Zach Barklage - Teenage Phenom

By Jim Luikens

Despite being just 19 years old Zach already has four years of drag racing experience. He began his driving career as a precocious 15 year old, racing a nine second Pontiac Firebird on the outlaw strips of the Midwest. This is the story of Zach Barklage, for whom success as a professional racer is just around the corner.

Lake Ozark, Missouri, two hours west of St. Louis, is the home of the racing Barklage family. As a youngster Zach Barklage could be found helping out on his father’s racing team nearly every weekend at nearby drag strips like Ozark International Raceway in Springfield, Missouri.

At the tender age of fifteen Zach climbed behind the wheel of a race car for the first time. The car he used for his debut wasn’t just any old refugee from the street like the typical teenager’s first car, but a purpose-built 1999 Firebird that was powered by a 427 cubic inch Chevrolet engine. Zach used the Firebird to bracket race and “did decent” according to him, honing his skills as he went.

The next year (at age 16) he advanced from driving a nine second car to a six second one when a Chrysler Hemi engine and a Bruno/Lenco-style transmission were substituted for his previous drive line. He consistently ran in the 6.80 second range racing within a six hour radius of home at 1/4 mile strips like Kansas City.

Continuing his advancement again the following year, he began driving his father’s 1972 Pontiac GTO in NMCA competition at age 17. As usual this car was a serious effort, powered a supercharged 540 cubic inch Oldsmobile engine. Zach participated in a handful of NMCA events that year turning times in the 6.80 second range at 212 miles per hour.

At this point the entire Barklage family sat down as a group to determine Zach’s future career direction. The decision was made for him to turn pro and the NHRA’s 2002 US Nationals was chosen as his first event. Utilizing a new Pontiac Grand Am with Chrysler Hemi power, Zach debuted in Pro Modified eliminator. The entire event was a struggle for the Barklage team finally ending up short of expectations when the engine blew.

The team started the 2003 season better by qualifying for the very first event, the IHRA Texas Nationals in San Antonio. Unfortunately the event rained out and the team was unable to return for the rain date. Later in the year they ran several other IHRA national events that were close to their home. They also ran eight events on the NHRA circuit, qualifying for the NHRA’s tough eight car field at every event they attended.

One event on their schedule that they did not attend was the NHRA Bristol Thunder Valley Nationals. Having blown up two engines the week before in Dallas left the team engine-less. Disappointed with being forced into that position they chose to start their own in-house engine development program. The team’s highlight for the year was winning the 50th Anniversary World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, Illinois over a field that included some of the killer cars in the class.

Working hard over this past winter the team found some more horsepower on the dyno and everything appears to be coming together quite nicely for 2004. Once again they started their season at San Antonio. This year they qualified number one with a 6.208 second pass. Enthused by their qualifying performance they set up their car aggressively for the first round. When the car shook and pulled to the right Zach was forced to lift and abort the run.

Moving on to Gainesville, the team continued their hot hand by qualifying fifth with another 6.20 second elapsed time. Remembering their disappointing results from San Antonio, the team softened their tune-up slightly in order to be sure that they got down the track in the first round and ended up losing.

The next event was Houston and this time it all came together. Qualifying third with a 6.188 second run, Zach faced class heavy-hitter Von Smith in the first round and defeated him with a 6.194 second pass. In the second round he defeated Ed Hoover on a hole shot when his 6.229 was able to hold off Hoover’s better 6.217 second elapsed time. The winning margin of victory was .0013 of a second at the finish line.

For his first-ever national event final Zach faced another heavy-hitter, Mike Ashley from New York. In a very close race Ashley’s 6.18 prevailed over Zach’s 6.19 elapsed time. A non-qualifying result was next as Zach qualified 17th, and out of the field, at this year’s Thunder Valley Nationals. Returning to the IHRA circuit the team bounced back quickly by qualifying 11th with a 6.242 elapsed time at Rockingham. A tire spinning 6.433 in the first round was only good enough to send the team home early.

The team’s plan for the remainder of the 2004 season is to run all events on both circuits that do not conflict with a couple of outlaw appearances thrown in on open weekends. The goal is to strive for a top five finish in each association's final 2004 points standings. However, Zach and the entire team recognize how tough that will be in the NHRA with their very tight eight car fields.

Further down the road Zach is open to whatever possibilities his driving career offers. He does admit that his first preference is for a race car with doors and a huge motor. No matter where his career leads it is obvious that success will be included.

Being a teenage phenom includes a couple of challenges. First, you can only be a teenager so long and, secondly, there are always new phenoms coming along behind you.

In Zach’s case that includes his younger brother Cody. Currently 16, Cody has already been racing for three years, and holds the outlaw junior dragster record with a 6.52 second run that he achieved using two stages of nitrous. It’s obvious that the Barklage family plans on keeping the teenage phenom title in the family for a few more years.