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Power Programmers—How the Wizards Behind the Keyboards Control The Quickest Door Cars On Earth

Written By Steve Baur
Photography by Dominic Damato and the FSC Staff
Whether your car has a carburetor and a distributor or an EFI system, not everyone can tune a car properly, and when you factor in today’s race cars that utilize things like programmable ignition and nitrous controllers, wheel speed management systems, and ever more comprehensive electronic fuel injection systems, the job becomes even more exclusive. With an ever-increasing focus on managing these systems, the professional tuner’s job has become far more than just fine-tuning the air/fuel ratio. To get a better idea of what the job entails, we called on some of the biggest names in the drag racing game. What we found is that it is a life of traveling, traveling, and more traveling, but what we also found was that all of them love what they do and their success is in seeing their customers succeed.
It’s probably safe to say that we have gotten over the stigma from oh so long ago where computer-controlled engines were supposed to spell the end of high performance fun. We’ve long since realized that with aftermarket electronic fuel injection and electronic control units, we have an even greater level of control over the engine and numerous other vehicle systems.

EFI systems have evolved since they first hit the market decades ago, but with them we have seen other components come into play and work along side the engine control unit. Nitrous oxide controllers were followed by the controversial MSD 7531 programmable ignition box and now MSD’s Grid, and traction control systems such as the Davis Technologies Profiler have been essential in getting cars down the track quicker than ever before. If learning the ins and outs of EFI weren’t enough, tuners need to be familiar with these systems as well, and they also must know how to read and interpret the datalogs, which often include information from all of these systems.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen EFI companies begin to integrate many of these auxiliary systems’ functions into the main ECU, which depending on who you ask, can be good and bad. Most agree that the simplicity is great, while some prefer to have the added insurance of the redundant systems. In any case, knowledge of all of these systems is essential for today’s top tuner. As you’ll find out, the ability to book your own travel at a moment’s notice also comes in handy as many of the people we spoke with fly from track to track, race to race, and sometimes country to country.

Steve Petty—Pro Line Racing

Probably the most well known tuner in the heads-up, sportsman drag racing arena, Steve Petty started making a name for himself in the mid-90s while teamed up with Tim Lynch. The duo started killing the small-tire drag racing scene on the street and in series such as Fun Ford Weekend and the NMRA—and they were often the team to beat no matter where they went.
“In the early days, the old Accel DFI was kind of like Tic Tac Toe,” Petty quipped. He also noted that despite its simplicity, it was enough given the engine parts that they were using at the time. “The early small-block Ford stuff was limited by the internal parts—you could break crankshafts from torsional stress. As the size of the turbos and power adders increased, we had to have better internals, along with more control of the fuel system to support the power level. You can put the larger blowers and turbos we have now on the old engines, but they wouldn’t make the same power without the better internals and tuneability of the fuel system. These days, it’s fairly easy to buy off the shelf stuff for a 3,000 hp small-block, but that wasn’t always the case.” 
With those parts, Petty noted that the power levels has pushed the progression of things like MSD ignition boxes from analog to the 7531 to the Grid, and the sophistication of the EFI systems as well. It’s those ancillary components like the 7531 that helped Petty fine-tune the power output of Lynch’s nitrous-fed Mustang early on, and the experience would become the basis of his tuning prowess, which proved helpful once the team switched to turbocharging.
As the Lynch Mob pushed the boundaries of performance, Petty started building his own engines for Lynch’s Mustang. That eventually led to him building engines for other people in his garage until he got hired by the machine shop that did his machine work. There, Petty hired both Doug Patton, a machinist, and Eric Dillard to help out at the shop, and eventually Patton and Dillard bought the shop assets from the owner. As time went on, Dillard and Patton took over the day-to-day running of the business and that allowed Petty to focus on tuning and product development.
“I originally started building motors in the early 2,000s and it got to the point, where a customer not only wanted to buy a motor, but also wanted someone to tune it,” Petty explained. Having seen the success of the Lynch/Petty team, customers started calling on Petty’s expertise to get their own programs up to speed.
“I started Pro Line in 2002 and we had 3-4 people; we have over 20 people now,” he told us. We just added FuelTech USA to the business and built a second 25K sq-ft building to house the half-dozen racing teams we service.” That end of the business included hiring full-time employees for crewmembers, with each car provided with a crew chief and two full-time crewmembers. Customers for this program include Sidnei Frigo from Brazil, Jim Bell from Canada, and the Q80 Racing team from Kuwait.
“Some of them now just come in and want the whole deal,” Petty told us.

As Pro Line Racing has grown, the company—like its founder, Petty—has been constantly pushing the envelope with everything from engine internals to the electronics that manage them. Pro Line was the first engine builder to turbocharge the 481-X from Alan Johnson Performance Engineering, which was a platform largely relegated for alcohol dragsters. Working with AJPE, Pro Line turned the 481-X into the go-to engine for Drag Radial and Pro Mod racers. Eight years later, the highly capable powerplant most recently powered DeWayne Mills to the NMCA Mickey Thompson Radial Wars championship, and the engine can be found under the hoods of many of the competitors lining up behind him.
Pro Line’s eventual involvement in the Pro Modified ranks led to further development with AJPE on its 5300 Hemi engine.
“We worked real close with Alan Johnson to develop both engines, made a bunch of advancements on the rocker gear, and with the NHRA’s boost limits, we've been working with them on the Hemi port design to make more power at the given boost level,” Petty explained.
With the advancements made in the engine technology, the increased power levels required better control of the fueling, and Petty and Pro Line worked with manufacturers on that end as well.
“We used FAST EFI, or Speed Pro before they changed their name,” said Petty of his late 90s EFI experience. “John Meaney pretty much developed every system on the market at that time, and we ran his Big Stuff for 10-12 years. There are a lot of features that he implemented that we asked for; he did a great job.”
Developmental partnerships like that improve both the product and the performance of the vehicle it is used on. Most recently, Pro Line Racing has partnered with FuelTech, a company based in Brazil, to develop a more comprehensive EFI system.
“There are a lot of EFI companies on the market today,” Petty Noted. “The FuelTech EFI is what we’ve chosen to develop and it’s been good for us. We keep asking and they keep delivering.” Pro Line tested their FuelTech system for over a year before going public with it. “We designed it to be the user-friendliest system. We got tired of having different stand-alone systems with different functions—if you ever have a wiring problem, you have more places to look with more systems. With the FuelTech EFI, if you’re between rounds and have a failure, it’s 30 minutes to swap out one harness now.”

