Landen wins at Millbridge!
The Elkes family in the winner's circle with Gray Motorsports-powered Larry Morgan
Ella fits right in with her big brothers
Taylor getting ready to get in the kart
Tanner helping Taylor
This blog entry is taken over by Gray Motorsports crew chief Justin Elkes.
Like any other team striving for wins and championships, the Gray Motorsports team spends a lot of time in the raceshop and at the racetrack. We all have families, though, too – and in the overall picture, it's important to spend as much time as we can with our wives and kids. Quality time. I've got two boys, Landen and Mason, and a daughter, Ella, and my wife Michelle does a great job keeping everything running smoothly when I'm away. We try to make the most of our time when I'm home, and we like to do a lot of outdoor activities as a family. In the summer, we spend a lot of time on the water. We like water skiing, so we've been anxious for warm weather. In the winter it's snow skiing, tubing, and things like that.
But lately, we've really had a great time participating in the Minioutlaw Series at Millbridge Speedway. I heard about the dirt track out there, so I went and checked it out about a year ago. They have beginner classes starting at 5 years old, and it's only about 20 minutes from our house so it couldn't be easier for us. I thought it would be neat to get them in a series that catered toward racers; the races are on Wednesday night, so it fits both the NHRA and NASCAR schedules well. Even though we're gone on weekends, we can still be involved, run for points, and take it seriously – but you don't want to take it too serious, I guess, because this is supposed to be time off.
We started out by taking the kids to Millbridge and renting karts a couple times just to see if they liked it. The boys both loved it, so we ended up buying a couple of winged sprint karts and we're able to go out there on Wednesday nights and have a great time as a family. Landen and Mason really like it, and Ella isn't even two years old yet but she has a lot of fun hanging out at the dirt track and running around with her brothers. If she wants to race in a few years, I'd tell her to go for it. She fits right in already.
I guess it's kind of funny because with my job, I can definitely see a few things that cross over. There were some new things to be learned, but all in all, it's very similar. I told myself I wasn't going to try to re-engineer the kart – and that lasted about a week. As soon as I started looking at it and taking it a part, I started fixing things I thought should be fixed. I just can't help myself.
I don't know what the future holds, and I'm not trying to steer the kids in any certain way, but they can follow my footsteps into racing if they like. I'd support them drag racing or circle track racing or if they didn't want to race at all. Really, this is just something that we can do as a family, and if the kids are interested in racing later, we live in the right place. There is a lot of opportunity for that sort of thing here in Mooresville, N.C.
One of the things we've really enjoyed with this has been spending time with Shane and Amber and their boys, Tanner and Taylor. Bryce is a little older and getting ready to go to college, but the younger boys had dirt cars a couple of years ago and then the series they were participating in went away. They did their own things for a little while, and then when Michelle and I got involved with Landen and Mason in the Minioutlaw Series, Shane started asking me about it. He came over and looked at our kart, and I came into the shop one morning and he asked me for the number of the guy who built it. Now, we all get to go out together, and it's just fun.
Back on the drag strip, the Gray Motorsports team had a good race at our hometrack, zMAX Dragway last week. We saw our rental customer, Larry Morgan, win the Four-Wide race and reset his career best numbers, and Jonathan went to the final round in the Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. Overall, it was a good weekend. It's really nice to have Larry as a third car and to be able to have control over the calls and the performance of the car. We're responsible for how the car runs, and that's nice because then we can truly utilize it as a third car and hopefully help all of our cars get better and better. We're very happy for Larry. He's a great guy, and to see him in the winner's circle again was just awesome.
To show up on raceday and have two of the four cars in the Four-Wide final was nice, especially because we saw Jonathan's car step up on Sunday and run well. We've been struggling to get that car going in the right direction, but we've learned something through hard work and were able to apply it to Larry's car as well and see him run low e.t. in the final round. We stayed and tested on Monday after the race, and we applied what we learned to Shane's car and showed positive results.
We're in a good position right now and getting better. It's a good time to be where we are, because next weekend in Las Vegas we have two cars in the K&N Horsepower Challenge. It would be huge to win that. You work all year to qualify and get in the points for the K&N Horsepower Challenge, and to go in there with Shane in the No. 1 spot is a significant accomplishment for us, and one that we are proud of. The race is for the seven quickest cars out there, plus the fan vote, and to win it would be really big. It would definitely rank right up there with winning Indy. It's a prestigious milestone. We're ready for this race, and yes, the concentration level will increase even more as we work to win the shootout while still posting a good e.t. so we have a solid starting position for the race on Sunday. It'll be tough, but we're up for the challenge. We'll do our best, hopefully come home with two trophies, and then take the boys out to the dirt track to see about getting one more.
