NHRA’s Camping World Pro Stock Motorcycle category in this year’s Camping World Drag Racing Series belonged to Suzuki and its Hayabusa3, Vance & Hines Motorsports and its new rider, Gaige Herrera. They won 11 of the class’ 15 races and had the championship pretty much sewn up before Gaige put on his helmet to qualify for the final race of the year last weekend. (The team elected to celebrate at the close of the scheduled four qualifying sessions on Saturday evening).
What did they get for their trouble? Well, NHRA’s technical department effected weight gains on the Vance & Hines-supported Suzuki motorcycles, hoping to rein the team in a bit and make the playing field a bit more level. It didn’t work. Gaige Herrera is that good a rider and Andrew Hines has crew chief capabilities in his blood, being the son of Vance & Hines co-founder Byron Hines, the brother of Matt Hines and a six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion whose work at the team’s Brownsburg, IN shop is what secures these wins and championships.
It’s easy to get down on Vance & Hines. After all, they pretty much owned the class when they were running Harley-Davidson motorcycles exclusively – the brand wasn’t available to any other racers – and many other racers disdained that fact. When the company turned to Suzuki motorcycles last season, pitside rumor mongers expected more of the same. That didn’t happen as the team developed their engines and chassis; Matt Smith earned his sixth championship, splitting time between Suzuki and Buell.
In the 2022-2023 off-season, Vance & Hines hired Gaige Herrera, a rider from La Mirada, California, close to In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip. Herrera joined the tour on his own in 2022, debuting at Indy in 2022, but not qualifying for the biggest race of the year. He did qualify for four of six Countdown to the Championship events in 2022 before being swooped up by V&H for this year.
Herrera, coming from a family of racers, had success in XDA and with sanctioning bodies other than NHRA before joining V&H. What did Andrew Hines see in Herrera to make him four-tine champ Eddie Krawiec’s teammate? Poise, he said. Once aboard the Suzuki Hayabusa3, Herrera won his first three races at Gainesville, zMAX Dragway and Route 66 Raceway, then ceded to Steve Johnson’s Suzuki at Bristol, to Hector Arana Jr.’s Buell in Norwalk, before sweeping the Denver, Seattle, Sonoma Western Swing. Matt Smith reminded the world why he’s a six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ at Indy this year and then in Reading with his Suzuki, before Herrera ran the tables to complete the 15-race campaign with 11 wins and 12 No. 1 qualifiers.
While the biggest successes of the year belonged to Vance & Hines Motorsports and to new champion Gaige Herrera, there needs to be more done on the safety aspect of these motorcycles and the gear used by the riders. There were two truly tough accidents during the Countdown to the Championship: one involving Buell rider Angie Smith and the other, in the final race of the year, with Kelly Clontz, whose Suzuki is maintained by Vance & Hines, together with Clontz’s husband Chris.
Both incidents involved falls and Smith’s was the more severe, coming in Texas. Smith broke eight toes and had severe road rash when she went down on a black Matt Smith Racing Buell, which wasn’t the customary pink Buell she’s always ridden. The brake was different and the effort to stop the motorcycle after her run resulted in a violent fall. Incredibly, Smith returned to the track at the next race in Las Vegas to keep herself in the top 10 standings, wearing plastic boots around the pits and one-size larger race boots on the track. Angie Smith qualified her bike, albeit not at full speed, but didn’t partake in eliminations. Two weeks later, she made two qualifying attempts, got in the show and ran two rounds of eliminations that allowed her to remain the top 10 standings. Smith entered the Countdown in fifth; she ended up eighth.
Clontz, whose 2023 season has been her best yet on a Suzuki motorcycle, has been qualifying in the top half of the field for much of the 2023 campaign. She’s been riding well and her motorcycle has run exceptionally well. That is, until she had a similar accident to Smith’s in the third of four qualifying sessions at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip during the season finale, the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals. In what looked like a brake issue, Clontz was separated from her motorcycle after her run, but this time the injuries were nowhere near as severe. Taken to a local hospital, Clontz was treated with a few stitches to a finger on her left hand, bandaged up and returned to the track. She was unable to compete on Sunday despite qualifying fourth, and ended up 10th in the final standings, her best season-long result in this class.
At the end of the final day at the end of the racing year, Gaige Herrera and Vance & Hines were the class of the Pro Stock Motorcycle 2024 class. Herrera owned everyone riding this year, including esteemed teammate Eddie Krawiec, who finished 214 points behind him, still stuck on 49 wins and not likely to be a full-time member of the V&H squad next season, if rumors are to be believed. Arana Jr. was 334 points back, Matt Smith had a 407-point gap and his teammate, Jianna Evaristo, placed her Suzuki fifth, albeit 519 points behind Herrera. Those kinds of points spreads, when the tenth-place finisher in class is a yawing 634 points in arrears, means that everyone else needs to spend the next few months trying to find something, anything to stop Gaige Herrera. That’s a huge ask!