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A real Thrill rideTuesday, March 24, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Eddie Hill won the 1988 Supernationals in front of his home-state fans in Houston, and while it certainly wasn't easy, it was very thrilling.

What if Bobby Thompson had run out of baseball bats before clobbering the home run that let "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"? What if Franco Harris' jar of stickum was empty before "The Immaculate Reception"? What if Mike Eruzione was still on the bench looking for tape for his hockey stick instead of on the ice to score the decisive goal against the Soviet Union in Team USA's 1980 Olympics "Miracle On Ice"?

And what if Earl Whiting hadn't been there for Eddie "the Thrill" Hill at the 1988 Supernationals?

Okay, maybe that's stretching things a bit, but if "the likable logger" hadn’t loaned Hill a supercharger to continue at the event, Hill never would have staged one of the all-time great comebacks that was topped by one of the all-time great runs in Top Fuel history.

Two days from now, I'll be winging eastward again, this time on a relatively short hop to Houston, leaving again at 6 a.m. and flying into the pink morning of the rising sun en route to Houston Raceway Park and the O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil, returning to the scene of that historic race for the first time in more than 15 years, and I'm really looking forward to it.

I'll never forget my first trip there, at the end of the 1988 season for that inaugural Supernationals. In Thursday qualifying, Gene Snow assured himself – and the event – a place in NHRA history when he zoomed to a 4.997-second clocking, the first sub-five-second pass at an NHRA event; Hill, of course, had run the sport's first (and only other) four-second pass at an IHRA event in April. But, much like Mike Snively had run the first five-second pass at the 1972 Supernationals yet did not win the event, a similar fate befell "the Snowman." At that 1972 event, Snively ran 5.97 but lost in the semifinals, and Don Moody eventually went quicker with a 5.91 and won the race; in 1988, Hill played the role of Moody and twice bettered Snow's historic time with a 4.990 in the semifinals and then a jaw-dropping 4.936 in the final, in which he beat Joe Amato.

(Above) This was about as far as Hill got on three consecutive runs during qualifying after banging the blower on all three. (Below left) Out of blowers, Hill and crew chief "Fuzzy" Carter put their heads together, and, showing they still had a sense of humor, Carter even tried to get creative with one of Hill's old-school blowers (below right), but the team was rescued by its racing pals.
 

But, as noted earlier, Hill's histrionics almost didn’t happen at all. On three straight qualifying passes, Hill's Super Shops/Pennzoil dragster bombed the supercharger shortly after launching. Total under-power time: nine-tenths of a second. The team, nearing the end of a less-than-successful season, was ready to toss in the towel Saturday and head home without even making the final qualifying pass.

Here's how I summed up the situation in my National DRAGSTER coverage: "Bewitched by a midseason slump, bothered by the remnants of the flu, and bewildered by a series of baffling mechanical maladies, Hill … was out of parts, almost out of money, and completely out of answers."

Hill was a little more succinct but no less poetic in a press release that afternoon announcing the team's reluctant withdrawal from the event: "We got to the end of the money before we got to the end of the season."

The press release had no sooner been distributed at the event when the community that is drag racing rode to the rescue. Teams flocked to the popular pilot's pit with offers of parts and help. Mallory's Brian Clark -- working with Hill's red-bearded teddy bear of a crew chief, the ever-likable and sorely missed "Fuzzy" Carter -- traced the problem to an improperly grounded coil. Whiting loaned the team a supercharger; others offered valves and other spares.

Late in the final qualifying session, facing a 5.281 bump spot, the wily Texan, tuning on the basis of less than a second of data, punched his way into the show with a 5.036 to the thrill of the partial Texas crowd. In the cruelest of twists, it was Whiting whom he bumped from the field.

The .03 had earned the man they call "the Thrill" the No. 3 spot, and he followed with runs of 5.046 and 5.059 in the first two rounds to beat Dennis Forcelle and Darrell Gwynn.

(Above) This semifinal battle of the sport's only four-second racers ended early when Snow's dragster lifted the front tires and smoked the rears. Hill made his first NHRA four-second run but wasn't done yet. (Below) In the final round, Hill broke their backs and put an exclamation point on his win with a jaw-dropping 4.93 after Joe Amato smoked the tires.

Hill and Snow squared off in the semifinals, where Snow's white and black dragster looked more as if it belonged on the launchpad at nearby Johnson Space Center, launching into a spectacular, tire-smoking wheelie that he rode for several hundred feet before shutting down and watching Hill not only win the round but also steal his low e.t. with a 4.990.

Hill's 4.990 was recorded six months to the day from his barrier-breaking Motorplex run, for which Snow also was in the other lane. Weird, huh?

Final-round opponent Amato and crew chief Tim Richards knew they were in trouble. They had run just 5.13 and 5.18 in the first two rounds, and their semifinal 5.07 conquest of Connie Kalitta had been on the verge of smoking the tires. "I don’t know that we can [try to] run a four without smoking the tires," Amato admitted dejectedly before the final, and he was right. Amato's red TRW machine smoked the hoops at the green, and he watched history unfold beyond his wind screen.

Hill's yellow charger went nuclear with a 4.936-second blast at 283.10 to emphatically seal the victory. Even his crew on the starting line seemed stunned when the number popped up on the scoreboard, and Carter whipped his red hat from his head and flung it into the air. The place went nuts.

The run was so good that it was too quick to be backed up by the earlier 4.99, which became the new record, but that didn’t bother Hill and company, who, like all of us, were drenched minutes later by a long overdue storm in the parched region.

"We even broke the drought, didn't we?" joked Hill.

 

Although Hill ended up being the star of the show, plenty of other things made that first Supernationals super. I remember that when the race's name had been announced, a lot of us veteranos were kind of sadly shaking our heads that the hallowed Supernationals name was being recycled. After all, to many of us, it conjured up images of otherworldly performances – such as the first Top Fuel five -- at Ontario Motor Speedway in the early 1970s, and to assume that another event was worthy of sharing that name was a bit of a stretch.

(Above) Gene Snow pulled the chutes at the conclusion of his 4.99-second qualifying pass Thursday; it was the first four-second run at an NHRA national event. (Below) Pro Stock racer Frank Sanchez also earned a slice of history as the first driver in his class to run in the 7.2-second zone.

