Art Hodges - Stranger in a Strange Land

By Jim Luikens

Art Hodges
As the 2005 racing season wound down an unlettered, all white Pro Stocker appeared for the first time at the IHRA Epping, New Hampshire event. Its debut might even have gone unnoticed if it hadn't been a Dodge Stratus. However, in a category that is top-heavy with Chevy and Ford racers, the arrival of a second Dodge Stratus Pro Stocker is a newsworthy event. This is the story of Art Hodges, who has chosen to make his professional racing mark far from his home in Simi Valley, California.

Art, who is a luxury home builder by trade, has primarily run NHRA Comp Eliminator for the past two decades after originally getting his start in NHRA's Super Gas Eliminator. At the 1986 World Finals in Pomona Art was racing his new 1986 Olds Cutlass when its engine blew. The resulting crash and fire put him in the hospital for six weeks and could have reasonably been expected to put a damper on anyone's racing future.

Instead, the reaction and overwhelming support that he received actually served to suck him into racing deeper. Art's Cutlass was built by Loren Zeedyk of Zeeker Chassis in Hicksville, Ohio. When Loren heard of the devastating turn of events he took it upon himself to rebuild the damaged Cutlass. Even better, Loren got every vendor to replace their crash-damaged components with race-ready new parts for Art's car.

While Loren was repairing the Cutlass, Art focused on recovering from his burns. He is quick to credit the wonderful physicians and surgeons at the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, particularly Dr. Grossman, that were so instrumental in his recovery. As an interesting sideline, Dr. Grossman specializes in raising crossbred hogs in order to create hairless pigs whose skin he can use for human skin grafts.

With the 1987 Winternationals fast approaching and the newly rebuilt Cutlass ready for pick-up, Art set sail from the west coast for Hicksville, Ohio with his crew cab pick-up and trailer to retrieve it. The cross-country drive took four days and the then still-recovering Art had to palm the steering wheel the whole way because of his injuries. Reflecting now, he admits, "If I'd have had even a flat tire I would have been screwed." However, no misfortune befell him and the mission was completed successfully.

Hodges in his Pro Stock Truck
However, before the car could be raced it had to be painted. For that Art chose well-known master race car painter John Pugh to do the honors. John, who was simultaneously trying to finish the infamous Batmobile Buick of Kenny Bernstein, actually had to paint the new Buick Funny Car twice because the paint reacted to the Buick's body material, the then still-rare carbon fiber.

The fact that John completed Art's Cutlass on time, despite the other obstacles that he was juggling, combined with the unheard-of generosity of Loren Zeedyk, told Art that the racing fraternity was something special. Amazingly, the freshly-rebuilt and painted Cutlass returned to competition at the 1987 Winternationals on the very same track where it had been so badly damaged a scant 12 weeks earlier. While there was no storybook win in Super Gas that weekend the uncommon kindness and generosity necessary to just get there made Art a racer for life.

Soon after the Cutlass was completed a fan from Sacramento approached Art wishing to purchase everything. When Art accepted the fan's offer his wife's first reaction was, Thank God. What she didn't know was that Art was about to jump into the deep end of the pool. (I wanted to say from the frying pan to the fire but I thought a burn victim might not appreciate that.) With his Cutlass done and gone, Art bought a brand new Pontiac Trans/Am from chassis-builder Willie Rells to race in B/A in Comp Eliminator.

Hodges in his Comp Truck
Art raced in Comp every year from 1989 to 2005 except for the period from 2000 to 2002. In 2000 there was a stillborn effort by him to run Pro Stock Truck that vaporized when the Eliminator was discontinued. Disheartened, Art took some time off but decided to start racing again a couple of years ago. He bought another Cutlass, this time a 1997 Don Ness model that Troy Coughlin had raced in Pro Stock.

After some successes, including finishing seventh in the Division 5 points standings, Art decided he wanted to try Pro Stock, the holy grail of door-car racers everywhere. He wasn't afraid of the steep learning curve, only wanting to make sure that he had the same equipment as everybody else. After surveying his options he concluded that IHRA Pro Stock would afford him that parity.

A conversation with John Montecalvo steered him in the right direction. John told Art that Rick Jones had his entire Mopar Pro Stock operation for sale because Rick was switching to Chevrolet for 2005. John suggested that, rather than try to assemble a P/S racing operation piece meal, this was an excellent chance to get everything needed to start a new team at once. A quick negotiation found Art the new owner of one car, two engines and one rear-end from Rick.

Hodges at Budds Creek
Prior to his debut at Epping, Art had tested his new car three times. A best elapsed time of 6.56 seconds at the NHRA Mission, BC points meet (where it was entered in Top Sportsman) prepared Art for his IHRA debut. He was curious how he would be received by the IHRA competitors, but reports that his welcome could not have been more gracious or enthusiastic.

At Epping, his first event, he was the second alternate with an elapsed time of 6.541, his personal best. Moving on to the Budds Creek event, Art improved his best time again, to 6.509, and moved up to the first alternate position. Significantly, he qualified ahead of such IHRA stalwarts as John Montecalvo, Ron Miller and Chuck DeMory. Art was on the grounds at Rockingham, looking forward to possibly making his first IHRA start when torrential rains delayed the event for three weeks. Undaunted, he plans to return to Rockingham in pursuit of his goal.

Art has even bigger plans for next season and the years beyond. He has made a three-year commitment to his Dodge program and has retained Jon Kaase to do Dodge engine development over this winter in an attempt to find more power. While Simi Valley, California is far beyond the traditional IHRA strongholds Art is looking forward to his years ahead in the IHRA and becoming one of the IHRA good ole' boys.