17-year old Tanner Gray makes impressive NHRA debut in Chevrolet Camaro SS

17-year old Tanner Gray makes impressive NHRA debut in Chevrolet Camaro SS
Third-generation driver seeks to add to family victory total in the NHRA Arizona Nationals

DETROIT (Feb. 21, 2017) – Late-afternoon sunshine highlighted the grandeur of the San Gabriel Mountains, which provide a scenic backdrop to Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, as Tanner Gray inched the Chevrolet Camaro SS to the staging line.

Steely eyes of a veteran competitor contrasted the playfulness of the 17-year-old North Carolinian only a few minutes before he climbed into the Gray Motorsports Pro Stock car for a quarterfinal matchup with reigning world champion Jason Line.

Within 7 seconds, Gray’s maiden National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Mello Yello Drag Racing Series competition was history. Shane Gray greeted his son with a wide smile and hearty hug following the loss by six-thousandths of a second (about 2 feet at 211 mph) to the KB Racing driver, who went on to give Chevrolet the opening-round win of the 2017 season.

“Right now, there are a lot of fast cars. Tanner Gray is going to be tough; he’s going to be very interesting. I enjoyed racing him,” Line said in his postrace news conference.
The words of respect offered little immediate consolation, but Gray will benefit from the tough loss. All in all, it was a productive debut. Gray was the No. 9 qualifier and won his opening-round elimination race. There are 23 more Pro Stock events on the calendar and each will provide opportunities to improve in various aspects.

“I learned a lot, he said. “I’m very competitive and have always been hard on myself. I’m not going to say I’m under a lot of pressure now, but a little bit just because the car is fast so there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to go out there and win. I just need more laps so I can get better in the seat.”

Gray has been in a racing seat since he was 8 years old. Junior dragsters, karting, Sprint cars, and asphalt Late Model racing have combined to prepare him for NHRA competition in the Chevrolet Camaro SS previously occupied by his father.

“Because I’ve grown up around drag racing and have driven so many different things, I think it makes the transition a lot easier,” he said. “Seat time helps with anything. Seat time in the go-kart helped with the Sprint car and the seat time in the Sprint car helped in the asphalt Late Model, and the seat time in the asphalt Late Model has helped in the Pro Stock car. The more runs you make in a Pro Stock car the more used you get to the steering and what the car is going to do.

“If you can drive a dirt car and can have good car control it will help you in a Pro Stock car. In a stock car, you can feel more (such as if) the right-front is pushing and have time to figure it out. In a Pro Stock car, you have 6 seconds to figure out the data you need to get back to the crew chief, and I think it just takes time to do that.

“The best thing to do is to try and stay calm and relaxed. That’s exactly how it was when I was racing dirt track and asphalt stuff.”

Gray will periodically intersperse midweek Outlaw Kart competition (rear-winged go-karts with 500cc engines) against other professional drivers such as Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at a local dirt track for additional experience during the NHRA season that stretches into mid-November. At the shop and racetrack, he’ll also benefit from the experience of his father and crew chief and former racer Dave Connolly, along with input from his paternal grandfather, former drag racer Johnny Gray.

“My dad will be a little bit of everything from driver coach to mentor to dad. I think you need all of those,” he said.

After 163 Pro Stock races, which are highlighted by five victories, Shane Gray didn’t plan to compete in all 24 races in 2017. He didn’t need much convincing to name his son as the full-time driver of the primary car, and the transition has been seamless.

“We took him down to Florida and made 25 full runs the first time we went testing. He just got in the car and took off, and I didn’t have any doubts that he wouldn’t because of all the things he’s been exposed to,” Shane Gray said. “It wasn’t a big deal. When you’re 17, nothing’s a big deal.

“My father taught me that you can’t teach somebody to be a driver. There are fundamentals that somebody can teach you about driving or about being a quarterback. But to get to the next level, it’s about whether you can or can’t.

“Friday and Saturday when we’re both racing I’m Dad. Sunday, I’m Dad unless we have to race each other. He’s our focus and we want to win the championship with him. He’s young and capable.”

Shane Gray, who will compete Feb. 24-26 in the NHRA Arizona Nationals along with select other events throughout the season in a second Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro SS, also fell in a quarterfinal race at Auto Club Raceway. Had both won, it would have set up an intra-family semifinal matchup.

Who wins that one? Without hesitation, Shane Gray affirmed, “I will.” His son, within earshot, shook his head in disagreement.