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Pro Stock wheelies

31 Jul 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Last week’s announcement by the NHRA concerning Pro Stock rules changes targeted the concerns of many about the class, covering everything from technological relevance – i.e., no “factory hot rod” today has a carburetor – to fan appeal, and to me, certainly one of the most interesting parts of the rules changes concerned the reduction of wheelie-bar length.

You know me, I’m largely a nitro nut, but I fondly remember seeing Pro Stock in the early 1970s when these bad boys would rip the front tires off the ground not only on the launch but often at the 1-2 gear change (done manually, of course, with a clutch). I really miss seeing that. Full credit to today’s Pro Stock teams -- they’ve made their machines into precision instruments of acceleration, with no time for the nonsense of wasted motions like going up instead of forward. I’m not sure what the new wheelie-bar rule will mean when it’s introduced – along with EFI – in 2016, but I’m sure it won’t mean bumper-scraping wheelies. Still, I thought it might be fun to grab some photos from our 1970s Pro Stock archives to look at some fun wheels-up launches.

Of course, back in those early days of Pro Stock, not everyone even ran wheelie bars. Check out Mike Fons airing out the Rod Shop Challenger in Martin, Mich.

“The Grump,” Bill Jenkins, at the 1972 Winternationals. Doesn't look as if he has bars on in this shot, either. Actually, I found very few photos of Jenkins’ cars doing starting-line wheelies; maybe he had the “efficient” launch thing down well before his peers.

Here’s Jenkins’ Vega two years later, in Englishtown, with Larry Lombardo at the controls, picking ‘em up at the downtrack shift. Love those old-style wheelie bars.

Ditto for Wayne Gapp, rowing through the gears in Indy in 1972.

As with Jenkins’ cars, I didn’t find a whole lot of big-air launches by the vaunted Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Chevys, especially once the Texas terrors got it figured out. This is early in their Pro Stock career, in 1978 (note the 444 permanent number for Lee Shepherd. By year’s end, he was able to remove two of the fours – not a bad first full season.)

Ditto for Bob Glidden, shown launching in his famed Pinto at the 1972 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway -- typically not a lot of wasted motion, but nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing look.

“The Red-Light Bandit,” Bill Bagshaw, yanked the front tires at the 1972 March Meet in Bakersfield.

Great low-angle shot of Melvin Yow, driving the Duster of one of the class’ more “colorful” characters, Billy “the Kid” Stepp, at the 1974 Winternationals.

Thunder and fury as “Dyno Don” Nicholson wheeled his Maverick out of the gate at the 1970 Winternationals, the debut event for NHRA Pro Stock.

“The California Flash,” Butch Leal, flashed off the line at the 1972 Gatornationals.

Paul Blevins never made it to an NHRA Pro Stock final – he won four times in Modified and was the 1972 world champ – but his Pro Stockers always ran hard, as evidenced by this cool launch at the 1974 Le Grandnational in Canada.

And, of course, no article on Pro Stock wheelies would be complete without this photo of Herb McCandless going sky-high in his Dodge Demon against “the Grump” in the semifinals at the 1972 Summernationals. The wheelie bars broke, but McCandless still managed a 10.35 pass and came back later in the year to runner-up to Jenkins at the famed Tulsa PRO event.