If you ever wondered what a damn-near-flawless doorslammer show looks like, this past weekend’s season-opening PDRA East Coast Nationals may well be the example you’ve been looking for. You could point to the prevailing early-season-enthusiasm, the facility and racing surface at Galot Motorsports Park provides, which is so significant that it could be an entirely separate story, or the trust and momentum created from a tick-nearly-every-box season in 2021 – perhaps a combination of all that and then some – but a finer example of a drag race will be harder to find. And we haven’t even touched on the actual racing. Bonkers. All of it.
In a time where it’s almost a foregone conclusion that crazy fast door car racing means “we’re running the semifinals at 3 AM”, a curfew-hitting close (if there was one in Benson, North Carolina) a minute or two after 10 o’clock local on Saturday night was almost as impressive as the off-the-trailer 3.58-second run in Pro Boost that Melanie Salemi posted up to get things started on Friday. Sprinkled in-between a barrage of other record-setting runs from Salemi and company during the East Coast Nationals were an otherworldly amount of monstrous side-by-side runs from some of the best in the business across Pro Nitrous, Extreme Pro Stock, Pro 632 and what may well be the toughest collection of sportsman racers in the country.
There was so much going on at the PDRA’s kick off event, we thought we’d highlight a few of our favorite moments. Here’s how we saw it.
Jim Halsey went out in E1. We’re not in the business of celebrating struggles, but when you win as much as Jim Halsey (we’re talking about breaking people’s backs for a long, long time now), it’s big news when you do anything other than win. That’s not to say that Halsey wasn’t the odds-on favorite after qualifying, though, because he was. After three rounds of action with 20 cars trying to get in on the action amidst the largest collection of high-caliber nitrous cars in the world, Halsey and his Maryland-based race team were at the top of the sheets with a 3.650-second, 206.70 mph effort from their Fulton Competition-powered Pro Nitrous ’68 Camaro. Shockingly (well, kinda), Halsey told DRAG ILLUSTRATED after the run, disappointed, that they “missed it”. Man, you gotta love Jim Halsey.
BIDNESS IS BOOMIN’
A full 16-car field of mountain motor Pro Stockers? Yes, please. That’s exactly what PDRA offered up in Benson with their Extreme Pro Stock eliminator, led by J.R. Carr with a 4.01-second and 179.78 mph laps in his brilliant white 2020 Chevy Camaro.
The Extreme Pro Stock ladder included several of the division’s usual suspects, but also an offering of fresh faces, namely Dillon Voss, who graduated up to XPS from Pro 632 along with his brother and crew chief Cory. The best part of this whole deal is that there are still at least a few cars that we expect to turn up in the next few races, including one big name that will likely break the internet if the pieces we know have to been acquired actually fall into place.
By all accounts, even with abundant participation in Pro Boost and Pro Nitrous, the naturally aspirated, manually shifted door car category of Extreme Pro Stock is set to steal the show in 2022. We’re excited to see how it unfolds.
336 IS A CROWD
Our officially tally is 336 race cars on the property at Galot Motorsports Park for the season opening PDRA East Coast Nationals. Somehow, 72 of those were legit pro-level doorslammers, and that’s absolutely marvelous, right? Especially when you consider there are a number of really, really good doorslammer-focused series in the country right now, as well as a host of regional racing opportunities for these guys and gals. Again, the coolest and perhaps most-exciting part of this situation is that there’s likely more to come. We’ve talked with a number of racers who are still sidelined due to part shortages and/or still getting organized after an off season packed with changes. Our guess is that the PDRA’s stops in Bowling Green and Norwalk could best these numbers, and considering how well the show was run this last weekend it’s hard to be anything other than excited about more cars turning up.
RECORD = CRUSHED
It’s “Stevie Fast” Jackson that’s famous for “crushing” (he says it a lot), but it was Melanie Salemi that lowered the boom on Pro Boost in Benson. She unloaded their familiar black-and-purple 6th generation Camaro, which had been outfitted with a roots-blown Hemi and Liberty 5-speed a few times last year as compared to their screw-type blower and three-speed combination, and cracked off a 3.58-second blast that, truthfully, was amongst the most talked-about-behind-the-scenes runs we’ve been exposed to since Daniel Pharris went 3.49 on radials early last year.