HRP was brand new then, having opened that summer and holding its first NHRA meet a month earlier, the Division 4 season-ending points meet, so no one quite knew what to expect, but it took us just one outing to discover that the national event had been appropriately named.

Snow's four was the early clue that we might be in for something special. To put it all into context, Snow was at the vanguard of the move toward a high-gear-only driveline that today is standard.

Ever-innovative Jim Head put it out there for everyone to see when he ran direct drive in his Funny Car in Memphis in early May, and Snow had converted his dragster before the next event, the Cajun Nationals. By year's end, the handwriting was on the wall, and nearly everyone n both classes was using the setup. Snow had just missed NHRA's first five at the U.S. Nationals, where he ran 5.006, but didn't miss in Houston.

But Snow was not the only star of qualifying in Houston as New York-based Pro Stock racer Frank Sanchez enjoyed perhaps the finest moment of his short career Friday when he became the first NHRA Pro Stock driver to break into the 7.2-second zone with a 7.294, which was low e.t. and a new national e.t. record for, oh, about a minute or so. One pair later, Bob Glidden powered his new Motorcraft Ford Probe to a 7.277. Glidden's run led what was the quickest Pro Stock field ever assembled, bookended by Frank laconio's 7.374. Glidden went on to win the race and lock up his ninth season championship with two races still to go.

The Funny Cars were part of the performance fray, too, as Ed "the Ace" McCulloch powered the Miller High Life/Larry Minor Olds Cutlass to the quickest run in class history, 5.252. Don Prudhomme, who had just installed a high-gear-only combo in the Skoal Bandit Trans Am, ran low e.t. of eliminations at 5.308, just a few ticks off his standing record of 5.305. Neither of them won, though; that honor went to Mike Dunn, who drove Joe Pisano's Cutlass past Bruce Larson in the final, 5.40 to 5.57. Dunn won the season's next race, too, the Fallnationals in Phoenix.
 

 


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The Larry Reyes-piloted Hawaiian goes airborne at the 1969 Winternationals, then lands on its lid several hundred feet later.
 
A tip o' the Insider cap to reader Stan Beauchemin, who held on to the Sports section from his copy of the Monday, Feb. 3, 1969, edition of my beloved Los Angeles Times that featured a massive four-shot photo sequence on the topic of last Friday's Insider column about Larry Reyes, including his never-forgotten top-end flight in Roland Leong's brand-new Hawaiian Dodge Charger Funny Car.

As you can see below, the sequence, by Times photographer Don Cormier, got really, really, REALLY prominent play on the front page of the Sports section. I had never seen these photos or this angle of the crash.

"I was at this race and watched as the Hawaiian took flight," said Beauchemin. "The next day, the L.A. Times Sports section had this four-picture spread on the front page. I cut it out back then 40 years ago, and as I write this note, I am looking at it like it was yesterday. Some things you just don’t forget no matter how long ago it happened. It has been stored 40 years and looks like it was just printed. I was at the Winternationals as part of a crew on a Funny Car you might remember called the Canuck, owned and driven by my roommate, Dale Armstrong."

If you've ever tried to scan a newspaper, you know that it can be a tricky proposition due to the nature of newspaper photography (newspaper photos are comprised of dozens of tiny dots of various size and spacing that simulate the actual image), so, in the interest of fair reporting, I've cleaned up Stan's scans a bit with a variety of filters in Photoshop to give you a more clear look at it.

 

Just as I was wrapping up this column, I had one of those "Oh, yeah!" moments. I was thinking about how sometimes it seems that our racing only gets the front page when something spectacular of this nature occurs and was wondering quietly to myself when the last time we probably got that much of a front page of the L.A. Times Sports section.

Well, in one of those serendipitous moments of synergy, I knew exactly when it was because it involved two of the popular people featured in this column: Eddie Hill and me. Okay, well, it involved popular racer Hill and a lucky photographer (me) who just happened to have his camera trained on Hill's yellow dragster just four months after his Houston heroics when Hill rolled up to the line for a qualifying pass Friday at the 1989 Winternationals. We all know what happened next – a front wing mount failed, tipping it – and the car – skyward in one of the most spectacular blowovers ever seen.

I wasn't the only photographer to catch it – James Drew was at ground level and made a pretty spiffy poster out of his – nor even had the best photos (I lost the best shot – the car straight-up vertical – as it passed behind a spectator's head), but I was the closest to a darkroom and the first to get it into the hands of the L.A. Times.

The late great Leslie Lovett and I rushed over to our Glendora Bat Cave and, with me standing by anxiously wondering if I'd got the shot, processed the black and white film. "You got it," he smiled to me, and the blood finally rushed back into my face. I got it, and so did the Times.

The photos, accompanied by a story by the late Shav Glick, ran in Saturday morning's edition, and I was totally unprepared to unfold the paper that morning and see the entire center section of the front page filled with my photos. The center photo alone measures more than 9 inches high by more than 7 inches wide.

My Saturday was definitely better than Hill's.

Okay, that's it for today. I'll write from Houston Friday, which, if I'm lucky, will come on the heels of an exciting Thursday detour that will make for some interesting viewing, even if it's not all about drag racing.

As always, thanks for reading and for your contributions to this column.

Posted by: Phil Burgess
Former Hawaiian driver Larry Reyes, left, caught up with his old car owner, Roland Leong, a few years ago. The two made history together in the early 1970s and have remained friends.

As a reporter, one of the great – if by "great" you really mean "sure to open up new leads to chase down that will suck away those last precious hours you had designated for hygiene, sleep, or food" -- things about working on a big story that requires a lot of interviews is that I'm a sucker for a good side story. I mean, there I am, barreling down the Highway to Deadline when up pops the signpost that says, "Oooh, turn here instead, and let's explore this road, too."

It has happened to me – as I'm sure it would to many of you – while leafing through decades-old issues of National DRAGSTER. I unfold the yellowing pages gingerly. There I go, knowing exactly what I'm looking for, trying to block out anything else, and up jumps a juicy headline or interesting photo, and the next thing I know, I'm eyeballs deep in reading and taking mental notes on a completely unrelated subject. It's kind of the same phenomenon that happens when you start clicking those "related videos" links on YouTube and start watching drag racing, and before you know it, you're watching cheese-log rolling from Finland.

