It started out so simple. Harlow Sammons Racing longtime crew member Steve Hinojos had been on course to attend Universal Technical Institute (UTI) to gain an education of a mechanical nature, but first his dad said he needed to get a job as he finished out the last two years of high school. The request was one that any father would make, but no one could have known quite how dramatically it would change the original plan.
The application process to UTI was already underway, and Hinojos was heading to the local grocery store to apply for a job as a bagger when his dad suggested another option.
“He said, ‘Before you do that, run by this shop,’ ” Hinojos said, recalling that fateful day back in 2000. “My dad told me he knew a guy named Lester who was looking for help, and he said, ‘I might be messing up by sending you there, but I think you’ll like it better than the grocery store.’ So I ran by there and talked to Lester, and then he offered to show me around and introduce me to Chris and everybody. Of course, as soon as we walk into the engine shop I see hot rods everywhere. It was a dream.”
Hinojos started right away as a shop hand, cleaning up and pitching in with whatever task needed to be addressed. He finished out his junior and senior years of high school working at Harlow Sammons in Odessa, Texas, as many hours as he could, and he established a great bond with Chris McGaha, Lester’s son. When the younger McGaha decided to make a move and race in NHRA’s ultra-competitive and complex Competition Eliminator category, he presented a new deal to his friend.
“Chris said, ‘It’s totally up to you, and I’m not forcing you into any kind of decision. But you can go off to school and do your thing, or I can show you everything I know to this point. It could be me and you, or you could go do that deal and maybe get some hands-on time with the 25 other guys there to learn. I’ll leave it up to you.’ So I thought about it long and hard, and my dad said that I should do whatever I wanted to do and he would support me, so I stayed,” said Hinojos. “Chris showed me a few things, we built a lot of motors over the years, and when they started Comp racing, I tagged along.”
When the business side of things ramped up for Harlow Sammons, Hinojos put his efforts where needed, but in 2012 McGaha came to him again. After getting a taste of Pro Stock with Richard Freeman’s Ride and Drive program in 2011, McGaha knew where he was headed – and he wanted to take Hinojos with him.
“He said, ‘I have another life-changing decision for you to make,’ ” said Hinojos. “He told me he needed a full-time clutch guy for Pro Stock, but that I could share it with Lonnie, back at the shop, if I didn’t want to be with him all the time. I told him that if I was in, I would do it full-time because I wasn’t going to do it half-assed. He made the deal with David Nickens, we got the Dodge stuff all together, and we went to Houston for our first test. The rest is history.”
The climb was slow but steady as McGaha raced in 18 events in 2012 and 13 the following season before committing to a full-time program in 2014. That season, the team made the move from Dodge to Chevrolet with a purchase of equipment from former world champion and profoundly fast Mike Edwards. Those assets, combined with their growing experience in the factory hot rod category, gave them a fresh page on which to write their story. The team was like a sponge in 2014, in a constant state of education as their passion began to translate to success with a pair of low qualifier awards and their first top 10 finish.
It got even better in 2015, as McGaha and the Harlow Sammons Racing team, based out of their Southwest Performance & Machine engine shop in Odessa, collected two more No. 1 Qualifier awards before reaching their first final round in impressive fashion at the SpringNationals in Houston – at the very racetrack in their home state of Texas where they had their first test session as an independent team just a handful of years earlier.
Erica Enders won that day in Texas, and she beat McGaha again in his second career final – in Bristol that same season – but success would come fast and furious that summer. Hinojos was standing on the starting line in Sonoma when McGaha, the No. 1 qualifier, finally got the win light in a final-round battle with Jonathan Gray.
“I’ve always played at sports – but I’ve never really been any good at it or been part of a winning team. I was pretty used to last place, and it never really bothered me, but I’ve always had the desire to win. Who doesn’t want to win,” said Hinojos. “So when we got that first trophy there in Sonoma, it was intense. I’ve never been part of a winning team in any way, I’d never won anything before that day, and to finally see it happen…. Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow.”
The very next weekend, the team was No. 1 again and proved the win was no fluke as McGaha defeated Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the Seattle final. They finished the season with a victory in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading to land a career best No. 4 in the Pro Stock championship points.
So far this year, McGaha and the team have established themselves as contenders. Twice this season, Hinojos has watched his friend and driver fly to the final round – at both Phoenix and the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. McGaha and fellow Chevy Camaro campaigner Drew Skillman are the only drivers other than the Summit Racing-backed KB Racing team to have been able to accomplish the feat in the new era of Pro Stock with electronic fuel injection (EFI) and the 10,500 rev limiters in place.
An exciting future stands ahead for the Pro Stock category and for the Harlow Sammons Racing team, but the events of the past will likely always be a motivating factor.
“I’m happy with what we’ve already accomplished, but yeah, it would be great to win more,” said Hinojos. “No matter what, I will never forget that first win. To be part of that was awesome. It was really special.”