Some of the behind-the-scenes crew at Gray Motorsports: Team Manager Kevin Finney, Dan Cordier, Angela Johnson, Paul Hoskins, Mike Smith, Stevie Johns and Kevin Wideman.
Owen and James at the racetrack. Owen came to Gray Motorsports as an intern and has already proven himself as a guy with a very bright future.
It's hard to believe that we're already into the Countdown to the Championship. It was really rewarding to go into the Countdown with a win for Gray Motorsports – Shane winning the U.S. Nationals in a final round with our teammate Dave and Jonathan making it to the semifinals was a pretty big morale boost for all of us. It was the best we could have done, and we were all happy to accomplish something as big as winning the U.S. Nationals.
It's been a good year and a long one, but it's gone by very fast in many ways, especially for the engine shop, where I work alongside our lead engine builder Paul Hoskins and assembler/dyno operator Mike Smith, who has been with Gray Motorsports from the start and is instrumental in all of the dyno work, shop function, and just making sure this place runs smoothly. Stevie Johns and Kevin Wideman have a lot of input on these things before they go out the door, and we all work very well together.
We also get to work with Owen Wells, who came in as an intern and is in his senior year in Motorsports Engineering at UNC Charlotte. He does all kinds of things, works on formulas and spreadsheets and does a lot of physical labor. In terms of fabrication, the kid can weld. He has a super bright future, and he probably has no idea how much talent he has. All he needs is time.
We have a great group, and we're not into glory grabbing. Everyone is important, and it has to work like that. It's a good vibe over here, and it's very positive. I think that matters a lot.
For me, working at Gray Motorsports and having the opportunity to continue to work alongside Paul is great. I've worked with him for a long time – we've shared the last 14 years of our lives working together. We rely on each other and have each other's backs, and we look to each other for advice and answers, whether it's about engines or personal. Paul has been my mentor, my boss, and my friend. Even with all of those things, it's cool because it isn't a 'dog and fire hydrant' deal – he comes to me and asks how I think we should handle this or that. He puts trust in me as much as I put my trust in him. We are a great team working together, and I think we showcased that over the years. It has only gotten stronger here at Gray Motorsports, and we have the resources and people with a desire to do things at the top level. At the beginning of the year, we said it was only a matter of time until we got the recipe right, and I think we're really beginning to achieve that.
This class is tough. The top 10 or 12 cars can be at the top of the page at any given point, and that says a lot about the competitive nature of Pro Stock. It's tough out there, but this team has had very realistic expectations that we can be a contender. This is a cool ride we're all on, that's for sure.
My wife, Melissa, and I live in Concord, and we moved down here to North Carolina in 2007. I did some of my own engine building, some big cubic inch IHRA development and Pro Nitrous stuff for a little while. I was always into hot rods and cars, and like a lot of guys working for Pro Stock teams out there, I went to School of Automotive Machinists (SAM) in Houston. From there I landed a job at Dart, and that is where I first met Paul. It's funny how things work out and one thing can lead to another, and I'd have to say that I'm pretty happy with how things have gone in my career.
That's all for now. Back to work! See you in the winner's circle.
This week something really special happened, and something that to be honest, I never really expected. We won the U.S. Nationals. It was a great day for Gray Motorsports already – we had three cars in the semifinals and I got to race my brother. Jonathan got the best of me the first two times we raced each other, and he is already a tough competitor and one that is getting everybody's attention out there, and I don't take anybody lightly. I was glad to get that win but sorry to beat him at the same time, if that makes sense. It really isn't any fun to race your brother because even though we know one of the Gray Motorsports cars is going to the next round, one of you still has to lose. I said it at the top end after we raced each other, I'm real proud of him and what he's done out here. His driving is coming along. He's got a good record at the starting line, and he's learning how to drive the car better as he goes down the track. The outcome of our race against each other in the semifinals in Indy might have been different if he was a little farther along in his career, and with more seat time and experience Jonathan is going to be one of the top competitors.
