Soon, the drivers cross the pre-stage beam and precisely line up side by side at the starting line, ready to watch the lights on the Christmas Tree between them. Each driver’s left foot is on the clutch while their right foot is planting the accelerator against the floor. A brake line lock is also engaged with a button on the steering wheel. When the stage bulbs go out and the lights on the Tree come down, the drivers release the clutch and line lock, and launch hard, beginning to shift through five gears. Their destination is 1,320 feet and roughly six-and-a-half seconds away.
Since 1970, the cars and technology in Pro Stock have changed, and elapsed times have gotten quicker, but the basic concept remains the same.
That year the National Hot Rod Association introduced the new Pro Stock class during the still-young Winternationals at Pomona Raceway. An offshoot of factory-based Super Stock, it was designed to feature naturally aspirated factory hot rods from The Big Three with more open rules and no index.
That first event was won by Bill “Grumpy’” Jenkins behind the wheel of a 1968 Camaro powered by a ZL1 engine. Nearly 50 years later, today’s Pro Stock cars remain naturally aspirated, but are now fuel-injected and utilize rumbling 500c.i. V-8 engines. The class is dominated by Camaros, with the muscle cars from the Bowtie having won the last five championships, and all 10 cars eligible for this year’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs wear the Camaro SS badge.
During the 11th annual Carolina Nationals at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway, Jason Line makes history by claiming the 300th win for Chevrolet in the class’s colorful history, creating a bookend with Jenkins’ first win.
“I’m a Chevy guy right to the core,” Line says before his first qualifying pass on the Friday afternoon of the event. “So for me to be able to race and represent one, that’s an honor for me. There’s nothing better than putting a Chevy in the winner’s circle.”
"There’s nothing better than putting a Chevy in the winner’s circle.” - Jason Line
Today’s crop of Pro Stock drivers carries on the lineage of dirt-under-the-fingernails racers the class was founded upon. Line is a perfect example. The native of Wright, Minnesota, who now lives in the Charlotte area, is both driver and engine tuner at KB Racing. He is a 48-time winner in the class and claimed the championship in 2006, 2011 and 2016. He also still competes in occasionally in the Stock Eliminator ranks, driving a 1970 Buick GS. He has two career wins and the national Stock championship to his credit in 1993.
Clearly, he’s a car guy.
“My first car was a ’68 Chevelle and I still have it,” he says. “I’ve had it since 1983. So a long time. I bought it from the original owner and it’s just as nice as the day I bought it. I’m proud of that.”
One of Line’s primary competitors is Erica Enders, a stalwart in Pro Stock, and a fixture across the drag racing world. Her first Pro Stock race was in a Cavalier and she has also won races in a Cobalt along with the Camaro. She is a two-time Pro Stock champion, the only woman in the category’s history with that distinction. Her first win came at Chicago’s Route 66 Raceway in 2012 and she went on to win the 2014 and 2015 Pro Stock titles and a total of 23 Pro Stock event wins. She also is a former winner of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and holds the speed record in the category at 215.55 mph. The certificate is framed in her home.
The Elite Motorsports driver is known as one of the best at leaving the starting line, in cars where lightning-quick reflexes can result in reaction times in the thousandths of a second -- or less.
“I love that Pro Stock is a driver’s class,” she says. “I don’t mean that as derogatory towards any of the other classes, I just mean that we leave with the clutch, we have to shift, so it’s a bit more challenging procedure in the cockpit as opposed to running an automatic or something like else like that … it’s the most challenging car hands down to drive. I like that aspect of it. I like the weight being on the driver’s shoulders. I perform well under pressure, at least I try to, and I enjoy that. So that’s what intrigued me about Pro Stock.”
“I love that Pro Stock is a driver’s class.” - Erica Enders
For her, the Bowtie passion also extends beyond the racetrack. Enders is a native of Houston who currently resides in New Orleans. Her dad owns a full shop in Houston where he builds and restores Chevrolet hot rods. Their first project together was a ’67 Chevelle, and he is currently building a ’57 Nomad wagon. A ’69 Camaro and ’57 Corvette are among the other projects to come out of that shop.
“That’s kind of our hobby away from the racetrack,” Enders says. “We’ve always been car people. I played sports and stuff in high school and college, but this has always been my true passion, my true love.”
“This has always been my true passion, my true love.” - Erica Enders
Over the past two years, 19-year-old Tanner Gray has also made Pro Stock history of his own. The third-generation driver became the youngest winner in NHRA history when he piloted a Camaro SS to his first career win at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the spring of 2017. Just a year and a half later, he is leading Pro Stock points and has claimed wins in the prestigious Gatornationals and U.S. Nationals among his 12 victories. He finishes as the runner-up to Line in Charlotte. On the street, he recently has owned a 2018 Camaro ZL1.
Gray Motorsports has always been a GM team and that partnership has allowed Tanner, who lives in Mooresville, North Carolina, to take advantage of some life-changing opportunities.
“They invited me to go to SEMA and talk with Jeff Gordon, so that was a really cool deal for me, growing up watching Jeff and stuff like that, I was kind of starstruck I guess you could say,” he says. “But it was a lot of fun.”
Like so many others, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals win stands out in Gray’s mind as an achievement he is particularly proud of, but he is also careful not to discount others.
“The U.S. Nationals was really cool, especially since it was a Chevy race driving a Camaro,” he says. “But they all have a special meaning to me. We’ve worked really hard to get where we’re at today and you can’t really take them for granted because they’re not easy to come by, so they all have a special place for me.”
The Pro Stock class is ever-evolving and will likely look vastly different in the not-so-distant future. Still, it will always be an important piece of NHRA drag racing for drivers like Line, who has forever cemented his place in Pro Stock history.
“I”m an engine guy, or try to be, so I like the naturally aspirated engines and of course GM makes the best of the best,” he says. “These are real cars, five-speed, with manually shifted transmissions. They’re door cars. I’m a car guy, not a dragster guy. So I love these cars.”
“These are real cars, five-speed, with manually shifted transmissions. They’re door cars. I’m a car guy, not a dragster guy. So I love these cars.” - Jason Line