Written by Courtney Enders-Lambert
Photography by Manufacturers and FSC Archives
Like it, love it, or hate it, Pro Modified is one of the most intriguing classes that modern drag racing has to offer. If you’re nodding in agreement, then you get the reason why the Pro Mod racers and fans are hooked. It doesn’t matter if you’re into the NMCA, NHRA, PDRA, Mid-West Pro Mod, North East Outlaw Pro Mod, Radial vs. The World, or any number of local competitions; there are many incredible competitors, variations of powerplants, and diverse body style options to fancy all tastes. You’ve got everything from new Camaros to classic Willy’s and Corvettes. And each one draws a crowd for its swoopy and unique look.
Modern Pro Mods are running over 260 mph and under 6-seconds in a door car with suspension. It wasn’t long ago that Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny cars weren’t that fast in rigid cars. The builders and tuners are simply brilliant. I’m personally a fan and always have been, but the more I work in the class and the more knowledge I soak up from the great tuners, builders, teams, and drivers of the class, the more I see how much really goes into achieving this level of performance.
I had the pleasure of chatting with a handful of the most prominent chassis builders in drag racing to see how far technology has taken these cars. Rick Jones, Jerry Bickel, and Larry Jeffers were kind enough to take a few minutes out of their busy shop days to scratch the surface on the evolution of the class. In today’s world, you can race a Pro Mod car just about anywhere, any way. While this creates a huge opportunity for growth, it also brings to some issues to the table.
There are many factors to consider when building a car for a customer. What will it look like? What kind of power will you be running? Will it be raced in the NMCA, NHRA, or at a Radial vs. The World race with a completely different set of rules? So much goes into how these machines are built from the ground up and each of these builders have diverse methods, styles of customers, and innovative design and safety ideas that create several options for racers to choose from when they begin to build their dream machines.
A lot has changed in the last decade or so for not only the Pro Mod, but for drag racing as a whole. As the changes happen, the chassis builders adjust rapidly to keep up with multiple power adders, rule changes, advancing safety and mechanical technology, the evolution of the prepped/no-prep transitions and countless variables in between. With so many different options to actually race the class, naturally the way the cars are constructed is going to vary as well. In talking with the experts, I not only learned more about the technical side of the class, but the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the process from the drawing board to the water box. I could have written a book based off of the technical information and modern day requirements that have evolved since these guys have been in business. The countless cars that have left each of these shops have all started as an idea and were brought to life by the builders and their staff of fabricators. The experience they’ve gained through the years is unimaginable thanks to the quick pace of the sport.
“Ten years ago we were the number-one chassis builder in Pro Stock,” veteran builder Jerry Bickel explained. “I began to see a deterioration in the profitability of these cars and this class, so we had to adapt. There was so much competitiveness that I just had to look around to see if there was something else we could do here. I saw this Pro Mod category and I thought, ‘If I take all of this technology and learning I’ve done with Pro Stock and apply it here, maybe it’ll take off.’ That’s what I did… and it did.”
Channeling the Power
Bickel quickly learned that the style of power adders dictates different chassis designs to ensure the maximum performance.
“Nitrous chassis took a particular design, blower cars another, and the turbos had yet another design, so we had a lot of work to do to be competitive across the board,” said Bickel. “I had Frank Manzo and Todd Tutterow helping us with blowers. I had Pro Line and (Steve) Petty helping me with the turbochargers and I had Rickie Smith and other guys helping me with the nitrous cars. We developed a design for each power adder and we have continuously worked on the evolution of each ever since then. It seems to have worked out well for us because we have a lot of customers who run within all of the power adders.”
With a similar tone, but a little different angle, Rick Jones of Quarter-Max Chassis and Racing Components digs slightly below the surface on some of the initial differences they have to keep in mind when starting the design of a new build.
“There so many variables to consider with each power-adder option when building a car for a customer. Depending on what they are going to run, where and who is driving, we can adjust things like wheel base, build with the engine in different locations, even different styles of chassis,” said Jones. “We could have one customer wanting a stiffer chassis than the next guy. Some racers want different things even down to the four-link and suspension. The differences in the power adders come from instances like the turbo cars not hitting as hard early, and the blower cars having a ‘power right now’ attitude, which is similar with ProChargers, I believe. Long story short, they all definitely take different setups and styles, rule variables, etc. It’s a challenge, but I can do that with good feedback from good customers.”
