Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by the Fastest Street Car Staff
While racing various cars through the years, Mark Luton has successfully showcased the robustness and reliability of engines and everything else his company, MMR, makes.
Most recently, he earned a championship in NMCA West True 10.5 in 2014 before moving to NMCA VP Racing Lubricants Xtreme Pro Mod in 2017, where his Mustang and MMR shop manager Greg Seth-Hunter’s Mustang are built-tough billboards for the company’s ever-evolving inspiration and innovation.
With MMR Gen X Modular Coyote engines and Garrett turbos for power, Luton’s silver Mustang has soared to a 3.72 and 212 mph in the eighth-mile and 5.67 and 265 mph in the quarter-mile, while Seth-Hunter’s red Mustang has sailed to a 3.78 and 208 mph in the eighth-mile. Those numbers are monumental to Luton, whose mission is to continuously come up with cutting edge ways to advance their racing program, and more importantly to him, his customers’ racing programs.
Read on for more about Luton, who lives in Camarillo, California, with his wife, Cari, and daughters, Madison, 10, and Charlotte, 3. When he’s not working or racing, the former professional downhill mountain biker enjoys riding as frequently as he can, and traveling with his family.
MMR, OR MODULAR MOTORSPORTS RACING, CERTAINLY HAS A SOLID REPUTATION. WHAT DID IT TAKE TO ACHIEVE THAT, AND WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO KEEP THAT?
As a Ford Modular Coyote engine drag racing specialist with in-house manufacturing, we eat, sleep and breathe drag racing. It’s all we do. We have Haas CNC machines and a Black Widow dyno room, where we torture-test components. If we’re not happy with them, we’re not releasing them. They have to be perfect and we have to be proud to put our name on them. What we do at the shop and at the track helps us be the best in our field for these engines.
WHAT THOUGHTS WENT THROUGH YOUR HEAD WHEN YOU BEGAN COMPETING IN NMCA VP RACING LUBRICANTS XTREME PRO MOD?
I don’t think the NMCA expected our kind of combination in Xtreme Pro Mod, but the rules were good enough for us to go. Just getting our feet wet in the class was a big change for us. It was an eye-opener to see just how fast and competitive the class was, and we quickly saw that it takes even professional drivers to another level. It’s the pinnacle of the sport as far as most would be concerned, and the amount of work that it takes to run a car in Xtreme Pro Mod, and the amount of help it takes to run a car in Xtreme Pro Mod, is pretty immense. We jumped in and said, ‘We can do it,’ and we found ourselves running mid-pack within the first year. One of the things about the class and drag racing in general is how quickly it evolves. These guys were picking up a tenth a season, and trying to keep up is huge. Every run is as important as the next, and that’s something we really recognize.
WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE DID YOU HAVE TO RUNNING A MODULAR ENGINE IN VP RACING LUBRICANTS XTREME PRO MOD?
It was such a great response. People were coming to our pit area to ask about the engine, and some of them seemed pretty shocked. It wasn’t because we were running Modular engines. It was because we were running Modular engines in Xtreme Pro Mod. It seemed to be an eye-opener to some fans and maybe even some racers. We had some people question why we would want to run a Modular engine in Xtreme Pro Mod, and when someone would tell us we should sell the Modular combination, it would make us try even harder to prove what can be done with it. Sure, we could have gone with an engine that had long been proven, but we weren’t interested in doing what everyone else was doing. We wanted to develop what we had and show what it was capable of.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES TO HAVING A TEAMMATE, GREG SETH-HUNTER, IN VP RACING LUBRICANTS XTREME PRO MOD?
There are many advantages to going racing with two Pro Mods. Having Greg as a teammate who runs the same combination helps a ton and allows us to have another set of eyes on various things. If one of us misses something in the data, the other one picks it up. Another thing is Greg ran Pro Mod for two years before I started running Pro Mod, so he has had more experience with it, which has helped our team. Also, being teammates has infused us with additional energy when one car isn’t running well, because we have another car to fall back on, so we keep going, in one way or another. You really have to trust somebody to have them as a teammate, and I trust Greg.
WHAT WILL YOU SHARE ABOUT THE COMBINATIONS IN YOUR MUSTANGS?
Greg and I both have MMR Gen X Modular Coyote engines with Garrett 88mm and 94mm turbos, depending on where we’re racing. With the Gen X engine, everything that’s on it is all part of our Gen X program. We have for the last six or seven years been hooked up with Garrett Motion, and the reliability of their turbos has been incredible. We beat them up when we’re testing and when we have them on the dyno, but we’ve never had a single problem.
DID YOU MAKE ANY CHANGES TO YOUR COMBINATIONS DURING 2019?
