Earlier this year, Mopar Muscle was the first publication to give you the inside scoop on the new Hemi Pro Stock engine. With the 2000 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season underway, we had an opportunity to go behind the scenes at the NHRA Mac Tools Gatornationals to watch Darrell Alderman and Scott Geoffrion put the Nickens Brothers-owned Dodge Avengers through their paces. David and Robert Nickens are doing their work under the Mopar Performance banner, while fellow racer Larry Morgan is backed by Dodge Motorsports.

Though Alderman had already run the motor for the previous two races, he had no success cracking the tough fields. Pro Stock is considered one of the toughest classes in drag racing, and only rarely are the first and the sixteenth qualifiers separated by as much as a tenth of a second. With four of the engines now completed, this weekend's effort would also mark the debut of the engine in Geoffrion's car.

Pro Stock is a very labor-intensive environment. On Nickens' team, the major players are crew chief Mark Ingersoll, rear suspension specialist Jim Seacreast, enginemen Carl Robalais and Wayne Brown, clutch tuner Mike Gott, and welder/crewmember John Gosson.

Several factors play into what the crew chief will adjust on a Pro Stock car at any particular race. The weather and air density determine what changes need to be made to the carburetors, and carburetor jetting changes are critical. Meanwhile, the surface and preparation of the track will determine how the clutch and suspension systems are adjusted. Adjustments to the wheel bars and four-link rear are often needed; if the suspension is off in one direction or the other, the car will hit too hard on one side and dart to the right or left.

NHRA gives Pro Stock teams four attempts to qualify for the available 16 positions in the field and weather can make certain sessions more critical than others. By the time Friday's first qualifying session began, an overcast sky and lower than normal temperatures meant that the track had not become hot from the sunshine beating down on it, and the air and barometric pressures would allow the cars to run a slightly leaner fuel mixture. Since this would be the first event for Geoffrion to have the engine in his car, it was hoped that his Avenger would take the same changes that Alderman's crew had already discovered. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

Scott was in the 10th set of cars out, and put a respectable 6.986 on the board. Darrell was right behind him in the same left lane (considered the better of the two at Gainesville) and laid down a great 6.938, which placed a Hemi Mopar into an NHRA Pro Stock field for the first time since 1984. Once the smoke cleared from the session, Alderman was in the 11th slot. Though Geoffrion's first effort was only good enough for 24th, three more sessions remained. Nickens began making decisions regarding the cars as the computer kicked out data.

"After looking at things, we've decided to give Darrell's car a little more wheelspeed," Nickens said. "We were pretty conservative on that first run. But the clutch worked really nice and we made a carburetor adjustment to try to get the car to run the back half a little faster. We also have added a little timing to it. We're going to take a little fuel away from it, especially with the 80 percent humidity we have right now."

In Pro Stock racing, the first 60 feet are the most critical. If the suspension for the car is not perfect for the launch, the time lost here cannot be made up downtrack. With the bump spot for the field already a 6.955, it would be very hard to get into the program unless they were capable of planting the rear suspension hard without spinning or shaking-the effect that occurs when the rim/wheel moves faster than the suspension-planted tire, and that tire, responding like a rubber band, rebounds trying to catch up.