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Cory Mac: He always played to win, and he did a lot of that

Earlier this week, veteran Top Fuel racer Cory McClenathan announced his pending retirement from competition. Here's a look back at his 30-year career behind the butterfly.
04 Oct 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Cory McClenathan

Earlier this week, veteran Top Fuel racer Cory McClenathan announced his pending retirement from competition. I’ve known Cory Mac for decades, since he first burst onto the NHRA scene in 1989 in Alcohol Dragster. His team was one of the five we followed in a special “Boys of Summer” National Dragster feature that year chronicles their journeys on what was the first year of the Western Swing.

Cory and I have remained close friends over all of those years and he’s still one of my favorite people in the sport. He called me earlier this year to break this news to me, then we worked together on the news release over the last few weeks so that he could say everything he wanted to say. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room in the press release for me to share everything we talked about, but, fortunately for him (and you and me), I have this column, and this week it’s all about Cory Mac.


McClenathan got his start in drag racing in the world of Volkswagen competition, racing with his parents, Dick and Carol.

“I started with a ‘56 VW (that I still have) and progressed to a dragster and then to this Karmann Ghia Funny Car that went as quick as 7.99. We took the body off of it later and ran 7.47 with an altered body on it.

“The engines were all turbocharged. That was my thing. I knew the VW stuff. I didn’t really know anything about V-8s. I was like the mad scientist back then; I was even running 5% nitro.”


If you’ve seen any of Cory Mac’s car’s, you’ve seen that mantra. It’s usually been on the cowl of the car, but it tells you everything you need to know about the compete level that he’s had.

“I play to win started in the early days of our own car. That was our motto. We were a one-car family operation and came out swinging and it stuck and has been on all my cars and will be on the car when I run in Dallas later this month.”


McClenathan won the first national event he ever entered, the 1989 Mile-High Nationals. He’d gotten the car just a few months earlier and scored runner-ups at division events in Boise (behind John Shoemaker) and Woodburn (behind Cruz Pedregon), then headed to Denver, where he beat future four-time world champ Blaine Johnson in the final round.

“I was just a kid wet behind the ears when I went to Denver. You know, Blaine and Alan were my heroes. I had Ora [Vasquez as crew chief], who was just such an awesome teacher and it just really was just unbelievable to go up on the hill with the altitude and have such a great race side by side with Blaine in the final. That was so huge for me. We’d run that Boise race and made the final but couldn’t run because we had a fuel tank leak, but going to the final my first time out I was like, ‘Oh my god this is just crazy.’ Ora said, ‘You're ready, let's go to a national event,’ and then winning against Blaine in Denver, I thought, ‘Oh man I'm going to win some races.’ “


McClenathan didn’t stay long in the Alcohol ranks and by 1991 already was in Top Fuel.

“What I really wanted was to get into Top Fuel. That's why I got hold of the Gwynns and I bought their car, the Coors Extra Gold car, to start with. I didn't want to build a car and start off fresh with no data. So we made a deal with Darrell and Jerry and bought it. When I do show up in Seattle with that car, I think Wayne Dupuy was helping us at that point trying to figure things out. We qualified No. 16 and beat Frank Hawley, who was the No. 1 qualifier, on a holeshot.”

The year did not end as well as the middle as McClenathan took a ride into the sand trap at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, heavily damaging the car.

“It blew the blower off of it, but even with the fuel shut off, it was still dumping fuel into the motor even at idle. It was still going 100 mph. I remember going by the Safety Safari and waving at them like, ‘C’mon … I’m gonna need ya.’ There might have been some things I could have done to help that but I was still young and learning. We learned the hard way.”


Before he became one of today’s hottest tuners, Jimmy Prock was learning at the right hand of one of nitro racing’s masters, Dick LaHaie. McClenathan needed a crew chief for the 1992 season, and he thought Prock might be that guy.

“I had been trying my hand at tuning because I had tuned the Alcohol Dragster and did pretty well, but when it came to the nitro I just was completely backward. I mean, I was begging for help.

“We were in Brainerd, Minn., for the 1991 race there and I asked Jimmy, ‘Hey, can we go to dinner one night?’ We sat down and I told him, ‘I need a crew chief. I'm ready to move to the next step.’ He asked what I was looking for and told him and he said yes, but that he wanted total control on everything, including hiring a crew.

