Frank Gugliotta - The Flying Meatball

By Jim Luikens

Growing up in Beltsville, Maryland Frank Gugliotta never imagined the success he would eventually achieve when he started racing at Washington DC area drag strips like Capital Raceway. This is the story of Frank Gugliotta, last year’s Most Improved Professional Driver in the IHRA, who has been affectionately nicknamed “The Flying Meatball” by his teammates.

A hardcore Ford person through and through, Frank began his ascension by drag racing his 1955 Ford pick-up. He bracket raced this truck from 1975 to 1977, usually running in the 14.40-second range before advancing to a 1965 Mustang. Powered by a small-block Ford engine, of course, his Mustang was a consistent 10.50-second performer. Expanding his travel range he bracket raced this car at such well-known tracks as Cecil County, 75-80 and Maryland International Raceway.

After competing with his Mustang from 1977 to 1988 Frank took a temporary sabbatical from drag racing in order to attend to his growing construction business and chose to sit out the years from 1988 to 1991. In 1992 he returned, this time racing someone else's car instead of his own for the first time. Now driving a 1989 Mustang that was owned by Tom Cyr, the relationship continued for three seasons as the team alternated between bracket racing and Super Gas competition, winning several races along the way.

Advancing again in 1995 he moved up to a Pro/Stock-style Mustang that he drove for three years in NHRA’s Super Comp Eliminator as well as fast brackets. He was the runner-up at the third event he ever participated in with that car, a Division 1 points meet at Maple Grove, Pennsylvania.

In 1997 Frank switched to Top Sportsman by installing a 598 CID Ford engine. This combination was capable of 7.70-second elapsed times using the engine alone and 7.20 second ETs when he added nitrous. His normal plan at that time was to qualify with the nitrous assist and then race on the motor alone. After running that combination for three years (1997-1999) he chose to buy out his partner and up the ante once again.

Upgrading to 706 CID Ford engine allowed him to run some Quick 8 events as well as Top Sportsman Eliminator. Now running in the 6.60-second range, he qualified at every event and, in fact, won Top Sportsman at the 2000 IHRA national event that was held at Maryland International Raceway.

Based on his past successes and proven track record he began his professional career in 2002 driving for the Bob Yoak team. Competing in IHRA Pro/Stock for the first time, Frank and the Yoak team qualified for three races. For 2003 Frank was on the move again, this time to the Steve Thodos-owned Pro/Stock team.

Splitting his time between the team’s Rick Jones-built Mercury Cougar and Jerry Haas-built Mustang, the 2003 season proved to be a breakout year for Frank Gugliotta. After running well all year Frank was one of just four drivers that still had a mathematical chance at the 2003 IHRA Pro/Stock World championship entering the final event of the year in Rockingham. In the end it was not to be but he did end up third in the final points standings that exceeded his, and the team's expectations, from the start of the year.

Prior to the start of the season Frank had decided that a Top 10 finish would constitute a successful season. Team owner Steve Thodos shot a little higher, aiming for a top five result. Encouraged by their success at midseason Frank raised his sights to a top five finish. Meanwhile team owner Thodos aimed for number one. A victory in the prestigious Sunoco Pro Stock Shootout during late August only served to fan the team’s expectations.

Frank is quick to give credit to his hardworking crew, all of whom live within one hour of where the car is kept between races. A normal work week on the car consists of 20 hours, spread over four nights and Saturday. The team works hard to make sure that the car goes down the track on every run and that it is capable of qualifying well. They also recognize that 2004 will be harder with 30 or more Pro/Stockers at the most popular IHRA events competing for one of just 16 starting berths.

Frank is quick to praise the IHRA and he particularly likes its big family atmosphere. His only concern is losing one round of qualifying under the new 2004 format. He is particularly pleased with the Most Improved Professional Driver award that he received at the IHRA banquet this past January. The award covered the 2003 season, a year that saw him record one final round berth as well as four semi-final finishes. After ending last season so strong team expectations were high for 2004.

Driving a brand new Rick Jones built 2004 Ford Escort the team tested very well during the off-season, recording a best run of 6.407 seconds that some thought was possibly aided by an equipment malfunction. However misfortune is never far away in racing and just days before the 2004 season opener in San Antonio it struck the Thodos team when its only engine was wounded during final preseason testing.

Fortunately fellow Pro/Stock competitor Pete Berner stepped up and offered the Thodos team the use of his back-up engine. After getting a second chance to compete at San Antonio the team showed well by qualifying and winning their first round match. A second round pairing with eventual event winner John Montecalvo saw their good fortune string run out as the Thodos car experienced severe tire shake.

Moving on to Rockingham for the second event of the 2004 season, Frank battled the elements as unseasonably hot and humid weather moved in early. Despite the challenging conditions the Thodos team qualified mid-pack and faced Ron Miller in the first round on Sunday. The result was a very close race as Miller’s 6.536-second run barely edged Gugliotta’s 6.546 time.

The team now heads towards the next event on the 2004 tour, which is being held in team-owner Thodos’ home state of Virginia. Hopefully a little “home court” luck will allow Frank Gugliotta a final round berth and perhaps his first ever professional victory.