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Top Rookie Massey Now Top Free Agent

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 29 2010
Spencer Massey had a great rookie season but may not have a sophomore season. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Spencer Massey had a great rookie season but may not have a sophomore season. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Fort Worth, Texas – Spencer Massey ended the 2009 drag racing season as the National Hot Rod Association’s top rookie competitor, and recipient of the prestigious Auto Club Road to the Future award.

But as baseball sage Yogi Berra once famously observed: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

That hard fact was driven home for Massey earlier this month, when legendary racer/team-owner Don “The Snake” Prudhomme announced he was retiring from the sport. As reported in the Jan. 29 issue of National Dragster, Prudhomme opted to pull the plug on his Top Fuel team – and Massey’s promising career – after a sponsor search failed to find a replacement for longtime primary backer U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and the United Association. Prudhomme, who will turn 69 in April, has been a team-owner for 15 years.

“It’s a big letdown. I’m sad but not disgusted about it,” said Massey, who won two national events and finished sixth in points under the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to 1 championship format. “I had a heck of an opportunity with Snake. That’s a big honor – I got to race a Top Fuel dragster for ‘The Snake’ and win two races. I want to continue to do more and win championships and race the rest of my life. But if my career ended right now…hey, I’ve raced for ‘The Snake.’ How much more could I ask for? ”

Massey was speaking via cell phone from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he has reunited for the weekend with Top Fuel team-owner Mitch King of Galveston for the 2010 International Hot Rod Association Nitro Jam Drag Racing Series opener.

Massey’s 2009 NHRA season was the first on a two-year contract, and option for 2011, with Snake Racing. But Massey said the contract included an escape clause that voided the agreement if Prudhomme did not have funding for the entire 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule.

“That was in there. That’s basically what happened,” said Massey, a 27-year-old native and resident of Fort Worth. “Who would have thought after Snake has been racing for 47 years this would happen? I would not have. But I thank him for the opportunity.  If it wasn’t for him…I’m one of the fortunate people in the history of drag racing to have driven for him. But with the way the economy is these days…it’s the way life is right now. I’m not upset or mad or anything at all.”

Prudhomme was blindsided in late August when officials from UST announced the company would be ending a 23-year association with him at the end of the 2009 season. The decision was made public shortly before the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. A four-time NHRA Funny Car champion who won a combined 49 national events in Funny Car and Top Fuel, Prudhomme told National Dragster his decision to retire was based on the fact he did not see the team breaking even financially without a major backer. Massey said Prudhomme delivered the news to team members during a conference call.

“He got Donnie Bender, my crew chief, and myself on the phone and started to explain that he tried this sponsor and that sponsor and they worked into January and could not come up with a deal,” Massey said. “And rather than start spending money we shouldn’t be spending that he’d rather stop right there. And he was sorry…and for us to go find jobs real quick because as it looks like right now we’re not racing. And everybody understood. We were wanting to stay (together); we were an awesome team. And we all sank with the ship. We all understood how Snake feels. He feels terrible.

“You see a lot of guys in drag racing that go broke trying to race. They will spend their family fortune and mortgage their house to race, but Snake is not like that. He’s been known as a guy that pays up-front and has the nicest stuff out there. That’s the way he had to have it. He’s not going to do a half-(assed) job and spend his whole fortune.”

In addition to his accomplishments over a 32-year driving career, and raising the bar as far as attracting corporate America to drag racing, Prudhomme proved an astute judge of talent. Former crewman Larry Dixon, the driver who replaced Prudhomme upon his retirement after the 1994 season, won rookie of the year honors in 1995. Dixon also gave “Der Snake” Top Fuel championships in 2002 and 2003.

Massey put up impressive numbers as a rookie, posting victories at Joliet, Ill., and Las Vegas – the latter during the Countdown to 1. Massey also earned a runner-up finish in the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., to distance himself from fellow Top Fueler Shawn Langdon, Funny Car driver Matt Hagan and Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Doug Horne for rookie of the year honors. Massey, who took home $20,000 during the NHRA Awards Banquet in mid-November, was the only professional rookie to win at least one race in 2009. He posted a 32-21 round-win record (.604), with an average reaction time of 0.054-seconds.

In addition, Massey logged a 7-1 round-win record over the final two races, pushing his winning percentage over .600. He also led all drivers with a 0.882 winning percentage on the Christmas Tree, leaving first in 45 of 51 races. He was a near-perfect 13-1 leaving the starting line during the Countdown, his lone miscue being a 0.008 red-light at Pomona against Antron Brown.

Massey said recent rumors linking him to Don Schumacher’s super team were unfounded. “I wish I had something I couldn’t tell you,” said Massey, referring to an impending deal.

Meantime, Massey – who won the 2008 IHRA Top Fuel title while driving for King – said he was scheduled to participate in a four-car Top Fuel match race as part of Palm Beach Nitro Jam at Palm Beach International Raceway today and Saturday.  “I’ll be driving the car I raced in 2008 and won the IHRA championship in,” said Massey, whose teammate will be reigning IHRA Top Fuel champion Del Cox Jr. in a second King-owned dragster. Bruce Litton and Bobby Lagana Jr. are the other Top Fuel entrants.

“I was coming down here even if I had a car to drive and have some fun,” Massey said. “Now that I don’t have a car to drive, Mitch said, ‘Bring a helmet.’^” Massey said the odds of landing a Top Fuel ride for the NHRA season-opening 50th Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals next month are slim. “A buddy has an Alcohol Dragster I could drive, and Mitch King might decide to run Pomona, but it’s up in the air,” Massey said. “If everything goes well this weekend and Mitch finds some funding, maybe he’ll go.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 29 2010
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