“So I gave Jimmy that opportunity and we shook hands and, boom, it was history from there. That's always been kind of my thing. Surround yourself with good people and make it happen.  We had success with Jimmy and you know Jimmy might not be where he is today if I hadn’t and I don't think if it wasn't for him I would be either. We were just such a great match.”


Joe Amato won his third straight Top Fuel championship in 1992, finishing just 92 points ahead of McClenathan and Prock. Cory Mac put his heart into it and even won the season finale, but still finished a tough second. Back then, a round win was worth 200 points and even making one qualifying run was worth 100 points. In the middle of the season, the team had opted to skip Le Grandnational in Montreal, a long trip for the Californians, and it ended up costing them dearly.

“It wasn’t just Montreal; one round win anywhere that year would have done it, but everyone is going to remember Canada. As a family-run team, we just couldn’t afford to go up there. We were barely making ends meet. With our learning curve came a lot of carnage. We definitely had that.”

The 1992 campaign was also memorable for Cory Mac and Prock as they recorded the sport's first 4.7-second run, a 4.799, at the event in Reading.

Cory also was part of another barrier-busting effort, at the 1997NHRA Revell Nationals at Texas Motorplex, where the McDonald's dragster became the first to exceed 320 mph with a 321.77-mph ripper en route to victory.


Cory will never forget the 1993 Winston Invitational in Rockingham, N.C., where he suffered a huge crash during qualifying.

“The rear wing broke right in the lights. I was racing Scott Kalitta and just barely missed him. He was out in front of me, fortunately, so I didn’t gather him up. I got burned pretty good. The dry sump broke and filled the cockpit with oil. It burned both hands -- burned my gloves to the wrists – and I got burned all around my eyes, burned off my eyebrows, and had some burns on my legs. I was out of racing for 10 weeks and couldn’t wait to get back.”


The team struggled even when Cory got back behind the wheel and even contemplated parking the car. Enter Larry Minor, who was fielding the McDonald’s dragster and Funny Car -- driving, respectively, by Ed McCulloch and Cruz Pedregon -- with great success.

“Larry heard we were going to park it because it was just getting too expensive. We came up to me at some race near the end of 1993 and asked if I’d like to drive the McDonald’s car the next year. He had two dragsters at the time, with Ed in the first one and Tony [Pedregon] in the second one that ran once in a while. I told him I would be honored to drive his second car and he said, ‘No, the main car. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to get my butt kicked by Ed “The Ace” McCulloch.’ “

“Larry was a great guy to drive for; he really had my back through the whole thing, even when me and [crew chief] Lee Beard would go at it. I was just being blessed and Larry Minor gave me my first shot. You know him and I are still great friends to this day I still drive his sand [drag] car for him. I was in the right place at the right time when it came to being hired by Larry Minor."


Hall of fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs took over the McDonald's team in 1995 and McClenathan continued to drive for “Coach” for several years, and Gibbs instilled in him a lot of lessons.

“Joe taught me a lot. He told me I really had to grow up when I worked for him because he does things differently than anybody else does. And let's face it, when I was younger it was all about racing and having a good time and when the corporate world came in, I just fell right into it. He was a great teacher and mentor."


McClenathan may never have won a season championship, but he did win the career-defining U.S. Nationals twice, in 1996 when he defeated rookie Tony Schumacher in the final and in 1999 when he stopped upstart Andrew Cowin in the final, both while driving for Gibbs

The ’96 race was conducted under a huge cloud following the deaths in qualifying of Top Fuel Motorcycle rider Elmer Trett and of Blaine Johnson, whose Top Fuel career was just beginning to blossom. Johnson was killed in qualifying after setting low e.t. After McClenathan was handed the Wally Monday evening, he turned right around and handed it to Blaine’s brother, Alan.

“Winning Indy twice was huge and the highlights of my career. The first time I won Indy it was kind of bittersweet because we were all really suffering over Blaine's deal; that was a tough thing.

“It was hard to gather myself up for that race and, you know, no matter what anybody says about Lee Beard he was really, really good about sitting me down and can get me getting my head straight to go out and really use that to motivate to win that race.”


“Take a look at this photo from the winner’s circle at the 1997 Mile-High Nationals. Look at the talent I had on that team: ‘Zippy’ [Mike Neff], Mike Green, and Dickie Venables, all of whom went on to become amazing crew chiefs in their own right. That was a power team right there.”


