Second-year Chevrolet Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray became the youngest professional series champion in National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) history by qualifying in to top half of the 16-car field for the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway.
Gray (19 years, six months), driver of the Gray Motorsports/Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro SS, will seek to earn his eighth victory of the season Nov. 11 to close out a stellar year. The No. 6 qualifier, he’ll be matched against his father Shane in the first round.
“It means a lot. It’s been a heck of a year,” said Gray, who takes a 97-35 elimination round record into his 48th race day. “We started pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure we would be in this position. We were just able to find something, and everything just started clicking from there.
“We did so much testing and nothing seemed to be paying off. Then it seemed like a light switch flipped and everything started coming together. We had a strong run going there and can into the Countdown and executed on race day really well. I couldn’t be more grateful for the guys working on my car and everyone who contributed to this moment I get so much support from (crew chief) Dave (Connolly) and my parents and grandparents, too. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Gray, who at 17 became the NHRA’s youngest pro event winner, was the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ top rookie in 2017 with five wins in the 24-race season. This season, he took over first place in the standings for good with a victory in the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals over Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis. He’s claimed two of his class-high seven wins in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
LE Tonglet (20 years, 11 months) was the previous youngest NHRA series champion in 2010 in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Larry Lombardo (27 years, 7 months) in 1976 was the previous youngest Pro Stock champion.
Chevrolet has powered the Pro Stock champion for five years in a row (Bo Butner in 2017, Jason Line in ’16, Erica Enders in ’14 and ’15). Entering the season finale Nov. 11, five-time class champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. is the No. 1 qualifier with a pass of 6.510 seconds in the JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro SS.
“First off, I want to congratulate Tanner Gray and Gray Motorsports on their Pro Stock championship season. We made a great run in that last pass,” said Coughlin, who is among 10 Chevrolet Pro Stock drivers to visit the winner’s circle this season. “Now we’ll try to finish strong and take second place on the year.”
Robert Hight will attempt to secure his second consecutive NHRA Funny Car title in the Auto Club of Southern Chevrolet Camaro SS. The John Force Racing driver, who enters eliminations second to J.R. Todd, qualified fifth and could face off against Todd in the second round.
“At the beginning of the year you want to be in this position at the end of the season with a chance to win the championship,” said Hight, who has claimed two of his four wins this season in the Countdown. “This Auto Club Chevy and this team, we are in the hunt. We just have to make it happen.”
Teammate Courtney Force was the No. 6 qualifier in the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS, while 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force was the No. 10 qualifier driving the PEAK Coolant & Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS.
Brittany Force, who locked up the 2017 Top Fuel title with a victory at Auto Club Raceway, qualified third in the Monster Energy Chevrolet dragster.
FS1 will telecast eliminations and finals at 4 p.m. ET Nov. 11.
An interview with Pro Stock champion TANNER GRAY, GRAY MOTORSPORTS/VALVOLINE CHEVROLET CAMARO SS:
HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW?
“I don’t think I’ve been this nervous for qualifying since my first race here in Pomona.”
YOU’VE HAD QUITE A SECOND SEASON
“It’s been a heck of a year. We started pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure we would be in this position. We were just able to find something, and everything just started clicking from there. We did so much testing and nothing seemed to be paying off. Then it seemed like a light switch flipped and everything started coming together. We had a strong run going there and can into the Countdown and executed on race day really well”
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE DAVE CONNOLLY AS YOUR CREW CHIEF?
“It means a lot to me (to give him the title). It’s been a lot of fun working with Dave. I was a fan of Dave as a kid, waiting for him outside his trailer so I could talk to him. About 2013, we became somewhat friends and 2014 he came over and raced for us. He used to help me out a lot. Everyone who knows Dave knows how competitive he is. We’d sit on the practice Tree and he’d pretty much make fun of me everything he’d crack me. But we had fun with it. He’s pushed me to be better every weekend. Sometimes he has weird ways of doing it, but he’s the best at what he does. He’s one of the all-time greats in my opinion and I’d love to see him back out here in a car. My dad and grandpa have been there, too. My dad taught me how to do burnouts and got me going and he is someone who I can really lean on, especially in my first year for advice. It’s been a lot of fun. Moments like these make it all worth it.”
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO GET A CHAMPIONSHIP FOR YOUR FAMILY AS WELL AS YOU?
“It means a lot. It’s been a long, hard road. They started at the bottom trying at it and they worked their way up.”
Inside Track Communications PR/Photo Credit NHRA Media