Petty’s development of a better EFI system is certainly fueled by Pro Mod teams looking to go ever quicker and faster. 
“I never touched my first Pro Mod until 2010, when Roger Burgess gave us a chance to make one competitive,” Petty told us. “We ran really fast, went 5.85 with it and he immediately hired me for the following year full time.” Burgess ended up moving into the Funny Car ranks shortly after, but at the end of 2011, NHRA veteran Troy Coughlin was looking to make big changes to his Pro Mod program and called Pro Line Racing for an engine package and tuning. That turned into a full contract with Coughlin where Petty attends the 10 NHRA Pro Mod races, four test and tune sessions, and a couple of odds and ends races like the Street Car Super Nationals that Coughlin likes to go. 
The relationship produced NHRA Pro Mod championships for Coughlin’s Corvette in 2012 and 2015, and a runner up finish for 2016. At this year’s Street Car Super Nationals event in Las Vegas, Coughlin’s C7 Corvette Pro Mod claimed the fastest doorslammer pass ever after it clicked off an incredible 5.59-second elapsed time and trapped 274.8 mph through the quarter-mile.
Further development in the EFI world can be seen with Pro Line’s involvement in the Q80 Pro Mod machine from Kuwait. Previously powered by a turbocharged powerplant, the Camaro now packs a screw supercharger on it and Petty and Pro Line have been using it as a developmental piece for the FuelTech EFI system.
“The fuel injection is a lot more user friendly than the mechanical system,” Petty noted. Though the blower EFI development is new, Petty also said that the turbocharged cars are still the harder of the two combinations to tune.
“Turbo cars are the hardest to race and they are harder to manage the power level on,” he explained. They respond to air changes quicker and we have to chase our boost curve as well as our timing curve—the blowers are a set curve.”
While the R&D with the supercharger application is in progress, FuelTech and Pro Line have also launched its latest EFI system, the FuelTech FT600. At this year’s World Street Nationals in Orlando, Florida, this author met up with longtime Petty and Pro Line customer, Kevin Fiscus, who was running in the Pro Modified category with his Fiscus/Klugger Racing Mustang. It was the first event for the 2015 PDRA Pro Boost champion using the new FT600 EFI system, which also included a new coil-on-plug ignition to replace the magneto ignition on the 481-X engine. At the end of the weekend, Fiscus had taken the event win—the first ever in Pro Mod for a coil-on-plug setup.
With a long history of winning performances and a long customer list, it comes as no surprise that Pro Line Racing’s involvement has a global reach.
“We have a huge market in Australia, and also have customers in Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Sweden, and we just sent a twin-turbo 481-X to Russia—we’ve been all over the place,” Petty told us. As you might imagine, such reach has Pro Line traveling far and wide to show its customers how to get the most from their programs. Since Petty began the endeavor, the company now has several tuners to service its customer base. Both Jamie Miller and Josh Ledford were brought on board, and Petty told us that they are looking to hire another person here in the short term.
It certainly helps to be able to sell customers both an engine and tuning as a package deal, but there are others who specialize in consulting racers on the best combinations for a given class, and then complement that information with on-site, or sometimes remote, tuning assistance.
Joe Oplawski—Hyperaktive Performance Solutions
Hyperaktive Performance Solutions’ Joe Oplawski began his tuning craft by helping out with his friend Brian Waszak’s carbureted nitrous car that he raced in NMCA EZ Street in ‘97. Through Waszak’s racing efforts, Oplawski met Chuck Samuel, and that relationship would foster Oplawski’s interest in the sport for years to come.
“In 1996, Chuck Samuel and John Meaney were one of the first to do dry nitrous,” Oplawski told us. “They started putting EFI systems on cars to control the nitrous system—back then, there weren’t any progressive controls. Chuck was heavily involved with Fel Pro/FAST fuel injection and that was my introduction to EFI.” It was likely a big step from Oplawski’s NMRA Pure Street Mustang he was running at the time, which used a Ford EPEC system to modify just a handful of engine parameters in the factory EEC-IV fuel injection system. “I had an Auto Meter dual-channel tach—that was data collection back then. I never even had a wide-band oxygen sensor on the car.”
Samuel later asked Oplawski about [working for] Kevin Marsh’s racing program.
“I worked at an auto parts store, but the racing started to consume the day-to-day stuff. I ended up getting laid off by my boss who wanted me to give it a shot.” It proved to be a successful endeavor, as the team won back-to back Pro 5.0 championships in the Fun Ford Weekend series, fielded the second car to run over 200mph—John Gullet happened to be in the lanes in front of them—and also had the first turbo car to run 6.50s, 6.40s and trap over 220 mph.
In 2002, Oplawski started working at Fast Times Motorworks where Samuel was an engine builder. Helping tear down and inspect engines gave Oplawski a greater respect for EFI tuning, and he realized that the programming decided whether the internal parts of the engine survived or melted down.
Kevin Marsh opted to get into IHRA Pro Stock racing and from 2003-05, Oplawski worked full time for Marsh Motorsports.
“Chuck was the engine builder and driver, and I was the electronics guy. We were able to do very well with it.”
In 2006, Oplawski went to work at ASSC Racing.
“We did a lot of street cars and I learned a lot from Larry Stauner, who is probably one of the best drivability tuners I know. There’s a big difference between wide-open-throttle tuning and drivability.” 

