MADISON, Ill. — Tanner Gray has the NHRA buzzing in his rookie season. He’s young, he’s brash and he says what’s on his mind.

In fact, one driver said the 18-year-old Gray was a “cocky little puke.”

He’s also fast — and a winner.

Two weeks ago, Gray won the Countdown playoff opener at his home track in North Carolina for his fifth Pro Stock victory of the season. That gave him the points lead, though he dropped to third behind Bo Butner and Greg Anderson last week in Pennsylvania. The young star has a chance to get back on top Sunday with a victory in the NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“He’s an instant success story,” Anderson said Friday. “When he told the world he’s going to contend for the championship in the first year, a lot of people thought he was crazy. But he’s proved he was right. He’s got a great chance to win it.”

Tanner’s father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny, are racers. In fact, the three of them raced together at the U.S. Nationals in Indiana over the Labor Day weekend.

Gray has been able to back up his talk with his performance on the track.

He was put in a car that was competitive from the beginning in the opener in Pomona, California. Although he qualified ninth and was eliminated in the second round at Pomona, he made a statement.

At Las Vegas, Gray became the youngest champion ever at 17 years, 11 months, 18 days. He also won at Topeka, Kansas; Sonoma, California; Brainerd, Minnesota; and Concord, North Carolina.

“Some people say he was put in a fast car,” said mother Amber. “Well he was put in a fast car but you have to have the ability to leave the starting line. He has proven himself to do that.”

The fact that Gray doesn’t have to answer to any sponsors has a lot to do with what comes out of his mouth. Most drivers choose their words carefully when talking to the media for fear of saying the wrong thing that might cause a team to lose a major sponsor.

But Gray fires away and is not afraid to say what’s on his mind.

“Everybody has their own opinions on things,” he said. “I really don’t care what people think about me. I’m going to go out there and try to drive to the best of my ability and do the best I can.

“That’s really the only reason I’m out here. If we were out here to please everybody, nobody would be any good.”

Amber Gray thinks working with and for family can be problematic in a good way.

“It is a different environment. … But it’s always good to have the family and have the support out here,” she said.

“We are blessed that his grandfather is willing to spend the money to be out here.”

The money is being spent wisely because Gray might earn his team and his family a first national title.

One thing is for sure, Gray won’t be afraid to tell people what he thinks and how he feels. He’ll also let his car do most of the talking.

“I’m a pretty confident guy,” he said. “I’m very competitive. I tell people week in and week out, the only reason I come here is to win. It’s been a lot of fun so far. It’s definitely been a learning experience for me.”

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KEN ROBERTS
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