Spotlight on 2018 NMCA Mickey Thompson Radial Wars Champion James Lawrence

Interview by Mary Lendzion

Photos by Kevin DiOssi

James Lawrence has had a passion for powerful cars for as long as he can remember.

He started out with radio-controlled cars as a child and went on to street-racing as a teen and drag racing as an adult, and the Power Automedia CEO has been successful every step of the way.

After driving to the NMCA West ProCharger Limited Street championship in his Dragzine BlownZ Camaro in 2016, he drove to four wins and the NMCA Mickey Thompson Radial Wars championship in his Dragzine Project BlownZ06 Corvette in 2018.

He shows no signs of slowing down, and has his sights set on moving to NMCA Vortech Superchargers Street Outlaw and X275 for 2019. His winning ways will make him one to watch.

Read on for more about the well-liked Lawrence, who lives in California with his wife, Melissa, and children, Taylor, Jordan and Bradley.

HAVE YOU OWNED MANY STREET-DRIVEN MUSCLE CARS THROUGH THE YEARS?

If I gave you a list of every muscle car I’ve owned, you wouldn’t have any room for the rest of the interview. I’m a bit of a serial muscle car owner. My wife, Melissa, and I currently have the Horsepower Wars 2017 Mustang, which makes about 800 rear-wheel horsepower and runs low 10s, a 1966 Nova with a supercharged big-block, a 2014 Camaro and a 2009 CTS-V. 

IN ADDITION TO BEING A RACER, YOU’RE A RACE FAN. WHAT DREW YOU TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF RACING, AND WHAT KEEPS YOU INTERESTED?

I like the raw power and intensity of drag racing. I do like other sports though. I used to race dirt circle track, and I’m in awe of Formula 1 and that level of road racing. Also, I’m terrified that if I actually drove a Pro 2 or Pro 4 short-course truck I might get obsessed. I like competition and the challenge of measuring one car and one team against another.

YOU WERE VERY SUCCESSFUL IN YOUR DRAGZINE BLOWNZ CAMARO, WHICH WAS BUILT BY POWER AUTOMEDIA’S SHOP CREW, AND IN THE CAR, YOU WERE UNDEFEEATD ON YOUR WAY TO THE 2016 NMCA WEST PROCHARGER LIMITED STREET CHAMPIONSHIP. WHAT WAS THE COMBINATION, AND TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE ALL OF THAT SUCCESS?

The car was a 2002 Camaro with an LME-built billet LS engine with a ProCharger 121 blower, and stock suspension with a torque arm. It just flat-out worked overall. Although, I’m not a big fan of the torque arm in drag racing. At high power levels, it just doesn’t want to track straight like a 4-link or a Mustang-style suspension. In terms of success, in my opinion, drag racing is both extremely complex technically and relatively simple. The complex parts come down to understanding the theory behind all the moving parts of the car, including suspension, engine and power management. I think a lot of people might learn their car or combination, but not really learn the ‘why’ behind why something happens. If you learn the physics and principles behind how a drag car works, you can handle a lot of different situations. The simple parts come down to the fact that drag racing is both fun and a lot of work and you simply have to put in a high level of effort to win. I think it really just comes down to the fact that if you have a grinder mentality, pretty much anyone can end up in the winner’s circle. 

CONSIDERING ALL THAT YOU ACHIEVED IN THE DRAGZINE BLOWNZ CAMARO, WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BUILD THE DRAGZINE PROJECT BLOWNZ06 CORVETTE?

The Camaro was a great car, but there were two things going on. One, we had the car for five years as a Dragzine project vehicle, and that’s a long shelf life. I’m not going to say people get bored, but they want to read about new things. The car had gone through two or three different combos, but it was time for something new. Second, while the 25.3 chassis/cage in the Camaro was fine, I had enough time on the torque arm setup to not want to go any faster with it. And, it didn’t make a lot of sense to rebuild that car again. It made more sense to start over with something new. We picked a class first, NMCA Radial Wars, and made a plan. The C7 Corvette body style was new, and we felt like it would make a badass-looking drag car.

