It registers as particularly ironic that on the very weekend the NHRA announced the most sweeping changes to its Pro Stock category in decades, came the most exciting final round in years — one that illustrated all the things that once made the factory hot rod category great.
Sunday afternoon’s matchup at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals at the Bandimere Speedway saw Allen Johnson, competing at his sponsor’s race, matched up with Larry Morgan, who, like the rest of the field, was the certifiable underdog. For some context, this was the ninth year in a row that Johnson’s Mopar-backed team has been to the final round at Denver, and tenth overall. He’s won it six of the last eight years, and has qualified atop the field six times. Johnson has routinely tested at Bandimere over the years in a effort to make a splash at the race Mopar has title sponsored for over 25 years, and the result has been outright domination.
This year, Johnson paced Morgan by just .001-seconds in qualifying, but in fact lost lane choice in the final after slowing to a 6.930 in his semifinal-winning effort over Shane Gray.
With the race on the line, the two drivers did their burnouts, waited for their crew to adjust the wheelie bars, idled into the beams, and then sat there. And sat, and sat a little longer. A minute and 32 seconds passed, much to the applause of the crowd on hand, before Johnson finally gave in and lit the stage light, giving Morgan just seven seconds to follow suit.
“I got on the radio about one minute into the stage and I told my guys, ‘I guess Allen just doesn’t want to stage,’ ” Morgan said. “Allen has owned this hill, and he deserves it because he has done one hell of a job up here. You know, we put on a good race in the final, and that guy has no reason to hang his head. He owned this place and I just borrowed it for a week.”
As the tree dropped, Morgan took a sizable .014 to .035 advantage and never looked back, defeating a quicker 6.93 with his 6.94. At the top end, Johnson displayed emotion in a way that’s exceedingly rare in this day and age, launching a bottle in red-faced frustration as Morgan — the spoiler — flashed his smile for the ESPN cameras after scoring his second win of the season.
It was suspense. It was emotion. It was a David versus a Goliath-type of matchup. It was everything Pro Stock used to be. For about a minute and 40 seconds.