In the three weeks leading up to the 2019 NHRA Heartland Nationals in Topeka, Kansas, Bruno Massel was hardly sleeping. Between Garage Squad and hosting various NHRA events around the country he was using any extra time to ready his COPO Camaro and competition eliminator dragster. At his Illinois shop Bruno was busy swapping motors with help from fellow Garage Squad’ers Cy Kellogg and Ronnie Gregurich, adding all new wiring and an engine management system to his dragster, and going over every last detail in preparation for the races. The 15 hour work days were long and hard but nothing was going to stop him from running the race on the 10 year anniversary of his first NHRA win, which he snagged at the same event.
Coming off a 2018 season that saw a lot of explosions resulting in wasted parts, time, money and effort, Bruno was ready to get back to winning. With the cars prepped in the nick of time they were loaded into the trailer the Thursday before the event. Bruno, his wife Dayna, and their two sons piled into the truck to make the trek from Illinois to Kansas. Just two miles down the road the tow rig suffered wheel bearing issues that brought them to a halt.
“My wife at that point said, “Maybe we should just call it quits and not even go,’” Bruno says. “I told her, ‘We’ve come this far, I have to see it through.’”
It was the first of many hiccups the weekend would bring, but Bruno’s never-give-up attitude would keep him on track, literally and figuratively. He replaced the bearing on the side of the road and the Massels were back on the highway. They pulled into the racegrounds around 1 a.m. early Friday morning, about five hours behind schedule. Raceday was here.
The rollercoaster weekend continued when his COPO Camaro suffered a camshaft problem. Unable to fully address the issue on site the Chevy was only able to make representative passes. Fortunately, Bruno and the comp eliminator dragster were running in sync thanks to his formulaic methods that allowed him to put the bad news behind him.
“The best thing you can do for the car is be a robot and take the emotion out of it,” Bruno says. “In situations where things are going wrong you don’t have to think about [your routine].
As he prepares for each greenlight Bruno goes through the exact same processes over and over. He pulls his gloves on, dons his fire suit and buckles into the car the same way before every race. Some call it superstition, he says, but it’s about finding a method that works and sticking with it, because “if you vary it throws everything out of whack.”
His methods carried him through the weekend as it fell into place following the troubles with the tow rig and the COPO. Until the semifinals, that is.
When lining up the comp eliminator dragster sponsored by blackfirewax.com for the semi-final race the transmission dropped reverse. To get the car on its mark the 1,400 horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine had to be shut off so the dragster could be handguided. Bruno assumed his wife’s heart was skipping beats as she watched crew members push the car into place. She’d be on her feet seconds later because thankfully you don’t need reverse at 200 MPH. Bruno was headed to the final.
“It wasn’t a win without it’s trials and tribulations but I guess that’s what makes it mean something,” Bruno says. “You just can’t give up. Until the guy is going down the racetrack without me, you just can’t give up.”
The two-time NHRA champion was used to making upwards of 200 passes a season. In recent years Bruno has been lucky to make 70. Going into the final on the 10th anniversary of his first win at the same track his normal methods began to fail him. His heart rate was spiking and his breathing was difficult to control.
At the race 10 years ago Bruno believes he was more confident. Leading up to that race he had several near misses and felt as if the 2009 Heartland Nationals were a win waiting to happen. Now he was in position to claim victory at the same event for the third time (2009, 2012), but the lack of wheel time had taken a toll on him. Facing a 45 minute mad dash to fix the tranny and get the car ready for a chance at victory, it seemed all would be for nothing.
If he was going to have any chance of making it down the track first he would have to figure out someway to calm his nerves. When Bruno was a youngster, when his dad was the one behind the wheel of the dragsters, he spent some of his time practicing martial arts. In class he learned a breathing technique used to calm the mind. Though he hadn’t tried it since he was a child this same technique now helped him focus, resulting in his best response time to date as the tree lit up, just 5,000ths from perfect.
Bruno and his dragster launched off the line with 3.4 Gs and hit 206 MPH in 6.4 seconds on its way to victory.
“After a year of missing badly you start second guessing yourself,” Bruno says. “So this race was reaffirming I can still get it done, I can still put a car together, I can still go out and win.”
At every corner and every straightaway Bruno faced a challenge at the Heartland Nationals, but he earned this win with determination and old fashioned hard work. It wasn’t an easy weekend, he says, but “when struggles come you just have to keep fighting and fighting and fighting.”