As Gibbs became more involved with his NASCAR teams, it impacted the McDonald’s team, according to Cory, but he quickly was able to get credit-card company MBNA America to back the car for what would be one of McClenathan’s most enjoyable wins, the Top Fuel vs. Funny Car Winston Showdown at Bristol Dragway. Cory Mac reached the final and then beat Funny Car’s Ron Capps for big payday.

“That was AWESOME. One of my best days, I loved beating up on the Funny Cars and wanted to race John Force in the final. Me and Capps had a good race. That whole thing was like bracket racing and a lot of [Top Fuel] guys couldn’t wait for the Tree [Funny Cars got a small handicap start], but it was right up my alley. You got $200 grand to win it, which means I got 30 grand in my pocket because I was getting 15 percent from Joe. That was a pretty good payday; that paid some bills.”


McClenathan was able to bring his own financing for the first time when he signed Fram to sponsor him in 2006. He was racing with the Carrier brothers –- Andy and Mark, sons of IHRA founder Larry Carrier -– and later carried that deal to Don Schumacher Racing, where he drove through 2010, his final full season. At the time, Fram also was associated with Rhonda (Hartman) and John Smith.

“Aside from the actual racing results, probably my biggest and best memory is finally getting the big deal with Fram. People don't realize it took me three years working with them and them coming back to me with [smaller offers] and me telling them, ‘Hey, you're better off working with Rhonda Hartman and John them because they're giving you more than I can give you for what you have to spend. A lot of people think I stole that deal but that was never the case. If anything, I prolonged the deal and gave them more time and more years. I've never been a guy that wants to steal somebody's sponsor. It's just not me.”


McClenathan took another wild ride in his career in the Fram dragster at the 2006 event in Bristol while driving the Fram/Carrier Boyz entry.

“The chassis broke and I had my biggest crash at their hometown race. That was a brand-new car. Even though I got burned in the other one, this was a crazier crash. I remember I kept trying to crawl out of the car but the Safety Safari was telling me to stay in because they were waiting for a backboard. The eventually flew me out on a helicopter. That one really made the highlight reel. I didn’t get hurt then, but the sensors show a 122G impact. It bent the titanium like it was butter.”


Being the guy who replaced McCulloch in the Larry Minor car in 1994 gave McClenathan a lesson in how to handle that situation when it came to him being replaced in the Fram car by Spencer Massey at Don Schumacher Racing at the end of 2010.

“McCulloch was one of my big heroes. I saw him at Pomona recently and he said, ‘You know, you dodged me for a while when you got the Minor deal,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah I didn't want to get my butt kicked.’ He said, ‘Dude, this is not about you and me; this is about moving forward and things and change and time. And I get that. I went through that with Spencer, you know. And obviously there was money there and there was opportunity. You know I think me getting pushed out of there was more about the people that were taking care of the Fram side of motorsports. It was not Don's fault. Don just had to play the henchman there. Don and I are good friends to this day. I held my head high and walked out.”


“I was lucky because I got to race Top Fuel in its modern heyday. Very few get to drive a Top Fuel car but I got run against Don Garlits when he made his comeback and to beat Shirley Muldowney in her last race and to race guys like Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Eddie Hill, Larry Dixon, Gary Scelzi, and my good friend Scott Kalitta. Scelzi and I battled for years, and so did Scott and I. It was just such a strong category back in that day. It just makes me look back and say, ‘Y’know, I was right in the thick of things during that whole thing.”

“Prudhomme and I never really ever got along, mostly because he liked the stage last, which was a thing did for a while too. It's you know it was.  I loved racing ‘the Snake’ because I loved beating him. Now when I see him we get along fantastic. It’s amazing what a few years will do.


McClenathan and Kalitta were good buddies and spent 1994 – Scott’s first championship year -- trying to one-up one another in the practical-joke department.

This first photo shows Kalitta’s tow vehicle (a lot of guys registered their vehicles in Oregon then), onto which Cory Mac had attached this license plate frame. (Because this is a family Web site, I can't show you the other license-plate frame that went unnoticed by Scott for three races, urging fans to honk at Scott for reasons I won't go into here.)

“Scott and I were great friends and back in our early days, we were always at each other for number 1 and 2. Dick LaHaie was his crew chief and Jimmy Prock mine, and those two guys were great friends, too. Back then, we all used to travel with the rigs, and without sponsors to worry about, pretty much everything was fair game, and money was no object. He didn’t play fair, so I didn’t either.