It happens, too, in interviews with those secondary players to my story, when I'm in single-minded pursuit of The Quote, that great sound bite that fits perfectly and complements my story. I'm on a tight deadline and pick up the phone and just want what I want and need. I can accomplish this effortlessly when I go to the store; I call it "guy shopping." I know exactly what I want, on which aisle and even which shelf it's located, how much it costs, and how soon I can get home with it. I don't need to compare colors or prices or brands. I'm in, I'm out, and that's it. I am a freaking commando when it comes to shopping.

But put me in a room or on the phone with some connection to our sport, and I go all soft and pliable and all ears. That’s a pretty long preamble to today's column, but I just thought I'd share my curse with you. I know; it's a burden I must carry.

(Above) Larry Reyes' career as a hired gun began behind the wheel of Tom Sturm's A/FX Comet, but he soon caught the eye of Larry Coleman and Bill Taylor and began driving their early Funny Car, The Kingfish (below).

As I mentioned here a few weeks ago when I was already deep into it, I was working on the Roland Leong story to end all Roland Leong stories, the holy grail of Hawaiian lore. I had hoped to track down all of the living members of the I Drove for Roland Club and get their stories of their years (or, in the case of some, months) with drag racing's most storied car owner. I got to talk to a good number of them, among them Larry Reyes, the first Hawaiian Funny Car driver; Leong couldn't remember how he and Reyes first got together, so he gave me Reyes' cell number, and I spent an enjoyable half-hour on the phone with the likable former driver.

Most people know of Reyes only for his Winternationals aerobatics at the 1969 season opener, but Reyes' road to the Hawaiian was a long and colorful one. His first trip down the quarter-mile was at fabled Santa Ana Drags in 1955 in his mother's Volkswagen. By 1964, he had his own Plymouth Super Stocker and earned his first hired ride a year later in Tom Sturm's 427-powered A/FX Mercury Comet. In their travels, he met Larry Coleman and Bill Taylor, partners in a string of Memphis-area transmission-repair shops and owners of Lakeland Drag Strip. Before long, they had hired Reyes into the saddle of the first Kingfish Barracuda. Reyes left his SoCal life and moved to Memphis.

Built by Memphis' John Albright around a tube chassis, the first Kingfish was all steel. Even after the team switched to a fiberglass body, the car retained a stock-appearing wheelbase and fully functional doors. Although Taylor fed the new 426 Chrysler Hemi engine a light 28 percent diet of nitro, that still led to clockings in the eight-second zone at more than 160 mph. By 1967, the team had adapted the flip-top look pioneered by Don Nicholson and others and fitted the shell over a state-of-the-art Logghe chassis, and their reputation began to spread, but when a young well-heeled racer named T.B. Smallwood looked to splurge with his trust fund, Taylor sold him The Kingfish car and the name along with it.

Taylor and Reyes were back the next year with the Logghe-chassised Super Cuda that even on the miserly 55 percent that Taylor tipped out of the can was still a major draw and a hard runner, winning events such as the Capitol Raceway Supercharged King of Kings Invitational, Detroit Dragway's Super Stock Magazine Funny Car Invitational, and the year's most prestigious event, the Super Stock Magazine Nationals at New York National Speedway. They capped their year win a win at the AHRA Drag World Championships in Kansas.

Reyes says he had a bad feeling about the first Hawaiian Funny Car the minute he sat behind the wheel. Note the typical square Logghe cage and the round steering wheel of the era.

About this time, Reyes bought his own Funny Car, a Don Hardy-built Barracuda, and, like the pioneers of old, headed west on his own. Reyes was at the counter in Keith Black's shop in South Gate, Calif., which was always a hub of activity, when he met Leong, who was spending a small fortune to build the first Hawaiian Funny Car.

"I knew who Roland was and had seen him race but had never actually met him," recalled Reyes. "He came up and introduced himself to me. He told me that he was building a Funny Car, which I already knew because everyone wanted to drive it. He said, 'I was wondering if you'd be interested in driving it.' I told him that I had a ride already but I would think about it. He called me a week or two later and asked me if I'd thought about it, and I decided to do it. The Super Cuda had a big history, but I was looking to do something a little different. Plus I had my own Funny Car, but it was creating some friction with Bill's bookings with his car. I had been friends with Bill for a long time, and it caused so much conflict that it wasn't worth losing our friendship over, so that's why I decided to go with Roland. It brought peace to the family. I heard later that Gene Snow had recommended me to Roland, but there were a lot of guys who were good-naturedly mad at me, guys like Steve Bovan who told me they'd turned in résumés to Roland and everything."

With just a few shakedown runs, the team headed to Pomona for the 1969 season-opening Winternationals, but Reyes already has misgivings.


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National DRAGSTER Production Manager Lane Evans shot this iconic photo of Reyes and the Hawaiian taking flight in the lights at Pomona.
 
"As soon as I got into that car, I didn't like it," he told me. "I said to myself, 'What have I done?' The car was too big, and I couldn't see out of it. The braking system didn’t work; it would steer or turn. At Pomona, I had to stage in high gear because I couldn't hold the car on the line in low."

Launching in high gear cost e.t., plus the car was a spooky handler during his qualifying runs, but Reyes nonetheless gutted it out and made the field on the bump spot with an off-pace 8.33; by contrast, Tom McEwen was at the head of the pack with a 7.79. Reyes drew Mike Hamby in round one and had just collected the win light, 8.14, 181.45 to 8.58, 167.91, when things went really bad.

I've read conflicting accounts as to what happened, some blaming tire pressures and others the less-than-aerodynamic body, but the end result was that the car got loose in the lights, and the rear end came around. Reyes had avoided a nearly similar incident in qualifying by quickly deploying the chute, but this time, there was no saving the car. It swapped ends and became airborne and flew an estimated 200 feet through the Pomona shutdown area. It landed on its lid, slid for a moment on its roof, then rolled a half roll and landed on all four wheels and jettisoned the body into the SoCal sky. Reyes was, as Bond would say, shaken but not stirred.

