Tanner Gray hopes to end his second — and final — season in the National Hot Rod Association with something he craves: a Pro Stock division championship.
“It’s the only goal I have,” said Gray, who has seven victories this season and a comfortable lead in the points standings during this weekend’s Carolina Nationals at Concord’s zMax Dragway.
But Gray is also thinking beyond this season. It’s also the last time Gray will have this chance, at least as a drag racer. Gray, 19, and a resident of Mooresville, is leaving the NHRA after this season for the K&N East Series, one of NASCAR’s developmental circuits.
In Gray, the NHRA is losing one of its bright young stars, although he doesn’t compete in the sport’s more popular Top Fuel Dragster or Funny Car divisions. But Gray, who was the Pro Stock’s “Road To The Future” award winner in 2017 when he won five times, thinks oval racing provides a better career path for him.
“Circle-track racing is more strategic, I guess you could say,” said Gray. “It’ll be a different challenge for me. Both sports have a lot to do for you mentally. But circle-track racing gets you mentally prepared for longer amounts of time, not just for a short period of time. You have more room for mistakes and you get more seat time for the driver.”
Motorsports - on dirt tracks, ovals or drag racing - is in Gray’s blood. His dad is Pro Stock driver Shane Gray and his grandfather is Johnny Gray, a former Funny Car and Pro Stock driver. His family moved to Mooresville from New Mexico when he was 10. Young Tanner would watch his dad race dirt modified cars around the region. Tanner Gray started racing, and got some experience at tracks like Hickory Motor Speedway.
Tanner attended Lake Norman High before being home-schooled to finish his high school education. In 2017, he signed with the Valvoline/Nova Services team in the NHRA’s Pro Stock division. He was immediately successful and that carried over into this season.
Racing in the Pro Stock division has been enough for Gray. He doesn’t want to move into the Top Fuel or Funny Car divisions.
“Pro stock is not at the top of the sport, but it’s the toughest class, in my opinion,” Gray said. “I just didn’t think there was much of a future in it for me. I don’t have any use to drive a nitro (Top Fuel or Funny) car. Maybe if somebody had come and offered me a big paycheck to do it. But that hasn’t happened.”
And Gray just hasn’t been able to overcome the lure of NASCAR.
“I just think that NASCAR might offer more of a future for young drivers like me, for people who want to make racing a career,” Gray said. “So I kind of wanted to give it a shot.”
Gray got an offer from former NASCAR Cup driver David Gilliland and the K&N Series’ DGR Crosley team, which has won the past three K&N Series West titles and has drivers Tyler Ankrum and Tyler Dippel running 1-2 in the K&N East standings this season.
He couldn’t pass it up.
“They’ve got the best (equipment) and they’re doing great work over there,” said Gray. “They’re obviously very successful and it’ll be great to join them.”
Gray will also likely get a shot to drive in some NASCAR Truck Series and Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) races next season.
“Tanner brings fire and energy to everything he does,” NHRA president Glen Cromwell told the organization’s website. “That passion will serve him well as he makes this transition.”
First, there’s the task at hand this season in his final one in a brief career in the NHRA.
“I’m hoping to win the championship this year,” said Gray. “I want to go out on top and go over to the NASCAR side and be good at that. I think I can be.”