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On September 30, Geoff Turk and the Blackbird X team made history in NHRA Factory X presented by Holley at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis, Missouri. With 2012 NHRA Pro Stock world champion Allen Johnson behind the wheel of the Blackbird X Dodge Challenger, the team not only took home the win and set the fastest E.T. of the event with a blistering 7.046 at 198 mph during the final round of qualifying, they also became the first team to break the 200-mph barrier in the class, hitting 202.55 on their second qualifying run.
As we noted in our deep dive on the new class, the accomplishment makes the Blackbird X team the first members of the Jesel 200 MPH Club, a distinction that comes with a trophy, jackets, and $10,000 in prize money. But while the team’s performance at the St. Louis event shows that they’re zeroing in on a combination for consistently quick passes, their path into the history books certainly wasn’t preordained.
After enduring some teething pains in developing the Blackbird X Dodge Challenger, Geoff Turk (second from right) and his team have leaped to the front of the Factory X pack, claiming the overall victory in the second of four events slated for 2023. At the same time, Allen Johnson (second from left) became the first member of the Jesel 200 MPH Club, which pays a $10,000 bonus to the first Factory X driver to exceed 200 mph.
The original plan had Turk behind the wheel of the late-model Mopar. An accomplished racer in his own right who found significant success in NMCA Factory Super Cars and Stock Eliminator class racing, Turk also had the dubious honor of being the first racer to crash a Factory X car.
The incident happened during a test in April. Just after completing a pass at more than 190 mph, the Challenger veered violently into the retaining wall, flipping in the process. Miraculously, Turk was able to exit the car on his own, and EMTs initially concluded that he’d managed to escape with nothing more than a concussion. However, a few weeks later Turk noticed something was off and went to the hospital, where he was immediately rushed into the ICU after doctors discovered that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage.
Blackbird X has been to hell and back already, having suffered a brutal wreck during an April, 2023 test session at Beech Bend Raceway. Driver Turk didn't faire much better – he initially appeared to have suffered only minor injuries from the crash, but was later diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage. Undeterred, the team pulled together, rebuilt the car, put Johnson in the driver's seat and made it to the late August competition debut of Factory X.
After successful emergency surgery, Turk’s long-term prognosis was ultimately a case of good news and bad news: He was expected to make a full recovery, but his days of driving 7-second drag cars had come to an end. With the Blackbird Challenger’s rebuild already underway at that point, the team suddenly found themselves with a car, but no driver. “I hadn’t raced in a few years when Geoff rang me up,” Johnson recalls. “But I’m a Dodge guy – it’s all we’ve ever raced. Geoff is a Mopar guy as well, so it made sense for us to team up after he got hurt.”
While the car was rebuilt in record time, considering the severity of the crash and the recent parts sourcing difficulties that have affected the automotive industry, Johnson says that the first Factory X race at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis was a classic case of battling new-car gremlins.
“We didn’t make the first pass in the car until the Tuesday before Indy. It wasn’t quite sorted out when we made those first few runs, and later we found that the car was actually running on seven cylinders. After we got that figured out, the car suddenly had another 200 horsepower that it didn’t have during testing, so of course it blew the tires off in the first round of the event. The car’s been a little bit of a beast to sort out – with the little tire on the car it’s easy to get wheelspin. You really have to manage the power, especially in the first 20 feet of the track. But with every run we’ve made we’ve learned something, and the car keeps getting quicker.”
Turk's team had little time to test before the Indy Nationals following the thrash to rebuild Blackbird X over the summer. As a result, they struggled early on with chassis setup and engine issues, limiting their competitiveness in the first event of the year.
Johnson tells us that the Blackbird team has been doing a lot of testing between events to further sort the car out, and when he was unavailable to drive in the weeks leading up to the St. Louis event, Funny Car driver Alex Laughlin stepped in to help. “He really showed them what not to do with the car. They kept going in the same direction in terms of trying to figure out how to run the car down low, and it just wasn’t working. They couldn’t give it enough power to make good 60ft and 330ft times. And that’s when they decided to make a big chassis change – something that would allow the car to handle more power. And that’s what they accomplished.”
Although a bad MAP sensor made the team’s first pass at St. Louis a wash, things turned around in dramatic fashion for the second round.
“We weren’t necessarily gunning for a 200-mph run in that round, but Geoff does all the tuning and he thought we could do it,” Johnson says. “I remember getting on the mic after we made the run and saying, ‘Now that felt like a race car, guys!’ That chassis adjustment just made everything click. We were able to put more power to the ground.”
To catch up to the rest of the Factory X field, testing, tuning, and development became a major priority for the team. When Johnson wasn't available for test sessions, Funny Car driver Alex Laughlin filled in. His work with the team helped reveal shortcomings in their overall chassis setup, which paved the way for the breakthrough 200 mph pass at World Wide Technology Raceway.
While the car is running better than ever, he notes that there’s likely still some room for further improvement. “With a new class like this, it’s a learning process for everyone. Nobody has ever raced this combination before, so there isn’t an established formula to work from.”
The final race of the NHRA Factory X presented by Holley season will take place at NHRA Nevada Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Oct. 26–29. In the weeks leading up to the event, Johnson says the team will focus on finishing up some odds and ends as they set their sights on the next target. “One of the big goals is also to be the first team in the 6s. I think Geoff would love to see someone put out a bounty for that in the same way that Jesel did for 200 mph. In the meantime I’m sure he’ll be in the engine shop, hunting for more power.”