Column: Is NHRA Pro Stock in big trouble? Last 2 champs gone, 2019 schedule cut, costs keep going up

2017 champ Bo Butner will not return to Pro Stock in 2019. Photos: NHRA.
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Somewhat lost in last weekend’s 2018 season-ending Auto Club Finals was the NHRA announcement that it will reduce the number of Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event races that Pro Stock cars will compete in in 2019.

The so-called “door slammers” of the sport will see their annual dance cards go from taking part in 24 races to 18 next season (the NHRA reportedly initially wanted to cut the 2019 season to just 16 races before driver complaints brought the number up to 18).

That means if you’re a drag racing fan, and especially a Pro Stock diehard, if you intend on attending 2019 NHRA national events in Houston, Charlotte (spring race), Atlanta, Bristol, Topeka or Epping (New Hampshire), guess what?

The Pro Stock cars won’t be there. (Although they will return to Charlotte for the fall playoff race.)

The reduction in the number of races for the class had been rumored for several weeks, but for the rumors to ultimately be confirmed still feels like a punch to the gut for Pro Stock fans from Epping to Pomona.

MORE: NHRA cuts Pro Stock competition from 24 to 18 national events in 2019.

But that’s not all of the bad news for Pro Stock fans.

The last two Pro Stock champions – 2017 champ Bo Butner and newly-crowned 2018 champ Tanner Gray, who just won the title less than a week ago — will not be returning for 2019.

Tanner Gray

Butner is leaving the class, while Gray — at 19, the youngest pro class champion ever in NHRA history — is leaving the sport entirely after just two seasons.

When the 2019 NHRA racing season dawns next February in Pomona, California, Butner will return to his NHRA Sportsman racing roots, while Gray will have jumped full-time to the NASCAR K&N East Pro Series.

And there are rumors that several other drivers may not be returning (or potentially at a reduced participation level) in 2019, making one wonder who will show up at Pomona and whether there will be enough drivers and cars for a full 16-car field.

Bo Butner

Admittedly, Pro Stock hasn’t had quite the popularity or allure it once had. Ever since Top Fuel and Funny Car became the so-called kings of the sport in the 1980s and 1990s and remain so today, Pro Stock has slowly faded.

That’s what makes the NHRA’s decision to cut the Pro Stock schedule by one-fourth next season so sad.

Pro Stock first debuted in NHRA competition in 1970. During its heyday over the next two-plus decades, Pro Stock lured many fans to places like the Los Angeles County Fairplex (now Auto Club Raceway), Texas Motorplex, Thunder Valley (across from Bristol Motor Speedway), Gainesville Raceway, Firebird Raceway (now Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park) and so many other venues.

If you’re a longtime Pro Stock fan, surely you recall some of the class’s greats, such as Sox & Martin, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, Lee Shepherd, Butch Leal, “Dyno” Don Nicholson or Darrell Alderman.

But with Top Fuel and Funny Car having been the NHRA’s top draws for more than three decades with past and present stars like John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Joe Amato, Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps, Tony Schumacher and so many others, Pro Stock has unfortunately suffered.

After all, Pro Stock cars, which typically top out around 210 mph in 1,320-feet runs, are little match for the ground-shaking and nitromethane-fueled (which oftentimes leads to spectacular engine explosions) 320-plus mph 1,000-foot runs in Top Fuel and Funny Car that fans love so much.

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NHRA HAS TRIED TO IMPROVE THE LOT OF PRO STOCK, BUT …

To its credit, NHRA has tried to make Pro Stock more popular over the years, but has also made sometimes questionable calls that have had profound impacts — primarily financial — upon teams.

Heres how the old fan favorite Pro Stock hood scoops looked before they were outlawed by NHRA going into the 2016 season.

In 2016, the sanctioning body forced Pro Stock teams to switch from carburetors to electronic fuel injection (EFI), as well as to remove the popular, massive-sized hood scoops to make them look more aesthetically like showroom cars.

Cutting the monster hood scoops never really seemed to go over well with the public, as they long were one of the biggest allures of Pro Stock racing for Joe and Jane Fan.

By having to add EFI and eliminate hood scoops, Pro Stock teams were forced to shoulder additional costs — including five-figure (or more) research and development, testing and fabrication expenses — to already very tight team budgets.

Because the class is so competitive, the cost of doing business for Pro Stock teams has continued to grow, to the point where some typically spend well into seven figures, with the biggest expense being near-constant R&D to try and squeeze out every last drop of horsepower possible.

