Many of the pioneers of Pro Modified long ago hung up their firesuits, though a handful continue to compete.
IHRA Pro Mod made its national-event debut with the 1990 Winter Nationals at Darlington, S.C. Drivers such as Scotty Cannon, Al Billes, Fred Hahn, Ronnie Sox, Tim McAmis, Ed Hoover and others became some of the sport’s biggest attractions as the class rocketed in popularity.
Two of the others involved on the ground floor, Charles Carpenter and Rob Vandergriff, are still around. Their involvement is as a competitor and a fan, respectively. CompetitionPlus.com recently caught up with both to talk about their careers, Carpenter’s ongoing racing pursuits and Vandergriff’s keen insight into the current state of drag racing.
FROM SHOEBOX TO …
Charles Carpenter started racing when he was 14 years old and is still going strong at 61. He first hit the track with a fuel-injected, small-block, F/Gas 1955 Chevy. He would go on to race a version of that car until 2017, when a crash at Darlington wiped it out.
He was there in the beginning with the precursor to Pro Modified, which was Top Sportsman. Then some aftermarket manufacturers, including Mike Thermos at NOS nitrous oxide systems, helped fund an exhibition class of the fastest Top cars as part of Saturday night’s show at IHRA nationals.
“And with his help, it became Pro Modified,” said Carpenter, the longtime owner of Carpenter’s Auto Service in Charlotte, N.C.
Even before that time, Carpenter was funding his racing through match races with his “shoebox.” That avenue was so lucrative that he generated more income match racing than he could in IHRA events.
“I was racing all over the country,” he said, “and that was building enthusiasm for the class. We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what we were doing. I had to match race, I couldn’t race out of my pocket for purse money. When I figured out I could earn a buck doing it, I had to. You’ve got to run with something while it’s there, get it while you can.”
The ‘55 kept the money coming in until April 2017.
Competing at a Carolina Xtreme Pro Mod show at Darlington, Carpenter was paired against Dan Ferguson in the final round. And on that run, he made a mistake for which he still hasn’t forgiven himself.
“I was hungry wanting to win,” he said. “I got out on him, and I felt like I was in front of him the first 60 feet. The car was moving to the right and I stayed with it way too long. When the converter locked up, it kicked the wheels up and turned me right in the wall.
“It was a dumb move on my part, but you do dumb things when you try to win a race.”
The crash, it turned out, was something of a blessing in disguise. Its replacement, a ‘68 Camaro, has given his career a boost in terms of performance and rekindled Carpenter’s enthusiasm. Michael Carpenter gave his dad a dose of reality during a discussion in which Charles was considering retirement after losing the ‘55.
“He said, ‘If you’re going to keep doing this, you’re going to need to get a streamlined car like everybody else has got. It goes against everything you’ve ever done, but if you’re going to do this, you’re going to need a car like everybody else has,’ “ Charles said.
The first car Carpenter considered was a ‘68 Camaro owned by New York’s Gary Courtier, who wanted to make a turn-key sale. Carpenter already had the driveline he wanted, so he passed on the car — until it came up for sale again about two months later as a rolling chassis, and Carpenter snatched it up.
“I love the car. It’s the best car I’ve ever sat in,” he said.
“Every race, about every other person I talk to says, ‘I sure do miss the ‘55.’ I do, too, but if you’re going to do this in today’s world, you’ve got to have a piece that’s competitive. This car’s got everything worked out: weight balance, aerodynamics, everything. And the coolest thing about it is if I need parts for it, I can call Jerry Bickel and they’ve got it. They’ve got it on the shelf that fits this car, and I’ve never had that. All my stuff for the ‘55 had to be fabricated and modified to fit.”
The Camaro is powered by a 908 cubic-inch engine built by Reher-Morrison. The powerplant is owned by former Pro Mod racer Dan Stevenson and his wife, Donna. The change from the ‘55 to the ‘68 gave Carpenter an immediate half-a-tenth improvement in the eighth-mile.
Carpenter’s 2020 plans include running a five-race series at Darlington — a mini-tour that’s replacing the Carolina Xtreme Pro Mod circuit, which is going dormant. He is also going to “probably do a limited amount” of the PDRA events in the Pro Nitrous ranks, and he’s looking forward to that challenge.
“We’re just not a full-fledged PDRA player. These guys are the cream of the crop and the best of the best over there, and it’s balls out every run,” Carpenter said. “I just don’t quite have enough for that. I hope to do some modifications over the winter that’re going to get us into the 3.60s. If we can get into the upper 60s, we can race, we can play. I still remember how to do it pretty well on race day.”
THE MAN WITH THREE LIVES
Rob Vandergriff grew up going to the racetracks around the family’s Knoxville, Tenn., home — only it was to dirt stock-car tracks where his dad pursued his racing passion.
At 16, Vandergriff went to a local dragstrip for the first time, and he caught a show that featured the high-winding Modified cars of the era. “The first time I ever heard a small block turn 9,000 (RPMs), I was hooked,” said Vandergriff, now 62.