At the end of 2007, Oplawski decided to start his own company, Hyperaktive Performance Solutions, to focus on the electronics side of drag racing. Through HPS, Oplawski sells most major EFI systems, and is one of the largest Racepak distributors in the world.
“The race car and street car EFI systems are becoming distinctly different,” Oplawski explained. “Race car owners are becoming more accepting of EFI and want more from it. They need a totally different level of power management, whether that comes from an all-in-one device or multiple devices that communicate with each other. I do the sales and you get people that want one box that does everything. I think that’s great for a street or street/strip application, but I feel in a serious race effort, the best scenario is having the EFI and a standalone logger. Of course, having a Racepak in the car with the EFI may be redundant—depending on the EFI system—but it’s also a failsafe. It’s good to build in redundancy because it costs so much to run these cars that if you make three runs without data, you’ve blown a couple grand, so the Racepak tends to pay for itself rather quickly.”
One of HPS’s own innovations was the company’s HyperKontrol boost management system.
“I always preferred laptop-based tuning systems and viewing data on screens,” said Oplawski. That preference was integrated into his HyperKontrol boost controller, which came to market against controllers that used a rather simple digital interface on the controller itself. Through a couple of chance phone calls, Oplaswki was contacted by the NHRA about his boost controller.
“A buddy of mine was an ADRL/XDRL tech director and said that the NHRA wanted to create a boost limit, and that it might be a scenario for me to get involved. I talked with them, changed the controller around a little, and it became the spec controller for the Pro Mod category. It was rough in the beginning, because everyone didn’t like it. I do not envy anyone who has to create rules.”

While he’s often the man behind the counter and on the phone at HPS selling products, Oplawski also works on the tuning side with racers like Brad Anderson, Jay Payne, Dan Stevenson, and Chip King. Most recently, he’s worked with Shane Molinari, and the Bothwell Motorsports team whose Camaro, driven by Rick Snavely, won back-to-back NMCA West Pro Mod championships and was the surprise winner in Pro Mod at the 2015 NHRA US Nationals.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve seen all different aspects of the business.” Oplawski, like the others within this article, has learned to evolve with the changing technologies and to keep moving forward to find the best product for a particular application. 
“I’ve got to do well for customers at the end of the day.” Once you have the hardware and the software, it’s all about getting laps in the car and collecting data, as he pointed out that the cars are not going to run themselves. 
“The state of where we are is good and only going to get better,” Oplawski said. 

Patrick Barnhill—PTP Racing
PTP Racing’s Patrick Barnhill started racing back in the late 90s, and by 2001, his Chevy Nova had a blow-through carb, ProCharger-blown powerplant running on alcohol.
“Nobody made EFI for it at the time,” said Barnhill, who wanted to be the first to run 7s with a blow-through ProCharged car. “It went 7.88 with an F-2, and John Meaney put his Big Stuff 3 on that car around 2003. I taught myself how to use it with help from John and some other people.”
Barnhill met his PTP partner in crime, Jason Lee in 2005 when he was running Limited Street in the NSCA and Lee was running Drag Radial with the NMRA. The two formed a partnership as both were providing advice and assistance to fellow racers and selling parts to them became the next step.
“Driving has never been something that’s interested me that much,” Barnhill explained. “I really prefer the challenge of tuning and making it all work. The reason I like drag racing so much is that the competition is really with yourself. You’re trying to better yourself every run; trying to beat the other guy as well as trying to beat your previous effort.”
With Barnhill running his own mortgage company by day and Lee a district manager for British Petroleum, the duo created Part-Time Performance for their after-hours endeavors.
“We did a lot of parts sales and tuning, but didn’t have a shop and didn’t work on people’s cars,” Barnhill explained. Just a few short years later, Lee saw the writing on the wall as BP was getting out of the retail business. Barnhill was bored with his mortgage business and a few months after Lee turned to PTP full-time, Barnhill closed the doors to his company and joined him.
“I’ve never been motivated by money,” Barnhill told us. “I’m more motivated by success. We want to do well for our customers and if you treat them well, the money will always come.”

