Story by: Phil Hutchison
Photos by: Phil Hutchison and Stephen Yantus
Winning Indy is every drag racers dream. It’s been said if you win nothing in drag racing but the U.S. Nationals, your name will go down along with the best of the best. For Charleston, SC racer Stephen Yantus, who professed he had never won a major NHRA event in his career, made his mark in the history books. Yantus drove his Charlie Westcott powered ’68 Cuda to a decisive victory at the Dodge HEMI Challenge at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, 66th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals. The popular event, dedicated to showcasing SS/AH racers, was first launched in 2001 at “The Big Go” in Indy with support from FCA brands Mopar and Dodge.
The fact that Plymouth Barracuda that Yantus drove to a victory had been sitting in a garage since 2018 and just recently got up and running is a testament to the team. Yantus said, “We blew up everything at the 2018 Dutch Classic at Maple Grove. Took the car home and it sat until a few weeks ago. We installed a new Westcott Hemi and went testing at Martin and the last pass on Wednesday at Martin, the car ran an 8.47. We loaded up the car and headed to Indianapolis and on Thursday on the first pass, the car runs an 8.47. It was on the hunt all weekend. To come out of the trailer and run like it did, I got to give the credit to the team and Westcott’s motor. All of the preparation on the car was completed in a matter of weeks.”
Yantus put the Mopar on the Hemi Challenge pole with an 8.477 and ran a bracket like stream of mid 8.40’s throughout eliminations to meet NY racer Steve Comella in the finals for the title. Comella, who also runs a Westcott motor in his Cuda, was having nothing but troubles all weekend but made it to the finals on three straight opponent red lights.
The finals were basically over on the starting line as Yantus cut a 0.030 light to Comella’s later 0.062 and Yantus continued his string of great times with a 8.410 (Low ET of Eliminations) to Comella’s troubled 8.76.
“It was a dream come true. We were so consistent and having the fastest car on the grounds was unbelievable. We were the only car to run in the 40’s and no one could catch us.” Yantus said, “Charlie Westcott built the baddest Hemi on the planet. Pat Norcia from Ram Clutches supplied us with a great clutch setup and none of it would not have been possible if it weren’t for car owner Anthony Rhodes and his love of the class.“
“My dad and Jr Baum did all the maintenance on the motor between rounds that frees me up to work on the clutch and do the other stuff on the car.”
“When we bought the car from Don Hutton we changed everything on the car. The car is one of the original built in 1968 and was actually #9 of the factory race cars. John Holt helped with updating the chassis. A lot of racers want to run these cars like a Pro Stocker, but the reality is they are 50-year-old 3200-pound sleds. You have to treat them as such. You have to get back to the fundamentals and let the car work. Get the weight to the back of the car. Pulling a big wheelstand is where it’s at to get the car to run great.”
Four-time Hemi Challenge champion Jimmy Daniels, looking for his fifth straight win, qualified second with an 8.541, lost in round one to Louisiana racer Joe Teuton. Teuton driving the ’68 Cuda of Stephen Hebert, got off the line first and held on with an 8.586 to Daniels’ 8.608.
After the race, runner up Steve Comella said, “We had some kind of ignition issue all weekend. We never made a full run. We struggled all day and we had a number of issues throughout eliminations the included the ignition that kept shutting the car off in high gear. We got lucky to get to the finals. It wasn’t our day, just fighting issues. We never went down the track under full power. We expected more at this race. Yantus made five clean runs. A great qualifying pass and four more on Friday.”
Yantus, in addition to thanking Charlie Westcott, car owner Anthony Rhodes, his dad Stephen, Jr Baum, and Pat Norcia said, “I got to thank my cousin and uncle, Jason and Mike Yantus for helping out along with Tom Gibbs who does all the Racepak stuff so we can go back and see how the car ran and what needs to be adjusted.”