With his third straight victory to start the season, Gaige Herrera has joined some fairly exclusive company. Don “the Snake” Prudhomme won six straight to start his record-setting 1976 Funny Car campaign, while Bob Glidden won the first four Pro Stock races in 1979 and Dave Schultz won the first four Pro Stock Motorcycle events in 1991. Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Frank Hawley, Ronnie Sox, Lee Shepherd, Jim Yates, Darrell Alderman, Matt Hines, and Hector Arana Jr. have each knocked off three wins to start a season. All told, the feat of three consecutive victories has been accomplished just 13 times in NHRA’s long history, including Herrera, the most recent member of the club.
To put Herrera’s hot start to the 2023 season into proper perspective, it might be best to take a closer look at what Schultz was able to accomplish during his career, specifically the 1993 and 1994 seasons when he ran roughshod against what was then a talent-laden Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
Schultz won six championships and 45 events before his untimely death from cancer in 2001, but at no time in his career was he more dominant than 1993 and 1994. There were 21 events held during those two seasons, and Schultz won 16 of them, and he was a runner-up at two others. That left just five wins for others, including his biggest rival, John Myers, as well as John Smith, “Pizza John” Mafaro, Byron Hines, Paul Gast, Russ Nyberg, Ron Ayers, and even Steve Johnson, who was in the formative years of his long career. Schultz ultimately earned the nickname “the Milkman” not just for his all-while leathers but also his ability to deliver.
Schultz was so dominant during those seasons that his opponents took up a collection at each event, filling a milk carton with cash. The bounty went to any rider who could beat Schultz, but it didn’t change hands very often. The bounty was both a show of respect and an act of desperation for a field that was routinely crushed by the white Sunoco bike. In 1993, under the old points system, Schultz finished with 10,962 points, 1,794 markers more than Myers, who was realistically the only one to keep him honest. The following year was an even bigger whitewash with Schultz scoring 12,492 points to Myers’ 9,266 total. In each season, the championship was over long before the teams headed West to Pomona.
Fast forward to the current season and Gaige Herrera has a long way to go before he can even approach the brilliance of Schultz, but three races into his tenure as a Vance & Hines rider, it seems he’s well on his way. Herrera has won the first three events of the season and the inaugural Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge held in Joliet, Ill. For those keeping score, that’s 13 straight round-wins and zero losses. Herrera has also been the low qualifier in Gainesville, Charlotte, and Joliet, and his advantage over the rest of the field seems to have grown with each event.
In a class that has been historically known for its parity (the Schultz years notwithstanding), what Herrera has done is remarkable. In Chicago, Herrera made three straight 6.67 runs in qualifying, launching a genuine challenge to Karen Stoffer’s 6.665-second NHRA record. When it comes to reaction times, Herrera has also been rock solid. Discounting his single run in Joliet, his worst reaction time in 12 competitive runs has been a .052 and most of his lights have been in the .01 and .02 range. Given his performance advantage, Herrera doesn’t need to mow the Tree down, but he’s certainly capable when the need arises.
For his part, Herrera seems largely unfazed by his early success. As he’s often noted, he’s just flattered to have an opportunity to ride for NHRA’s most successful two-wheel team, and he’s determined to make the most of it.
"All day, my bike has been a bracket bike," said Herrera, following his most recent victory in Joliet. "It was on point all weekend, and it means a lot to win here with friends and family out here with me. That's one you don't forget. I have a really good team behind me, and this goes out to all of them. I've said all year, I'm living the dream. I really am."
Herrera hasn’t had much to say about his hot start, as he’s more inclined to let his performance speak for itself, so perhaps his success is best explained by his crew chief, Andrew Hines, who remains the sport’s most successful Pro Stock Motorcycle rider with 56 career wins. Hines was dominant at times on his way to six championships, but he never won three straight events at the start of a season, and he rarely enjoyed the sort of performance advantage that Herrera currently has against the rest of the class.
“It’s amazing the things we’ve learned about Gaige, even after we hired him,” said Hines. “We didn’t know that he’d run Super Comp and Super Gas, and that he’d raced in the Spring Filing Million [high stakes bracket race] or that he’d won the Summit E.T. Series on his Hayabusa. That makes him a true bracket racer, and that’s why he’s bringing such a consistent package on the starting line. At best, he varies only a hundredth, and he’s adapted to our bike so quickly. So far, he’s only made 60 or 70 runs [on a Pro Stock Motorcycle], and for guys who make the switch from a no bar bike, there’s usually a big adjustment. We saw last year that he was an exceptional rider, and that’s when we decided to get to him before someone else did.”
While it’s still early in his career, Hines believes that Herrera is one of the most complete riders he’s ever seen, including his reaction times, his ability to get the bike off the starting line cleanly and to keep it in the groove, and hit all his shift points. Hines admits that Herrera has made a few mistakes, but they’ve all been minor and so far haven’t prevented him from turning on 13 straight win lights, including the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in Joliet.
“On the starting line, his riding style is so clean, and even Eddie [Krawiec, teammate] will admit to this; that we’re at a point where a 1.04 [sixty-foot time] is bad,” Hines said. “I don’t care if it’s nighttime or daylight or if the track is cold or a bit greasy from the sun, I can overlay graphs from run to run and they are nearly identical. That makes the bike super easy to tune. He’s making my job easier, for sure.
“He’s made maybe one minor mistake at each race like a rev limiter tap or his correction has been a tad late, but at this point, he’s the best rider I’ve seen as far as ability to get the bike to 300 feet,” Hines said. “From 500 feet to the finish line, I still think Eddie and Matt [Smith] have an edge. With these bikes, and the 10-inch tire, you can’t road race them. You’ve got to keep the rear tire square to the track. Once you roll the tire, it kills the run. He’s still learning that part of it. At some point, we’re going to have to show him an example of a run that is bad so he knows what it sounds like when the bike is going lean and it’s about to hurt itself. It’s hard to explain those situations. You have to go through them in order to understand, and that’s the next step we need to take with Gaige.”
At some point, Herrera will lose a round, but it’s difficult to say when that might be, or how it might happen. It might even reach the point where his fellow competitors pay homage to Schultz and take up a collection and post a bounty that goes to the first rider to beat him. Pro Stock Motorcycle can be unpredictable, so there’s always a touch of uncertainty, but for the short term, the entire Vance & Hines team is going to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.