Laughlin Picks Tree Lights Over Friday Night Lights

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 13 2016
Alex Laughlin's high school football coach in Texas made him decide between playing and driving. The decision was easy, Laughlin says. (Photos courtesy of NHRA National Dragster)

Alex Laughlin’s high school football coach in Texas made him decide between playing and driving. The decision was easy, Laughlin says. (Photos courtesy of NHRA National Dragster)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Rising NHRA Pro Stock contender Alex Laughlin never has lacked for self-confidence, dating to his football-playing days as a high school freshman and sophomore in North Texas.

“I went to Stephenville High School and they’re super-big on football,” said Laughlin, 28, briefly bugfeaturerecalling those gridiron glory days from inside his hauler at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis. “I was linebacker on defense and receiver on offense, which is a weird combination because of my size (5-foot-11, 205- pounds). I wasn’t fast but I could catch a ball. I couldn’t outrun a lot of people but if they could get it to me it was going to stick to my hands.”

Still, in a state where “Friday Night Lights” borders on a religious experience, that wasn’t enough for the Yellow Jackets’ coaching staff.

“Because I wasn’t showing up for all of the summer practices between my junior year,” Laughlin said, “the first day of high school my coach came to me and he said, ‘Hey Laughlin, I really think it would be in your best interest to pick between football and this racing or whatever it is that you do.’ And I said, ‘Not a problem! My decision is made now. I’m not going to play football my whole life’…and here I am driving in a professional category in drag racing.

“To sit on the sidelines and especially to watch all the rest of my friends still play and be a part of the game kind of sucked. But at the end of the day, they’re not playing football anymore and I’m still racing.”

More to the point, Laughlin now is a winner in Pro Stock _ arguably the most competitive,

Alex Laughlin's Pro Stock car.

Alex Laughlin’s Pro Stock car.

cutthroat and paranoid professional class in National Hot Rod Association Championship Drag Racing. Armed with sponsorship from Dallas-based Gas Monkey Garage, Alex and the team founded by father/racer Kenny Laughlin completed a seven-race rookie campaign in 2015.

Aligned with Gray Motorsports for the full 24-race schedule this season, Alex logged his breakthrough victory over Bo Butner during the fourth annual AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., near St. Louis.

“Wow! Starting in that class and seeing how tough it was to even get a round-win, to make it all the way and win the whole race…that was quite a lifetime achievement, really was,” Kenny Laughlin said. “For him, his first year to get a national event win is just something. Sure one for the Bucket List, I’ll tell you.”

Alex’s victory earned himself and his black-and-green Chevrolet Camaro cover display on the Oct. 21 issue of National Dragster, official publication of the NHRA, accompanied by the headline “MONKEY BUSINESS.” Inside, Alex was congratulated by “the entire Gas Monkey family” in a full-page advertisement punctuated by Rawlings’ trademark GYSOT! (Get You Some Of That!) tag line.

That event was Round 2 of the six-race Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, the NHRA playoffs. Laughlin qualified fifth for Sunday’s season-ending 52nd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., with a quarter-mile pass in 6.570-seconds at 210.97 mph. He will open eliminations against two-time/reigning Pro Stock world champ and fellow native Texan Erica Enders, who qualified 12th at 6.608-seconds and 210.05 mph in her Elite Motorsports/Mopar Dodge Dart.

“Alex is a good friend and he’s really had a strong car, especially down the stretch this year,” Enders said. “I’ll get up on the wheel and try to steal one away and we’ll go from there.”

Laughlin failed to qualify for the 10-driver Countdown lineup by two points. But he continued to impress with a third-place qualifying effort and runnerup finish to Gray Motorsports teammate Drew Skillman at The Plex during last month’s 31st annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in Ennis, in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

After starting the season as little more than a signboard for reality TV star and entrepreneur

Alex Laughlin gave the boot to football in high school.

Alex Laughlin gave the boot to football in high school.

Richard Rawlings of Dallas, Laughlin and the Gas Monkey Energy Drink Camaro have earned a measure of respect and acceptance in the Pro Stock pits.

“It took us a little while this year to gain our momentum,” said Laughlin, a resident of Granbury, a growing community approximately 38 miles southwest of Fort Worth. “I wish we would have won a little bit sooner so that we could be racing for the championship now. But if we can keep improving as much as we have over this whole season and carry this on into next year we’ll definitely be a real competitor for the world championship.

“We’re happy with how the car’s running. Our crew, our power, the car…it’s all coming together.”

Laughlin joined Rookie of the Year candidate Aaron Strong as a first-time Pro Stock winner this season. Alex also is the 63rd driver to have won a national event since inception of the “Factory Hot Rod” class in 1970. Laughlin also became the 17th different non-Countdown driver to win a playoff race.

