The moment Johnny Pluchino’s been preparing for all his life has arrived.
Having literally grown up around racecars and at dragstrips, he’s going to race Mountain Motor Pro Stock exclusively — following in his father’s footsteps — in 2020.
The 2018-19 PDRA Outlaw 632 champ took the first steps last season when he made his Pro Stock debut onboard his father’s Mustang. He competed in all but the first two PDRA Extreme Pro Stock events, and he attended four Mountain Motor shows that were part of NHRA national events.
“I’ve had him at the racetrack with me since he was an infant,” said his father, John Pluchino, 66. “He’d be two years old, and if I had to warm up the car, he’d have to sit on my lap and help me pull on the levers. … It’s in his blood.”
And then there was the time when Pluchino Sr. said he “forged” his son’s birth certificate to allow him to begin racing in the Junior Dragster ranks at age 5.
Now 29, Johnny will wheel the Strutmasters.com Mustang at all the PDRA races in which Pro Stock is contested. That will be in addition to five of the six NHRA shows that are scheduled, with the long haul from the team’s home base of Long Island, N.Y., to Denver being the lone exception.
The Pluchinos started the 2019 season with hopes that John would capture a second PDRA Extreme Pro Stock crown while Johnny repeated as Outlaw 632 titleist. They certainly started out on the right foot, with each taking class honors in the PDRA season opener at GALOT Motorsports Park in Benson, N.C.
The ensuing PDRA contest at Virginia Motorsports Park would turn out to be John Pluchino’s swan song, though it wasn’t planned that way. Pluchino was beaten in the first round of eliminations by Jeff Dobbins in what was preceded by perhaps the longest burndown in drag racing history. After a 4-minute, 30-second wait in pre-stage, Dobbins launched first to take a 4.16- to 4.12-second holeshot win.
Weeks later, on the eve of the tour’s resumption at Maryland International Raceway, Pluchino Sr. found himself unable to sleep. Johnny was to make his NHRA, and quarter-mile, debut a couple of weeks later at Bristol, and that prospect presented a major concern to his father.
Pluchino said he was bound by a promise that his son could drive the car at the NHRA-sanctioned events if he procured the necessary sponsorship, which he did.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think he was going to come up with a sponsor. I’ve been trying for a hundred years and I can’t get a dime,” the elder Pluchino said. “Well, lo and behold, he calls me one day and he says, ‘I have Strutmasters as a sponsor to go to the NHRA races.’ I already promised him, so I’ve got no choice.
“So we go to Maryland, and Thursday night I’m laying in bed and saying to myself, ‘I’m gonna put him in this car at Bristol, he’s never really driven the car before, he’s never run quarter-mile before — how can I do this to him?’ I was very nervous about it. So we’re going to the track Friday morning, and I just turned to him and said, ‘You’re going to drive the car.’ ”
Suffice it to say that Johnny Pluchino was caught completely off-guard.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’re gonna drive the car,’ ” Johnny said. “That was tough for my dad, but it was pretty selfless.”
Also taken by surprise were their fellow Pro Stock competitors, who were scratching their heads in the staging lanes as Pluchino Sr. stood by his car in street clothes rather than his firesuit.
“All the Pro Stock guys are like, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘I’m letting him drive.’ They said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re No. 1 in the points!’ I said, ‘It is what it is, guys, I’m letting him drive the car.’ So, that was that.”
The Pluchinos’ big plan of dual championships had come to a surprise end, but not without good reason in the father’s way of thinking.
“I said to him, ‘Listen, your well-being is more important to me than winning the championship, so you’re driving the car,’ John Pluchino said.
“I said, ‘I’m not comfortable with you getting in the car at the NHRA race. You’ve never really been in the car, you’ve never raced on the quarter-mile, you’re going to go 224 miles an hour. I can’t just stick you in the car and hope for the best,” he said. “I want you to race the car here and get some seat time at eighth-mile, then I’ll feel more comfortable with you racing it quarter-mile.’ ”
And with that, the 2016 PDRA Pro Stock champ’s half-century drag racing career was over — but a new one was about to be launched.
