GUEST COMMENTARY WITH PAUL LEE: WATCHING THE FUTURE IN THE PRESENT
Paul Lee doesn't consider himself a journalist. He's a Funny Car racer, and owns the very successful McLeod clutches product line. In the days following the Summit NHRA Nationals, Lee felt inspired and the only way to get his point across was to put his fingers to the keyboard and begin typing. He writes from the standpoint of a racer, aftermarket manufacturer and a race fan all in one. We are sure he speaks for a large contingent of fans who believe they witnessed the future of the sport on Sunday in Norwalk, Ohio.
As I was standing on the starting line watching Krista Baldwin and Austin Prock doing their burnouts in their first round matchup at the recent NHRA Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, I actually got a little worried. I was thinking about the future of our sport and was recently concerned about the direction we are going. Decreased purses, rising costs, and the priorities of the younger generation in sports, in our instance, NHRA Drag Racing. Then I thought HERE is the future: Krista Baldwin vs Austin Prock, both THIRD generation drag racers. Then I thought: the sport is going to be just fine.
Krista Baldwin is the Granddaughter of Drag Racing legend Chris "The Greek" Karamesines, and the daughter of the late Top Fuel racer, Bobby Baldwin. I first met Krista when she was a college student while I was driving for Funny Car legend Gary Densham. She came to me and wanted to have a career in the automotive and racing industry, and was interested in an internship at my company, McLeod Racing, where we manufacture high performance driveline products for both street cars and all forms of racing. She was an excellent intern, which resulted in a full time offer of employment when she graduated college.
When Krista started at McLeod, she fit right in as our "Creative & Social Media Director" were she was instantly a valuable asset to the company. But I could see that she had that energy, enthusiasm and "burning desire" to drag race, just like her Dad and Granddad. When I noticed this, I kinda took it upon myself to mentor her and help her pursue her dreams, which I quickly learned, that it was Top Fuel Dragster driving, just like her Dad and Grandpa Greek.
Since I've never been married nor have ever had any children, I kinda look at Krista as the daughter I never had. Since her real Dad passed away, I believed that someone needed to be her drag racing mentor, like her Dad would have done if he were still here. I was just doing what I thought I needed to do: Be there for her and help her pursue her dreams. And now in 2021, she has many mentors and friends in our sport that are watching out for her (you all know who you are).
Krista learned how to drive an A/Fuel car racing with Anthony Dicero and his Nitro University Top Alcohol Dragster team. Anthony did a great job mentoring her as well. He’s a good teacher and has a lot of patience, which is a good quality when you are teaching a new driver. They raced as much as they could, while gaining valuable experience along the way. Right away, I could see that Krista had the talent to drive a race car.
I have to admit, I really don't know Austin Prock very well except that I know he’s a very talented driver. But when I was young growing up on the east coast and being a drag racing fan, I watched Austin's Grandad, Funny Car legend Tom Prock, many, many times. I always attended match races at my local tracks Atco Raceway, Englishtown, and Maple Grove, where the Custom Body Dodge Funny Car driven by Tom Prock, was always a favorite. One of my fondest memories of the NHRA Summernationals at Englishtown, was the final round of Funny Car in 1975 when Tom Prock raced “Jungle Jim” Liberman for the Wally. Jungle Jim won that night for his only NHRA national event win. I was there and remember it well.
Austin's Dad, Jimmy Prock, is a friend and so is his mom, Jill Prock. In my opinion, Jimmy Prock is one of the best nitro crew chiefs of our time. The Procks are also "real" people and a hoot to hang out with after racing or evening wine tasting and dinners together. Along with Krista's mom and stepdad, Paula Baldwin-Flannigan and Gary Flannigan, we can ALWAYS count on a fun night hanging out!
The "next generation" of our sport is more important than you can imagine. Lucky for us, there are many great examples of second and even third generation drag racers that will carry on our sport into an optimistic future. Along with Krista and Austin, we have more up and coming young talents like Justin Ashley, Dave Richards, Bobby Bode Jr, Cameron Ferre, Jordan Vandergriff, Kyle Korestsky, and Troy Coughlin Jr. And let’s not forget the Top Alcohol Funny Car and Dragster second and third generation racers like Richie McPhillips Jr, Rachel Meyer, Jasmine Salinas, Matt Gill, Megan Smith, and Madison Payne.
So, yes, although first round Top Fuel matchup this past weekend at Norwalk between Krista and Austin wasn't a memorable race, it’s the future that this race represents. Just think about 15 years from now: Krista vs Austin in the Top Fuel final at the Indy US Nationals: heads up they are tied 30-30 and this final will be the tie breaker! I hope I'm around to see it.