As a third-generation racer, Austin Prock had plenty of options when it came to a motorsports career.
Though he started in open wheel and landed under the roof of Tony Stewart Racing, ultimately drag racing won out. In 2017, Prock was recruited for John Force Racing’s Next Generation initiative.
Prock, 25, remains one of the NHRA’s rising stars, but in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the door opened to return to his dirt roots—and the Chili Bowl Nationals.
“It’s where I got my start,” Prock said. “I learned a lot about what I know about how to drive a race car from this. I grew up racing quarter-midgets and just moved up the ranks. Finally landed a spot at Tony Stewart Racing, raced out of there for five years.
“It’s just fun to be back. I love driving these race cars. And this year, with the NHRA pushing the schedule back, it kind of opened up a rare opportunity for me to come back here and run. Typically, we’re gearing up to go testing this week. It just all worked out, and I was able to come back.”
Prock is piloting the No. 19P for Hayward Motorsports. He enjoyed a solid return to Tulsa Expo Raceway during his prelim on Thursday. He finished second in Heat 5, seventh in the third qualifier, then came from sixth to third in the B Feature to transfer to the A. Unfortunately, he spun out early and finished 24th.
“It went really good, considering I haven’t been in one of these cars for five years,” Prock said. “I really didn’t know what to expect going in. I had never worked with the crew chief or the crew members.
“But I do know (car owner) Brodie (Hayward). I love Brodie. I’ve known him for two handfuls of years. He has great equipment and great crew members as well. It’s been a blast working with him.”
For Hayward, the feeling is mutual.
"It's awesome to have a great crossover driver like Austin on the roster," Hayward said.
The grandson of former NHRA driver Tom Prock and son of world champion tuner Jimmy Prock was just happy to be back in a midget. He won a championship and claimed 27 wins and 84 top fives in 139 starts in pavement midgets before transitioning to dirt sprint cars.
Prock picked up a wealth of practical knowledge while working out of Smoke’s shop in Brownsburg, Ind. And his brother Thomas still has an association with Stewart--as a crewman on Chase Briscoe's NASCAR Cup car at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“Everyone at Tony Stewart Racing is top-tier employees,” Prock said. “They taught my brother and I a lot. We did a lot of the work ourselves from building engines to making our own bodies. We did everything we could because we had access to the tools. They taught us how to be great.
“Everything Tony Stewart puts his hands on is successful whether it’s something he drives himself or giving the necessary tools to his teams. It was just great to be surrounded by them and learn their good habits and get rid of our bad ones.”
“I always wanted to be a professional race car driver,” Prock said. “I didn’t care where it took me as long as I was driving a race car. We were moving up the ranks in the circle track land and had just purchased a World of Outlaws sprint car. We were going to go winged-sprint car racing when John Force called.”
Force saw the coming shift in his driver roster as his daughters were moving on with their own lives. That opened the door for Prock—with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He called offered me a developmental driver program, and that was something I just couldn’t turn down,” Prock said. “If John Force calls and wants to give you a shot, you have to do it. I always said if I ever got an opportunity to drive a nitro burning machine, I would definitely take it.
“I was never really much into drag racing, but I did love the nitro categories. It all worked out. It was a great decision that I made. I absolutely fell in love with it and I can’t wait to get back.”
Prock made his debut in a top fuel dragster for John Force Racing in the 2019 Internationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., and scored his first career round win. He finished the season eighth in the standings with one win, advanced to the semi-finals five times and scored top rookie honors.
Not only is Prock satisfied with his path to straight-line racing, it made his mother and girlfriend happy as well.
“They’re fine with me going over 330 miles an hour, but not huge fans of me turning left,” Prock said.
Prock’s last appearance in the Chili Bowl Nationals came in 2016. One year earlier, he won his H Main but didn’t advance out of the G. On Saturday, Prock lines up 10th in E Feature 1. He’ll have to finish in the top five to move through the Alphabet Soup.
“We have a really fast car,” Prock said. “We locked it into Thursday’s show—and that was my goal. But it definitely gets rowdy. Everybody races way over their heads because they want to win this deal so bad. You’ve got to watch out for those big bombs and people cutting you off.
“But that’s what makes it fun. Everyone races as hard as they can because you’re not going to get by any one of these guys if you don’t. I’ll be happy if I can hold my own and we can roll this car back in the trailer in one piece. Obviously, everyone wants to make the feature. We’re going to have some work to do. If I can stay out of trouble and not make too many mistakes, we should be pretty good.”