The staff at Gray Motorsports made their names going in a straight line, but the group is clearly well-rounded. The Denver, North Carolina-based organization long-fielded NHRA Pro Stock cars, doing so most recently in a full-time capacity with Tanner Gray (grandson of company patriarch, and longtime drag racer, Johnny).
The Gray-prepared Camaros propelled the young phenom to the rookie of the year award in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series in 2017, and the world championship in the famed factory hot rod class the following season.
However, for 2019 Tanner turned his attention to circle-track competition in NASCAR and ARCA with Toyota and DGR-Crosley Racing. Meanwhile, Gray Motorsports turned to its engine business and found a primary partner in CJB Motorsports with driver Shane Stewart in the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series.
From Fans To Participants
During the Patriot Nationals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte, Gray Motorsports engine builder Mike Smith told OneDirt that Sprint Car racing is something the group has always enjoyed as fans. Shane Gray (Johnny’s son, Tanner’s dad and a longtime Pro Stock racer himself) even dabbled in the discipline behind the wheel at one time. Tanner has also turned many laps around Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, North Carolina, in an Outlaw Kart.
“Having a fully operational engine shop, we said it’s something we can do that we enjoy, maybe generate a little bit of revenue and go from there,” Smith said of the company’s foray into Sprint Car racing.
Stewart and Brady Bacon both ran Gray Motorsports engines in the World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in recent years, with Stewart even setting quick time. However, the Gray organization didn’t have a consistent dirt program in place until Stewart joined CJB Motorsports out of Telford, Pennsylvania, for the 2019 campaign.
“When Shane came over, the guys wanted to do something different in their engine program and he remembered us and gave us a call,” Smith said.
Gray Motorsports 410 Sprint Car engine on the dyno:
The pairing found quick success, with Stewart immediately clicking off top-fives and notching a win during the inaugural Music City Nationals at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in early June.
To some, it may seem like 500 cubic-inch engines built to make passes in the six-second range on a quarter-mile of asphalt, and 410ci powerplants designed for 30 to 50 laps in a circle on dirt would have few similarities. For Smith and team though, the learning curve isn’t necessarily that steep.
You’ve just got to build stuff a little bit beefier. – Mike Smith
“[They are both] naturally aspirated engines; it kind of works right into our wheelhouse, that’s kind of what we do,” Smith said.
He explained that before NHRA mandated the Pro Stock rev-limit of 10,500 rpm, it was not uncommon to be in the 11,000-rpm range in those cars. Clearly, that’s not possible with a Sprint Car engine, simply due to the need for longevity.
Both engines, however, have all the same components, and the Sprint Car version still pushes 9,000 on the tach.
“The Pro Stock engine had all the best parts money can buy and these do as well,” Smith said. “Just don’t get quite as aggressive with your valvetrain components and stuff like that. You’ve just got to build stuff a little bit beefier for something to last quite this long.”
But even though it turns high-rpm, a Pro Stock engine still lasts longer than other power plants at the highest levels of drag racing, thereby providing another helpful parallel between the drag and dirt worlds in which Gray Motorsports operates.
“A Pro Stock engine isn’t like a Top Fuel engine, where with a Top Fuel engine they make one run and they take it completely apart,” Smith said. “With a Pro Stock engine, we could put as many as 60 runs on it before we ever had to take it apart. We just put valvesprings on every four runs.”
Shane Stewart mentions Gray Motorsports engine after Eldora qualifying lap:
However, that’s not to say the two disciplines don’t have some very distinct differences. For instance, while Pro Stock engines run on gasoline, Sprint Cars are famous for being powered by methanol. Smith explained that during a Pro Stock run they might only go through a quart of fuel, while a Sprint Car engine requires a much higher volume, even in dyno testing, meaning the builders need to get used to the amount of fuel that has to be kept in the powerplant.
Also, and perhaps most notable from Smith’s perspective, is the fact that on each run in a Pro Stock car a data logger records copious amounts of information. In a Sprint Car, the driver and crew chief log data themselves.
“To me, these guys have it a lot harder than the drag race cars do,” Smith said. “On the drag race car, we have so much data acquisition on there. The driver still gives the feedback, but you also have a second opinion with the data, where these guys are completely relying on the driver because there is not data acquisition. So that’s even an adjustment for us as drag racers. We have to rely on [crew chief] Barry [Jackson] quite a bit with his experience.”
The Gray Motorsports operation is having fun and winning in the World of Outlaws, while also building and tuning engines for Tanner’s younger brother, Taylor. He competes on asphalt for DGR-Crosley in the Late Model Stock Car division of the CARS Response Energy Tour. Gray Motorsports also counts a variety of customers in the European Pro Stock market and have aided NHRA Pro Stock driver Joey Grose as he campaigns from the West Coast. The team has no plans to run an in-house Pro Stock car this season, but also has a turn-key operation ready to go should someone be interested.
“We haven’t left the drag race market by any means,” Smith said. “We’re just branching out and putting our feelers out in some other stuff.”