For years, Johnny Pluchino had a gut-level confidence that, given the chance, he could be a championship-caliber driver in the Extreme and Mountain Motor Pro Stock ranks.
This year, when his father, John Pluchino, gave him the wheel of the family’s 2013 Ford Mustang full-time, the younger Pluchino more than delivered.
On Saturday at GALOT Motorsports Park, rookie Johnny Pluchino put the unofficial wraps on the PDRA’s Extreme Pro Stock title. His closest pursuer, J.R. Carr of Pasco, Wash., took himself out of contention with a first-round redlight at the Benson, N.C., track.
Pluchino capitalized by winning the event — his fourth victory in five PDRA races in the COVID-shortened season. All that’s left to do to officially lock up the crown is show up for the season finale later this month at Virginia Motorsports Park.
Pluchino also won the only Mountain Motor Pro Stock event staged by NHRA this season, defeating Jacksonville, N.C., veteran Elijah Morton via holeshot at Indianapolis on Aug. 9. So, he’s won five of the six times he’s gone racing this year
“You have to stay humble doing this,” Pluchino said during GALOT’s race weekend. “It’s been by inches; they’re right there. You let the clutch out two hundreths of a second late, it’s a different ballgame. You put three or four grams more on the clutch, or three or four grams less, it’s a different ballgame — and I’m holding fewer trophies.
“You have to be as close to perfect as you can be. You’re only as good as your next race, in my opinion, so you have to keep rolling, improving and beating some tough competitors.”
Pluchino, of Oakdale, N.Y., drives the same car his father drove to the PDRA title belt in ’16. Last summer, Johnny finally got his chance to drive the car in competition in a handful of events, all while continuing his march to a second consecutive championship in PDRA Outlaw 632 aciton.
To dominate mountain-motor racing in 2020 is something that has exceeded the senior Pluchino’s expectations to some extent, but that was actually part of a well-conceived, and executed, plan.
“I brought him up slowly,” John Pluchino said. “I put a little motor in one of my old Pro Stock cars. I told him, ‘You’re never going to drive an automatic. You’re going to drive a Lenco with a clutch.’ I let him drive that for a while, then I built him an Outlaw 632 car, and he killed it in that and won the championship two years in a row.
“I ran that car naturally aspirated just like I run the Pro Stock car. The first race we went to, because they were all nitrous cars, we pulled in the staging lanes and they all came over and they were laughing at us. ‘What do you guys think you’re going to do without nitrous?’ they said. Well, we won that race, and he ended up winning the championship two years in a row.”
This year’s Extreme Pro Stock debut came May 31 at GALOT, and Johnny Pluchino knocked off Morton for his first win in the class.
Two weeks later, at Darlington, S.C., Pluchino suffered his only loss of the season so far, launching six-thousandths of a second too soon in the semifinals and handing the win to Carr.
Pluchino rebounded on July 25 at Virginia Motorsports Park. He knocked off Morton and John DeFlorian Jr. to reach the finals, then nailed Carr on the tree in the finals with an edge of more than a tenth of a second en route to the trophy.
The NHRA triumph at Indy came a fortnight later, then came a return visit to VMP in late August. Competing in a 10-car field, Pluchino earned bye runs in the first two rounds. He put Carr on the trailer with a holeshot and won 4.12 seconds to 4.11, then claimed another trophy with a holeshot triumph over Chris Powers, 4.11 to 4.10.
In GALOT’s show this past weekend, Pluchino watched from his car in the waterbox as Carr fouled in the first pair in eliminations. Pluchino edged Dave Hughes to advance to the semifinals, where he beat Steve Boone. He continued his unbeaten run against Morton in their final-round duel, 4.08-4.11.
“Am I surprised how we’ve run? Yes and no,” Johnny said. “I have a lot of confidence in the parts and pieces that we have, a lot of confidence in what me and my dad and my team can do. We’ve got a lot of great people behind us. It’s Strutmasters.com that helps us get to the level that we’re at, but it’s everybody else from Jon Kaase Racing Engines and Ram Clutches — there’s a lot of brainpower that provides you with the best stuff, and we know we have that. So we have to perform at that level.
“The last couple of years we ran two cars, the 632 car and the Pro Stock car, and this year we kind of put all our eggs in one basket and could come out here and focus on one thing. I can tell my driving is better with just the one car. You can kind of fine-tune your craft a little bit better, and just putting more of an emphasis on one car, tuning it, mentally, I think it helped as well.”
Pluchino Sr. said it hasn’t been easy vacating the driver’s seat — “I really enjoy driving” — but has no regrets given the way the Long Island-based team has performed in 2020.
“I did well with the car,” he said, “but we never had the power we have now. When I used to win, it had to be on a holeshot, so it was harder. Johnny’s doing a great job. We tune it together, and he drives really well. I’m happy.”
He should be, given the level of close competition in the mountain-motor ranks.
“There are a lot of experienced guys that’ve been doing this a long time,” Johnny Pluchino said. “To go out and run with guys like this is humbling, especially when you know what they have invested in their program. I can race anybody, and I’m not intimidated by the guy in the lane next to me because I know I just have to do my job.
“If we go out and do that to the best of our ability, it shouldn’t really much matter who’s in the other lane. I think I get up on my wheel better when I’m wound up and the pressure’s on. That’s when I feel like I do my best job as a driver. I knew coming into this year we were going to have a bunch of head-to-head match-ups against J.R. Carr and Chris Powers and guys like that. You need to step up in those situations because at the end of the year, the difference in me winning that round or him winning it is going to be the difference in winning or losing the championship.
“Drag racing’s a sport where you have one chance. In football, you throw an interception, you come back the next drive and you get a chance to lead your team down the field. In drag racing, you’re late on the clutch pedal, it’s over. You’re done, pack your stuff up and go home. That’s just the game we play. … For guys like us who are just guys who want to go racing with a car, a truck and a trailer, to run with them is a pretty amazing thing.”
We get it. Some folks don’t like wearing a mask, but if you must at least wear one that doesn’t look like you work in a hospital. Here it is, the OFFICIAL mask of Gasser Racing. Very breathable and comfortable. Get yours today – CLICK HERE TO BUY – https://t.co/GLe5FMHXz7 pic.twitter.com/13vJDg6sbh
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) September 20, 2020