With a new year comes renewed hope and optimism, and that has never been more the case than in 2021. Following a tumultuous year in which economic and societal conditions saw abbreviated race schedules and declines in participation, the drag racing community is seeking a return to normalcy — to new cars, fresh faces, and unbounded enthusiasm for the sport. And perhaps no one defines this more as we turn the page than Robert Gallegos.
Gallegos, a 51-year-old native of Santa Fe, New Mexico who owns and operates one of the nation’s largest and most successful auto collision facilities, has been undeterred in his mission to return to drag racing in a big way, and it will all come to fruition in the coming months as he debuts his striking new 1941 Willys with the Mid-West Pro Mod Series, the PDRA and, ultimately, the NHRA.
Gallegos is no newcomer to the sport — he and his family were in the automotive business and in racing as far back as he can remember, participating in everything from snowmobiles, motocross, off-road, and even BMX bicycle competition. In a time that pre-dated junior dragsters, Gallegos says that in 1985 he and current-day NHRA star Tommy Johnson, Jr. were the youngest licensed NHRA drivers at just 16. He and his family raced on a national scale in the sportsman drag racing ranks throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s before Robert walked away from the sport and founded his business. Three decades and five children later, Gallegos has provided a life to his children much like that of what he experienced: his kids are all involved in the business, and he’s gotten them into BMX and motocross, all at a high level. All the while, he has been plotting his return to drag racing.
“We drag raced until about 1990. It just got to be too costly to race the way we were, and to put it to rest, I told myself that I would never do it again unless I could do it at the level that I wanted to and could afford,” Robert says. “Between then and now I’ve done other forms of racing, had some cool boats, raced a Super Comp dragster for a friend locally, and built a bunch of hot rods at our performance shop.
“The business really took off about 10 years ago and I started working to align all the stars and get everything together,” he continues. “About four years ago I took it serious and started paying attention. I asked myself, ‘if I’m going to do it, what am I going to do?’ Right now the hottest thing around is Pro Modified. So I attended every race I could the last couple years and aligned myself with Eric Dillard and his team at Pro Line.”
Gallegos finally began to move dirt at this time a year ago, tabbing veteran chassis builder Jerry Haas to construct a one-of-a-kind ’41 Willys. At the same time, Pro Line got to work on an all-billet, raised-cam Hemi with a ProCharger F-3R-140 providing the boost. As with many of PLR’s successful programs, Gallegos opted for a full compliment of FuelTech electronics to operate the car. A Mark Williams 11-inch full floater housing takes the horsepower from an M&M Turbo 400 transmission, and Penske shocks and struts put it to the pavement. RK Racecraft and Grant O’Rourke have been instrumental in taking the rolling chassis from Haas and producing a turn-key piece.
Gallegos’ facility, Custom Craft Auto Collision, applied the sale paint scheme, and Jim Pugh applied the many airbrushed elements seen throughout. The primary paint color is similar to a grey seen on late-model Toyota Tacoma pickups, with candy-apple red stripes bordering raw carbon-fiber accents on the hood and wing.
“I’ve been an old-school hot rodder for a long time…we build hot rods here at our custom shop. I’ve always been intrigued by the Willys and the looks of it. It looks meaner than heck. So when we decided we were going to do this four years ago, that’s the car I wanted to build,” Robert says.
Gallegos and Haas customized the body lines on the car, from the location, lines, and gaps of the front end and the cowl to the removable decklid and carbon-fiber wing not commonly found on Pro Mod-style Willys. The chassis was also built to meet all 2021 NHRA safety guidelines.
The car is anticipated to be completed in the next three weeks, at which time Gallegos intends to “do some serious testing” in Florida before the Mid-West Pro Mod Series opener in March. The plan is then to contest the full MWPMS schedule, hit a number of PDRA contests, and if everything aligns, make his NHRA debut at his home track and race — the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Denver, Colorado in July.
Gallegos has secured the highly-skilled services of O’Rourke to help him maintain the car, and Lee White will tune what is a highly aggressive new program. Pro Line consultant Steve Petty will assist in the initial setup stages.
Gallegos has only been as quick as 7.20’s, in a dragster, and affirms that while driving such a car will be an adjustment, it’s a decision he’s made with confidence in his abilities.
“I know I can do it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have made this investment,” he says. “With everyone that we’re aligned with, I’m confident in being successful. I have a lot of learning to do, and we hope to have some really talented people helping us be competitive. It’s going to take a lot of testing and making laps, and it’s going to be on my shoulders to learn how to get this baby down the track.”
Adds Gallegos in closing, “at the end of the day this is a family racing operation…my whole family is involved in this and we want to go have a good time.”