Former Retired Drag Racer Anderson Cashes In At Phoenix

Story by: Alex Owens
On Track Photo by: Richard Brady
Winners Circle Photos by: Laura Contreras-Rust

Drag racing is an addiction. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, then they don’t have the racing bug quite like you do. For Craig Anderson, the addiction has been strong since his first trip down the newly opened Texas Motorplex drag strip in 1986. It all started with a 1967 Camaro street car, which was back-halved in the early 1990’s. The urge to become more consistent meant he would need purpose-built race cars and more seat time. Around 1997 or 1998 Anderson took the plunge and decided to competitively run Super Gas.

As with all forms of sports, money takes over at some point, and to keep pace with the field you’ll have to get in your wallet as well. By 2016 Craig owned two race cars, a motorhome, and a fully loaded stacker trailer with a large pro awning and cabinets packed to the brim with every tool imaginable necessary for a top tier operation. But for Craig the fun factor was at an all-time low.

“It was a lot of work attending twenty races a year, traveling 20,000 miles, running two cars, keeping up with the trailer, putting the large pro awning up and down and maintaining everything,” he says. There were many times when he went racing and had to leave his wife and crew chief behind at their business, Ellis County Auto Repair, Inc.

At the JEGS SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green, Anderson took his trusty Super Gas Corvette to the winner’s circle for the fifth time and it was his seventh overall win with the others coming in Super Comp. He would essentially hang it up after a lack luster performance at the Chicago JEGS All-Stars event. He had a liquidation sale on his whole racing operation, everything besides the motorhome which he and his wife planned to travel in. The Super Comp dragster was bought by Aaron Kinard and the Super Gas Corvette ended up in Ryan Herem’s garage. After Ryan won two national events, including the US Nationals in Indy, behind the wheel of the Corvette, he told Anderson, “If for any reason you ever want to sell this car, call me first, I’ll buy it.” So, he did and by mid-2016 Anderson was without a single race car.

Remember how I said drag racing is an addiction? Yeah, well if you read the title, then you know Anderson is back in the game. In 2017 inevitably he got the itch to show up and spectate at the races with the Laris family. “Most of my closest friends come from drag racing,” said Anderson. “I truly missed the NHRA staff, competitors, crew, and the comradery that comes with NHRA drag racing.”

The Advanced Product Design (APD) flagship official test dragster hung out in the Laris family’s trailer and Anderson had his eyes all over it. When Laris became too busy working on his other car and with the APD car sitting, Laris and Joe Hessling of APD decided to give “Big Head,” as they call him, a chance for a grand return.

During the Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex, Anderson got back to his winning ways claiming the win in just his third race back behind the wheel. This relit a fire inside of him and with the blessing of his wife Rhonda and crew chief (and father-in-law) Gregg Odom, he was ready to go back racing, but on a much smaller scale. “I already had the motorhome so all I needed was a small enclosed trailer and the bare essential tools. I’m not going overboard like I did last time.” With just a fourth and fifth round loss to show for in 2018, Anderson was dedicated and ready for the 2019 season.

That’s good because he already has 105 points to his name after the first race at the 35th Annual Magic Dry Arizona Nationals in Phoenix, but it wasn’t an easy race to win. With persistent rain on Friday, all qualifying runs were lost. On Saturday it was a one qualifier and right into eliminations and Anderson used up his “lucky round” right off the bat. In round one he had a bad reaction time (0.034) and luckily (for him) Don Barton broke out running 8.898 on the 8.90 Super Comp index trying to look over to find Anderson’s 191 mph rail at the stripe.

On Sunday morning Anderson’s wife and crew chief had to leave for a flight so they could make it to work on Monday. Acting crew chief Kevin Kleineweber stepped in to give Big Head a hand. There was a carrot dangling in front of him in the fourth round. With knowing that a win over Rick Milinazzo held the bye run into the final round, he was focused on the task at hand. Both drivers left 0.013 seconds after the flash of the three ambers and then Anderson stuck the nose of the APD dragster out in front at the stripe by 0.0082 seconds running dead-on seven to boot.

Everything was fine until he went to run it on the scales after the round win. He looked down and saw the oil pressure needle was pegged on 0 psi. Instantly his heart dropped into the seat. He quickly fired the car and ran it on the scales. Racers Johnny and Jeff Burke chatted with Anderson and helped push the car from the scales all the way to the trailer. Upon arrival, Kleineweber was informed of the issue and he went right to work looking for a solution. He found that the oil pump belt had broke and instantly began thinking about the racers who used the same style of oil pump. Luckily, a few trailers down Phil Unruh had a belt and offered to help put it on. Meanwhile Anderson was on the phone with Hessling and told him the situation with Hessling giving the advice of, “You are this close to the money round, might as well run it.”

Anderson went up there without knowing if the bearings would last a full pull, but when it came off the throttle stop clean, he put his finger close to the ignition switch just in case it decided to run over the crankshaft. The scoreboards lit up 8.904 @ 191.40 mph for the win and Hessling shot Anderson a text, “Looks fine, good luck in the finals.” That’s exactly what Anderson needed to hear.

In the final round, multi-time winner Kevin Wright left second to Anderson’s 0.018 reaction time and took a slim margin of victory of 0.0022 seconds backing into Kevin at the stripe. The winners circle was shared by some of Anderson’s closest racing friends including new friends Johnny and Jeff Burke. Anderson recalled earlier in the weekend when he asked Kleineweber how many national event wins he had. Kleineweber responded with, “Eight.” And now with this win, Anderson takes the lead nine to eight.

On Anderson’s Birthday weekend, he got the best present of all, sharing the winners circle with all of his racing buddies new and old. “It’s amazing how when in a time in need racing competitors rush over and help fix whatever problems there are, even when you have to run the guy next round. This is why I love drag racing, yes we are competitive, but it’s more about the friends you make along the way,” stated Anderson.

After the race he thanked everyone involved in his ninth national event win, “I want to thank God for blessing me with the opportunity to do what I love. Huge thanks to Rhonda for taking care of things both while I’m at home and away. You’re the best. Also, a shout out to my co-crew chiefs Gregg Odom and Kevin Kleineweber for jumping in at the last second to get an issue fixed during the later rounds. The race would not have been won without that, period. Thank you, Joe and John, at Advanced Product Design, Big T, and Jeff at Hughes Performance, Ryan Anderson and all the employees at Ellis County Auto Repair for their hard work and dedication. All in all, a great weekend was had by all.”