Royce Lee Freeman was there.
That’s about all the elder statesman of Pro Stock can say about his effort in the inaugural factory hot rod event back in 1970 at the NHRA Winternationals. Though Freeman didn’t rate a mention as an alternate in the event edition of National DRAGSTER, his feelings weren’t hurt.
Freeman fell way short of the 10.49 bubble and didn’t entertain any wounded pride.
“It was the most exciting time of my life,” Freeman said. “You know, all I had ever run was AHRA. I’d never run any NHRA racing at all until I came to the first Pro Stock race.”
Freeman, unlike many of his counterparts, didn’t have a purpose-built car. In fact, his car was a converted A/Modified Production; a vehicle which was once “hot,” literally.
“We took a stolen ’68 Camaro, we bought it off the police,” Freeman admitted. “It was a Z28 that they had stolen the motor and stuff out of it. And we took it, and totally just took everything apart and put it back together. Because them days you had to run all steel. You couldn’t even run a fiberglass hood. Had to run all steel. Didn’t have any hood scoops; we had to make our own hood scoops and everything.”
Freeman believes those drivers, the leaders of the day in doorslammer racing, gained quite an advantage by merely getting in on the ground floor.
“They did everything they could do with what was legal to do to their cars,” Freeman explained. “We could run any size motor we wanted to, but with my Camaro, we had to weigh seven and a half pounds per cubic inch. I think our first race, I think we weighed about 3,100 pounds for Pro Stock.”
As Freeman smiles and admits, a dump truck might have provided a better competitive advantage.
“Let me tell you something when you got out of the 10’s you were hauling the mail,” Freeman said with a smile on his face. “I want to tell you that because when we come out here, we didn’t qualify and the fastest we could run was the mid-10s, and we didn’t qualify. We only ran a 430 cubic inch big block. Just take a 427 at 30 over. 30 overbore is all we could run. We ran Diamond pistons, we run stock crankshafts, we ran stock rods, we run Diamond pistons, we had polished and ported factory aluminum heads that come on a 427, but we ran 430 cubic inches. Ran two 660 Holleys is what we ran on top of it.
“We ran Edelbrock Manifolds because Edelbrock was giving me my carburetors and my manifolds. And General Kinetics out of Michigan furnished our camshafts. So that’s what we really ran, and we had 12 bolt rear ends in them and four-speed transmissions. That’s all you could run; that’s all you could have.”
Just like today’s Pro Stock and Factory Stock Showdown racing, those with the factory backing were at the top of the totem pole.
“Bill Jenkins and the Dodge boys. Dick Landy was one of them, Sox and Martin. They were the ones that you had to outrun,” Freeman recalled. “The bad one was always Bill Jenkins because he had an edge on everybody, he was, and he got the best stuff money could buy.”
While many believe today’s Factory Stock Showdown is a representation of what Pro Stock used to be, Freeman isn’t a fan of the series but believes the assessment is accurate when it comes to one detail – safety.
“The only thing that I don’t like the Factory Showdown stuff because I think the cars are unsafe,” Freeman said. “Of course we were unsafe because we couldn’t run a frame in them or anything, except what comes from the factory. That’s the way it all started. And then after that in ’72, you could build one with a full frame. It progressed up.”
Count Freeman in as a fan of the Bill Jenkins tube-chassis of 1972.
“We needed it really bad because we could not make the cars work correctly with no frame,” Freeman said. “Because the early cars only had a subframe for the motor and then the rear end was all attached to the body. We didn’t have a frame under the car because it didn’t come from the factory. The way it came from the factory, the old Camaro, was everybody that’s out here running Super Stock that are stock, these Camaro’s, their bodies are the same way.”
Today, Freeman embraces his role as the patriarch of Elite Motorsports, with his son serving as the defacto voice of Pro Stock. Back in the day, 1972 to be exact, Freeman saw the game changing and his role taking a different direction.
“I’m going to tell you what, in 1972 I was not going to run anymore Pro Stock with a factory body or a big block Chevrolet,” Freeman explained. “In ’72 NHRA let the small block 331 cubic inch GM motors run and you could run different cars, and you could run a frame under it. You could build your own frame — chassis builders. I built one of the first ones that ever produced.
“Don Hardy in West Texas built my Pro Stocker, and in ’72 when I started out I was in the 10’s, and in ’72 all of a sudden I’m down in the 9’s with a Vega with a small block and a frame and get away from the stock suspension. You know, we could run struts. We could run some stuff that we never could run before.”
And, just as quickly as Freeman made his way into competitive status, he exited the sport. Rising costs to maintain status promptly pulled the rug out from underneath him.
“I was a Chevrolet car salesman is what I was,” Freeman said. “I had a wife and three kids, and my dad was a dealer, and he told me that if I wanted to go professional, I could. Jim Hayter was my partner, and we both decided there was no way we could afford to do it because he was married and had kids too. So we got out, and Jim went to work for other people as a crew chief.
“I don’t know what year it was, and he ran for Fred Gill with a big block Chevrolet Camaro and won with it. But the rules had changed considerably. They have evolved from 1970 to today to what you see. NHRA really kind of let us let it get out of hand. It’s gotten so expensive.
“But you know the Factory Stock Showdown right now, with the COPO Camaros and Dodges and Fords, they’re similar to what we started with, but they’re already so much faster than what we ever had in our life. I’m concerned about that class.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019