Austin Prock and team owner John Force in victory lane at Bradenton Motorsports Park. (Luke Nieuwhof photo)

WADE: A Prock Family Affair

MESA, Ariz. — No one should have been surprised at Austin Prock’s Funny Car victory from the No. 1 qualifying position during the PRO Superstar Shootout drag-racing specialty event in early February.

He beat veteran Alexis DeJoria, 155-time winner and 16-time champion John Force (his boss) and then four-time and reigning NHRA champion Matt Hagan in the final at Florida’s Bradenton Motorsports Park to claim the $250,000 jackpot.

A genuine accomplishment in itself; it was particularly impressive because it was his first race in a Funny Car — one his father tunes, one for which his brother is assistant crew chief and one that bears the same competition number that his drag-racing pioneer grandfather Tom Prock had.

And the Cornwell Tools Chevrolet Camaro was a race car the 28-year-old sidelined Top Fuel driver wasn’t even supposed to be driving. 

Prock inherited the ride, at least temporarily, less than a month before the richest race in the sport’s history, because Funny Car ace Robert Hight needed to take a medical leave from John Force Racing. Prock’s dragster was parked because his primary sponsor exited the sport.

Prock’s very presence in the Funny Car was a convergence of misfortune, opportunity and readiness. He already had licenses in both nitro classes and, like with his last-minute scramble to pull off his Top Fuel debut in 2019, Prock was a threat from day one. 

It’s too early to tell if the momentum will carry on through the Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series schedule. However, it’s a reasonable prediction that even with little preparation, Prock will have no fear of the class’ best competition. And once again, he has established himself as a surprise favorite.

“Total shock” and “total surprise” is how Prock described the hasty transition. “There were plans of not running our dragster this year, and it looked like I was going to be sidelined again. And then everything turned around.

“I’ve lost my ride before,” he said, alluding to John Force Racing’s pullout of the 2020 season and his hiatus the next year. So he knows how Hight feels: “This is the first time that he’s going to have to step away from his race car. Just like all of us, it’s our lives. We live, eat and sleep this sport, and it was tough for him. That’s a big decision to make. That’s for Robert to tell, but I was completely shocked. I had no idea what was going on, and all of a sudden you go from standing on the sidelines to getting a dream opportunity. I never planned for it to be this way, but it’s still a dream of mine, and it’s an opportunity. It’s a little bittersweet.”

Prock added, “I hate to see Robert have to step away for a little bit, but it’s always been a dream of mine to drive a Funny Car, especially for my dad. And to top it off, the assistant crew chief is my brother Thomas. It’s really special being able to work with your family and all (have) the same passion. So it’ll be an all-Prock affair, and we’re all excited, racing with your family. Hopefully, we can all do a good job together. Hopefully, we can do good for all the fans and sponsors that we have.”

He delivered right away, sending a message to his new rivals. And the NHRA season doesn’t even begin until the March 8-10 Gatornationals at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway.

Fellow racers and fans should have seen it coming. Prock started racing at age 10 and quickly made a name for himself in the paved midget and dirt sprint car ranks, with 27 victories and 84 top-five finishes in 139 races. 

As he made himself valuable on various John Force Racing crews, he also earned licenses in the Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster categories. The non-NHRA-sanctioned Bradenton race marked his first time in a Funny Car since he earned his license in 2018.

“It’s unbelievable. We just won the biggest payout in drag-racing history,” he said of his February feat. “I’ve just got to thank God above, Cornwell Tools, John Force Racing, Chevrolet and all our partners that believed in us. Get well soon, Robert Hight. This is a bad hot rod, and I hope you’re watching and hope we made you proud today. It’s so much fun to drive this race car. It’s surreal that I’m even driving a Funny Car right now. I’ve got my grandfather’s 374, his number when he drove Funny Car, on this thing. We took it to the winner’s circle, grandpa.”

Neither grandpa nor anyone else will be surprised if he keeps doing that.