(Above) A few months after taking flight in Pomona, the Hawaiian returned with a mini Charger body. Despite the crude lettering and lack of paint, Reyes and Leong won a trifecta of races in the car's return. (Below) From right, Leong, Reyes, OCIR track manager Mike Jones, Keith Black, and John Mazmanian.
Despite its absence from the national event tour for the remainder of the 1969 season, the new Hawaiian was a hit everywhere it went, thanks to aerial antics like this against "Rapid Ron" Rivero's Frantic Ford at Maple Grove.

Although the body was toast, surprisingly the rest of the car suffered very little damage. Leong and company went back to the drawing board and came up with the mini Charger body, essentially narrowing the body by 6 inches, shortening it by 16, and chopping 2 inches off its height. Leong added front and rear spoilers for additional stability. The car, with crude shoe-polish lettering, made a spectacular return to the quarter-mile in late May.

"We built the mini Charger, and the first weekend out, there were three big races in Southern California, and we decided to run them all," recalled Reyes. "We won at Irwindale for $1,500 the first night and beat the Freight Train for another $1,000 that night, then we went to Orange County and beat everyone again and won $2,500 more. We went to Carlsbad the next day and won there, too. That was a big achievement for anyone, and that money meant a lot to us. Roland told me, 'Man, you saved us,' because we were hurting for money, and I told him, 'No we helped ourselves.' We won a lot of races with that car."

The mini Charger body was not legal for NHRA competition, so the Hawaiian match raced the remainder of the year before returning to the NHRA tour in 1970 with a legal body. Of course, one year after their crash, Leong and Reyes returned to the Winternationals and won the race, then, instead of hauling their car clear across the country, agreed to run a second car for Candies & Hughes at the Gatornationals, which led to the first all-team final, in which Leonard Hughes "beat" Reyes on a holeshot in a race that was decided before the two cars staged. Reyes was in the team's battle-tested '70 car, and Hughes in the new car.

"They asked which one I wanted, and I told them I'd take the old one because I was bad about wrecking new cars," Reyes said, "but in the staging lanes before the final, they told me I had to let the new car win because they had a sponsorship coming if the new car would win. I hated doing it, but I sat on the starting line when he left, then shut it off. The car would have probably run a 6.95.

"Paul Candies to this day tells me that he regrets doing that because that car could have been the first one to run in the sixes that day," said Reyes.

Reyes stayed with Leong until just before the Nationals, when they parted company and Pat Foster took over.

"I just didn’t like traveling," admitted Reyes. "Roland kind of wanted to go a different way, and there were no hard feelings; still aren't. He's been a good friend over the years. I had a good time and learned a lot."

Reyes reunited with Taylor at the end of the 1970 season and competed at the new Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, then opened his 1971 campaign with a one-shot deal behind the wheel of "Big John" Mazmanian's Barracuda at the Winternationals, where they were defeated in round two.

Reyes' pals rallied around him after he was paralyzed in a racing accident in July 1971 and held a benefit race for him at U.S. 30.

Reyes returned to Memphis and reunited with the Coleman-Taylor team on a new Super Cuda. It was in this car, at a match race in Norwalk in June 1971, that Reyes' driving career would come to an abrupt end. The car blew a tire at speed and crashed heavily, paralyzing Reyes. Although Reyes made some physical gains with hard work in rehab, a wheelchair became his lifelong ride. The love and admiration of those in the sport for Reyes was obvious at a benefit race held two months later at U.S. 30 in Gary, Ind., where about $27,000 was raised to assist with Reyes' medical bills.

Although Reyes made a brief return to driving in the early 1990s with a Super Gas Vega equipped with hand controls, his legacy in the sport had already been cemented, his place in history assured.

"I have no regrets about anything that happened," he told me. "I lost a lot of friends in those early days, but I made it through and have had a good life."
 

Posted by: Phil Burgess

Any trip to the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals is a blessing. The event is just so steeped in myth and legend and history that, as in Pomona, Indy, and Englishtown, you literally can feel it when you're there. I've attended more than a dozen Gatornationals, and it always seems that you leave Gainesville Raceway with at least one indelible memory etched into your mental life journal.

Historical firsts such as the breaking of the 260-, 270-, and 300-mph barriers, thrilling final rounds, and the prestige of winning one of NHRA's most fabled events ratchet up the enjoyment for the fans who flock to sunny Florida for the event.

This year certainly was no exception for me. Seeing Bob Tasca III score his first nitro Funny Car win, Bobby Lagana Jr.'s run to the semifinals in Top Fuel, and Hector Arana's Pro Stock Motorcycle victory were truly enjoyable moments.

Not to toot my own horn, but I'm beginning to think that I'm a bit of a good-luck charm for first-time winners. Last year alone, I was in Bristol when Melanie Troxel scored her first victory in Funny Car, in Norwalk when Arana earned the first triumph of his 18-year career, and in Dallas when Greg Stanfield scored his initial Pro Stock victory, so I wasn't surprised to see Tasca score his breakthrough win. On the way to Gainesville Raceway Sunday morning, fellow staffer Kelly Wade had predicted a first-time winner, and even though she was thinking Spencer Massey, I'll give her half credit.

Tasca is no stranger to success at Gainesville Raceway. He still owns the quickest Top Alcohol Funny Car time slip ever printed – yes, quicker than any of Frank Manzo's, about the only claim anyone in that class has over him – based on a sterling 5.451 recorded there in 2007, and the win was even more special to him because he beat his best friend, Tony Pedregon, in the final. Tasca was best man at Pedregon's wedding. Additionally, Tasca is the first Funny Car driver since Frank Hawley in 1982 to score his first win at the Gatornationals.

Bob Tasca III and Chris Cunningham basking in some Gatornationals glory.
Bobby Lagana Jr., smiling all the way to the semifinals.
Happy Hector!

Tasca's crew chief, Chris Cunningham, also is no stranger to success at Gainesville. But it was good to see him win. I remember Chris as young crewmember on Darrell Gwynn's Top Alcohol Dragster when "the Kid" scored a popular Gatornationals win way back in 1984 and was with him for both Top Fuel wins, in 1989 and 1990. Cunningham had won three titles as co-crew chief while a member of the Checker Schuck's Kragen team, but I believe it was his first victory as sole leader of a team.

