Monday, July 22, 2024

DragChamp Racer Spotlight with Chris Knudsen

Division 5 Stock Eliminator racer Chris Knudsen is in the Racer Spotlight this week!

Division 5 Stock competitor Chris Knudsen is having a breakout season in his 4-speed equipped ’69 Camaro Stocker. He recently won the Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainered, was runner up at the AAA Midwest Nationals weeks later, and sandwiched between those won the Lucas Oil Divisional at Topeka.

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Chris is all about racing, competition, and winning, but his family and racing friends are just as important. For that reason we reached out to Chris recently to discuss his racing operation, how he got started, why he runs a stick, and more.

Learn more about Chris Knudsen and his history in the sport in the following Q&A.

How long have you been racing? 

I’ve been going since I was born.  I made my first pass in 1985 in the same car I am racing now at Cedar Falls Raceway in Iowa–so technically 34 years.  But didn’t drive on a regular basis until I had my own ride in 1995.

How did you get introduced to the sport? 

My dad bracket raced a 1969 Bel Air 427ci/425hp that he ordered new from the factory.  We raced every weekend when I was a kid, mostly at NEITA/Cedar Falls Raceway. 

Then in 1984 he won Super Pro at the Division 5 ET Finals in Scribner NE.  He used some of his winnings ($1,800 I think) to purchase the car we race now from a guy in Cedar Falls, IA who was driving it on the street. 

It’s an original 4-speed big block car although he put an automatic in it—initially with a 427 as an A/SA car but later put a 396ci/375hp in it and ran B and C automatic.

Chris Knudsen Stock winner

Which class or classes do you compete in?  Where do you normally race? Provide a little history of your career. 

I’ve been running in Stock Eliminator my entire driving career.  The first year I raced NHRA points meets was sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. I went to three Division 5 races with my Dad’s Camaro and lost first round all three. 

In 1994 my dad was too busy with work to race and he allowed me and my wife-to-be (Gina) to go to several races with his car.  We won the St. Louis National Open and then followed it up with my first points meet win at Union Grove, WI in just my fourth points meet—so I think I figured there would be many more to come.  Joke was on me because although I made a few more finals I didn’t win another NHRA points meet until 2011.

In 1995, my good friend Brian Baker offered to let us use his 1979 305 Malibu K/SA all season which he eventually sold to us at the end of the season.  We had a lot of fun racing that car and traveling around Division 5 with my Dad. 

My dad passed away in October of 1999, so I continued racing my Malibu at points meets but raced my Dad’s car at national events.  It got to be too much to maintain both and so we focused on the Camaro after about 2001.  One of them had to go and there was no way it would be my Dad’s car so I sold the Malibu to Adam Mesenbring and we’ve focused on the Camaro ever since.

In the early 2000’s, we spent a lot of time chasing the IHRA Division 5 points and mixed in a handful of NHRA points meets that were nearby.  We had a lot of fun going to those races with my best friend Jamey Picht and his parents Dave and Bev Picht. While there were small car counts there was some tough racers in the fields which made it a lot of fun.  Jamey and I each managed to win the Division one year in that stretch. 

Jamey Dave Picht with me
Jamey & Dave Picht with Chris

After IHRA shut down Division 5, we were back to Stock/Super Stock Combo races and the NHRA races I could squeeze into our schedule between work and kids’ activities.  Now my son Luke is 21 and daughter Katelyn is 17, so we have more time to go to races and have filled up the points meet schedule along with 3-4 national events. 

We are having a great time going to races as a family and having the ability to attend enough races to chase the Divisional points.

Tell us about your current race car.  How long have you owned it, chassis builder, engine, drivetrain, how fast does it run, etc. 

The car has been in our family since 1984.  I do as much work to it on my own and have historically assembled my own engines and performed my own transmission maintenance.  I did purchase the current engine in the car complete after getting a lead on it from Jason and Lance Line. 

Clark Holroyd built the engine, it’s out of his car, which I believe went over to Sweden.  Other than updating the valve springs I haven’t even had the intake off since purchasing it—it’s been running great.

In 2016, I switched the car from automatic to a stick.  I purchased a G-force transmission and I am now running a Black Magic clutch.  I also worked with Randy Mans FastShocks to get the shocks working well with the combination.  Its been a fun challenge with lots of trial and error and the car seems to be working decent now. 

What’s the biggest difference in running a stick shifted car in Stock vs the automatic trans? 