Incredibly, Salemi, who’s program is led by her husband and crew chief Jon Salemi, continued to one-up themselves throughout qualifying on Friday, putting together, in this group’s opinion, one of the most impressive single-day performances in the history of the Professional Drag Racers Association. Her next lap produced a 3.57-second elapsed time; her third-and-final attempt netted a 3.568-second E.T. and secured the New York-based racers the top qualifying spot by almost five-hundredths-of-a-second (No. 2 being eventual event winner Todd Tutterow with a 3.615-second pass).
In eliminations, Salemi proved the string of jaw-droppers on Friday were no fluke, posting up back-to-back 3.57-second runs, though bowing out to Stan Shelton on a hole shot. Regardless, Salemi will be the one to watch from here on out. She’s always been a threat, but there’s no doubt she’s the favorite moving forward.
THE FIRST LADIES OF PRO 632
It’s only April, but we already have a contender for the feel-good-movie-of-the-summer, and the stars of the show are Amber Franklin and Lexi Tanner. These two young ladies have seemingly been involved in the sport of drag racing since birth, have climbed the ranks from Jr. Dragster racing to sportsman class racing to now competing in another one of PDRA’s unsung hero eliminators – Pro 632. And they’re not just field fillers or getting their toes wet. These two are nestled comfortably into the top, most competitive portion of the field (Franklin qualified third with a 4.146-second, 176 mph pass, Tanner 6th with a 4.222-second shot).
Not only is the racing great in Pro 632, but we’ve seen this eliminator provide the perfect platform for drivers and teams to hone their skills before making the jump into Extreme Pro Stock, Pro Boost or Pro Nitrous, and it’s happening rather frequently. From Johnny Pluchino, Tony Gillig and now Dillon Voss in Extreme Pro Stock to Wes Distefano in Pro Nitrous and Camrie Caruso in NHRA Pro Stock, these are fast, complex and often hard-to-drive cars that produces great drivers and solid race teams. We love it. Obviously.
We’re sure there were a plethora of career-defining runs made this past weekend in North Carolina, but Tony Gillig’s personal best 4.05-second, 179.78 mph (check out that speed) certainly caught our attention. Our two-cents says Tony Gillig is amongst the best pure drivers in all of drag racing, absolutely one of the best in mountain motor Pro Stock racing, so we have our collective eyes on this former pizza shop owner from Illinois in 2022. Seemingly committed to a full pull this year, it’s hard not to throw Gillig into the mix as a championship contender right here and now.
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN?
How about Mike Achenbach? Felt like the absolute picture of consistency over the course of the weekend – qualified in the top five and slowly picked away at his combination until he was popping champagne in the winner’s circle. Achenbach, lovingly known as “Mountain Man” amongst his racing brethren, went 3.72 in the opening stanza and followed that up with a 3.689 against Chris Rini in E2, a 3.672 over Jason Harris in the semis and a 3.668 over Jay Cox for all the marbles. It was an absolutely thrilling display from a driver and team who had previously felt they may not belong alongside what are undoubtedly the best nitrous-assisted drag racing teams in the world.
Also, we’re here for Achenbach going rounds in Pro Nitrous. Seeing some new folks turn up can only be seen as good news for the division, and hopefully inspires participation amongst those that may or may not feel they don’t have what it takes to run with the Jim Halsey and Tommy Franklins of the world.
Equally encouraging was seeing Buck Racing Engines represented in the winner’s circle, thus pouring fuel on the raging inferno that has been the engine builder battles in Pro Nitrous competition. It’s been – without question – one of the series’ legitimately fun and exciting subplots, and we’re glad it’s not losing steam.
