During the past three years, the future for the Pro Stock class looked rather grim. Many wondered if it would live to see the 50th birthday it’s celebrating this year.
But the kids have arrived, and the party’s on.
Teenager Tanner Gray didn’t want to stay for the cake and ice cream after unwrapping the biggest present, the championship, in 2018. At that time, the class was slogging through a switch from carburetors to electronic fuel injection and meeting other costly mandates. The NHRA was discussing cutting the fields from 16 cars to eight. And others besides Gray were complaining that the TV broadcast ignored the class and its sponsors. The NHRA trimmed the Pro Stock schedule from 24 races to 18 (which actually proved to be a popular move among the racers). Bo Butner said he was leaving, then came back, now is planning to drop out again. Jeg Coughlin and Jason Line, with nine championships between them, are on their farewell tours.
But the mood at the party is much lighter now. The youngsters have taken over. Those “youngsters” range in age from 31 to 18 – and counting multi-time sportsman champion Bruno Massel’s serious interest in the class, the upper limit arguably could be 46. So maybe that’s not considered young, but Massel is among the new faces, who could account for half of the field.
These newcomers – some last season and some this season – include Troy Coughlin Jr. (30), Fernando Cuadra Jr. (24), Cristian Cuadra (21), Kyle Koretsky (31), Mason McGaha (18), Robert River (27), and Aaron Stanfield (25).
Massel said, “Maybe I should be at the age I’d should be retiring instead of getting my feet back inside. Sometimes timing is everything, and the opportunity Mark Stockseth gave me to come and drive a Pro Stock car once again is a dream that I’ve always had. And I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t expect it so given it, I was jumping at the chance.
“The Pro Stock category a couple years ago, people were writing it off. They said it was done. Richard Freeman and the guys at KB Motorsports said absolutely no way. Their blood, passion, sweat, tears, all that piled in and they brought this class back alive,” he said.
“You look at the entry list. There’s more Pro Stock cars than there are nitro cars, and I’m not a hater on the nitro guys, but the numbers are the number. And yes, we’re losing one of the greatest ever to drive, Jeg Coughlin, but Jeg has retired many times and he’s come back many times. So give that a little perspective. I’m not knocking on Jeg. He just gets in a rut where he’s got family time he’s got to catch up with a little bit and he goes in ebbs and flows.
“You got young guys, all these young kids coming in. There’s four or five new ones and it’s new blood to a category that everybody said was going to be dead. That’s what it’s going to take to drive things forward,” he said. “It’s like the same thing in the nitro category. To see Justin Ashley coming in you get some the young drivers making a presence. We just happen to have five or six of them here in Pro Stock, where the nitro categories don’t. We all need that new, young blood,” Massel said.
River, 27, said, “It’s always going to change, and it’s always going to evolve. It’s going to be sad to see some of those good competitors go away, but we’ve got four or five young guns out here. So yeah, changing of the guard . . . We’ll miss those guys when they decide to stop racing, but hopefully I’m welcomed in. I certainly want to welcome in the rest of the young guys and keep it rocking.”
As Stanfield – who like Koretsky, River and Massel, is a legacy driver – acknowledged, the newcomers don’t necessarily have new names. But the versatile racer who also won the Top Dragster trophy at the most recent race at Indianapolis, the Dodge Indy Nationals, said, “It’s been my dream since I was a little kid, and it’s just really cool to see a lot of new faces, a lot of youth, maybe some familiar last names.”
While he has to know he’s one of the rising stars in the class and in the NHRA, he has the humility his father, multi-category racer Greg Stanfield, always showed.
“I hope so. I try to do the best every time we go out. There’s a lot of new and good drivers and trying to do the best I can do,” Aaron Stanfield said. “But it’s cool to see some new [drivers] in Pro Stock. And I think that’s going to be important for the future of the class.”
Recent high-school graduate McGaha was a little more direct: “There’s just a whole group of us that need to take over after all these old guys are stepping back.”
Troy Coughlin Jr. is no stranger to the NHRA or even to the professional ranks. He has competed in Top Fuel and Pro Modified, as well as Top Alcohol Dragster and a handful of other sportsman-level classes. So it wasn’t much of a shock when he advanced to the final round of the Dodge Indy Nationals and was runner-up to his uncle-mentor Jeg Coughlin. Already this year, just before the sport’s pause in March, Troy Coughlin Jr. warmed up for a Gatornationals that still hasn’t taken place by qualifying in the Pro Stock at the World Doorslammer Nationals at Orlando and beating three-time and reigning NHRA champion Erica Enders in his first competitive race.
He said he accepted his Uncle Jeg’s invitation to try out his Pro Stock car last October. But that Orlando performance was no seat-of-his-britches fluke. The younger Coughlin, by nature an inquisitive and analytical person, studied videos and paid keen attention to such details as how a Pro Stoc engine is supposed to sound during gear changes. So he was well-versed about how the car behaves and how to drive I even before he showed up for a pre-Orlando test session at nearby Bradenton, Fla.
It was a smart move, for Elite Motorsports colleague Stanfield can vouch for the steep learning curve in corralling a Pro Stock car.
“It’s for sure the hardest car I’ve ever hopped in and tried to drive,” Stanfield said. “The level of perfection it takes is very high, and it’s harder than anything else I’ve hopped in and drove just from many different aspects.”
