Back when drag racing was really hip – and when it was really hip to say “hip” – kids all over America gathered used Coca-Cola bottles and returned them to stores to collect the deposit. (Customers paid a deposit on each bottle purchased and would get that deposit back when they returned the bottles for recycling.) Hardly a youngster did it to be environmentally conscious or beautify the community – it was all about the money. For Rob Passey, he spent many a summer afternoon in his Salt Lake City neighborhood scrounging for discarded Coke bottles so he could use the change to buy the latest issue of Super Stock magazine.

He was around 10 years old at the time, and lingering over those pages stoked his romance with the sport and kindled the idea that some day he could be like those men on the pages. He could see himself hurtling down a dragstrip at breakneck speed, throwing out a parachute that fluttered in the air with a “so-there” kind of daredevil flair, then stepping from the land rocket ship as cool as an astronaut returning from outer space. And astronauts were kings in those days, when the Space Age was gaining traction. Passey said of those pioneering race-car drivers, “I looked at those guys as a 10-year-old kid, growing up, [and thought], ‘That’s it. I’m going to drive a fuel car.’”

He got a taste of that celebrity life as a grade-schooler somewhere around 1974 or ’75. “I was just a little kid out there at Bonneville Raceway [which became Rocky Mountain Raceway and eventually was plowed under]. And at the end of the night,” he recalled, “Don Garlits was loading his car. And his winch didn’t work to get his car up there. So I got to help him push his car up on the trailer. And I lived off of that for a couple of years. How cool that was, for a 10-year-old. That’s one of your heroes.”    

As Rob Passey grew up, his dreams stayed tucked in his heart. But he had to make a living, and so he parlayed his lawn-mowing experience from his high-school years into his own business with partner Darrin Loertscher – Innovative Excavation / Innovative Companies – and expanded it to include a Property Maintenance Division (among others). And today he heads that facet of the firm, giving clients a complete year-round landscaping maintenance package. Oh – and he has been a Top Fuel racer for decades, as well.

“By hook or crook and hard work and a lot of bricks, I was able to do it. I love it!” Passey said. “People don’t get it, but that, to me, is like playing in the NBA or in the NFL.”

And this weekend, Passey is racing at the NHRA’s Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’s the local high-school hoops star on the same bench with Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley, and Pete Maravich and other Utah Jazz legends. He’s sharing the pits with Steve Torrence and Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta. Actually, Passey is more like John Stockton was with his Jazz teammates – smaller but on the same level as his racing peers.

“We’ve got probably what everybody else has, except we don’t have the latest, greatest, state-of-the-art clutch programs (we still run a five-disc clutch, and a lot of people have a six-disc). And I don’t have a $25,000 supercharger. But other than those two things, I think we’re on par with everybody,” he said. “We know we don’t have the finances to go knock heads, but we can get in the show and then it’s anybody’s guess from there. You never know. We’ll keep beating on this thing and see what happens.”

He said, “We’re still a very small fish in a big pond, but we still enjoy the opportunity to go to these events and line up against the best in the world. I’ve been doing it a long time. And I don’t know how you define success. Everybody defines success a little differently. I’m just grateful to be out here, still having an opportunity to do it.”

Passey, who sticks to regional races for the most part, most recently competed right here at The Strip last fall at the Finals.

“We actually went to two races last year,” Passey said of the pandemic-interrupted 2020 schedule. “[At] the Winternationals, on our only qualifying attempt, we had the throttle hang up on the burnout and found out we had some debris run through the entire fuel system. We decided to play it safe. We decided we had better get the car home and go through it. Be safe. Be smart. Went home and tore everything apart.

“Then we all know what happened in mid-March – COVID happened. I went back to Indy [in] early summer, picked up some parts, and updated our equipment. Bought some motor parts and heads and stepped our program up that way. Got the help of [veteran crew chief] Johnny West at the end of last year. Went to the finals in Las Vegas. Johnny West was helping us out, and with the one-day qualifying format, we ran out of time and on our one and only attempt had a small fuel leak and got shut off,” he said.   

This year his team has some new faces. “Most everybody’s new. They’re mechanical-minded guys and they’re taking to it well,” Passey said, “but they’ve not worked on fuel cars before. That was a little bit of the premise of getting Johnny West up over the [past] weekend – and a couple of other areas he wanted to look at in the car that we’ve been talking about through the offseason. He’s been helping us go through all of our stuff. He wanted to get the crew kind of seasoned, as well. I feel pretty good, so we’ll see how it goes.”

West didn’t urge Passey to get more bells and whistles. Instead, he assessed what Passey has and is convinced that’s plenty sufficient to work with.

