The State of Class Racing
Years gone by, I attended my first NHRA Divisional event, at Numidia Raceway, in central Pennsylvania. Stock Eliminator cars filled the lanes, cleanly detailed, and with a subtle look that separated them from any mere “bracket car”. The factory flat hoods, 9” slicks, giant front-runners, and a distinct rap of a top-secret profile camshaft all lent to the instant impression that these cars were somehow… important. Former Division 1 Champion Billy Nees said it best, “When they call Stock Eliminator to the lanes, it’s the best rolling car show you’ll ever see.”
The announcer methodically described the cars and their combinations as they rolled to the starting line, calling out their cubic inches, horsepower factors, and carburetion from an uncanny memory, more akin to the smooth delivery of a televised classic car auction than something heard at a dragstrip. When Ray Golanka’s vinyl-topped mint green Q/SA Cadillac burst off the line, dropping the factory tow hitch toward the ground as it twisted the front wheels off the ground, jaws dropped, and so did the national record. Any Stocker newbie would silently mouth the same question, “How do they DO that?” The addiction was born.
Billy Nees is the twisted genius behind any number of bizarre contraptions, long forgotten by the factory. Dubbed the “Master of the Dime Rockets”, by Super Stock pilot Steve Sweitzer, Nees was my portal to the world of Stock Eliminator.
“How much money do you have?” he prodded.
“I don’t have any.”
“Well, you’re going to run a front wheel drive car then. What kind of cars do you like?” boiling his formula down so that even the teenaged bracket racer could understand.
With a grunted sigh and rolling of the eyes, Nees huffed, “Well, if you HAVE to run a Mopar, you want to…” his diatribe trailed into a recitation of the Class Racer’s Bible: The Classification Guide, which defines weight breaks and horsepower factors for factory-produced cars, along with engine blueprint specifications to which the engine must be built.
With a tremendous amount of support from Nees himself, along with Parkway Cleaners, Paintworks, George Case, Jim Bageant, Gemini Enterprises and a long list of other sponsors, another Stock racer was ‘born’.
This story, or one like it, is repeated frequently around the nation every year. The next generation of class racers may not be obvious to all, but new blood continuously trickles into the Stock and Super Stock ranks.
NHRA Division 1 Director Bob Lang presides over the greatest population density of racers, in the northeastern United States. Not only are there enough racers to go around, but the location of the tracks also makes travel easier than it is for those in the West. Fuel costs affect everyone, but it is less likely to have a dramatic effect on the car counts in the northeast.
“A couple of years ago, when we allowed porting and polishing in Super Stock, we saw a decrease in numbers in those classes for a time,” noted Lang. “It took a lot of money for everyone to be able to perform that work, but the numbers have bounced back since. Fuel Injected cars have a slow growth, but they’re definitely growing. We combined trucks into the regular Stock classes, and we haven’t really seen any change in them, one way or the other.
“I’m seeing more second generation racers,” continued Lang. “Here in Division 1, we have great participation and competitors. There are a lot of hard workers, and that shows at our record meets. We have a lot of records set here.”
More than a decade ago, IHRA introduced Crate Motors to Stock Eliminator in an effort to boost car counts. Crate Motors are new engines produced by GM, Ford, and Mopar that can be run in otherwise ‘traditional’ Stockers. The crate motors have factory spec sheets which must be adhered to, just like original engines. Original, untouched, numbers-matching engine components are becoming harder to find. Crate motors solved the problem of parts availability.
NHRA also solved the problem of parts availability, but by means of superceded parts. In some cases, some retooled factory components or similar OEM components have been legalized in place of the original numbers-matching hard-to-find components. For example, finding a Quadrajet carburetors of the proper year may have been a difficult search before, but now, brand new Quadrajets from Edelbrock are being produced, and have been accepted as superceded parts. If the venturii sizes are the same, why not?
“They may all become crate motors by default,” postulated Lang. “There is no way we can just let the old cars go, so we have to allow superceded parts. Manufacturers making new versions of old equipment makes that possible.”
“I totally understand the issue of parts availability for certain combinations, but that shouldn't be a prerequisite for Mr. Moneybags to lobby for such rule
The monetary factors involved in the stability of class racing consist of building and maintaining a car, getting the car to the race track, and competing for prize money.
The aforementioned superceded parts may ease the burden at times, as crate motors did initially. Changes come, however, that bite back at the wallet, like rule changes and technology advances. These hits to the wallet are voluntary, regardless of what we’d like to think. Chalk it up to “keeping up with the Jones’s”.
