NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Phil Unruh found speed, momentum, and a shot at a title with an unusual approach

Phil Unruh is a guy that likes to think outside of the box, and in last season's NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series championship competition, his willingness to veer off the beaten path brought him close to the big trophy in Super Gas.
02 Feb 2023
Kelly Wade
Phil Unruh

Diverse drag racer Phil Unruh is a guy that likes to think outside of the box, and in last season's NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series championship competition, his willingness to veer off the beaten path brought him quite close to the big trophy in Super Gas. McPherson, Kan., racer Unruh took a somewhat unusual approach when putting together the fuel delivery system for his '67 Chevrolet Camaro Super Gas roadster, and ultimately, he finished No. 2 in the nation and just a handful of marks away from the championship with one of the fastest cars in the category.

Unruh admits that he wasn't particularly looking for speed when he reached for the Holley Terminator X electronic fuel injection (EFI) system. He and longtime racing buddy Justin Lamb were just looking for a way to address a rather simple problem.

"I wasn't trying to be the fastest car, but I didn't want to be the slowest one, either," said Unruh. "The Super Gas cars just leave so violent that fuel wants to slosh around in the carburetors, so we thought maybe we'd give fuel injection a try. It seemed to work." 

Uncertain of the outcome, though, Unruh didn't start the year with the EFI system. After a quarterfinals finish at the Las Vegas NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, he won the first leg of the double Lucas Oil Series event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the following weekend and was having a pretty good season with the carbureted set-up.

Very few competitors had yet to opt for fuel injection in Super Gas, and performance was yet to be proven, but Unruh got itchy.

"I had no idea it would work," Unruh said. "It's just an off-the-shelf – almost more of a street car fuel injection set-up – that I had bought a year before, and it had been sitting on my shelf. I was hesitant to put it on. But after I won Vegas and made a few deep races, all of a sudden right in the middle of the season I decided to change it. 

"I went out and tested – it was better than I thought it would be the first time out, but it was far from perfect. My wife, Carla, told me, 'You gotta get that thing off before we go to Topeka. It's not figured out yet.' I almost put the carburetor back on it, but Justin said, 'No, I think we can get it to work.' " 

That confidence was immediately validated as he catapulted to the final round in the first leg of the double divisional at Heartland Motorsports Park. At the Topeka national event two weeks later, he reached the semifinals, and in early September, Unruh got his first taste of victory utilizing Holley EFI on the Chevy roadster. 

"We ended up winning Earlville, which is a track that's been pretty good to us," said Unruh, who doubled up with wins in Top Dragster and Super Stock at the division race at Tri-State Raceway in Earlville, Iowa, in 2014.

After claiming his first Super Gas division win with the EFI set-up, Unruh went four rounds at the St. Louis divisional, where he also clocked an impressive speed of 182.01 mph. One week later, he secured the seventh national event trophy of his career and first in Super Gas with a decisive win at the NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex – at the very racetrack where he claimed his first victory wheeling a Top Dragster in 2011. 

Unruh took over the Super Gas points lead with last season's Dallas win, and although he ultimately forfeited the world championship to NHRA Finals winner Bob Locke by 11 points, it was an intense battle, and he was pleased to secure his fourth NHRA West Central division championship. Unruh was the Division 5 Top Dragster champion in both 2012 and 2106, and he won the Super Stock division title in 2014. 

The 2023 season will add another facet to Unruh's varied racing career as he steps into a Lazarus Race Cars Chevrolet Camaro that he purchased from Pro Stock veteran V. Gaines. The car was built for Gaines and is still brand new, but instead of Pro Stock, Unruh plans to run it in the B/A class in Comp at select races. He'll still compete in Super Gas, though, and he'll move forward with the EFI project.

"It's still far from perfect, but we put an entry-level system on it just to see if it would work, and now that we've seen it has a lot of potential, we're going to switch over to something a little more race-oriented," said Unruh. 

"I'm having fun in Super Gas. I dabbled but didn't seriously set out to race a Pro Tree until a couple years ago, and I drive better than I thought I would with it. But I'm excited to run Comp next year, to be honest. I tend to have the 'been there, done that' syndrome. I don't see how some of these guys can continue to run the same car and the same class year after year. I get bored and need a new challenge." 

That statement explains how it came to be that Unruh has competed in every class in the Lucas Oil Series aside from Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. He also admits that he is prone to making swift decisions. 

After winning the JEGS Allstars in Top Dragster in 2014, Unruh returned to Route 66 Raceway the following season for an outstanding outing. There at Chicago's Route 66 Raceway, he beat Sean Cour for the Allstars title in Super Stock, then ran dead-on his dial to defeat Brad Zaskowski in the main event. Naturally, he returned to Route 66 Raceway in 2016 with high hopes.

"But I lost first round in the Allstars and the national, and I got mad and wrote 'For Sale' on the back window of the Cobalt," he admitted. "Somebody came and bought it out of my pit spot, and on the way home I ordered the [twin turbo C7] Corvette to run in Top Sportsman. I'm pretty spur of the moment – it's usually just, 'Hey, let's try this.' " 

The formula has so far been successful in meeting Unruh's targeted levels of satisfaction, but last season created a shift in what the electrical contractor-by-trade deemed possible, and that fresh knowledge may well shape his future. 

"Winning the Allstars twice and doubling with the Allstars and national event win are two things I'm proud of, but after chasing the world this year and getting so close to winning the championship, it put things in a different perspective," he said. "Up until this year, I didn't think I was a world championship caliber racer. I knew I was Top 10, but I didn't think I was a national championship racer. I proved myself wrong."