physical state. “Ribs are a tough recovery. It’s very painful to breathe, sneeze, cough, eat, sleep, you name it. But I feel good now. I’m in pretty good shape and I got back in the gym pretty quickly just trying to do light exercises and cardio.”

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The team was ready to get back at it by mid-May. “Going back out for the first time was like starting all over again because we really had only made ten runs before I crashed it,” Rini explained. “It was like we were still in the new car mode and trying to figure it out. I picked the car up from Jerry’s and went straight to Tulsa. Made a couple of good hits at Tulsa, just trying to shake it out and make sure everything worked, but it was cold in Tulsa. We left there and drove a few hours to the PDRA Texas Nationals and it was hot as the sun in Texas.”

I’m not getting frustrated about it because that’s how you really run out of ambition. Unfortunately it just hasn’t been a stellar year.

Rini had yet to debut his new Charlie Buck engine, preferring to adjust to the new car with the 903-inch engine for which he had proven combinations. He qualified in the back half of the field in Texas. With a few weeks before the next PDRA event, the Summer Drags at US 131 Motorsports Park in mid-June, Rini hoped to get a few more laps on the car during testing, but was rained out. Putting frustrations behind him, he dropped in his new 941 with five stages of Switzer Dynamics-plumbed nitrous and headed north for the Summer Drags.

There he ran into more gremlins, qualifying in the bottom half of the field again before falling to Lizzy Musi in round one. Rini continued on, determined to get past the new car blues. The next stop was an EOPM race at Darlington Dragway.

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“And what do you think happened? It poured like you’d think the world was going to come to an end, like I was going to have to get on an ark so I could see another day,” Rini described. “It rained for two and a half hours and then the sun came out and it got hot, hot, hot. Three hours later we started racing. We qualified number three. We did well with our new motor in the heat. And then there was an oil down, a crash, another crash and then they pulled the plug on the race.”

With every effort to test and get information on the new car frustrated, Rini headed into the PDRA North-South Shootout in Maryland with just two incomplete test sessions and four races on the new car. He qualified tenth with a 3.84, but ran into trouble in round one and had to abort the run.

Compounded frustrations, two severe accidents, setbacks and little forward progress for over seven months may have diminished Rini’s hopes for a top points finish in PDRA, but it has not dampened his resilient drive to see this year through.

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“I’m not getting frustrated about it because that’s how you really run out of ambition,” Rini said doggedly. “Unfortunately it just hasn’t been a stellar year.  If I could just get a full day of making five runs and not having any gremlins or problems or mechanical errors then we could probably get some headway. We’re starting to come around. We made a couple of good runs down at Darlington. A new car is always a hard start. It definitely has the power and the promise, it’s just a matter of getting everything to work together.

“Laps are what makes a good race car and race team come together. We came into Africa-hot weather conditions. It’s hard to start out in the heat of the summer … that’s when these cars are most temperamental in getting down the race track. It’s just a lot more pins and needles getting it down there clean.

“We love it, though. The good times are great. We really need to get a little bit of sunshine in our window, because it’s tough when you go out there week in and week out and you don’t do well. It’s hard on the guys, mentally. They all accept the work level that is, but it’s nice to have a little bit of feeling of success.”

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Rini thanks his crew, who are all volunteer, as well as his partners: ATI, Buck Racing Engines, Chris’ Automotive, Pro Fabrication, CV Products, Braille Batteries, Moroso, Stef’s Fabrication, Miller Welders, Diamond Pistons, GRP Connecting Rods, and Collector Tethers.

There’s still time to win a couple and there’s still enough time to go out there and get some rounds under our belt.

This season stands in stark contrast to the best season of Rini’s career. It came in 2009, which also happened to be his first year with Charlie Buck. That year he won the famed Big Dog championship at Piedmont Dragway, an eighth-mile facility in North Carolina, and the NMCA championship, which is run on quarter-mile tracks. Rini says he won the majority of the races he went to that season and two more good years followed. Having run the gamut of ups and downs in life, which has included surviving a plane crash in addition to the trials of this year, Rini’s approach is to stay the course.

Unlike many in drag racing, Rini doesn’t jump ship for the next hot ticket. He strongly values loyalty and commitment, as evidenced by his 13 year partnership with ATI. He’s confident the pendulum will swing his way again. This may be one of the worst years of his racing career, but it’s still not enough to sway his determination.

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“I can’t thank everybody enough for helping and supporting. We’ll get it. Unfortunately we’re where I wanted to be in February instead of July, but we’ll get it. I feel that just by the little bit of progress we’ve made recently, it will come around. The season still looks bright. There’s still time to win a couple and there’s still enough time to go out there and get some rounds under our belt. I’m going to charge into winter. We’re going to hit Florida as soon as it gets cold. We’ll test and run the Snowbirds and go right from there to Orlando to Palm Beach. I’m going to try to run them all.”

There’s one thing Rini says is certain:

“I’m still driven.”

About the author

Lisa Collier

Lisa began her love affair with drag racing at just four days old, later watching and crewing for her championship-winning father, Gary Bingham. Before switching to drag race journalism, Lisa spent six seasons behind the wheel of an 8.90 dragster.
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