Crate motors were an affordable way to get involved in Stock for many years, since the indexes were soft, and newbies could usually run comfortably under the index with a motor literally right out of the crate, if they had the right gear, converter, and transmission combination. Then, some people figured out that they could refine their combination, and qualify on top of the ladder consistently. With crate motors dominating qualifying at most events, traditional Stockers cried foul, and finally in 2005, IHRA dropped the indexes for all crate motor classes by two tenths of a second. Now, they’re just like everybody else, and it takes both science and money to build a mid-pack car.
Rule changes and technology advances go hand in hand. Like the legalization of porting Super Stock heads example, racers often spend the money on whatever is allowed to try to get an advantage on their competitors, or at least keep up. Trick lifters, custom pistons, and more are often passed in teardown, and the rule on the streets is that if one guy can do it, everybody can do it. Sometimes the rules are loosened, but recently, the sanctioning bodies have tried to reign in the rules.
“Now that the horse has escaped from the barn, they decide to mend the fence,” said Alex Denysenko, a former Division 5 Super Stock Champion. “Too little, too late. Stock pistons, rods, cylinder heads, carbs etc. Super Stock cylinder head rules were quite explicit for years. Due to some allowed supercessions, combustion chamber mods became ‘acceptable’ on certain makes. Since the NHRA could not police the practice it became legal. Of course IHRA followed suit.
“The best move that NHRA made was bringing Wesley Roberson back. In IHRA, the best move made was putting Duane Eiskant in charge,” claimed Denysenko, referring to well-known Tech gurus.
“Stock and Super Stock were always performance oriented classes, but since they got lazy and stopped checking cars closely and started letting all manner of stuff to be legal it's just a mess,” posed Don Himes, wheelman of a P/SA Pontiac. “It would take a Herculean effort to clean it up now. You'd have to step on toes, reverse rules and decisions made in the past. Going back to the way it was in 1971 is not a bad idea. In fact it's the best way to cut the crap and make stockers stock again. I am, however, a dinosaur. It would seem that all the ‘young guns’ are happy with the rules today, and majority rules.”
Radials provide a great boost in performance, but are costly. Recently, on the basis that the late-model computer cars could be made to shift automatically, Turbo Action’s E-Shift unit has made it’s way into Class Racing. Two-steps have been a part of Stock for a number of years, but are growing in popularity. None of these items are necessities, put the perception of racers is that they ‘need’ every available tool to be competitive in the increasingly tough categories.
Speaking even more generally, some believe there is a trend toward faster and faster cars. Everyone seeks an advantage, and many believe that faster cars are both more consistent, easier to hit the tree with, and easier to judge the finish line with.
“I looked through the stats from the last few years and found that slow cards are disappearing,” divulged Tim Griffith, who is both an NHRA National ET Champion, and a runner-up in the 2002 IHRA Stock points chase. “In 2000 at the Columbus nationals there were 79 stockers, 30 of which the indexes were 12.75 and slower, or 38% being cars in J/SA and slower. In 2002, it was 40%, and in 2005, that number fell to 21%.
“What do 2 steps and adjustable buttons have to do with slow cars disappearing? It all goes back to someone, in their infinite wisdom, eliminating deep staging,” postulated Griffith. “You have a certain group that will win in anything they race. Unfortunately, the majority thought they would stop them from winning by eliminating deep staging. They forced this group to move to faster cars, which tend to just be better because of obvious factors and physics and have almost made them unbeatable. Racers are blocking the tree and reacting off a flash
The opposing argument is almost universally, “If you think it helps you win, go buy it.”
“NO, I DON'T WANT A RED CAMARO AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME HAVE ONE," exclaimed Larry Munk, one of the stalwarts piloting a six-cylinder V/SA Pontiac Lemans. He knows definitively where Stock lies in his heart. “There are a certain group of people (dinosaurs) that enjoy taking their two little hands and keeping them busy and making junk into racecars. They enjoy the research of finding something that no one else is doing and getting the max out of them that they can get.”
Munk’s primary concern isn’t what’s going on (or how much money is being spent) in the other lane, as much as he is the economics of being able to continue enjoying the sport. “$3.00 a gallon gas will slow down participation for some. Add to that $7-$9.00 a gallon for race gas. That $70,000 8-year old RV won't bring what you still owe on it (make for some cool yard art though), but heck you can tow a small trailer with the pick-up. But you're not going to travel as far or stay as long, and motels aren't cheap either. As long as I can find a way I'll go racing. There are others just like me out there and we must associate and converse as no sane people understand. Where else would you have had the opportunity to meet Billy Nees? Last and most importantly; my wife enjoys this and makes me do it!”
