After rightfully earning a reputation as one of the most feared grudge racers in the country, and winning Radial vs the World for a cool $70,000 at the exclusive DXP Sweet 16 3.0 race in October of 2020 with an all-new car, J.R. Gray decided to continue his relentless domination of doorslammer drag racing by venturing into the highly-competitive world of NHRA Pro Modified class racing in 2021.
Early in the year, Gray partnered with three-time NHRA Pro Mod world champion Mike Janis to drive the Mike Janis Racing team’s supercharged 2020 Chevy Camaro for the 2021 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing series presented by J&A Service season. Gray made his inaugural laps at the World Doorslammer Nationals event in early March to obtain his license, then moved on to make his official debut in the series at the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Florida.
There, Gray qualified 12th in what was one of the quickest fields in history, as his 5.802 at 248.52 mph hit put him in good company amongst the veteran drivers. Impressively, Gray picked up two round wins in eliminations before going out in the semi-finals and gained a ton of experience along the way.
After almost a two-month break in the schedule, Gray was more than ready to get back into the drivers’ seat for the second stop on the NHRA tour – the 40th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Southern Nationals at Georgia’s Atlanta Dragway. Dragzine’s Ainsley Jacobs caught up with Gray at the event to get his perspective on what it’s been like since making the switch and how the weekend played out.
Dragzine: What made you decide to go Pro Mod racing in the first place?
J.R. Gray: Mostly it was that the opportunity [to drive Mike Janis’s car] presented itself. We were looking at Radial vs the World, but Pro Mod has a larger group of competitors showing up at every track. You have to race your way into every event, and I like that challenge.
DZ: What has it been like adapting to a blower car on big tires?
Gray: A power adder is a power adder to me, so other than getting used to it being a lot louder – which only took one or two runs – that’s been the same. Really, it’s been more about the tires and getting a feel of them and trusting the wheelie bars. On a big tire car, it squats in the back instead of raising up [with a radial tire] so my vision is impaired as the car leaves the line. Even with it only doing a 6-inch wheelie, all I see is the hood versus driving with the back end lifting and being able to see down the track a lot better [on a small tire]. My lights have been good, though. I’ve got no problem hitting the tree or looking around the blower versus the hood scoop on my nitrous cars.
DZ: You’ve never run the quarter-mile prior to Pro Mod. What’s it been like racing over a longer distance?
Gray: I’ve always raced eighth-mile, so now that distance feels extremely short. All of my peers have told me that I have to get the car squared up and in the center of the track by the time I hit the eighth-mile trap so I can be ready to tote the mail on down. The speed on the big end is fast. Sometimes you’re huckin’ and buckin’ and swerving around to drive it on down through there, but you have to be paying attention and know where you’re at on the track. When you cross the eighth-mile mark, you’ve only got one or two more wheel pulls to get it straight so that you’re ready to head like an arrow and rocket down the rest of the way.
DZ: You qualified 15th at Atlanta after only going 6.593 at 134.97 mph. That’s very unusual for you; what happened there?
Gray: In the first qualifying run on Friday, the car left good. I was out on [Khalid Al] Balooshi and couldn’t even hear him. I was motoring on down through there, but the car was pushing to the right and I kept saying ‘come on, let’s go over to the left’ but she didn’t want to listen, so I was trying to force it down there. I saw the eighth-mile cones coming up and I really didn’t want to clip ‘em at an NHRA race, so I threw the ‘chutes early to get it straightened out. In the second hit on Saturday, we had some mechanical issues to sort out and shut the car off early in the run.
DZ: Do you feel a big difference in the extra ~50 miles per hour you trap here as compared to eighth-mile speeds?
Gray: Yes! It doesn’t seem like it would be that much going from 207 mph in the eighth to 250 in the quarter, but that extra 43 mph feels like an extra 200 – it’s a LOT! You’re really ripping when you’re going down through the traps.
DZ: Describe your pre-race routine for how you prepare, mentally and physically, to make a run.
Gray: I pace a lot and walk around when I’m in the lanes, but not because I’m nervous – it’s just so I don’t have time to stand still and get wound up. I’m on a no-carb diet, too, and I always eat the same thing the day before a race as well as the day of to keep my body consistent so I can be consistent on the tree and in my mind. Other than that, when I crank up the car, any kind of cobwebs that I have in my head instantly go right out the exhaust pipes. I’m at peace when I’m in the car.
DZ: What’s it been like working with Mike Janis, Sr. and the Mike Janis Racing team?
Gray: It’s been really great. They’re a very well-organized crew, a veteran crew, and a championship crew, so it’s been a blessing to be able to step into a team of that caliber.
DZ: What do you hope to achieve this season in NHRA Pro Mod?
Gray: We want to win a championship, of course, but the realistic expectation is if I can win two Wallys, I’ll be happy. If you win just one, it could have been luck, but to win two shows you’ve got something consistent going on and doing that would make me feel that we’ve had success regardless of where we fall in the championship points at the end of the season.
DZ: Are you still planning to grudge race with your “Jason X” Fox body Mustang and run in Radial vs the World with the “Head Shot” Camaro?
Gray: I just put Head Shot up for sale as a roller, so if someone wants to get in on that, it’s available. For grudge racing, I’m still trying to engage as much as possible but finding races has been tough – it’s few and far between that I can find someone who wants to run me now. Coming over to NHRA, they just use that as another excuse as to why they won’t… but I’ll always grudge race anybody.
DZ: Have you been able to bring a little bit of your grudge racing attitude to class racing with NHRA?
Gray: It’s a different group of people here, so I’m still trying to find out where the gamblers are and see who wants to make it an interesting game and engage with me. We plan to make this as exciting as possible and still bet and smack talk when we can.
DZ: Who would you like to thank for helping support your racing efforts this year?
Gray: First, thanks to Mike Janis for allowing me to campaign his car. Gray Contracting is our primary sponsor, but I have also received a ton of help from W.B. Henry Contracting as well as Woodmen Life, BTM Machinery, Trinity Construction, Donnie Gamache Attorney at Law, BOC Oil Company, Carroll Heavy Metal Recycling, and Red Electrical Designs.
Car/team owner and three-time Pro Mod champion Mike Janis had a few things to add as well:
DZ: What’s it been like working with J.R. Gray so far this season?
Mike Janis, Sr.: J.R. has adapted very quickly and very well having come from a radial car with no wheelie bars. He’s very easy to work with, understands things don’t always go right all of the time, and is very competitive.
DZ: Has it been tough stepping back and handing the wheel over to someone else to drive your car?
MJ: It hasn’t been as tough as you would think, to be honest. I’m really enjoying myself while getting a different perspective on things. I’d hop right back in there in a second if I could, but I know I can’t [due to health concerns] and that’s just the way it is, so I’m okay with it.
From his humble start as a sportsman racer to running on the biggest stage in the world and having his efforts aired on television, Gray has worked hard for every inch of his success. He has come a long way, but Gray has always kept his focus firmly on achieving his goals and is making them a reality thanks to the opportunity to partner with Mike Janis Racing.
Despite his vast victories elsewhere, Gray is still considered to be a relative rookie when it comes to the NHRA Pro Mod category. However, his ability to quickly adapt, coupled with his skill, talent, and determination, has proven that he’s more than ready to hang with the best. It’s only a matter of time before Gray finds himself in the NHRA winner’s circle with that coveted Wally in hand.