In a season that has featured little in the way of surprises in the Pro Stock category, with one team winning all but two races this season, of course it would be a brand new winner that would come out on top first during an unpredictable weekend so far in Indianapolis.
Rain interrupted Aaron Strong’s improbable dream run nearly one month ago at the NHRA Northwest Nationals when the rookie Pro Stock racer upset the best-of-the-best in the class, but saw that amazing run come to an end just shy of finishing the deal.
Instead, Strong had to wait 27 days and travel more than 2,400 miles to take home that very first NHRA Wally.
Article continues below ...
Strong, who is from Washington, just a few miles from the Seattle track where he grew up watching NHRA events with his father, made it all the way to the finals of the NHRA Northwest Nationals, but had to wait until Saturday at the 62nd annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals to actually take home the win in a victory over Vincent Nobile during the final pass of qualifying under the lights.
With the win, Strong becomes the 62nd different racer to win a Pro Stock race with the NHRA.
"When we changed to Pro Stock, it was a major undertaking. I certainly wasn’t expecting to make it to my first final in less than 10 races," Strong said. "Pro Stock is a beating just to qualify and get our first round win. We would have loved to do this at home, just for all of the fans at home that support us there, but it was more than OK coming here. I’ve never been to Indy and always wanted to come here. I was just excited to be in the final, but to get to come to Indy and get the win, is truly amazing."
Strong, who had never won a single round in eight prior starts, won his first four rounds all in a row spread over Seattle and, now, Indianapolis, to collect his first win in career start number nine. The former sportsman world champion eliminated four-time world champion Greg Anderson and two-time defending Pro Stock champ Erica Enders, along with Bo Butner, in Seattle, before finishing the deal against Nobile Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway.
In the much-anticipated final, Nobile went -.001 red, while Strong cruised to a 6.634 at 208.01 mph to earn the win.
"I saw it right away. And I shouldn’t have," Strong said with a laugh. "I will get in trouble, but I am trying to break the habits of sportsman racing where we look up at the scoreboard. In a Pro Stock car, you have to be looking down the groove. But when I hit the throttle I looked up, the sun was setting, but I was like, ‘is that my win light on? Is the sun messing with me?’ Then I knew he had went red.
"I really tried to treat it like a normal round. I got a few butterflies putting my pants on to come up here, but after that I was fine. I am a pretty calm and collected guy, but I can assure you I will be more excited tomorrow when this finally sinks in."
Strong’s road to the final was paved with a mistake-filled quartet of passes by his opponents. Anderson, Enders and Butner all ran into issues and had to abort their runs in Seattle, advancing Strong to the final. Soon after, the skies opened up and the finals of all pro classes were postponed. Top Fuel and Funny Car were made up one week later in Brainerd, while the Pro Stock final was completed in Indianapolis.
The decision to make up the Pro Stock race one month later was made because Strong, an independent racer primarily funding the operation himself, was not scheduled to appear in Brainerd. The team requested the final be made up in Indy, and Nobile agreed.
"We were in our pits in Seattle about 7 p.m. and it was raining when they pulled the plug," Strong said. "(Richard) Freeman came over and said, ‘you are not registered for Brainerd, what race do you want to run’ and we decided this would be the best place. We had just run Seattle, Sonoma, we are a little team and we had to get back to work. So we called up Graham Light and Nobile’s team and we decided Indy was the place to do it.
"It was great sportsmanship on their part. I would have showed up in Brainerd for sure, I wasn’t going to miss my first final, but this helped us prepare and be ready for this race. We just balled up that momentum and brought it with us."
With help from Freeman and the Elite Motorsports camp, Strong became only the fifth different driver to win a race this season in Pro Stock, as the previous dominance by the KB Racing team has lessened over the past few weeks.
"We certainly didn’t expect to be in the final or think that we should be there. But we are slowly getting better as a team. We have a lot of good people around us and we’ve got a lot of great experience at the sportsman level. But when you go Pro Stock racing, it’s a whole different world," Strong said. "We were not expecting a win. We were just happy to qualify. Then you try and qualify a little higher. Then you get your first round win. With KB being so dominant all year, no one expected to beat them, we were all just trying to get close to them.
"To be here now is surreal. We were struggling just to get going. We hurt a few motors in Phoenix earlier this year and that is how we ended up with Richard. To be here today is really something."
With the win, Strong, who is from Seattle and hadn’t planned on doing but a few more races the rest of this season, will be able to add even more events to his schedule to finish out the year.
"Since we are back here in Indy, we have some places back here where we can leave our rig," Strong said. "It is 2,400 miles from Seattle, so you will now probably see us in St. Louis, Dallas, then back west. We were always going to do Vegas and Pomona, but this extra money from the win will help us race some more. It helps our team a ton."
Larry Crum is a Senior Writer for CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus