One day, you're sitting in the stands watching with everybody else; the next, you're one of the favorites to win the NHRA Top Fuel championship.
Spencer Massey wasn't just plucked from the crowd by team owner Don Schumacher to replace veteran Cory McClenathan for 2011, of course. He has everything owners look for in a driver – he's young, he's light and, most important, he's lightning-quick on the Tree. So how did he get the ride? Was it because he's known as the quickest draw in Top Fuel?
“I never asked,” Massey says. “I assume that had something to do with it, but I never actually asked. I don't know the who, what, when and how of the whole thing. They wanted to make a change – that was out there – and then names started flying around. I'm just glad it was me.”
He was the obvious choice. In 2009, his only year of NHRA Top Fuel competition, Massey had numerous holeshot wins, numerous final-round appearances, multiple wins, and was the runaway choice for Rookie of the Year. Then team owner Don “the Snake” Prudhomme lost sponsor U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, and Massey found himself right back on the sidelines.
“It sucked,” he says. “I didn't want my career to last one year. I didn't want to be one of those flashes in the pan, here one year and gone the next. Drag racing is my passion, my love, my life, and I didn't want to be one of those people who do well one year and then are never heard from again.”
He won't be. “When Snake's deal went away, I went to Don [Schumacher] and told him I'd love to drive for him if anything ever came up,” says Massey, who, in his last two starts for Prudhomme's team, in November 2009, won the Las Vegas Nationals and was runner-up at the NHRA Finals. “As a driver, you don't have too many options, you know? There's Schumacher, there's Kalitta and there's Al-Anabi. Where else are you going to go? Don and I stayed in touch and he always told me, ‘If anything ever comes up, I'd love to have you,' but it was never anything official. I showed up at races from time to time just to keep my face out there because it's not hard for people to forget about you. It's like they say: Out of sight, out of mind.”
To stay active, Massey, who was an accomplished mechanic long before he ever became a driver, spent last year hitting NHRA races just to hang out, occasionally driving Mitch King's dragster in the lesser IHRA series, performing mechanical work on Gene Snow's injected-nitro dragster and waiting for his phone to ring. Eventually, it did.
“By the Finals, everybody was telling me that I was getting the ride in the FRAM car,” Massey says. “I kept saying I didn't know. I hoped so, but I didn't know for sure until everybody else knew, when it was announced. It wasn't like I had a pry bar trying to get Cory out of there.”
Just weeks after being named driver of the FRAM/Prestone dragster, Massey and co-crew chiefs Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara were burning nitro at Palm Beach International Raceway.
“The car was quick, and I mean right away,” Massey says. “The first time I stood on the gas, I thought, ‘Whoa.' I could tell it was a 3.70 car, not a 3.90 car. It was noticeably faster than Mitch's IHRA car. It was like being back in Snake's car, only faster. There's nothing you could ever do to prepare yourself for what driving a Top Fuel dragster is really like.
“A car this fast, there isn't any point on the track where it's not pulling. It's the same consistent Gs shoving you back in the seat from the time you hit the throttle until you take your foot out of it. You'd think a Top Fuel dragster is a Top Fuel dragster, but they're not all the same. The Gs I felt leaving the line are the same Gs I felt at 200 and 300mph, and I've never been in a car like that.”
McClenathan's old ride was the most sought-after seat in drag racing since the Al-Anabi team was formed in late 2008 and Alan Johnson had his choice of drivers. Cory Mac won three races last year, could have won at least two more with a little luck, and made the quickest run in the two-and-half-year history of 1,000-foot competition, 3.752sec. (The official NHRA record entering this season was still 3.771 because McClenathan didn't make another run within one percent of it at that event, as required by NHRA rules, but no one doubts its validity.)
“This is the best car I could possibly be in,” Massey says. “The whole Don Schumacher Racing camp, with all these cars and the endless amount of parts and manpower and tuning capability, is the place to be.”
After just 11 test runs, there was no point in continuing. Massey was knocking the Tree down run after run, and the car was within a fraction of a second of the e.t. record and less than 1mph from the speed mark.
“As far I was concerned, I was ready to race right then,” Massey says. “The only problem was that I wasn't completely comfortable. I drove the car exactly the way Cory had it. I'm a little taller than him, so I was kind of scrunched up in there and my knees were hitting the dash. We had a new seat poured when we got back to Indy, and I was good to go.”
A month later, Massey and his six DSR teammates – Top Fuel drivers Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher, and Funny Car drivers Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman and Johnny Gray – joined other top teams back at PBIR for a giant preseason test. Massey, Brown and Schumacher all eclipsed the existing national record; all three ran 3.76s.
The best part: Massey's worst reaction times in 25 total runs in December and January was .071, which is a better-than-average light for all but the quickest leavers in Top Fuel. Yet to him, it was unacceptable.
“I guess .070s and .080s aren't bad, but that doesn't cut it,” says a guy who averaged a .049. “Even if I have a .060 light, I'm not real happy about it. You've got to be in the .040s or, at least, the low .050s to really be doing your job. Todd and Phil haven't put any pressure on me; I put it on myself. I mean, that's what I'm here for, right? They kept telling me, ‘Just do what you do. We'll do the rest and win races'.”
Of course, the team's goals extend beyond mere event titles. They've already won races, and so has Massey.
“With Snake's car in '09, my goal was to win a race or two and finish in the top 5 in points,” Massey says. “I was just getting started then; it was my first year in Top Fuel. Every team says its goal is to win the championship, but we really can, and I'm talking this year. I just want to make sure I do my job every time – every time – and have good reaction times and keep the car in the groove.
“That's what it really comes down to: doing the same thing over and over and over. As a driver, you know in the back of your mind that you're in a final or in a big round, and you might think about it prior to getting in the car. But once that motor fires up, you go right back into automatic mode. The way I look at it, with everything we have at DSR, how can we lose?”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the April 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.