Adrenaline is adrenaline.
But how Tanner Gray experiences it has changed dramatically since he won the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock championship.
The 20-year-old traded in the adrenaline shots that came with seven-second runs at over 200 MPH for the more drawn out adrenaline rushes of NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series.
“You get different kinds of adrenaline rushes throughout the race, like the initial start you’re pretty amped up and ready to go,” Gray told NBC Sports. “The feeling on a restart is the same feeling you’re going to get lining up for a drag race.”
That’s what Gray experienced last Saturday when he claimed his first K&N Pro Series East win in an overtime finish at South Boston Speedway, a track he’d never visited before.
After earning his first career pole, the DGR-Crosley driver led 79 laps before a late caution set up a battle with Sam Mayer, the only other driver to lead more than one lap in the race.
The two drivers banged doors as they took the white flag with Gray grabbing the lead and then the win in just his fourth NASCAR start.
The win was a “relief” for Gray after his decision to change course in his career and return to racing on ovals after having previously competed in super late models.
“I think it definitely is a little bit of a relief to know when everything lines up we have the ability and have the talent and everything to do it,” Gray said. “It’s just a matter of doing it.”
A third generation drag racer, Gray’s last two years had been spent racing Pro Stocks, culminating in becoming the youngest NHRA champion in history. But the New Mexico native always had his sights set on NASCAR, believing it provided a better future for him.
“I was pretty dead set on doing this,” Gray said. “I told my dad (former Pro Stock driver Shane Gray) whether I won the championship or even won a race, I said ‘I think this will be it.'”
As a member of David Gilliland’s DGR-Crosley team, Gray is now “100 percent” more busy than he ever was in the NHRA, splitting time between the K&N East and West and the ARCA Menards Series.
“This year I think I have close to 30-something races,” Gray said. “(Compared to) the NHRA schedule I raced in 24 races. When you go to the NHRA race you’re at the same place from Thursday to Monday … You fly in Thursday and you usually fly out Monday. But you’re at the same place.
“This week I go to Tuscon (for the K&N West race) and then fly straight from Tuscon to Toledo to test … I’m constantly moving around to different places, testing a lot more and everything else.”
Three days after his win, Gray experienced another first: he drove on a speedway for the first time in a Tuesday ARCA test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Before that the biggest thing I had been on was a half-mile,” Gray said. “It definitely took a couple of runs just to get used to getting down in the corner and stuff. It didn’t feel really fast to me. … But I didn’t feel like it really took long to get used to everything. It’s going to take me a little bit to get to where I’m competitive.”
Despite the win in South Boston, Gray still feels very much like the rookie he is.
“I feel like I make new mistakes every race,” Gray said. “You’re just constantly learning. Last week at South Boston I had a really good race, ended up getting the brakes hot there towards the end and when you get brake heat, it creates tire heat and tire heat (causes) the tire to grow and it just gets tight. Even though I won, I still did some things wrong. Everything kind of lined up there for us to have that final restart and edge out Sam (Mayer). If it wasn’t for that final caution there, Sam probably would have won.”
Gray has blinders on now that he’s on his NASCAR path. Don’t expect to see him make any return visits to a drag strip. He considers that chapter of his life over.
Why ruin a good thing?
“It ended so well for me it’s almost not worth it to go back and go again,” Gray said. “My last race there I won the championship and won my last race the same weekend and ended with the best reaction time average. A bunch of different cool stuff. … If I’m not going to do it all the time then I really don’t feel the need to go back out there.”