Big Voice, Big Heart, Big Impact On NHRA Pro Stock

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Big Voice, Big Heart, Big Impact On NHRA Pro Stock


Money indisputably fuels racing teams, but money isn’t all that has propelled Richard Freeman into his role as Pro Stock spokesman and power broker. The Wynnewood, Okla., team owner didn’t have a pile of it when he began to build his Elite Performance empire.

What he did have, newly crowned three-time champion Erica Enders and class superstar Jeg Coughlin Jr. said, is his ability to assemble the right team members, let them do their jobs, encourage them – and have some fun along the way. That’s what makes this Elite Performance team shine – and grow.

Two more Pro Stock drivers will join Enders, Coughlin, versatile Alex Laughlin, and Aaron Stanfield at Elite Performance in 2020. Oklahoma native Brandon Foster will make his drag-racing debut this spring, and Fort Worth’s Marty Robertson, an oil- and gas-industry businessman in his early 50s who also owns Evolution Custom Auto and Race Development, will step up from the drag-radial ranks. Freeman has pared down his Pro Mod interests to Matusek’s Ford Mustang – for now.

“I’ve got a new ProCharger car we’re working on, but I don’t know when we’re going to bring it out,” he said. The driver of that car isn’t determined right now, but that’s not a priority for him. Freeman said he knows his lane is Pro Stock.

“We’re going to concentrate solely on Pro Stock and try to win as many races as we can. The Pro Mod deal took away from our program earlier in the year. We want to win as many races as we can,” Freeman said. “Pro Stock is just my place. I’ve invested all my money there. So I’m going to spend my time right there.”

That’s only natural, for many say Freeman saved the beleaguered Pro Stock class. The NHRA had ordered massive and costly changes to Pro Stock cars and operations during the past few years, limited the class’ appearances, and threatened to slice the field from 16 to eight. But Freeman circled the wagons a year ago, and the Pro Stock contingent presented a united front to the sanctioning body and negotiated today’s arrangement that preserved its 16-car field and opened dialogue about a number of issues. However, Freeman wasn’t quick to claim credit for that.

A lot of people know Richard as a great businessman. He comes across as very confident. Maybe ‘aggressive’ could be a word used for Richard. But he is one of the biggest teddy bears, too. – Jeg Coughlin, Jr.

“I don’t think I saved it. I think what I did do was change the course of how it had been done for many years,” he said. “KB [Racing], they’ve done their part. But their mindset had to change, and I think that’s the part that I’ve enjoyed watching. The reason that Pro Stock was in the situation that it was – and I don’t think it was in a bad situation – but the reason the fields had gotten shorter is people couldn’t afford to have their own engine. It wasn’t the money. They couldn’t afford to fight because they couldn’t get what we had, if that makes sense. KB – and myself…I’m not just talking about them – have still today stuff that people can’t go out and purchase. And that’s not the way that class was intended to be. That’s where it transformed to. Now we’ve made that available, so they can get it from us.

“They changed the rules in 2016, and we worked really hard to preserve our class. And hell, it’s as strong today as it’s been in years,” Freeman said. “The sanctioning body, they’re trying to run it like a business. They failed miserably, OK? But I believe that [NHRA President] Glen Cromwell and his team are trying. You’ve got to remember they’re trying to change the course of something that’s been going a direction for many, many years. All I can do is worry about mine. Whether NHRA’s there or not, we’re going to race. And more than likely, we’ll probably win some Pro Stock [races]. That’s what I like.”

Coughlin and Enders are believers.

“A lot of people know Richard as a great businessman. He comes across as very confident. Maybe ‘aggressive’ could be a word used for Richard. But he is one of the biggest teddy bears, too,” Coughlin said. “He kind of reminds me of my father – he’s a very logical person. In the case of racing, he hires crew guys and crew chiefs and he doesn’t tell them how to do their jobs. He supports them when they make decisions. He’s right there with them. That’s how he has built such a powerful team: with good people. He is a great communicator. He pulls people together and empowers them to do the jobs they’re set out to do. The success he’s been able to accomplish is because he’s extremely fair, extremely generous, and extremely supportive of the team he has created.”

And Enders said she definitely is a beneficiary of that.

I think our sport has a great chance to regain a lot of power. NASCAR is struggling very much so. I’ve always said that drag racing’s something that ain’t going nowhere, for sure. – Richard Freeman

“It’s amazing what people become capable of when they are surrounded by good people who have your best interest at heart. Our core group is amazing,” she said. “I know with 100-percent confidence that they have my back, and that allows me to forgo my typical worries. It’s almost like having 20-plus brothers. They pick on me constantly, but they will go to blows over standing up for me when others do. I’ve said it in interviews before, but Richard has really organized the most perfect group of people. He keeps us all swimming in the right direction, and he has put us all in the right position to succeed and showcase our individual talents.

“I’ve raced for a number of teams,” Enders said, “and none of them is like this one. I’ve wished my entire career for this group, and I can say with certainty that I will finish my career here at Elite.”

