April 6, 2014 — series release — NHRA photo — DENVER, N.C. — Veteran drag racer Johnny Gray had a vision of putting together an NHRA Pro Stock team that could win championships with engine power generated in-house.
From the vision, Gray Motorsports was born in 2010 as a two-car team with son Shane making his debut to race alongside his father in a category made up of wickedly finicky naturally aspirated factory hot rods. This year, Johnny’s youngest son, Jonathan, signed up for the challenge and made his debut at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville with pleasing results, just a handful of days after receiving his Pro Stock license.
“I’ve watched him drive other cars, and this didn’t surprise me at all,” said Johnny. “Jonathan had some laps in some good Comp cars, and he’s gone pretty fast. He’s got dirt-track experience, so he has a decent feel for a car. He’s a real laid-back kid and doesn’t get real excited. That combination works out pretty good for Pro Stock. My kids were raised around racing, and Shane took to it just like a duck to water, too. I’m very, very proud of both of them.”
Shane raced the single car for the team, and Johnny raced a Funny Car from 2011 to the end of 2013, when the Gray Motorsports Pro Stock team expanded to include driver Dave Connolly. Behind the scenes, the talent pool deepened as well, from the engine shop to at-track support, including new crew chief Tommy Utt, who joined Justin Elkes to make the calls for both Gray Motorsports cars.
The category is brutal, with wins and losses routinely determined by the slimmest of margins and driver ability on the starting line and at each shift point along the quarter-mile journey playing a key role in success or failure. Unlike with the monstrous nitro-powered Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters, there is no room for error in a Pro Stock car. A mistake at the starting line often cannot be overcome by sheer power.
However, the challenge allows for an incredible sense of reward when everything comes together. For Jonathan, things came together quickly. Little more than a week after making his first pass in a Pro Stock car, he first accomplished the feat of qualifying for the Gatornationals and then calmly cut a .004-second light next to former world champion Allen Johnson in the first round of eliminations. Jonathan missed the win light by just .008-second and established himself as a driver who should not be taken lightly.
“I knew going up there that the only chance I had was to go as soon as I saw the light,” said Jonathan. “That’s what we did; we just didn’t come out on the winning end of the deal. I’m not disappointed at all, and I wasn’t nervous going up there. I was actually more pumped up than I’ve ever been in any kind of racing I’ve ever done. I don’t show it, but I feel it. I’m excited for my next race – the four-wide in Charlotte – for sure.”
Johnny encouraged Jonathan to move up to Pro Stock several years ago, but for the youngest son of the avid racer, the timing simply didn’t feel right. Jonathan raced a limited schedule in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series for a couple of seasons and then returned to dirt racing in a local late model series with power generated in-house at the Gray Motorsports facility in Denver, N.C. Although he enjoyed dirt-track racing, the eventual pull toward Pro Stock was inevitable.
When Jonathan and Shane brought the idea to the table – for Jonathan to license in a third Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro and race alongside his brother and Connolly – Johnny was supportive though somewhat taken aback.
“I was thinking, ‘I had him in a Comp car a few years back and tried to get him to try Pro Stock, but he didn’t want to,’ ” said Johnny. “Kids are funny, aren’t they?”
To that end, Johnny is keeping a cautious distance as his youngest offspring learns the ropes in a category of racing that requires incredible precision and finesse. A proficient, diverse driver and multitime national event winner both as a Sportsman racer and in a nitro Funny Car, Johnny has a lifetime of experience to share but recognizes the dynamics that would surely play a role in the effectiveness of his advice.
“I have a hard time because of my nature, but I’m trying to keep my mouth shut,” Johnny admitted. “Anybody will tell you that your kids are going to take advice from anyone but you. That’s just nature. And in all seriousness, Tommy Lee [who joins Elkes and Utt as a crew chief for the team] is just doing an awesome job getting Jonathan going, just like Jim Yates did a wonderful job getting Shane going. That’s just the way it works – I’m not going to say that my kids don’t pay attention and listen to what I say, and they probably do more than I realize, but if you start giving too much advice, you can get into trouble. That’s just the way kids are, period.”
Jonathan and Shane’s mother, Terry, has been a central figure at the racetrack for decades, supporting her husband as he raced in various forms of motorsports. Now, she enthusiastically welcomes Jonathan to the Gray Motorsports Pro Stock team and the opportunity to see her two sons race together.
“I was shocked, but I was excited when Jonathan told us he wanted to race Pro Stock,” said Terry. “I’ve been hoping he would find something he really enjoys, and Jonathan is really in love with this right at the minute. He’s really calm, and that makes me calm. I think it’s huge for him to come out and have a competitor like Allen in the other lane first round of competition and be that focused. That’s pretty amazing. I am proud, and I’m proud for him. This seems to be something he is really passionate about, and that makes me very happy.”
Johnny says that the future of Jonathan’s Pro Stock career will be determined by the team’s ability to find sponsorship. While the youngest Gray is fired up, Johnny is reasonable in approach. The number of races that Jonathan will run will depend on funding.
“We’ll see what the season brings, but hopefully we can bring some more sponsorship onboard and put him out there and let him pounce on these old boys,” said Johnny.
Dad is also reasonable about any potential rivalry for Jonathan with Shane.
“Shane is very, very proud of his little brother, and I know Jonathan is just as proud of what Shane has done in his short stint out here. I think they’ll be very supportive of each other. But I will tell you that when they pull up beside each other on the racetrack, they’ll be going for the throat. That’s just bragging rights.”
The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series returns to the staging lanes April 11th-13th for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals from zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.