Austin Prock is back on the racetrack for the first time in almost a year.

The NHRA Top Fuel driver was the series’ 2019 Rookie of the Year but sat out all but the first two events last season because his John Force Racing team owner opted out of the final nine. However, he’s set to make his debut for the 35th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals during Thursday night qualifying.

It will mark Prock’s third appearance at Tulsa, Okla.’s River Spirit Expo Center. He’s driving the No. 19P Hayward Motorsports Spike-Stanton entry.

The straightline racer—whose dragster blasts 334.40 mph in less than four seconds—knows how to turn left and navigate the indoor quarter-mile clay oval. Before he joined his championship Funny Car tuner father Jimmy Prock in NHRA drag racing, the 25-year-old had a circle-track career with 27 victories and 84 top-five finishes.

Prock was the 2012 National Pavement Midget Rookie of the Year and in 2013 was named Bob Tattersall Hard Charger of the Year. By 2014, he had earned the STARS National Pavement Midget championship. The following year, he won a race in his fling with dirt sprint cars.

Never mind the numbers—Prock said he’s just thrilled to return to the cockpit.

“We did practice on Monday. You only get about three laps,” he said, That, he said, gave him a chance to “knock the rust off” and made him realize he’s “got a little bit more to knock off.”

That’s understandable, considering Prock hadn’t sat in any race car since a first-round exit last Feb. 23 at the NHRA’s Arizona Nationals near Phoenix.

Nevertheless, he said he’s “feeling pretty comfortable,” although he anticipated the track being decidedly different Thursday than it was Monday. “Hopefully we can get the car dialed in and we can make some consistent laps,” he said. “It was a great feeling to get my adrenaline going again and just be strapped in something that’s running under me. I hadn’t driven anything (in 323 days).”

Slipping back to a familiar form of racing provided a psychological boost, as well.

“It’s been five years since I ran one of these cars. It was nice to get back to my roots,” Prock said. “Typically, we’re getting ready to go testing [with his dragster] this time of year, so I’ve never really had a chance to come back. With everything that’s going on in the world, it kind of opened up a rare opportunity for me.”

Family friend Brody Hayward, who also fields the cars this week for Frank Flud and Gage Rucker, planted the seed awhile ago.

“We got to talking earlier this year, just kind of B.S.-ing, and just came up with an opportunity and a deal to get me back out here. It’s a really great opportunity. He’s got really great equipment, the best stuff you can buy, just a great race car. So I’ll have a fast piece underneath me. I’ve just got to stay out of trouble and try and make some consistent laps,” Prock said. “I think I’ll be fine. I’m confident and comfortable in the car. I’m just excited to get wheel-to-wheel with someone again.”

He said missing the biggest part of the 2020 season with John Force Racing and seeing crew chief Mike Green leave JFR to tune Top Fuel competitor Justin Ashley has not diminished his love for Top Fuel racing. He said he didn’t consider jumping back into the circle-track scene for good.

“I absolutely love drag racing,” Prock said. “That’s where my heart’s at. But it’s definitely nice to come back (to the Chili Bowl). I love all forms of racing. John Force gave me a great opportunity to be a professional race-car driver, and that’s what I’ve aimed for my entire life. I love drag racing, and I love midget racing, as well. Anytime I can get in any sort of race car, I’m 100-percent game for it.

“Just happy to be out here. This is just an awesome event. It’s something that everybody should come out and see one day,” he said. “It’s incredible how many competitors show up. It’s really a blessing they’re able to pull this off this year with what’s going on. It’s good to be back at a racetrack.”

“I think they’re as clueless as I am.”

As far as drag racing, he said, “We’ll be back here shortly. I’m looking forward to that.”

This trip to Tulsa, where Prock is the lone representative of drag racing among all the entrants, has been a bit of a reunion with friends. One is Gio Scelzi, a longtime pal with connections to drag racing—his dad is Gary Scelzi, a three-time Top Fuel champion who added a Funny Car crown in 2005. Gio Scelzi, of Fresno, Calif., won Wednesday’s first qualifier and finished 10th in the A Feature. His older brother Dominic, an accomplished racer, missed this year’s Chili Bowl, staying home to work for the family business.

“I ran into Gio at the track yesterday, and it was nice to catch up with him. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I’ve run into a lot of people I haven’t seen in years. It’s nice to catch up with everybody.” Gary Scelzi arrived at Tulsa Wednesday night as a spectator, and JR Todd and Brandon Bernstein from the NHRA are there to watch, as well. They aren’t involved on Prock’s crew, though—“I think they’re as clueless as I am,” Prock joked.

Due in Thursday are Prock’s parents, Jimmy and Jill. “I’m looking forward to having the family here and ready to get after it,” he said.

Brother Thomas Prock won’t be able to attend—he’s prepping for next month’s Daytona 500 NASCAR classic as a crew member at Stewart-Haas Racing on Chase Briscoe’s NASCAR Cup car. However, Briscoe is racing this week in his own Spike-SR 11 entry. Prock said, “They’re real busy, gearing up for the season. We all wish he was here. That was a great time, growing up with Thomas, and I really wish I could have him out here. But things just don’t work out like they used to.”

While John Force Racing has been idle, Prock has not. He has been working for bo-mar Industries, a fabrication/engineering company in Indianapolis, in the interim. Company owners Bob and Mark Buchanan are race fans with some of motorsports’ titans as their clients, and Prock said, “They gave me an opportunity to survive, so you’ve got to be thankful for that.”

For years, Prock has been working with his hands in a different kind of creative way. He’s a chef—complete with a degree in culinary arts – with a flair for the slightly exotic, fare such as his Krispy Kreme donut-crusted buffalo chicken.

This week, his rivals from all different forms of racing will get a chance on the track to smell what the Prock is cooking.

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