PTP Racing’s business model didn’t change once it went full time. They still didn’t have a shop or work on cars as there simply wasn’t any time to do it.
“We prefer to sell on a wholesale or retail level and then assist our customers with support afterwards. We want to be a one-stop shop to sell someone everything they need, but we also allow people to use their own engine builders—we learn more by doing different sorts of things that way. We’ve been fortunate enough to build the business off word of mouth. Today we sell packages and parts to anyone. We do a lot with Big Stuff 3 EFI and Haltech, an Australian EFI company.”
The Haltech connection was made through PTP customer Bill Lutz, who was acquainted with the Haltech staff.
“We’ve done quite a bit of development with them in the last year or so,” noted Barnhill. “We forged a relationship with Eric Gash here in the states, and have been working to take them to the next level. Haltech has the most comprehensive system on the market short of a 50k MoTeC. The Haltech Elite 2500 can do everything that the MoTeC does. Steve Summer’s car is completely run by a Haltech; the ignition, boost controller, shock dumps and air valving, the lock up converter, it shifts the car, it can perform any function.”
That all-encompassing performance is a timesaver both from tuning and troubleshooting standpoints according to Barnhill.
“People don’t realize how long it takes to download four different boxes from four different systems. Having it in one system allows you to have it in one box, down load all of the changes at once, make the changes, and move on. Trouble shooting is simpler because there are fewer places to look for a problem.” 
While Barnhill points out that Haltech offers a myriad of systems to run just about any internal combustion engine, he and Lee both still sell and tune Big Stuff 3 EFI systems as well.
“Each system has its own application, but both systems can run anything from a Pro Mod all the way down to a Stock Eliminator car. It really becomes a matter of functionality depending on what a customer wants/needs. We still do development work with Big Stuff EFI. In one year, we went though 42 firmware updates with the Big Stuff 3. John Meaney has a new system coming out at the end of 2017 and it’s a complete redesign. His Big Stuff 3 was way ahead of its time when it came out, and he wants to make sure that the same can be said of the next version—John Meaney is the godfather of aftermarket EFI, he’s far from done.”
PTP’s involvement with Haltech on the development side is just as productive.
“We are always pushing the companies for more development. Just this year, we’ve been through 23 different version of firmware with the Haltech, and will probably have 5-6 more before the end of the year. It’s nice to work with a company that allows you to push them. Haltech’s Elite 5000 is coming out soon. It’s geared toward Pro Mod, Top Sportsman, Pro Nitrous, and Top Dragster.”
That range of cars right there is pretty diverse, and PTP’s customer base is equally so with Barnhill pointing out that they work with ProCharger, turbo, and nitrous cars at every NMCA race.  
“We work with the Bankston Racing team on Tim Savell’s car,” Barnhill told us. “Mike Bankston does his nitrous tuning, but I take care of the power management and the Davis Technologies Profilers. They’re a great team of guys. We also do the nitrous on Phil Smith’s Street Outlaw car with Billy “Midnight” Adams. It’s been a 4.41 with the Haltech EFI on it.”

Speaking of power management, we asked Barnhill for his thoughts on the subject as it’s an often talked about subject in the pits.
“It [power management] is not most essential thing, but it’s right up there. The most essential aspect to tuning is that you have to make the engine run well. If it doesn’t, you don’t have any power to manage. It still boils down to good old fashion fuel and spark. You never know if a sensor is right or wrong, but the spark plug never lies to you. You can learn a lot by watching and listening, too, as an engine will tell you what it wants—it doesn’t matter what the sensors say. If it runs better, then that’s what it wants. 
One thing I can say about myself is that if you can take a box (ECU) without a program and start from scratch, that’s what a tuner is. That’s also why I like to work with all sorts of different combinations. Something I’m real proud of is that Jason and myself have a completely well-rounded customer base. We set land speed records with cars, and work with street cars, both import and domestic. We have customers in virtually all areas of racing—we even have a Baja Jeep with an LS engine in it, and an AMC-powered Top Dragster that runs 5.90s. From a tuning perspective, I don’t think you’ll find a more well-rounded company.”
PTP’s accomplishments include numerous NHRA Stock and Super Stock records, and the duo’s client list of Cobra Jet Mustang owners includes 2016 Factory Super Car champion Kevin Skinner and his father Mike, Chris Holbrook, Beau Butner and Ray Skillman. 
“They all run Big Stuff 3 as we converted them over from the factory drive-by-wire setups,” noted Barnhill. “We’ve had a lot of success with them, and won quite a few events including the US Nationals. You definitely have to manage the small tire for track conditions with those cars. They make 1,100-1,150 hp and with 14-16 psi of boost on the footbrake, it’s always a challenge.”
PTP was also behind Steve Summers’ 2014 NMCA Pro Mod championship, Eric Gustafson’s 2014 NMCA West and 2015 NMCA Street Outlaw championships, Jarod Wenrick’s 2015 championship runner up debut in NMCA Street Outlaw, and of special note, Barnhill was happy to help Willard Kinzer get a Wally when they won the NMCA Bradenton event in 2012. PTP has also tuned the number-two finisher in Top Dragster for the 2015 PDRA season—it packs a Procharged big-block Chevy running Haltech EFI.
With a vast clientele, it should come as no surprise that they work with a lot of customers during a race weekend.
“It’s not uncommon to work with 12-15 cars per weekend,” Barnhill said. “I myself will have at least eight or nine, but I’m a multi-tasker and have a real good memory, thank God. I enjoy the complexity of negotiating multiple cars. From all my years in the mortgage business and having to work on multiple transactions all at once for 12-13 years, it kind of prepared me for that. It would drive me crazy to sit with one car all weekend.”
Just as it poses a mental challenge to balance so many spinning plates, Barnhill finds that the evolving world of electronic fuel injection is equally pleasing.
“It’s amazing how much things have changed since we first started, but I love change. I embrace it. If it was monotonous to me, I would quit and do something else. With this business, every race car is different and every customer is different. What I enjoy the most is making sure the customers have fun. If you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, find something else to do. The world is full of opportunities. This isn’t a job for me; it’s really, really fun.”
Though Barnhill obviously loves what he does, the schedule he keeps is not for the faint of heart. He’s pretty much racing every week, and Barnhill noted that he’s easily taken over a hundred flights this year alone—his Southwest Airlines A-List Preferred status and over 300k frequent flier miles certainly proves it. It’s not uncommon to leave a race to go somewhere else, and then go somewhere else after that.” There is so little time that he often books his travel right from his cell phone most of the time. “There are times when I’ll spend a couple weeks on the road at a time and not see the wife or kids at all, but I love it and that’s the problem.”