“I had these stepping stones of what I (wanted) to accomplish throughout the year,” Laughlin said. “First, it was win a round (accomplished in March at Gainesville Raceway in Florida). Then, I wanted to be No. 1 qualifier (accomplished in July at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo.)

“Then, I wanted to make the Countdown and finally, I wanted to get my first win. Well, we got the race win but we’ll have to get the Countdown next year.”

Alex’s motorsports background includes stints in go-karts, shifter karts, Legends Cars and Top Dragsters. In addition, he and his father remain active in tractor-pull competitions. Since claiming his first Wally trophy, Laughlin has earned a Top Alcohol Dragster license…perhaps hinting at a future career in Top Fuel. But Alex’s immediate future/focus remains on Pro Stock.

“It’s just the competitiveness of the class,” Laughlin said. “Watching the Pro Stock cars my whole life I thought how cool would that be because it’s a driver’s class. Racing shifter karts growing up I always raced in the spec categories where it wasn’t the person who had the most money was the one that won. It was the engines were all the same, the cars were all the same and it’s the best driver that wins.

“I’ve always been confident in my abilities, and so I thought a class like Pro Stock, where so much of it is up to the driver…how cool is that? You’re limited to 500 cubic-inches, naturally aspirated and just do the best you can do. And a lot of times it’s the driver’s race.”

Laughlin’s crew chief is Hank Hankinson, a former racer assigned to Alex’s team by Gray Motorsports.

“The races, obviously, can be won or lost on the starting line and we’ve struggled a little bit with the car this year on the starting line,” Laughlin said. “We had some stuff that was messed up in the clutch, like the linkage, so the car was lazy reacting and it was making my reaction times look awful. We’ve got everything pretty well fixed now; the car’s running good and we’re certainly happy with where we are. We’ve got a win now, we were No. 1 qualifier up in Denver (Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo.) and all these other guys _ even though we’re the new kids on the block _ they all know who we are.

“They have been really receptive to us being here. We’re like the guys that get along with everybody. You may have some teams that don’t like other teams but we’re the guys…we’re friends with everybody and get along with everybody, so that’s pretty cool.”

That statement was, in fact, reiterated by Jason Line, the current point-leader, a two-time Pro Stock world champion from arch-rival Ken Black Motorsports and driver of the Summit Racing Equipment Camaro. Pole-sitter Line will take a 23-point lead over teammate and four-time world champion Greg Anderson into Sunday’s eliminations.

“They’re genuine people, yes,” said Line, referring to Alex and his dad. “I would say in this class especially it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, that’s for sure. So yeah, it is refreshing to see somebody like him succeed. You can just tell _ in my opinion _ he’s a good, genuine guy. His dad’s a pretty sharp guy.

“And this is not an easy job. To just jump in and do well is difficult and they’ve proven they can do it. And once they know they can do it, they’ll get better way faster because they’ll get a little bit of confidence. So I think no question they’re a top-10 player.  They have good stuff. I think they make as much power as we do, that’s for sure. We’re all kind of stuck together and the devil is in the details.

“I told Bo (Butner) when he started in Pro Stock, ‘This will be one of the harder things you’ve done.’ He laughed at me at first. I don’t think he’s laughing at me now. It is difficult but he’s (Laughlin) dong a really good job and he’s definitely figuring it out and it’s nice to see.”

Informed of Line’s comments, Laughlin was taken aback. “That means a lot more to me than he would understand,” Alex said. “Because Jason came by and congratulated me on the win and said, ‘It’s cool to have new people win and it’s really cool to have good people win.’ We get along with the Elite (Motorsports) guys really well, we get along with all of the KB (Ken Black Racing) guys…everybody’s been really receptive. We’ve gained a lot of new friends and hope to be here for a long time.”

Kenny Laughlin, who has parked his Competition Eliminator car to guide Alex’s fledgling career, joked about his team’s journey into Pro Stock.

“It just took a pocketful of money. That’s all it was,” Laughlin, 58, said with his signature smile and laugh. “I know how to make $1-million at the end of the year _ run a restaurant business and start with $2.5-million. When Alex was just a kid go-kart racing he kind of ‘got things.’  He listened and he got it and we’ve go-kart raced, we’ve Legends Car raced, we’ve had rear-engine dragsters, tractor pulls…we’ve just had all kinds of stuff.  We’ve just done a little everything motorsports our whole life.”

