Kenny Bernstein broke the 300-mph barrier in Top Fuel more than 30 years ago and the first three-second Top Fuel pass happened 15 years ago. Rob Passey hadn’t done either until Friday of the NHRA Nevada Nationals, but for the self-funded Utah driver, it’s a personal milestone long in the making.
Passey, who funds his low-on-budget, high-on-pride team through his personal landscaping business, runs just a handful of races each season but fulfills the vital role of the underdog, of the man on the street out there living every fan’s dream. Independent racers like him and Scott Farley, Joe Morrison, Steve Faria, Ron Smith, and the dozens before them who labor outside the limelight cast upon the sport’s touring drivers not only help round out the 16-car fields with their busted-knuckle efforts but also keep the big teams honest on raceday.
Prior to this event, Passey, whose career best was a 4.03 at 298 mph, had seen more four-flats than a quadrunner in a nail factory, but finally broke through with a wheels-up 3.989 at 304.05 mph in the opening qualifying session at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“It’s just a magic number to run 300,” he explained. “I've been doing this a long time but hadn’t run 300, and I knew I had to get it before I ever got out. It took me decades longer than I thought it would. I mean, you can go out and buy a ride in a fast car and do it no sweat, but to do it with our team and our car, it's cool.
"You have to listen to people on the internet saying, ‘What are you doing out here?' because we don’t run the big numbers, but this is the only way I know how to do it. I guess I could just sit home with the others and say I want to do it, but that’s not me. We don't have big money. We've got local friends who buy us a barrel of fuel every race or take care of the oil or if we need a little something they'll chip in and help you with a supercharger. The best part is we’re out here having fun, even if it is on different levels.
“The car's going down the track now and not blowing up, and we've got data and something to work with. We don't want to tear anything up or look stupid but we want to learn too. Johnny West has been helping us out the last couple of years, checking in to make sure we're not doing anything stupid and just kind of looking over our shoulders.
"All these guys have pretty much the same stuff and our stuff is good, but there's certain tiers that you have to learn how to get to. I bought the Stage 7 cylinder heads everybody has and now I've got a better blower, but I’m still limited in my clutch department a little bit, running older technology. It works, but now that I want to go a little bit faster, I've got to change a few things. Johnny always tells us, ‘You’ve got to crawl, walk, run,’ so we run a lot smaller fuel pump because when you start putting more fuel into it, it’s a lot less forgiving. If it’s not right — boom! — and we've been there done that a lot.”
Over the past two years, Passey has claimed some big raceday upsets, beating the likes of Doug Kalitta and Brittany Force by making sure his car goes A to B every pass.
“They’ve got to screw up, but I know that, they know that, we all know that, but you gotta be there,” he reasoned. “We want to speak for the little guy because we're as little as you can get and if we can stay in the show, who knows what can happen. Look at Dallas [the recent Texas NHRA FallNationals]. Those guys were just throwing numbers right and left in qualifying but when it came to eliminations, a lot of them smoked the tires because they were still going for the jugular.
“I tell my guys before every run:, 'Enjoy this. We get to do something not a lot of people get to do and would love to be doing what we're doing.' It's a heck of a lot of work, but, you know, just smile and enjoy this because this is fun.”
Passey’s breakthrough run Friday resonated with his peers in the pits who know how long and hard he’s tried to do it, but there were other congratulations that meant just as much or more,
“Just being a little kid out there in Salt Lake and seeing guys like [Utah nitro heroes] Garth Widdison and Dan Richins race, and then have those guys text me and say 'Good job' just means everything. It's cool because I was just a kid watching them, thinking I'd like to be one of those guys. It's just a dream, I love it. People do different things, you know, you're a bowling guy or a fishing guy or a sit-on-the-barstool guy, whatever, this is what we do. And it's as cool today as it was when I started working on my license in 1994.”