Racing my buddy Dave in the final at the U.S. Nationals and then winning is still something that hasn't quite sunk in. I know there has been a lot of people talking about it and questioning what happened, and I've learned a lot this week about people who like to sit behind their keyboards and say things that aren't very nice. My wife and kids read that stuff, and I hate that my family has to see people acting so bad. I can take it, and I sure try not to let it get to me, but it isn't fair to my family that they have to see that. And it isn't fair to the team who has worked so hard to get this far. You always hear talk about "haters," but to be on the receiving end of that is something else. Especially when you've worked as hard as this team works, day in and day out. My crew chief Justin Elkes, the guys at the shop, the guys at the track, every one of them work and work and work and they do that so that we can succeed. So that we can win as a team, and that is what we did on Monday at the U.S. Nationals. We won as a team. Heck, we already won before the final was even decided, and all of us were happy. We were happy at the top end of the track, and there were no hard feelings in either direction.
I wish it would have been a side-by-side race down the track and one of us had won by a thousandth, but as soon as Justin saw that they were spraying both lanes all the way to the waterbox – something that doesn't normally happen – before the final, he told both Dave and myself to be ready because both cars were going to shake. He said it was going to be a pedal fest in the Pro Stock final. We got lucky my car didn't shake as bad as Dave's did, it's as simple as that, and that's exactly what the data shows. Dave told us later that he could see daylight under the rear tire of one of the alcohol cars ahead of him, and that's when he knew he might be in trouble. That's racing, and that day I was fortunate that it worked out in my favor. I'd have been real happy if Dave had won it, because no matter what it was a win for our team.
I've won four times now in Pro Stock, and each time it seems like it's getting harder and harder. I remember the first time I won one of these things it was in 2010 in Pomona at the end of the year, and I thought, "That wasn't too hard. That was actually pretty easy. I don't know why these guys think this is so difficult." Boy, have I ever learned a lesson. I dug a hole and got way deep into it, and I'm just now crawling back out where I can eat those words. We're getting closer with our program, and we're getting closer to those top tier teams. I think our program is as good as anybody else's, and we're headed in the right direction. That's a good position to be in heading into the Countdown.
To win this race was big. I hadn't won more than a round at Indy in Pro Stock, and getting all the way to the final and then winning the darn thing was something that took a couple of days to sink in. I'm not sure it's even sunk in all the way yet, to tell you the truth. But I will say that this year was the first time I felt like we really had a chance to do something there. We were very blessed and fortunate, and the guys made some great calls on the car. We've done some celebrating, but now it's back to work to get ready for the Countdown. We've got three Gray Motorsports cars racing for the big trophy, and we were hoping dad would come out and race with us in Charlotte but he made the decision to let us focus on what we came out here to do. Win. We'll see you out there.
This is my first try at this blog deal, so don't be too hard on me. We just got to Topeka last night and when we were getting ready to get here, I realized that the NHRA Kansas Nationals will be my fifth race. That means that I'm automatically entered into the competition for Rookie of the Year, or as NHRA calls it, the Auto Club Road to the Future Award.
That would sure be an honor to get that, and I'm actually real surprised that my brother Shane didn't get it in his rookie year in 2010. I thought he did a great job in his first year learning this class and then winning the Finals in Pomona.
To be a real contender for Rookie of the Year at the end of this season, I have to continue doing what I am doing and enjoy it, because if you don't love what you're doing, you aren't going to be any good. I’m learning every week, and I'm still excited to get to every race. Being able to go out there and be .00 to .020s all the time on the starting line, that is nice – but the trick will be to continue doing that as I go. I haven’t let anyone change anything on my car because I’m still learning how to drive it, and right now I'm comfortable.
My crew chief, Tommy Lee, and my brother, Shane, are helping me with my driving. Shane is one of the best drivers out there when it comes to shifting these cars. He is really phenomenal at it, and I guarantee you there isn't anybody as good out there. Tommy Lee is really great with me on the radio and talking with me; he is a very positive person and that is extremely helpful as I'm learning.
I’ve got less than 50 laps in my Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro and I have some bad habits that I need to correct, so that is what we will be focusing on. There are a few things that I need to fix as a driver before we can move on to anything else, and if I can do that this weekend in Topeka and get a little better handle on the car, I think we can go some rounds.
It’s hard to say if we will win Rookie of the Year. We just need to give it a few more races and get some more win lights, then we will be able to really see how we line up against those other guys. It was great to get my first round win in Houston, and I'd like more of that, that's for sure. I know I’ve got to start going rounds; that will be the key. I'm not sure if I have a chance to be Rookie of the Year when this is all said and done, but I sure hope so. It's been quite a ride already.