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NHRA in Epping: Prock was not supposed to race this season. Now he drives over 330 miles per hour

May 30—As soon as Austin Prock steps on the gas, his body is pressed against the seat and he can't see a thing.

In about 200 feet, when his vision returns, Prock gazes through the black fog coming from the clutch, which is situated between his legs. His car is traveling more than 200 miles per hour (and climbing) and his body is experiencing about 6Gs of force.

Prock, 28, is in his first season racing on the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Funny Car circuit as part of the John Force Racing team.

Prock and the NHRA will visit New England Dragway in Epping Friday through Sunday for the New England Nationals.

The fourth-generation driver's fastest mark this season is about 337 miles per hour in an elapsed time of 3.82 seconds, which is among the top-10 fastest runs ever in the sport, Prock said. NHRA drag strips are 1,000 feet (less than a quarter-mile) in length.

"It's so far out in its own realm, it's really hard to describe," Prock said of racing a Funny Car. "You don't really feel the speed as much as the acceleration of getting to that speed.

"It's an experience very few people get to experience, I guess, but it's something that I wish everybody could experience because you definitely can't find it anywhere else."

The Funny Cars use nitromethane fuel for their engine, which is located at the driver's feet. The cars have about 13,000 horsepower and a 125-inch wheelbase. The driveshaft and clutch bellhousing run between the driver's legs.

For reference, top fuel dragster cars, which also race on an NHRA circuit that Prock drove on this season, have a 300-inch wheelbase with about the same horsepower. The longer wheelbase in the dragsters make them accelerate faster but not steer as quickly as the Funny Cars, Prock said.

When Prock first steps on the gas of his Cornwell Tools Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car, his body, helmet and windshield shake, he said.

"These engines are essentially bombs," Prock said. "You get a little bit of an adrenaline rush from that and it being a shorter wheelbase is a lot harder to navigate the race car in a straight line. You don't have the traction level, so being smooth on the wheel is very important."

Prock, who enters this weekend in Epping four points behind circuit leader Matt Hagan, grew up at racetracks.

His great-grandfather, Jimmy, finished 10th in the 1930 Indianapolis 500. His grandfather, Tom, was a Funny Car driver and pioneer crew chief in the sport, Prock said. His dad, Jimmy, and brother, Thomas, are his head and assistant crew chiefs.

Prock's dad is a longtime crew chief in the sport and joined John Force Racing in 2000. Thomas has a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University.

"As long as I can think, I've always wanted to drive a race car," said Prock, a Danville, Indiana, resident.

Prock, who also loves to cook and has a culinary arts degree from the Art Institute of Indianapolis, competed in his first race at age 10 and spent five years with Tony Stewart Racing before joining John Force's team in 2017. Prock started at John Force Racing working on the dragsters of the boss's daughters, Courtney and Brittany.

Competing on the Top Fuel dragster circuit, Prock was the 2019 NHRA Rookie of the Year. His team shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic and Prock lacked funding to race in 2021.

He competed in the Top Fuel dragster circuit again from 2022-23, but, initially, didn't have the funding to race this year. Then Prock got a call asking if he would like to replace his teammate Robert Hight, a three-time NHRA Funny Car champion (2009, 2017, 2019) who took a hiatus this season for medical reasons.

"It was kind of a double-edged sword," Prock, who has known Hight for 18 years. "All I ever wanted to do was race with my dad and brother and I got that opportunity but I got it in the worst way I ever wanted it."

New England Dragway, Prock said, is a throwback track and also holds some history for his family. Prock's grandfather, whose 374 license number is represented on his Funny Car, raced at the track in the 1970s.

"You get to see some of the older guys he used to work with and people that grew up watching him race, and that racetrack just kind of has that nostalgic feel," Prock said, "so it kind of puts it all together for me."

ahall@unionleader.com