In Johnny’s first quarter-mile Pro Stock run, he stopped the Bristol clocks at 6.364 seconds, 220.01 mph, and wound up the No. 3 qualifier. The highlight of his 2019 NHRA outings came at Epping, N.H., when he reached the final round against John DeFlorian Jr., but red-lighted.
And while Johnny was racing PDRA Extreme Pro Stock, he was also battling to defend his Outlaw 632 crown in Dominic Addeo’s Escort — a car Pluchino Sr. had once competed with in Pro Stock. In addition to his season-opening victory at GALOT, Johnny won at Maryland and South Georgia, and he wrapped up his championship defense with a runner-up showing at the Virginia finale.
On the Extreme Pro Stock side, Johnny had a series of first-round losses, but he did take the runner-up spot to another Long Island racer, John Montecalvo, at Darlington, S.C.
This year, Pluchino will focus solely on the 2013 Mustang, which will have a new Jon Kaase-built engine under the hood for the April 2-4 PDRA lidlifter at GALOT.
“I’m all done with 632,” the younger Pluchino said. “We want to focus all of our efforts on one car. We were racing two cars with a volunteer crew. The car was Dominic’s, but I tuned the car, I drove the car, I drove the Pro Stock car, and I was the clutch guy on the Pro Stock car. We probably only had four or five guys at the races between the two cars, and it was very overwhelming.
“We were always a team with a pickup truck and a trailer instead of a 53-foot, semi-stacker deal. One engine, one transmission, used car, always did things ourselves, never paid a crew. In the middle of the year we’ll rebuild the engine ourselves — just throw rods in it, stuff like that. We run it as tight as we can because we just don’t have the half-million-dollar budget that some other guys are willing to spend.
“Everything my dad and I do on the car is together. We work on it together, we tune the car together, we do everything together. The only difference now is that I’m driving and he’s the one who’s backing me up.”
After the GALOT race in early April, the team will then hit the track in full NHRA trim. Pluchino Jr. said the changeover from eighth-mile PDRA racing to quarter-mile NHRA competition will be minimal.
“We’ll make a small rear-end gear change,” he said “and when you do that, you’ve got to change the transmission ratios, which is something we do multiple times in a race weekend anyway. That and a coupla little tune-up changes and we’re ready to go.”
Johnny Pluchino manages all that and a regular job. He’s an auto damage supervisor for GEICO, meaning that he manages a team of claims adjusters.
“I’m a regular working guy Monday through Friday,” he said. “My time off, I’ll leave for an NHRA race and fly to wherever it is Thursday after work, get there Thursday night, race and then fly back either late, late Sunday night or early Monday morning.”
Drag racing, though, is never far from his mind. In fact, John Pluchino believes he’s seen proof that drag racing is programmed into his son’s DNA.
“The first time I took Johnny to the racetrack” in a full-bodied car, “I put him in a Pro Stock with a Lenco (transmission) and clutch. I pulled him into the water and said, ‘See if you can do a burnout.’ He did a burnout like he was in the car for 10 years. I got on the radio and said, ‘OK, you got lucky. Back up and do it again.’ I made him back up, he did another burnout. I said, ‘Alright, you got lucky twice. Back up again.’ ”
“You know what? It wasn’t luck, he was on the money. It’s in his blood. He’s been with me doing this forever, and he has a big passion for this. He loves this like you wouldn’t believe. It’s hard for me to get out of the seat — I still love driving; still consider myself a pretty good driver — but I see it in his face how bad he wants it. … He tells me all the time that before he started racing, he had made thousands of runs in that car in his head.”
And dad is so impressed with his son’s skill and desire that he made a confident prediction: “Trust me when I tell you, he’ll win one” he said of Pro Stock racing. “He’s good, he’s good. He’s gonna win a race.”
And maybe Johnny Pluchino will again, at some point, get to line up against his second cousin, NHRA 500-inch Pro Stock veteran Vincent Nobile. They were paired together for a round of qualifying at Bristol last June.
“We might’ve had a couple of bucks bet on reaction time,” Pluchino said with a laugh without revealing which driver cut the better light. “It’d be exciting to run my cousin, I’m very close with him. Unfortunately, our racing paths haven’t crossed too much. I’d like them to cross. I’d love to race against him and whip him. He’s my cousin and I root for him in every aspect of his racing, but when we line up, we both will want to win pretty bad.”