NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Mike Castellana overcomes early-season adversity to clinch Pro Mod title

A crash during an early-season test session turned a season that started with an optimistic semifinal finish in Gainesville suddenly seemed like a lost cause, but somehow, Mike Castellana and his crew dug deep and found a way to rally to win the championship. 
23 Dec 2023
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
2023 NHRA world champion
Mike Castellana

On April 26, 2023, the thought of winning the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series championship was the furthest thing from Mike Castellana’s mind. On that date, Castellana crashed his Western Beef/AAP Camaro during a test session at Virginia Motorsports Park. He wasn’t hurt, but the season that started with an optimistic semifinal finish in Gainesville suddenly seemed like a lost cause.

Somehow, Castellana and his crew, led by 17-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champ Frank Manzo, Top Dragster racer Chris Menapace, longtime Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan, and John Glade, dug deep and found a way to rally.  

Mike Castellana, near lane, kicked off the 2024 season with a respectable semifinal finish in Gainesville. After qualifying No. 4, he beat Billy Banaka and Jerico Balduf before slowing against J.R. Gray.

“It’s an amazing story. I just can’t believe it,” Castellana said. “I have to thank my whole team; those guys are just amazing. Over the years, we’ve won championships in other circuits, but we’ve been chasing this one for a long time. We came so close a few years back, but we got it this year.” 

The accident forced Castellana to miss the four-wide event in Charlotte, but his season was salvaged when old friend and fellow racer Khalid alBalooshi offered the use of one of his Jerry Bickel-built Camaro race cars. 

“We were offered a couple of cars, but that one was available right away, so we could make it to Chicago,” Castellana said. “It needed some work, but my guys improved it every race and got it to where we could win with it.” 

After damaging their car in a testing accident in Richmond, Castellana borrowed a car from Khalid alBalooshi and went to the final round in Bristol, where he dropped a close 5.81 to 5.86 decision against Kris Thorne.

By nature, Pro Mods are finicky race cars, so it took quite a while to get a handle on their new car. Progress became evident when Castellana drove to a runner-up finish in Bristol. Even then, a championship was not even up for discussion. 

While much has been made of the fact that six-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders was ranked No. 14 following the Chicago event, Castellana was in the same boat. He was the No. 13 ranked Pro Mod racer following the Route 66 event, with far fewer races in which to play catch-up. 

“When we missed Charlotte, I pretty much put this year behind us,” said Castellana. “I figured we’d just get a car together and go testing and plan for next year. I didn’t know about the [Road to the Championship playoffs], but I still didn’t think we’d be in it.” 

The inaugural Pro Mod Road to the Championship playoffs began in Brainerd, and by that point, Castellana began to make up for lost time. He moved to fourth place with a quarterfinal finish and then kept his title hopes alive with back-to-back semifinal finishes in Indy and St. Louis.  

Another semifinal finish in St. Louis helped set up a late-season run to the title. Castellana was ranked as low as No. 13 earlier in the season but was comfortably in third place after the St. Louis race.

For the most part, Castellana’s driving was rock-solid in 2023, particularly in Bristol, where he used a pair of holeshots to reach the final. A couple of other times, he wasn’t quite as impressed.  

“I had some good runs but also a couple of red-lights that really bothered me,” Castellana said. “Once in a while, [I] have to do my part, but I was really upset in St. Louis. I red-lighted in the semi’s and would have had a bye in the final because Jason [Scruggs] broke. We came out of there third in points behind Justin [Bond] and Kris Thorne, but those guys are fast and consistent. I just wasn’t sure we could catch them.” 

The season ended in dramatic fashion in Las Vegas at the NHRA Nevada Nationals. Thorne suffered an unfortunate incident when he crashed his car in round one. Castellana then defeated Dimitry Samorukov in round two to claim the lead and watched from the finish line as Bond dropped a close race to Kevin Rivenbark.  

“I didn’t know the points and didn’t even want to think about it,” Castellana said. “I won that [second round] and was ready to head back to the pits, and Amanda [Busick, FOX/NHRA reporter] told me I couldn’t leave. She told me that if Bond lost, I was the champ, and that’s what happened.  

“It’s totally awesome. I had no clue, and I was happy but also kind of upset,” Castellana said. “I was in the same situation years ago. Troy Coughlin had to win the race, and he did it. I hated that feeling of just watching, and thankfully, it turned out differently this time. 

Castellana completed his improbable comeback by winning the final event of the season in Las Vegas. Midway through eliminations, he locked up his first NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series championship. 

“We came into this weekend and just wanted to win the race. I didn’t have any thoughts about the championship, but everything came together. Everybody did an awesome job on this car, and we won the race and the championship. I can’t thank my guys — Frank, Larry, Chris, and John — enough for giving me such a great car. That race was mine to lose.” 

In addition to his crew, Castellana gets support from Western Beef, AAP, Brad Anderson Ent., NGK, and Hoosier Tires. The car he crashed was recently repaired and returned, and there is also a new car on order for some time in the 2024 season as Castellana begins his title defense. 

“We’re going to test this winter and get the old car hopefully back to where it was before,” Castellana said. “It’s not going to be any easier next year, so we need to be ready for it.”

2023 TRACK RECORD 1,148 points

Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals


Betway NHRA Four-Wide Nationals


Gerber Glass and Collision NHRA Route 66 Nationals


NHRA New England Nationals


NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals


Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals


Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals


Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals


NHRA Midwest Nationals


NHRA Nevada Nationals


This article originally appeared in the Year in Review issue of National Dragster.