The two young men barely had turned 20 years old. They showed up at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Gainesville, Fla., full of hope and curiosity and maybe a little apprehension.
Jordan Vandergriff had studied all the starting line procedures, and he had memorized them. “I knew them like the back of my hand,” he said.
So he came with a head full of information.
Austin Prock arrived with a handful of equipment.
“I met Austin at Frank Hawley’s. When we went there, it seemed like he was 100 steps ahead of me. And he was. And I knew that,” Vandergriff said. “Like, coming in, he came with a [fire]suit. He came with a helmet. He came with everything. He came with all of this experience. And I showed up and I’m like, ‘Frank, I got nothin’.’ He was very gracious.”
So the two NHRA Top Fuel rookies, who are destined to be compared all year and maybe all throughout their driving careers, were alike but different. And that’s how their first seasons in an 11,000-horsepower, nitro-burning dragster have unfolded. They are two distinctly different personalities with two distinctly different paths to the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, yet they’re accumulating shared experiences.
I understand my route to Top Fuel was a little different than most. There’s a reason I’m here now, and I recognize that. – Jordan Vandergriff
Both come from racing families, but Prock seemed born to merge into the industry’s mainstream. And he demonstrated natural ability in circle-track racing early on, starting to compete at age 10, winning a race before his 12th birthday, and as a teenager earning series awards as best rookie and a hard-charger/rising star. Five years ago, Prock – son of respected John Force Racing championship crew chief Jimmy Prock – won four races and claimed the STARS National Pavement Midget Championship.
So when he showed up at Gainesville to learn about drag racing, Prock already had 139 races and 27 victories under his belt. He closed his midget- and sprint-car career with 84 top-five finishes.
By contrast, Vandergriff brought a more wide-eyed attitude.
“I went onto it green. I didn’t race much growing up. It was definitely scary. The scariest part of it for me was like putting the suit on and putting the helmet on and then actually sitting in the car. It was like, ‘Wait a minute – this isn’t how I pictured it.’ It made me the most nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. When you imagine it, you imagine yourself just sitting there, right? You don’t imagine all the stuff that has to be on you, like the helmet and the belts. Frank Hawley’s was the first experience I had with it,” Vandergriff said. “It was eye-opening, but it was fun.”
Vandergriff has been more vulnerable, Prock more self-assured. But Vandergriff has been no slouch on the racetrack. Through the July Denver race, Vandergriff had accomplished more statistically in seven races than Prock did in exactly twice as many. Prock is two-thirds of the way through a full season in the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Dragster for JFR. Vandergriff is on a limited schedule with uncle Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s team and shares the D-A Lubricants Dragster with former drag-boat champion Shawn Reed.
Through seven races, Vandergriff had advanced to three semifinals, while Prock had done so only once, at Topeka. Prock, though impressive right out of the gate at the Winternationals in February, had a 6-14 race-day record, while Vandergriff was over .500, though barely, at 8-7.
But then came that Sunday at Seattle, Aug. 4, when Prock – 20 days before his 24th birthday – rocked the Top Fuel class and asserted himself as a serious star-in-the making. It was only one victory for Prock, and one misstep for class dominator Steve Torrence in that final round of the Northwest Nationals. But en route to the final round, he knocked off gritty seven-time winner Leah Pritchett, No. 2-ranked (and six-time IHRA champion) Clay Millican, and top qualifier and emerging title threat Mike Salinas (on his first holeshot). And then Prock made good on a promise he made to Torrence the first day of the 2019 season at Pomona, California: “I’m coming for you.”
At the time, Torrence – fresh off an unprecedented sweep of the Countdown to the Championship and not bashful about his own self-confidence – was startled.
I’ve wanted this since I was knee-high. Ever since I could think, I wanted to drive a Top Fuel car. It all came together just perfectly. – Austin Prock
“We got out at the end [of the racetrack],” Torrence said. “Austin looks over at me and he goes, ‘I’m coming for you.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute – you’ve made two passes so far.’” They compared reaction times, and Prock, indeed, had launched first from the starting line. Prock repeated his only-half-mocking warning.
“I was just messing around with Steve,” Prock said, grinning. “We’re all family out here. It’s nice to throw a jab at your buddy every now and then. He’s probably going to leave a lot more on me than I am on him. But for my second run out there, to leave on him, that was pretty damn cool for myself.”
And Prock said Sunday at Seattle after jumping down from his rear-wing celebration, “It’s pretty badass that the rookie stopped the champ. I wanted to race him in the finals. I said, ‘When we get to my first final, I want to run against Steve Torrence, because I wanted to be the guy who stops him. I can’t believe we stopped ‘them Capco Boys.’ I told you guys in Pomona I was coming for them.”
He wasn’t the least bit surprised that he shared his career-first winner’s circle with boss Force on his own history-making, 150th-victory day. Prock said, “Me and Danny Hood [co-crew chief for and son-in-law to Force], we called it from the get-go,” Prock said. “I’m just pissed that Force is going to steal the cover of National Dragster.”
