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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Bruno Massel Jr. Makes History as First Comp Driver to Win Four Championships

NHRA has been crowning world champions in Competition eliminator since 1964, and of the 46 drivers whose names have been etched in the history books as class world champion, only nine have won it more than once, and one name – Bruno Massel Jr. – now stands above the rest as the eliminator’s only four-time world champion. 

The Elmhurst, Ill., racer, whose turbocharged machines have embodied the innovative nature of the class and carried him to previous championships in 2009, ’12, and ’21, won his record-setting fourth championship this season, breaking the tie with Bill Maropulos, the late Frank Aragona Jr., and David Rampy. 

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Massel began his season in the west with a trio of races in Phoenix and then another three in Las Vegas and ended it in the grandstands back at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the fall after a surprising early exit, hoping for someone to stop his closest challengers. 

Massel had needed just a second-round win in Las Vegas to clinch the world championship, but he red-lighted to his closest pursuer, Glen Treadwell, who could pass him for the championship with a win and a runner-up in the season’s final two races. 

“I don’t know why I red-lighted,” he said. “I thought I was set up safe, and it was my only red-light of the year. I was panicking. Darrel [Herron, crew chief] and I were standing at about 1,000 feet in the grandstands when Clint Neff drove by Treadwell in the semi’s and took the stripe, and we were just going crazy, screaming and yelling like lunatics.” 

Bruno Massel Jr. began his quest for a record-breaking fourth NHRA Comp world championship out west and notched a win at the NHRA Arizona Nationals and a runner-up and a semifinal in Division 7 competition at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

Massel’s season ended well out west but began with a mixed bag in the first six races – a huge win at the NHRA Arizona Nationals, two divisional runner-ups, and three semifinals – and left him deeply concerned. 

“We left thinking that we dropped the ball on a couple of occasions,” he said. “To win a championship, you have to win finals, because you need those extra 21 points. I had to give up the finish line against [Jeff] Taylor in the semi’s at the Vegas national because I didn’t want to hurt my index. It’s a hard thing to swallow, and it’s tough to do, but you can’t survive over the duration in Comp if you don’t do it once in a while. 

“Our start could have been a whole lot worse, but it should [have] been a whole lot better, and it put us in a position where we might not be able to bounce back. My only hope was that when it got hot, we’d have the power to make the difference because I’m [in] a fast car, and the heat separates the slow cars from the fast cars.” 

Among the other troubles that Massel battled early was a transmission that sometimes wouldn’t make the 1-2 shift, so just before the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk – an event Massel had previously won in 2017 and 2021 – the team moved from the Liberty transmission they had been running for years to a Lenco. 

“We tested the week before Norwalk, and it went really well, but there was definitely an adjustment period,” he said. “I’ve been pulling the Liberty [shifter] since 2006, and the Lenco has air buttons, and it was mostly muscle memory. With the Lenco, I’d reach for the button and hit 2-3 [shift] instead of 1-2, but the change ended up being a difference maker for us because, before that, two races out of three it wouldn’t make the 1-2 shift, and you can’t win a lot of races that way.” 

Massel has done well at Summit Motorsports Park the last several years and added a third national event crown when he won an all-turbocharged final-round battle with Andrew Holt’s Honda-powered dragster.

Massel’s turbocharged six-cylinder Toyota 2JZ-powered 2010 Solara went on to collect national event wins in Norwalk and Brainerd to create a perfect three-for-three national event score, but his season did not end in Brainerd as planned because he decided to travel to North Carolina in the fall to try to stop David Eaton’s march and got his wish with a semifinal duel at the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals. Massel didn’t win the round, but he forced Eaton to hit his index, which cost Eaton the final round. 

Massel originally planned for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals to be his final event of the season, but even a final-round win there over Brett Speer wasn’t enough for him to close the deal yet.

Massel originally planned for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals to be his final event of the season, but even a final-round win there over Brett Speer wasn’t enough for him to close the deal yet.

“I was battling Jim Greenheck and Eaton, and I follow this stuff like a hawk once I get to that point: I know who, where, how, when, and why, and I knew Greenheck was laying back there, and I know what he’s capable of, but the immediate threat was definitely Eaton. 

“It seemed like everybody I pulled up against really pulled out a heck of a race,” he reflected. “Norwalk was a dogfight and a battle of turbo cars [against Andrew Holt’s Honda-powered dragster] in the final, and it’s a tough place to race. It’s hot, so that helps fast cars like mine, but you’ve got all the Division 3 cars, and you’re gonna have to race someone tough every round.  

“The whole season, we weren’t getting the races where guys are breaking on the starting line or a lot of red-lights. People made us earn it, and it’s good and bad — it’s great because you feel like a sense of accomplishment, but it’s bad because it’s hard on your index.” 

Massel, right, and crew chief Darrel Herron collected a trio of national event wins and a strong divisional showing to win the championship.

As mentioned, Massel’s championship makes him the class’ all-time leader in titles, a fact he’s still trying to comprehend. 

“I remember as a kid hearing about Maropulos, and he was just a bad dude. He had a cool car and raced on the West Coast, but I never got to see him race unless it was like an all-star race. Dave Rampy, obviously, he’s one of the winningest of all time, and Frankie did a great job over the years with him and his dad, so it’s great company to be in. I don’t know that I’ve distinguished myself from them. It just hasn’t really set in yet.” 

Massel extended his thanks to Vital Brew Coffee, Mobile Environmental Solutions, Unruli Cargo management, Mckee’s 37 Car Care, Garrett Motion, Hyperaktive, Mazworx, Turbos Direct, Mickey Thompson Tires, Fleetwood Tools, Stockseth Racing, Bruno’s Converter Drive, and NBS, as well as Darrel Herron, Walt Walker, Ray Martin, Tim Freeman, Mike DePalma, Brad Personnet, and, last but not least, his family — wife Dayna, sons Bruno and Anthony, and his mother and father — for their support.

2023 TRACK RECORD, 594 points
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park (Div. 7)SEMIFINALS
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park (Div. 7)RUNNER-UP
NHRA Arizona NationalsWON EVENT
NHRA Four-Wide NationalsSEMIFINALS
The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Div. 7)RUNNER-UP
Summit Racing Equipment NHRA NationalsWON EVENT
Heartland Motorsports Park (Div. 5)WON EVENT
Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (Div. 3)SEMIFINALS
Lucas Oil NHRA NationalsWON EVENT

This article originally appeared in the Year in Review issue of National Dragster.

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