As a result, it’s not unusual for some teams to operate in the red because they lack enough sponsorship to cover costs for engines and R&D and testing, body fabrication, employee salaries and of course, the nearly half-year on the road with hotels, plane tickets, food, etc.

If you think Pro Stock teams make up the sponsorship shortfall with prize money they earn at the 24 national events, think again. Prize money (typically $105,000 in total funds per race available to all Pro Stock drivers) accounts for maybe 20 percent — if that — of the amount of money a team needs to keep cars on the racetrack.

And let’s not forget all the drama in recent years within the Pro Stock class, with frequent accusations among competitors of cheating and other misdeeds.

Chris McGaha

One Pro Stock competitor, Chris McGaha, was so incensed about what he perceived as rampant cheating that he and his family approached the NHRA earlier this season to be allowed to purchase all the fuel that teams in the Pro Stock class use every race weekend, believing some drivers were using secret, undetectable additives in their cars to go faster and quicker. The NHRA agreed to McGaha’s request, but that didn’t stop beliefs about cheating.

MORE: Drama at the drag strip: Why one NHRA driver — suspecting cheating — filed rare protests against two rivals.

About two-thirds of the way through the 2018 season, McGaha filed rare protests against two fellow drivers, alleging they were using illegal oversized motors. The NHRA investigated and found the motors in compliance, costing McGaha $2,000 in lost protest filing costs.

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WHY IS NHRA REDUCING THE 2019 PRO STOCK SCHEDULE?

When NHRA made its announcement about the reduction of the Pro Stock schedule for 2019, it issued a statement that claimed “competitors believe (18 races) is the ‘sweet spot’ of the category.”

The same media release quoted NHRA vice president of racing administration Josh Peterson: “We think the new schedule will increase participation by relieving the economic burden and time commitment that comes with 24 events, which will ignite more intense competition. All of that should make for compelling action and drive fan interest.”

While NHRA’s edict may be noble and well intentioned, it also may be somewhat misguided. For teams to pay the bills, to remain competitive, to keep pouring money into almost constant engine R&D and optimal aero fabrication, one thing is very clear:

They HAVE to race as much as possible just to have a fighting chance at winning races and championships – and the accompanying prize money.

Now, with the schedule cut by one-fourth, does the NHRA honestly think that Pro Stock teams’ costs will suddenly and miraculously also be cut by one-fourth, as well?

Ain’t going to happen.

Sure, there will be some reduction in costs, particularly travel, but whatever money saved will likely and invariably be poured into even more engine development and fabrication. It’s the nature of the Pro Stock beast.

Granted, reducing the schedule may make some Pro Stock teams more attractive and affordable to potential sponsors, knowing they only have to pay for 18 (or less) races instead of 24.

But at the same time, if you’re a potential sponsor with some decent amount of money to spend and you want to give your brand good exposure in NHRA drag racing, would you want to spend it with a Pro Stock team that competes in just 18 races, or would you rather take your bucks and back a Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car, believing that you’ll receive better return on your investment for 24 races?

That’s kind of a no-brainer.

One other thing to note: with Butner and Gray gone and the possibility others may follow, will Pro Stock have full 16-car fields for all 18 races in 2019? Prospects are concerning, indeed.

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POTENTIAL REPLACEMENTS TO PRO STOCK IN THE FUTURE?

Some cynics believe NHRA’s reduction of the Pro Stock schedule may be the first step toward eventual elimination of the class. The Pro Modified and Factory Stock classes have enjoyed  increasing popularity over the last few years. And, their cars, not coincidentally, are much less expensive to build and run.

Pro Modified cars are more radical in design than Pro Stockers, which bear some semblance to the kind of cars fans can buy at auto dealerships, particularly the Chevrolet Camaro brand, which dominates Pro Stock.

Factory Stock, meanwhile, is even closer in looks and appearance to street cars than Pro Stock is.

So, while it may be premature to write Pro Stock’s obituary, it’s also hard to fathom that what was once one of the most popular classes in the sport – and still offers arguably the closest and tightest competition of NHRA’s four professional classes when it comes to both elapsed time and speed – has fallen so far.

While NHRA may believe Pro Stock’s “sweet spot” will be just 18 races per season going forward, such an action may ultimately wind up leaving a very sour taste in the mouths of a lot of drag racing fans.

Then what will NHRA do?

What do you think about Pro Stock being reduced from 24 to 18 races next season? Make your opinion heard in the above poll.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianapolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”


Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.


Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500