Karen Stoffer: Taking the Record to Houston and Talking Retirement

This is the third part of Eatmyink’s coverage of Karen Stoffer’s record-setting Gainesville NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle win. The first article focused on what happened, the second focused on how it happened, and this one focuses on Stoffer herself.

Stoffer’s WAR Suzuki is the same bike that carried LE Tonglet to 5 wins in 2018 (Tim Hailey photo)

What with all the success that LE Tonglet had on this White Alligator Racing (WAR) Suzuki, and now her record run, I point out to her that must be one special motorcycle. “I would agree!” Stoffer responds quickly. “Oh my goodness. She’s a working piece of machinery and equipment, I’ll tell you that. She’s an awesome, awesome bike.”

Can she pin it down what is special about this bike?

“I can’t. I would say maybe Tim (WAR tuner/manager Tim Kulungian) could. I don’t know if it’s the way the design of it, and just the way it’s built, something special about it, that the tune-up comes a little easier. Or if it’s just, it’s a consistent bike that that Tim has had to work with over multiple years. So he’s got a lot of skill set in on the whole bike.”

A skill set that resulted in the first PSM 6.60 in a lane that several champions—Matt Smith, Angelle Sampey, and Eddie Krawiec—struggled to get down in the first two rounds. “I was kind of floored at that too,” Stoffer said about the struggles of others. “Honestly, I don’t know. The only thing I can tell you is that, out of the three races in the prior year, we went four rounds at each one and that gave Tim data. I don’t know if that helped him.

“You know, Bristol (October of 2021) was cold and sunny (similar to raceday at Gainesville), and it’s a tricky track. And we had four passes. But then again, so did Angelle, too. So, you know, I don’t know what somebody else is doing with their combination and where they lined up or what they do. It’s hard to, it’s hard to tell but I was surprised.

It’s a good bet that Karen and Angelle are discussing navigating that left lane in this post-round 1 photo by Dwayne Culpepper

“You know, I certainly expected maybe a little more of a challenge with the added weight we had to put on, but (the bike) didn’t seem to even think about it. So I don’t know. It’s a very easy and comfortable bike to ride. So I don’t know, I really can’t put my finger on why it’s a happy package, but it certainly is.”

Eatmyink readers might recall John Hall saying he never wanted to ride anything else ever again after riding this bike in 2020. And one wonders why team owner Jerry Savoie hasn’t looked over and said “I wanna ride THAT bike!”

WAR teammates Savoie and Stoffer lined for the semis at the Gators (Dwayne Culpepper photo)

“I actually told Jerry that,” said Stoffer. “I said, ‘You know what? Throw your leg over this one.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, no, it’s yours.'”

There were several things that stood out about the last three races of 2021: Karen Stoffer’s White Alligator Suzuki was the quickest bike in all three final rounds, but each time it was the other lane with the winlights. Pro Stock bikes being what they are, it’s not always the rider’s fault if the bike isn’t set up to respond precisely. But for a rider with a reputation built on prowess at the tree like Stoffer’s is, those losses must have been difficult memories for her to deal with all winter long.

“I actually didn’t think about it, I had other things on my mind,” said Stoffer, whose busy life off the race track we’ll get to shortly. “But definitely when it came about I thought to myself, interestingly enough, usually I’m the one beating somebody on a holeshot. It’s usually me. And it was like payback in spades. Well, the one redlight when the bike pulled (Vegas) but, you know, Angelle drilled me on the tree with the .005. And then of course, in Pomona I was extremely late.

Stoffer already behind Angelle in the 2021 Bristol final (Tim Hailey photo)

“So, I wouldn’t say that I dwelled on it or thought about it, but it almost seemed like some sort of poetic justice. All the times I had won on hotshots, and it was all paid back in three races. But you know, once it was done and over with, there’s nothing you can do about the past, you can only look to the future. So I didn’t dwell on it too bad.”

Being a  busy professional in all aspects of her life helps Stoffer move on. “It’s a benefit to me to be able to switch focus fairly quickly in some cases,” she said.

Stoffer and husband Gary also look after their parents. “My senior parents live with us, and Gary’s mom lives up here, so we have a full plate of activities to keep us occupied for the moment.”

Also, whether or not to continue the 16 race, cross-country, NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle grind has kept the Stoffers fairly well occupied for a few years now. “Gary calls it a retirement, but the goal, when I do depart, I would still have my Pro Stock license. The full season is something that I’m not going to do. I would race if somebody needed a rider on a bike and they wanted me, I would do it. But racing the full season for points is something that we were going to shift.”

