Author: Waldron, Steve
Date published: March 4, 2011
requested by Lynn Senesac
For Tom Prock, like most racers of his era, drag racing was nothing more than hobby. But what began on the streets of Detroit in the 1960s led to an unexpectedly successful career on and off the track for the 1970s Funny Car star.
"We lived in Detroit, and street racing was big then," said Prock. "We used to race on Woodward Ave. The big thing then was Ace Wilson's Royal Pontiac [one of the legendary super-car dealerships of the 1960s]. You could buy cars that would run in the 12s right off the showroom floor. We were just kids, and our interest in drag racing developed from that kind of resource."
Prock began racing in the early 1960s and has been involved in the sport ever since. A four-time NHRA national event runnerup with Fred Castronovo's Custom Body Enterprises Dodge Funny Cars in the mid-1970s, Prock retired from driving in 1979 and spent the next six years as Tom McEwen's crew chief. When Prock quit racing, he went to work for piston manufacturer Venolia, where he still works today.
Although Prock made his name in Funny Car in the 1970s, his first on-track appearance was at Detroit Dragway in 1962 with a '39 Pontiac coupe that he and partner Neil Ellis ran in C/Gas. Prock drove that car for two years, then built a '41 Willys that he campaigned in A/Gas from 1964 through 1967.
During that time, Prock went to work for brothers Gene and Ron Logghe at Logghe Stamping Co. The premier chassis builder in the mid- to late 1960s, Logghe built some of the most successful cars in the sport, including the first flip-top Funny Cars. It was there that Prock built an A/Gas Supercharged Willys, which he named F Troop, after the satirical television sitcom of the mid-1960s. Like the television series, the car ran for only two years.
"I was surrounded by a lot of talent growing up," said Prock. "A friend of mine, Jay Howell, worked [at Logghe Stamping Co.]. He was a very talented guy and did a lot of the fabrication. We built what we thought was going to be a saleable spec frame made out of 4340 [chromoly] tubing with a flip-top body, like a Funny Car, but [NHRA] wouldn't accept it; they said it was a little too far out there. So we put fuel in it, and we raced it on a little circuit with Pete and Bill Hill, Jim Shores, and Charlie Finders. We toured local tracks on the East Coast mostly. It got a little on the hairy side when we started dumping fuel in it. The wheelbase was barely 100 inches, and it ran 8.0s and 180 mph, and it wanted to turn around in the lights, so we sold it. Then we got into building Funny Cars."
In 1970, Prock worked on the Logghe factory Funny Car, the Warhorse Mustang that Howell drove on the match race and AHRA circuits. When Howell got out of Funny Car racing at the end of the 1970 season, Prock teamed with Pete Seaton and Al Bergler on the Seaton Shaker Vega. Seaton quit the team after one race, and the car was renamed the Motown Shaker. Although the partnership lasted just one year, the Prock & Bergler Vega ran well, clocking a best of 6.60 at 210 mph at Aquasco Speedway in Maryland.
In 1972, Fred Castronovo, who with younger brother Phil driving won the NHRA World Finals at the end of 1971 and with it the NHRA Funny Car world championship, asked Prock to drive his Custom Body Enterprises Challenger. Prock agreed and stayed with Castronovo's Utica, N.Y.-based team thorough the 1976 season.
"Phil was the youngest, and their mother didn't want him to drive anymore, so she told Freddy that if Phil got hurt, he was going to be responsible," said Prock. "She told him to sell all his stuff, but he liked it so much, he just told Phil he couldn't drive anymore. He was building a new car in California at Woody Gilmore's shop, and he offered me the deal. He gave us a brand-new car and ramp truck, paid all the expenses, and we got 50 percent of what the car made. We lived above the shop in a little apartment [in Utica] that he furnished, and we did that for five years."
That venture proved to be Prock's most successful. In 1973, he won the NHRA Division 1 title, scoring at three of the division's five World Championship Series events. He also won the Super Stock Nationals at York U.S. 30 Dragway in Pennsylvania that year, and at the U.S. Nationals, he ran a sizzling 6.30 at 229 mph, his best pass of the year, before losing to Don "the Snake" Prudhomme's 6.28 in the opening round.
In 1975 and 1976, Prock was runner-up at four NHRA national events, twice losing to Prudhomme in 1975, at the Gatornationals and Le Grandnational, and again at Le Grandnational in 1976. He also lost to "Jungle Jim" Liberman at the 1975 Summernationals, Liberman's only NHRA national event win. Of the four, Prock's best chance was at the Gatornationals.
"I remember I did my burnout, then Buster [Couch, NHRA chief starter] gave me the signal that it was going to be a single," said Prock. "One of Prudhomme's guys forgot to put the oil-pan gasket on, so when they fired it up, it started spitting oil all over the ground, and they shut him off. In those days, we'd do these little dry hops to get the clutch warm, and back then, they didn't have floaters in the rear end like we have now. When I did the last little chirp up to the line, it sheared the axle end off of the housing, and it turned the brake rotor and pulled the brake line off, so I had no brakes. I couldn't stage and just crept through the lights. They gave us an hour to fix the cars, but we couldn't find another rear end because the [Gilmore] cars were one of a kind, so we were out."
The Custom Body car was also much in demand on the match race circuit.
"We probably raced 60 to 70 times a year," said Prock. "That's how you did business back then. If you had a decent car that didn't break and they could trust that you could make three runs, you could make a pretty lucrative summer tour."
In 1977, Prock moved back to Detroit and partnered with longtime friend Roberto "Poncho" Rendon on a Logghe-built Monza that they called the Detroit Tiger and raced for two years, mostly on the match race circuit. The two then campaigned the Gratiot Auto Supply Arrow in 1979, Prock's last season behind the wheel.
"I quit driving in 1979, but not drag racing," said Prock. "I moved to California at the beginning of 1980 and raced with Tom McEwen for six years. After that, I was pretty burned out from all the traveling and the hectic pace."
Prock and McEwen posted a runner-up at the Springnationals in 1984 and won the Shootout bonus race at the U.S. Nationals that year. Two years later, Prock retired from racing for good and went to work for Joe Pisano at Venolia Pistons.
"I just got tired of racing in general," said Prock. "I decided to get a normal job. I met Joe through racing, and he became sort of a father figure to me. He was always giving me advice, and one day, he told me if I ever got tired of doing this to come and see him, and he'd give me a job, and here I am."
Prock's racing legacy lives on through his sons, Jeff and Jimmy, both of whom grew up watching their father race.
Jeff 's career has run the gamut from manufacturing crankshafts to crewing for NHRA Top Fuel teams to being a nitrous mastermind. Nine years ago, after working on the research and development side of nitrous, Jeff started his own business, Applied Nitrous Technology, where he designs and implements custom nitrous racing systems.
Jimmy, the younger of the two, is the crew chief for 2009 NHRA Funny Car world champion Robert Hight. One of only 10 crew chiefs to win races in Top Fuel and Funny Car, Prock joined John Force Racing in 2001 and guided Gary Densham to eight wins in four seasons and has won 18 times in six seasons with Hight. Prock first distinguished himself as a Top Fuel crew chief with Cory McClenathan in 1992 and later with five-time NHRA world champion Joe Amato, with whom he won 18 times.
"Probably the highlight of all of it is watching my kids do well," said Prock. "My mother wasn't fond of the fact that I took them racing, but they've been pretty successful doing it."
And so has he.