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It Takes An Army: Derek Ward and Company Fight Through Adversity to Join the WSOPM Champions Club

by Nate Van Wagnen | June 11th, 2024

It's a cool spring day at Benson, North Carolina's GALOT Motorsports Park, home of the season-opening PDRA Summit Racing Equipment East Coast Nationals presented by FuelTech. Derek Ward's 53-foot race transporter is situated near the front of the Pro Boost pits, coincidentally right next to Spencer Hyde, who proudly sports a large "2023 World Series of Pro Mod Champion" decal on the back door of his trailer. 

[Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in DI #188, the World Series of Pro Mod Issue, in May/June of 2024.]

When Ward crossed the Bradenton Motorsports Park finish line first in the $100,000 final round of the 2024 Drag Illustrated World Series of Pro Mod presented by Johnson's Horsepowered Garage and J&A Service on March 3rd, he joined Hyde in the exclusive club of WSOPM champions. Like Hyde one year ago, Ward is now basking in the attention that comes with a win at the WSOPM. Brands are approaching him with offers of free or significantly reduced-price products, fans are making a point to stop by to congratulate him and buy a T-shirt, and photographers are capturing images of his screw-blown '68 Firebird.�

"It’s a good feeling," Ward says of the newfound attention. "I’m not used to it, but I do like it a lot. I’m just a small guy, I love racing, and I’m trying to make a name for myself."

Ward is similar to Hyde in that aspect as well. Hyde showed some signs of brilliance before his WSOPM win, including a regional Pro Mod championship in Canada. Ward won a couple Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Association (NEOPMA) events to secure the 2023 NEOPMA championship driving his screw-blown '69 Camaro. 

A late-season crashed looked to put a stop to his momentum, but working with brothers Jon Salemi of Resolution Racing Services and Jim Salemi of G-Force Race Cars, Ward sourced a '68 Firebird that he brought out at the World Street Nationals at Orlando in November. Off the trailer, the Firebird was as good, if not better than his Camaro. A few weeks later, Ward qualified No. 6 with a 3.623-second effort in the all-3.60-second, 32-car field at the Snowbird Outlaw Nationals at Bradenton. He returned to Bradenton in late January for the U.S. Street Nationals, where he qualified No. 2 in the 32-car field with a 3.604. 

"I give the credit to G-Force because my other car was a G-Force car and I think that was a 2012. This one’s an ’05, though it doesn’t have a lot of runs on it," Ward points out. "I actually took everything from my blue car - the wiring, the wheels, even the parachutes - and put it in this car. The first full pass we went a .62 in Orlando, so it was right there the whole time. It’s a great car."

Also like Hyde, Ward suffered a broken chassis on his way to victory. Fortunately, it happened during a private test session a week and a half before the race. In Hyde's case, his team discovered the broken frame rail after the final qualifying session, leading to an overnight repair project. Ward had much more time, but it was still a mad thrash. Rather than leaving his operation at Bradenton and flying home as planned, Ward drove the truck and trailer back to his home shop in Frederick, Maryland, and took the car apart to prepare it for chassis work at G-Force Race Cars near Buffalo, New York. 

"In between that, I had to go out that night and push snow all night, then Sunday morning I woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning and drove to Buffalo to G-Force and they worked on it all week," Ward says. "Jim worked on it and had to put a new four-link bracket in and pretty much back-halved the one side of the car to get it ready. I picked it up the next Saturday, got home Sunday, put the car together, and left Sunday evening to drive to Florida for the World Series."

Ward's troubles continued in pre-race testing when he wounded the screw-blown, Mike Stawicki Racing-built engine on his second test pass. His team swapped in a new engine and a fresh oil pump and prepared for Friday's first qualifying session, where it seemed another issue arose. 

"We went up there and had no oil pressure, so I cut it off and went back to the pits," Ward says. "Went over everything, started it, had oil pressure, everything was good. Went back up there for Q2 - again, no oil pressure. I was like, 'I’m not running this thing, I’m not blowing it up.' We took it back to the pits, and come to find out the sensors were bad on the car. We had oil pressure. I ended up going and buying a little mechanical gauge and mounting it to my blower and we ran that all weekend for oil pressure."

Ward finished Friday's three qualifying sessions outside the 32-car field. In the fourth session on Saturday, he threw down a 3.660 at 206.32 MPH to get into the show in the No. 24 spot. With the final night session left to run, Ward knew he wasn't safely in the field. He recorded a 3.637 at 206.57 to jump up to the No. 15 spot, just inside the top half of the quickest 32-car Pro Modified field of all time. 

"We were so excited just to qualify," Ward says. "The night before we were close to the bump. We just wanted to qualify to race. We have not not qualified for a race. It was just exciting to get into that race because of how big the stakes were."

Ward drew a fellow reigning series champion, three-time PDRA Pro Nitrous world champion Tommy Franklin, in the opening round. Franklin, who qualified third in his Musi-powered "Jungle Rat" '69 Camaro, left the line just a thousandth ahead of Ward. The two remained side-by-side down the entire eighth-mile track, with Ward finishing first with his 3.70 at 206.26 to Franklin's 3.71 at 204.66. 

"First round was tough. Every round was tough, but I had Franklin first round," Ward says. "We were dead even on the tree and I ran a little bit faster. I got him by nine thousandths at the stripe. It was a really close race."