Coughlin reminded that Freeman is “a man who wears many, many hats – from being in the oil business to being in the car business to being in the used-parts business to managing race teams. He’s got his hands in quite a few different things. He treats each one of his businesses like the racing: he tries to surround himself with good, intelligent people he can trust and empower. That’s what has been interesting for me, coming from the background that I have, another family business environment. The Freeman family, they’re thick; they’re united. That’s exciting for me, coming into their family. Quite honestly, I feel like I’m one of the family.”

Freeman cares, because he has been there. He has carved his own path and learned his own lessons since starting racing with his father, Royce, and brothers Royce Lee and Robert. He competed briefly in the IHRA before it underwent catastrophic changes that changed its makeup forever. But Richard Freeman said he believes he “was on my way there to being dominant.” His Elite Motorsports team, which included Frank Gugliotta and J.R. Carr, finished third, seventh, and eighth in 2009.

“Our equipment was nice. And when IHRA made the decision what they were going to do, I immediately knew, ‘I got to go,’” he said. But his NHRA experience took some time to build.

“My deal wasn’t easy. I didn’t just ‘emerge.’ I bought Tom Hammonds out, and hired Jimmy Oliver, who was a renowned engine builder. That was in 2009. [Oliver stayed through 2012.] I raced with Rick and Rickie Jones. They raced with our stuff. We struggled. We ended up selling that equipment and my people went to work for Rodger Brogdon. Freeman said. “It wasn’t until I bought Jeg Coughlin’s engine shop out of North Carolina that my program turned the corner. And I say this all the time: It’s just about people. I acquired some people that, besides Nick Ferri, I didn’t even know. And they’re still with me today. And our program has grown exponentially. We took it to the next level.

“Again, I’ve just got some really good people. I couldn’t ask for a better group of racers and customers and friends. We’re together all the time and we talk all the time, all of us. I used to struggle early, because I wanted to do everything. I didn’t want to delegate some of the stuff. That’s just part of growing up. Now I get to enjoy sitting there and seeing what’s transpired in the last 10 years,” he said. “Even though people work for me, they’re like family. I give them the leeway to do their job. I don’t micromanage – try not to. Sometimes that’s hard.”

Freeman got behind the wheel himself in 2019, driving a newly-constructed Ford Mustang at a handful of NHRA national events.

Coughlin said he and Freeman “hit it off from day one. Richard and I got to know each other in the early 2000s. He bought a bunch of stuff that we were retiring from our race shop. That’s when I saw how he can transition one man’s trash to another man’s treasure, so to speak. He works hard, and that’s something that shouldn’t go unnoticed. He understands the jobs that everyone’s doing. He’s in the dyno room with the engine guys until the wee hours of the morning and Saturdays and Sundays when most people aren’t working. He’s a seven-day-a-week guy.

“I think we have a very deep respect for one another. Our styles may be different in certain cases, but our goals have been aligned ever since I’ve known the guy,” Coughlin said. “He did say that one day we were going to race together, and that one day did come [in 2015] when he asked me to drive Drew Skillman’s car at Sonoma and Seattle. Never sat in the car. Never had driven one of his pieces. Never worked with his people. And it was just like I was hopping in one of our family cars.”

By contrast, Freeman didn’t come from a ready-made business giant.

Freeman has won three Pro Stock championships with Erica Enders, tying her with Shirley Muldowney and Angelle Sampey.

 

“I come from a lot of hardship,” he said, not asking for any pity. “I didn’t have everything given to me. What I have I’m very, very grateful for. I get caught in ‘It’s never enough,’ and that’s a tough situation. But I have my faith. I have my family. And my family includes every one of those people who are a part of my program. And we treat it that way. We go on vacations together. We spend holidays together. And it’s a true testament to the way I was raised. I get to do it with my family. All my family is with me every day. I take that for granted a lot of times, but we enjoy it, love it.

“And we know it doesn’t last forever,” Freeman said, “so we’re going to enjoy everything we can while we can.

“It’s not life or death. And I’ve seen a lot of that in my life and watched people just [think] it’s that or nothin’. And I’m not going to be that way. If it ends tomorrow, it ends tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of things that I like to do. And I sure can pick something,” he said.

The reason that Pro Stock was in the situation that it was – and I don’t think it was in a bad situation – but the reason the fields had gotten shorter is people couldn’t afford to have their own engine. – Richard Freeman

“But I think our sport has a great chance to regain a lot of power. NASCAR is struggling very much so. I’ve always said that drag racing’s something that ain’t going nowhere, for sure. It’s not run by the media. It’s supported by wealthy people. And that goes from every class up. Most of the people that race, no matter what class they’re running, sportsman or not, they are wealthy individuals. When I say wealthy, I mean [they’re] working and they choose to spend their money on their race car and they’re going to race. It’s that simple.

“We’re excited – we’re ready to go right now,” he said just before his holiday team party at Dallas. “We’ll be in Florida in the next two or three weeks. We’ll test for a week and kind of get our feet back in it.”



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