 Jamie Miller—Pro Line Racing
Jamie Miller didn’t just grab a screwdriver or a laptop and get to tuning, rather he started his automotive performance career outside of drag racing, but it wasn’t long before he found his calling in heads-up drag racing.
“I started out of high school working for a circle track fabrication shop where we built Jeff and Todd Bodine’s Winston cup cars,” Miller explained. Oddly enough, the same shop also fabricated the USA Olympic team’s bobsleds.
Miller, who was always into drag racing, later started his own small fabrication shop that did everything from roll bars to turn-key race cars. The business grew to employ seven employees, but the economic recession killed the business. Being fond of paying his bills, Miller went to DMC Racing for a while until another offer came into play.
“Jason Enos offered me a full-time job running his racing program and we raced every weekend. His car had a Pro Line 670ci big-block Chevy—the same combination as in Tim Lynch’s car—and we hired Steve [Petty] to help with testing,” Miller recalled. “We didn’t hire him when we were racing against him, but hired him for testing. I had learned some tuning stuff from Don Bailey, and Steve and I started talking and sharing data. This went on for two years until Jason decided to pull back from racing.” Shortly after than, Petty offered Miller a spot on the Pro Line Racing tuner roster.
“My first job was to fly over to Bahrain to work with the Q80 guys on their Outlaw 10.5 car,” Miller explained. “I wasn’t sure I could make a living tuning cars, but I haven’t done anything else since then. I started tuning in Cecil County with Steve Gorman, and transitioned to taking over Pro Line customers for Steve since he got busy with the Jegs car. Then, Radial exploded. I started working with DeWayne Mills and have run every race with him since 2013. I started working with Michael Biehle, and now we have an NHRA Pro Mod contract with him as well. We finished fourth in points this year.”

Another big customer for Miller is the EKanoo racing team based out of Bahrain. EKanoo purchased two 481-X engines for a small-tire, Lexus RCF project around 2014, but the chassis was designed for much smaller engines. While they make quite a bit of power, the output and the way it is delivered is vastly different compared to the big-block Chevy-based 481-X that makes upwards of 4,000 hp.
The class that it was to run in is similar to Radial vs. the World/Pro Drag Radial here stateside, and as the sanctioning body of the drag racing league there loosened up the rules a bit, Miller was able to make quite a few changes to the motor location, as well as in other aspects of the chassis like the four-link rear suspension. 
“We helped them with the layout and design,” Miller told us. “Tim Davis came over with me and we worked together with Josh [Ledford]. We won the championship last year, and we were the number-one qualifier last weekend and won the event. It’s a carbon copy of what is in DeWayne’s car,” Miller said. “It has a different converter because they run it on a slick, but we’ve been a 4.14, which is the record.”
Miller, along with Davis and Ledford, all spent three weeks in Bahrain preparing for the race and working on EKanoo’s new pro mod Lexus. The car started as a Jerry Bickel chassis, and EKanoo designed and built its own Lexus body.
“They started the build five weeks ago and it’s already going down track, Miller said. “It’s still in the R&D phase. We work with Shane Tecklenburg over there who oversees things since all of the cars run MoTeC. We were brought in to oversee the power management and chassis tuning.”

As you might have picked up on, drag racing is becoming quite popular in certain parts of the Middle East such as Bahrain. This year, the car count has been much bigger, and the racing has drawn big names from the NHRA like Pat and Lizzy Musi, Mike Castelana, Frank Manzo, Rickie Smith, and Stevie Jackson.
Miller is all too happy to be a part of so many successful racing teams. 
“You can be a tuner and successful with one team, but if people see you’re with numerous teams and are successful, you have an edge. People are more inclined to hire you if they see you are successful with more than just one.”
In addition to better advertising, Miller’s diverse clientele provides opportunities to work with different EFI technologies and strategies.
“Every year this stuff is being refined and all of the ECU companies are constantly innovating, compared to five years ago. It’s huge to get the manufacturer involved in development, and it’s a big part of why the stuff is moving so fast. They are willing to work with us at the track because we are using the stuff at the ground level.”
Miller pointed out that most of the Pro Line customer cars run a combination of FuelTech and MSD components, but FuelTech has been working extensively on power management, and the new FT600 now houses that and traction control as well.
“Basic traction control operates on driveshaft speed. With power management, we know we need the engine to be at a certain spot during the run, so we control the rate of acceleration by pulling timing or creating a rev limit to maintain engine speed,” Miller explained. “I use both on a Drag Radial car and transition from one to another during a run, but it comes down to styles of tuning. What Petty and I do for NHRA, that stuff is legal, so you can only use a plotted launch retard. When you don’t have certain tools available to you, you learn other ways to manage power. It pushes you to look at things a little differently. I definitely do things on DeWayne’s car differently because of what I learned on Biehle’s car in an NHRA situation.”
Like Petty has done, Miller has now put together a core group of customers and as business for Pro Line has continued to grow, the need for more tuners became apparent.
“That’s how Josh [Ledford] came on board. He was helping Andrew Alepa and he got involved on the Pro Line engine side and then the relationship grew from there.”

