Catching Up with Jeff Lutz at the PRI Show

When two-time HOT ROD Drag Week™ winner Jeff Lutz tells you he lives to race, he’s not throwing out platitudes. We caught up with him in between meet-and-greet sessions at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show and while he looked a bit tired from all the appearances, he perked up regularly when other racers dropped by to talk shop. As a regular on Discovery’s Street Outlaws and a Drag Week heavyweight, Lutz has cultivated a huge following of dedicated racers and gearheads. The fame has humbled Lutz, who laid brick in a previous life while he raced on the side, but he remains as genuine a racer as you’ll ever find. After Lutz announced that his Mad Max ’69 Camaro Pro Mod would go radial racing next year, we chatted about Drag Week, Australia, fame, racing with his son Jeffrey Lutz, and what’s next for Jeff Lutz.

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Roadkill: Tell me a little bit about Drag Week. How do you go a week without sleep?

Jeff Lutz: Oh, man. That was tough.

RK: What’s the secret to that?

Lutz: Just the drive to win it…I knew we could do it. The problems we had were just stupid problems that we’d never seen coming. We did Drag Weekend last year and we aced that, no problem. The problems that we ended up running into caught us just totally off-guard.

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RK: How do you even keep yourself awake while driving those long days?

Lutz: Scott Murray is just…He always makes sure I’m awake. If he sees I’m getting tired, he’ll kick me or we’ll stop and get a drink. It’s just absolutely crazy. It was more the thrill to win the deal. Like I told everybody, I’m not the the guy that when their competition breaks, to just cruise the rest of the way and do what little they’ve got to do to win. We wanted to lower that average and bust that record. That’s what we came in with the mindset to do and that’s why we did it. Looking back now, it was fun.

RK: Scott’s obviously a very important part of what you do.

Lutz: He’s a key part of what I do. I wouldn’t do it without him. Now that Jeffrey [Lutz Jr.] is on his own and he wants to run it, I had to find a key player in the game and Scott’s it. He knows what needs to be done and I think we just bounce off each other and it’s a good deal.

RK: What’s the Jeff Lutz Drag Week Diet like?

Lutz: It’s a lot of Diet Pepsi and those nasty sandwiches you get in those cold packs. That’s about it. [Laughs] A few Twix bars.

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RK: Super glamorous, in other words?

Lutz: Yeah, I bet you there’s cans floating around in that thing still.

RK: I know you were chasing a five-second pass on Drag Week and you didn’t quite make it…

Lut: Well, let me tell you the story on that. Running the car on [Street Outlaws], I was pulling a bunch of timing to run down the street; I forgot to put that timing back in for Drag Week. During Drag Week, I kept turning it up and it would not go and I’m like “What the hell?”

So we got it home from Drag Week and I sent the heads out to get them freshened up. I started looking at data and was like “Oh, my god.” It was right in front of me; I pulled 12 degrees for three seconds to run it on the street. Three weeks ago, we went to Orlando and you’ve seen the results of that: It was a five-second bracket car like you wouldn’t believe. Just…lack of sleep. And you know, when I said “I had the wrong tune in it,” I had the wrong tune in it. It was bad.

RK: Drag Week is really an endurance event.

Lutz: It is and I tell everybody who is like “I can’t wait to do Drag Week!”…you guys are freakin’ crazy. I said that’s the worst thing you’ll ever do with a vehicle. But it is an endurance test. It’s like a combination of you fighting the machine and the machine’s fighting you and you just gotta get it on the road. Going fast is easy; getting it on the road is the hard part.

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RK: Are you bringing [Mad Max] back next year?

Lutz: I think you may see another car next year. A five-second car, yeah. Maybe, that’s…uh…

RK: From scratch?

Lutz: Yeah, it’ll probably be a ‘57 Chevy. I want to get it back to where we need to be. I’ve proven that you can put on a Pro Mod on the street and drive it. That’s started life as a Pro Mod car; it didn’t start life as a pickup truck or a whatever. It’s the real deal.

RK: Let’s get to some basic Roadkill-y questions, then. What was your first car?

Lutz: It was a ‘74 Nova hatchback. My dad bought it and I thought it was cool because it had a floor shifter. He gave it to me and, sadly enough, I never got to drive it. I lost my license as a teenager; I got caught driving without a license and it took me a while to get that back. My life on the street started late because I didn’t get to enjoy all that stuff. The ‘74 Nova was it, but my gearhead days didn’t really start until later.

