So far this season, the Pro Stock results have been a bit, well, unexpected. In a class where previous champions have relentlessly dominated in recent years, fresh faces are showing up in winner's circle photos and top-end No. 1 qualifier snapshots, and Matt Hartford is elated to have his name in the mix.
The 2023 season of Pro Stock in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series marks Hartford's 17th in the class, and thus far, it has been both fruitful and promising.
"We've been working on this since 2006," said Hartford, who made his Pro Stock debut that year in Reading with Steve Schmidt equipment and finally claimed the first No. 1 qualifier award of his career at this season's NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas.
"It's been a long time coming."
Early in his career, Hartford raced a handful of events here and there. Eddie Guarnaccia came to the team as crew chief in 2013, and that season, they began to ramp up their schedule, gradually increasing their Pro Stock workload until 2019, when they raced the full schedule for the first time. Competing at every event on the schedule provided Hartford with the opportunity to buckle down and show what he was capable of accomplishing.
In the 18 events on the 2019 schedule, he reached six final rounds and locked in a dramatic win over Greg Anderson in the Seattle final, thereby earning the badge of "dream crusher" as he extinguished Anderson's near completion of sweeping the Western Swing in the final six seconds.
Prior to that breakout year, Hartford hadn't exactly walked softly in the world of drag racing – the diverse racer had won 2001 and 2002 titles in the now-defunct Sport Compact series, as well as a 2009 Mountain Motor championship with another sanctioning body.
But 2019 was different, and Hartford climbed as high as No. 2 in the NHRA Pro Stock standings with a real shot at the championship. Ultimately, the Scottsdale, Ariz., resident ended the season a career-high No. 5 in the points.
Even when he hasn't been in the championship hunt, Hartford has been quietly threatening. He's earned a Pro Stock trophy each season since 2018, and although he has yet to finalize that important goal this year – at least in terms of national event wins – his Total Seal/CIP1 Chevrolet Camaro has emerged as one of the most powerful hot rods in the class. In Phoenix, he claimed top speed of the meet (211.10 mph), and at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, he scored the title in the specialty race – the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge. Hartford went on to reach the final round at the main event the very next day, coming up just .003-second short to Dallas Glenn.
In Las Vegas, he accomplished something he had long been aiming for when he clocked a bold 6.599-second pass in qualifying to lock down his first low qualifier award.
"Some people come out here and get a No. 1 within the first few races," he said. "You just watch and go, 'Someday.' But KB Titan Racing is building great power right now, and our team has really jelled. We just keep our heads down, keep focused, and take it one run at a time."
So far in 2023, Hartford has earned 15 bonus points in qualifying, regularly showing up with one of the quickest cars. The only driver in the category to have swept up more bonus points (marks awarded to the three quickest cars in each qualifying session) is current class leader Glenn, with 18.
Last season, Hartford's Jerry Haas-built Chevrolet Camaro was sturdy, and with one win in two final rounds, he had something to show for it. For a driver with a finely honed competitive edge, though, those results weren't enough. Ahead of the new year, the team hunkered down and made a plan.
"We're extremely focused on not beating ourselves, making the right decisions, and trying not to get ahead of ourselves," he said. "We looked back at last year, and we let a lot of things get away from us. The box score didn't necessarily show it, but we had a pretty fast car from Denver on.
"This year, our goal was to come out here, focus on what we know, and forget about any distractions. I don't care what's going on with Greg Anderson, Erica Enders, or anyone else. It doesn't matter. If we set up the car correctly, I let the clutch out on time and hit my shift points, let the win lights come on where they may. You can't be worried about who's in the other lane, what they're thinking, or why they're faster. We're not out socializing or hanging out. We're working on our car and staying in our own little box."
Ahead of the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, the fifth of 18 races for Pro Stock this season, Hartford sits No. 3 in the standings. Although four-wide racing has been his nemesis, he is not allowing the coming event to derail his team's momentum. Hartford would surely be pleased to avenge the second-round holeshot loss suffered in Las Vegas, but his attention is fixed on the small pieces that are building a larger picture.
"We've come from the bottom, and we've worked our way up," said Hartford. "Our whole goal is to turn that yellow No. 1 qualifier hat into a blue winner's hat, and then turn that blue hat into a white [championship] hat. We plan to do that by keeping our heads down and looking at every detail."