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Wed, 26 Dec 2001, 08:04 AM

Benza Tabs Wagner as Crew Chief
Courtesy of Rob Geiger

BRIARCLIFF MANOR, N.Y. -- One of the up-and-coming tuning stars in the Pro Stock ranks, 28-year-old crew chief Billy Wagner, resigned his position with Larry Morgan Racing to take a job with fellow New Yorker Bob Benza. Wagner, who has tuned Morgan's Dodge for the last three seasons, replaces Andy Enax as crew chief on Benza's team. Enax will remain with the group as a consultant.

Wagner rose to prominence in the IHRA, spending seven seasons with Pro Stock driver John Montecalvo. Beginning in his teenage years, the Long Island, N.Y., native lifted Montecalvo to contender status with a spate of speed and elapsed time records, including the first 6.5-second lap in Mountain Motor history. Wagner was also named as a finalist for Crew Chief of the Year after helping Montecalvo to his first career win and a third-place finish in the points.

His success in the IHRA caught the attention of Morgan, who brought Wagner over to serve as his crew chief on his NHRA team after the start of the 1999 season. Since then, Wagner has helped Morgan qualify for several races and post respectable mid-teen finishes in the points.

“We were top 10 for several years in a row with the IHRA team," Wagner said. “But I knew if I wanted to do this for a living then I needed to come to the NHRA. Larry gave a young guy a chance and I'm very grateful to him. I feel like I did a good job for him and I certainly enjoyed my time over there.

“We had some success and we had our share of problems. There were a lot of developmental problems we encountered with the new Hemi and we had the new car blues for awhile with the Neon R/T. But we really started to show our potential in the last year and a half. I'm proud of what we accomplished there."

Wagner's expanded role with Morgan, which included driving the transporter, working in the engine shop between races, and making the tuning calls, prompted him to look for a new way to race without spending as much time on the project.

“Guys like Larry are becoming harder to find," Wagner said. “He lives and breathes his race team. If he's not at the track, he's at the shop. Period. I'm a young guy with a new family and I decided that as much as I love racing I wasn't ready to sacrifice all of my time with my family. The situation with Bob came along and it seemed a perfect fit for me."

Benza, a bridge builder by trade, has raced part-time with his wife and three daughters for the last several seasons. His former crew chief, Enax, is his brother-in-law. After buying a state-of-the-art transporter and two new Pontiac Grand Ams (a new model from Don Ness is in the finishing stages of production) he was looking for a way to step his program up without committing an abundance of his time. Wagner was the answer.

“I've felt for some time now that we had a piece of the puzzle missing," Benza said. “He's it. He's an experienced crew chief who can make the right calls. He's extremely confident and loyal and will fit right in to the fabric of this team.

“Our biggest problem is we haven't had someone day-to-day working on this program. Andy and I can't put our full focus on the race team the way Billy can. Plus, his track time and experience will be a big boost to our effort. When you combine his knowledge with the lifetime of experience Andy, Tom [Vollbrecht] and I have, we should be able to have some fun."

The current plan calls for Benza to begin his season in Phoenix. If the group finds success in the first few events they will run all of the remaining races on the schedule. So far, they have committed to running 11 national events. Benza will continue to use Frank Iaconio horsepower. Longtime crewman Vollbrecht will serve as transportation captain.

“One of the most attractive things about this job is the relationship I have with Bob and the commitment I see in him towards his family," Wagner said. “That's very important to me right now. I'll have more time on my hands to spend time at home and at the same time I'll still be able to race with a team that has all the necessary ingredients to be competitive. I'm honored to be working for him."

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