Longtime sportsman racer Jeff Melnick experienced a wide range of highs and lows during his rookie season in M&M Transmission Pro 632. From dominant wins to a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis and the resulting chemo treatments, Melnick was put to the test. The Ohio-based driver rose to the challenge, though, and delivered a 2023 Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA) world championship for car owner Alan O’Brien. Melnick won three times in four final rounds.
Melnick, who previously raced a ProCharged ’02 Avenger in Top Sportsman, took on a new challenge when he signed on to drive O’Brien’s one-of-a-kind, AMC small-block-powered Greenbrier Excavating & Paving ’20 Camaro at the 2022 Brian Olson Memorial World Finals.
“I remember the first pass I made in the car and I thought, ‘Oh boy, what did I get myself into? This is a different animal.’ A Liberty 5-speed, heads-up, a Pro tree, just a bunch of different stuff for me,” Melnick said.
Melnick caught on quickly, as he won the 2023 season-opening Summit Racing East Coast Nationals presented by FuelTech at GALOT Motorsports Park, beating 2022 world champion Amber Franklin in the final round. He was runner-up to Franklin at the next race, the Mid-Atlantic Showdown presented by Classic Graphix at Virginia Motorsports Park.
Melnick went into the hospital with chronic pain in the week leading up to the third race on tour, the DeCerbo Construction American Doorslammer Challenge presented by Callies at Melnick’s home track, Summit Motorsports Park. Knowing he likely had cancer, Melnick threw down another winning performance to beat championship runner-up Doug Nicholl in the final round. Despite midseason rule changes that negatively impacted his unique combination, Melnick went on to win again at the Northern Nationals presented by Talbert Manufacturing at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park.
“We came out strong this spring and won some races,” Melnick said. “Then they hit us with the rule changes and the team never quit. They adapted. We tested. Alan spent umpteen thousands on gear sets and titanium and lead. We made the car still competitive and we were able to hang on here towards the end of the season.”
The “nail-biter of the season,” as Melnick says, came at the sixth race of the eight-race season, the Red Line Oil Carolina Nationals at Darlington Dragway. A dead battery prevented him from firing up for the first round of eliminations, marking his only first-round exit of the season. He then reached the semifinals at the last two races to clinch the championship by two rounds and one point.
“We had a four- or five-round lead before we lost first round [at Darlington],” Melnick said. “That was gut-wrenching to sit there all day and watch our points lead dwindle back down to one round. We were able to extend the points lead at GALOT, then finish the deal off at Virginia.”
Melnick was proud to help the O’Brien family accomplish the goals they set out to achieve with the nitrous-assisted, AMC-based powerplant. The family has a rich history with the now-defunct brand, including years of fielding AMC-powered cars in a number of classes.
“It’s been a Cinderella story for Alan and his whole family,” said Melnick, who thanked Greenbrier Excavating & Paving, Barry Allen Racing Engines, PTP Tuning, Mickey Thompson Tires, Visner Engine Development, and his own business, Exotic Fab. “They’ve been building these AMC motors for 30-40 years. To see a small-block AMC motor win in a professional category is outstanding. Hat’s off to Barry Allen, Alan O’Brien, and Patrick Barnhill. Those guys are the brain trust behind this thing. I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive it.”
Melnick also credited O’Brien and the team for believing in his driving abilities even after he started to undergo chemo treatment. He battled through chemo’s side effects during the hot summer races and the chilly fall events. After his diagnosis in late May, Melnick vowed to fight for the championship no matter what, and he pulled through to back up his claim.
“I was happy to hold up my end of the stick most of the season, enough to get the job done,” Melnick said. “With my cancer battle and the chemo I’ve been going through, to get that done and hopefully beat the chemo and the cancer and win a championship all in the same season, it’s like a dream come true. It was a nightmare at one time, but a dream come true now.”
The PDRA will celebrate its 2023 world champions during the annual PDRA Championship Awards Banquet on Friday, Dec. 8 in Indianapolis.