“One of my favorite was in Atlanta, I think. I had Simpson make me up a pair of pink parachutes and had ‘I [heart] Cory Mac’ sewn on it. They snuck them onto Scott's car, and he didn’t see it until he got out of the car after he'd pulled them.

“Probably the one that he got me best was when I checked into my hotel one day. We always used to stay at the same hotels, and I was in the bathroom putting away my toiletries when I noticed that the shower curtain was closed. I’ve never walked into a hotel room where the shower curtain was closed, so I was already a little leery. I could make out a shadow behind the curtain. I was like, ‘You gotta be [kidding] me.’ I pulled back the curtain, and there was a cardboard stand-up of Joe Amato. It scared the crap outta me, and I jumped back 10 feet.

“Another time I had lost a bet to him for something, and he made me go up to the starting line to accept my No. 1 qualifier award at some race holding a giant pink bunny. He’d also make up bumper stickers and fake handouts of me that said, 'I love Scott Kalitta’ and give them to fans to bring down to me to sign. It was always good fun, and there was always a group of crew guys standing around waiting to see the reactions on our faces.”

:: STILL TOP 10 ::

It’s been nine years since he won his last Wally, in Seattle in 2010, but he still ranks eighth all-time on the Top Fuel win list. With 34 wins, he’s one shy of tying Don Garlits. He finished second in the championship race a stunning four times. He also scored four wins in Alcohol Dragster. (He's alson the only Cory to win an NHRA national event, regardless of class.)

1Tony Schumacher84
2Larry Dixon62
3Joe Amato52
4Antron Brown50
5Doug Kalitta46
6Kenny Bernstein39
7Don Garlits35
9Steve Torrence35
9Cory McClenathan34
10Gary Scelzi25


:: TRUCKIN’ ::

When he wasn’t able to race in Top Fuel as much as he wanted, McClenathan took his competitive nature off road, competing in the Lucas Oil Regional Off Road Series in the Pro-Lite class. He’s also hanging up his helmet over there, but all of his hard work paid off in his last race where, after rolling his truck the day before, he earned his first podium finish.

“They are very difficult to drive. I've always been one of those guys sitting in the stands and looks down and says, ‘I can do that.’ Well, let me tell you something. A lot of people think that with these trucks but it’s just not the case. I have struggled for the last three years to get where I am now in the truck and I'm still not great at it.

“It's not a cheap thing either. Those trucks are expensive, and it takes 60 to 70 hours’ worth of prep in between races. I've learned to do it on my own but it ain’t easy.

“Getting my first real podium meant the world to me and I believe that I'm going to finish third in points in the regional series. And you know, I'll take that.”

:: FAMILY ::

“I’ve driven for a lot of people and really enjoyed myself through the years and for a while, it was like have helmet will travel. Everybody doesn't understand how daunting and how much time it takes you away from your family to do this the right way. You know, I missed a lot of my daughter Courtney [pictured, right] growing up because I was racing to put food on the table and money in the bank to pay bills.

“We started as a family operation with my mom and dad, and, you know, it's just part of my life, but I need to back up. My dad passed away a few years ago and I’ve got my mom and I really want to make sure I take good care of her. She took great care of me. You know there are just times where a mom needs her son.

“And I want to be there for my daughter. She's got two years left to veterinarian school and she's going to be what I wanted to be before I went into racing, so I'm just so very proud of her."


Don Garlits has famously said, “Retiring is easy; I’ve done it dozens of times,” but for Cory Mac, it’s not an easy decision.

“It's a money thing, too, of course. It's a money thing for small businesses and, you know, they ought to run it like a business. I totally get that but drag racing has always been everything to me and I'm really going to miss it. I never really thought you and I would have this conversation, to be honest.

"As I get older, I just realize more and more that there is more to life. There are some things I'd like to like to do and have a little bit of time to do, to vacation a little bit and spend time with family. And you know there's some stuff I'd love to do in the animal world. I've always loved dogs and animals, so there's opportunities there, rescues and things like that and volunteer work.

“I'll stay busy no matter what. I'm not a guy that just sits around. And I'll come to races when I can because, obviously, I still have a lot of friends out there. It's just that time I have so much on my plate. I won't be gone. I'm not going to disappear. I'm still going to be around, and I just want my fans and fellow racers to know how much I appreciate everything through the years that everybody has done for me.”

Phil Burgess can reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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