Fastest-street-car purists may see today’s invasion of the Pro Mods as freakish as the make-believe monsters of a 1950s drive-in sci-fi movie. They sometimes opine real door-slammer drag cars begin life on a factory assembly line with a VIN tag. The low, lank, and lean carbon-fiber steeds of Street Outlaws’ Justin “Big Chief” Shearer and Drag Week winners Jeff Lutz and Tom Bailey seem to them as hideous, brain-frying aliens who escaped from a top-secret motorsports analog to Area 51. Some of these keyboard-warrior-guardians-of-1,320-orthodoxy lionize, if not beatify, Larry Larson, Andy Frost, and Shawn “Murder Nova” Ellington because they’re “doing it right” by encasing themselves in fragments of OEM body shells packed with SFI Spec 25.2B or even 25.1G scaffolding. Just uttering the words “Pro Mod” to some of these sticklers risks triggering a torrent of hostile invective akin to unleashing the agitated bulls of Pamplona after a forced hunger strike.
In March 1964, Dodge lit the fuse by planting supercharged dragster engines into mildly customized new super stockers for a nationwide exhibition tour under the Dodge Chargers banner. Following the filthy lucre in its buttoned-down, corporate “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” form, Bill Stroppe quickly reworked a 1964 Comet for Fran Hernandez at Mercury that Jack Chrisman campaigned with a blown-fuel 427 Ford. The Comet’s simple mission was to outrun and upstage Jimmy Nix and Jim Johnson in the Dodge Chargers. Packs of hungry GM racers, searching for match-race dollars to replace those lost from GM’s 1963 anti-racing edict, soon adopted the lucrative dragster-in-a-new-door-slammer formula. And the die was cast that legions of fans would pay to witness the spectacle of massive horsepower bulging out of production body styles they could identify with.
The doors initially did not slam for long in these experimental match-race and exhibition ranks. But before Mercury’s flip-top Cyclones set the pattern for the future of Funny Car racing, Ford’s Southern racing contractors, Holman and Moody, developed a long-nose, stretched-wheelbase 1966 Mustang for Gaspar “Gas” Rhonda and others. More than 50 years later, the proportions of Gas Rhonda’s ponycar would not look all that out of place in a Pro Mod show.
The exciting, new Funny Cars knocked the quaint, old supercharged gassers from the top of the popularity ziggurat. The bulbous bodies of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s looked antiquated in comparison to the late-model floppers. Pursuit of payment ultimately led gasser legend Ohio George Montgomery to implant a stretched, class-legal Willys frame under a sliced-up 1967 Mustang body, powered by a blown SOHC 427 Ford. This launched the next stage of high-powered door-slammer evolution.
However, even with late-model bodies, heads-up gasser racing did not seem to fit Wally Parks’ vision of a factory-backed future. Officially beginning in 1970, Pro Stock started grabbing the headlines and the dollars. Natural aspiration and carburetors were in. Power-adders and antique bodies were out. After 1974, the NHRA eliminated any imagined threats to the dominance of Funny Car and Pro Stock by ash-canning the traditional supercharged gasser classes. What remained was neutered with a confusing array of malleable indexes to balance competition. It mostly sent the dwindling number of gassers to bracket racing or non-NHRA forms of localized competition.
Before the NHRA shut him down, Ohio George continued his best efforts to advance supercharged gasser racing even further into modernity. Following the innovative contrarianism of turbocharging pioneers such as Bud Faubel and the Mallicoat Brothers, Ohio George tapped into the IndyCar turbocharging expertise of Ford to shock the troops with a twin-turbocharged Boss 429. The turbo Mustang set six class records. It won multiple “best engineered” awards, and its potential terrified rules makers. Although it was never fully developed, it ran an 8.22-second e.t. at 173.75 mph before Ohio George parked it in 1975. However, Ohio George’s turbo Mustang fueled a generation of turbo door-slammer dreams, feeding into the development of Pro Mod.
Controversial NHRA weight breaks in Pro Stock set the stage for the next feeder stream in door-slammer evolution. Wanting to reign in the early dominance of the factory-backed Mopar Hemis, the NHRA brain trust created a rules package that favored small-blocks in subcompact cars. Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins built a revolutionary tube-frame 1972 Vega to take advantage of the new Pro Stock rules. The tube-frame, silhouette Vega earned Jenkins $250,000 in its first season and turned him into one of drag racing’s most bankable stars. By 1974, the Grump had dumped the Vega’s stock front suspension for a brace of flyweight MacPherson struts. Soon similar tube-frame cars with struts became increasingly popular among sportsman racers. And Jenkins had set the functional architecture for decades of extreme door-slammers.
The NHRA’s banishment of heads-up, power-adder gassers and overregulation of Pro Stock created another explosive environment for something new. Rival sanctioning bodies, such as the IHRA and the United Drag Racers Association, ignored the NHRA’s “legal” weight breaks and cubic-inch limits. Mountain motor kings such as Lynchburg, Virginia’s Sonny Leonard, Winder, Georgia’s Jon Kaase, and New York’s Scott Shafiroff developed massive outlaw mountain motor engines for door-slammers and deep-pocketed street racers who were thumbing their noses at Wally Parks’ restrictive program.