“For the first time in 40 years I've stayed home because of the cost of racing compared to my income,” admitted Don Himes.
IHRA started conducting “double header” events, where two divisional points races are held on consecutive days at the same race facility. Travel is one of the biggest expenses for any racer, including both fuel and hotel stays. By combining race weekends, it not only saves racers money, but also frees up a few weekends on the schedule.
“I think the double race format is really working,” IHRA Division 4 Director Frank Kohutek said. “Most of the people I talked to were extremely happy with the format. In Division 4 it means six races and three tows. That’s really contributed to the success of this program.”
In NHRA, some racers have no choice but to stay home. Grading points are earned by racers for each Divisional and National Open they attend, which are then used to determine priority when accepting entries to National events. Grading points led to quotas, and then they went one step further and eliminated one sportsman class at the majority of their events, on a rotating basis “to meet demands on pit space and scheduling at national events.”
While most racer’s complaints on the quota system focus on the number of allowed entries, Lang pointed out that at places like Englishtown and Maple Grove, pit space isn’t the concern.
“There’s a lot of room at those facilities,” commented Lang. “But at Englishtown in particular, they have very tight curfews, and even Maple Grove has self-imposed curfews. If we could run from 7:30 a.m. to midnight, that’s one thing, but we can’t. The only way to run the events is to limit the fields. We try to make the right decisions. The Englishtown Stock field had a quota of 80 cars, and filled up in less than two hours. Headquarters realized how strong the participation is here, and raised the limit to a full 128 car field.”
With NHRA still having to limit fields, and IHRA reporting rising attendance at its Divisional events, it’s clear that class racing isn’t dying. While there will always be controversy in every sport, these arguments don’t speak to the immediate demise or success of class racing.
Ten years from now, it may have a different face, and different players, but there will still be class racing. Today’s arguments may lead to rule changes (or not), but it will be the love of class racing that keeps class racing alive. Much of the expense in class racing is voluntary: We choose to tow giant enclosed trailers and stackers with motorhomes and toterhomes and gas-guzzling duallys. It’s more likely that racers will downsize their operations and continue to race than to park them completely.
Trick-o-the-week parts and faster cars all cost money, but they are not forced issues, either. We complain about the finances of racing, but if we couldn’t afford to do it, we’d find a cheaper way to do it. We just need someone to save us from ourselves.
It’s not the prize money that drives us to class racing. The payouts typically run about 40% of the paid entry fees, versus the 60-75% found in bracket racing, meaning that even semifinalists fail to pay for their weekend. With the racers, the sanctioning body, and the track all wanting a piece of the pie, there simply isn’t enough to go around.
The big carrot is contingency money, paid by sponsors to the finalists who use their products and display their decals throughout the events. Each year, stories are circulated about racers who have to fight with a small number of companies to get the contingency money that they have earned. The sanctioning bodies seem unable to make all companies honor their obligations. Those companies put a black eye on a wholly successful and appreciated program, but the vocal racing community spreads the word about the companies that support them the most, and they gain more support in return.
The thing that drives most class racers is the sheer love of the sport, with a dash of ego thrown in. Stock and Super Stock cars demand attention, and they get that at National events. If the racing itself were enough, S/SS Combo races at local venues and NSCA events would be better attended. Racers fight for the trophies, records, bragging rights, magazine coverage, and maybe even television time that they cannot get anywhere else.
“There’s probably some kid at Selinsgrove Speedway that’s better than Jeff Gordon on his best day,” Billy Nees imparted to this naïve youngster. “Michael, you can win the track championship at Beaver Springs every year for the rest of your life. Nobody’s going to know, and nobody’s going to care. You have to get out there.”
Twenty years ago, they probably didn’t know where the next generation of racers was going to come from. We still don’t know today, yet new names keep popping up. Brent Martin, Franklin DiBartilomeo, Lee Norton, and Billy Pires are all young, proven winners who come from different backgrounds, but have found their way into class racing in recent years. Grizzled bracket racing veterans like Chip Johnson, Al Brister, Tim Lee, Manny Sousa, Chris Plott and many more get a taste of the bug, and become class racers for life.
Gas prices may change how events are scheduled and how racers get to the track. Rule changes may change the underlying methods on how cars are launched, shifted, analyzed, or powered. More hot topics will develop regarding weight breaks, combining of classes, horsepower factoring, and some issues that haven’t even been thought of yet. No matter who “wins” these arguments, it is clear that as long as multi-threaded debates continue, class racing is still kicking!
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