DANC­ING WITH THE DEVIL

NITROUS OPENED THE DOOR FOR THE PRO MODS OF TODAY

Drag Racer - - Over Center - Text and Photos by Rod Short

Nitrous Opened the Door for the Pro Mods

Today

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

Pro Mod­i­fied.

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

Pro Mod­i­fied.

/ 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

200-plus mph.

/ 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.

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