Much attention falls on either those who qualify best and/or win at an NHRA national event, and rightfully so. But for Shane Tucker and his UrPay Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock team, their most recent triumph came in a different form at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Peak Performance. In what is transpiring to be an increasingly intense season for the naturally aspirated factory hot rods, Tucker qualified for the field. That small win was huge for the native (and resident) of Gold Coast, Australia, who restructured much of his life to run the full 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule for the first time.
Tucker is motivated by more than winning an NHRA Wally; his father, Rob Tucker, leads the team as owner and tuner (alongside Pro Stock long-timers Brian "Lump" Self and Tommy Lee). For the Tucker clan, running with the big dogs in the class on American soil is a meaningful accomplishment, and it's one that they're achieving as a family.
Papa Tucker is, himself, a Pro Stock racer. The 1998 Australian Pro Stock champion made his NHRA debut in 2021 at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk. After eight years absent as a wheelman, he stepped up to fill in for son Shane, who was attending to business in Australia and couldn't make the event. Although the elder Tucker never officially retired from driving, his focus in recent years has been on establishing Rob Tucker Racing in the United States. He's laid down roots with a home and shop in the Charlotte, N.C., area, with the sole goal of running a competitive NHRA Pro Stock program – from owning the whole kit and caboodle to building the 500-cid engines.
"I guess I didn't really get it too much," admitted Tucker. "I was a young kid before, and all I cared about was winning. But when you're doing the stuff yourself, there is a sense of pride in being out here and mixing it up with some of the best in the world. When we ran good in testing, I finally realized why my dad does it, why he perseveres so much. There is such a sense of gratification in running your own stuff."
What the Rob Tucker Racing (RTR) team saw in testing was promising, but once they bellied up to the table, they came to know quickly – and somewhat painfully – how they stacked up with the competition. The first four races brought about struggles that they did not anticipate, and the team missed the field in their first four attempts. They knew something needed to change, and so they turned to Elite Motorsports to rent an engine ahead of the race in Charlotte.
"We hurt some parts in Phoenix, rolled into Pomona, and it didn't look so good – then we blew one up in Vegas in the first session, and that really didn't help," Tucker said on Friday at zMAX Dragway. "It's been a frustrating year, but we've got a new game plan between now and the end of the year. We've got an Elite engine, and we're going back to the drawing board with our stuff. We'll bring it back out when we know it's really good.
"It's a little disappointing to not have our engines out here right now, but in the same vein, we need to do what's best for the team. We have a really good partner with UrPay Payment Solutions. They've put faith in us, and that's really humbling; we need to make sure we do right by them. It's not about us all the time. It's important for us to put ego aside and do the best for the team."
Although the decision to go with an Elite Motorsports powerplant did not immediately prove fruitful, it gained steam heading into Chicago and allowed Tucker to finally qualify.
Their weekend in Chicago began on a disappointing note as a two-dollar part broke in their first qualifying session at Route 66 Raceway, but after a late-night and early-morning thrash, their UrPay Chevrolet was raring to go for Q2 on Saturday. An improved 6.603 was decent, though nerve-wracking, as it left one final session to solidify their position in the field. The team celebrated boisterously on the starting line as a 6.558 at 210.21 mph popped up on the scoreboard in their last hit. The e.t. was good for the No. 13 position and, most importantly, a race-day start.
In the first round and with renewed enthusiasm, the driver was wide awake with a .019-second reaction time, and although opponent Bo Butner surged ahead to claim the win light, Tucker's 6.590, 210.18 was only .018 behind.
"We made some big strides in the right direction this weekend," said Tucker. "We're not quite there and probably missed it slightly on the set-up, but all-in-all, it was a positive weekend. You go out there for round one, and there are, legitimately, 16 cars that can win the event. I'm super proud of our team, to be involved in a 16-car field where it's that tight. You know, we're just a bunch of misfits. But we've got an opportunity."
Tucker doesn't take the opportunity lightly and was well-prepared coming into the season. In addition to testing with the team – and finding that they gelled quickly and well – he made significant and positive personal changes.
"I made a couple of commitments to myself before the season," shared Tucker. "I wanted to rebuild myself into something and make sure there is no stone unturned when I turn up. One thing was giving away drinking. Does drinking put you off, make you slower, make you react differently – who knows, but I thought if I took that out of the equation, it would be one less thing to think about.
"Another was training. I've been training pretty hard, just to stay focused and on track. I've enjoyed my fitness as it was, so it wasn't really a difficult task to make sure I'm fit to be at all the races this year – because that is very draining. But look, I feel I'm in really good shape right now, and I'm focused. I feel I can keep the momentum going."
It matters very much to Tucker that he maximizes the time he commits to NHRA Pro Stock; his wife and two daughters are watching and cheering him on from home in Australia.
"They've been really supportive," said Tucker. "This is something we've been working toward for, probably, the last nine years. They've been really good about it, and I'm sure it's going to be difficult at times, but hopefully, we can make the best of the opportunity."