Better together: Chris and Mason McGaha
When Chris McGaha made his Pro Stock debut at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in 2011, the Odessa, Texas, native could not have fully envisioned how the years ahead would unfold. He did, however, have an inkling.
"I always felt like I needed a second car, and I always knew if I did have one, it would be Mason driving it," he said on Saturday afternoon at the 2022 NHRA season opener in Pomona.
That wish came true in 2020, when former Jr. drag racer Mason, at 18 years of age, joined his dad and the Harlow Sammons Racing team in a sparkly blue Chevrolet Camaro, expanding their Southwest Performance and Machine engine program and bringing fresh blood to the exceedingly competitive category.
"I was just trying to make runs and do what I could. I wasn't expecting too much," said Mason, who raced eight events in a season that was shortened and disjointed as the series worked to function inside of the COVID-19 pandemic. "I was still pretty fresh at what I was doing, and it was a lot harder than a Jr. Dragster or the bracket car – the only cars I'd ever driven before then. It was, 'do what you can, and we'll see how it goes.' "
It took a couple of attempts, but Mason qualified for the first time at the 2020 NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. There, he raced to the semifinals with a first-round defeat of his father – on a holeshot – and a second-round victory over a red-lighting Kyle Koretsky, who was also in the running for NHRA Rookie of the Year that season.
In 2021, young Mason expanded his scorecard to include a final-round performance at the Las Vegas four-wide event (he was third-best in the last quad, therefore officially recording a semifinals finish) and then a runner-up (second-best) at the four-wide race in Charlotte. The younger McGaha earned the No. 7 position in the final Pro Stock standings just ahead of his father, who locked into the No. 8 spot.
In addition to a Top 10 finish, Mason put himself on the map as a competitor who was not going to be easily intimidated. In Topeka last year, he was one half of a riveting burndown in the first round of eliminations alongside veteran racer Bruno Massel.
"It was quite the experience," said Mason, referencing the starting-line showdown that lasted more than three minutes and resulted in both opponents being disqualified. "You don't want to go up there and intentionally make that happen, but about 20 seconds into it, I was like, this is definitely happening."
Mason's unflappable demeanor is rooted in the reverence he has for racing and the fact that it's been part of his life for his entire existence. His grandfather, Lester McGaha, raced Comp eliminator and started the chain that is now three generations of dedication to the demanding sport. Chris, under Lester's guidance, came up from Jr. Dragster, to Comp, and on to Pro Stock.
In 2021, the foundation of Harlow Sammons Racing was fiercely shaken when patriarch Lester fell ill with the coronavirus. As a new season of drag racing kicked off in Gainesville, Lester was hospitalized and on a ventilator, fighting for his life while his son and grandson went to battle for a trophy.
"It was something," Chris admitted. "I didn't want to be there, but I kept telling myself that I had to be, because if we came up one race short at the end of the year and didn't make the Countdown [to the Championship], he was going to be mad. That was the only thing that kept me going."
The choice to attend Gainesville proved fruitful for the youngest of the three McGaha men, and for the second time in his career, Mason reached the semifinals and started what would be a very strong season. Lester is now healthy and back to working on race cars and attending events with his son and grandson.
It will be all hands on deck at this weekend's NHRA Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, where Chris earned his first low qualifier award in 2014 and won the event in 2018.
Mason, who will be competing in just the 28th race of his young career, is seeking his first Pro Stock win. Chris believes it's coming soon.
"My dad will tell you that I didn't listen to him," said Chris. "I do feel like my kid listens to me, and maybe that's a respect thing. We're good competitors, but I can tell him anything and he seems to listen. If anything, he's helped me to become a better racer.
"My focus right now is for Mason to win a race. We've taken small steps – OK, he's qualified for a race; OK, now we're going rounds – but now it's time for him to win a race. I don't ever say the 'C' word [championship], but it exists in my world a little more than it used to, and I know I have the potential to do it. But the main goal for this team is for him to win a race."
But what if it's father and son in the final round? Would Chris take a step back to let his son get that first coveted Wally? Would he steer the ship just a smidge in Mason's direction to allow Lester the joy of seeing his grandson win? Would he possibly try a little less or lift before the finish line?
"Oh no, no, no," he said, smiling. "Me and Mason racing? Then it's no mercy."