Team Owner Mike Bankston Takes it All the Way

One of Mike Bankston’s fondest memories of growing up in central Mississippi was standing alongside his brother, Justin, at the track watching their dad, Eddie, race his 1965 Pontiac GTO in AAA Stock.

As the car sailed to win after win, it served as inspiration for Bankston to buy a 1969 Camaro at just thirteen years old. He went on to drive it, and his next car, a Third Gen Camaro, on the street and at the strip, and he sometimes climbed out of them long enough to let his brother climb into them.

It was at that point that Bankston realized that he wanted to put other drivers into the driver’s seat of his cars, and his reason was not to make money, but rather to make memories, for himself and for the drivers.

Through the years, those drivers have gone on to win races and championships in his cars, and he and two of his current drivers, Tim Savell and Billy Banaka, put their names on the NMCA map after introducing themselves to the series in 2016.

In a 2013 Camaro built by RJ Race Cars and powered by a Musi Racing Engines bullet on nitrous, Savell earned the championship in VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod, and in a 1969 Camaro built by Jerry Bickel Race Cars and powered by a Musi Racing Engines bullet on nitrous, Banaka earned a third place finish in the same category. Savell holds the category’s current elapsed-time record with a 3.767, and Banaka has run as quick as 3.79.

“Mike and I were friends long before I began driving for him, and it’s been a very good experience,” said Savell. “He’s an excellent tuner, and he gives me the tools I need to do the best that I can and to produce for him, and I hope he feels that I do. We’ve faced some adversities, but we’ve always overcome, and hopefully we’ll have many more years together because I truly do enjoy driving for him.”

Read on for more about the talented Bankston, a third generation construction company owner, and his equally talented team known as the Bankston Boyz.

It seems as though you shifted your focus from racer to race team owner soon after bracket racing your 1969 and Third Gen Camaros.

Yes, that’s when I first started feeling that way, and after we sold those cars and bought a 2001 Corvette for competition in ADRL, which is now PDRA, we teamed up with Shannon Jenkins. We used his engine in our car, and we had our first Pro Nitrous race in 2004, with me as the crew chief and my brother, Justin, as the driver, with SpeedTech all over the car. He was doing great and running 4.10s and 4.20s, but he had an oil filter blow, got on his own oil and flipped the car. Because he and his wife had a baby on the way at around that time anyway, he backed off from driving, but within thirty days, I had bought Shannon Jenkins’ 1967 Camaro in turnkey form.

Did you seek input from the experienced Jenkins?

Oh, yes. He taught me everything about the car, and then I bought Mike Castellana’s car, which was the sister car to Shannon Jenkins’ 1967 Camaro, and that’s when I formed a two-car team with Stan Allen and Tim Savell as drivers back in the mid 2000s. We competed in Pro Nitrous in ADRL, which is now PDRA, and we qualified at every race, which is a big thing when your competition has endless supplies of money and I was just a third generation construction business owner. We stayed in the top eight for the next five years. We started with Fulton power and a SpeedTech nitrous injection system, and we went 4.00, and I was like ‘come on, car, come on,’ and when we were at the ADRL race in Michigan, on my birthday, actually, Shannon Jenkins said ‘let’s try something,’ and suddenly, we went from 4.0 to 3.95 in the car Stan Allen was driving, so we promptly took that bit of tuning information and applied it to the car Tim Savell was driving. Then, we picked up John DeFlorian as another driver in 2010.

You had worked with DeFlorian previously, correct?

He was a dear friend who helped us work on chassis stuff, even though our cars at the time were built by Tim McAmis. John had a 2002 Corvette sitting there with nobody to sponsor it, and he came to me and said he wanted to be part of my team, and I threw a spare engine in his car, and by that time, we had moved from Fulton to Reher Morrison engines. Without a shadow of doubt, people recognized how good he was, and he was picked up by so many sponsors. He raced with us for two years, and then I needed to downsize by one car. It was so sad because he was so good, but he picked up where he left off and got into Pro Stock stuff.

In which direction did you go after DeFlorian branched out?

Tim Savell departed and Stan Allen stayed, and I sold one car and kept one car, which was Shannon Jenkins’ Iceman car. Then, after Stan Allen and I raced a few years by ourselves, we incorporated with David James in 2012, and he worked on our chassis with Stan Allen. Then David James built another 1969 Camaro, and drove it with Stan Allen, and won races in ADRL Pro Nitrous, so I had two cars once again in 2013. We did that for a couple of years. The drivers went on diets, but we were still a little behind in elapsed-time and that’s when we brought Pat Musi in.