FANS WERE ABLE TO FOLLOW ALONG WITH THE BUILD OF THE DRAGZINE BLOWNZ06, WHICH DRAGZINE EDITOR ANDREW WOLF REFERRED TO AS YOUR ‘MOST AMBITIOUS BUILD TO DATE.’ WHAT MADE IT SO?

Building a competitive 315 radial car is no different from building a Pro Mod. In fact, with this Corvette, it may even be more difficult. Drivetrain-wise, you need the best of everything, so you sit down and make a list of all the components you need and the type of companies you want to work with. PMR Race Cars built the car, so we worked closely with Tony Mandella on choosing the right components and on a build plan and strategy. I’ve never really built a double frame rail, 4-link car before, so it was definitely the most ambitious car I’ve ever built. Actually though, once it was all done, it was easier to tune and it was more responsive to chassis adjustments than any car I’ve ever raced. The only difference with what we end up doing with one of these project builds is we tell the entire story of what we chose, the part numbers, and the whole combination. There isn’t a lot of racing secrets when you do it this publicly.

PRO LINE RACING, FUELTECH AND PROCHARGER ARE DEFINITELY REPUTABLE AND HIGHLY-REGARDED COMPANIES. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH THEM THROUGHOUT THE BUILD?

You had a group of three companies that got together and felt like the ProCharger could be highly competitive in Radial Wars and Radial vs. the World. I had actually never talked to Eric Dillard at Pro Line Racing before this project, but I approached him a little over two years ago and we got this project started. Pro Line has built a lot of different combinations but was absolutely known for their turbo program and turbo domination in Radial and Pro Mod. Eric knew that Pro Line’s knowledge base would apply to centrifugal supercharging, but they needed a platform to develop. It was kind of the perfect storm, as FuelTech also was known largely for turbocharging in the United States, so all the parties had a vested interest in working together to develop the package, do the R&D, and work together in the competitive racing environment. I’ve really come to appreciate Anderson Dick and Luis de Leon at FuelTech. Both are highly competitive individuals who work really hard to develop the best EFI system for drag racing. They have really big ears and listen to racers and engine builders and build tools that people want. I’ve worked with ProCharger for several years, and the thing I like about working with them is that they are really passionate about motorsports. They have dedicated engineering and staff just focused on building great race blowers. I don’t think a lot of people realize how abusive and difficult drag racing is on a supercharger. Just the basic harmonics and boost pressures and vibration is hard enough, then you have to pedal the car due to wheel speed or tire spin, and you’re just hammering that blower brutally. I did not hurt a ProCharger 136 the entire year, and we’re talking 55-plus runs.

DESPITE COMPETING IN A RECENTLY-DEBUTED CAR, YOU EARNED THE NMCA MICKEY THOMPSON RADIAL WARS CHAMPIONSHIP IN 2018. WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS THAT YOU AND YOUR TEAM EXPERIENCED ALONG THE WAY?

On the high side, we probably put together our best full race at Route 66. We had to go through some tough competition, and made some great runs despite not very good weather. Once we won Route 66, we knew that the championship was ours to lose. On the tougher side was changing an engine between rounds at Beech Bend. We had a parts failure and ended up putting a hole in the number seven piston during the first round of eliminations. It had a good ending, because we got the spare engine in there and won the race. But that was a massive thrash and we were blessed that Marty Stinnett was willing to wait for us. That’s the kind of sportsman that he is.

WHILE BEING RECOGNIZED ON STAGE FOR YOUR CHAMPIONSHIP AT THE NMCA AWARDS CEREMONY IN DECEMBER, YOU TOUCHINGLY TALKED ABOUT HOW A WHILE BACK, WHEN THINGS WERE NOT GOING WELL WITH RACING, YOU CONSIDERD CLIMBING OUT OF THE DRIVER’S SEAT, BUT YOUR WIFE, MELISSA, INSPIRED YOU TO CONTINUE. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU NOW?