Lagana warmed my heart for other reasons. I remember the struggles of his father, East Coast Funny Car match racer Bobby Sr., and his sometimes star-crossed Twilight Zone machines of the 1980s. Lagana Jr. also suffered a severe crash a few years ago in a Top Fueler but made a courageous comeback and almost had a career day with the Tire Kingdom dragster, which is tuned by his 24-year-old brother Dom. As Jr. said in his top-end interview after upsetting Antron Brown (and, before that, killing Kelly's prophecy by beating Massey), "I know my dad is proud."

The Gators has a pretty good history for long-shot finalists, from Don Campanello and Kenny Delco, who won their only Pro Stock titles at the 1986 and 1990 events, to surprise runner-ups such as Jim Bucher (Top Fuel, 1973), Roger Lindamood (Funny Car, 1977), Bill Pryor (Top Fuel, 1979), Pat Musi (Pro Stock, 1981), Cory Lee (Funny Car, 1999), Tony Mullen (Pro Stock Motorcycle, 2000), John Smith (Top Fuel, 2003) Bob Gilbertson (Funny Car, 2005), and Erica Enders (Pro Stock, 2006) – so it wasn't a total surprise to see Tasca, Lagana, Rickie Jones (Pro Stock), and Shawn Gann (Pro Stock Motorcycle) in the semifinals.

Arana, however, was the total wild card in the Pro Stock Motorcycle deck. After qualifying No. 2, we knew he had a good bike, but we all shrugged our shoulders after two reaction times in the triple digits. Arana was a notorious red-lighter last season – he caught crimson a whopping nine times – and all bets were on him to foul away the final against Matt Smith, but he didn't. 

As you will read later this week on NHRA.com, NHRA has launched a social-media campaign to reach out to our dedicated fans. It encompasses a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a YouTube channel and should be fully revved up before long.

Some of us have been playing with the new toys for a while on a personal basis and are growing more familiar with the strengths and potential uses. I started a Twitter page right after the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals that has a modest following where interested readers can find out what's going on at my job, at home, or on the road. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, establishing an account allows the user to send short (140-word) tweets to anyone who has subscribed to his or her page. Interested readers can see the newest entries on the Web or, better yet, have them sent to their cell phone (hence the 140-character limit).

Michael Padian from NHRA's Communications Department started an NHRA Twitter account before that and provided updates at the season opener regarding the rain, rescheduling, TV airdates, and other such information. He found it to be a convenient and fast way to communicate the latest updates and made sure it was included in NHRA's social-media plans.

Me and "K-Mac," doing our thing in the media center. Kelly Wade photo!

I took over for him in Gainesville, posting a series of tweets each day, and honed what I wanted to say each day. Qualifying days featured just a session-by-session report on who was leading, but come eliminations day, I developed a pretty good method for posting results. The 140-character limit makes it impossible to list the results of all eight first-round races, so I settled instead for listing the second-round pairings; that way, people would know if their favorite had advanced and, if so, who he or she would face in the next round. It still got pretty tricky, and I found myself abbreviating things like "T-Ped" for Tony Pedregon, "BB" for Brandon Bernstein, and things like "v" for versus or "d." for defeated to stay under the limit. I continued that through the end of the race and got it down pretty good, and, of course, with fewer names each round, it only got easier.

It became just one more thing to do as I covered the race for NHRA.com, which also included an event notebook feature that was updated multiple times throughout the day. Instead of trying to do a play-by-play as we did at the Winternationals, which was very labor intensive and had visitors repeatedly refreshing the page for results from the next pair, I updated it after each round of each class, summarizing what had happened, giving the next round pairings (with lane choice), and talking in a little more depth about the round's highlight. I sprinkled it with funny notes and quotes (at least I hope they were funny) and other items of interest and observation. I've seen this format used on some sports Web sites, branded as "glogs" (game logs). They're not play-by-play but more like pointed observations of good plays or even things happening off the playing surface. We're still experimenting with it, but I think we're homing in on a format. Your feedback, as always, is appreciated.

Say hello to my little friends. Well, some of them.

Between all of that frantic post-round posting, I also was trying to keep up with my own Facebook page. NHRA's Facebook page will be a lot more informative and a good way for NHRA and fans to interact, and while it was under construction I signed up for a personal account and am quite amazed at it all. As the father of a MySpace-crazy daughter, I always looked down on these kinds of sites, but after getting a gander at who was Facebooking, I thought I owed it to myself to check it out.

There's quite a burgeoning NHRA community already, thanks to earlier adopters, and within two weeks, I already had requested or accepted more than 200 "friends," to whom I'm now connected. We can exchange private messages, chat live, or simply let one another know what we're doing at any given moment (a sort of Twitter-like deal, but with a larger word count; some people can be pretty creative; see the example at right). Already I've used it to do mini interviews, both in chat and via private message, and catch up with everyone from old racer friends to old high school friends. You can check me out there; how about those cute baby pictures?

Who are my friends? How about  Full Throttle aces such as Antron Brown, David Baca, Matt Smith, Angie McBride, George and Jackie Bryce, Rod Fuller, Doug Herbert, Hillary Will, Alan Johnson Racing, Allen Johnson, Steve Johnson, Shawn Langdon, Peggy Llewellyn, Spencer Massey, Terry Mc Millen, Chrisman Racing, Mike Ashley Racing, Reggie Showers, Bob Vandergriff Jr., Jon Capps, Fred Collis, Doug Foley, and Mark Whisnant; Sportsman racers such as Tom Conway, Brad Plourd, Kyle Seipel, Luke Shumard, Keeter Ray, Clint Neff, Karen Benkovich Stalba; nostalgia racers such as Mendy Fry, Adam Sorokin, and Jeff Utterback; former sport compact pals Lisa Kubo, Brad Personett, and Angela Proudfoot; and crew chiefs such as Brian Corradi, Rob Flynn, Shane Maloney, Howard Moon, and John Bodie Smith.

Of course, my current co-workers such as DRAGSTER staffers Kevin McKenna, Jeff Morton, Jade Davidson, Jerry Foss, Marc Gewertz, Duke Ritenhouse, Juan Torres, Kelly Wade, and Richard Wong are all there, plus NHRA regulars such as Jeff Foster, Michael Padian, Halie Schmidt, Scott Smith, and Division 4's Craig Hutchinson and Dale House, not to mention more than a dozen former NHRA employees. My friends also include a lot of media and PR types: Cam Evans, Matthew Brammer, Jon Knapp, Julie Mosher, Todd Myers, Susan Pollack, Bob Wilber, Ted Yerzyk, Norman Blake, Francis Butler, Cole Coonce, John Drummond, Phil Elliott , Rob Geiger, Darr Hawthorne, Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, Joe Jackson, Roland Osborne, Matt Polito, Bill Pratt, Roger Richards, Evan Smith, Richard Shute, Dave Kommel, Danny White, and Greg Zyla .