Jason Lee—PTP Racing
The other half of the PTP Racing team, Jason Lee had a lot of buddies in high school with muscle cars, and eventually procured an old Nova himself. The lure of the Blue Oval was too great, however, and shortly after high school in his second year of college, Jason got his first Mustang. Since then, Lee claims he’s had about 20 of them, and collected four NMRA Drag Radial championships and two NMCA championships behind the wheel of one.
“I’ve always tuned my own stuff,” Lee recalled. “I had a carbureted nitrous car and sprayed the living shit out of it and tore up a lot of parts.” Lee would occasionally hit up Milan Dragway’s once-a-month, heads-up series and “played around with the NMRA with a couple of different cars,” including a nitrous-injected Drag Radial car.
“My red car was my first competitive Drag Radial car. That was about 10 years ago. It was one of the first handful of 25.5 cars to get that chassis certification, and the car I won six championships with.” 
Lee eventually jumped into the EFI tuning game after installing a Big Stuff 3 system on one of his cars.
“I figured it out myself, and asked a lot of questions.” Like his partner Patrick Barnhill, Lee started generating a customer base among his fellow competitors at the track. And his success generated a business partner, too.
“I met Patrick at an NSCA race at US131. He raced Limited Street with his Nova and was a big promoter of the series. He had a strong potential customer following for the blow-through-carb market, and I was wining races and generating a customer base. Patrick and I decided to give the thing (that is the parts and tuning business) a shot, and did it on the side of our normal jobs. I ended up running the business out of my house full time. He eventually started learning the EFI, and we both got to the point where we could support our families.”
With Barnhill’s penchant for travel, it’s not surprising that he does 60 percent of the tuning, according to Lee, who picks up the remaining 40. It’s Lee, however, that handles more of the business end of the operation. Parts sales accounts for approximately 65 percent of PTP Racing’s business, and that’s not so easily run from the road.
“We started out selling more parts than tuning, initially,” Lee said. “Guys called us to spec out combinations, tell them what parts to buy, and we have to have an understanding of the rule books to give them accurate information on anything from an Ultra Street car to Pro Mod to an NHRA Stock Eliminator car.”
Though Lee and Barnhill often travel apart, the two constantly fill each other in on every one of their customers, which offers flexibility for the company.
“We both have general basic knowledge with all of the customers and their combinations. We learned this stuff together and our strategies have stayed the same since then. There are things we do differently when we’re developing things, but then we share things to keep each other up to date. Sometimes we don’t see each other for weeks at a time, and with the rate of how fast technology and development moves, we need to keep each other up to date.”
Lee attributes today’s increasing rate of performance to a number of equally fast emerging technologies, including torque converter and tire technologies.
“The electronics have changed tremendously,” Lee noted. “When I started, you had fuel, spark, and some timing curves, MSD spark based on time. All of the systems now have a strategy of some sort to manage the tire. Some of them are designed to be used with other boxes, but the new stuff is truly becoming standalone systems,” Lee explained.
“The new Big Stuff Gen 3, Big Stuff Gen 4 Pro Xtreme, and Haltech, are the three systems we spend 85-90 percent our time dealing with. You can do everything in those systems. The BS Gen 3 was so far ahead of its time, it isn’t even funny. John Meaney created a piece that was good for the next 10 years. He wants to do that with his new Gen 4 system, but that’s challenging for the time now because there is a lot more competition.” 

Power management is one of the key tools used by tuners today, and Lee noted that “Big Stuff and Haltech both offer their own version of torque management within their systems. Most of the current FuelTech users use the Davis Technologies Profiler or the Grid for their management,” Lee told us. “If a customer prefers the Profiler, it can be used in conjunction with any fuel-injected system out there.”
Torque management is about putting as much power to the ground as possible without spinning the tires, but it’s a dynamic situation during a run.
“It’s neat trying to figure out how to outsmart the track,” Lee said. “I like the challenge. Track prep has changed the game, though, and that’s why everyone is going so fast. And there’s lots of torque management type stuff out there to help.”
Being in the tuning game can be stressful, however, as Lee pointed out that the expectations are increasingly higher.
“Ten years ago, the majority of people raced for fun, but now everybody wants to win. I think the Internet has done that to an extent. You’re not just racing the guy at the track, you’re racing everyone in the world. And when people spend this kind of money to do this, there’s an expectation of results.” But results are what PTP Racing has been able to deliver for its customers, and more and more racers are turning to them for help.
“The most challenging part of the business is making every customer feel like they are your number-one customer. We haven’t always been great at it, but there’s been times we have had to cut off customers for specific events because we can’t devote enough time with the ones we have.” That’s a good problem to have, and with the amount of data that today’s EFI systems produce, time must be managed as carefully as the traction. 
“There are times you go back to the hotel and you’re staring at 3-4 customers’ data till three in the morning trying to come up with a game plan for the next day. Your mind never shuts off; you’re always thinking about what you can do to make the customer’s car more competitive. As a tuner, you’re doing everything you can to get every single hundredth out of the car. Every power adder has a different potential based on converter, gearing etc., so you constantly break down the time slips and dig through your split times. This helps you break down the combinations of your competitors and also helps you obtain the best information for customers looking to build a new combo.”
As that sort of information has become an essential part of the tuning process, delivering it has become a priority for EFI system manufacturers.
“All of the EFI companies have really stepped up their game as of the last 2-3 years,” Lee said. “It’s our job as tuners to be versatile in all of them. If you ask ten different tuners what [system] they prefer, you’ll get ten different answers because there are so many out there that have a tremendous amount of functionality. Five years ago, a hundred people would have given you 1-2 answers.”

