If you asked people in the racing world at the start of the beginning of the season who Kevin Rivenbark was, most in the know would have answered, a successful Pro Modified racer. But in just over a months time, the North Carolina racer has rocketed to the top of the radial racing world, racked up a $101,000 payday, and become the first driver to break into the 3.50s on a small tire. Breaking the 3.5-second barrier was a monumental accomplishment for Rivenbark and it’s something he and his team earned through dedication to the sport.
Rivenbark had no idea what to expect as he ventured into the radial racing arena — virtually all of his experience had been on slicks behind the wheel of NHRA-legal Pro Mods and PDRA Pro Boost cars. The keyword there is experience — that’s something he has in spades and it’s not something that you can purchase. Rivenbark drew upon his experience driving fast doorcars to help set the stage for his success in radial racing that ultimately led to the incredible 3.587-second pass at 206.67 mph and the subsequent six-figure payday.
“Going from slicks to radials, I was nervous at first. We backed the car way down in testing at Orlando so I could get used to it. Now, I can say that it’s a smooth and solid feel on radials versus slicks. You feel the slicks squash and wobble, versus how the radials feel very planted. We only took the tires off twice at the Sweet 16 when we tried to rotate the earth and get our record back. My driving was a big thing that improved from Lights Out because I got more comfortable with the car. I turned on the red light at Lights Out with a .006 and that was my fault and I learned from it,” Rivenbark says.
If trying to learn how to ride on a radial wasn’t tough enough, Rivenbark also had to learn to adjust to the insanity of a Duck X Productions event. Lights Out 10 was eye-opening for Rivenbark and the chaos that comes with the event was a bit of a shock. But when he and his team arrived at the Sweet 16 he was more comfortable with the car and confident in what it could do.
“The Sweet 16 has a marathon feel to it with 10 qualifiers. It’s a lot like when you go testing for a few days and make a lot of hits trying different things,” Rivenbark explains.
Racing at a high level requires a mountain of skill to go fast, but to win you need to have some good old fashioned luck, too. This was proven true at the Sweet 16 when some of the strongest contenders from Lights Out 10 went out early or didn’t even make the qualified field. Rivenbark was able to avoid the attrition that afflicted so many others on his way to setting the record and winning the event.
“The only thing we had after round two of qualifying was a slight valve issue. We were checking the valves and noticed the clearance had changed. We took the head off and found the valve had been damaged a bit … thankfully we caught it in advance. It’s easy to go from one event to another and have issues so it’s good to have luck, and that played into what happened. We were very fortunate and we came with exact same setup we had when we left and it worked,” Rivenbark explains.
Coming into the Sweet 16 there was no doubt in Rivenbark’s mind that he had a chance to crack the 3.50 barrier on a radial tire. The team, with tuner Steve Petty at the controls, was confident that if the atmospheric conditions were right they would be in the hunt to make it happen. The ProCharger and ProLine engine combinationin the GALOT Camaro is sensitive to what the air does. At Lights Out the car was running in the 207 mph range when the atmosphere was ideal but slowed to 203 mph when things got warm.
When Rivenbark rolled up to the lanes in the Thursday’s final qualifying attempt in prime conditions, the team knew the record was theirs to take. They were ready to show the racing world how you make the impossible happen on a radial tire.
“The big tune-up was loaded into the car before we even got in line to make the run. When we were waiting to run I went up to the tower and I got Donald’s attention and rubbed my fingers together so he knew we were going for the money. And afterwards, I had the tech guys do a touchdown sign in their ref uniforms … the only thing we didn’t do was put the dial-in on the window,” Rivenbark says.
When the tree dropped and he let go of the transbrake, Rivenbark was thrust into the history books with a 3.58-second pass. What’s even more impressive is that the run was far from perfect and may have been even quicker if the Camaro had stayed straight in its lane.
“On the .58 pass the car was driving left towards the wall but I stayed in it because I knew Wade Rich had prepped all the way to the wall so I wasn’t lifting. Being inside the car seeing that .58 pop up, I was just like, ‘wow, we really did it.’ I knew we could do it but to actually do it was another thing,” Rivenbark says.
Eventually, Rivenbark lost the record and the top spot in qualifying to Daniel Pharris, who ripped off a shocking 3.57-second pass during Friday’s morning session. Rivenbark and his team attempted to take the record back by rotating the Earth later in the day, but only managed to spin the tires — a rare occurrence for his team. The question for Rivenbark now is can he go faster? The short answer is yes, but it all depends on what Mother Nature has in the cards.
“I think we still have a .56 in the car in the right conditions. If we get to the PDRA World Finals and the air is good we will try for that on slicks. Everything will have to be right for that to happen, but we’re running Pro Extreme numbers at this point,” Rivenbark explains.
The Sweet 16 was an epic event across the board, between the lucrative payouts, high drama, and the sheer volume of earth-shattering performances. The 3.58 that Kevin Rivenbark put up on the boards, while just short of the current radial-tire standard, will be remembered long after the 2019 season — a season in which the ProCharger engine combination and a team know for their Pro Modified prowess came out of nowhere to virtually dominate radial racing over two weekends in South Georgia.