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Home > FEATURES > Rookie Drives—Jumping into the NMCA’s top category isn’t a leap to be taken lightly—we talk to two guys who did just that in 2018

Rookie Drives—Jumping into the NMCA’s top category isn’t a leap to be taken lightly—we talk to two guys who did just that in 2018



Written By Steve Baur

Photography by the FSC Staff

There are many reasons why we get behind the wheel of a race car. Some of us are born into the lifestyle and enter competition from the time we can turn a wheel. Some simply jump into the practice to satiate their need for the thrill of competition. By the time one graduates to the world of VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod, he or she likely has many races under his or her belt and has experienced victory and defeat, speed and g force. In 2018, both California’s Eric Gustafson and Indiana’s Jeff Rudolf joined the VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod ranks, and we decided to find out just what it took to get there, and how the experience compared to their previous efforts on track.

The California Kid

Manhattan Beach, California’s Eric Gustafson rose to the top of the radial-tire contingent in the NMCA West series and decided to head east to prove he could compete anywhere in the country. He did just that, taking the NMCA Street Outlaw championship in 2015. Ever building on his success, Gustafson sought to step up to Radial Wars, but delays in his build and a reassessment of the classes led him to Xtreme Pro Mod.

Two-time Street Outlaw champion Eric Gustafson was looking to take a bigger step after claiming Street Outlaw titles both in the NMCA and the NMCA West series. His next step began with a move to NMCA Radial Wars where the powerplants are Pro-Mod powerful, but stuffed into a stock-bodied vehicle. Gustafson put his championship-winning hatchback Mustang up for sale while a new Fox-Body coupe went under construction. Powering the Radial Wars-bound machine was a blown Hemi with a Liberty’s four-speed bolted to the back of it.

“The car took a little longer than we were anticipating,” recalled Gustafson. “As I looked at the progression of the classes, Pro Mod had a much greater audience for promoting our company, Coast Packing. The decision was made to go Pro Mod racing, as we felt it was a much better platform for getting our marketing message across.”

With the decision to go big-tire racing made, Gustafson purchased a chassis from Gary Naughton Race Cars in Maryland, which was then adorned with a carbon fiber 1969 Camaro body by Cynergy Composites. Xtreme Pro Mod veteran Steve Summers performed final fitment, wired the Haltech EFI system, and set up the Liberty’s transmission. The car then went to Larry Jeffers Race Cars for some final fabrication, paint, and the initial setup on the car.

Both of Gustafson’s small-tire class championships were claimed using a ProCharger-powered engine combination in his Fox-Body Mustang. Continuing to build on what they were already familiar with, the Coast Packing Xtreme Pro Mod team would also rely on a ProCharged combo for the Camaro.

The engine that was to go in the Radial Wars machine was put into service on the Pro Mod, and that 526ci Brad Anderson Enterprises Hemi fronted by a ProCharger F-3X-136 has proven to be a formidable combination.

Gustafson’s team is the same one he’s worked with through his Street Outlaw endeavors, and includes Cam Hensley, John Urgo, Jason Lee and Patrick Barnhill of PTP Racing, and Tim Lyons. 

“Tim has been playing an integral role in maintaining the car and finding ways to improve upon what has already been a great car, Gustafson noted. “We’re all very strategic about what we want to do.”

Testing ahead of the 2018 season showed promise in the combination while Gustafson got a handle on driving the new rocket. At the first race of the season in Bradenton, the Camaro charged a 3.91 to qualify 13th, but Gustafson took himself out in the first round by going red at the start. Luckily, things would head in a better direction at the next race.

Gustafson brings a positive-minded, business acumen to his racing program, so it should be no surprise that he found success in his first season in the VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod category. He hopes to build on that success for the 2019 season, and also mentioned that this could be his last year behind the wheel, as he looks to focus on family and the family business going forward. The Coast Packing Camaro could perhaps have another driver then, with veteran Larry Morgan looking good as the front-runner for the job.

