After six first-round losses, Jeremy Ray scored a breakthrough in the E3/J&A Service NHRA Pro Modified Series by advancing to the final round of the Norwalk, Ohio, event.
While that might sound like a frustrating start to his NHRA rookie season, it’s nothing of the kind to Ray, the 38-year-old Lugoff, S.C., drag racer with the orange “Carolina Kingpin” supercharged split-window ’63 Corvette.
He’s the only tour regular to qualify for every race in the radically-competitive Pro Modified class that draws at least two full fields of entries and stamps a “DNQ” at each event on some of the sport’s biggest names. In the first seven races, Ray started in the top half of the field five times and never was positioned worse than 10th on the 16-car grid. All this is in his first foray into quarter-mile racing.
And he’s doing it his way, with an immediate-family-only crew, an aerodynamically-challenged dinosaur of a car, and a limited collection of sponsorship that annually nets about $10,000 worth of product only.
As a tuner-drive you have to be really focused, because you’re doing it all. I think it gives you an advantage if you’re capable of doing it.
“I really don’t know why I drag race. I think my family likes it more than me,” Ray, whose 9-to-5 job is in construction, teased about wife Jessica, son Jaydon, daughter Jenna (hence the company name J4 Racing) and parents Ricky and Cathy.
The truth is, Jeremy Ray said, “I like the challenge . . . as a tuner and a driver, being able to do what very few guys out here do. I think Rickie Smith and Todd Tutterow are probably the only other true tuner-drivers out here besides myself. Everybody else has a hired crew chief or big crew – but [the three of us are rare as an] actual tuner-driver where they can stage the car, back it up, do their own thing by themselves. You look at Rickie, Todd, and me – nobody brings it to the starting line, nobody’s running out in front of us backing us up.
“I see things differently than probably most people do,” Ray said. “There’s some things that I’ve learned to study on the racetrack on certain sections with that set-up. Everybody would be surprised if they really knew. I don’t have all the whiz-bang parts everybody does. Most of these guys have a set of rear shocks that cost $18,000. Mine are $1200. But everybody thinks I have some super-duper whiz-bang shocks on the car. But it’s just how I’ve made it work. If I took it all out and laid it all on the table, they’d [say] ‘There ain’t no way. Ain’t no way.’”
Maybe the “whiz-bang” component simply is Ray himself.
“May be,” he said with a self-amusing laugh.
As a teenager, he would drive about an hour to Darlington Dragway to watch IHRA events, fascinated with Top Fuel legend Shirley Muldowney and other headliners but particularly Pro Mod stars such as Mitch and Quain Stott, Scotty Cannon, and Tommy Mauney (whom he is thrilled to be racing with and against these days). But he didn’t just hang on the fence and watch the action. He studied. Those trips to Darlington were like field trips; they were learning experiences.
“I’d go to the race and watch how people do things, and I focused on the guys who were really good racers,” Ray said. He didn’t just see the standouts win – he figured out why they won. And he has incorporated their work habits into his own ethic, structure, and way of organizing, strategizing, and driving.
“You have to be focused. Everybody’s got a different program, the way they run their stuff. As a tuner-drive you have to be really focused, because you’re doing it all. I think it gives you an advantage if you’re capable of doing it,” he said, “because you know what that’s doing as it’s going down the track. When the car does something, I can come back [to the pit] and already know before I look at the data. As a hired driver, most of them don’t know. They can’t tell the crew chief, and the crew chief is guessing. Me and my dad run this car, and my mom and my wife help. It is tough, sometimes, if we have to service something.
“But I have my job. My dad has his job. My mom and my wife each have their jobs. And we don’t do the other person’s job. I have one helper for a few years, but for the last two years it’s just been me and him and we know what we’ve got to do. That’s why I like a small team – it’s easy to control,” Ray said. “Even though I’m a lot smaller than a fuel-car team, I run my team and my deal just like a fuel car: Everybody has a specific job and no one else touches that job unless they’re asked to help. A fuel-car team is run the exact same way.”
Ray’s theory of driving is rooted in his intuition, much of which comes from his experience in the construction industry.
“I’m an equipment operator. I have a construction business, heavy equipment. Usually guys that can fly an airplane or drive heavy equipment, they can usually drive Pro Mod pretty good,” Ray said.
“You operate heavy equipment with the seat of your pants. You run a bulldozer when you’re grading and wanting something nice and smooth, you have to run it with the feel of the machine. You have to feel it in the seat to keep that machine smooth. You have to drive these Pro Mods the same way. If you can’t feel what that car is doing in that seat, you’re not a good driver,” he said.
You’d better not drag race if you’re going to be the king. You’re going good one day and you look like a fool the next, that’s for sure. Just like golf – you can look good today and terrible tomorrow.
“There’s quite a few drivers you’ll see who struggle from time to time, and I think they just can’t feel it or they don’t know what to feel to know how to react to what the car is doing and overdrive the car or what-not. I don’t think you can teach ‘em that,” he said. “I was kind of a natural operator. I could jump in and run it very well for a rookie. I guess I just have a knack for the driving and the tuning part of it. I’ve had some help over the years with the fuel system and timing to kind of get me pointed in the right direction. But the last four years, I’ve been solely tuning for myself, 100 percent.”
His keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone style serves Ray well – and has helped Ray mesh perfectly with Jim Whiteley, his quasi-teammate, the series’ financial benefactor, and a likeminded fellow who enjoys flying under the publicity radar.
“You have to be confident when you’re doing it the way I am. When you’re tuning it and driving, you have to be confident about what you’re doing,” Ray said. “I’m not going to go around and run my mouth and talk big and bad. That’s not me. Let the scoreboard do the talking. I’m just easygoing and laid-back. I come here and I run my racecar. I don’t care what anybody else does. It doesn’t matter to me, because you can’t be a good racer when you’re concerned about what everybody else is doing.
“I just stay in my pit. I go back and forth between my pit and Jim Whiteley’s pit. We’re trying to work together with all the YNot [teams] – me and Steven and Jim are a team. We try to help each other so we can all benefit from it,” Ray said.
Ray and the Whiteleys met through mutual friend Chuck Ford, Jim Whiteley’s crew chief.
“Me and Chuck Ford have been friends for quite a few years. I ran his blowers for the last five years. We have always talked back and forth,” Ray said. “I had some stuff Jim liked with my converter package – he seen it run and wanted to see his car get more consistent. We got hooked up and made a deal, and here I am.”
It’s mutually beneficial. It’s not as if Jim Whiteley “discovered” Ray and is developing his talent. Ray was the Carolina Extreme Pro Mod Series champion and PDRA top-five Pro Boost class finisher who made his name as a bracket racer first, then raced and won against some of the Southeast’s most respected racers.
“I’ve contributed to him as much as he’s contributed to me. We work together. We run the same drivetrain components. I help them with their torque converter transmission package,” Ray said of Whiteley. “And me and Chuck work together very well. We’re kind of the same type of people: laid-back, kind of quiet. We’re both country boys.”
Ray said in no way does he think he’s a top dog in Pro Mod.
“That’s what I enjoy over here [in Real Pro Mod’s E3/J&A Series]. I want to race with the best racers, because they make me work hard,” he said. “The PDRA, the Pro Boost class the last few years, was very tough. Todd Tutterow ran the GALOT team. It was four cars and they were very tough. And that’s the one I kept chasing. I chased ’em and chased ’em, and finally I was able run with them and outrun them. But it took me two and a half years to be able to do that. Same thing here. Frank Manzo is one of the best tuners out here, period. And Rickie Smith is probably the best racer. And those two guys are who I [consider the targets]. Frank Manzo, those guys have the record – 5.68 [Mike Castellana’s 5.685-second pass at the 2017 Houston event]. When I can outrun him, then I’ll think I’ve done something. Then I’m the one everybody chases for a short period of time.”
So Ray has the competition in perspective.
“You’d better not drag race if you’re going to be the king. You’re going good one day and you look like a fool the next, that’s for sure. Just like golf – you can look good today and terrible tomorrow,” he said.
Right now, Ray is looking pretty shiny.
And he just might double-down on doing it his own way. His ’63 Vette once was iconic in the class, but by the time he started driving one, it wasn’t.
“That’s right – it was not. I actually had a 2015 Corvette before this one. When the 2015 C7s came out, I had a Jerry Bickel car. Just never could get the car to satisfy me, so we ended up getting a new car from Tommy Mauney,” Ray said.
Aside from Jim Whiteley’s victory this April at Houston [in a ’69 Camaro], every other winner (Rickie Smith, Jose Gonzalez, Mike Janis, Khalid al Balooshi) has driven a new/newer Camaro.
“We’re hoping they’ll give us some weight breaks for the older cars,” Ray said. “Those new Camaros are way better in the wind than my car. There’s no old cars here. Chuck Little’s got a ’63 Corvette, but that’s it. There’s no ’41 Willys or ’37 Chevrolet.
“There may be one show up next year, a Willys,” he said. “Might be me.
“We may have both of ‘em running,” he said of a possible two-car team.
Ray didn’t confirm a driver for his current car but said, “I know somebody who would: Tommy Mauney would in a minute. I like the old cars. I like the old Willys. They’re just very, very cool. Those cars never get old. You might say a new Camaro is cool now, but three years from now it’s just [a three-year-old car]. These cars are timeless. They’re always cool. They have been for 20 years.”
I come here and I run my race car. I don’t care what anybody else does. It doesn’t matter to me, because you can’t be a good racer when you’re concerned about what everybody else is doing.
Ray quickly is becoming one of the cool kids in Pro Mod. But until he can leave on Rickie Smith and tag him with a holeshot or routinely defeat Castellana or Balooshi, Ray won’t consider himself cool.
His next chance to do that will be the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis this Labor Day weekend. The tour then stops at St. Louis, Dallas, and Charlotte on the way to the class’ season finale Oct. 29 at Las Vegas.