Josh Ledford—Pro Line Racing
Pro Line Racing’s newest tuner, Josh Ledford, has been in the racing game for some time. He first got interested in drag racing after going out street racing with a buddy when he was around 15 years old and eventually put together a few hot street machines of his own. That led to a line of work putting together similar machines at several shops. 
“I got tired of working for other shops and building cars for them,” Ledford recalled of his past experiences. “I had some paychecks bounce, and myself and Steven Fereday started our own deal to make us money instead of for someone else.” And so began Late Model Racecraft, a Houston, Texas-based performance shop that began to make a name for itself in the blossoming LS market.
In 2007, Ledford took his first trip over to the middle east, as LMR had been hired to build a Corvette ZO6 for a client. It would be the first of many trips to the region for the budding performance specialist. 
Ledford’s EFI tuning experience stepped to the next level when they converted their in-house race car to run Big Stuff 3 EFI in 2008. LMR set numerous records with its Firebird in LSX Drag Radial, including claiming the first 7-second LSX-powered Drag Radial run. The shop has also been behind multiple records in standing-mile events with several customer cars as well.
From there, Ledford’s good friend Rob Valden asked him to help out with his ORSCA car. Pro Line’s Steve Petty had set up the baseline tune and Valden and Ledford ran with it from there. 
Over time, Ledford’s tuning efforts would continue to lead him away from the LMR customer base, as some of his tuning customers built their own cars, but needed someone to help them get it down the track.
“Andrew Alepa was another local guy and I got involved with his Radial car right after he bought it from David Hance,” Ledford told us. It was certainly something new for him, as the Mustang packed a twin-turbocharged, 620ci engine running on alcohol.
In 2009, LMR sold one of its shop cars to a customer in Qatar, and as part of the deal, Ledford went over there for about three weeks to get them acquainted with the car and attend their first couple of races. Then, in 2013, a customer from Kuwait with an LS-powered machine hired Ledford and with that team, he won the Super Street V8 championship in the Bahrain Drag Racing League and the ADRL in Qatar.
“EKanoo approached me to help them on their SSV8 car right after that,” Ledford explained. “Their original Lexus ISF had a Pat Musi turbo V-8. Shane Tecklenburg handled the MoTeC tuning and I was brought over to help with the power management.” It proved to be a successful relationship as they would have Ledford come back this year to help them with their new Pro Mod car, and he brought in Jamie Miller and Tim Davis to assist in the project.
Back stateside, Andrew Alepa was busy overhauling his Mustang with a Pro Line 481-X.
“Pro Line sent Jamie [Miller] to work on it, as I didn’t have a lot of experience with the alcohol stuff, but Eric [Dillard] asked if I could come out and help since I was local and friends with Rob who was driving the car. That’s when it started taking off,” Ledford recalled. “I was still a part of LMR and would fly out occasionally to help with Pro Line stuff. Eric saw that I was catching on pretty quick and had a good relationship with everyone. I think they were making sure that they could trust me to learn what they were teaching me, and be loyal and not run off with the knowledge.” Once he had proved himself, Pro Line brought him on board as one of their tuners around January of 2015. In order to concentrate on that, Ledford sold his half of LMR to his partner.
Ledford continued to help out Andrew Alepa and a couple of Pro Line’s Pro Mod customers, and then Daniel Pharris hired him to lead the tuning on his Radial Wars Mustang.
“When I started on Daniel Pharris’ car, the map looked like a bunch of Legos stacked up on each other. I just started working on the maps to make them smooth and the engine immediately started to run better. The best Daniel’s car had gone was a 3.99 in Radial vs. the World trim, and with me tuning, we went 3.89 in Radial Wars trim.” Team Pharris grabbed NMCA wins in Bradenton and Atlanta, as well as a runner up finish in Bowling Green in 2016. They finished a close second to DeWayne Mills in the championship as well.

