The first race of the 2012 season was anything but promising for Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Michael Ray, but it proved to be no foreshadowing of the future. Charged with enthusiasm following a solid seven-race outing during what was considered his rookie season, Ray entered this past year of competition with reasonable expectations.
"We had one goal at the beginning of the year: to try to win a national event," stated the New Braunfels, Texas-based rider. A win was visible on the horizon for Ray, who qualified for seven of the eight events attempted in 2011 and collected his first and second round-win victories in quick succession as he rode to the semifinals at the fall event in Charlotte. With so much already accomplished, the blank slate of a new year was waiting welcomingly.
Then Ray heartbreakingly missed the field at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, the season opener for the two-wheeled class, by just .001-second.
Much can be said for the fighting nature of the experienced rider, however. A former AHDRA national champion and a land-speed record holder for his 170-mph clocking at the Bonneville Salt Flats aboard a turbocharged Harley-Davidson in 2010, Ray shook off the DNQ in Gainesville and made gains with a semifinal appearance in Houston followed by a final-round appearance – the first of his career – in Atlanta.
From beneath the Matt Smith Racing umbrella, Ray qualified in the top half at both of the events aboard his Gottspeed Racing Buell and seven more times before the year was through, and he reset his personal career-best e.t. to 6.865 in Englishtown. Two occurrences in the latter part of the season, though, truly put his name on the map – and in NHRA's history book.
Ray was one of 10 riders to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship and entered the six-race competition as the No. 7 seed. Two events later and with an assist from Viper Motorcycle Co., he was standing in the winner's circle in blissful awe after beating Scotty Pollacheck, Hector Arana Jr., Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson rider Andrew Hines, and Karen Stoffer.
The win was monumental, not only for Ray and Matt Smith Racing, but also for the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team that was dislodged from dominance when Ray stopped Hines and Stoffer locked out Hines' teammate, Eddie Krawiec, both in the semifinals of the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals in Dallas. Prior to Ray's victory, the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team had won an astonishing 13 consecutive races, and at the end of the 2012 season, Ray was the only rider other than Hines and Krawiec to have won a national event.
"I don't know what the secret is, but maybe it's that I'm not afraid of anybody," admitted Ray. "I'll get on anybody's bike and go as fast as them, if not faster. The stats will show that I'm going to leave on you. If you know you have nothing to lose, why not swing for the fences?
(Above) Michael Ray, near lane, defeated Karen Stoffer in the final in Dallas to score the only non-Harley-Davidson event victory of the season.
"We knew that we had the right tools and the right people, and if it happened, it happened. If we didn't win a race, we would definitely be ready for next year. But when everything started happening on Sunday afternoon in Dallas, I knew that as long as I didn't hit a cone or put it in the wall, there was nothing I could do wrong, and the Lord had blessed me to go to the winner's circle that day."
Pollacheck and Arana Jr. both red-lighted to Ray, the No. 8 qualifier, sending him to the semifinal meeting with Hines, where Ray was the first to leave the starting line, .023 to .042, and crossed the finish line first ahead of Hines' slowing 6.974.
In the final round and with lane choice, Ray was first to launch by a hundredth and got the win light with a 6.92 at 192 mph to Stoffer's 7.02, 190.
"It was the greatest day of my life, other than the day I married Jennifer," said Ray. "We had over 75 guests in our pits that are best friends and coworkers, and I kept joking all day, there is more pressure to win at home than there is on the road. When I let the clutch out in the final round, I saw that both green lights were on, and I plugged it in high gear.
"Not a lot of people realize this, but in Dallas, they have a little-bitty block of stands right at the finish line, and that's where everybody from the Pro Stock bike pits goes to watch. I remember at about 1,000 feet, I looked over my right shoulder and couldn't see Karen, and I looked back over my left shoulder, and I could see about 150 people in the stands jumping up and down. I knew then that as long as I didn't crash, it was over.
"When that win light came on, the emotion was overwhelming. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to celebrate. It was everything I had worked for since I was a child. It was Neil Armstrong putting his foot on the moon. It was like, what do you do now? It was crazy."
The triumphant moment was short-lived, though, and Ray and the team enjoyed a celebratory dinner after a very large winner's circle party and then hit the hay. They were back at the track testing at 8 a.m. the following day.
Each of the four events remaining ended in the first round for Ray, but the disappointment did not outweigh the accomplishment, and, with more experience behind him, he looks forward to the opportunity to try a new game plan in the year ahead. So far, Ray has secured funding for the first eight events, and he is actively pursuing the means to carry out another full season of riding for the championship and a shot at improving on the No. 8 he will wear on his Buell in 2013.
"If we can get funding for the whole season, I'll be very disappointed if I'm not fifth or better at the end of the year. We're going to start by being more aggressive during qualifying," said Ray. "If you look at what the Harley-Davidsons and the Hectors [Arana Sr. and Jr.] did all year, the first pass out of the truck is the most important run you can put down during qualifying. Nine times out of 10, those four guys were in the top four after the first round, and they never moved. You can't go out there and be easy. You have to give it everything you've got every pass."
As exemplified by his enthusiasm to share the winner's circle in Dallas with all of his friends and family, Ray never feels as though he is alone in this business.
"I just want to say thank you to my family, every employee and their family members, and every single person involved with Matt Smith Racing and Gottspeed Racing," said Ray. "Matt Smith Racing gave me an opportunity, as far as his engine program and his side of the business, that nobody else ever gave me: a competitive bike and a balanced and fair chance to go win a race. Gottspeed Racing gave me the money and the time to go out there and display my talent. I'm grateful to my family and to my wife for picking me up at the airport at midnight after I took the red-eye home after the race because I had to work the next day. Even when I choked out first round, they would still tell me I did a good job. And I have to thank Viper Motorcycle Co. for helping us out huge in the Countdown.
"Dallas was huge for us and for Hal Gottsaker, who has worked for Harley-Davidson Motor Company since the 1970s, and his family built three of the biggest Harley-Davidson dealerships in the nation. For us to go out there and do what we did and interrupt the longest winning streak in the history of drag racing for one team, to be that spoiler, that was huge."