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Sticking with it: National Dragster highlights the best stickshift class racers

Driving a manual transmission is something of a lost art, but not every Super Stock and Stock driver is about to sacrifice their clutch pedal. Here's a look at some of the best of the best.
31 May 2022
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
From the pages of National Dragster
Brad Zaskowski

Whether or not you’ve ever raced a car with a manual transmission, it’s hard to deny the appeal of dumping a clutch pedal and slamming gears as you make your way down the dragstrip. Say what you want about stick-shift cars, but they are never boring, no matter the elapsed time.

Today, there are few options for a clutch pedal when it comes to an OEM street car, and that trend is also apparent on the racetrack, where it seems fewer and fewer Super Stock and Stock racers are willing to go the manual route. Some racers cite the cost of a manual setup, while for others it’s a possible lack of talent.

Thankfully, there are a few die-hards left who would rather fight than switch. Here are a few of them.

Arguably, today’s best stick-shift class racer is Brad Zaskowski, who races his ’87 Camaro in the GT/H class. Zaskowski has won a total of seven national events, most recently the 2016 JEGS NHRA SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green, Ky. Zaskowski comes from a family of stick-shift die-hards, including his father, Bill, and his uncle, Jim, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My dad and uncle always raced stick cars, so when I got started, that’s what I drove,” said Zaskowski. “I did have an H/SA ’69 Camaro, but mostly, it’s been my stick-shift Super Stock Camaro.

“When I first learned to drive, we put our backup 283 motor in it. I’d never been quicker than 11.60s, and this was a full second faster. The hardest was the burnout. Then you’re sitting on the starting line with the clutch and the gas pedal to the floor. It definitely took a few runs to get used to it.”

Zaskowski believes that by nature a clutch is more forgiving than a torque converter. And he maintains that it’s possible to be very consistent with a manual trans, provided the driver hits all the shift points consistently.

“A while back, we put an LS motor in my car and moved it to GT, so I could use a five-speed,” Zaskowski said. “It’s one more gear change, and I’ve struggled a little to get to where I’m supposed to be. The car is great, but it seems like I’m a little late on the one-two shift and sometimes early on the four-five shift. It just takes practice.”

The Zaskowskis use Liberty transmissions in all their cars, and they don’t feel that reliability is an issue.

“We have good equipment, so we don’t have a lot of issues,” Zaskowski said. “Really, we don’t do much maintenance at all. I run the McLeod soft-lock clutch, and it’s in the car two or three years before we freshen it up. I maybe adjust the clutch a half-dozen times during a season.

“Everyone thinks it’s hard [to race a stick car], but I don’t think it is. For me, I’d probably look like a clown driving an automatic car because I haven’t done it in seven or eight years.”

In Division 4, Stan Holt and his wife, Sheila, are among the most popular racers in the division with their fleet of Lupe Tortilla race cars. Sheila proudly admits that she’s never raced anything other than a manual transmission, and she likely never will.

“I’ve never raced an automatic. Not once,” Sheila said. “The first time I let the clutch out to do a burnout, I was hooked.”

Sheila’s current E/Stock ’66 Chevy II is equipped with a G-Force four-speed, and while she admits there are challenges to driving a stick car, she’s more than happy to take them on.

“For one thing, there are more adjustments you can make, and that’s a good thing because you can tune the clutch for reaction times,” Sheila said. “You also need to get into a rhythm as far as shifting. If you can do that, you can be consistent.”

The Holt team has several stick-shift cars, including Stan’s GT/M Chevy II and the SS/F Chevy that was recently driven by Kevin Helms at the NHRA SpringNationals in Houston. Jarrod Grainer is also a part of the team, and because they have so many cars, they’ve got their own clutch-grinding machine, and they can usually make repairs between rounds, including a transmission swap or a gear change.

“On the side of my car, it says, ‘Chick with a Stick,’ and that will always be me,” Sheila said. “I absolutely love it.”

Quick: Who is the most recent Super Stock/Stock winner with a clutch car? If you answered Bobby Fazio, you’d be correct. Fazio won last year’s Reading event in his SS/L Mustang, which is equipped with a 289-cid engine and a Jerico DR-4 transmission. Fazio doesn’t believe his combination has consistency issues, and he proved it during his Reading win with a steady string of reaction times that varied just .034-second through six rounds.

Fazio, who also races an automatic-equipped K/SA ’92 Mustang in Stock, but obviously prefers the stick car, had a trial by fire when he learned to race a stick car.

“Its first run I ever made in this [four-speed car] was during qualifying on Saturday during the Maple Grove [Raceway] divisional,” said Fazio. “I had no clue what I was doing. I hit the rev limiter on every shift. I didn’t realize how quickly the shifts come up. It was embarrassing, and then we went right into the first round. I dialed the index and almost ran it. I did better, but I did stall on the starting line when I was staging.”

Fazio has since worked hard to refine his technique, and he insists that the effort is worth it.

“The hardest part of racing in a stick car is staging,” Fazio said. “I finally learned to set the line-loc and then roll in against the brake pressure. As for shifting, the one-two and two-three shifts come quickly, either during the wheelstand or right after it. I have a shift light, but I only use it for the three-four shift because that takes a bit longer.”

When it comes to reliability, Fazio’s car is relatively easy on parts, largely because of his maintenance program. Bobby Sr. takes extra care to look after everything in the valvetrain, and the clutch assembly requires very little attention.

“Our clutch has been in the car since the 2018 season, and it has more than 100 runs on it,” Fazio said. “We just took it out, and there is very little wear. We do adjust the base pressure every now and then as it wears. You just need to be careful when you hot lap it. At a divisional where you might go rounds in one day, the hot might get hot. Hotter it gets, harder it hits, so [you] have to compensate for that. We’ve got it down where it’s consistent.

“I think the stick car is easier, believe it or not,” said Fazio. “I like dumping clutch, and it’s easier to hold down the clutch pedal than a foot brake. Then again, I’ve never raced a car with a trans brake, but I like the clutch. There were plenty of times when we got frustrated and said, ‘Let’s put an automatic in this car,’ but I’m glad we didn’t.”