Ward was the second-quickest driver in the second round with his 3.684 at 205.98 to take out a tire-shaking Dustin Nesloney, the 2022 MWDRS Pro Mod champion. He lined up next to PDRA Pro Nitrous young gun Marcus Butner in the third round, winning on a holeshot with a 3.673 at 206.45 to Butner's 3.667. Ward then drew two-time NHRA Pro Mod world champion Stevie "Fast" Jackson, who won Lights Out 15 in Radial vs. the World in his new screw-blown Motion Raceworks "Shadow 3.0" the weekend before WSOPM. Eager to go 2-0, Jackson went red by .070, while Ward streaked to a 3.639 at 207.85 to move on to the final round. 

"Everybody wanted Stevie to win," Ward says. "He got a little anxious and went red. He said he shook the tires a little bit down the track. We made a good run. Three out of the four cars went a .63 that round. The cars were pretty close together."

The excitement was only just beginning for Ward and his team. They serviced the car and agreed to give final-round opponent Jim Halsey and team some extra time to freshen the nitrous engine in Halsey's '68 Camaro. When the two drivers went to fire their engines for the final round, Ward's car wouldn't start. The Salemis quickly realized it was a starter issue and felt they could quickly fix the issue if race promoter Wes Buck, race director Gavin Carter, and Halsey would allow them to return to the pits. All parties agreed, and a thrash ensued. 

"I’m getting ready to get out of the car. Everybody was like, 'No, stay in it! We’re going.' They were just pushing the car," Ward remembers. "I was like, 'You know my trailer’s parked waaay down there past the finish line, right?' They’re like, 'No, we’re going to Melanie’s.'"

Anyone who could get a hand on Ward's Firebird pushed it back through the staging lanes to Melanie Salemi's pit area, where 2023 DI 30 Under 30 honoree Evan Salemi led the charge to get the car up on jackstands and ready for a new starter. 

"Jim [Salemi] had the starter plate changed and got it ready. I went under there and stuck the starter on, but they did most of the work and got it ready for the car," Ward says. "They were like, 'Just go take a walk and calm down and get ready for the final.' They took care of me. I can’t thank my crew and the whole Salemi crew enough for what they did to get me ready for the final round."

The team got the everything buttoned up and pushed the car back to the staging lanes, where Halsey and his Brandon Switzer-led team were patiently waiting. Both cars fired up and the drivers did their burnouts. Ward followed Halsey into the pre-stage beam. Halsey lit his stage bulb, then Ward flickered and fully lit his. The Christmas tree dropped and Ward was away first with a .047 reaction time to Halsey's .073. The two were together at the 60-foot mark, but Halsey's brand-new '68 Camaro started chattering the tires as it got up on the wheelie bars. Ward crossed the finish line first with a 3.625 at 208.17. Halsey followed with a 4.304 at 126.09. 

"It was an unbelievable feeling," Ward says as he thinks back to the moment his win light came on. "We took off and I didn’t see the orange car at all. It was awesome. I was very happy, screaming in my helmet. My guys were screaming at me through the radio. It was an unbelievable feeling, that’s for sure."

Ward's team, including girlfriend Mindy Miller, Mike Sawyers, Henry George Jr., and Dale Gilbert, went wild back on the starting line. After rounds of high-fives and hugs from the crowd gathered on the starting line and staging lanes, the team made their way down to the top end to collect Ward and the Firebird. The group then drove back through the pits and through the staging lanes to reach the winner's circle, where the celebrations rolled on. 

"It was a hell of a celebration," Ward laughs. "There was champagne and money flying everywhere. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience. It was a good night."

Ward, who bracket raced for years before moving up to Pro Mod several years ago, has learned how to tune and maintain his screw-blown hot rod with guidance from Jon Salemi, a noted blown alcohol specialist.

"I maintenance the car at my house by myself," Ward says. "My girlfriend helps me and a couple of my guys can come sometimes to help me do a couple heavy things, but I do most of it myself at the house. Jon has his car and his other customers. Sometimes it gets to be too much, but at World Series, I gotta give all the credit to him and Evan because they did the eliminations for me. The car hauled ass."

Salemi is back on board with Ward this weekend at the East Coast Nationals. Later in the day, Ward will take on Hyde in a special final-qualifying-session grudge match between the two most recent WSOPM champions. Ward charged to a 3.555 at 211.76 to win the grudge match, set a new Pro Boost national E.T. record, and take the No. 1 qualifier award over a field that saw eight other drivers dip into the 3.50s.

"I give a lot of credit to Jon," Ward continues, also thanking G-Force Race Cars and MSR Performance. "I know how to get the car down the track and tune it, but not to the degree that those two do. They know a lot. One day, I might know as much as them. It’s a lot to drive it, maintenance it, and tune it. Having somebody else that just tunes and can look at the racetrack, it’s a better combination, I think."

Between the 2023 NEOPMA championship, the WSOPM win, and the record performance in Pro Boost at the PDRA season opener, it's clear Ward is making big moves in the increasingly competitive world of Pro Mod. He's proving his mettle as a driver, and with support from people like the Salemis, he has a car that can help him carve out his own chapter in the history books.

"This is all I’ve ever dreamed of since I was a kid," Ward says. "I grew up drag racing and I’ve always wanted to drive a Pro Mod and be one of the top guys in the sport. I would love to take it to the next level, and it looks like we’re on the way to that."

The post It Takes An Army: Derek Ward and Company Fight Through Adversity to Join the WSOPM Champions Club first appeared on Drag Illustrated.