It's difficult to say what Larry Morgan is best known for, his skill with the intricacies of a race car or his experience behind the wheel. In either case, well-rounded drag racing veteran Morgan is still going strong, and the 2024 season of the NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series will mark the 40th anniversary of his first win.
"When I first started, I built a Super Stock car in three weeks for the Winternationals," said Morgan, an original bracket racer who was then employed at Gil Kirk's famed Rod Shop in Columbus, Ohio. "That was unheard of, but a bunch of people helped me, and we worked 24/7 for three weeks straight to get it done. You couldn't do that anymore; nobody would even think of doing it. Everything fell into place, like putting a puzzle together. That's how my whole drag racing life started, and a lot of good things have happened to me since then."
Morgan won three races in Super Stock in 1984, the first of which occurred at the Cajun Nationals in Belle Rose, La. The most significant victory in his first season of winning took place at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, where he drove his Castrol GTX-branded Trans Am to victory over Ron Terrell. Five years later, Morgan won Indy again to notch his first professional triumph in a final-round stunner over the King of Pro Stock at the U.S. Nationals, nine-time winner Bob Glidden.
"My son, Nick, was born two weeks before Indy 1989, so that was really, really cool," recalled Morgan, who also defeated Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson that weekend in the Pro Stock shootout bonus event at the most historic racetrack on tour.
Morgan had always been an admirer of the class, but he was initially drawn to compete in Pro Stock as he worked at the Rod Shop alongside Butch Leal. At the time, Morgan was unintentionally strengthening his connections and reputation in the industry through the development of a unique four-cylinder Willie Rells-built Fiero. Morgan was encouraged to build – and, ultimately, drive the unusual race car – with the support of Pontiac and Castrol, as well as Kirk, Bob Riffle, John Callies, and Bruce Meihls.
"I got watching Butch, he was working right beside me on his Pro Stock car, and I was looking at the effort they put towards it, and the effort I was putting toward the four-cylinder," said Morgan. "I told Arlen, 'Hey, when are you going to put me in one of those Pro Stock rides?' I thought it would be much simpler than it was."
Morgan explained that he was fortunate to have had a connection with Arlen Fadely, the drag racing program manager for Oldsmobile's Special Vehicle Operations, which led to a partnership with Bob Panella that put him in the seat of a Pro Stock car for the first time. Morgan expressed gratitude for those that contributed to his career, both from the beginning and through the years, including Ed Bennett, Lou Patane, Mose Nowland, and an assortment of generous sponsors through the years.
"Bob Panella had the resources and always did things in the proper way, and he really helped me get started," said Morgan, whose three wins in Super Stock were eventually complemented by four in Comp and 12 in Pro Stock.
"It all came together extremely fast for me in the beginning," he continued. "It was like, I had all these opportunities in my hands at one time, and I needed to grasp one of them. But I was drawn to it, because Pro Stock was about moving forward, making things better.
"Butch Leal, he was a really, really good driver. I just admired those people – Bob Glidden, David Reher and Buddy Morrison, Bruce Allen. I was a big fan of theirs. Frank Iaconio, Warren Johnson. The thing is, we loved that stuff, and we looked up to them because of what they'd done and how they had to approach drag racing."
Morgan sunk his teeth into Pro Stock, relishing the engine work as well as the driving, and he became a true contender in a category packed with die-hard, grease-grubby racers in a mad battle for the upper hand. Over the course of his career as a driver, Morgan has so far finished No. 3 in the nation twice and landed well in the top 10 on many occasions. He'll race again this year in Pro Stock on a part-time schedule with team owner Mark Beaver.
Alongside his family, the Ohio-based businessman also owns and operates Larry Morgan Racing, rendering and developing high-performance parts, from super chargers to connecting rods and beyond. They also build and refresh engines for a full-service offering.
For Morgan, the support of his family in all of his endeavors of the utmost importance, particularly that of his wife, Diane.
"When I told Diane I wanted to race for a living, she said, 'Have you lost your ever-loving mind?' But since then, I've been able to do this," said Morgan. "If it wasn't for my wife being my backbone the whole career, I probably wouldn't have done it."
Since 2018, Morgan has also had the honor of working side-by-side with Frank Manzo – the acclaimed tuner, 17-time world champion, and third-most-winning driver in NHRA history – on the Pro Mod car driven by Mike Castellana, and Morgan will be back with the team again this year. Last year, the group earned their first world title together in an incredible series of events that moved them up from third to No. 1 just as the curtain was dropping on the season.
"What an exciting deal," said Morgan, with a tone of awe. "It's just like my whole career, things have just happened. I get to race with the best – Frank Manzo, Mike Castellana, John Glade, and Chris Menapace is an up-and-coming kid, what a hard worker. I'm pretty blessed right now. I get to work with my heroes, plus still go out and have fun.
"In Pro Stock, I get to drive the car and help Mark Beaver out, and that's a good group of guys. I still love Pro Stock, I love Pro Mod, and I'm just having fun being part of the sport. At this point, I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help people out. If it wasn't for drag racing, I wouldn't have a thing in my life. I have something to offer, and I just want to make sure people can use it."