Stoffer says “were” because they have been considering this for a few years. 2020 was probably going to be their last full season, but 2020 was…..2020, which she talked about when she decided to sit out that year following the COVID cancellations.

“With everything that happened in the in the world over the last couple of years, and personal things in the family, and some things  in the race teams—there’s a lot of action and moving and different things that happened in the racing teams that played into a lot of the decision-making that, maybe stepping off of the bike, but still staying very engaged with NHRA in a different role. And I say, step off, not from a full season, but just a partial, and playing a different role and and doing different things. And getting back to bracket racing, which you know Gary and I do together.”

Gary and Karen Stoffer (Tim Hailey photo)

Stoffer had until January 1 to make a decision with WAR about continuing on that bike. When I spoke to Gary and Kulungian together at the PRI show in mid-December, there was still no decision made and at least two former WAR riders (Tonglet and Hall) were very interested in the seat.

“It actually did come down to December 31 when we made the we made the phone call. I was leaning heavily towards last year being my last year. And then Gary was talking to the sponsors, and it was a collaborative discussion. Quite honestly, once we put the four valve in and the performance that was demonstrated, I think, was one of the indicators for the sponsors and one of the decision points and so, Gary said, ‘Let’s, do it one more year.’ Gary and I are a team and I said ‘Okay, let’s do it one more year.’

“This really feels like it will be my last year as a full touring Pro, let’s let’s just put it my way.”

But she stammers quite a bit as she says this, searching for words that aren’t exactly committal and trying to either find a vision that fits those words or the words that fit her vision. “There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s, it’s, it’s a lot of life things. It’s a lot of racing things, it’s a lot of personal things. Now just, just to change and try to use some of the skills that I have in maybe a different way…” She’s purposely vague, as if she hasn’t fully unpacked these ideas.

I mention that she would make an excellent rider coach. “That could be in there. And I’ve been lucky enough and fortunate enough to help run racetracks in every aspect from the timing tower to the water box and everything in between. And I’ve been a manager on a team and I lead a pretty large team here.

“And a lot of what I do at my daily career is culture and mind and getting people engaged and working as a team, and that’s probably my biggest value. Part of my work is collaboration and getting a group of people all walking and marching in the same direction very productively.

“I love NHRA, I love the family of NHRA, I love drag racing, and I love the grudge racing. We do all kinds of racing. We support the division, all the sportsmen, other associations. That’s an area of interest that I’d like to explore a little bit more.”

So now that it’s seriously looking like this is her last year, and with a record-shattering win already, is it to early for Stoffer to focus on retiring a champion?

“I’ll give you my Karen Stouffer spiel, it’s always been the same. My job is to ride the equipment they give me to the best of my ability and turn on winlights, and the only way to get a championship is to turn on winlights. So I don’t care about the end of the year, right now I just focus on my next race and my next winlight, and that’s all it’s about. So riding the best I possibly can on every single pass to be able to turn on that winlight all the time. And whatever it’s going to be at the end, if I keep doing my job, and everybody keeps doing their job, it’ll be a positive ending. I can’t look at the big pie, I just gotta take one bite at a time.”

For her success on that first bite of 2022, Karen has thanked WAR‘s Savoie, Kulungian, crew members Harvey Deane and Keith Nichols, and her husband Gary. She added her sponsors Ray Skillman Auto Group, Brad Holzhauer at Big St. Charles Motorsports, and Jim Baldwin at Suzuki Extended Protection.

“I’ve been getting a lot of pings and messages from a lot of people, but I don’t go on the social media. I can do it very easily, but I have so many other things that I have to be cautious of in my career that I choose not too. But I have heard that there were some very, very wonderful things that people were saying, Angie (Smith) being one of them. So all the people who are being so phenomenally nice, and adulating and saying awesome things, I’d love to thank all of them.

“And specifically Angie. It was a phenomenal race and neither one gave it up on the starting line. We both ran good races and the right lane wasn’t necessarily the preferred lane but she did awesome there. And Angelle called me again and said congratulations because she had to leave. It’s just nice to have your competitors, and racers not even in Pro Stock bike, other racers from other classes, just shouting out and saying congratulations. It’s really very cool and heartwarming. And thanks to all of them since I don’t do social media. Shout out and thank you to everybody. It’s awesome.”

story by Tim Hailey with photos by Hailey and Dwayne Culpepper

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