As this was written, Ledford had just returned from the Middle East where he, Jamie Miller, and Tim Davis had been working with EKanoo on their new Pro Mod Lexus. He’ll be going back to work on it some more, but the Street Car Super Nationals in Vegas was calling, as was Mike Keenan who had purchased Troy Coughlin Jr.’s old C5 Pro Mod. Keenan bought the car for Radial vs. the World competition, and it proved to be a capable machine, as the team took the event win in the class.
“These past couple of years have been a blur,” Ledford said of his rapid rise to prominence. “Petty and those guys have a 10-15 year head start on me, and getting in with them is a hard road. They’re teaching you and they have certain ways to do this stuff. They are trusting you to not go out and take their stuff and run. And the customers are relying on you to keep their engines in one piece. Working with the best, though, always makes you strive to be the best and stay at their level.”
Like his own experience in tuning, Ledford has noticed the changes in the EFI market has he has grown with it.
“Look at how small the FuelTech ECU is compared to the old FAST and Big Stuff boxes. I’ve had issues where with some of the older stuff; you put numbers in and they don’t even save into the ECU. There’s no comparison between those and any of the new ECU companies out there. I think the Holley is better than the FAST and BS3, but some of the navigation can be confusing. Of course, that comes from someone who doesn’t use it every day. 
Out of my experience, FuelTech is most user friendly. It’s just easy to navigate through, make changes, and the response you get from the actual system is great—it’s another level for the average drag racer to use. MoTeC is a good piece, but unless you get it from a tuner, you get an open ECU and you have to write your own software.”
From a hardware standpoint, Ledford prefers how the FuelTech unit has separated its injector drivers. Not only do they last longer, but if there ever is a problem with them, you only need to swap out the driver box, and not send the entire ECU back for repair.
“In addition to having all of the power management built into it, the FuelTech ECU can also store five tuneups in it and you just use the touch screen to make the changes.” He also likes the simplicity of the all-in-one nature of the FuelTech system, but he also still likes to have separate datalogging capabilities. “The Racepak might pick up something that the internal logger did not, and we check both every single run.”
With the more modern ECUs, Ledford also noted that they provide greater control over the engine.
“The more control you have, the faster you’re going to go. If you control the engine, you control the tire.”
Like the other tuners in this group, Ledford doesn’t rely on sensors, but rather reading spark plugs for his mot valuable engine tuning information.
“I still tune based off of reading plugs. Relying on a sensor can be inconsistent, because they can read differently depending on their location—none of them are located in the cylinder. The plugs are the best way to go—they’ll tell you what to do exactly.”
Reading spark plugs on an alcohol-fueled engine is a little different, but Ledford had some good teachers to get him through it.
“My first alcohol car was when Alepa bought David Hance's black Mustang. Petty gave me a crash course and we ran about four races with it. One night Scotty Canon gave Jamie and I a lesson in reading plugs when he was helping Chris Daniels out.”
Like the rapid advancements in EFI technology and Ledford’s own tuning capabilities, the constantly improving horsepower and performance of today’s race cars is not lost on him.
“The amount of power we can make is insane, and managing it on small tires is where it’s hard. If you had said someone would go 3.70s on a drag radial three years ago, you wouldn’t believe it, but it’s happened.” Looking further into the future, Ledford sees his work with Pharris and his new Pro Mod as a step in the next direction.
“Ultimately, I want to be competitive in NHRA Pro Mod. The NHRA stuff isn’t fun, but you’re going against guys like [Steve] Petty, [Jimmy] Rector, and Frank Manzo. It’s one of the most competitive classes in drag racing.”
Until that day, Ledford will continue his jet-setting lifestyle that he shares with most of the other tuners in the game. He’s taken over 60 flights this year alone.
“One downside is that you’re always going. You’re rarely home for a week at a time, and it puts a lot of stress on the family life.” But he also sees it as the job’s main benefit, too. “I like the travel and getting to see the world. I was able to go to Hawaii to build a car and this year I got to go to Australia.
The Multi-Tasking Tuner
While we’ve gone quite depth with the individuals in this article, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the many people involved with racing programs all over the country that perform tuning duties, and oftentimes driving duties, for the same car.
Kevin “Flash” Fiscus started off in the Drag Radial game many years ago with is own turbocharged—and Pro Line-powered—car, and has driven a Pro Mod and sometimes his partner Josh Klugger’s Radial Wars Mustang since then. While the FKR team often has Pro Line’s Jamie Miller on site handling the tuning, Fiscus often handles the tuneups for the team, and he was hired by Pro Mod driver and team owner Jim Bell to perform tuning duties and drive one of his cars.
When Jose Gonzalez needed someone to shakedown his new El General race car, Fiscus got the call, and he also flew down to Puerto Rico to shake down PMS Race Cars new “Big Deal” Pro Mod Mustang.
While having Fiscus being so versatile in all areas of the FKR program is beneficial to the team, both he and his partner, Josh Klugger noted that having a dedicated tuner at a race makes life easier for the drivers.
“It’s much nicer to have someone else calling the tuning shots,” Klugger explained. “You have enough on your mind as a driver without second-guessing yourself about the tuneup you put in the car.”

Mark Micke of M&M Transmission is another tuner/driver that has an NMCA Pro Street championship to his credit, and currently drives Jason Carter’s Radial Wars Malibu. He’s also wheeled for other car owners, and he works with a lot of guys through his transmission company by helping them with tuning and running their race programs. M&M Transmission has a huge customer base, and many of them include X275 and other small-tire racers that don’t quite get the national attention that others do.

Josh Lindsey is another tuner who tunes a lot of no-prep and grudge cars as well as X275 racers. This year, he helped Jacky McCarty get his Street Outlaw program on track. McCarty and Lindsey made progress all year with the Mustang, picked up several event wins, and finished the 2016 NMCA season with the Street Outlaw championship.
There are plenty of other talented tuners out there that we haven’t had room to put the spotlight on just yet, but we’re sure they will get there time soon. John Kolivas turned his Drag Radial experience into KBX Racing after partnering up with Jon Bennett of Bennett Racing Engines. The duo offers EFI tuning services, engine packages, and even turn-key car builds. Others like Mike Dezotel of Dez Racing, Rich and Nick Bruder, and Brian Macy at the EFI Store, just to name a few, all contribute to race-winning teams in our industry, and there are plenty of up and coming tuners who have yet to make their marks on the racing scene as well.
EFI—The Foundation of It All
It goes without saying that without the OEMs, EFI technology would not likely be anywhere near where it is today. The millions and millions of dollars those companies have spent bringing EFI to the public created the foundation on which the aftermarket business was founded. We also have to credit the innovators like John Meaney and the countless people that have come after him for putting in the time to develop aftermarket systems for us to use to go quicker and faster than ever before.
While it may be quite obvious that the tuners within this article favor a few particular systems, there are several reasons for that. Certainly having established a developmental relationship with companies will work in your favor, but it also comes down to sticking with what works for you. Performance shops do this all of the time where they generally stick to certain brands or particular products because past experience has proven that they install correctly, and deliver the expected results.
FuelTech and Haltech, and to some extent, MoTeC, may be the big names in the upper echelons of heads-up drag racing these days, but there are far more cars out there running systems from Big Stuff, FAST, AEM, and Holley. Keep in mind that FAST played a critical role in bringing EFI to NASCAR, and was the choice of Ford Performance for its Cobra Jet program once it opted to go with aftermarket EFI. Holley EFI finally brought NHRA Pro Stock into modern times by working with the sanctioning body and producing the class’ spec controller, and it also provides Chevy Performance with the EFI system for the company’s COPO Camaro program.
The takeaway here is that we should considering ourselves lucky to be racing in a time where so many options exist, and when technology continues to propel us forward. It’s a burgeoning market that has given rise to professional tuners, some of who toil endlessly on engine and chassis dynamometers, and others who spend the majority of their time traveling from race to race to perform their wizardry on track.

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