Rich Christensen is a full-throttle kind of guy. Week in and week out, he hosts hundreds of amateur drag racers, all vying to be the top dog on a quarter-mile track. But Christensen is no local strip impresario. In fact, he works for the SPEED Channel and is the creator of the network's hit show Pinks. In Pinks, two competitors race against one other in a literal winner-take-all format. The show's slogan is "Lose the race, lose your ride," and that's exactly how it works. The concept makes for thrilling TV but is prohibitively costly for many prospective participants.
Hoping to draw a larger crowd, Christensen developed a spin-off called Pinks All Out. The format is simple: The show invites 400-500 racers to attend a weekend event. Each racer makes two runs to establish a best time. Brothers Adam and Nate Pritchett, the show's technical experts, assign the cars to individual groups based on their e.t.'s, then post all the times on a large board so Christensen can see them. The three men then select 16 drivers from one of the groups to compete for the event's grand prize. The eight first-round winners each receive $500 cash to bet during the remaining races. Any competitor who runs faster than his posted bracket time is disqualified. The final two cars race for an additional $10,000 cash prize and a toolbox worth $8,000.
Paul Smith Jr. is an avid...
Paul Smith Jr. is an avid drag racer. His lightning-quick reaction times were a critical factor in allowing him to rise above the closely matched competition. (Photo by Charlie Dvorak)
The show has proved remarkably popular, attracting tens of thousands of fans to tracks across the country. It is currently SPEED's number two ratings draw, trailing only the network's NASCAR programming.
Prior to this season, a Corvette had never won Pinks All Out. Rather, Camaros, Chevelles, Mustangs, and various Mopars had dominated the show. That all changed this spring, when Paul Smith Jr., a tire changer from Alpharetta, Georgia, showed up at an Atlanta Dragway All Out event behind the wheel of his father's red '98 C5 coupe.
Before we get to the race, let's take a moment to focus on the details of the car. The Vette is powered by a normally aspirated LS2-based 427 and features a modified version of the original automatic transmission. Unlike many drag-raced C5s, it has a full interior and even retains its original independent rear suspension. All of the work was performed by MTI Racing in Marietta, Georgia.
Over 500 entrants and 25,000 spectators showed up for the Atlanta All Out event. Smith's car was selected after the bracket was set at between 10.30 and 10.38 seconds. The racing format was heads-up, with the overall winner to be determined by the best two out of three runs in the final round.
This MTI Racing-built LS2...
This MTI Racing-built LS2 displaces 427 ci and produces over 600 lb-ft of rear-wheel torque. That's enough to routinely put the C5 Vette in the low 10s.
One by one, cars fell by the wayside, and soon the hopes of the locals were resting squarely on the shoulders of Paul Smith Jr. Clad in baggy pants and tennis shoes, Smith hardly looked like a TV star or a hard-core racer. But when he strapped in behind the wheel of the bright-red Corvette, he was all business. Race by race, Smith shot away from the start like a missile, the track-prepped Vette's nose in the air and its rear firmly planted for maximum traction. Finally, he was down to his last competitor: Lake City, Florida's "Wild" Bill Jones, piloting a modified '71 Mustang. It was a classic local-vs.-out-of-towner, Ford-vs.-Chevy matchup.
Smith made quick work of Jones and won the overall event on his second pass. His success on that run was partially attributable to a reaction time Christensen said was as quick as any he had seen on the show. His victory secure, Smith pulled into victory lane, telling Christensen, "This is only the second event I've ever won. The other one paid with a trophy and only had 15 cars."
The crowd roared as SPEED Associate Producer Bob Ecker handed Smith the $10,000 cash prize. When Christensen presented Smith with the $8,000 toolbox, Paul Smith Sr. commented, "That's larger than my first house!" Junior also won $2,500 from betting during his top 16 journey, bringing his total cash take to $12,500. Perhaps more important, he defended the Corvette's motorsports honor in an unfamiliar venue, and he did it in front of the world.