There are tons of former racers, such as Johnny Abbott , Gordie Bonin, Don Ewald, Betty Green, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Virgil Hartman, Arnie Karp, "Jungle Pam" Hardy, and Roland Forsberg; friends and family of racers current and past, such as Windy Arend, Jackee Allen, Lana Chrisman, Teri Ferrell Sewell, Lisa Sewell, Jake Gilbertson, Susan Kopp, Zoe Oswald, Burnell Russell, and too many more to mention.

We're also pretty excited about the new YouTube channel, which will host all sorts of NHRA videos and expose our sport to the legion of users who enjoy watching their pictures move. I'll keep you abreast on the latest developments over there as they happen.

Back to Twitter for a moment. It has been interesting to see some of the NHRA race teams that are early adopters of the tool, including John Force Racing, Kalitta Motorsports, and Terry McMillen.

Force publicist Elon Werner is far and away the most prolific tweeter out there, sharing the latest snippets about the progress of the four Force drivers, links to articles about them, and more. Werner also was instrumental in the Twitter live chat that Ashley Force Hood took part in Friday on the FordRacing Twitter page.

Werner also was behind an interesting stunt at the track. He sent out a tweet to all of his followers (more than 900!) telling them to meet at the Force Racing compound in an hour. An hour later, he sent out another tweet looking for any of the followers who had caught his earlier message on their cell phones. Melissa Waterman shot up her hand first, and, as a reward, the Rhode Island resident, on her first trip to Gainesville Raceway, earned a personal visit with Ashley.

McMillen, who qualified for Top Fuel, tried a similar experiment from his Amalie Oil pit but didn't give any advance warning. He just tweeted that the first two followers to come to his pit would receive a stuffed alligator, the team mascot. Both were gone within a few minutes. "I love it," said McMillen. "It really goes to show you the power of the new technology."


As great as the Gatornationals can be, the event, as many have discovered, can sometimes seem cursed. If you read my top 50 Gatornationals moments last week, you know that the event has had more than its fair share of thrills and spills -- other than the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway in California that hosted the NHRA Supernationals/World Finals for 10 years, I'd guess that Gainesville has consumed more Funny Cars in flames than any other venue – but you also may have heard of the mythical Curse of the Gators, as the National DRAGSTER staff has dubbed the mysterious series of ailments that can affect the human body there.

Gee, Mr. Neff, you don't look so good ...

While I've never personally flambéed a flopper, I have witnessed firsthand this curse, which affects the body in many ways. This year's random victim was Funny Car racer Mike Neff, who battled a "flu-like virus" all weekend. I got my first taste of it in 1984, when I was crewing for Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Jim DePasse, who got gout in his big toe during the event. Gout occurs when urate crystals accumulate around a joint, and the doctors told him that some out-of-staters can come down with it simply by drinking the water. The next year, it was my turn to get socked. I'm still blaming it on the fruit pie I ate that night, but I've never been more sick in my life. I was so sick that I literally could not make it out to the track the next morning, the one and only time that has happened to me in a 27-year career here. Other staffers throughout the years have fallen victim to various maladies. It's kind of odd, and we laugh about it with a cautious gallows humor while silently praying that we're not next. The curse has manifested itself in many ways that most would chalk up to bad luck, but we know better.

Although none of the ND staff was struck down this year, I thought I'd close this column with a little self-deprecating humor about how I was at least a little cursed at the event.

Travel stories can be pretty funny, and people like me who are blessed to be able to travel to exotic destinations as part of their job should never complain, but this stuff was too good to pass up. Individually, this series of traumas was probably nothing, but once they started mounting, I was fearing what was next.

It started innocently enough Thursday. Due to the overall belt-tightening, we're all booked on the most economical flights that can be found, and in this case, that meant a 6 a.m. departure instead of the typical 8 or 9 a.m. takeoff. Getting up at 4 a.m. wouldn't have been so bad had not my grandson decided he didn't want to sleep the night before; I think I copped all of about 90 minutes of sleep before setting off to the airport. I had cut it kind of close already to catch the maximum amount of z's I could and still was looking good until a huge traffic jam materialized (at 4:45 a.m.? Are you kidding me?) where none usually exist. I flipped on the nav system I had purchased just last week and found a detour around the mess on side streets, but it still put me behind schedule.

By the time I arrived at the Park 'N Fly remote parking, I had just enough time to grab my stuff and board the bus, forgetting to take off the sweatshirt I had worn that chilly morning (I had a "real" jacket in my suitcase). It wasn't until the shuttle bus left the lot that I realized I'd be carrying the sweatshirt along. Ten seconds later, I was suddenly thankful that I had NOT removed it as I had placed my cell phone in the pocket that morning. Whew. It's almost impossible to go anywhere without a cell phone these days, let alone a race away from home.

Thinking that the loose pocket was not a safe place for my phone on the bus, I tucked it into the neat phone pocket on the outside of my laptop case, and all was right with the world. I checked my bags and, feeling warm in the terminal, took off the sweatshirt and immediately had a weird feeling; it felt too light. In what is surely an approaching case of CRS, I forgot that I had put my phone in the laptop bag and thought that I must have left it at the airline counter. I doubled back, but no luck. So I assumed it must have fallen out onto the seat in the bus. There was no time to catch a ride back to the shuttle lot nor any hope that I'd even find the same bus, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would, after all, have to go cell-less. Five minutes later, I remembered it was actually in the laptop bag. Doh!

The flight to Houston went fine other than that I was sitting next to bulky-wool-coat lady who not only insisted on hogging the armrest (when she wasn't elbowing me in the ribs) but whose sleeves were super-itchy wool stuff that should be used by secret operatives to interrogate spies; Jack Bauer would love this material. 

Remind me again ... which one is mine?

