Photos by Joe McHugh
Shortly before turning 50, Dan Stevenson announced to his wife Donna that he was returning to drag racing. A dedicated racer back in the early ‘70s at legendary strips like U.S. 30 Dragway in York, Pennsylvania, Great Lakes Dragway in Union Grove, Wisconsin, and Oswego Dragway in his native Illinois, Stevenson gave it all up when marriage, children and work took over his life.
“She just looked at me and said I was nuts,” the crane and heavy lifting equipment dealer recalls from his office in Bolingbrook, Illinois. “So I said, ‘Yeah, but you knew that when you married me.’”
It didn’t take long for Stevenson, now 54, to make a deal to acquire an ex-Pro Stock Truck from current ADRL Extreme Pro Stock racer and two-time IHRA Pro Stock champion Pete Berner. The Chevy S-10 immediately went to RJ Race Cars in Galesburg, Illinois, where it was fitted for a Sonny’s big-block motor backed up by a Powerglide transmission to go NHRA Top Sportsman racing.
Meanwhile, Stevenson headed down to the now-defunct Gateway International Raceway, near St. Louis, to attend Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School and earn his NHRA competition license.
“The first full season we ran Top Sportsman in Division III we finished in the top 10, so I was pretty happy with that,” Stevenson says. “But I came from an era of no electronics when bracket racing didn’t really exist, so I’m just not a bracket racer at heart. I really didn’t like it.”
With a desire to go heads-up racing taking hold, Stevenson says he briefly considered the Pro Stock ranks, but without the budget to be competitive in that rarefied company he instead looked into the world of Pro Modifieds.
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I got into the Pro Mod stuff other than Mark Nevis talked me into it, but I saw an ad from Jerry Bickel, went down there, got fitted for a car, ordered it up, and away we went.”
The finished product is the first car Stevenson’s ever had built for himself, a split-bumper ‘70 Camaro that he now campaigns in the ultra-competitive ADRL Pro Nitrous class.
“We got the car last September (2009), tested a little in it and went to Dallas for the ADRL race in October and didn’t qualify,” Stevenson says. “So it went straight back to Bickel and we took the automatic out and installed a Lenco with a clutch. With the automatic it was a killer down low with a .950 60-foot time, but we couldn’t get it to go a hundred feet without starting to shake; we just couldn’t figure it out.”
Stevenson and crew, which includes his 29-year-old son Rick, childhood friend Terry “Red” Strege, team “chef” Chris Vodicka, Nevis and most recently, tuning consultant Chuck Samuel, continued to struggle with the car in the first half of 2010, though they did qualify for three of the first five ADRL races and missed out at one by just one-thousandth of a second.
The team’s diligence eventually paid off with their first three-second run during qualifying for the ADRL event at Gateway in July, where Hill also showed up to “help screw my head back on straight,” as Stevenson puts it.
“I’d gotten so involved in trying to get the car to run and do what it’s supposed to do that I had kind of forgotten about the driving part of the deal. He was able to get me to refocus and do all the little things I had forgotten about and it really made a difference in my driving,” Stevenson says. “Roy’s definitely a different kind of guy. If you screw up, he’s going to tell you point blank, but that’s what you need sometimes to get it together.”
Following an upgrade in June to a Reher & Morrison 5.3-inch bore space, 855-ci engine with four stages of Speedtech nitrous, plus a trip to Jerry Haas Race Cars in Fenton, Missouri, for some chassis updates. The changes yielded almost immediate improvement.
“We had found some inherent problems in the car, but it’s going straight now and we’re just starting to really get after the motor,” Stevenson explains. “We’ve got a baseline tune-up that’ll allow us to run 3.96 on a dirt road, basically.”
No dirt road, but the all-concrete surface at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas yielded a career-best 3.92 at nearly 191 mph for Stevenson in qualifying 10th for the ADRL World Finals in October (with eliminations postponed by rain to Houston in March). “We actually had an .88 or .89 tune-up in the car Friday night there, but unfortunately our driver blew that one,” Stevenson admits. “He’ll do that sometimes.”
His car’s strength remains its down low performance, Stevenson says, claiming its 60-foot times remain among the quickest in a class featuring rides built by all the top doorslammer chassis builders in the hands of legendary drivers like Charles Carpenter, Jim Halsey and Shannon Jenkins. At least part of that performance can be attributed to its reworked rear suspension and wheelie bar placement by Haas, an area of the car that Stevenson declined to have photographed for this article.
“We have to keep some secrets,” he says. “But there’s a lot of interest in our car going down the track now. I’ve got some pictures from the beginning of the year showing us watching Shannon Jenkins go down the race track and then I noticed at Norwalk (Ohio), that there was Shannon watching us, trying to figure it out. But I’m honored he’s even paying attention to us.”
In addition to his car’s improved performance, Stevenson says the atmosphere of ADRL national events greatly contributes to his enjoyment of returning to racing.
“There is just a great group of competitors here and the ADRL staff really goes out of their way to create a family-like feel to the events, which is something I really appreciate,” he says. “It helps make it all feel worthwhile when you’re out here working so hard to go fast and have fun.”
Chassis: Jerry Bickel (JBRC)
Wheelbase: 115 inches
Empty Weight: 2,180 pounds
Front Susp: Lamb
Rear Susp: Penske
Rear Tires (Mfr/Size): Goodyear 36.0 x 17.0 – 16
Front Tires (Mfr/Size): Goodyear 2.50 x 45 – 15
Brakes: Lamb carbon fiber
Axles: Mark Williams
Wheelie Bars: Jerry Haas
Builder: Reher & Morrison
Type/Size: 5.30 bore space/855-ci
Block: Dart (billet)
Heads: Dart (billet)
Cam: Reher & Morrison
Spark plugs/wires: Autolite/Moroso
Intake: Speedtech PS1
Power Adder: Speedtech Nitrous (4-stages)
Transmission: Lenco CS3