Dropping the Clutch: The Story Behind Camrie Caruso’s Early Success in NHRA Pro Stock

Some might call it a fluke, but Camrie Caruso doesn’t. Camrie cannot, in good conscience, consider it luck that she earned her first No. 1 qualifier award and reached her first final round in only her fifth race in Pro Stock. She has a team with championship experience, and she has some of the most proven equipment in the class.

Camrie herself has diverse experience as a driver and is committed to doing what it takes to ensure that she capitalizes on the value of the team she put together with her father, Pro Mod racer Marc Caruso, and her grandfather, “Papa Joe” Caruso. She has a whole lot of ambition, too.“My goals at the start of the season were to be No. 1 qualifier, win races, and win the championship,” said Camrie after becoming the first female to be crowned low qualifier in Pro Stock at Houston Raceway Park this past spring. “Jim [Yates, crew chief] was like, ‘You need to chill.’ But we’re already headed in the right direction.”

Change of plans

 

Some kids dream of Pro Stock, but Camrie is a racer who initially had her hopes set on racing Pro Mod, like her dad.

“When I told my dad I wanted to go to Pro Mod a couple of years ago, he said, ‘You’ve never driven a door car, so no,’” says Camrie, who started in the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League then moved up to Super Comp when she was 16. From there, she raced Top Dragster in both PDRA and NHRA, then took a successful turn in Top Alcohol Dragster and won the Norwalk NHRA division race with the Randy Meyer Racing team.

Camrie wasn’t directly aimed at NHRA Pro Stock until four-time Pro Stock winner Alex Laughlin decided he was going to sell his operation, from top to bottom, and go Top Fuel racing. That was in the middle of 2021, and at the time, Camrie was sowing her oats in PDRA Pro Outlaw 632 and working towards competing in Mountain Motor Pro Stock.

“We went to our sponsors and the people we were working with, and we asked if they wanted to do it,” she recalls. “It all happened really fast, and it was out of the blue, but we were able to form a team and get to the first race of 2022 in just a few short months. It was crazy.”

Camrie explains that they purchased Laughlin’s equipment in October, locked down a team – including two-time Pro Stock champion Yates as crew chief – in December, and were on-track testing in early January.

Her father, Marc, went on to share that fellow Pro Mod racer Eric Latino was instrumental in putting the right pieces together to draft a program that could be successful from the hit. Latino and his business partners purchased a building and all of the engine shop assets formerly owned by Gray Motorsports, the team that led 19-year-old Tanner Gray to the 2018 Pro Stock championship.

“Right after Eric purchased everything and retained [former Gray Motorsports engine builders] Steve Johns and Mike Smith, he was filling me in and said that the shop would like to get involved with Pro Stock again, somehow,” says Marc. “We conversed a little bit off and on about getting Camrie involved some way, and it was Eric who called me to tell me Alex Laughlin may be interested in trading out for our Pro Mod operation.”

In the end, there was no trade – the Caruso family acquired Laughlin’s haul but retained their Pro Mod equipment for the moment. The only thing missing was a reliable engine program, and once again, it was Latino on the other end of the line with a solution.

“Eric made us aware of four engines that had belonged to Gray Motorsports that [Elite Motorsports owner] Richard Freeman had bought,” explains Marc. “Richard wasn’t running them because they were a different combination than his, so we started negotiating with him about purchasing those. Richard was interested in our Pro Mod operation, so we struck a deal.”

In addition to the Pro Stock engines for Camrie’s Chevrolet, Titan Racing Engines [TRE] builds bullets for Stock Eliminator, European Pro Stock entries, an Australian Comp Eliminator racer, dirt late model customers, and some asphalt late model competitors.

“There is a lot of talk about Camrie Caruso and Jim Yates, but the fact that we’re doing our own engine program with TRE gets swept under the rug,” says Marc.

“We’re not [leasing engines from] KB Racing or Elite Motorsports. We legitimately have our own engine program, and TRE maintains and services them. We’ve been able to come out and be as successful as we have as only a single-car operation with all our own stuff, and I think that’s just as cool as what Camrie is accomplishing.”

The engines that could

The experience and productivity in the TRE race shop anchors the program that aided Camrie in qualifying in the top half at four of the first five races, including the No. 1 in Houston.

Smith, who operates the dyno and does the EFI tuning, came into Pro Stock working with Mark Pawuk in 2003, spent five years working alongside iconic Pro Stock engine builder Warren Johnson, and was an integral part of Tanner Gray’s 2018 championship season.

Master machinist Johns learned the ropes from Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and was with the Pro Stock legend for many years. He has worked with team owner and multi-class racer Victor Cagnazzi, Team JEGS, and Gray through multiple championship seasons, and he was the 1992 Competition Eliminator champion as a driver. He’s also driven Pro Stock and continues to race Stock Eliminator at select national events.

“We complement each other,” says Smith. “Steve is an excellent machinist, and we both pick up where the other lacks. We talked about it before we went to Pomona. KB Racing has six cars, Elite has six cars – that’s 12 good cars. So realistically, we agreed that we’d be happy to qualify mid-pack, and that we would consider that a success. I don’t know if you’re ever happy, but we’re pointed in the right direction.”

Latino explains that the engines that power Camrie’s Chevrolet Camaro are basically the same as they were when they were run in Gray’s winning Chevy, aside from small changes.

