In-depth Interview with 4-Time SSO Champ John Urist
It’s a rough way to earn a nickname – A nitrous-fueled explosion on the starting line in Phoenix back in 2000 added “Fireball” to the list of names people have called legendary NMRA Super Street Outlaw racer John Urist. Surprisingly, though, for a man who has won an unprecedented four championships in the class, and has successfully run practically every combination allowed by the rules, most of that list is complimentary. Though nobody wants to line up against him short of the final round, you’ll also have a hard time finding a racer in the SSO pits who hasn’t made a round they would have otherwise missed over the years, thanks to help from Urist and his Hellion Racing crew.
In what might be the toughest class in all of Mustang doorslammer racing, Urist has climbed to the top and stayed there, despite a grueling commute from his New Mexico home to the east coast race venues, streaks of bad luck that would have been season-enders for any other team, and the constant pressure of competition in a class that is seeing low sevens at 200 MPH on a true 10.5-inch tire. Urist always has something interesting to say, so here at the start of the 2009 season, we thought we’d ask him to take a look back, and a look ahead.
Three years, three consecutive Super Street Outlaw championships. Are you worn out?
No, I don’t think so. It feels the same as it does after every season; I’m glad it’s over. I can get back to concentrating on keeping the lights on around here, along with everything else. I think that’s one of the things for me – I view every year as a challenge and something I look forward to
Back in 2000, you came out of virtually nowhere, and in the years since you’ve almost become the public face of the NMRA’s racer community. What’s it been like?
It started out as a hobby, something that I wanted to do; I always enjoyed cars, and then I got involved in drag racing. My father wasn’t involved at all, so I didn’t have a foot in the door, so to speak. I basically did it all myself and decided that this was what I wanted to do, and the last ten years have been great. Things have gone basically the way I wanted – we didn’t have success at first, but we’ve worked on it until we’ve gotten to where we wanted to be.
What about before coming into the NMRA? You were just a college student at the time. Where did you get your experience?
I was in the engineering program at my school, but then I switched to management and got a degree in business management. At the time, I was building custom headers and cars for local people, and I’ve always enjoyed being hands-on. That’s when I decided to give it a try being in business for myself, and that’s when I started Urist Racing and started doing some Mustang and street-car fabrication and race-car stuff that catapulted me into what we’re doing today.
The experience has come from many sources. When I started out, I learned from good friends of mine that had been racing and working on Mustangs for years before I started. Mike Abdalla was racing back then, and I was able to pull information from those friends, and then just used trial-and-error over the years of trying different things and doing research; reading the different articles in the magazines, stuff just like what you guys are writing today just trying to gain the information and build upon it. You can’t beat hands-on experience, so we were just taking it to the track to see what we could do.
You’re so remote from the epicenter of the NMRA, being all the way out in New Mexico. Do you feel like that hurts you?
It definitely does. We basically haven’t been able to test for ten years, because the elevation difference is so great. We have a local track, but it’s at 6000 feet of altitude. The horsepower of the car is different because of that, which affects how the chassis works, so we’re not really able to test. We basically have to show up at the track and go from there, or we’ll drive to Phoenix or Oklahoma City to test. There’s minimum of at least an eight-hour trip for us every time we want to go to the track, which is different from those guys who can just make an evening of it and can get to and from the track and test every weekend. We have to work a bit harder to have everything together when we show up.
Having run all three combinations, were any significantly easier or harder than the rest in terms of maintenance/upkeep or tuning?
I would say that the supercharged car will have more engine maintenance, while a turbocharged car will definitely have more transmission and torque converter maintenance. Not necessarily breakage of the parts, but an attention to detail while inspecting everything between rounds and races, because they put an added strain on the car. You need to make sure you’re checking everything all the time.
How difficult is it for you and the rest of the team to coordinate keeping the car at the top of the heap?
We have a great team that pays their own way. Our budget is not what I believe most people think it is – our crewmembers are dedicated to helping our team win. They come to the racetrack early, where everyone meets up and we get started working on the car to maybe get a couple of test runs in early. We try to make sure we’re ready to go on Friday. Everyone knows the car real well, and we try to take that into consideration when we’re making plans.
What about the crew? The Hellion gang is legendary for its work ethic. How do they make it easier for you as a driver?