Getting the clutch and suspension to work well together is the biggest difference.  With the automatic it was pretty consistent and didn’t spin too often, shocks and suspension didn’t seem to fussy. 

Initially with the stick I couldn’t get it to hook consistently so it took some time between the clutch, springs and shocks to get all working in harmony.  Once that happens then I would say driving it down the track isn’t as different as many people think.

thrash in great bend
Thrashing on the car at Great Bend

Do you feel the stick gives you an advantage? 

One advantage it gives me is my car is much more competitive because its rated 27 hp less with the stick vs. an automatic.  So now I’m not the slowest guy at the track and don’t waste time worrying about avoiding fast cars in my class which I think was detracting from my ability focus on driving consistently. 

As far as driving, it’s basically identical to how I drove the automatic.  I don’t use a blinder, I just leave when I see the last yellow.  It might be slightly easier with the stick because I don’t have to worry about keeping consistent brake pressure to enable consistent reaction times—just push the clutch all the way to the floor and let her fly when I see the bottom yellow. 

In addition, the stick is more consistent when it comes to going rounds, since you don’t have to worry about picking up a bunch as the tranny fluid heats up.

thrash in GB with Jamey Picht
Clutch maintenance with Jamey Picht

Do you feel the newer Stockers have an advantage over the older muscle cars or is the competition evenly matched? 

For heads up runs I’d say there is a clear advantage for many of the newer combinations.  But for everything else I’d say its evenly matched, they probably have some advantage in better technology but if an older car is working well I don’t see it as a big problem. 

I guess I’ve blown it at the stripe a few more times against the 140-150 mph Stockers than I might of against a little slower car.

What did it mean to win the same race as your father 21 years later in the same car? 

That’s pretty hard to put into words.  My Dad was my mentor, friend and hero and I lost him when I was 30 and he was 52.  So now here I am at 50 racing his car and pursuing all the same dreams. 

He won the 1998 Brainerd Points Meet, Class and National Event (undefeated at the track that year).  That was his only National Event win and he was doing it while fighting cancer.  A year later he was not well enough to return to defend his title and passed away about a month later. 

So like so many of us I’ve been on my own pursuit of winning a National Event, but with extra emphasis every year at Brainerd in memory of my Dad. 

Chris Knudsen wins Stock at Lucas Oil Nationals

I got close with a Runner-Up at Brainerd in 2013, but it was unbelievable to win in his car this year.  The fact that it was Brainerd made it extra special.  

I can remember his win like it was yesterday and now I have another great memory to pair with it.  The only thing missing was my wife Gina and daughter Katelyn were not able to be there, but they were watching online and Facetime with me in the winner’s circle. 

My son and crew chief Luke and all of our racing family (the Pichts, Thiberts and Leinarts) were with me which was unbelievable. 

Read more about Chris’s emotional win at the Lucas Oil Nationals here.

After making one national event final prior to this season, you’ve now been in two finals within a six week span.  What do you contribute your recent national event success to? 

Luke and I made a significant clutch adjustment after losing in the first round of Race #1 of Topeka points meet.  Since then the car has been deadly consistent, I have been driving decent, and getting lucky breaks at the right times. 

We won the Topeka points meet and have been on a good run since then, so we are just trying to enjoy the ride while it lasts.  I would say after winning the first national event the internal pressure is reduced which probably helps reduce self-inflicted race wounds too. 

I will always have that special win at Brainerd no matter what happens in the future and that feels pretty good.

topeka winners circle
Topeka Winners Circle

You’re currently ranked #5 in the world, what’s your plans for the remainder of the season?  Are you going to chase points? 

We are going to Las Vegas for both races, the championship is out of reach for me but hopefully I can stay in the top 10 which is a bucket list goal.  I also have an outside shot at the Division 5 title although Tyler Wudarczyk has me covered by quite a bit. I think I’d have to win the Las Vegas points meet to pass him.

Please list your major racing accomplishments.  

  • 2019 Lucas Oil Nationals Stock Winner – Brainerd
  • 2019 AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals Stock R/U – St. Louis
  • 2019 Topeka LODRS Stock Winner
  • 2013 NHRA Brainerd Nationals Stock R/U – Brainerd
  • 4x LODRS Winner
  • 8x LODRS Finalist
  • 2007 IHRA Division 5 Stock Champion

What’s on your bucket list, future goals, what do you hope to achieve? 

