With the quickest, fastest, most consistent runs of his Pro Mod career – a barrage of 5.70s and low 5.80s at more than 250 mph – Steven Whiteley stopped many-time winner Mike Castellana and crew chief Frank Manzo in the Gatornationals final for his biggest victory to date. “It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” said Whiteley, who watched his mom, Annie Whiteley, win Top Alcohol Funny Car one pair ahead of him. “When she won, it really sent the pressure on me through the roof. I thought, ‘Now, I have to win this thing.’ ”
With his best reaction time and best E.T. of the weekend and the fastest speed of his career, he did. For father Jim Whiteley, who also qualified for the Pro Mod field in Gainesville, the dual wins surpassed anything he ever personally accomplished on the quarter-mile. “I’m overwhelmed,” said Jim, who won dozens of races and multiple NHRA championships as a Top Alcohol Dragster driver. “This means more than any race I ever won. If none of us ever wins again, this weekend makes my whole drag racing career worthwhile.”
Steven, a two-time No. 1 qualifier in NHRA competition (in Charlotte in 2014 and in St. Louis last year), started at the top, leading a giant field of qualifiers after the first session with a 5.80-flat. He eventually dipped to the No. 5 spot with that e.t., but when others faltered in eliminations, Whiteley got only stronger, cutting better lights as the day wore on and never losing his consistency.
“The car was perfect all weekend, and I owe it all to my team,” Whiteley said of the J&A Service/YNot team, led by crew chief Jeff Perley. “I could not be more appreciative of what they do, day after day, week after week. Testing at Bradenton went really well, the whole team has been working well together, and I just had a good feeling coming into this race.”
Whiteley topped one major event winner after another in eliminations, starting with door-car legend Todd Tutterow in the opening round, 5.79/252 to 5.86/247. Former series champion Mike Janis slipped into Whiteley’s lane in the quarterfinals, but the second-generation driver was long gone for a 5.80/251 win that set up a titanic semifinal clash with two-time NHRA Pro Mod champ Troy Coughlin, who had beaten Brazilian Sidnei Frigo in the semifinals in the quickest race in Pro Mod history, 5.75 to 5.72.
“Now, that was nerve-wracking,” Whiteley said of the Coughlin matchup. “It’s not just that he was coming off a 5.75 – he was coming off a .00 light, too.” Coughlin, runner-up for the 2016 championship, just missed another .00 reaction time with a telepathic .012, but Whiteley had him covered by several car lengths at the finish line, 5.82/251 to Coughlin’s 6.21/197.
The final was over early. Castellana blew the tires off early, and Whiteley was home free. Anything would have done, but he punctuated the victory with his quickest and fastest run ever in NHRA trim, a 5.791 at 253.52 mph. “The best part of it was the way Castellana was to me,” Whiteley said of the many-time NHRA winner. “He could not have been any cooler, and that’s something I’ll always remember.”