Prock might sound brash, but he’s just comfortable with himself, his abilities, and his team. He said following his victory, “I’ve just got to thank the Lord up above and John Force for giving me this opportunity. This is a dream come true. I’ve wanted this since I was knee-high. Ever since I could think, I wanted to drive a Top Fuel car. It all came together just perfectly.”
Even on the first weekend of the season, Prock said, “I feel good. I don’t think this weekend could have gone much better. The circumstances that we got put in, this deal coming together last minute, having to find guys, me being new at it, my crew chiefs being new at it, they all did a great job. We all came together and worked together very well.
“My dad, he’s pretty straightforward. He usually just tells me, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ So that’s about as simple as it can get, and he’s right on the money,” Prock said. “I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job this weekend. Very few mistakes.” He said he had no jitters in his debut and proved it with a pedal-job victory over 2017 champ Brittany Force (on whose crew he served last year).
“That was awesome: first-ever time, first round of eliminations. To get to pedal it and get the job done, that was pretty sweet,” Prock said, crediting his skill to “growing up in circle track, getting a feel for the car.” His parachutes didn’t come out at the end of the run, but he demonstrated the ability to stop it short of the pea-gravel trap. That drew praise from legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, who brokered the last-minute sponsorship deal for Prock. Prudhomme said, “I saw someone who’s a rookie that looked like a veteran today. He went out there and pedaled the car, and it stayed nice and straight. That’s the first time he’s had to pedal the car, and that’s a tough thing to do.”
It was about the first time Prock had been faced with any task in a dragster. He found out he’d be competing in a Top Fuel car as the Phoenix preseason test session was wrapping up. The hauler with his car arrived from the Brownsburg, Indiana, shop at the 11th hour, and Prock – who had more experience in Courtney Force’s Funny Car – shifted gears quickly while Force and JFR President Robert Hight handled the administrative part of the project.
Believe me, this is not something to take lightly. There were many nights when I had to get a grip on where I was. – Jordan Vandergriff
And none of it fazed Prock.
Vandergriff’s conversations still include phrases like “I guess I don’t know what normal is yet” and “I understand my route to Top Fuel was a little different than most. There’s a reason I’m here now, and I recognize that. I took advantage of the opportunity that I have. I understand people have worked very hard to get where they are. I know my place.”
But he isn’t denigrating his own ability. Rather, he said, “I just try to do my job to the best of my ability. And I think I’m doing OK so far. You’ll never know everything, that’s for sure. We have the best guys – I’m not even lying to you. All of these guys have been out here for years. My crew, accumulated, probably has over 100 years of experience. They have over 100 years’ experience and I haven’t had one.” He pointed to two-time 2019 winner Billy Torrence as evidence a part-time driver can achieve impressive results.
“It’s crazy when you think about it now,” Vandergriff said. “It’s been a fast process for me. Realistically, it’s only been a little under three years since I went to Frank Hawley’s, and I’m already here. Believe me, this is not something to take lightly. There were many nights when I had to get a grip on where I was. It happened so quickly that I had to focus so much more than maybe somebody who’s been doing this for five or 10 years. I had to make sure I knew what it felt like and prepare myself for all of it. And even now, I’m not out here [every race].”
At Denver in July, he said, “I haven’t been in the car for six weeks. You kind of forget the feeling. I’m always most nervous before round one of qualifying. As soon as you make the first hit, even with tire-shake at 330-feet, all the jitters are out. It’s a story about my rookie year: when I look back on it, the spacing of my events is a big deal. Hopefully next year we’ll be out here all 24. That’s the plan.”
Vandergriff and Prock have faced each other only once in eliminations, with Prock defeating his buddy in the first round at Houston. To perturb him further that weekend, Vandergriff had to don a Prock promotional shirt after also losing an early-season T-shirt sales challenge from the JFR driver,
Vandergriff said of his developing rivalry with Prock: “I get that we have a big competition going for this rookie of the year thing. And I get that he has a leg up on me, because he’s run the whole year. He has more chances to win. But if you want to look at the round record…I’d say that’s pretty important. If I could stay where he’s at, I’d say the year was successful.
“We get compared, and we’re going to be compared for a long time,” Vandergriff said. “He’s had a lot more experience, and I know that. His route was different; everybody’s route is different. It’s also not a bad thing. I don’t mind. I really don’t mind, especially for me and him now. I think it’s good. We’re the two young guns. That’s really where we are. It’s also nice that we didn’t do it separately. Say, if this were his rookie year and I wasn’t running yet, I’m sure he’d be the [top] rookie. But it’s almost more fun to have us young guys together. It really electrifies both of our rookie years.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure. To be honest, I think we’re just out here having fun. I don’t think either one of us expected this – we’re just living the dream. We dreamed about it when we were kids, and now we’re here and it almost just doesn’t feel real,” he said. “I come out here to beat him, sure. But I also come out here to have fun. We’re running people we grew up watching.”