I think they understand that everyone has a certain job that they need to get done in order to be successful, and they don’t expect everyone else to do that. They work together to make sure that all of the maintenance is done so that I can spend time looking at the computer and the tune from round-to-round so I can make changes. When you have a crew that’s seen pretty much every scenario that you could have at the racetrack with the car, the information that you get from them is very important. If they see a crack in a pipe, or something else that’s wrong, they’ve seen those parts and potential failures for years already, so they know what to be looking for. It keeps the car running and it keeps us having fun at the racetrack.
I start with all of these ideas, but I couldn’t follow through without all of the support that I get. When I started, it was my grandmother and my family, and since then it’s been my partner and my team and all of the friends and sponsors that support what we do. I couldn’t have gotten to this level without the help and support of all of those people combined and I think it’s definitely shown.
Is there a set routine that your team follows every single time down the track?
Absolutely. We have a process that we try to follow every time. Obviously, there are times where it doesn’t go the same way, if you have to repair the car between rounds, or weather, something like that. There are many factors that play into it, but everyone stays calm and collected, and that makes its way through the team all the way to me. We just show up and try to make a good pass.
Take us through a run in a Super Street Outlaw car.
It’s pretty similar to most runs that anyone would make in their racecar. Once we tow to the lanes, I usually don’t get out of the car. I started that after watching Mike Murillo sit in his car while waiting to run. I remember watching him sit in the car instead of getting out and walking around, so I basically started staying in the car as well. I believe that’s the best way to stay calm. Once I get the car started and pull to the line, Nate gets me through the burnout box and we wait and see how much time the other guy needs. One of the big things is that we race in the summertime, and staying hydrated with all of the gear on becomes an issue. Heat and humidity definitely play a part. Your body temperature will play a part in how you feel at the starting line, so I try to keep that as consistent as possible. Once I make the run, I pull the chutes, go around the corner, and hope we won.
Did you find it a challenge to step right into a brand-new car just before the season began?
Oh, definitely. It was the biggest challenge that we’ve had. My previous car had been a work in progress that we had maintained over the last seven years – it took us that long to really have success with that vehicle. I saw a possible performance advantage to going to the new car, so we tried to build one for the last year and on top of that keep it a secret, for the entertainment value. It’s amazing how well everything went as planned with the new car. We decided that we were going to do a bunch of updates that we had realized needed to be done with the old car and were able to implement those right into the new one; maintenance and safety issues were at the forefront of that.
It worked out perfectly. The first race we had a few bugs, but given that we were able to put it into the 7.50’s and win the first event out with it made it easy for me to consider it a success. We focused on making it easier to work on, and I felt that the performance advantage of less surface area with the Fox car made it worthwhile to build. Mainly, the biggest thing was to modernize our program. There are always inherent things with certain cars that you can’t change unless you start from scratch. We took a championship car [the ‘00 Saleen] and applied all of the things we had learned with it to this one [the ’93 notchback]. I thought we were at a disadvantage with the old car, and we built this one in order to try to stay ahead of the curve.
How much different is it to drive this car compared to the chassis you were in before?
Driving is much different. From where I sit to how it feels sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s completely different. The vision in the older cars is better – you’re sitting much higher in relative position to the top of the door. Where the hood is positioned, the steering wheel, it’s just a different car. When you’re used to the same car for seven years like I was with the Saleen, you’re just used to certain things being a certain way. The new car is 180 degrees different from the old one as far as that ‘feeling’. That took some getting used to – I’m still getting used to it, and where everything is located and how we drive the car.
Do you think there’s a limit to the 28×10.5 tire?
There will never be a limit to it – as long as you can make more power you’ll always be able to go faster. However, I do think that there’s a pretty good threshold on how fast you can short-track at a certain weight. One of the things that people haven’t touched on over the years that I think is important is track prep and technology at the racetrack, not necessarily the car. It seems like every year we’re getting on better and better racetracks – companies like VP that are doing their best to create traction compounds; track owners that want to have a reputation for the best track around, that all makes the tracks better. When the tracks are better, we go faster. That’s part of what makes it fun. This year we’re going to have to learn a new track, too, by going to ZMax in Charlotte – that’s one of the tracks nobody’s been on yet. We’ll have to see how it goes.
Who handles the tuning on the car?
I handle all of the tuning. We’ll talk about track conditions and make changes round-to-round, but I make the final changes on the computer for the car.