Four weeks later, Atlanta would be a much different story with Gustafson qualifying 5th with an improved 3.81. After four rounds of eliminations, the Coast Packing Pro Mod team found themselves in the Aerospace Components winner’s circle capturing not only the NMCA Victor trophy for the event win, but also logging the quickest and fastest pass ever for a centrifugally supercharged car at 3.75 seconds at 200 mph. Throughout the rest of the season, the team could not get back into the 3.70s and found themselves out more often than in when it came to going rounds.

So what was it like from a driver and team owner’s perspective to step into the Xtreme Pro Mod ranks? Here’s what Gustafson had to say:

“I think when you look at it from a driving perspective, driving a Pro Mod and going sub .960-seconds in the first 60 feet and pulling 3.5 g’s, it can be a handful. You’re literally trying to be in a controlled spin—you want wheel speed and forward momentum at the same time, and try to get the tire round as soon as possible. Radial tires are handful in a different way, but once you hook that up, it usually goes straight, especially with the track prep today. One of the blessings in disguise for me was that I hadn’t driven a car in over a year and basically had to start over again. I didn’t need to compare it to before, and maybe didn’t bring some bad habits with me.”

We also asked Gustafson to tell us what he liked about the small-tire car and what he likes about his tube-chassis machine.

“I like working with limitations with the small-tire car. You don’t have the ability to set the suspension up like you would with a tube-frame chassis. There were additional mounting holes to change the geometry, but your still dealing with limitations. I feel in some of the stuff we did, running 1.03 60-ft times at 3,100-plus pounds is no joke on a 275 radial. If you look back at what I was racing when I was 16, it was a natural progression and the change to Pro Mod was a great opportunity to see personal growth as a driver and a great opportunity for marketing the Coast Packing brand.”

During a test session in January of 2019 at Bradenton Motorsports Park and with hired gun Larry Morgan behind the wheel, the team lowered the Camaro’s best elapsed time to a 3.67 at 200 mph. An improved chassis setup helped drop the 60-ft time from .960s to .920s, and a new Noonan Ultimate Race Engineering Hemi powerplant combined with ProCharger’s F3X-140 blower is making more power for the team. “We discovered some things we did incorrectly last year, and now we’re on the right path,” Gustafson told us. “The car drives a whole lot better now.”

Gustafson likes the Pro Mod’s overall versatility with they can do from a racing perspective.

“Whether it’s a live feed or people in the stands, you’re getting a tremendous amount of eyes watching and the promotional opportunities for the company to expose our name and brand to a greater audience of people.”

With one event win under his belt, Gustafson will be looking to improve upon that record for the 2019 racing season as he looks to compete in both the NMCA and PDRA series.

“I’m willing to put all of the work necessary to make our company better, as well as our race program. Philosophically, it’s the only way to do it in our opinion. You’re creating a culture of continual success and improvement. Those parallels run down the same path. We expect nothing but the best from all of our team. We will put the work in necessary to see that the success is achieved. It’s no different than what we do at my company and working with the employees at Coast Packing.”

Rudolf’s New Sleigh

Brownsburg, Indiana’s Jeff Rudolf has a thirst for speed and has come close to collecting championships in both the Open Comp and Nitrous Pro Street categories. He took up former Xtreme Pro Mod champion Steve Summers’ offer to team up and share secrets between the two-car effort, and seems to be sufficiently hooked on the boost curve of his twin-turbocharged Camaro. Photo Courtesy of Keiffer Simpson

Where as Gustafson jumped from a small-radial-tire car to his big-tire Pro Mod, Brownsburg, Indiana’s Jeff Rudolf sold his ARP Nitrous Pro Street Nova to move up into the VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod category. As the Pro Street name might imply, his Nova wore some big fat hides out back, so the big difference for him was likely the huge disparity in power output between the two.

