Massey making himself at home in car
BROWNSBURG, Ind. -- It's not Spencer Massey's place yet, at least in decor. Walk through the front door of Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's race shop and images of the departed Larry Dixon peeling off the line in the dragsters of various long-gone sponsors remain on the walls. The theme continues in the working part of the shop, with banners commemorating some of the 43 national event wins and two championships Dixon won with The Snake.
These things can take time, decoratively and figuratively, when an entrenched veteran walks away. But a drag racing legend's word is enough: This team belongs to a rookie.
O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals
Where: Gateway International Raceway, Madison, Ill.
On ESPN2: Qualifying, 6 p.m. ET Saturday; NHRA Raceday 11 a.m. ET Sunday; Eliminations 7 p.m. ET Sunday.
On ESPN360.com: Eliminations, 7 p.m. ET Sunday
Defending champions: Rod Fuller (TF), Tim Wilkerson (FC), Kurt Johnson (PS), Andrew Hines (PSM).
Of note:The most wide-open title chase could be in Top Fuel, where five drivers have won already and eight of the top nine in points have advanced to a final round. There won't be a repeat champion at St. Louis, as Rod Fuller is inactive. One year ago Wilkerson won here in what would be a six-win Funny Car season and nearly a championship. Now the Springfield, Ill., native is 11th in points and will try to get back in Countdown contention at his home race. No flopper has taken Tony Pedregon on the Christmas Tree yet -- he's 13-0-1. Matt Smith and Andrew Hines pace the Pro Stock Motorcycle points but neither has won in three starts, though Hines is the defending champion here and Smith won in 2007. The bikes won't run again until June.-- John Schwarb
"I see it right now as Spencer's house, make no doubt about that," Prudhomme said. "We just don't have his picture up yet. We're working on it now.
"I see him as the future of what we're doing out there. He's our star quarterback -- a rookie quarterback, but the guy we're building our franchise on."
A number of rookies are making waves in this NHRA Full Throttle season, with 21-year-old Doug Horne advancing to two final rounds in his first three Pro Stock Motorcycle races, Virginia rancher Matt Hagan capably handling a Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car to a top-five points position and 25-year-old Shawn Langdon seamlessly moving into the heart of the Top Fuel battle after two years of Super Comp national championships.
But no one has bigger shoes to fill than Massey, 26, signed by Prudhomme to one of the top seats in the sport. Dixon and Snake Racing were synonymous for 14 years, with Dixon never finishing lower than eighth in points and advancing to the final round in more than one-fourth of his starts. His 43 wins with Prudhomme rank third all time in Top Fuel.
After a 2008 season where Dixon, like everyone else in the class, could only pick up table scraps left by runaway champion -- and champ for a fifth consecutive year -- Tony Schumacher, the 42-year-old took somewhat of a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance. Dixon left Snake Racing for to drive for Schumacher crew chief Alan Johnson, who left to start a new team, Al-Anabi Racing.
It was an offer Dixon couldn't pass up. Speaking of not passing up a great offer, imagine how Massey, a 2008 IHRA Drag Racing champion and divisional champion in NHRA Top Alcohol dragsters, felt about his opportunity.
"How could I ask for anything more? It's definitely an honor," Massey said. "Driving Larry Dixon's old car for The Snake, it's a lot of pressure, but when you get in the car you don't think about it. It all goes away, you're just driving."
Massey's first breakthrough in the U.S. Smokeless dragster came two weeks ago at Atlanta. On the same track where he won his first Top Alcohol dragster event in 2007 and again in 2008, Massey advanced to his first final round. He lost to Morgan Lucas when he got sideways and had to get out of the throttle to avoid crashing, but that didn't damper the accomplishment of his first Sunday march through the Top Fuel ladder.
In the second round Massey beat fellow rookie Langdon, then in the semifinals scored a signature round win in taking out Schumacher, who came into the event on a two-race win streak.
"He seemed to be able to rise to the occasion," Prudhomme said. "That's a big deal, that's not something everybody can do."
Massey has spent a lifetime waiting for such moments. As a kid growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Massey idolized Top Fuel champion and fellow Texan Eddie Hill. He was assembling cylinder heads at age 14 and worked his way up through the junior dragster ranks, eventually working on Lucas' Top Alcohol dragster as a crewman while also driving on the side.
"It's not just me. It takes a combination of everything, the crew chiefs to have the right tune on the car for the chassis to be right, and the driver to be right.” -- Spencer Massey
"Spencer, he was a lot of fun to be around. Great guy, big heart, just a die-hard, get-your-hands-dirty amazing driver, one of those people that loves the sport," Lucas said. "He did a little bit of everything, he knew cars from front to back."
Massey doesn't have that life anymore; he almost laments the fact that by the time he packs parachutes and mixes fuel on race weekends, his crew has the dragster put back together and ready to start. He can't get his hands dirty even when he wants to -- "[Crew chief] Donnie [Bender] kicked me out of the trailer today, said I was holding up the guys," Massey said one day in the shop.
Driving is the sole focus, and though he doesn't have a winning round record yet, Massey's the best in the class at the start. The final-round loss at Atlanta was the first time an opponent beat him off the line; Massey's 9-1 starting record and .058-second reaction time are tops in Top Fuel.
"Spencer, yeah, he was really quick," Prudhomme said. "From the first time we stepped in the car and we went testing, he was knocking the bolt out of the Christmas Tree every time they went up there. I was just thrilled."
"It's not just me," Massey countered. "It takes a combination of everything, the crew chiefs to have the right tune on the car for the chassis to be right, and the driver to be right."
He knows his place already. Someone else can work on the pictures.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.