Stevie "Fast" Jackson is a polarizing figure, and a force to be reckoned with in both radial and Pro Mod racing circles. We sat down with him to talk about his racing philosophy, team, and the future of drag racing.Photo credit: RMS Photography and Auto Imagery
Stevie “Fast” Jackson made a name for himself in radial tire drag racing with his Hemi powered Mustang, “Shadow”, and has parlayed his talent into Pro Mods quite effectively. Catch a post-race interview with Stevie and you’ll see why he’s a fan favorite; he’s a jovial, fasting-talking Georgian with a flair for playfully calling out his opponents. As you’ll see from this interview we got from him just after the PRI show, his enthusiasm for the sport of drag racing pours out of him.
How did you end up racing both radial tire cars and in Pro Mods?
SJ // Well, I’ve been radial tire racing for a long time. The Pro Mod move came in 2012 when Sheikh Khalid Al Thani bought my radial tire car. Billy Stocklin and I worked a deal with KH to refurbish a Pro Nitrous Camaro that he had in Qatar. We did pretty good with it. KH made me an offer that if we went 3.70‘s in Qatar, that I’d have a full ride in 2013 in the States. So we did, we went 3.79 with that deal( The Honey Badger), and Billy and I got our first Pro Mod experience in the US with ARDL Pro Nitrous, where we won the World Championship in 2013 our first year out. We won three races and it all kind of spring-boarded from there. For me it’s been a continuous mix between Radial and Pro Mod since then. I’ll never quit racing one or the other. They wash each others hands and the sponsorship dynamics and demands for both are different. I’ve been talented in radial and its played into Pro Mod a little bit.
Do you have different strategies when racing the different classes?
SJ// Pretty much it’s just humiliate the competition. Crush everybody. Out run them, out drive them, and beat their eyeballs into the ground. That’s pretty much my strategy. The way you run the cars is so much different and the tuning strategies are different, but the goal is to always outrun them enough to where they make mistakes. That’s my bread and butter. Me and Billy work very good as a team. When guys race us, they know we’re gonna go down the race track, they know I’m gonna be pretty decent on the tree. Most of the time when you put that package together it does pretty good.
How do you practice your reaction time?
SJ // I’ve got a full-size practice tree in the shop. Me and Jack Barbee, my main crew guy, normally hit it a hundred times a day, that’s kind of the goal. Before a big race, some days we get it a thousand times. Practice makes perfect. Plus I race a lot. I race probably 40 weekends a year. Between seeing the tree a lot during the season, practicing, and that fact I’ve been racing a long time, I’m pretty decent at it. My favorite part of driving these cars is the mental battle that goes on up there at the starting line. At NHRA this year, a couple guys tried to jack me around. Everybody kinda found out real fast that it’s my favorite thing for you to do, to come mess with me up there. So I enjoy the gamesmanship and it normally causes me to obliterate you on the tree if you get up there and play some games.
Are there a lot a lot of changes you have to make as a driver when moving from one class to the next?
SJ // All my cars used to use a whole bunch of different stuff. We had blowers and nitrous. Now I’ve kinda standardized most of the stuff I drive to a blower, whether that’s a screw blower or Roots blower. I set all of our cars up exactly the same, internally. All the switches are in the same spot, the shifter is in the same spot, they’ve got the same kind of brake pedal. The main part is doing the burnout on my end. You can normally tell if I’ve been running a bunch of radial tire stuff because it’s so easy to do a burnout, you can do a burnout forever, the first burnout I do on a set of big tires won’t be quite as spectacular. I’ll have the motor too low and it will be trying to jerk the tire. When I’ve been driving a bunch of big tire stuff, the first burnout I’ll do with a radial I’ll sing the motor pretty good. It’s a different pedal position, a different amount of brake pressure, but doing burnouts is my favorite part of racing.
Yeah, we saw you light up the tires for about 1,000 feet at Bandimere.
SJ // Jim Whitely said he was going to do a bigger burnout than me. I told them I can’t guarantee I’ll win the race, but I’ll promise you I can win the burnout contest. There ain’t a human being on the planet that can do a longer, smokier, more awesome burnout than me. And I’ll put that in writing.
Does it matter who you line up against?
SJ // It doesn’t matter, I like beating everybody. I’m an equal opportunity ass-crusher. There are certain folks that I enjoy crushing more than others. I enjoy the competition of running against guys like Jonathan Gray, he’s a very good leaver on the starting line, so I like running Jonathan because you know you have to be perfect to win. I enjoy that pressure. Definitely love racing against Ricky Smith and Todd Tutterow and some of the guys that were kind of idols of mine growing up. My favorite guy to race was Troy Coughlin and now I’ve scared him into retirement. I told everyone I was going to win the 2018 championship and like a week later he retired. I told him at PRI that every time somebody asked me a question like this, I was gonna make sure to let everyone know I scared him into retirement.
Is there any kind of mental checklist you go through when you’re staging?
SJ // I do think about it, but most of it is automatic. Really what I’m thinking about inside the car is what the opponent on the other side is doing. I have a very fast staging process so I can do a burnout, backup, and stage faster than anyone else in the world besides maybe Todd Tutterow. So normally when I race everybody it takes them an hour to get to the tree and stuff, so most of the time I’m sitting there jabbering with the guys on the radio about whatever sporting event is happening, or the Super Bowl, or whatever’s going on in the world. You’d be amazed how much we talk about stuff like that on the radio. It keeps me loose. We kind of have a ritual.