Outlaw power-adder door-slammers flourished in match racing. A group of East Coast bracket racers marketed as the Wild Bunch, including Tommy “The Who” Howes, Camp Stanley, Denny Brightwell, and Elmer Wachter, ran a diverse group of supercharged alcohol outlaw cars. The Wild Bunch featured vehicles as unusual as a Jeep CJ-5, a winged Chevrolet LUV pickup, a Nissan 300ZX, and even a Ford Taurus wagon. Fans and promoters loved the diversity.
Across the country, but predominantly in NASCAR country, track operators began featuring Quick 8 shows as capstones to their bracket racing programs. These events became cauldrons for the emerging outlaw mountain motor nitrous versus supercharger battles that became the storyline of Pro Mod. Many of the Quick 8 racers tested their skills in the IHRA Top Sportsman division and Super Chevy Show competition.
Top Sportsman’s minimal rules attracted the marketing money of the nitrous-oxide companies, likely because it was one of the few classes with national visibility allowing bottled power. The racers responded. At Darlington in March 1987, Wentzville, Missouri, UDRA racer Bill Kuhlmann used a Sonny Leonard mountain motor and nitrous oxide in a Pro Stock–appearing, homebuilt Gen 3 Camaro to obliterate the 200-mph barrier.
Kuhlmann’s headline-grabbing shot was one of the seminal events in the move toward Pro Mod. Even as NHRA racers like Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson might spend untold hours struggling for hundredths of a second or tenths of a mile per hour within the NHRA’s restrictive rules box, the popular perception was that IHRA Top Sportsman and UDRA Pro Stock racers could just bolt on nitrous kits and go faster. The reality was that the successful nitrous racers worked long and hard on development. Kuhlmann and other nitrous racers increasingly were the stars of nitrous-oxide ads and began attracting small, high-visibility sponsorships.
Free from the NHRA Pro Stock rule mandating late-model bodies, Top Sportsman developed a huge style diversity. Operating out of a two-bay home garage in Knoxville, Tennessee, fiberglass boat builder Rob Vandergriff and team owner Jim Bryant fielded a downsized, stretched, pulled, chopped, and tweaked fiberglass replica of a 1957 Chevrolet that became a fan favorite. Richard Earle made the Top Sportsman scene with a loose interpretation of the 1958 Plymouth from the Stephen King film Christine. Lymon, South Carolina, Quick 8 driver Scotty Cannon ran a nostalgic 1941 Willys replica body and an attention-grabbing Mohawk haircut in Top Sportsman competition.
By 1989, a group of Top Sportsman and nitrous-squeezing UDRA Pro Stock drivers began running in the outlaw United States Super Circuit. The common denominators were mountain motors on nitrous oxide and pursuit of 200-mph timeslips. In the Aug. 1989 issue of Car Craft, Jon Asher wrote about the fan appeal of the new USSC: “Just as prohibition seemed to engender an undying thirst for alcohol in Americans, so has the sight of a nitrous system being bled off against the swept-back of a ’57 Chevy inflamed race fans from Bristol to Sacramento.”
A disastrous 1988 season of rainouts and rash decisions put the IHRA in need of something new. And a 1988 Quick 8 victory by supercharged Wild Bunch member Tommy Howes over Rob Vandergriff’s nitrous car at Atco Raceway in New Jersey foreshadowed what would become Pro Modified. A 6.69-second Top Sportsman timeslip from Jim Oddy’s supercharged Corvette, with Fred Hahn behind the wheel, pointed to the emerging problem for the rules makers and the burgeoning opportunities that lay ahead. The IHRA tested the Pro Mod idea in 1989 before introducing it as a formal category for the 1990 Winter Nationals at Darlington. South Carolina’s quickest driver, Ed Hoover, won the inaugural event.
Car Craft called the Pro Modified class debut “the wildest ever.” “Mr. Four Speed” Ronnie Sox came out of retirement for Pro Modified, driving a highly “impressionistic” caricature of a 1964 Comet, powered by a 707ci Boss Ford. Rob Vandergriff’s downsized 1957 Chevrolet and Scotty Cannon’s Willys also joined the Pro Modified ranks. Other Pro Modified cars, such as “Animal Jim” Feurer’s 1990 Ford Probe, Tim McAmis’ Gen 3 Pontiac Trans Am, and Mike Ashley’s Chevrolet Beretta followed more conventional UDRA Pro Stock styling.
The early Pro Mod rules likely fit on just a sheet or two of paper. Nitrous engines were limited to 710 ci. Supercharged alcohol mills were capped at 526 cubes. All the cars had to run a full suspension and an approved wing or spoiler. Engines could not set back any further than 10 percent. It was, in the words of Bill Kuhlman, “You run whatcha brung, and hope ya brung enough.”
The Pro Mod racer who initially brought enough was six-time Pro Modified champion Scotty Cannon. Dominating the first years of the class, Cannon cannon-balled the field in 1992 by adding doors to a contemporary GM-style Funny Car body. Although the IHRA trimmed back some of the body shenanigans for 1993, the early Pro Mod cars plainly established that the cars were modified as necessary to stay safe and competitive at 200-plus-mph speeds.