It has been 13 years since the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class saw 20-year-old rookie phenom L.E. Tonglet blast his way into the class record book with a dominant performance.
Tonglet became the category’s youngest champion with a late-season surge, topping the Labor Day U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park and then winning in three of four final-round appearances during the five-event Countdown.
In similar fashion, little-before-known Gaige Herrera has rocked the bike class’ status quo this year.
Their career trajectories aren’t the same, though. Herrera is a bit older than Tonglet was when he took the class by storm. Herrera turns 30 on Sept. 28. Tonglet was a rookie, while Herrera competed in six races last year as a protégé of Gary and Karen Stoffer.
Tonglet, with season-saving funding from Kenny Koretsky, made his big move deep into the schedule. Herrera started making his mark from the first weekend of the season as the newest racer at well-heeled, 13-time champion Vance & Hines.
Tonglet made a splash. Herrera triggered a tsunami.
At the first three races for the part-time Pro Stock Motorcycle category, Herrera won from the No. 1 starting position and set low elapsed time and top speed of the meet. That was just the start. In the first eight events, Herrera had six victories and seven top-qualifying performances, and he set low elapsed time of the meet seven times and top speed three times.
He won three of five #2Fast2Tasty Challenge specialty races backed by his own sponsor, Mission Foods, earning nine precious Countdown bonus points.
Moreover, Herrera became only the eighth person in NHRA history to sweep the daunting Western Swing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle’s only opportunity to try for the elusive hat trick.
Herrera entered the Labor Day U.S. Nationals with a 27-2 record, and one of those two stumbles came in the final round at Bristol with his foul start (which answered the question of whether or not he was human).
It’s all a bit astonishing for the rather shy fourth-generation drag racer from La Habra, Calif., who has relocated to DeMotte, Ind. He works as a pipefitter and ironworker by day and spends his nights in his shop, building bike engines, exhaust systems and custom harnesses.
“Everything that’s happened this season has been amazing. I just wish my great-grandfather (John Herrera) would have been here to see it. He started all of this with our whole family racing,” Herrera said. “My family started in cars, so my grandpa’s heart still is in cars, but he supports the whole bike stuff, too. My dad’s the one that branched off and started the whole bike deal.
“I’m a fourth generation. It all started with my great-grandfather. As far as I know, he wanted to keep his sons off the street. That was when NHRA was just starting. So they had a couple of Anglias and Austins, and he did all that.”
Gaige Herrera has also been a force on four wheels. He drove a Datsun in Super Gas for about a year and then competed in Super Comp.
He said, “I still drive it every once in a while. I drive my grandfather’s ’68 blown small-block Camaro.”
On two wheels, he was a factor in Outlaw and XDA Pro Street competition before joining Vance & Hines. He had extensive experience on a Suzuki, as the fastest Suzuki Hayabusa racer in the U.S.
So when Andrew Hines gave him a tryout on the Misson Foods Suzuki as a possible replacement for three-time series champion Angelle Sampey — the sport’s most successful woman, with 46 victories — Herrera excelled.
Hines was aware of Herrera before he arrived on the NHRA scene with the Stoffer/Greg and Jim Underdahl team.
“He has been around the motorcycle scene for a long time, and he is well-respected in his efforts outside of NHRA, racing in XDA and NHDRO in Pro Street and Grudge, and No-Bar Bikes that run into the 6.4s range (elapsed time) at over 210-plus (mph),” Hines said.