Meanwhile, the Laughlins’ two-year relationship with Rawlings and Gas Monkey Garage traces its roots to the NHRA’s Sportsman ranks. Rawlings and bearded sidekick Aaron Kaufman, whose GMG car restoration and customization business is chronicled on Discovery Channel’s hit Fast ‘N Loud reality series, was sponsoring Alex’s Top Dragster and Kenny’s Top Eliminator car via Gas Monkey Tequila last year.

“It was about the middle of the year in 2015,” Alex said. “I actually had a Pro Mod and we were out at this track (The Plex) making licensing runs, to cross my license over so I could race the Pro Mod. And it started raining. We didn’t get to finish and the next morning was when we got the call from Gas Monkey.  They knew my passion for Pro Stock and said, ‘Well, here’s an opportunity. So if you want it, figure it out.’ They said they would like us in Pro Stock at Sonoma…which was three weeks from that day. We had a truck and trailer, but we didn’t have a car or engine.”

With the intervention and assistance of longtime Pro Stock competitor Larry Morgan, the Laughlins hooked up with businessman/racer Johnny Gray and his family-run company based in Denver, N.C., for a Camaro chassis and engine program. Gray Motorsports works out of a 24,000-square-foot facility with 18,000-square-feet of that space dedicated to a state-of-the-art engine shop.

“I made just enough runs to get my license, loaded the car up, stopped in Dallas, got the (GMG) wrap and everything put on it and went out to Sonoma,” said Laughlin, referring to the annual July national event in Northern California.

“I was scared to death. I was just sick. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep hardly,” Alex said. “I did the best I could and we ended up qualifying (13th on the 16-car ladder), which was our goal, just to even make the show. Went up there and did my burnout and Erica Enders said, ‘When I saw you do your burnout I knew that you were a driver and you’d be good at this.’ That’s another one of those friends that stays close to me and means a lot.”

Rawlings, Kenny Laughlin and three other partners are co-owners/board members of Gas Monkey Energy, a niche beverage which made its market debut earlier this year. Laughlin’s Camaro also is backed by Havoline motor oil, 360 Wraps and Advance Auto Parts.

Fueled by a couple of cans of that energy drink, Kenny Laughlin hosted a tent-full of family, friends, business partners and potential new clients in the pits at former Funny Car driver Billy Meyer’s Motorplex.

“I know so many people through racing and some of the other businesses I own that I can put people together and that’s what it is,” the elder Laughlin said. “I know people that own convenience store chains, and those guys are here. They come over and they eat and it’s a nonchalant kind of way of doing business. It’s not like a formal meeting but yet you get a lot more done in one day. So that’s kind of what I do. There’s some family here but you’ve got to have that mix. If you didn’t it’d just be kind of cold.”

In addition to Laughlin Motorsports and Gas Monkey Energy Drink, Kenny’s business ventures include DRP Industries, which manufactures tubing for the oil and gas business.

“We frack wells and stuff like that,” Kenny said. “We’ve just always been in the manufacturing business. I’ve owned a lot of different businesses. I get ‘em going, buy ‘em, sell ‘em and then get another one going. I’ve been a _ I don’t know _ a go-getter, I guess, kind of a guy for a better word. I’ve never had a job in my life. I’ve never had a paycheck from a man.

“I guess I’m kind of a marketing kind of guy in a roundabout way from a country boy’s kind of standpoint. I’m not a high-pressure kind of guy. You can be a good ‘ol boy and get a lot of stuff done, yes sir.”

Skillman, Alex’s Gray Motorsports teammate, said Kenny Laughlin is a genuine hoot. “He’s a character, absolutely,” said Skillman, the 2015 NHRA Rookie of the Year. “Kenny’s a helluva character. He’s always wanting to talk to you, never know what he’s into and the next story is something you’ve never heard before. He’s a really good guy.

“Alex has a lot of his characteristics, too. They’ve got an A-personality for sure, and that fits in with us a bunch. We’re all A-personalities. We’re very competitive with each other but we’re still friends and teammates.

“They work hard, they want this. That’s the biggest thing _ you have to have desire to be here. This sport is extremely humbling and tough. It’s tough on you emotionally. He’s a young, married guy (wife Sierra) so you’re leaving your wife, you’re leaving your business, you’re leaving everything. We’re all business owners and if you’re not at work, you better have a good reason to be out. I’m proud of him. He steps-up when he gets to the racetrack. He wants this.”

Indeed, Alex Laughlin still silently thanks the high school football coach who basically presented him with a life-changing ultimatum.

“We’re just lucky to be here and have this opportunity anyway,” Alex said. “I mean, I’m racing with people I’ve watched my entire life _ Greg and Jason and Erica. And what makes it also cool is that I’ve become such good friends with all of these people. It’s pretty awesome.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 13 2016
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