I scratched my way to Houston and had lunch with my hockey teammate, NHRA Vice President Glen Cromwell, the only other NHRA employee on the flight. We had a three-hour layover in H-town, so we settled down at the gate to work a little. Feeling nature's call, I glanced up and spotted a restroom just across the aisle. I sauntered in and did my business, thinking it quite unusual that the restroom had no urinals. Anyway, I exited the stall and, yep, realized that I was in the ladies room. There was a woman washing her face at the sink, but I don't think she saw me, so I slinked out as quickly as I could, then later saw her (of course, she was on my flight) giving me the evil eye 10 minutes later. Cromwell got up to use the facilities and returned and told me, "Boy, did I almost make a mistake. I almost went into the ladies room!" I feigned surprise and laughed at his folly, not ready to divulge my own error. Don't need that story going round the ol' hockey locker room.

So we arrived in Jacksonville, and I deplaned and started heading for baggage claim and suddenly got that familiar "light" feeling. I somehow had forgotten that cursed sweatshirt on the plane. I doubled back, and, of course, they had already closed the jetway. I finally found a nice worker who fetched me my jacket.

I met up with Kelly, who had been on a different flight, and regaled her with my tale and told her to stay her distance from me; I had no idea what I was capable of. She laughed in that Kelly way, ever the optimist. The next day, as we were preparing to leave the track, she realized what a foolish, foolish girl she was. Somehow, somewhere, I had lost the rental-car keys. Yes, the rental-car keys with the pretty tags that read "Minimum cost for key replacement $250."

We searched high and low, stopped by numerous lost-and-found kiosks and the Gainesville Raceway offices, all in vain. I was just about to call it a loss and go through the hassle of calling the rental-car company when someone remembered that there was a set of keys in Race Control. I ran up the stairs, and, yes, there was a set of keys, but, no, they weren't mine. Crestfallen, I stood there shell-shocked until someone remembered that there was, indeed, another set of lost keys; mercifully, they were mine, and I thought "Now I'll only have to endure a weekend full of jokes instead of a year or more." Did I mention it also was Friday the 13th?

So we headed off to dinner with Senior Editor Kevin McKenna to Carrabba's, a popular Italian restaurant.  It was going to be a little bit of a wait. So we settled into some seats in the lobby with Angelle Sampey and her boyfriend, Seth. Angelle and Seth got their table ahead of us, but they were given a huge table, so they invited the DRAGSTER Trio to join them. I got up and promptly left the rental-car keys on the seat. Fortunately, a Good Samaritan standing nearby saw this and brought them to our table. Kelly confiscated the keys.

We enjoyed a nice dinner with Angelle, who was in Florida to see her old pals but mostly to see her old monkey, Andy, whom she was forced to surrender to a wildlife refuge in Florida. Monkeys just don't make good pets. Angelle entertained us with stories of her trials and tribulations during three championships and told us about her and Seth's new sideline, breeding and selling saltwater fish. Angelle has really high hopes for her racing future, and I think you might be hearing something exciting from her in the not-too-distant future.

Anyway, the rest of the weekend was free from any additional embarrassments. We even managed to get in and out of Gainesville without a speeding ticket, which, if you've ever been there, you know is a major accomplishment. The main thoroughfare between Jacksonville (where we fly to) and Gainesville is Highway 301, and I don't know a more tightly policed stretch of highway. Coming in, we heard word that undercover cars were being deployed this year in addition to state and local troopers. I told Kelly that I wasn't going to go over the speed limit even 1 mph, so sit back and enjoy the long ride.

The highway is dotted with small towns along the way, so one minute you’re required to do no more than 65, then 45, then 25, then 55. The speed limit goes up and down like the stock market, and I can honestly say that I've never seen a group of motorists so staunchly adhere to the speed limits as do the travelers along this road. People have either heard or learned the hard way that you just can't get away very often with speeding there. The towns of Lawtey and Waldo are so notorious that people start slowing down well before they hit the speed-limit signs, and the road to Lawtey is dotted with billboards such as the accompanying, posted as a public-service message. They don't mess around down there.

We flew out on a late flight Monday, and "K-Wade" and I even had built in enough time to shop for souvenirs for our kids at the infamous Florida Souvenir Land shack along 301. Where else can you buy genuine preserved alligator feet for $1.49? And who wouldn't like a foot-long alligator head on his or her desk?

I actually started writing this on the flight from Jacksonville to Houston, where I met up with McKenna, and, amazingly, the plane was still aloft. I finished it and posted it first thing Tuesday; then, in nine days, I'll be heading to Houston for more misadventures!
 

Great Gatornationals moments, part 2Friday, March 13, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Welcome to Part 2 of Phil's Fabulously Fantastic and Famous Florida Favorite Flashback, recounting some of the most memorable moments from Gatornationals history. My first 20, covering the race from 1970 through 1981, can be found in the entry below this one, and this one covers from then until now. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to pick 20 moments from the last 28 years, but that never stopped me before.

Here we go …

21. Austin Coil began to show just how good he really would be with the chance by guiding Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler to the 1982 Gatornationals Funny Car win. It was the first national event win of both Coil's and Hawley's careers and helped springboard the team to the first of two straight season championships.

22. That same year, Raymond Beadle endeared himself to legions of Gainesville fans and ensured a lifelong place in the crash-and-burn archives by barrel-rolling his Blue Max EXP at half-track, then climbing out of the suddenly righted car at the finish line and throwing his arms to the sky and saluting the crowd in a "Ta da!" moment. They're probably still talking about it.

23. The Gatornationals continued its national-record-breaking streak in 1983, when Gary Beck (Top Fuel) and Lee Shepherd (Pro Stock) ran respective record times of 5.44 and 7.64 en route to victory and Hawley won again in Funny Car.

24. 1984 was the year of aero as Joe Amato, in his high-winged Top Fuel dragster, and Kenny Bernstein, in his wind-tunnel-massaged Budweiser King Ford Tempo, both flew past the 260-mph mark on the same day, the only time in drag racing history that drivers in two classes have done that.

25. The 1984 event also marked the first Gatornationals Pro stock victory for Warren Johnson, who would go on to be (and remains) the winningest driver in Gatornationals history. At the wheel of his Hurst Olds, W.J. defeated Frank Iaconio in the final, then won eight more times in the next 16 years. He has not won the event since 2000.