Most of the time, the engines are identical, but as we tried things and evolved on one of the engines, we would apply it to the other engine. In 2019, the engines were identical with the exception of the engine management. We started working with FuelTech for engine management in the red car and we liked it so much that we put it in the silver car. The other pivotal change last year, which ties into MMR, is that we had acquired our first five-axis CNC machine, and the first project once that machine came in was to develop the new head porting program for the Gen X program. We spent a lot of time analyzing the port that we had, and we thought about ways in which we could improve upon it. We came up with a new port program and started the 2019 race season with those new heads. That was one of the biggest changes we have made in a few years to our engine combination. The cars really picked up last year in performance, and one of the main reasons for that was the port work on the heads. Testing allows us to try new things, put good numbers on the board and elevate both cars.
HOW DOES CAMPAIGNING TWO MMR-POWERED PRO MODS CARS HELP MMR CUSTOMERS? WHAT ARE YOU ABLE TO TAKE FROM YOUR PROGRAM AND PUT INTO THEIR PROGRAMS?
The Gen X is under constant development. Once we have proven something one weekend or found a problem, our customers are going to get that update. Going out there, running at that level, finding problems and fixing problems is big for us. A lot of customers want to run at our level and don’t want to push their engines, but we push our engines and find the problems and address them, and that trickles down. Everything that we learn helps us give the customer a better product, and that’s critical. We want them to always run well, and it’s fun to tackle that. Our customers are more important than us, and us testing our products and making the updates for the customers is really important. That old saying ‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ is a perfect definition of our company. We are trying to sell what is under the hood of these cars. We want to make the engines fast, and we want to make them reliable and repeatable. You can have an engine that goes fast, but if it’s not reliable and repeatable, and if it needs to be fixed constantly, that’s no good.
YOU PULLED OFF AN EIGHTH-PLACE FINISH IN VP RACING LUBRICANTS XTREME PRO MOD POINTS IN 2019. WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS FROM THE YEAR?
The low point of the year for me was at the NMCA race in Florida in March, when I had an electrical gremlin with the silver car and was not able to make a single run. It was a tough one for me to show up with brand new electronics and wonder what was going on and changing everything to no avail. After that, we went to the guys at FuelTech for help, and we used their dyno, found the problem and we were ready for the NMCA race in Georgia. The high point of the year was at the NMCA race in Ohio in August, where my car and Greg’s car ran so good that both of us got into the 3.70s. I ran 3.72 in qualifying and Greg ran 3.76 in qualifying. We were jumping for joy. We knew both cars would do it, but we had been having that problem with my car. I think we had a really good 2019.
WILL YOU TALK ABOUT THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BREAKING INTO THE 3.70s?
That was the first time a Ford engine had been in the 3.70s. It was just great for both of us to be able to do that. The season had been good, we had made a lot of runs, but everything really came together at that track, Summit Motorsports Park. The weather was good, the track was good and we had figured out how to go faster. I’ll never forget the look on Greg’s face after his pass. He deserved it. He works hard for the team. Running 3.70s and having that solid performance validated all of the effort that we put in and all of the development and testing. Then, to put our cars back into the trailer unbroken make it a very short trip back to California.
YOU HAD EVEN MORE SUCCESS SOON AFTER THAT.
Yes. After the last NMCA race of the season, we went to the Street Car Super Nationals in Las Vegas. It’s quarter-mile rather than the eighth-mile NMCA runs, but our cars are set up the same for both. Long story short, my car ran 5.67 at 265 mph in the quarter-mile in qualifying, and there’s not a Ford door-slammer that has been faster than that. We felt like we could have had a 5.50 up our sleeves, but we shook the tires in eliminations. Still, it was a great accomplishment, and knowing that there’s even more in reserve makes it even greater.
WHAT A WAY TO CLOSE THE BOOK ON THE 2019 RACE SEASON. WHAT CHANGES HAS YOUR PROGRAM SEEN IN THE OFF-SEASON?
We found that we had a lot of crankcase pressure, so we’re addressing that. We were not able to vent the valve covers enough, so we opened the baffling within the covers to get the crankcase pressure out, and we’re basically doing maintenance, including trying a new exhaust housing that we got from TiALSPORT, which is lighter and flows better, but did I mention we sold Greg’s car?
THAT’S A SURPRISE INDEED. WHAT PROMPTED THAT?
The chassis on Greg’s car was quite old. It was built in 2008, and it had gone through a number of changes. We’re building a new car with Jerry Haas that Greg is going to drive while I continue to drive my silver car. We might miss a good half of the race season with the new car, but it will be business as usual with my car, and we’ll be loading it up for the first NMCA race of the season. Greg will be my crew chief, and Jeff Blosdale will help us.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH IN 2020?
Last year, our focus was on going fast, retaining reliability and proving products, and this year, our focus is on winning a race. We have the tools to win and we have the tools to show that we have a program that can run at the front of the pack. We need to go rounds, put these cars in the winner’s circle and chase a championship.
(Interview in the May 2020 issue of Fastest Street Car)