He said Elite Motorsports’ “support is second to none. They have the program to beat out here. My dad and I have been friends with Richard and his brother Royce for a long time, and we’ve always admired their Pro Stock program, and here we are – we get to join them.
McGaha has had a wealth of experience to draw from, too. His dad is tour regular and eight-time winner Chris McGaha, and his grandfather is Comp Eliminator ace Lester McGaha. And the teenager found out right away that his dad wasn’t kidding when he said this class isn’t easy.
“We shook first run,” he said at the most recent Indianapolis event, “so it’s a bit frustrating, especially with only two full [qualifying] runs instead of four. It’s fast. It’s a lot different than really anything. All I’ve drove is a junior and a stocker. So that was a big jump to go from those to this with a clutch and all the gears. Those are pretty automatic as you can get. But I guess we’re going to evaluate what we got and see if we can go up there and make a smooth run next time and get in the show.”
He didn’t, driving home the point about how drag racing – and Pro Stock racing – can throw lots of curveballs. Massel understood and empathized.
“It’s definitely a humbling experience at first,” Massel said.
“We were able to come out for Indy 1 and make some hits, did a little testing. You can practice in a simulator all you want but nothing can really prepare you for the first time you drop the clutch and how quick that first shift light comes,” he said. “There’s a lot going on in a short period of time, and people like Greg [Anderson], Erica, Jeg, they make it look easy because they’re so damn good at it. It’s almost unfair for the people at home because you watch how fluid they look during the in-car cameras and it’s telling a lie, because it’s not that easy to do. I can attest to that. So it’s a humbling thing, and you got to get caught up to the speed of the car is what it comes down to.”
River anchored the line-up this past race, Stanfield started 12th, Massel was 10th, and “Kid Chaos” Koretsky qualified an impressive fourth in the order.
Koretsky – who inherited his nickname because Dad Kenny was known as “Captain Chaos” – said, “Pro Stock cars are not easy to drive, but I’m determined to learn. I’m surrounded by a team that is full of champions like [KB Racing’s] Greg Anderson, Jason Line, and Bo Butner, so I have a lot of places to turn to for advice.”
He debuted at the E3 Spark Plugs Nationals at Indianapolis, at the official restart of the season, along with fellow rookies McGaha and Coughlin, and set Pro Stock’s top speed of the event (more than 208 mph).
Like some of his peers, Koretsky has had successful racing experience. He raced in Super Comp and at high-stakes bracket events, and he even advanced to national-event final in Comp Eliminator (2014, Charlotte). He got the Pro Stock community buzzing with his 6.49-second clocking at Orlando in March.
He said, “I grew up watching my dad race, and from the time I was a little kid, all I wanted to do was follow his lead and race in Pro Stock. Sometimes, I have a hard time believing that it’s actually happening. I definitely had a few nerves, but I’ve been around these cars my whole life, so I had a good idea of what to expect.”
Same for Coughlin, but that didn’t mean he had a handle entirely on Pro Stock racing, either.
Coughlin said he noticed “some small similarities between” Pro Mod and Pro Stock, but really they are very different. My dad told me it was going to be a different experience, and he was right, especially the first two gear changes. The Pro Stock car also leaves a lot harder than I gave it credit for. There is a lot of multi-tasking going on in there.” So for all his previous experience and his Coughlin genes, he, too, is learning still to adjust.
The Cuadra brothers, Fernando Jr. and Cristian, started their racing careers in Top Sportsman cars and arrived on the NHRA Pro Stock scene last year, Fernando Jr. at Richmond and Cristian at Denver.
Cristian told National Dragster, ““Definitely, learning to shift a Pro Stock car has been the hardest thing to learn. In the Top Sportsman car, you have a transbrake and you just leave off of a button. [In Pro Stock], you have to get the clutch out and then shift every gear and in Denver, the first few shifts came so quickly. You have to be prepared. It’s a hard adjustment, but I’m getting used to it.”
His brother agreed. “In the Top Sportsman car, you’ve got two hands on the wheel and you’re basically hanging on for dear life. In the Pro Stock car, it’s one hand on the wheel, one on the shifter, and you’ve got to watch the shift lights the whole time,” Fernando Jr. said.
Each has picked up a round-win this season, Fernando Cuadra Jr. at Pomona and Cristian at Phoenix. At the first Indianapolis race, the E3 Spark Plugs Nationals, the two sons and father alike missed in qualifying – which proves how tough the class has become, both in quality and in numbers.
River simply is thrilled with the sensation of driving one of these factory hot rods.
“It’s terrific,” the son of Dave River, said. The acceleration never stops all the way down the track. You’re shifting gears. You’re always busy. There’s so much going on inside the car. You hear every driver say that about every car, and it’s true. It’s one of those things that’s very hard to describe. And these Pro Stock cars that turn the super-high RPMs, once you put that thing in high gear, it just wants to scream, and it sounds beautiful. It’s amazing.”
So is Pro Stock’s revival.
A 30-for-30 style documentary by CompetitionPlusTV featuring the epic championship battle between two of the greatest Pro Stock drivers Bob Glidden and Lee Shepherd. #ClassicDragRacing – https://t.co/NemVS6kPFk pic.twitter.com/Bmkm2zW9DD
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) June 19, 2020