Race for many years to come with my family, Top 10 in National Points (hopefully this year), Division championship, and qualify for the JEGS AllStars.

What is your favorite race car, and why?  

My Dad’s car—see above 😊

Tell us what you do for a living? 

I work for John Deere, I’ve held a variety of positions currently working on a large project to help improve our Dealer experience with John Deere.  I have a BA in Accounting and passed the CPA exam.

How do you support your racing, side hustle, sponsor, partner, etc.? 

Thank you John Deere!

Who do you hate to see in the other lane, and why? 

No individual person, but I don’t enjoy 150 mph Stockers first round—I work to avoid those match ups.

What’s the hardest part of drag racing? 

Justifying the cost.  From a competitive side probably a first round loss after investing so much time and energy to get to these events.  To be so far from home and knowing it can all end in an instant. It’s hard putting that out of your mind and just staying focused on the task at hand.

What’s your most embarrassing moment in a race car? 

The multiple times I’ve driven off with a battery charger dragging behind.  But really I do it on purpose to entertain my friends and pit neighbors.

What are you saying to yourself just before you stage the car? 

I guess I don’t talk to myself, but my goal is to do everything the same every run whether it’s time trials or eliminations.  Jamey Picht and my son say don’t think just drive—that’s what I try to do.

What do you enjoy the most at the racetrack? 

Hang out with friends.  People at work always ask what I like about racing and I say three things—

  1. I love to compete and this is something I can still do unlike stick-and-ball sports
  2. I like to tinker on the car at home
  3. Most importantly is all the time I get to spend with my wife, kids and racing family—I just love hanging out with all of them.

Are you superstitious? 

I’m really not, although my entire gang is over the top!  For me I’m not sure if its superstitious but I do things the same every run including the path I take to the staging lanes, even after cars are leaving and a more direct route is open.

Do you love to win or hate to lose? 

I hate when I beat myself.  If I’m .020 on the tree and the car works as planned and I lose, so be it.  Winning always feels good because it is so hard to do.

Which are you better at the starting line or the finish line? 

Not sure, I’ll say the starting line.

What motivates you to continue racing? 

Time with family, friends and the passion to compete.  It’s an addiction.

If money were no object, what would your racing operation look like?   

My car would have nice paint, but it would be the same car.  I’d probably have a newer motorhome and stacker trailer with hopes that my kids will want to put a car in it and race with us for years to come.

Son luke setting valves
Son Luke performing maintenance

How often do you use a practice tree? 

Haven’t used it this year.  Used it last year when I was off the mark.

What is your daily driver? 

2008 Chrysler Town and Country until I get my next hand me down from my wife—then I will upgrade to an Acadia.

Favorite movie or TV show? 

No favorite, I like comedies.  I still watch Mash and Friends.

Favorite music, artist? 

Country and Rock no favorite though

Where do you spend the most time on the internet? 

Class Racer, DRC, Drag Racer TV, HuskerMax

What is your favorite sport?  Favorite team? 

My son and I are Nebraska Cornhusker football fans

Besides racing, what do you do in your free time? 

Family time, no other big hobbies

What are you really good at? 

Ping Pong

Would you rather hang out with a crowd or have a quiet evening at home? 

Quiet evening with Gina, Luke, and Katelyn

What’s your favorite thing to eat?  Individual item, meal, or restaurant? 

Pizza or steak

Who would you like to thank, who helps you the most? 

Without my wife Gina I might have quit years ago when I was feeling sorry for myself after my Dad died.  She told me we will always have a race car—I love that about her! 

Chris with Gina

My kids are both into our racing and my son Luke has become the numbers expert and does all the dialing and scouting of the competition—I just go try to hit the tree and drive the stripe based on his input.

Dave and Bev Picht have been huge supporters. Especially since my Dad died, they treat me like their second son.  Jamey Picht and I are like brothers even though we live a couple hundred miles apart. We find ways to travel together to most races—he’s my sounding board for everything and racing wouldn’t be the same without him and his parents.

Rachelle Thibert and her parents are some of the most generous friends we have. I can’t say thank you enough to her for her help and support this season especially right here at the very end. 

Kevin and Sara Leinart are two of the nicest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet at the track.  With this entire gang pitting together we just have a great time no matter how well we do on the track.

For more NHRA Lucas Oil Sportsman news, interviews, and drag race results, click here. DragChamp is your source for sportsman drag racing.

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