Reporter’s Notebook: Darlington Winternationals - Pro Stocks

By Jim Luikens

Last week we talked about the Pro Modified portion of the Darlington Winternationals. As promised, this week it is Pro Stock’s turn. Unlike the Pro Mods, the Pro Stock competitors at Darlington mostly seemed to be on the same page. They were there in legal trim, ready to race. This is an overview of the Pro Stock highlights.

Elijah Morton

No Pro Stock racer had a better weekend at Darlington than Elijah Morton. He was driving a brand new 2004 “new generation” Jerry Haas Mustang that replaced the 2002 Mustang he raced last year. Although the 2004 street Mustang is no smaller than the 2002 version, the same cannot be said for the new Haas race version. Just think smaller any time you hear the words new generation. The car is visibly smaller on the starting line when lined up against an “old generation” Mustang.

The Morton team’s full time crew chief, Gary Henry, already has the new car running at peak performance. Elijah, who had never gone quicker than 6.513 in his previous Mustang, ran a 6.491 at 212.51 miles-per-hour during Saturday’s first qualifying session to break into the 6.40 range for the first time. Even a result that great was affected slightly by the bump near the 600-foot mark in the left lane.

Before the weekend was over, Elijah had ripped off four more runs in the 6.40 range including a best of 6.470 at 213.77, the third best Pro Stock run in history. His fifth 6.40-second run, a 6.498 at 213.12 was good enough to defeat Robert Patrick’s runner-up time of 6.580 at 212.36 mph in the final. Elijah’s five 6.4-second runs become even more impressive when you consider that no other Pro Stock competitor ran in the 6.40 range even once the entire weekend.

Bert Jackson

Another Pro Stock team that performed well was the Enoch Love Racing Team from Richmond, Virginia and their “Lucky Draw” Cavalier. Using the same car that they campaigned last year, driver Bert Jackson clocked a 6.611 (incorrectly reported earlier as a 6.511) during Saturday’s second qualifying session to qualify third overall in the Pro Stock program.

What made their 6.611-second run most impressive was that they were breaking in their back-up engine. Interestingly they had to purchase an entire race car to obtain this engine. The Love team appears to have a solid one-two punch when you consider that they had already run an earlier 6.48 at Bradenton this year with their primary engine.

The Cavalier is the same one that they used last year, but with some great new graphics. Each quarter panel now features a cartoon Joker with giant teeth. As driver Jackson says, “If you can count his teeth in high gear, you’re in trouble.” With Chris Johnson serving as the crew chief and Rick Hickman the engine guru, the Love team will be one to watch this year. Their plan is to attempt to run the entire IHRA season.

Brian Gahm

IHRA Pro Stock World Champion Brian Gahm had a frustrating weekend. Saturday’s three qualifying sessions yielded runs of 12.549 and 9.754 that were sandwiched around his loose and shut-off middle qualifying attempt. A 6.57 win during Sunday’s first round of eliminations gave the team some solace before a car malfunction prevented them from staging for their second round race with Robert Patrick.

Frank Gugliotta

Frank “The Flying Meatball” Gugliotta was on hand driving a brand new Ford Escort for the Steve Thodos team. Built since the end of last season by Rick Jones, the Thodos team is looking to improve on their fine third place finish in last year’s IHRA Pro Stock World Championship.

Last season was the first one together for the Thodos/Gugliotta duo and they finished quite well despite having to use two cars, a Jerry Haas Mustang and a Rick Jones Cougar. Driver Gugliotta could not be happier with the working conditions at the Thodos team and he is looking forward to a solid year in 2004.

Here the team had an excellent pair of qualifying runs, 6.532 in the first round and 6.578 in the second, before sitting out the final qualifying session. Their 6.532 run qualified them second overall in the field for race day. Matched with Brian Gahm for the first round of eliminations, the team made their first bad run of the weekend exactly when Gahm made his first good run.

The result was a slowing 7.96 for the meatball and a first round runner-up finish for the two-time and defending IHRA World Champion. Despite the final round disappointment the Thodos team is looking ahead to the regular season with anticipation. In addition to their 6.532 run here they also have a 6.480 time slip from Bradenton.

Robert Patrick

In a case of all’s well that ends well, Robert Patrick drove his Purvis-sponsored Escort to the final round and a runner-up finish to the all-conquering (at least this weekend) Elijah Morton. A runner-up finish would have been hard to predict on Saturday when Robert was able to record only one complete run, a 6.912, which he did during the second qualifying session.

In the first qualifying session the car was very loose and almost collided with Doug Kirk, who was also loose, before slowing to a 9.23 second elapsed time. Breakage forced Robert to miss the third and final qualifying session. Sunday didn’t start out much better when tire slippage slowed the team to 22.11 in the first round.

Luckily however that time was recorded in the first round bye run. No time at all was recorded for Robert in the second round when he left before the tree was activated. Once again fate smiled however and moved him into the final when Brian Gahm had trouble in the other lane and was unable to leave the starting line. That run advanced him to the final and his aforementioned match with Elijah.

Doug Kirk

Doug Kirk had successive runs of 8.78, 13.60 and 7.28 during Saturday’s three qualifying sessions. Things turned up on Sunday as Doug recorded a 6.59 win over Bert Jackson in the first round. Doug turned an even better 6.579 in the second round but it was no match for the Morton juggernaut and his weekend was done.