While each builder emphasized the positives of the variety of power adders in the category, Larry Jeffers also brought to light a few of the negative effects he’s seen, to play devil’s advocate here.
“Each power adder is so different in each way. Yes the technology has advanced and the cars are going fast on multiple surfaces, but to me it seems with the changes made with rules inconsistently, we’ve almost gone backward,” Jeffers explained. “Yes, there are more ways to run these things, and they are all so cool, but what I’ve found is the more options there are, the more rule adjustments that will need to be made. This then means slowing down progress in attempt to even out the playing field. Don’t get me wrong, rules are necessary and they do a pretty good job with it, but it’s still change. People complain because ‘this guy with this power adder and their rules make him faster than me, and a lot of times changes are made from those complaints alone. It needs to be addressed, but the better teams are still going to rise to the top. It’s just going to take more time and money is all. I like the challenge of the variety.”
In a business of passion, like drag racing, the relationship with the customer is so important. Rick, Larry, and Jerry are all so proud of the relationships they’ve built through the years within their business. From the first phone call, to rule changes needing to be made mid-season or off-season, they are all heavily involved.
“From the start, we are constantly working with the customer through the build,” Jones said. “Racers have been getting smarter over the years and figuring out the variables. It’s a challenge to keep up with sometimes. We are constantly asking ourselves ‘how can we make the car better,’ and that boils down to good feedback from customers and working with them to give them a safe race car—bottom line.”
“I feel I have the best customers. With folks like Elite, Stevie (Jackson), Jay Cox and others, the bottom line is I have good customers that give me good feedback,” Jones continued. “These guys, and gal, are great drivers and their feedback does a lot for our process and how we adapt and evolve.”
Adaptation and Aerodynamics
Adaptation is the name of the game these days. Every inch of these cars is constructed with safety and performance in mind, but a few of the other major factors that kept coming up are aerodynamics, weight, rule consistency, and safety.
“When it comes to weight, most of these cars, nowadays, are pretty close to their minimum with no ballast,” Bickel said. “The body has a lot to do with that. When building, we put a lot of consideration into what the body will weigh so we can build accordingly. The later model molds that are out there, the bodies come out lighter and that’s just a fact. That’s why you don’t see many older-style cars like we used to. The molds are 25 years old and they don’t have the capability of building those as light these days.”
A class that could please all taste buds, Pro Mod is a class that I remember growing up and not only being in awe of how incredibly fast they were, but how just flat-out cool they looked. Lately, we aren’t seeing as much variety as we used to, but guys like Bickel see this as an advantage in a way. “You have guys who favor the nostalgia look and feel of the class, which is important. I would think the average spectator is the younger guys and they like the newer cars, and us older guys like the nostalgic look of the older cars so it creates a great balance for the class across the country,” he said.
“The class started out with an old body style trend—’57 Chevy and Willys, ’38 Chevys, ’63 Corvettes, and such. Lately you are seeing a lot more late-model Camaros out there and weight has a lot to do with why,” said Jones. “The question is out there… are they faster? A lot of people have been talking negatively about this transition, even comparing it to what’s happening in Pro Stock, but people are going to follow the faster cars. Nobody comes out here to lose, so all racers want to find every .001 of a second they can to improve their program, and the market adapts.”
Each of these guys take pride in sharing their knowledge, experience, and technology to give the customer exactly what they came looking for. “If a guy asks me what is the most aerodynamic car out there, I tell him my opinion, whatever it may be at that time,” Bickel said. “If he tells me he wants to build a ’69 Camaro or a Corvette or whatever he wants, I’ll tell him my opinions on that too, but it’s more the individual’s final goal that matters. Some don’t care to set the world record every time down the track and want to do it for fun while being competitive. But there are others who are in deeper. Others do it for a living, and while there aren’t too many left, those guys are the ones who are interested in the .002 difference that a body style would give.”
Much like Jones explained, Jeffers acknowledges that the performance benefits in the lighter more ‘aerodynamic’ body styles, but it’s not game changing.
