PRO CHALLENGE TAKING OFF AS AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE by Jeremy Troiano
¾-Scale Cars Growing A Big Following All Over
It’s the Pro Challenge Series world.
“The cars are basically three-quarter scale NEXTEL Cup cars with water-cooled Kawasaki Motorcycle engines,” said the Pro Challenge Series Co-Owner John Litzinger. “It’s a spec series, so everything is pretty much the same. The difference in the car is the driver’s ability to set the car up to his liking. That's what sets us apart from the rest.”
What is the Pro Challenge Series? Here's what their website says: “With its headquarters in the heart of racing country, Pro Challenge has a network of tracks and distributors in over a half-dozen states in the U.S. and Canada. The Pro Challenge factory in Blountville, Tennessee, rolls out some of the most distinctive high performance racing vehicles available today, including the Pro Challenge Oval Racer and the Pro Challenge SCCA-ready Road Racer. Built on a 40-year heritage of design and manufacturing excellence, and co-owned by John Litzinger and his wife Diane, Pro Challenge is committed to bringing the great American pastime of auto racing to a whole new generation of racers - just the way NASCAR founder, "Big Bill" France, had intended it.”
In reality, it is the basis of one of the best-looking, best-racing scaled-down cars in the country.
“We think it is a pretty good looking product and they are pretty fast,” said Litzinger. “We run pretty much on 3/8- and 4/10-mile tracks. We run as big as half-mile tracks like Bristol Motor Speedway. Generally, they are within a second of Late Model cars. That demonstrates the speed they have.
For young racers these days, there are plenty of options as to where to go racing. There are Legends and Bandolero cars from 600 Racing. There is the Allison Legacy Series. There are always WKA Karts and Quarter Midgets as well.
But there is a relatively new series out there that is picking up steam and gaining some ground in the race to grab the young racer. But just like several other series, this form of racing isn’t just for the 12, 13 and 14 year olds looking to move on up. This is a series for anyone and everyone who loves racing and wants to do it affordably.
“They are fully adjustable chassis. All four corners can be adjusted. The motors are sealed. They have some latitude with springs, shocks and that is about it. The things you would learn to do with the setup of this car would carry on to a Late Model.”
The cars look sharp. And underneath, they are stout.
The Pro oval version of the Pro Challenge Series cars have a ZX 1100cc Kawasaki four-cylinder, water-cooled power plant producing 140 horsepower (the road racing versions have ZX 1200cc and the ZZR 1200cc fuel injected engine that delivers 185 HP). The water-cooled engines are a major departure from the commonly used air cooled ones, and desirable for their durability and lower maintenance cost.
The cars weigh just 1,300 pounds. They come with a number of
The Pro Challenge cars might be small, but they are real racecars.
different body styles, including Dodge, Pontiac, Ford and Chevrolet body styles.
“One advantage is that there is now power steering in them, so you can learn easier about car control and throttle control. It is a pretty good training ground for Late Models. I have not driven a lot of Late Models, but I’ve driven a few and I think Late Models tend to be easier to drive than these cars.”
One of the more unique aspects is the fact that the Pro Challenge cars can also come with a truck body as well.
“The truck bodies are different,” added Litzinger. “They were so good, people just wanted to get in them. The car bodies took a little longer to develop, so people got into the trucks first. We’ve really got a good mix of them now, though.
“The chassis are basically the same, but sometimes the trucks give the drivers a little more visibility.”
Over the last couple of years, the Pro Challenge cars have taken off. They have garnered plenty of attention from sponsors and drivers alike.
Aaron’s Rent, a prominent sponsor in the NASCAR and USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series, stepped up and combined efforts with the Pro Challenge Series in 2005 to develop the “Aaron’s-Pro Challenge Dream Series.”
“Part of that was being part of the Aaron’s Dream Team,” added Litzinger. “By doing that, they committed to running this past year. That gave them a bunch of stuff, including Aaron’s markings on their car and a guaranteed spot in the Bristol race, which was a non-points race. They had a minimum guarantee of $150 payout for every race, no matter where they finished. Basically, they had a guaranteed position in each race. They were also eligible for all kinds of prizes at the end of the year, like a new car body, a chassis and even a flat screen TV that Aaron’s provided.”
All of the tour races pay $500 to win. A minimum purse for each race is around $5,000.
“We wanted to get 20 Dream Team members and we ended up with 25, so the response was great. Our objective was to make sure we had decent car counts at each race, and we did that.”
In fact, Litzinger said the series “averaged 20 to 24 cars at National event races. One of the races at Senoia, we had 32 or so cars. We’ve had pretty good interest.”
The Dream Series consisted of 12 races, with the best nine finishes counting toward the championship.
“We started in February during Speedweeks and we finished up just recently at Hickory Motor Speedway.”
After all 12 races were over, Terry Mathis led the 59 different drivers that earned points in the Dream Series to earn the National Championship.
Mathis is no youngster either. He’s been racing the cars for a while. But the series does focus on the youngsters. And the response has been great.
“There have probably been over 200 of these cars sold,” said Litzinger. “Response has been great. Anyone that has been to a race and sees these cars has been pretty impressed. I think we put on a good show everywhere we go.”
Right now, there is a lot of interest in the series. Young Bandolero standouts Zach Stroupe and Darrell Wallace have both run a couple of races and plan to run more in the future. Legends standout Chrissy Wallace, daughter of NASCAR star Mike Wallace, has run a few races. Even Nick Pistone Racing, who is a mainstay in the Legends car world, now has a two-car team in the Pro Challenge Series.
The series is a good place for young kids.
“We have a lot of young guys, 12 and up, participating in the Pro Challenge cars, coming from Bandoleros and Legends,” said Litzinger. “In some cases, they come from karts. It provided a unique mix of old and young on the track. As it turned out, the old guy ended up winning the championship, but the young guys are coming on strong.
The Pro Challenge racecars can carry both truck and car bodies.
“We don’t have an age requirement for our series. We pretty much leave it up to the tracks. I don’t think we have anyone younger than 12 running. We are pretty much open to the track rules. Like at Bristol; their rules are 16 years or older. That is why we couldn’t have a points race there, because some of our points runners are under 16.
“We look at anyone that is looking to run Pro Challenge and make sure they are capable of doing it.”
And the names aren’t just there now. In fact, the series has already had plenty of successful graduates.
Both Brett and Ken Butler got their starts with the Pro Challenge Series. Ken has raced with ASA and races
full-time in the Pro Cup Series currently, and all indications are that Brett will move up to the series full-time in 2006.
“We’ve had several drivers move on to bigger and better things. Our national champion two years ago was Brad Housewright. He won the Late Model Championship at Lonesome Pine Raceway this year. Josh Adams, who was our champion two years before that, was the winner at the UARA race at Bristol this year. That speaks for the training ground of these cars. Folks can move on.”
The series has an exciting future. Things will likely change with the National Series in 2006, as the series looks to minimize traveling costs.
“Hopefully next year, we’ll have some new tracks. We don’t have the schedule set, but we are looking at touring as much as we can with the UARA Late Model guys. Our national program will probably have a little different approach.
“We are trying to reduce the cost and the travel requirement, but also put some importance on running the regional programs. We are planning to start again in Florida in February. We are looking at hopefully one race a month on average for the national tour. We are hoping to have Aaron’s back with sponsorship as well. We are working on that now.”
Where else can you race at Bristol Motor Speedway on a budget like this? Just ask this year's Bristol race winner, Jason Burchard.