Dave Connolly is back in the saddle again — and the Elyria driver will be looking to make up for lost time in the NHRA’s Pro Stock series.
Cagnazzi Racing, the group Connolly has worked for the past decade, announced a merger with Gray Motorsports in October, with the plans being to run three Pro Stock teams for Connolly, Shane Gray and Erica Enders-Stevens — the Cagnazzi driver Connolly served as crew chief for the last two years.
Enders-Stevens decided to sign with Elite Motorsports in November, which turned the merger into a two-car enterprise.
“I’m jacked up, no doubt,” Connolly said Tuesday night.
“I haven’t raced full-time since 2008. I managed to keep my feet wet, picking up a few one-race deals here and there. The potential (to come back) was always there, but it wasn’t until Shane said, ‘We are going to run two cars next year and you’re going to be driving one of them,’ that I knew it was going to happen.”
Connolly said the merger between Cagnazzi Racing and Gray Motorsports made sense economically.
“It has become difficult to find funding and sponsorships in this economy,” he said. “(Gray) was running a single-car team, same with Victor (Cagnazzi). It’s tough to keep spending X amounts of dollars to run a single-car team, so merging the two groups cuts that expense in half.”
The new group will operate under the Gray Motorsports banner, engine development will take place at Gray Motorsports’ facility in Denver, N.C., and chassis development will take place at Cagnazzi’s facility in nearby Mooresville, according to the merger story on NHRA.com.
Connolly’s former crew chief, Tommy Utt, and Gray’s crew chief, Justin Elkes, will serve as co-crew chiefs on both cars.
“The teams have been gelling very well,” Connolly said. “We’ve already run a testing session down in Florida. Everyone is pretty excited to see what these two cars can do.”
Connolly has stayed busy since losing his full-time driving job, racing in several sportsman series while also serving as Enders’ crew chief. It’s in the sportsman ranks where Connolly first met Gray.
“In 2007 and 2008, we raced against each other in the Comp(etition) Eliminator (category),” Connolly said. “We’ve also raced against each other quite a bit in Pro Stock. So we’ve known each other, and respected each other, for years.”
Connolly said working with another Pro Stock driver — and potential competitor — can produce more positives than negatives.
“I did the same thing back in 2007 with Jeg (Coughlin),” Connolly said. “It gives you someone else to compare yourself to, someone to gauge your progress against.
“Sure, we’re going to try and beat each other. That’s only natural — you want to beat everyone you stage against — but at the end of the day, we want myself and Shane to be in the final of every event.”
While Connolly expects to bring a lot to the team with his driving skills — he has won 26 national events and been to 41 final rounds — he also knows serving the past two seasons as a crew chief will broaden his skill set in the garage.
“Crew-chiefing is a lot tougher than driving a car — trust me,” Connolly said. “But I think that experience is going to help me down the road … I now feel I know the car from front bumper to back bumper. I think I’ll be able to give the guys a more in-depth vision of the car (after runs).”
One of Connolly’s career victories took place during the inaugural Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk in 2007, and he is eager to return to the event set for July 3-6.
“It works out perfectly because we are in Chicago the week before, so I’ll have a few days between the events to hang out with friends and family. It’s kind of like a short vacation,” Connolly said.
“I had a lot of fun last year just racing Stock Eliminator (after Enders’ financing fell through and she was pulled from the field). I never drove to the pro side (pit area) once all weekend — I just hung out with my family and friends in the Sportsman pits. But I was still standing on the fence at the quarter mile every time the Pro Stock cars made a pass.”
He’s happy to have a closer view in 2014.