“If a customer is asking about aerodynamics and my opinions on the benefits, I would say eighth-mile I don’t think so much, but once you get over that 200mph range like the quarter-mile guys do, aerodynamics start to become more of a factor,” he explained. “I can confidently say we don’t know exactly how much, but I take it into consideration when working out the build with a customer. On the other hand, while there are so many variables, it’s still a tuner’s race at the end of the day. You can build the best car in the world and sell it to a team that doesn’t know what they are doing, and never do any good with it. Then you can have a car that was dubbed ‘crappy,’ let a good race team’s tuner and driver get a hold of it, and you can go win races. All we try to do is give a customer a good solid, consistent race car that is safe, repeats, and can do what the tuners want it to do.”
So what is the most aerodynamic Pro Mod body style out there? There isn’t much debate about it as Jerry Bickel explained.
“The most aerodynamic car we have out there right now is that late-model Camaro,” he said. “It’s been in GM’s wind tunnel and it has the lowest CD (Coefficient of Drag) of any car that has ever been there. Now, with that being said, that versus the ’69 Camaro—which has never been in the wind tunnel—there may be just a couple of thousandths and maybe 1-mph difference, but still a difference. If you’ve got a customer that is ready to address every option for advantages, big or small, this is an issue, but if that 1-2 MPH or couple thousandths aren’t as important to them there, some customers may reach for that advantage elsewhere.”
As I said, if time and space allowed, all three could have continued to dig deeper and deeper into the research and development that goes into finding all of these small advantages. From finding .001 of a second in ET in a body style to the newest technology in suspension, every literal inch matters and the experience these builders gain from each car that leaves their shops, regardless of class even, is invaluable.
“Aerodynamics may not seem to have much to do with Pro Mod, but it really does,” Jones interjected. “I think that is one of the reasons people are leaning toward the new body styles—whether its a half-mph or .002, they all want all they can get. Some of the leading teams are learning from the technology that is important to Pro Stock, where we are concentrating more on things like suspension technologies, dumps, aero stuff, and things like that. Those variables have transitioned over to Pro Mod as well. Some people will say these variables aren’t as important in a class like Pro Mod as it is in, let’s say, Pro Stock, but if you can get any kind of advantage, why wouldn’t the racer take it?”
Above all else, the most important variable in each of the builder’s process is safety, period. The sanctioning bodies work closely with each, taking their thoughts and ideas into consideration when it comes to creating their rules for the class, but each Bickel, Jones, and Jeffers were quick to take it further than just what is required for safety.
There have been a lot of great, innovative changes to keep safety as up to date as possible in the recent years.
“One advantage we have here at my shop is that we’ve built so many cars through the years. With anything, the more you know, the better,” Bickel said. “My priority is to build the safest car possible—every time. For instance, one thing we’ve found is the quicker they go, the more power they are making. With power comes more strain and each power adder puts it on different areas of the chassis,” he explained. “You can take a blower car and it strains one area, and a nitrous car in another. Then you take a turbo car, which I thought since they didn’t leave as hard they wouldn’t strain as bad, but turns out they are the most brutal on a chassis. This is where experience and feedback come into play. When we find an area that breaks, we fix it and try to make sure it won’t break there again. We’ve been in pretty good shape in the last two years or so on chassis strain and issues there. We’ve got a good hold on it.”
In Pro Mod, stuff happens. It’s exciting to watch, but in all reality, it’s a wildly dangerous class that is notorious for having on track incidents. The competition is so fierce that everybody is constantly ‘on kill,’ so to speak. When something happens, changes can be made mid-season to prevent future incidents, and that can be its own challenge for builders and racers.
“Anytime there is an unfortunate situation with a crash or fire and there is anything we can do to make the cars better through these mishaps, I see it as a positive,” said Jones. “When it comes to safety, that’s always my main concern and we will help the NHRA in anyway that we can. We actually have a big meeting with them coming up in St. Louis to talk about rule changes due to safety concerns for the 2020 season. It will be interesting to hear everyone’s ideas on keeping these cars fast and safe.”
Evolution of Performance
Safety isn’t the only reason that rule changes are implemented in this modern era of the class. With the evolution into the variety of different power adders brings up the discussion of advantages and advances for each. It almost becomes an ever-changing cycle that repeats.