When Vandergriff first went to the strip as a racer, it was in a ‘66 Chevy II equipped with a 350 and the four-speed transmission out of a Hemi-powered Chrysler. He took a beating from local legends such as Charlie Simpson and Fred White, but those setbacks provided Vandergriff some priceless lessons.
“Those guys would just whip my ass. I got beat so bad that you’d have thought I’d quit, but I guess I was just too stupid,” he said. “But they taught me how to drive. I took it as a challenge, and that’s how you learn to race. Guys like that didn’t pull any punches. When you finally beat them, you really accomplished something.”
Like Carpenter, Vandergriff was racing Pro Mod before the class actually had a name. In 1985, a local boat company owner, Jim Bryant of Thunder Craft Boats, turned his passion for ‘57 Chevrolet Bel Airs into racecar versions of the same. Bryant had a tube chassis car built around a fiberglass ‘57 body, equipped it with a 572-inch engine and Lenco transmission and gave Vandergriff a call.
“It was solid white — looked like a big ol’ refrigerator — and he called me and said, ‘I’ve got something I think you might want to drive,’ “ Vandergriff said. “Jim had raced ARCA and a little bit of NASCAR, and he told me, ‘Those guys, I had to pay them to drive because it takes something to drive one of those cars. I don’t think it takes much to drive this thing, so I’m not going to pay you much.’ So I said, Then why don’t you drive the damn thing?’ And he said, ‘I think I’ll pay you a little bit more than I was thinking about at first.’ “
In time, a nitrous system was added to the ‘57, and in qualifying at an IHRA national event at Norwalk, Ohio, Vandergriff ran the quarter-mile in 7.35 — a time he said that outpaced the pole-winning run in Pro Stock by Bob Glidden.
“We sold every T-shirt we had,” he added. “That’s when Pro Mod took off because we were closing in on six-second runs. The race was on to 200, too, but we could only run 195 because that thing was so fat.”
A new car produced 6.80s at 205, and by that time, Pro Mod popularity had gone through the roof. Vandergriff’s ‘57 Chevy was often booked in for shows against Norm Wizner’s ‘57 “Mega Ford” and Richard Earle’s ‘58 Chrysler dubbed “Christine.”
“We ran 45 to 50 match races against those guys because it drew a big crowd,” he said. “Everybody related to those old cars.”
The most memorable of those trips back in time for the fans, Vandergriff said, came one weekend at Elk Creek, Va.
“The little ol’ woman, probably in her 70s, came up to me with her husband,” Vandergriff said. “She said to me, ‘I lost my cherry in the back seat of one of those ‘57 Chevrolets.’ I ‘bout fell out, I was laughing so hard. I don’t know if that was too much information or what, but that was funny.”
Vandergriff stopped racing in 1992, at which point he entered what he called his third life: “There was pre-racing, racing, and after racing.” He’s enjoying spending time with his children — now ages 35, 31 and 19 — and grandchildren, and building on the success of his business in Knoxville, Professional Car Care.
He remains an avid fan of drag racing, be it as someone watching at home on TV or online, or in person.
“I like grassroots drag racing,” he said. “I went to Quain Stott’s Southeast Gassers thing (in Shelby, N.C.) recently, and it reminds me of the way drag racing started and the interest in it and the way Quain runs it. I like the underground stuff, the 275 (radial), the no-prep stuff.”
He keeps tabs on NHRA action, too, though he is quite concerned about the sport’s direction at the top of the heap. He’s got strong opinions on many aspects of the game.
“It seems to me — and it’s just my perspective — that drag racing has emulated NASCAR. I’m a hardcore fan, and (NASCAR) kind of alienated a lot of us with a whole different demographic. It’s all Hollywood and big money now, and if you’re racing one of those things, your dad’s gotta be a Fortune 500 guy and buy the seat.”
Pro Modified has “always been a category that’s designed for forward thinkers. I tried to explain to my son that racing is like a big puzzle, and if I put all the pieces together, being the best at it requires a lot of thinking. Pro Mod’s got blowers, nitrous, turbos, ProChargers. The biggest problem is they have to put weight on them and take away boost and keep it even. To me, I would let ‘er go and whatever it takes is what it takes. If you need a ProCharger or a blower or a screw blower or turbos, then that’s what it takes. I love naturally aspirated nitrous motors, but I’m also very interested in the technology that goes with the ProChargers, the fuel-injected set-ups and all that stuff.”
“The Pro Mod cars we raced at the time took people back. There again, we had tube chassises and big motors and nitrous, but they looked like a replica of a ‘57 — they were close enough. Then it got crazy and kept going faster and faster. And what happens to every sport is big money started coming in and when that happens, it weeds everybody out. When the money comes in, that’s the dividing line and it pushes the little guy out. Well, the little guy brings family and friends to cheer him on. When that grassroots goes away, you lose a fan base — and I think that’s what happened to drag racing.”
“NHRA’s doing a good job, but IHRA and all the other sanctioning bodies have gone away. … You take (John) Force, he’s 70 years old. Him and Don Schumacher, you take those guys out, you can’t race. If that was my business model, I’d be a little scared.”