“You know you can never leave anything alone,” says Latino. “You learn as you go along, engine technology changes, and Mike and Steve have a program that’s proven to be pretty strong. We’re right there with the best of the best, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Driver-ready

Although Camrie came to the Pro Stock table with a fair amount of experience for someone who was just 23 years old, she admits that there was a learning curve that stretched back to finding her way in the Pro Outlaw 632 car.

“Dad was like, if you suck, don’t be concerned,” Camrie said to the audience from the NHRA stage at the PRI Show in 2021. “I told him, we aren’t leaving until I can do this.”

That first test session in a car that was previously raced in Mountain Motor Pro Stock took place a mere six weeks before the first race of the 2021 PDRA season. Learning the Lenco transmission gave her experience that would later be translated to an NHRA Pro Stock Liberty, and Camrie did burnout after burnout that first day as she found her comfort zone dropping the clutch in a naturally aspirated car.

Fast forward to 2022, and after getting all of the mechanical pieces in place for her NHRA Pro Stock debut, Camrie and her newly formed team made upwards of 50 test runs before joining the seasoned Pro Stock teams in Phoenix for pre-season testing.

“My 632 car was a clutch car, and I shifted it, so I kind of understood the concept,” she says. “But this car was a new experience. It was similar, but it was also different. Thankfully, I had great teachers, or I don’t think I would have progressed the way that I did.”

Camrie is surrounded by individuals who have either raced or worked in Pro Stock for many years, and her crew chief has very much been part of that. Initially, Marc had been in contact with longtime friend Dave Connolly, but he was in solid with KB Racing as a crew chief.

Esteemed Pro Stock car builder Jerry Haas was the one who put Yates on their radar. Yates had previously been working with Fernando Cuadra and his Pro Stock racing sons, Fernando Jr. and Cristian, but the Cuadra family was making a move to Elite Motorsports and would be utilizing their team of crew chiefs. Yates had also worked with Gray Motorsports for multiple seasons.

“I reached out to Jim and gave him the lowdown on what we have and what we wanted to do, and he flew down to see what we had,” says Marc. “My father and I had lunch with him, talked about it, and a week later we offered him the job.

“Jim and Camrie, there was a little bit of butting heads in the beginning – but it was almost comical,” Marc continues. “Camrie didn’t really know how to take Jim, and Jim didn’t really know how to take Camrie. It was kind of funny in the beginning, and I think Toni, Jim’s wife, really helped the gears of that relationship fall into place. From day one, Jim has been very dedicated to making this program work; you couldn’t ask for any more dedication from a person.”

Jim’s son, Jamie, has also played a role in Camrie’s development, but not so much as a driver.

“I told my dad from the beginning, I’m not just going to be a driver, and if that’s what he wanted me to do, then he better find someone else,” Camrie states adamantly. She works at the TRE shop and handles billing and marketing, and she is also learning to build Pro Stock transmissions at the races with the help of Jamie. Camrie’s education in Pro Stock transmissions actually began in early 2020, when she started the year working on Erica Enders’ car before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

Camrie’s dedication to learning the ropes in Pro Stock from both inside and outside the car extends to getting as much practice as she possibly can. Her dad explained that, back at the race shop, she’s committed to continuing her driving education.

“The fact that we’re even out here and able to compete is just wild,” says Marc. “Camrie has so much determination when it comes to driving a race car, and I know how badly she wants this and how hard she works. We have a simulator at the shop, and she’s on it three times a day. She’s sending reports to Jim and reading the books Jim has told her to read. She can be very hard on herself, but I couldn’t be more proud. It’s absolutely surreal to see her do this successfully.”

A place in history

When Camrie made her debut at the 2022 NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, she became just the seventh female driver in the 52-year history of Pro Stock. In Phoenix, she claimed a round-win over Cristian Cuadra to become only the third woman to win a round of racing in the class. Lucinda McFarlin, who raced in the 1990s, was the first.

Caruso and four-time Pro Stock champion Enders are the only two females currently competing in Pro Stock, and in Houston, they raced in the final for another notation in the history books as the first female Pro Stock drivers to race one another in an elimination round.

“Honestly, whether it’s a girl next to me or a guy next to me, it really doesn’t matter,” says Camrie. “I want to beat them either way. I want to win, and I couldn’t care less if it’s Greg Anderson [the most winning driver in the history of the category] or Erica Enders. I want to beat them both. We all have the same goals out here, and being a girl doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t accomplish them.”

Camrie and her father, Marc

Camrie grew up without concern over how being a female could hinder her progress. All she knew was that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, as he had followed his own father’s path. Papa Joe started racing when he was 15 years old, getting towed to the racetrack because he wasn’t old enough to drive there, and he and Marc have been racing partners for many years.

“We’ve always done this as a family, and Camrie has always wanted to be involved,” says Marc. “If she could, she would spend every single day at a racetrack. She wanted to miss her own graduation because I was racing at Norwalk, and she wanted to watch.

“God willing, this is just the beginning of a long, long journey in Pro Stock. My father always loved Pro Stock, and growing up, my own dream was to drive Pro Stock. We never thought it was obtainable until the right people and the right pieces fell into place.”

A third of the way through her first season, Camrie is sold on the class.

“The goal for me was Pro Mod, but it turns out that I really love the Pro Stock class, and I love my team,” she says. “I think we’re going to stay here quite a while. I hope it lasts forever.”

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