“We’ve also seen mid-season changes made because, let’s say, one power adder group is complaining that another has an obvious performance advantage,” said Jones. “This is where it gets complicated and tough to really draw a line in the sand that sticks, but the cassis builders give them their thoughts, tuners give theirs, and drivers theirs. The NHRA takes all of that information and discusses it with their Tech department and then lets us know what changes will be implemented, so we just adjust. At the end of the day, there is a good relationship between the NHRA and the builders because we all have safety as our top priority.”
As rules are continually discussed, the issue of the consistency of rules across the country became one of the challenges presented by the variety of the class. With so many avenues to race a car that could be built by RJ, Jeffers, or Bickel, they are finding that any series or race that may have different rules than another that changes are having to be made to adjust—even when it comes to the Radial and No-Prep races.
“Any type of safe racing is good for the sport in general. The one thing I see a problem with when it comes to these Radial and No-Prep races and that the rules from one end of the country to the other are so different,” said Bickel. “They are small differences, but they are just that, differences. I don’t think the class can catch on 100-percent until the rules are more unified. When Joe Blow in California can run it in Missouri and Florida as well as on the West Coast, it’ll be a hit. They need to get together and unify the rules before we can grow to potential in that direction, in my opinion.”
Jeffers is on the same page here when it comes to the increase in interest of the Radial side of the sport being a major plus if its done right.
“I think any kind of racing, Radial or No-Prep or whatever, is good for drag racing. The more people we can get into the sport, the better. There is no doubt that the radial cars are awesome! They have a super-prepped track and what Donald Long has done for drag racing is incredible in my book,’ boasted Jeffers. “He’s one hell of a promoter and the level has quickly grown out of hand. Any kind of racing is good for our business.”
Jones recently helped Stevie ‘Fast’ Jackson turn “The Shadow 2.0” into an NHRA-legal car after his unfortunate crash that left that as his only option.
“What I think is cool is what Stevie did. It’s unfortunate to crash, but his option was to turn The Shadow into the car he needed to finish the NHRA season,” he said. When you can have a clear set of rules to guide your change, the possibilities grow.”
It is clear to see that the evolution of the class keeps these guys intrigued. Their passion shines when they are explaining their craft. The changes and variety available forces the great to rise, and they do.
“It’s amazing what they’ve done on that little tire,” said Jeffers. “It’s been intriguing as a builder to work with these guys and make them a product that will help. I see all sides of it. I would hate to be the guy who has to create and enforce the rules or be on a rules committee, but we’ve seen the cream of the crop is going to rise. Someone like Stevie “Fast” Jackson who puts every breath of his life into this thing, he’s just always going to be in the mix. It takes passion, money and talent. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a lot. I stick to the fact that my job is to build a safe, consistent car that they can make as fast as they can. Everybody wins!”
While each builder we’ve talked to is humble, they know their work is art, and the artist is proud of his work when they are good, correct? Technologies, rules, tracks, racers, they are always changing and the each of these artists have rode each wave. They have continued to provide a quality product they are proud of, for the people they are proud to do business with.
“One thing I do know that sets us apart is that my son, Rickie (Jones) and I have both raced and we live for this,” said Jones. “We have a long history in this sport and we are currently both tuning for Elite on the Pro Stock side, so we are out there every weekend. From what I can see, as a builder, it gives a better grasp of what’s going on. On top of that, it is a family business and our family shares the same passion. This drives me to want to make the safest, fastest, greatest car for the customers, friends, and competitors. The people racing these cars are my friends. Drag racing is a family.”
Bickel continues to give the customer credit to a lot of his success.
“One advantage over others is, again, is that I’ve been doing this for so long and I have so many different customers,” he said. “All of these people either develop problems or good ideas. If it’s a problem, we solve it and do what we can to make sure nobody else has that same problem. If it’s a good idea, we incorporate that into the next build. We are constantly upgrading our stuff. From the drawing programs, to the machines we cut the parts on, and the employees we have here. We are always growing and updating as a company.”
In a world where trends come and go, technology and rules are ever changing, and safety is evolving, the consistency in drag racing is that it’s about the people. As long as everyone involved in the class, and sport as a whole, keeps safety of the racer, integrity of the products, and the passion put into it, we can continue to grow in any direction.
Jerry Bickel Race Cars
Larry Jeffers Race Cars
RJ Race Cars/Quarter-Max Chassis & Racing Components