ROCKINGHAM, NC - Frustration, elation, aggravation, rejection, and redemption. These are just a few examples of the dozens of words that could be used to describe both the feelings of many of the drivers and the 2000 MOPAR Pro Modified season in general. Throw in faith, hope and charity, and you pretty well have the whole picture. Arguably drag racing's most colorful and challenging class, Pro Mod competition has been awash in controversy since it first split off from Top Sportsman in 1990.
A racer who was there at the beginning is Canadian Al Billes, and most of words used in the opening sentence would certainly apply to this former World Record holder. "It's always taken a huge effort to do consistently well in Pro Mod, "Billes commented, "but this year was just unbelievable. The back and forth between the blower faction and the nitrous faction just got out of hand, and the IHRA's mid-season rule changes, no matter how well meaning, threw everybody for a loop."
"In support of the IHRA, "Billes continued, "I realize that policing such a diverse class takes a monumental effort, and keeping everyone happy all the time is nearly impossible. But it was really a big-time distraction." The rule changes that Billes refers to were intended to slow down the supercharged cars, but they worked too well, as these particular cars immediately fell out of contention. After reassessing the situation, the rules were relaxed, and some semblance of parity eventually returned to the scene. In fact, the class has had a rebirth of sorts, with the first '6-teen', the first 230-mph pass, the first nitrous cars into the 6.20's, and a 16-car field all qualified at 6.379 or better this season.
Throughout it all, the driver from Barrie, ON kept as focused as possible on the job at hand. But he admits that the time and money spent conforming to all the variations in legal combinations took their toll. "Yeah, it quit being fun after awhile, "agreed Billes. "There's always politics to deal with - that's nothing new in any sport. But we want to race, not be worried about what we'll have to change next, and where the money will come from to do it. It kept a lot of teams off balance, that's for sure. And, of course, on top of everything else, we had our share of plain old bad racing luck, too, trashing a lot of parts during the year. In fact, they started to call our car the 'Studbreaker' after awhile."
At this weekend's final race of the year, the conclusion of the rained-out CARQUEST Autumn Nationals in Rockingham, Billes did the only thing that any true competitor would do to wipe the slate clean: he channeled all his emotional energy into ending the 2000 season with a positive statement. In the first of two qualifying rounds, Billes was off the pace with a pass of 6.412 at 222.77, only good enough for the number 20 spot. With one shot left, Billes and his crew literally willed the car to gather it up for one big effort. The bright yellow '53 Studebaker responded beautifully, and charged into fifth position with a strong, straight 6.314 at 227.38.
The elimination rounds were anti-climatic, as Al faced Quain Stott in the first session. At the launch, the Stude' went hunting, switching from side to side before heading for the centerline. Al shut down the car, and the 2000 season, before any damage was done. But the Billes team has to feel some measure of redemption with their good qualifying effort. They've gone quicker, for sure, but at a time when a tonic was called for, that ET, and especially that mile-per-hour, must have gone a long way towards paving the road leading to the 2001 season.