John Strickland is no stranger to the pressure of a points battle, having won four national titles in tractor pulling from 2016-19.
But knowing that a drag racing championship was at stake last weekend gave him a serious case of nerves, he said.
“I was worried about it,” Strickland said. “Even though I knew I had a bye run first round, I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking, ‘How can I not screw this up somehow?’ I was as nervous on the bye run as if I’d been in the finals.”
Strickland, of rural Harrells, N.C., overcame his butterflies. He hung in the competition long enough to clinch PDRA’s Pro Boost title by reaching the semifinals of the season finale at Virginia Motorsports Park on Oct. 24.
In the end, Strickland held off Jason Harris to win the title with a 96-point cushion. Kurt Steding, Johnny Camp, and Strickland’s teammate, 2014 and ’19 Pro Boost king Kevin Rivenbark finished fifth. There were no repeat winners in 2020, with Melanie Salemi, Strickland, Rivenbark, Steding and Camp claiming victories. The VMP finale was not completed due to rain after two days of attempts to close it out.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 PDRA season didn’t begin until the end of May at GALOT Motorsports Park in Benson, N.C. That’s the first-class facility owned and developed by Earl Wells, who is Strickland’s father-in-law and the owner of the GALOT cars driven by Strickland and Rivenbark. In the finals of that race, Salemi’s car was a tenth of a second slower than Strickland’s, but a red light cost him the event title.
“You get pretty amped up,” he said, “and then, too, there are several of them out there that you know their car is a little better and you’ve got to make it up on the tree — or they’re really good on the light and there’s three or four of them that I’m pretty amped up on.”
“If I did it for a living or as much as some of these other guys, I wouldn’t make the stupid mistakes I make. … At least I’m smart enough to realize I’m making mistakes and hopefully process them and eliminate that one from the equation the next time. But I always seem to keep finding a mistake I can make.
“My guys give me such a good car, and I’m so competitive, that I always feel really, really bad when I do something personally to give it away. If I go out there and the car doesn’t run or I just get beat, I never feel bad about that, or even if something happens to the car, because I know the guys have given it 110 percent. But when I let the whole team down, I feel pretty bad about that for awhile.”
A few weeks later at Darlington (S.C.) Dragway, Strickland made up for his home-track miscue. He disposed of Clinton Satterfield, Camp, Randy Weatherford, and finally Rivenbark in an all-GALOT duel to notch the victory.
“We feel like it’s definitely a win-win when we can wind up in the finals. It’s a win for the team, and we’re happy for Earl,” Strickland said. “There’s always a little bit of competition between me and Kevin. He’ll try and play with me or whatever because he wants to win as much as I do. But in the end, we’re tickled to death that our team has done the best it could and put two cars in the finals.”
That was followed by races at VMP in July and August.
In the former contest, Strickland lost to Harris in the semifinals on a holeshot — but had the good fortune to have his teammate, Rivenbark, cut Harris down in the final round. The outcome of that one round would turn out to be the most crucial one for Strickland’s title chances. Had Harris won the duel with Rivenbark and the rest of the season played out the way it did, Harris would have nipped Strickland for the crown.
In August at Dinwiddie, Strickland was knocked out in the second round when a new starter broke on the car.
“We had a car that was good and fast. We had had some starter issues — just felt like the starter was getting a little weak — so we put a new starter on it. It cranked fine in the pits — fired it up, ran the warm-up,” he said. “We get to the line, hit the starter button and … nothing. It wrung the shaft off in the starter drive. Nothing we could do. Didn’t even get to do the burnout. Just one of those deals.”
That turn of events allowed Harris to go into the early October return to the GALOT facility with a two-point lead over Strickland. They squared off in the second round of eliminations, with Strickland notching the victory and reclaiming the points lead. He next lost to Camp in the semis in the duel that saw both drivers redlight, and Camp went on to win the event.
That set the stage for the VMP finale, where Harris and Strickland advanced to the semifinals on opposite sides of the ladder. With Strickland watching from the seat of his Camaro in the waterbox, Harris fell to Steding despite a stellar .009-second reaction time, and Steding took the win light, 3.660 seconds to Harris’ 3.689. That outcome locked the championship up for Strickland, who could barely focus on his upcoming task due to all the hoopla surrounding him. An .078-second difference in reaction times allowed Camp to win the showdown, 3.686 to 3.666.
“I had folks coming to the car just as soon as they announced it, wanting me to open the door and do fistbumps,” said Strickland, who was the 2014 title runner-up to Rivenbark in a season in which they combined to win all nine PDRA contests.
The PDRA Pro Boost gold gave Strickland his fifth national championship as a racer. The pandemic wiped out the national-event schedule planned by the National Tractor Pullers Association for 2020. Strickland’s GALOT II Agco entry won the Super Stock Open title from 2016-19, and he edged teammate Brent Payne by narrow margins in 2018-19.
“It was a little different,” Strickland said of not performing double-duty for the first time since he began drag racing. “We missed the tractor-pulling stuff, but every year in the past, we’ve run really well with the car and thought we had a pretty good opportunity to be in the top two or three in the points — and we have been. We wound up, even missing a race or two, finishing in the top half of the field in the points. We felt like if we could get a full season we stood as good a chance as anybody to win a championship.”
The difference in the racing disciplines — pulling vs. drag racing — isn’t a perfect tortoise-vs.-the-hare comparison, but it’s not far off.
In pulling, it’s Strickland’s goal each run to drag a 50,000-pound sled to the finish line, 300 feet away, or father if possible. The tractor makes more than 5,000 horsepower — about twice what his Camaro’s supercharged engine does — but also a nearly equal amount of torque.
“In the car, I leave off of a button, and Steve Petty, the tuner, we’ve made several trips down the track, so he knows where the track’s weak. He can take timing out, put timing in, and the driver can’t do anything about that. The tractor, every bit of that is up to the driver. The only thing you can do prior to going down the track is move your weight and hope your balance is right. You look at the track, read the track, try to put yourself in the best position on the track, but taking off and getting it down the track is up to you and the seat of your pants.
“You have to feel when the tractor is spinning on top of the tires and when to pedal it or mash the brakes to get the tires hooked back up. There’s a lot more to driving and how good you do with the tractor probably than the car. Not taking away from the car driving, it’s just different. With the car, you’ve got to be good on the tree, and if it gets out of shape, you’ve gotta deal with it. You’ve got to have really good reflexes to drive the car. It takes a good driver for both of them, but the tractor takes a driver that can feel what’s going on to get yourself down the track like you need to.”
A decade ago, John Strickland, the racer, was a tractor puller who was beginning to taste success at the state level. Now, he’s a national champion — five times over — in pulling and drag racing, and he said that much of the credit for that goes to his father-in-law and team owner, Earl Wells.
“Mr. Wells, he loves to be competitive and he loves to be on top. He’s put in what it’s taken to get the team together and the components to make us competitive. We’ve done exceptionally well with the tractors, and in the cars with Kevin and me. It’s not an ‘I’ thing, it’s what ‘we’ve’ done. I am tickled for it. I told somebody the other day, I’ve had a lot of blessings, and this is one of them.”
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