Rudolf competed in MagnaFuel Open Comp for 3-4 years before picking up a new-to-him Nova and spent the next 3 years in Nitrous Pro Street (NPS). He came close to winning championships in both categories, with both classes coming down to the last race before he found himself just a bit short in points to take the top spot for the season.

“I wanted to go faster,” Rudolf told us. “I had Steve Summers helping out with the NPS car towards the end and he talked about teaming up and sharing parts, combinations, and tuning knowledge. They are pretty much identical cars other than the body style. Someone was willing to help me out and that was the only reason I did it.”

Rudolf drove back-to-back Chevy Novas during his previous two NMCA adventures. His ARP Nitrous Pro Street machines packed a 521-cubic-inch Dart-based big-block engine and the combination proved both powerful and explosive, literally.

Sharing Summers’ knowledge and drivetrain combination was a smart move, as Summers has claimed the 2017 NMCA Xtreme Pro Mod championship and his twin-turbo Camaro regularly posts the top speed in the class.

After taking a look at what was available, Rudolf turned to Larry Jeffers Race Cars for a classic 1969 Camaro-bodied chassis and then delivered the car to Steve Summers who handled the wiring and installation of the Haltech engine management system. Summers was also tapped for tuning and Garrett Advancing Motion supplied the pair of 94mm turbochargers that feed the Steve Summers big-block-Chevy-based, CFE powerplant. Backing up the boosted mill is a Liberty’s transmission.

Still getting his car sorted out, Rudolf sat out the NMCA season opener in Bradenton, Florida, and with overflowing fields of tough competitors and his new ride just not getting down track as it needed to, Rudolf missed qualifying in Georgia and Kentucky, but was able to finally get into the show at the NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street Legal Drag Racing in Joliet, Illinois. A 3.85 run at 209.98 mph put him 11thin the 16 car field. Throughout the remainder of the 2018 season, Rudolf would hover in the 3.8-3.9-second range, but with half the field running a tenth or two quicker, he couldn’t quite collect the round wins. With a full season of driving and working on the Pro Mod, Rudolf goes into 2019 with some experience behind the wheel. 

“We had 1,700 hp in the nitrous car and we’re at least 4,500 in the Pro Mod,” Rudolf told us. “I love the turbos and like how they gradually kick in around 300 ft. And when the torque converter kicks in, the g force is really addicting. Photo Courtesy of Keiffer Simpson

“I really like the Pro Mod more than the nitrous car,” Rudolf told us. “The NPS car, being a little older of a car, sometimes it was a handful because you didn’t know what it was going to do. 

Rudolf noted that the new turbo Pro Mod was a little harder to drive from the start.

“The turbo car is a little harder, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Both hands are working on the wheel and pushing buttons, which is a little bit trickier than the nitrous car, but 3-4 times down the track and I had it down.”

The considerable difference in horsepower is something that he’s taken to nicely.

“We had 1,700 hp in the nitrous car and we’re at least 4,500 in the Pro Mod. I love the turbos and like how they gradually kick in around 300 ft. And when the torque converter kicks in, the g force is really addicting. The NPS car was about 2 g’s off the hit and stayed there, and the Pro mod just keeps climbing.”

Going into the 2019 season, Rudolf and his team have made some changes based on what they learned last year.

The drivetrain combination under the sleek 1969 Camaro body of Jeff Rudolf’s Xtreme Pro Mod machine is the same combination that took his teammate Steve Summers to an NMCA Pro Mod championship, and it showed the same tremendous trap speed during its first season that Summers’ car always has, so there’s plenty of untapped performance left to be revealed.

“It was a little bit of a learning curve. We tried some coil packs out, but went back to the magneto. We can run a lower boost with the magneto and it seems to be more consistent. We lightened the car up by about 50 lbs and changed gearing ratio in the trans a bit to stay up higher in the rpm range so there is less drop.” Rudolf will once again contest the NMCA’s VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod category for 2019, as well as compete in the Midwest Pro Mod series.

“We’re hoping to get into the 3.60s—we think we can get there. And win a race, too, and we’d be happy.”