What were you doing at the age of 19?
Finishing up your first year of college? Searching for that first big job? Or, just maybe, you didn’t quite know where life was going to take you.
But what about winning your first NHRA Pro Stock world championship?
That became the reality for 19-year-old Tanner Gray Saturday in California as the young racer, in only his second year in NHRA’s factory hot rod category, earned his very first NHRA Pro Stock championship all while becoming the youngest driver to ever win a title in NHRA’s professional categories.
“It is pretty surreal. I just sit back and think of all of the times that I have been out here watching races. I can remember sitting at the banquets and seeing the champions coming up on stage and hoping that, one day, that could be me,” Gray said. “It’s been really cool. I am speechless at this point.”
Gray earned the 2018 Pro Stock championship when he qualified for the race at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, earning the sixth spot on the ladder. He then went on to put an exclamation mark on an impressive season, winning the race over Drew Skillman to cap a near-perfect weekend with a win, a championship, and one heck of a celebration.
But, realistically, the championship was hardly in jeopardy. For a man that, for his career, has more wins than first round losses and carried a comfortable 140-point lead into the season finale, Gray’s qualifying effort was a mere formality as he celebrated the championship the day before the final round of eliminations for the year.
“I was telling the guys, I don’t think I have been this nervous for qualifying since my first race here,” Gray said. “Man, it has been a heck of a year. We started out pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure we were even going to be in this position and about midseason we were able to find something and everything just seemed like it started clicking from there. It was like a light switch flipped.
“We came into the Countdown and executed on race day really well. We didn’t necessarily qualify the best and we had some lucky rounds too, but all-in-all we executed. Dave (Connolly) gave me an awesome Sunday car and all of my guys that were over there working on that thing did absolutely phenomenal. There were no mistakes made and they definitely made up for a few of my mistakes in the Countdown. I couldn’t be any more grateful for the group of guys that I had working on my car.”
Gray finished the 2018 season with a grand total of eight wins in 11 final round visits. He also had a pair of No. 1 qualifiers, but it was on Sundays where the team really made their money. Gray finished the season with the Pro Stock lead in reaction time at .02 and was deadly when the Countdown to the Championship began in September, winning two of the first three races and four total finals in the six-race stretch.
Gray also added a win in the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals to cap the regular season, climbing from outside the top 10 in points after the first two races of the year and into the points lead for good entering the postseason.
He was eighth in points after eight races, but that is where the team really found its groove. With only one win in the first quarter of the season, Gray finished with a flurry, winning seven of the last 15 races of the year behind the wheel of the Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro, all while leading the points throughout the entirety of the Countdown. He had some challengers, with Jeg Coughlin and Vincent Nobile both taking turns just behind him in the standings, but no one was able to establish a true challenge to Gray’s dominance over the last half of the year.
And most rewarding for Gray, he overcame what proved to be a monumental collapse during the 2017 Countdown to the Championship where Gray saw a championship lead slip away following a string of failures, something the team built on this year.
“We knew how we had to race the car from the mistakes that we made last year,” Gray added.
But, perhaps most special for Gray, is the fact that he was able to deliver the very first championship for his Gray Motorsports team, something that father Shane and grandfather Jonathan failed to do in their time behind the wheel in NHRA.
“It means a lot. It has been a long, hard road. It has been 10 years of trying at it. This team started from the bottom and they worked their way up,” Gray said. “My dad, he’s been driving for most of it. I’ve seen him come home and how upset he was and how stressed out he was, whether it was him up on the starting line or the performance of the engines or they were just not running well, but he stuck in there. He dug deep and was able to make it what it is today. He is the one who taught me to do burnouts and was always someone I could really lean on, especially in my first year.
“He and my uncle and obviously my grandpa have been there every step of the way supporting us both physically and financially. This means a lot to me. My grandpa has never won a championship, so it is really special to get him his first.”
In addition to his family, Gray’s championship is also a first for crew chief Dave Connolly. Connolly, an accomplished racer in his own right during his days in Funny Car and Pro Stock, guided the young driver to 13 total wins since taking over crew chief duties in 2017, highlighted by Rookie of the Year honors last season and, of course, a championship in 2018.
“It’s been a lot of fun working with Dave. I was kind of a fan of Dave as a kid growing up. I would go sit outside of his ropes and wait for him to come out of his trailer just so I could talk to him and then, about 2013, I feel like we became somewhat friends,” Gray said. “Then in 2014 he came over and raced for us. He used to help me out a lot. Anybody that knows Dave knows how competitive he is and he pushed me to be better each and every weekend. Sometimes he has some weird ways of doing it, but he is great at what he does. He is definitely one of the all-time greats in my opinion.”
Of course, Gray’s championship is a bittersweet moment, not only for he and his team, but for the entire Pro Stock division. Gray will not be back to defend his Pro Stock championship as he trades in burnouts and Christmas trees for ovals and left turns with a move to the NASCAR K&N East Series in 2019.
For the moment, Gray concludes his brief NHRA career with 13 wins in 48 starts, winning his very first race just four races into his debut as a 17-year-old and concluding with a title just two years later.
“It is kind of a bittersweet moment because we won the world, but at the same time this is going to be my last race and it is my last time working with all of those guys,” Gray said. “That’s tough, but it makes it a little bit better to go out on top. It’s been fun. There have definitely been some times where everybody butted heads, but moments like these make it all worth it.”