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RK: Did you grow up around cars?

Lutz: You know, my mom and dad were never into cars. My brother got out of the Marines right after the Gulf War and he bought a ‘70-½ Camaro. That was my first time at the drag strip. He wanted me to drive it. It was a four-speed car and man, I was hooked. After that, it was like balls to the wall. It never stopped.

I live to drag race and we’re making a living at it. We laid brick for years; I owned my brick-and-block crew. When the housing market crashed, it was easier for us to go from bricklaying right into the shop. We went straight from laying brick to opening shop and we never skipped a beat. It was crazy.

I didn’t realize over the years of racing what name we made for ourselves. It’s blown me away. It’s humbling for me, these people standing around for an autograph. They say, “Oh, you’re a superstar.” I’m not. I just do what I love to do.

RK: Jeffrey races with you, obviously. What does it mean to do Drag Week with your son?

Lutz: To do Drag Week with Jeffrey…the year he went 200 mph in the ‘57, the year we won 2014, that was memorable for me because I didn’t go 200 mph until I was 35 years old. He’s 25 and I’ve got him scooting down there at 200 miles an hour. It brought tears to my eyes. I was actually crying on the starting line. Watching him run the car was like watching videos of me driving the car, it was really cool.

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RK: You went to Australia a couple years ago and toured with the ‘57. How’s the racing in Australia?

Lutz: Those guys are insane. They don’t have the car culture there that we do here; they wouldn’t dare put something like this on the street there because they will get arrested. It seems like everything in Australia is half the size; the everyday vehicles are all small and diesel.

But they live through HOT ROD Magazine and through us because when I got over there, I went over there with Doc [from Street Outlaws]. Well, Haltech took Doc over and this millionaire guy brought us over. They asked me “How many shirts do you want to print up?” And I was like 100. I didn’t think anything of it. They said, “Well, Doc is going to print 1,000.” And I said, “That’s fine. We’ll print 1,000.” Doc went home with 500. We sold everything. I sold the hat off my head.

RK: What are the tracks like Down Under?

Lutz: I’ll tell you what. Willowbank was amazing. It was a state-of-the-art track. It was a serious, serious facility. It was really nice. All their tracks are amazing. The guy who brought me over does this thing called Power Cruise. That’s where they do the burnout contests and stuff with Top Fuel motors. God, man. The car that sticks out to me was like this Caprice Classic—they’re all four-door over there—with a Top Fuel motor in it.

RK: That stuff rules! Speaking of Australians, you made some friends on Drag Week…

Lutz: Oh, my god. [Laughs] Harry [Haig] and all them boys, they’re off the hook. There is not one person from Australia where I didn’t find myself saying, “Well, he’s a little weird.” but they’re all just super cool. Everybody there is laidback. They just don’t get excited. It was pretty neat. Experience of a lifetime and that guy who flew me over there, we’re like best friends. He wanted me over there this week just to hang out.

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RK: Harry and all those guys, you met and you’ve met so many people through Drag Week.

Lutz: Millions.

RK: What has that been like for you?

Lutz: Drag Week has made me famous with HOT ROD and 1320 and doing the stuff with Dave and Mike. When we did it, it was like a goof, but it’s amazing how popular we become with that deal. The show is cool and put a face to the name, but HOT ROD put my name out there for everybody.

When I was met Shawn and Chief [from Street Outlaws], they said, “Man, you’re my hero. Every time we’re picking up HOT ROD Magazine, we’re reading about you.” And that’s crazy to hear that and to see that. You can’t walk around [PRI] without getting mobbed by people and it’s just…I’m no different. I’ve been doing this for years and I love to do it. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

RK: One last question: If you could drive—or let’s say have it—what Roadkill car would you take?

Lutz: What’s the one with the red fenders?

RK: General Mayhem.

Lutz: That’s the one. I like what they did with it. We got the Monza back; it’s pretty hilarious to see what they did with it.

RK: Oh, they gave it back to you?

Lutz: Oh yeah. [Freiburger] called me and said, “Do you want this back?” I kind of promised it to Jeffrey. He said, “OK, no problem.” They just shot it at the shop on Monday. But yeah, I would have the General Mayhem, that thing is super cool. Love those guy; they put me where I’m at. I don’t know that they know they did that, but they did.

You might remember us building the first iteration of the Monza with the leaf-blown engine at Jeff Lutz’s shop, Lutz Race Cars, in Pennsylvania. You can watch that episode right here.

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