GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT
It took Hector Arana two decades of struggle and perseverance to become an overnight success in Pro Stock Motorcycles. Can the 2009 champion do it again this year?
Drag racers are usually oblivious to what's happening outside of their own category and even outside their own team, but competitors all across the sport were thrilled to see overdue Hector Arana bring home the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in 2009.
“I always told my kids, ‘Anything is possible. Never give up,'” says Arana, who struggled for nearly 20 years to compete with the top teams. “I used to leave for races, and the kids would be all excited. As soon as I'd get home, they'd ask, ‘Did you win, Dad?' No. Next time, ‘Did you win?' No. After a while, they quit asking. They got older, and one day it dawned on me: They're not even asking if I qualified anymore.”
It wasn't all bad in those seasons of near-perpetual struggle, and there were some days when the sun shone briefly on Arana. He qualified No. 1 and set low e.t. at the 1994 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., and he earned a pair of final-round appearances and a few top-10 finishes later in the 1990s. He was runner-up to three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion John Myers at the 1997 Slick 50 Nationals in Houston and to three-time champ Matt Hines at the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., later that year.
The one against Hines hurt the most. “I had it won but the chain broke,” Arana says. “Matt didn't even make a good run, but all I could do was sit up and watch him ride away from me. I thought, ‘Years are going by…when's it going to happen?'”
For 10 long years, it didn't look like it ever would. From late 2000 through mid-2007, short weekends became the norm, as Arana failed to qualify 34 times from 35 attempts.
“I'd work all the time, never take a vacation,” Arana says, “I'd think, ‘What am I doing wrong? What kind of example am I setting for my kids? The only thing they're going to learn is, ‘Why should I kill myself all the time like my dad? For what?' But I always kept believing that one day I would win.”
Finally, increased backing from his longtime sponsor Lucas Oil, whom Arana credits for much of his success, and engine-development work from Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan started to turn everything around.
By 2008, Arana, no longer trying to do the work of five men, was getting faster by the race. At the Norwalk, Ohio, event that June, he finally went the distance, defeating veteran Craig Treble in the final for his first NHRA event title. Even Treble was happy for him.
“What a relief that was,” Arana says. “Two of my boys were there, and that made it really special. ‘See?' I told them. ‘You really can get what you want if you keep going.'”
Last year was even better – a whole lot better. At the season opener in Gainesville, Fla., Arana set low e.t. for the first time in 15 years and top speed for the first time in 12 years. And, most important, he won, putting it away past champion Matt Smith in the final round.
Arana closed the pre-Countdown part of the season with victories at the final two events, the Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., and the sport's most prestigious race, the U.S. Nationals, in Indianapolis. He didn't lose a bit of momentum when the Countdown to the Championship playoffs began, lowering the Pro Stock Motorcycle national record to 6.85sec in Memphis, winning in Charlotte and Dallas, and finishing second in Las Vegas.
“It's just as hard to ride as it ever was,” he says. “You have to be right on the edge at the starting line or you'll be late, and it's so easy to red-light. And, if you don't, you'll get beat on a holeshot, guaranteed. But it's a whole new feeling to race with the combination I have now. I feel like I can win any race we go to.”
Arana didn't win a race in the 2010 regular season, but still made four final-round appearances and entered the Countdown to the Championship ranked number 2 after leading much of the way. He has at least as good a shot at the title as anybody on two wheels and, of course, he already has one in his pocket.
“Last year was everything I could ever have dreamed of,” Arana says, “especially after all those years.”
ARANA: THE MILESTONES
1990 Pro Stock Motorcycle debut – Indianapolis
1991 first round-win – Gainesville
1993 first semifinal appearance – Indianapolis
1994 first No. 1 qualifier – Gainesville
1994 first Top 10 finish
1996 first Top 5 finish
1997 first final-round appearance – Houston
2005 qualified for the only time from Oct. 2000 to May 2007 – St. Louis
2007 first six-second run – Englishtown
2007 first round-win in eight years – St. Louis
2008 first victory (and first final in 11 years) – Norwalk
2008 qualified for all 16 events for the first time
2009 first NHRA championship (five wins in six final-round appearances)