Curiously, Chris McGaha was more apprehensive than festive as he prepared for the winners circle following his NHRA Pro Stock victory at Norwalk, Ohio. He was waiting for the proverbial “other shoe” to fall.
He said this triumph represented “probably the first time I’ve won crew-chiefing it myself, so it’s kind of special.”
And he started the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals from the No. 3 position, his best qualifying spot since he was No. 2 at Brainerd last August, his best in 14 races.
He had wobbled between ninth and 10th place in nearly all of this shortened Pro Stock schedule so far, trying to catch Jeg Coughlin and fend off Rodger Brogdon for a comfortable seeding in the Countdown to the Championship, but he appears to be on the move upward. And despite breaking two motors throughout the weekend, posting a rather snoozy .121-second reaction time in the first round of eliminations, and bungling his semifinal burnout, McGaha managed to win for the first time this season.
So why was he so hesitant to be happy?
“My form in the past has been I’ll go win like this, then go suck,” the Harlow Sammons Chevrolet Camaro owner-driver said with a laugh. “My goal is to capitalize on how I ran here. Normally I’ll win and think I’m fixing to get on a roll, and I will plummet into oblivion somehow. I don’t know why or how that happens. That’s my goal right now, to get to Indy without plummeting.”
The car is the least expensive thing. It’s the people it takes to run 24 races. It’s moving your truck and trailer around for 24 races. That’s what costs the money. Relatively speaking, the car is cheap.
In that quest, he has found new ways of looking at his approach to racing and in the process has turned potential negatives into positives.
The Pro Stock class is not scheduled to race this coming weekend at Epping, N.H. – where last July McGaha earned his previous Wally trophy among his collection of eight. The class will rejoin the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour for the Western Swing, starting at Denver.
Although he called the annual weekend at Bandimere Speedway at Morrison, Colo., “a personal challenge” with the “complete opposite spectrum of tuning,” McGaha expressed hope. Part of it is sentimental.
“That was the first national event I ever went to, as a kid,” McGaha, of Odessa, Texas, and son of former racer Lester McGaha, said of the race that’s called the Dodge Mile-High Nationals these days. “I’ve gone to Denver ever summer, growing up. I would love to win on the mountain.”
If he thought he claimed the Norwalk victory with a break or two, he knows he definitely will need that fortune at Denver, where the thin air plays havoc with a traditional tune-up.
“You’ve got to change so much up at Denver, especially in the gearing and transmission, that [performing well there] that’s definitely luck is what it is, I feel like,” McGaha said. “You have to almost learn how to drive again. It kind of reminds you of a Comp car. When I drive a C/Altered or a D/Altered, the first one or two [gears] come really fast. I’ve had to train myself over the years to wait for the shift light – and then you go back there and it’s fast again and you can’t do it.”
Then again, when McGaha won at Epping in 2018, he rode luck all the way to the winner’s circle, also sharing the podium with Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence, just like at Norwalk this year. McGaha was the slower one in each of his four pairings that day. He advanced through the first two rounds on holeshots and reached and won the final round when his opponents fouled out with red lights. So maybe he is luckier than he has thought he is.
After all, at Las Vegas this spring, his car surprised him during Friday qualifying with a flash fire as he backed up from his burnout. The culprit was a fuel line that had come loose. “I was pretty mad, because I thought we were like way more than done-for. I figured there was more stuff burned, melted that we weren’t going to be able to repair,” McGaha said. But minor damage and a relatively easy fix got the crew out of the track to a nice dinner by about six o’clock.
But take, for example, a trend that looked as if it weren’t going McGaha’s way but ended up being a blessing.
My goal is to capitalize on how I ran here. Normally I’ll win and think I’m fixing to get on a roll, and I will plummet into oblivion somehow. I don’t know why or how that happens. That’s my goal right now, to get to Indy without plummeting.
Heading into the early-June Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill. – the Pro Stock class’ last appearance before a two-race hiatus – McGaha had declared he was going to be “all gas, no brakes.” When he found himself stuck in the bottom half of the ladder, in 12th place in the starting line-up, he ditched his slogan and went back to what he knew, saying, “I think we’re on normal routine at this point. That’s what it seems like. It hasn’t been too bad. But we don’t know how to qualify. We kind of act like we know how to race, but we don’t know how to qualify. We’re horrible at it. I need…oh, I don’t know…six qualifying runs. That’s what I need – about six qualifying runs. I’m part of the problem, because I’m not getting it done. I’m the problem.” He lost at Joliet in the opening round on race day.
Immediately afterward, three elements converged to elevate his program.
The first is this feeling that he was a bit lost with his setup. The second situation dated back to last fall, when the NHRA removed the Pro Stock class from six regular-season 2019 national events. It appeared to be a decision that cheapened the value of Pro Stock racing. The third – his engine-program association with Kenny Delco – never had any negative connotations, but it turned out to provide a boost McGaha never saw coming.
When the sanction body issued its ruling about an 18-race Pro Stock schedule for 2019, few seemed to welcome it. However, taking a cue from the satisfied limited-appearance Pro Modified class, more Pro Stock racers are seeing the value of it. McGaha said it didn’t spoil any of his plans: “I wasn’t going to run but 16-18 races myself anyway, even if they’d had 24. A guy like myself, I have to spend 48 days a year in an airport. I spend Thursday and I spend the Monday in the airport – 48 days a year in the airport. You lose 48 days of your life in an airport a year racing this.”
McGaha said he has calculated that his team averages $10,000 a race, “just in expenses moving the rig around – moving the rig here, getting hotels, flying everybody. That’s just that expense. That’s not paying people. I mean, it costs a lot of money, and that’s what people don’t understand. The car is the least expensive thing. It’s the people it takes to run 24 races. It’s moving your truck and trailer around for 24 races. That’s what costs the money. Relatively speaking, the car is cheap. It really is. That’s like third or fourth down the list of line items of expense. I’m the most trimmed-back team out here, and we know for a fact we average $10,000 a race. It’s all about cost in the end. It really is. It doesn’t matter if it’s Pro Stock or Top Fuel or Super Gas, it’s all about the money in the end.” So what might have seemed to some racers and fans as a punishment has saved teams money (while it has cost other teams their sponsors and potential sponsors).
Count McGaha as one of those who calls the change positive. He said, “I think it is. I don’t want to say I have a ‘real’ job, but I guess I do. I have other obligations, and it’s kind of nice, because I started some new projects in the oilfield shop, and it has helped out.” His West Texas company manufactures hydraulic equipment for use in the oil and energy industry.
He said sitting out the Topeka and Bristol (Tenn.) races after the Joliet event – the middle two in a string of four consecutive races for the nitro classes – was beneficial in more ways than cost-trimming.
“I sat down and wore a notebook out and worse a calculator out, really looking at my set-up. And I think it paid off, just clearing my mind and sitting and thinking about it,” McGaha said.
Allowing himself a little hyperbole, he explained his decision to help other racers with horsepower by saying, “Everybody out here’s got 14 cars. I’ve got one car.” So he has struck a deal with Kenny Delco and works with Steve Graham a bit, just like he did with currently idle John Gaydosh. And in consulting with Delco, McGaha discovered some wisdom for himself.
“He made me rethink my own program. I had to restructure some things and learn a few different ways. Having him has helped,” McGaha said.
Whatever he scribbled in his notebook and totaled in his calculator during his off-weeks from the racetracks might be something he wishes he had scribbled, added, subtracted, and analyzed before. At any rate, McGaha appears to be on an upward trajectory. Maybe winning and winning again will stop being a dream or a novelty for him. And then maybe, without fear of plummeting, he can let loose and fully enjoy a winners circle.