Cool weather conditions and a tightly prepped track helped Paul Gast set and reset the Pro Nitrous Motorcycle elapsed time record on his way to the event win at the Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA) Fall Nationals presented by $hameless Racing at Darlington Dragway Saturday night. Gast has basically been around since the sport was invented and at 70 years or so old is still on top of the dragbike game.
Number one qualifier Gast got a feel for the track with his first-round 4.029 at 178.36 mph on a single. Then the fireworks began, as Gast lowered the class ET record by six thousandths in his 3.952 at 178.71 victory over Ashley Owens and his 4.089 at 173.54. Paul lowered the record again in the semifinals, riding his Suzuki to a 3.949 at 179.43 to eliminate Brunson Grothus and his 4.055 at 171.89.
Chris Garner-Jones started race day with a 3.995 at 176.61 to beat Ricardo Knights, then stepped up to a 3.984 at 176.06 next to a red-lighting 2017 world champion Travis Davis in the second round. Then he managed a 4.047 at 169.88 to get around Terry Wynn’s 4.136 at 167.54 and into the final round.
“We broke the transmission in the semifinals against Terry and we had to go with a used motor which was capable of running a mid 0,” said William Garner, Chris’ brother and tuner. “We were rushing (for the final) and didn’t have time to find a nitrous line because the one we were running was a little damaged. But we tightened it as tight as we could and we thought it would hold up, but it blew off as soon as he released the button.”
Gast won with a 4.234 at 169.88, while Garner-Jones coasted through with a 5.794 at 84.08.
“Paul, on the other hand, told me he felt the track wasn’t prepped for us as it was the previous rounds, and when he left he just smoked the tire really bad and had to get out of it,” continued William. “Then he realized Chris wasn’t close so he just half throttled it down the track.”
“First of all, Darlington Dragway could be my new favorite track,” Gast said, who also won at the Man Cup race at the South Carolina facility one week ago. “We had a stellar field here. My bike was outstanding until the final. I did still win, so I’m happy, but I wanted to really throw one down there. Setting the record was probably the highlight. To go a 3.94 on a bike is really, really good.”
“All in all great weekend for Team Jones,” finished Willaim. “We are now sitting in second in point by less that 50, and we made a great move. Thanks to Brunson Grouthus for taking the points leader out!” That would be Ronnie Smith, who lost to Grothus in the second round.
Kevin Rivenbark’s gained considerable ground in his pursuit of a second Pro Boost world championship when he marched through an all-star line-up of opponents to claim his second win of the season. In the final round, he left first with a .008 reaction time in his ProCharger-boosted GALOT Motorsports ’69 Camaro and held off Melanie Salemi and her .014 light in her roots-blown “Purple Reign” ’68 Firebird. Rivenbark reached the eighth-mile mark first with a 3.643 at 206.42, followed closely by Salemi’s 3.655 at 205.48.
“I think every round, having an eight-car field, there was not a round that was given to anybody,” Rivenbark said. “It was unbelievable the lights we had. I think this is one race I can say there’s not a round I felt like I had given to me. Randy [Weatherford] had some bad luck next to me, but if he didn’t have that it would’ve been a tight race also because he’s running very well so far.
“I think overall it was a great race,” Rivenbark added. “It put us around 290 points over [Kris] Thorne going into Virginia. Makes me feel a little better and breathe a little better, but it’s still anybody’s game. Anything can happen.”
Rivenbark’s race day started with low ET of the event, a 3.632 at 208.24, to take out James Beadling in his roots-blown ’68 Camaro. The Steve Petty-tuned GALOT Motorsports Camaro stayed consistent in the second round, running a 3.637 at 205.86 to win over No. 1 qualifier Randy Weatherford, whose ProCharger-boosted ’19 Camaro stumbled off the line and idled to a 14-second pass.
Salemi, who qualified No. 3, was similarly consistent with a first-round 3.67 at 204.82 over Tylor Miller, followed by a 3.652 at 205.01 to take down Kris Thorne in his twin-turbocharged ’16 Corvette and his 3.656 at 218.34.
The Fall Nationals included bracket racing in multiple classes, but somehow, Jim Halsey’s 3.60-second Pro Nitrous ’68 Camaro was the most consistent race car on the property. He drove his Brandon Switzer-tuned, Fulton-powered Camaro to four consecutive 3.62s in eliminations, capping it off with a 3.626 at 207.85 to defeat two-time world champion Tommy Franklin’s 3.641 at 206.90 in the final round.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true,” Halsey said. “If we could’ve set the record, that would’ve been icing on the cake. We made some good runs today, just not quite good enough [to set the record]. We’re very, very happy.”
Halsey took advantage of his earned first-round bye run to lay up his quickest pass of the weekend, a 3.622 at 208.92. He slowed by just six thousandths to a 3.628 at 207.37 to dispatch Ron Muenks, then stepped back up to a 3.623 at 203.53 to grab a holeshot win over Lizzy Musi, who ran a 3.618 at 208.72, backing up her record 3.615 from the previous round.