Some of the most legendary drivers in the street-legal arena have ‘made their bones’ while piloting an NMRA Super Street Outlaw car. What’s kept you coming back to the class instead of moving on to something else?
I think that some of the other drivers have decided that they succeeded and wanted to move on, or wanted to go faster. I’ve just promoted wanting to go faster with the class that I started in. I feel that Super Street Outlaw is the basis for many of the classes in the NMRA today. Drag Radial, for example, and some of the other ‘street’ classes are really just derivatives of Super Street Outlaw. You know, a full bodied car with windows and glass, with no huge tubs and a small tire, so it looks like a normal vehicle, and then you just put a large engine in the car that makes tons of power to see how fast you can go. These other classes have basically gone with out rules, no engine restrictions or anything.
I feel that the challenge for me is to work within the class that has restrictions; if everyone’s handed certain guidelines, you really have to work that much harder, and it’s that much more scientific to figure out how to go fast with those constraints. I’ve enjoyed the challenge year-to-year, and with all of the racing we’ve done over the years on this tire I feel like we have a pretty good grasp on how to make it work.
Where did the idea for Hellion Power Systems come from?
Hellion is the first song on the Judas Priest album ‘Screaming For Vengeance’. During the time that Urist Racing was my main focus, I had been asked to build a lot of custom race turbo kits. I was getting a lot of phone calls about the turbo kit companies that were in business at the time, their products, the wait times that people were experiencing when ordering from them, and I knew I could do it better. I decided to build street-car turbo kits the way that I wanted to build them, the way I thought they needed to be done, which was to have them fit and be in stock when people wanted them. We worked with Bassani Manufacturing to meet that need, and basically that’s what we’ve gotten into and I really enjoy it. It came out of a need that had been there for years. We’re ready to take it to the next level.
Where do you find the time to actually work on the car? Your business must keep you pretty busy.
That’s just our work ethic. If it’s really early in the morning or late into the evening, we’ll do what we have to do to get it done. Everyone trusts everyone else to work on the car, so it’s not just one person that can do a particular task – one person can do many things, so that doesn’t hold us back. As a team, we spend most of the time getting the car together, but I’ll stay until 1 or 2AM if needed to get the car ready without impeding on business and daily operations that we have going on over here. If there’s some free time during the day, we might work on it from time to time, but it’s usually either between 6 and 8AM or after 5:30 when the shop shuts down and we’ll work as late in the evening as we have to. Most of the racecar preparation is done by me before we get to the track, and the maintenance is done by the entire team at the track. We used to bring the car home between races, but with fuel costs the way they were last season the car never came home all season. We did all of the maintenance on the road, and Nate and I even changed engines a couple of times that way.
Is there anything left for you to achieve in SSO? Also, do you plan to switch to Pro Outlaw 10.5 at any point?
I can’t say what we’re going to do or not do. We’ve worked with Nitto Tire on the development of their new 28×10.5 drag slick, which fits right into Super Street Outlaw. Also, since we run the two-car team with Dwayne [James] driving the Pro Outlaw 10.5 car, we’re looking to gain some data and experience with that car and class. You never can tell what the future brings. We tend to go on a yearly basis – I don’t tend to view my success on a long-term outlook like many people tend to do. We just love doing it, want to be successful every year, and be challenged while doing it. That’s by racing other people that are very good at what we do, and that’s probably the biggest challenge.
How much does the time and travel affect the personal life?
I think any partner that’s going to support a racer really needs to understand the racing and what it involves. I don’t think you could take someone that’s outside this circle and throw them into it to where they’ll understand the need to work until midnight on the racecar, or the need to drive all night to make it to the race, the sense of urgency and desire that it takes to be successful at this. I’ve had many people around me in the past that appear to enjoy it, but I don’t think that they understand what it’s about. Even after me being very clear, they still didn’t understand.
Anyone that supports one of our racers and travels along, as far as a wife, girlfriend, or family, those people are very important. My immediate family, my parents and my sister, they’ve grown up with me and know what it takes, and that’s why they are the most important part of my support system race-to-race. They understand the needs and they’ll always be there for me. Even with my friends – I’ve had friends that have come and gone as far as race support goes because it’s so difficult.
What does the future hold for John Urist?
Racing, production, development of new turbo systems, development of new racecar parts and excitement. With the economy being up and down right now the future is always somewhat uncertain, but you’ll always have competition of people wanting to race at different levels, and we’re going to try to meet those needs here or there.