“I am very happy with the progress we're all making as a team,” he said. “We’re chomping on the bit to get out there. We made a lot of wholesale changes. The car [which longtime friend Eric Mattinson technically owns] is a little older McKinney car. It has very few laps on it since being front- and back-halved. We have made a ton of changes to the fuel and clutch management system, bigger heads, etc.”

With some more work and essentially a new wave of volunteer crew members to soak up advice from West, Passey is rejuvenated. The Excavator is ready to rock.

“We’re ready to go out and have a little bit of fun and shake the car down,” he said of his plan for this weekend. “We kind of know where we’re at. We think we’ve got a low-3.90, 310-mile-an-hour car, and that’s what we’re aiming for a little bit. Once we prove to ourselves that we can do that on a consistent basis, then we’ll turn it up a little bit.

“Back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, we knew we were back-of-the-pack and didn’t have everything, but boy, by 2010, it was like, ‘Wow – we’re really behind.’ Now we’re closing the gap again a little bit,” Passey said. “Johnny’s a guy who’s going to take care of your equipment. We just don’t want to get over our skis. We’ve done that too many times. The plan for this weekend’s race is to make a 500-foot squirt on the first pass, if the data we collect, looks good, we'll take it farther and progress from there, through the weekend.”

He didn’t expect to make a full pass in Friday’s lone session: “We’re going to go out there and go 500 feet, and if things look good, we’ll go 800 feet. And if things look good, we’ll take it to the stripe. But if we make the first [qualifying attempt] and after 500 feet it doesn’t look good, we’ll line it up the next qualifying session and go 500 again. I don’t want to say we’ll use it as a test session, but at least the first couple of runs will be.”

This won’t be an ordinary drag race – and that definitely is extraordinary for Passey. He said, “I have never competed in the four-wide format. It should be interesting, We have got good help. The plan is to learn from the guidance of Mr. West and others, listen, and stay in our lane. We know we have good components on the car. We just need to learn how to make it run safely to the stripe and progress from there.”

Initially he said he had penciled in Pomoma, at a traditional February Winternationals, and then Phoenix on his 2021 schedule. But the Pomona race was slated for April, and the Phoenix race was shelved altogether. “Now,” he said, “the plan is Las Vegas, Denver, possibly Sonoma, Las Vegas in October, possibly the World Finals. But he’s rethinking that. “For us, looking at the NHRA and how they cut the purse down, that does kind of hurt,” Passey said. “It kind of throws a little kink in our program in that way. We’ll mainly stick to the West Coast. We’d like to do seven or eight races in a good year. And that’s dependent on if we get the car to do what we think it’s going to do – repeat and be safe. We’ve got a fair amount of parts, but that can get eaten up in a hurry if we’re off our game.”

He has some fresh funding this weekend. “We have Salt Depot, a manufacturer of salt de-icing products and water-softener pellets. We also have helping out,” he said.

Passey’s racing roots are entwined with those of the previous generation.  

“My stepfather ran a B/Econo Dragster back in the mid-70s then built a nitro Funny Car around 1980 or so. Don Mattinson has been running Top Fuel around Salt Lake and around since the mid-70s. The late Jack Harris, who had the front-motor nostalgia car, they were partners for a few years, back in the early ’70s, running Top Fuel.  So Eric’s dad, Don Mattinson, he’s been in fuel cars from about ’75 to the present. Around 2010, he said, ‘I’m done.’ Then I went off and did some driving with Terry Totten,” he said.

“I drove for Terry Totten for about seven years while he was getting his program from the infancy stages and moving on. He wanted to have some fun and get his license. At that point, we had our car sitting, and it was for sale. I wasn’t quite done yet,” Passey said. “I wanted to put the band back together again, so Don said, ‘Hey, I’ll tell you what – I will put this car back together and give it to you guys. Eric Mattinson’s the car owner. He and I partnered up and did all the necessary changes on the front half of the car and just updated the computer and the rear end and just a bunch of stuff.  

“So Eric basically owns it all but we’re partners. The nucleus – Don, Scott Stratford, myself, and Eric Mattinson, we’ve all been together since about ’81. Johnny [West] was asking me, ‘OK – how does this all work?’ Basically, Don’s like a father to me. It’s not your normal partnership. Eric works for me in my business. We’re like brothers, anyway. We’ve worked together for 25 years on a daily basis and have raced together since we were young kids. It’s kind of a family,” he said.

Stratford keeps the car at his shop and is the fabricator and clutch specialist, although he and Don Mattinson are stepping back in more of advisory roles these days.  

Passey’s story is one of passion and perseverance, one that’s almost ancestral. But it’s one he thinks still has plenty of chapters to write. His team has suggested that he ought to tell his story more often, but Passey said, “I want to have something tangible to talk about. We’ve got a story, but at the same time, I want to have a plan. We’re getting there.”