After qualifying No. 6 in his Musi-powered “Jungle Rat” ’69 Camaro, Franklin escaped first round with a 4.123 at 172.81 over Ed Burnley. He used his best pass of the weekend, a 3.636 at 207.47, to move past Chris Rini and his 3.675. No. 2 qualifier Jay Cox went red in their semifinal matchup, allowing Franklin to slow to a 5.516 at 87.31 before the final round.
The Extreme Pro Stock final round was a battle between a seasoned Mountain Motor Pro Stock veteran, John Montecalvo, and a rookie, Johnny Pluchino. Pluchino, the 2018 Pro Outlaw 632 world champion, left first in his father John’s Strutmasters.com ’13 Mustang, but Montecalvo in his drove around his 4.158 at 175.85 with a 4.075 at 176.89.
It was a familiar position for Montecalvo, who experienced similar success with his Sonny’s-powered ’18 Camaro at the PDRA Northern Nationals in Ohio in July. He left Ohio with the points lead, and clinched his first PDRA world championship with the Darlington victory.
“This is exactly where we left off in Ohio – we qualified No. 1 and we won the race,” Montecalvo said. “I gotta say, I was most anxious coming to this race because for me it was a long layoff [since Ohio]. Any time I’m not behind this wheel every three or four weeks, I start getting a little bit nervous. My crew did a great job. They gave me a good car. I did a really good job driving, if I must say so myself. We went to five finals in a row with this car. We actually missed the Virginia race and we could miss the next Virginia race and still sewed up the championship.
“[Crew chief] Tommy Lee, William, Bobby, and of course my beautiful wife, Lois Anne; they all stood by me and we jelled really well together this year,” Montecalvo continued. “We got a great team here, we just want to keep this thing going.”
Montecalvo’s first two opponents went red, handing him the win lights at the starting line. He was ready for Jeff Dobbins’ first-round 4.082, though, as he ran his weekend-best 4.072 at 177.65. He slowed to an 8-second run after Chris Powers negated his 4.036.
Pluchino qualified No. 7 and popped off his best run of the race, a 4.084 at 176.96, next to Todd Hoerner’s 4.154. The second-generation Extreme Pro Stock wheelman then had to do some driving to run a 4.228 at 169.36 in his semifinal victory over Brian Gahm and his 5.767.
Wes Distefano was an immediate standout in Pro Outlaw 632 when he made his debut at the 2019 season opener in April. He reached the final round there, and again two races later at the Mid-Atlantic Showdown in Maryland. After grabbing his first No. 1 qualifier award Friday night, Distefano earned his first event win Saturday night. He drove his Musi-powered $hameless Racing ’68 Camaro around Chris Holdorf’s holeshot advantage to win with a 4.17 at 174.55 over Holdorf’s 4.303 at 163.76.
“It felt really good to close the deal,” Distefano said. “We’ve been really, really close and we put in a lot of hard work. To have it all pay dividends now, it feels really good. I don’t celebrate much and I’m always looking to the next thing, so we’re ready to get back to work.”
Distefano’s 4.227 at 173.14 was the quickest run of the first round. That trend continued through eliminations, as he fired off a 4.166 at 173.68 alongside Jordan Ensslin, who suffered a fiery backfire. Semifinal opponent Tony Gillig left the starting line too soon, while Distefano crusied to a 4.178 at 173.68. With the 173.68s and 174.55, he bettered his own class speed record twice.
Holdorf qualified No. 2 in his nitrous-assisted C&C Pumping ’53 Corvette and used a 4.287 at 166.30 to win first round over a red-lighting Vinny LaRosa. The Florida driver slowed to a 6.997 at 63.02 on a bye run in the second round, then bettered his first pass with 4.283 at 166.05 in the semifinals to defeat Robert Sellers’ 4.348 at 163.10 and move on to the final round.
In the sportsman class final rounds, Dewayne Silance defeated Jamie Fowler in MagnaFuel Elite Top Sportsman, Norris Willis defeated Bill Yates in Top Sportsman 32, Nick Hamilton defeated Carson Brown in Lucas Oil Elite Top Dragster, Brooke Hall-Gary defeated Blake Denton in Top Dragster 32, Mia Schultz defeated Makayla Stevens in Coolshirt Pro Jr. Dragster presented by Knoxtown Products, and Lane Morgan defeated Connor Shields in Gilbert Motorsports Top Jr. Dragster. Michael Morton won the Edelbrock Bracket Bash.
The 2019 PDRA season will conclude in two weeks at the sixth annual Brian Olson Memorial World Finals presented by Pro Line Racing and $hameless Racing, Oct. 17-20 at Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie, Va.
story by Nate Van Wagnen and Tim Hailey, photos by Roger Richards