To most racers, knowing their opponent is 19 years old would typically mean they’re lined up against a relative rookie, but when that “rookie” started racing at the age of eight, that would make him an eleven-year veteran who wants nothing more than to make a name for himself by winning the largest one-day purse in the history of the sport. That’s exactly what happened when a well-known bracket gunslinger lined up beside baby-faced Floridian Gage Burch to race for the winner’s share of an astounding $525,000 purse this weekend at SFG Promotion’s SFG500.
Held at Martin, Michigan’s pristine US131 Dragway, the SFG 500 shattered every previous benchmark for payout, a fact made all the more astounding by the fact that the payout was guaranteed by SFG. For a promotional company to put well over a half million dollars on the line regardless of car count is risky by all accounts, but the racers saw that opportunity to compete for such a massive prize and came out quite literally in droves, filling up the expansive facility with rigs and filling the 500 with over 600 entries. As you might imagine, that made for a daunting task of running all those cars down the track, and despite sending a pair every 57 seconds, there were still several hours between the early rounds.
The event featured a $20,000-to-win race on Wednesday and was scheduled to have a trio of $50,000-to-win races on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. However, when car counts for the races prior to Saturday’s main even soared well over the 700 entry mark, Sunday’s race was scrapped in favor of allowing time to finish the other races. Burch fired a warning shot for all to see as he runnered-up in Thursday’s fifty-grander, which finished up late Friday evening. The up-and-comer rolled into Saturday’s race feeling confident, and set out to take it one step further and get that final round win light.
….you can’t treat anybody different just because they have a big name. This race was full of big names, but you just have to treat each one of them the same and run your race and do the best you can.
If you’re curious how a racer looking to cash in on the biggest payday in drag racing history stayed focused on the task at hand when there was so much time to kill, Burch shared his secret: you don’t.
“Me and my girlfriend went grocery shopping. We went to the hotel and took showers. We took a nap. We went back to the track and still had three hours to mess around, so we went and got a bite to eat,” Burch shared. “Then we went back to the track and hung for a while. It basically split the day into two races for me.”
When asked about the transition into the later rounds, where hours between runs is shortened to a few minutes to cool down and refuel, Gage alluded to the people around him helping him stay loose until it came time to get in the zone and race.
“I’m fortunate to have the people I have around me. There were five of us, including me, my girlfriend Nicole, [truck owner] Matt Dadas, his girlfriend Carly [Truhler], and her brother Austin. Time flies when we’re hanging out, cracking jokes, just enjoying the moment.” Burch continued, “They helped me stay loose, at least until the helmet went on. That’s when I collect my thoughts and really focus. Other than when I was in the truck, we had a blast. I could have lost first round and we would have still had the best time, though.”
While the SFG500 was certainly loaded with the best bracket racers in the country, there were some pretty heavy hitters lurking in the late rounds. With the door cars and dragsters split until the final round, Burch had an opponent waiting for him in the door car final round that most any drag racing fan will recognize: Jeg Coughlin Jr. Yes, five-time NHRA Pro Stock World Champion Jeg Coughlin Jr.
While many fans may know Coughlin only for his time behind the wheel of his JEGS Performance Pro Stock Camaro and other NHRA sportsman machines, Coughlin is an accomplished bracket racer in his own right, with a prestigious Moroso 5-Day Championship under his belt and numerous big-buck race wins and late-round finishes. Burch, however, wasn’t phased by the matte black JEGS wagon in the lane beside him as the pair lined up to see who would take on the winner of the dragster final.
“No disrespect to Jeg at all, but you can’t look at it like that, you can’t treat anybody different just because they have a big name. This race was full of big names, but you just have to treat each one of them the same and run your race and do the best you can.”
And that’s exactly what the former Junior Dragster world champion did. In the ninth round of door car eliminations, Burch parlayed a .008 reaction time and dead-on 6.507 run (.015 package) into a berth in the overall final round, taking down Coughlin’s solid .011 light and dead-on 6.036 (.017 package).
Awaiting Burch in the overall final: a man so well known for his bracket racing skill that he has been branded “Johnny Bracket Racer”. Lafayette, Louisiana resident Johnny Ezell has not so quietly built a fearsome reputation in the dial-in racing world over the past few years, but Burch, with icewater in his veins, took it to Ezell just like he had Coughlin, laying down a .015 reaction time and running dead on again, this time with a two in the thousandths place) to leave too little room for Ezell to get in on with his .010 light and .01-over 4.679 (4.66 dial).
With that final win light, Burch etched his name in the history books as the winner of the biggest single-event payout in the sport’s history. While the final 15 entrants split the purse to spread the wealth around a bit, Burch and Dadas, who allegedly has only $7,000 in the Ford Ranger Burch drove to victory, took home $160,000 for their efforts, while Ezell walked away with $140,000 for his runner-up showing.
So what’s next for Burch, who is still wearing a smile you could hear through the phone?
“The World Footbrake Championship in Bristol!”
As any good racer will tell you, when you’re on a roll, you keep hitting the big events. While he was using the delay box and hitting the top bulb at the SFG event, Burch’s years behind the wheel of a junior dragster have shaped him into a formidable bottom-bulb racer, as well, and he’s hoping to cash in yet again while he’s riding this wave of win lights. “When you’re on a roll, you just keep hittin’em until you’re not,” said Burch.
“I have to thank the people that made this possible,” added Burch. “My parents stepped back from their own racing careers to let me race, and without them making that sacrifice, I would definitely not be the racer I am today. I also have to thank Matt Dadas for letting a 19-year-old kid stage up his truck and race for $525,000. I hadn’t even sat in this truck before this weekend, so I appreciate him taking that chance on me.”
Burch and Dadas also compiled a list of sponsors who helped make the Ranger do its thing: Mickey Thompson put a new set of tires on for the weekend, and Wiseco Performance, Trickflow, Powermaster, Rock’s Speedway Performance, Rick Cole Racing and TFC Transportation all contributed to the effort. Gage also personally thanked Dadas and Carly, along with BJ Bianchi and another seasoned pro bracket racer, Gary Williams, who has been his mentor and friend.
It seems like a safe assumption that we have witnessed the coming-out party of the next “big name” in bracket racing. Maybe it’s time for Gage Burch to be branded with a cool nickname to celebrate his status. Gage “Biggest Payday EVER” Burch doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well as “Johnny Bracket Racer”, but I’m willing to bet Burch’s friends and fellow racers can come up with something that fits.