TRULY GREAT RACING
By our count there were (roughly) 48 absolutely awesome side-by-side drag races during professional eliminations at Galot Motorsports Park. We’re not trying to do any sort of hardcore math here, nor make you think too much, but if you figure there’s four professional categories at a PDRA national event representing four 16-car fields, that’s 60 individual drag races that are set to happen on a typical Saturday. This last weekend, PDRA batted 80-percent in terms of really good races between two cars under power to the finish line. Is that happening anywhere else in drag racing? We’re not sure, but we’re going to start paying attention to this stat line and factor it into our conversations about different sanctions, series and events.
As previously mentioned, Stan Shelton may have had the hole shot of the race (this should probably be an award, right?) when he took out Melanie Salemi while in full world-beater mode (his .010 to Salemi’s .057 made the difference between her 3.570 and his 3.602), but we can’t forget Extreme Pro Stock’s Justin Kirk in this conversation.
Kirk, who scored his first PDRA Extreme Pro Stock win last year at the PDRA Doorslammer Derby driving Eddie and W.R. Buck’s Chevy Cavalier, took out J.R. Carr in round-two with a .050-second reaction time and stepped things up in the semifinal to take out Tommy Lee with a .025 light.
THE PUMPKIN BACK IN TOP FORM
Jay Cox, driver of the famed-and-feared “Pumpkin” ’69 Camaro from RJ Race Cars in PDRA Pro Nitrous competition, made a significant change in his engine program last season, and seems to be connecting the dots after spending time adjusting/adapting last season and over the winter. Cox’s runner-up finish is good for PDRA and good for drag racing. It’s not that we’re just in love with former professional baseball player, it’s just that he’s got the gift of gab and can produce a hot take or potentially viral soundbite at will and the people that have that ability are definitely the people we need having success in our sport. Glad to know that Cox will be on the media tour for PDRA this season.
From the wing of an Airbus A320 floating in the Hudson River to the upper echelons of doorslammer drag racing (NMCA, PDRA, etc.) to the cover of DRAG ILLUSTRATED to the legendary Big Dog Shootout Series at Piedmont Dragway in North Carolina, your boy Chris Rini has seen and done a lot out here. We’re thrilled to see him back in the Pro Nitrous mix, and based on his performance this past weekend he’s going to be in the thick of things as this season wears on and the championship points battle intensifies.
ONCE YOU GO FORD?
We’re not sure if there’s any more to that line or not, but John Montecalvo won’t have any reason to second guess his partnership with Roy Hill and Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School to field their Extreme Pro Stock Ford Mustang (after decades driving a Chevrolet) based on their first outing together.
Montecalvo qualified sixth for the mountain motor show in North Carolina with a 4.044-second pass in the metallic red race car and looked like a potential race winner headed into eliminations. The New Yorker’s weekend was cut short in the first round by Tony Gillig, though, when his .050-second reaction time and 4.040-second effort simply wasn’t enough to make up for Gillig’s .010 off the starting blocks and 4.063. This is exactly the type of matchup that largely defined the PDRA East Coast Nationals.
We’re not sure how many stops two-time NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series champ “Stevie Fast” Jackson intends to make this year in PDRA Pro Boost trim, but the Bahrain 1 Racing team was a welcome addition in the pro pits at Galot Motorsports Park. Jackson’s following is well established and his participation most assuredly adds to the shine of the series – and likely exciting and motivating for the PDRA’s top performers.
KING TUTT STILL REIGNS
In case you forgot, Todd Tutterow still runs this @#$%&. We’ve seen him go from grassroots, outlaw racing legend to tuner-of-the-stars, but in recent years he’s steady reminded all of us that he’s still one of the best to ever attempt to wrestle a doorslammer down the drag strip.
After qualifying second behind Melanie Salemi, Tutterow proceeded to kick ass and take names all the way to the winner’s circle where he, too, dipped into the 3.5-second range with a 3.588 to take the win over rising-racing-star Stan Shelton.
One had to wonder if Tutterow’s growing tuning/consulting business would detract from his own racing endeavors, but the answers – at least for now or until he decides to hang up his driving gloves – is that it doesn’t matter how many cars he’s working on or contributing to…he can win in whatever he’s driving.