Was Musi’s extensive experience with fuel injection what you were attracted to?

Yes, we had been running carburetors, but Pat Musi had come out with unbelievable amounts of horsepower with injection. At that point, in 2013, we sold all of our engines, which was heartbreaking because they had served us well, but we had Pat Musi build us 903 cubic-inch engines with fuel injection, followed by 946 and 960 cubic-inch engines, and that’s when the cubic-inch limit was 960. Pat Musi knows fuel injection, and the horsepower he has given us has been endless. It was around that time that Stan Allen decided to take some time off and not drive, and Tim Savell came back.

How would you compare your experience with carburetors to your experience with fuel injection?

We’ve experienced a world of difference in horsepower between the fuel injection and the carburetors with the nitrous, and our parts have lasted a lot longer. They’re a lot more forgiving than anything we’ve experienced. Then we bought Mike Castellana’s 2013 Camaro built by Rick Jones, and we put a Pat Musi engine in it and in our first weekend with it in 2014, Tim ran 3.68 at 201 mph in Pro Nitrous at a PDRA race in Oklahoma, and that was faster than it had ever been run. Then, Randy and Keith Auwarter joined our crew and we went to two or three more PDRA races.

Speaking of Pat Musi, you worked a bit with his daughter, Tricia Musi, in 2015.

Before we left PRDA, I bought from Pat Musi the Stratus that his daughter, Lizzy Musi, had been driving, and I gave his daughter, Tricia Musi, the opportunity to drive it. She drove it for a year, with Pat Musi’s engine on nitrous, and that goes back to my passion for promoting new drivers. She did really well, but we decided to make that car a No Prep car, and Tim Savell dominated No Prep in the car, which we call Kong. Pat Musi begged me to build a Bickel car, so we did, in the form of a 1969 Camaro, in 2015, and we brought it out in 2016 with a 960 cubic-inch nitrous injected Musi engine, and Billy Banaka drove it at all of the NMCA Xtreme Pro Mod races while Tim Savell drove the 2013 Camaro at all of the NMCA Xtreme Pro Mod races. Everyone welcomed us with open arms, helped us and made us want to come back. Tim ended up winning the championship and Billy ended up finishing in third. I owe a lot of that to Randy and Keith Auwater’s help.

Now, to the delight of many NMCA fans, you’ve welcomed Kye Kelley to your team known as the Bankston Boyz.

Kye Kelley saw all of the fun we were having in the No Prep world, and we started talking, and we had some ups and downs that we had to deal with, but I’m so proud to say I’m building him a Pro Mod car and will be able to promote another Pro Mod driver in NMCA’s Xtreme Pro Mod. He’ll start the year off in my 1969 Firebird with a 960 cubic-inch Musi engine on nitrous, and that’s the record-setting car Jason Harris ran in PDRA, and we had run it in No Prep, along with the Stratus. Then, we’ll move him to a 2017 Dart built by Bickel, with a 960 cubic-inch Musi engine on nitrous. So, this year, we’ll have a three-car team, with Tim Savell, Billy Banaka and Kye Kelley, and it will be Kye Kelley’s first time driving a Pro Mod. By the way, all of the cars will have Bruno Lencos by Todd Tutterow. Mark Niebes is helping us with some chassis stuff and we’ll work with some electronic stuff to try to find a couple hundredths to keep ahead of the pack. Also, Kye Kelley and I will have a lease-ownership at Lena Dragway to promote Pro Mod, No Prep and small-tire races.

You’re back behind the wheel of a race car these days, aren’t you?

I’ve got a 1969 Camaro with a small-block Chevy and twin turbos, and the first pass I made was at Keith Haney’s No Prep, where I went 4.74. I’ll do some Outlaw classes with it, but not NMCA. I thought I’d dabble in driving again, and I have a great crew that would help me, including Keith and Randy Auwarter, Lee Otis Kelley, Warren Odell, Mark Niebes, Cindy Savell, Billy Banaka’s wife, Anita, Patrick Barnhill from PTP Racing, who assists me with the Davis Profiler when needed and my brother, Justin. Who knows? I might want to get into a Pro Mod myself at some point, but my passion is tuning and making sure the guys driving for the Bankston Boyz have what they need to do well in competition. It’s an incredible experience.

Interview by Mary Lendzion and photos by Steve Baur in the April Fastest Street Car.