In 2014, we were locked into a Street Outlaw championship battle with Eric Gustafson. It was neck and neck the entire season, and I spent every last bit of energy, effort and budget that I was willing to, to try and win this championship. It all came down to the final race, and I think I was behind Eric by a round and a quarter. I was exhausted mentally and physically at that point. Eric lost in the semi-finals, and the championship was ours if we won the final round. I said to myself, ‘one more round and you can quit’ but I never told anyone. I was still relatively new to championship-level tuning, and I made a tuning mistake. I had previously run a 7.09 and I didn’t touch the tune up, and Ryan “Toaster” Jones had run a 7.19. I thought I had him covered. The air got worse, and Ryan put more power in, and had a slight starting line advantage. I slowed to a 7.15 and he stepped up to a 7.16. It was just enough for him to the take the victory by .003. It was eerily quiet on the crew radio. There was nobody saying a word. I didn’t even have to ask. I was happy for Ryan because they had a tough season and this was a major win, and we had become good friends. But mainly I just was stunned. I sat at the end of the track all alone and it felt like forever. That was the longest ride back to the trailer. When I got back there, I told my wife, Melissa, “I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.” It wasn’t in the sense of being a sore loser. I just didn’t have anything left. I was spent. I remember her looking me dead in the eyes and she said, “No, you aren’t. People lose all the time, Get over yourself. We’re not quitting.” All I could manage at that point was saying, “Okay”. But she was, and is, right. I love drag racing. Quitting wasn’t in my heart and this was something we do as a family. I needed her in that moment to be honest with me. I did learn and take stock of an important lesson, and that is that it’s important in anything — in racing, life, work, or whatever — not to put yourself to the point of taking something you love and running so hard and being so competitive that your tank is empty and it becomes something you don’t love anymore. That almost happened. 

WHEN I TALKED WITH YOU FOR A RECENT STORY ON THE NMCA AND RACE PAGES DIGITAL WEBSITES, YOU SAID ‘WINNING A CHAMPIONSHIP IS ALWAYS A MIX OF LUCK, SKILL AND A TEAM EFFORT.’ WHO IS PART OF YOUR WINNING TEAM?

Number one is my family. Without them, without this being a family deal where they come to the track and do this together, I wouldn’t be doing this. So that’s my wife Melissa, and our kids Taylor, Jordan and Bradley. The crew at the home office, which is Power Automedia, is a big part of our operation. They make sure that things are running smoothly in all facets. All of the companies that support us, do R&D with us, and test with us, that makes a huge difference. There is a list that is too long to name, but the companies that work with us know that we like to test, try, and explore new ways of doing things. That doesn’t happen without great partners. Obviously, the crew members are the ones on game day that make this operation go. Joe, Dean, Dave, Chase, J Money (Mike), Josh, Eric and Bill all spent time wrenching on our hot rod through the year and never quit, even when there was a lot of work to do.

WHAT IS SOMETHING ABOUT YOU THAT YOUR FELLOW RACERS AND FANS MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO KNOW?

I am on the SEMA Board of Directors, and protecting and growing our industry is really important to me. This is not a given. There are also lot of unique threats that motorsports faces, from regulatory to emissions and economic pressure. It’s important we attack these issues head-on instead of waiting for them to impact us as racers. For some of the newcomers out there, I ran the NMRA and NMCA with Steve Wolcott for a little more than eight years, as we co-founded ProMedia. I spent almost 10 years leading the rules committee. I know first-hand how challenging that job is. Let’s just leave it at that. Another thing is that my wife and I are into Eastern philosophy, meditation and yoga. Some may argue that’s about as far from drag racing as one can get, but I find it very useful. You get into a lot of stressful situations in drag racing, and if you can get your mind right, it can help you make better decisions in the race car.

WILL YOU SHARE YOUR PLANS, AND YOUR HOPES, FOR THE 2019 RACE SEASON?

We will be racing in Street Outlaw / X275 in 2019, with the end of the Radial Wars class. We have been building this project called Project Evil through 2018 already, so it’s time to get it on the race track. We also bought Daniel Pharris’ Street Outlaw red Mustang, and that car will likely get on the race track in 2019 in some class or category. The 2017 Corvette, I put together a partnership for 2019 with my friend Eric Kvilhaug, who will be driving the car, and has taken over majority ownership of the car, but Dragzine will be involved and I’ll be tuning it. My hopes are simple, and they are to stay safe, have a great time as a team and family, appreciate what a blessing this is and hopefully end up in the winner’s circle a few times.

(Interview from the March 2019 issue of Fastest Street Car)

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