12-14-06-nonnitro.jpgOver the course of the next two weeks, Torco's will feature the world champions of both the NHRA and IHRA. Senior writer Susan Wade delves into the behind-the-scenes stories that made each one of these champions the best in the their respective games during the 2006 season. This installment features the IHRA nitro champions - Quain Stott, Mark Thomas and Pete Berner

Daddy, The Caddy, And Wanting One More Quain Stott Wins Pro Mod Crown in His Homestate





The whole idea sounded distasteful to Quain Stott.

stott_02.jpg He wanted his first International Hot Rod Association Pro Modified championship really badly. But teammate Tommy D'Aprile's private confession to him before their final-round meeting at the President's Cup Nationals at Budds Creek, Maryland, forced him to think about how he would clinch it.

D'Aprile told him that he had no intention of racing him heads-up. That would give Stott the points lead and put him in excellent position to drive his LeeBoy Paving '63 Corvette to the championship. Stott would go to Rockingham, North Carolina, for the season's final race with the edge on freshly deposed leader Glen Kerunsky, two-time champ Mike Janis, eager Danny Rowe, and D'Aprile.

But the idea made Stott uncomfortable. It smacked of . . . well, he didn't know what, but he didn't want to have to pretend. So he and D'Aprile came up with a way to carry it out without any fooling anybody, without any tongues wagging about a conspiracy or team orders.

Together their '63 'Vettes coasted down the track, D'Aprile's Support the Troops entry bearing the Stars and Stripes affixed to the wing in the rear. When they reached the finish line, they stopped and D'Aprile allowed Stott to roll across first.

"For a lot of years I've watched these two-car teams, and sometimes not teammates, play the game of laying down." Stott said." We did what we did because we're not lyin' about it. We respect our fans and our sponsors. We don't lie about it.


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stott_03.jpg "It was Tommy's idea. There were no team orders here," he said. "When we stopped at the finish line, he could've let the clutch out and crossed the line first. My hat's off to Tommy for doing what he did, because he didn't have to do it."

Said D'Aprile, "There was no decision. We live and die as a team. This is what had to be done."

The unconventional move didn't ensure Stott the championship. He still had to go to Rockingham and hold off his challengers. Stott said later that he had no delusions of glory: "I knew it was a longshot. I wasn't that confident." If it could happen to Kerunsky, losing the top spot, it could happen to him, as well.

He said he couldn't remember a time when five drivers were jockeying for the title at the last race of the season -- maybe a couple, but not five.

"I came in here in first place. I could've left here in fifth. That's how tight it was," Stott said of the competition.

Nevertheless, he finished 36 points ahead of Rowe, and Janis and Kerunsky tied for third, eight points farther back.


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stott_04.jpg Making the moment even more memorable is that Stott left Rockingham not only with a championship but also a fiancee. He had promised longtime girlfriend Cynthia that when he won a title he would propose.

"I guess I did have a little bit of a vision," Stott said, explaining that day that he had bought a ring a long time before that "but I finally paid it off a day or two ago. For 21 years she's been sticking with me."

As for the weekend, he said, "I don't think it could've been any better if I would've planned it out exactly how I wanted it to be."

His mother was present to witness a second son win the IHRA Pro Modified championship. Mitch Stott was the 2003 king. But dad Bob -- just plain "Daddy" to Quain Stott -- had passed away. But to honor him, Stott asked permission to drive down the drag strip his father's crazy Cadillac, the one painted with Quain's sponsor and colors on one side and brother Mitch's on the other. "The Bobmobile" is what IHRA President Aaron Polburn called it -- and he was astounded that 11 people could cram into it for the victory cruise.

Polburn recounted watching with a twinkle in his eye. "It stops in the water box and does a huge, smoky, front-wheeled burnout. Then it proceeded down the track as fast as Cadillac could go, and disappeared into the fog with 11 people yelling at the top of their lungs. Somehow, I knew Bob would be pleased."

Stott said, "Daddy's not here in body -- but he's here." Then, joking, he said, "I don’t know if he was ever really was here when he was here. He was a wild man."

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Piling 11 people into the legendary Cadillac, honking the horn, and letting it all hang out . . . That's what Bob Stott's boy did that cold night in Rockingham, not that far from their home in Columbus, over in western North Carolina.

And as satisfying as it felt, something still needed saying.

"I have to do this again to prove it wasn't luck," Quain Stott said.

"If I go through the rest of my life with only one championship, I'm always going to think that I lucked into it. So look for me to do it again," he said. "I hope it doesn't take me another 11 years."

That would be really distasteful for Quain Stott.