Every national event we’ll take a quote from a different movie that somebody has seen that week, and that’s what we’ll talk about out there. The last race in Vegas it was Cars 3. Everybody else on the outside has no idea what we were talking about, they think it’s something serious. I had the top light on and I was like, “I am speed!”. I’m saying that on the radio and the guys are cracking up. The race before that it was American Sniper. I’ve got the top bulb on, I’m getting ready to roll in at St. Louis and Mark keys the radio up and asks me, “How are you feeling there Jackson?” and I said, “Dangerous. I’m feeling dangerous.” We have way more fun out there than most teams. Once the other guy lights the top bulb it’s silence and I’m crushing his head in, but as hard as it is and as much as it costs, it has to be fun. I think a lot of people miss the having fun part of it. Me and my guys, Jack, Mark, Robbie, Tracy, and Billy, we definitely have fun.
To what do you attribute your racing success?
SJ // Hard Work. We’re not intelligent, we don’t have a bunch of money, we just outwork everybody. That’s what I’ve done for the last 20 years of my racing career. Especially in the beginning, we didn’t have trick parts. Now we’ve got a decent budget. We’ve got an awesome team with Bahrain 1 and a tremendous amount of sponsorship help. But it hasn’t always been like that. I learned early on how to do more with less and now that we have a little more it just ends up stretching further.
The main thing we do is just work hard. Ninety percent of racing is won at the shop. When we roll out of the shop, 90 percent of our work is done normally unless we have a problem. We test a lot, we make a lot of laps, and we make a lot of mistakes. When we make those mistakes we learn from them. I tell people all the time, “The book of things that doesn’t work is way bigger than the book of things that does work, but its just as important.”
What did you learn from the Shadow crash in 2016?
SJ // I learned to let off when you’re flying through the air like an airplane. That was the last of our stock firewall, stock car race cars. We were way outta class with that thing. I get way more fan mail about the original Shadow than anything. I love that car. I miss it. With the times we’re running today, it’s just not feasible. I tell people in grudge racing, “If your car has a VIN tag, if it was created to go down the highway, you’re not gonna outrun me. It’s just not gonna happen.” It’s the same way that if I had one of those in the classes we run today. Really, I just learned how to set the cars up a little differently. The biggest enemy that I have as a driver is that I always want it too bad. I crashed that car. I could have lifted sooner probably. I always take responsibility when I wreck one. It’s always a learning process. I’ve been down the racetrack probably six or seven thousand times and there haven’t been a lot of crashes, but every time you wad one up, you take something from it and try to apply that lesson so you don’t do it again.
How long have you been running Diamond Pistons?
SJ // I’ve been running Diamond Pistons way longer than anyone knew I was, since probably 1997 or 1998. They were in the first engine I ever built. They were the only piston I ever used in my orange car, my Procharged Mustang. I’ve been running that for a long time. I like Diamond, number one, because of their customer service. I can call Mike Panetta when something isn’t right and he makes it right. I can call and tell him I appreciate it when they deliver a great product. Everyone on my team, we feed our families by racing. It only takes one part to fail and nobody gets to eat that week. With Diamond you get the same piston every time, and the quality is second to none. We’ve run them in nearly everything we’ve ever had for a long time. It’s been a very good relationship.
What goes on in the pits between runs?
SJ // With 1/8-mile racing and 1/4-mile racing the maintenance level is different. A radial tire car, the engine still gets serviced the same with the exception that we get more runs before we check the bottom end. On a radial run, we’ll pull that thing into the puts, jack it up, and the first thing that happens is we get the cooler on the transmission. The torque converter is the hardest thing to cool down. Two guys are diving all over the engine getting the spark plugs out, valve covers off to go through the valvetrain and make sure no carnage has happened, and we inspect the blower belt. Every three to four runs we pull the pan and go through the rod and main bearings, re-torque the rods, clean everything and look at everything. In NHRA racing it’s every run, or ever two runs, just because you’re going ¼-mile rather than an 1/8th. That thing is over 10,000rpm for a long time. I think that we maintain our stuff better than anybody and that’s part of our success. There’s nobody on our team that’s lazy. If you have a late qualifying session, the easy thing to do is put the car on the trailer, go out and drink beer, and look at it the next day. My guys, they want to take it apart right then, even though I’m tired of being at the track for the day. When you have that kind of “want to” attitude on the team, it pushes me to not only maintain sponsorships so that we can afford to race, but to do my job in the car to not let those guys down, because I know how much they bust their tail to keep that thing running.How do you see the future of Pro Mod racing?
SJ // I think that Pro Mod is the premiere class in drag racing right now. I don’t just say that because I race it, I believe it. I think it’s going to continue to grow at an exponential rate. It’s the last class in a professional style category that is mostly filled with grassroots enthusiasts, meaning most of everyone that runs in Pro Mod either owns a company or has a normal job. It’s not like Pro Stock, we don’t spend millions each year. Because of that, it’s competitive. It’s like a bunch of guys hanging out on the weekend, the way Top Fuel and Pro Stock used to be. Now, they’ve got ten-million-dollar budgets, and 20 crew guys that work on that stuff to make it more automated. I think the future of Pro Mod, as long as we can keep if from growing too fast, is bright and its going to last a long time.
Everybody that knows me knows that I want to race Top Fuel cars, I’ve never not wanted to race fuel cars, but I’d be perfectly fine racing Pro Mod for the next 20 years and calling it a career. I love it. They’ve got suspension, they’re extremely difficult to tune, and they’re hard to drive, they’re not predictable, and that’s part of the reason that they’re fun and that’s part of the reason why fans love watching them. Go to an NHRA national event and watch the stands when Pro Mods roll up. They’re filling up, they’re not getting empty. As long as we have that dynamic, we can continue to get money to run these things and keep an exciting class.