It takes concentrated effort to put on a successful drag racing series. Most of us are familiar with the roles of the drivers, crew chiefs, mechanics, race officials and publicists that comprise the NHRA Full Throttle Tour. But there’s one key component of the equation that labors in relative obscurity, but clearly helps keep the show on the road, the field reps of the various sponsoring manufacturers. Whether there is a need to get a new set of tires, weld a broken bracket, replace a valve train component or get a case of oil, it’s all there on the Manufacturer’s Midway, the world’s largest portable speed shop.
One of the more familiar faces on the Midway is Gary Fratus, who’s celebrating his 20th year on the circuit in 2011. For the past six seasons, Fratus has served as the go-to guy for noted driveline products manufacturer Mark Williams Enterprises, a long-time NHRA major sponsor who posts contingency awards for axles, driveshafts and disc brakes. Prior to signing on with M-W, Fratus worked 19 years for midway stalwart Jack McCormack, representing a variety of companies.
If there’s one trait that has placed Gary in high regard among competitors and others in drag racing’s tight-knit traveling community, it’s his willingness to provide assistance above and beyond the call of duty. His is certainly no 9-5 desk job. And working into the wee hours to help a racer get his car in shape for the next day goes with the territory.
It’s been said that Fratus has a heart of gold, which is entirely fitting for a guy born in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Fascinated by all things mechanical, Gary was attracted to auto shop in high school and followed that by attending the National Automotive/Diesel College in Nashville. After a stint working for a local steel mill, Fratus enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent eight years maintaining the engines and powertrains of various military vehicles. Sorry, no Tony Schumacher T/F car at the time, but Gary did manage to get some quarter-mile time in with a ’62 Chevy.
Gary’s introduction to drag racing came during his Owensboro, Kentucky, high school days at the hands of a neighbor, Cooper Hayden, who at the time had a ’57 Chevy Gasser. If the name sounds familiar to drag fans, it’s because Cooper went on to campaign a series of high roller Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the ’60s and ’70s, and also became a respected builder of fiberglass F/C bodies.
After mustering out of the army in 1974, Gary opened up his own automotive/diesel repair shop in Owensboro and spent the next decade or so toiling away on various highway-bound vehicles for a living and having fun with a couple Falcons that ran in the Modified Production category. But the lure of Big Show drag racing was always there, and he brought his talents to the Midway. In 1989 he cast his fate with a local competitor with high aspirations, Dester Cambron. The Kentucky body shop operator decided to go Pro Stock racing and Gary signed on as his crew chief. Although they didn’t have the resources of the big guns in the class, the Bluegrass State team was competitive and qualified at a number of important events. Cambron dropped off the circuit after several years, which saw Fratus again seeking employment on the manufacturer’s side. But the racing bug was still there.
When the Sport Compact craze exploded during the millennium, Gary was tabbed by the late Shawn Carlson to oversee the clutch and driveline on his NHRA Championship-winning Mopar entry. Alas, the Sport Compact Series was but a short chapter in NHRA drag racing history, and Fratus soon found himself back in familiar territory, the Manufacturer’s Midway.
Today, Gary gets to make good use of his many decades of mechanical and racing experience as a field representative for Mark Williams Enterprises. One of the more popular items on M-W’s menu is an exchange program for 9-inch Ford third members. Racers can simply swap out their carriers at the track for a fresh race-ready unit with a new set of ring and pinion gears. And if a particular unit is not on the shelf, chances are Fratus can put one together on the spot. Being able to provide a hands-on contribution to racers gives him great satisfaction.
His expertise is a benefit to racers, as well as to those performance enthusiasts who view NHRA national events as a great opportunity to seek technical assistance from factory personnel. And for those who know him on the circuit, as the Midway’s resident joke teller he’s always good for a laugh (or a groan). But above all he genuinely enjoys what he does going from race to race, living in the motor coach that tows M-W’s display rig, and working with racers. Gary Fratus is one happy camper–literally and figuratively.