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Hard-working Mark Thomas Wins Sixth Championship Ohio Farmer Says Racing Is Where He Goes To Vacation



With his friendly demeanor, his easy laugh, and his shaggy, carefree curly mane, Mark Thomas is a charmer.

thomas_02.jpg International Hot Rod Association fans have loved the Alcohol Funny Car driver for more than a decade for his genuineness. No one could be more beloved (although he says, "I feel I've been watched over and blessed"). He's one of them -- a farmer, a hard-working, humble man, family man, a guy whose hero was his own father, a man worthy of having a grandstand named in his honor at Norwalk.

"That's really cool," Thomas said of the IHRA honor. "I don't know if I've come to terms with accepting that, because I'm just me. I don't consider myself anything special. I'm just another guy who's lucky enough to be there. It means a lot to me, honestly. The championship is icing on the cake." He said he would prefer to be remembered "because I've always tried to be fair and treat people great. The winning's just something I got lucky enough to do along the way."

He has done it six times. No one has won more IHRA Alcohol Funny Car crowns.

And while that is gratifying for Thomas, 48, he'll tell you that the real measure of his success is not in Ironman trophies but in his family and his farm.

"There was a time in my life when I would live and die in my hot rod, 24 hours a day. That was back in the 80s and early 90s," the Louisville, Ohio, farmer said. "As life has evolved, I've had to put more emphasis on family and business. So even though the race car's still important to me, it can't be as important as those two. That would be too shallow." 

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thomas_03.jpg That's quite a statement, considering how much energy he has put into his racing career.

He said that in 1989, when he and wife Chris decided that rearing three children, directing seven employees, milking nearly 900 cows, and growing 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, and alfalfa weren't enough, "we decided we were going to chase the championship. We had a 10-year-old truck, a 12-year-old trailer, and a couple spare pistons. We decided we were going to go after the IHRA championship.

"We really raced hard. We had absolutely no money. We dug tires out of the trash dumpsters. We begged, borrowed, and took anything we could get to go racing," he said. "The last race, we had a shot at winning the championship. It was in Bristol. It was the year Hurricane Hugo had come along. We got down there and got rained out. The first qualifying session, I put the car in high gear. Both axles broke and it kicked all eight rods and pistons out of the motor and it destroyed everything. I can remember towing back to the pits and I thought, 'You know what? I'm done. I can sell everything I have and I can retire. I'll be No. 2 in the world, and nobody can take that away from me.' "

But Thomas received a career-changing phone call. "I got back home and there was a note on my answering machine," he said. "It said, 'Hi. This is Mike Wagner with the Ohio Corn Marketing Program. We'd like to sponsor your race car.' We're still sponsored by the original Ohio Corn Marketing Program for the ethanol and that was 1990. We got money from Michigan Corn Growers, the South Dakota Corn Growers. It's been a really neat thing."

Thomas' activism on behalf of ethanol and renewable resources is well-documented. It includes several visits to Capitol Hill and The White House in Washington, D.C., and at Indianapolis, where he shared the stage in May with Indy Racing League ethanol-powered drivers Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick, as well as United States Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Thomas has been working with General Motors as part of its "Live Green, Go Yellow" flex-fuel vehicles campaign and working with EPIC, the Ethanol Promotion Information Council. 

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thomas_04.jpg "I love the farm. All my life I've never had a real job," Thomas said. "That's what I really appreciate: we have a way to feed the world. Now we have a way to fuel the world, with ethanol."

His contrast of farming to racing might surprise people. "Racing is a lot more passive," Thomas said. "Farming is much more out of control. Everybody probably thinks farming's a mild lifestyle. This is where I come for vacation. You're always so stressed by work. There's so much to get done. I have so much respect for farmers, because nowadays the profit is so small that you have to do five times the work with the same amount of people. You have to work a lot more hours. You've got to use the computer as a tool, you have to forward-contract your crops. You can forward-contract the purchase of your fuels, your milk. I spend my nights on the computer, looking at all the different prices and what I can book things at, and where our stock markets are going. I get paid for milk -- everything I produce this month, I don't get paid on till next month, from whatever the Chicago Board of Trade decides my product's worth. I don't get to put a diesel fuel surcharge on. I don't get to set my price. I'm strictly paid by something that's out of my control. It's very frustrating."

He said he works "20, maybe 24, hours a day for three or four days. A lot of times, when the weather's right, you don't stop. It's not like, 'Hey, I promised my wife I'd be in the house by 8 o'clock for supper.' We never eat supper till at least 8-9-10 o'clock, sometimes later. There is no such thing as eight hours and I'm going home. There is no such thing as 9 to 5. It doesn't end."

Complaints? No. You won't hear any from Mark Thomas.

"I'm a very lucky man," he said. "I just wish there were more hours in the day. Twenty-four hours -- who made that rule?!"

Thomas, who farms to the beat of heavy-metal, alternative-rock music and describes himself as an "off-the-wall guy," said racing for him "is always a roller-coaster."

At 48, he jokes, "I'm losing hair. It's turning grey and falling out." He said he and the crew members share reading glasses just trying to make out the menu in a restaurant. But he isn't ready to quit yet. Why not roll the dice for seventh championship? Honestly, though, he enjoys the camaraderie.

"We're not all about 'Let's get rich,' "Thomas said of his crew that Rick Hickman, Rod Jackenheimer, and best-friend-since-sixth-grade Tony Harmon direct. "We're all about a bunch of friends who want to go drag racing. To win a championship just solidifies the fun we can have when we put our heads together. These guys give me a great hot rod. I try not to screw it up too often. This is about as fun as it gets."

In the long run, Thomas said, "I always want to set an example so my kids will want to marry somebody like me. My thing is as long as it’s not illegal, as long as it’s not immoral, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody's feelings, the world's wide open. Do whatever you want to do. That's just what I live by. You've got to be a role model for your kids and the world.

"If I'm guilty of anything," he said, "it's being gone too much from home for my own kids. I've asked them, 'Do you want me to quit racing? I can be there for every Little League game, for everything you do, like a dad should be.' They said, 'Nah, we like you to do what you do.' If it ever came to the point my family said, 'We want you here,' I'd stop in a heartbeat."

Mark Thomas had better watch to make sure his competitors don't try to bribe his kids.


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Pete Berner proves that a change will do you good





berner_02.jpg When a driver switches brands of car and engine, it usually means that a certain amount of time, traditionally known as the learning curve, will be required to come to grips with the new combination. Such was not the case for Crete, Illinois-based mechanical contractor Pete Berner, however.

Berner, a longtime Ford runner in the IHRA’s Torco’s Pro Stock division, instead applied his proven business model to his 2006 Pontiac GTO, and the strategy worked – the car was quick, fast, and most impressively, a race winner.

“I know the first time we let out the clutch on this car that we had something special,” Berner said. “I knew I had a proven combination in engine builder [Jon Kaase] and chassis builder [Rick Jones], so I felt that making the transition was probably going to be a seamless one, and I was right. It had to be that way.

“The level of competition for this class was so incredibly close that we had to fight tooth and nail for every point we got. In the end, we were fortunate enough to have the largest total of points. I’ve never experienced racing this tough before. When you have guys like Rob Mansfield, Robert Patrick, Tony Gillig and Frank Gugliotta, it demands your best every time and then some.”

The competition was so close in fact that with the championship on the line three drivers entered eliminations at the last race of the 2006 season at Rockingham, North Carolina, with a mathematical chance to win. Tony Gillig entered the event as the leader with a scant 31-point lead over Berner. Frank Gugliotta was third.

In order to claim the crown Berner had to win rounds and hope for an early Gillig dismissal. To eliminate Gugliotta, he just had to keep winning. 

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berner_03.jpg Berner knew from the onset that Gillig was in the driver’s seat to win the program. That feeling was generated because of his Gillig’s crew chief Bob Gillig.

Tony’s dad formerly tuned Berner, so he knew exactly what to expect.

“Tony gave us all we could handle this season,” Berner said. “Knowing he had his dad as the crew chief gave me advance notice this was going to be a tough battle. When he was my crew chief he taught me a valuable lesson - focus on the big picture and remain fixated on that. I truly understand why Tony is the driver that he is today.”

When Gillig lost to Robert Patrick in the opening round, Berner ran the table with consecutive victories over Mike Corvo, Jr. and Dan Sweeny to grab the gold.

“That day was unbelievable,” Berner said. “I feel I did a good job of driving when I had to, and even when I didn’t, but that was only made possible by the great confidence I had in the car coming to the starting line. When we came to San Antonio we had all the odds against us in switching brands and combinations. We had determination.

“We had a team that wouldn’t concede to second-place. We never lost sight of the vision we had to win the championship. We did what we had to do.”




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Berner heaps that praise squarely on the shoulders of his crew and his crew chief Pat Norcia.

“Pat provides great leadership on this team,” Berner said. “He’s been a great friend, trainer and motivator for my racing career. He can read a track and make adjustments to the car second to none.”

Berner has always felt that a championship was within his grasp.

“We just felt that if we could make good runs that would translate into round wins,” Berner said. “Everyone on this team gave their all to help us achieve this.”


In the end, Berner says it has been his wife Cheryl who made a huge impact in their success.

“My wife Cheryl has always supported my endeavors, some good and some bad,” Berner said. “She’s watched me go upside down, end over end and through the guardrail. She’s watched me spend millions of dollars chasing my dream.

“Now I’m honored for her to able to watch me win this championship. I dedicate the championship to her and the team.” - Bobby Bennett

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