DANCING WITH THE DEVIL
NITROUS OPENED THE DOOR FOR THE PRO MODS OF TODAY
Nitrous Opened the Door for the Pro Mods
IT WAS A WARM SATURDAY NIGHT WHEN PRO STOCK QUALIFYING DREW TO A CLOSE AT AN IHRA NATIONAL EVENT MANY YEARS AGO. A NUMBER OF NHRA STARS HAD CROSSED OVER TO RUN WITH THE MOUNTAIN MOTOR BOYS, AND DID SO WITH SOME SUCCESS. ONE HAD JUST FINISHED THAT FINAL SESSION AT THE TOP OF THE FIELD WITH A STRONG 7.29 ELAPSED TIME. AS THE NEXT GROUP OF CARS PULLED INTO THE WATER BOX, THE FANS STILL IN THE STANDS HEARD THE ANNOUNCER EXCLAIM, “THESE ARE JUST SPORTSMAN DRIVERS. DON’T LOOK FOR THEM CARS TO RUN AS QUICK OR AS FAST!”
Those leaving the stands suddenly stopped as the speaker announced a 7.24 elapsed time from one of that first pair. Jaws dropped and heads turned—just like they do today—as those cars that became today’s Pro Mods changed drag racing forever.
What led to this rather sudden change? Nitrous, of course. Many point to Bill Kuhlman breaking the 200-mph barrier back in 1987 as the tipping point, but that train had already left the station and had a full head of steam by that time. The real story goes back as far back as the ’60s and even earlier as accusations about the use of nitrous oxide surfaced within USAC and NASCAR.
Drag racing gradually rediscovered nitrous in the ’70s. Mike Thermos and Dale Vaznaian saw the trend and capitalized on it when they formed Nitrous Oxide Systems, Inc. in 1978 and lead
in the development of a safe and reliable system. Teams began to notice as results became better known. Some of the earliest applications of nitrous appeared in fuel racing, particularly in Funny Car, before it was eventually outlawed.
In 1981, “Animal” Jim Feurer ran a small-block Cleveland in AHRA Pro Stock and eventually won two championships in that series. Dave and Karen Smith won the 1982 AHRA Pro Stock championship with a nitrous combination and Dave Chelbana behind the wheel. Relative unknowns such as Robbie Vandergriff, Charles Carpenter and others started to become household names with mountain motor nitrous combinations in Tri-Five Chevys. Fans couldn’t get enough of watching these cars, and others jumped quickly on board as match race opportunities abounded.
When Kuhlmann broke 200-mph on multiple occasions with a 615-ci sportsman kit engine, the genie was out of the nitrous bottle. Nostalgic body styles, colorful personalities, controversy, rivalries and, of course, amazing performances made Top Sportsman the darling of the drag racing world. By 1989, it became an IHRA professional class known as
Next time, superchargers and blowers change the Pro Mod status quo.
/ Charles Carpenter won the hearts of Chevy fans when he was the first ’55 Chevy in the sevens with this pass in 1986, running a 494-inch nitrous engine. Carpenter won three Super Chevy crowns while match racing heavily and making sporadic appearances in IHRA.
/ Carl Moyer was a winner on the IHRA Pro Mod circuit with this Rick-Jones-built ’57 Bel Air using a Sonny’s nitrous mountain motor. Moyer retired in 2001 when Bob Rieger bought the machine to race it in NMCA Pro Street.
/ After the UDRA series in the Midwest, “Animal” Jim Feurer became one of the first to use nitrous in AHRA and UDRA competition. He was a crowd favorite with this Ford 672-powered Mercury Zephyr in IHRA Top Sportsman, winning the first ever Quick 8 at Darlington in 1988.
/ When Bill Kuhlmann became the first to break 200-mph with a home-built Camaro in 1987, Top Sportsman arguably became drag racing’s most popular doorslammer class, eclipsing even NHRA Pro Stock. That surge in interest eventually led to heads-up, no breakout
/ Norm Wizner’s ’57 Fairlane was a serious match race rival for Rob Vandergriff and Charles Carpenter and made occasional appearances in IHRA Pro Mod. Jon Kaase built its 605ci wedge, which consistently ran in the low 7.40s at 190-plus mph.
/ Nostalgia body styles, including this ’38 Chevy with a Charlie Buck nitrous combination driven by Chris Cline, fanned spectator interest during in the mid-’90s by running in the sevens at
/ Powered by a 707-cid Jon Kaase nitrous engine, Ronnie Sox entered the last event of Pro Mod’s inaugural season in contention for the championship before eventually finishing third in points. In 1993, he ran a 6.78 at 209 before eventually turning to IHRA Pro Stock where a crash ended his competitive driving career.
/ Manny DeJesus Cruz had one of the best-looking Pro Mods in the early-’90s with this ’68 Chevy Nova. Just 43 inches high, the car ran a best of 7.07 seconds at 199 mph during the 1990 season while running in IHRA, Super Chevy and the USSC.
/ When Tommy Gray arrived at Darlington with this colorful Chevy, dubbed the Undertaker, it immediately became one of the most popular cars anywhere and taught a number of other Pro Mod teams lessons in marketing and entertainment.
/ RIGHT. With brother Tommy serving as crew chief, Chris Hunt raced a variety of cars in IHRA Pro Mod, including this ’38 Chevy that ran a 698cid Olds engine on nitrous. He later ran IHRA Pro Stock before returning to local Pro-ModOutlaw-style racing.
/ BELOW. In 1989, former bracket champ Pat Moore was the last champion in IHRA Top Sportsman before Pro Mod became a class of its own. As the cars became quicker and faster, hired guns such as Pat found a demand for their services as drivers and tuners for many car owners.
/ Rob Vandergriff helped popularize shoebox Tri-Five Chevys in the ’80s in match racing and on the Super Chevy circuit, which eventually morphed into Pro Mod before he finally retired in 1992 after driving this swoopy ’57 Chevy.