When it comes to the School of Automotive Machinists and Technology NHRA Factory Stock Showdown, the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals doesn’t just represent the start of a new season, it is more likely the dawn of a new era. The new generation of factory-built muscle cars – COPO Camaro, Cobra Jet Mustang, and Drag Pak Challenger – have been part of the NHRA sportsman racing landscape for a decade, but this is the first time that they will race independently, as opposed to past seasons when they were included in Stock Eliminator. The change has allowed for qualifying sessions and final eliminations to be run in conjunction with NHRA Mello Yello series pros, which will expose the class to a new legion of fans. To suggest that the move has been well received would be a huge understatement as there are already more than 30 racers entered for the Gainesville opener with several more likely to appear before the first qualifying round.
The buzz surrounding the SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown isn’t just about sheer numbers; there is also been a dramatic improvement in the overall quality of competition. Led by defending series champ David Barton and 20-year old phenom Pete Gasko Jr., who won two events last year, the series will also include Ford stalwarts Chris Holbrook and Chuck Watson.
At this moment, the man of the hour in Factory Stock is Mopar die-hard Geoff Turk, after ending the 2017 season with a record 8.02-second elapsed time, Turk became the first Factory Stock driver to venture into the sevens when he clocked back-to-back 7.97 and 7.99 runs at the recent National Muscle Car Association opener in Bradenton, Fla. While Turk’s runs don’t qualify for an NHRA national record, he did receive a $5,000 bonus and universal respect from his peers.
This season, the series will also host a handful of well-known NHRA pros including Top Fuel star Leah Pritchett, 2012 Mello Yello Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson, and reigning Pro Stock champion Bo Butner. There is also a possibility that at least one, and possibly several more popular NHRA Mello Yello series pros might join the series this season.
Johnson, who announced his retirement from the Pro Stock class last November, quickly accepted an offer to return to the track as part of Jeff Teuton’s Southland Dodge team. Johnson got his start as a sportsman racer and is more than happy to return to his roots.
“This class looks like a lot of fun and I’m pretty excited to be a part of it,” said Johnson. “Even though I’ve retired from Pro Stock I still like the idea of being able to come out here and compete and thanks to the Teuton family, I’ll have an opportunity to do that. I’ve raced a Mopar my whole life so of course, it’s fitting that I’d be in a Dodge Challenger.”
For the better part of the last three years, Barton has been at the forefront of the Factory Stock movement with his Bob Wolkwitz-owned COPO Camaro. The Pennsylvania-based engine builder also prepares cars for Gasko, Scott and Leonard Libersher, their son-in-law Daniel Condon, and Puerto Rico’s Waldemar Rodriguez. Barton is keenly aware that the renewed interest in the Factory Stock Showdown will result in increased competition.
“I’m really pumped up about this year; we’ve got some super-cool stuff that we’re working on,” said Barton. “This winter, we’ve had about a dozen cars in our shop that we’ve been trying to prepare for Gainesville. We started planning for this deal last October and we’re still working away. I think this will be a big year as far as attendance goes but I also think it will separate the men from the boys. We’re quickly getting to the point where this class is reaching a professional level and the performance, and the cost, is increasing dramatically. Basically, we’ve done all the easy stuff and now we need to invest in order to find more power. We’re testing all kinds of crazy stuff to see what works.”
In addition to her fourth-place finish in Top Fuel, Pritchett competed in the Indianapolis and St. Louis rounds last season behind the wheel of a Mopar-backed Challenger Drag Pak and she qualified solidly at both. This year, she plans to compete in all seven events in the series and to maintain a competitive program, Don Schumacher Racing has enlisted the services of four-time NHRA Stock Eliminator national champ Kevin Helms as her crew chief. There is also a strong likelihood that the team will race a second car with another well-known DSR pro driver behind the wheel.
“You should see the smile on my face, whether I'm talking about it or my team is talking about it,” said Pritchett, who is an NHRA Heritage Series champ and national event winner in Top Fuel and Pro Mod. “It's a dream come true. The double-duty aspect, I had a taste of it last year and honestly, I think it makes me a better racer overall. To have a world champion sportsman racer like Kevin Helms is definitely an ace in my pocket. We have had a pretty good off-season of development. The test sessions we've had; I never experienced a crew chief that was a driver and tuner before, so the dynamic is very exciting and compelling to me. Kevin is definitely a very large asset to the program, which gives me a ton of confidence.”
When it comes to performance, Barton expects that NHRA fans won’t have to wait long to see another seven-second run. He agrees that it will most likely happen in Gainesville.
“Last year, we had almost perfect weather in Gainesville and a lot of guys overpowered the track,” Barton said. “I think we’ve maybe gained a tenth since then. I do think, with so many cars, it will take about an 8.20 just to qualify. I’m hoping that we’ve got seven or eight guys from our shop that make the field. A lot of us have waited a long time for a true heads-up class for these cars and now we’ve got what we wanted. I think this is going to be a really exciting season.”
GAINESVILLE FACTORY STOCK TIPSTER
Dodge Challenger DragPak (3-1)
So far, he’s got the class’ only seven-second time slips and the car is extremely consistent to boot. At this point, he's the favorite
Chevy COPO Camaro (4-1)
He’s been the king of Factory Stock racing almost since its inception but he faces a much bigger threat this season
Dodge Challenger DragPak (6-1)
Seemingly came out of nowhere to win the NMCA event in Bradenton and ran an 8.02 in the process. That merits respect
Ford Mustang Cobra Jet (7-1)
He has played an integral role in the development of the Factory Stock class and he’s got a car that has run as quick as 8.00
Ford Cobra Jet Mustang (9-1)
Took most of the year off in 2017, but he’s back now and with a very strong Ford effort. His extensive Pro Stock experience will come in handy
Dodge Challenger DragPak (11-1)
She figures to be busy between regular Top Fuel ride and Factory Stock but the addition of Kevin Helms is a plus for this program
Chevy COPO Camaro (13-1)
Was one of the class performance leaders last season and he’s got Pro Stock ace and engine builder Greg Stanfield in his corner.
Ford Mustang Cobra Jet (15-1)
Will be interesting to see who wins first, Carl or nephew, Bob Tasca III in nitro Funny Car. Actually, a double wouldn’t be out of the question