26. Personally, I'll never forget the 1985 race for a couple of reasons. First, just a few weeks earlier, we had lost Pro Stock great Lee Shepherd in a testing accident. I can vividly recall getting a phone call or two at the office from some people who had heard rumors and was in the midst of telling one of the worried callers that we hear these kinds of rumors all the time and not to worry about it because surely we would have heard by then. I had my back to the door of the editorial office, and over my shoulder, I heard Dallas Gardner, then NHRA's president, solemnly say, "It's true." In Gainesville, Shepherd was honored by his peers as they idled up the track from the finish line in a missing-man formation, with an empty spot at the pole position alongside Don Campanello noting Shepherd's absence from that usual position.

27. The other thing that people who attended that race well remember was Bob Gottschalk trying to set the world on fire with his Funny Car … and not in a good way. In early qualifying, his engine dropped a header to the pavement, which scraped along and started a small brush fire in the area beyond the left guardwall at the top end. The NHRA Safety Safari quickly extinguished it, and we all had a little laugh. Gottschalk finished the job on a subsequent pass when his Camaro bombed the blower in the lights and caught fire. He lost control and slid into the woods along the shutdown area, sparking a blaze that burned for hours. The Safety Safari rushed in to extricate him from the car, which was wedged between two trees, then dived into the heart of the forest fire, hoses blasting. For some reason that still escapes me today, I followed them in, camera in hand, and quickly realized that was a mistake and beat it out of there. Those are some brave folks, guys and gals whose jobs don’t end on the racetrack.

28. In the weeks leading up to the 1986 event, Don Garlits had been sending us spy photos of his streamlined Swamp Rat XXX dragster, and it was some piece. With its enclosed front end and cockpit, it looked like it could do 270 mph standing still. "Big Daddy" broke the 270-mph mark in the semifinals of that event, beating former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini with a stunning speed of 272.56 in what was then the quickest side-by-side race in history, 5.40 to 5.49, surpassing the old mark set by Gary Beck and Gary Ormsby (5.39 to 5.54) at the 1983 Golden Gate Nationals. Garlits then beat Dick LaHaie in the final for his last of four Gatornationals wins. The only hitch in Garlits' weekend was the front "tire" setup, which featured generator belts wrapped around aluminum discs. The belts repeatedly exited the "wheels" at the top end of every pass when "Big" dumped the laundry, and they were replaced at the next race by small aircraft tires, which became all the rage for a few years before the teams realized that what they gained in aero advantage was lost on less rollout.

29. After going winless since 1982 and sitting out 1986 due to lack of sponsorship – a fate I never thought would befall him – Don Prudhomme let everyone know that "the Snake" was back as he powered his new Skoal Bandit Pontiac through the 1987 Gatornationals field, breaking a 55-race victory drought, the longest of his career to that point. His most recent victory, at the 1982 Summernationals, had been the 34th of his great career, but during his five-year drought, he watched Bob Glidden zoom ahead of him by a good margin to become the sport's new all-time winningest driver. He set the world back on its axis in Gainesville with a strong but not dominating performance, topping it with a final-round victory against old pal Roland Leong and new Hawaiian driver Johnny West.

30. There were Texas-sized smiles all around Gainesville Raceway following the 1988 event after Eddie Hill, who had begun his racing career three decades earlier then pursued a successful drag boat career before a 1986 return to the quarter-mile, finally won his first NHRA national event. The Texan qualified just No. 9 -- but at a whopping 288.73 mph, the fastest ever -- and drew low qualifier and reigning world champ Dick LaHaie in round one and trounced him, 5.08 to 5.18. In round two, the bright yellow Super Shops/Pennzoil Nuclear Banana ran 5.10, then a stunning 5.066 in the semifinals, which was the quickest pass in the sport's history, a new national record, and a precursor to his barrier-breaking 4.99 in Dallas a month later. Amato broke the driveline in the final against Hill, who steamed to an easy win. Hill's only disappointment was that he didn't back up the 288.73-mph speed for the new national record. That honor went to Frank Bradley, whose 286.71-mph effort in qualifying became the new mark when he went 284.99 mph in the first round.

Okay , dang it. I'm down to my final 10 picks but still have 20 years to go. There's no way I'm going to do this in just 40 picks. This just became a top 50 list. Sorry 'bout that. (I'm such a giver.)

31. In 1989, Darrell Gwynn won his first Gainesville Top Fuel title – he had won in Top Alcohol Dragster there in 1984 – before a partisan home-state crowd. Gwynn still recalls it as one of his greatest victories. In a recent interview with National DRAGSTER, Gwynn recalled, “All of my high school buddies were there, all of my family was there, and it’s one of my greatest memories because there were so many people there. When we got through with all of our winner’s circle shots, I looked out past the barricades at everyone still standing there — and it had to have been hundreds of people — and I knew every one of them.” The win also led to the all-time favorite cover headline of all I have penned throughout the years here. Gwynn, sponsored by Dodge, shared the winner's circle with Darrell Alderman, who won for the first time in the soon-to-be juggernaut Wayne County Dodge. The screaming cover blurb read: "Dodge lets 'em have it with both Darrells." Oh, man, sometimes I kill me.

32. As memorable as the 1989 race was for Gwynn (and that cover blurb for me), I'll never forget it thanks to this picture, which I snapped during qualifying. I was at my usual post back then, manning the top end, when Gene Snow roared off the line by himself. Because "the Snowman" was running solo, I had my camera trained on him when his engine went nuclear in a way I'd never seen. A massive explosion lifted the left cylinder head clear off the block, and the trailing fire gave an incendiary view of the air pattern that trails a Top Fuel wing. A much bigger version of this picture is part of our recently released first installment of NHRA Photo Greats. (Shill alert: Buy it now!)

33. Gwynn won the Gatornationals in 1990 as well, defeating Hill in the final for the second straight year, but it is sadly remembered as "the Kid's" last victory. Less than a month after basking in the glow of another home-state victory, Gwynn's driving career ended after his Coors Extra Gold dragster broke in two during an exhibition run in England, paralyzing him and causing his left arm to be amputated at the elbow.

34. The 1990 event also will be remembered for what happened after Vonnie Mills won the Super Gas title. Final-round opponent Bob Carroll red-lighted in the final, but Mills, who also had won the Gatornationals in 1987, ran it all out anyway. Just past the finish line, though, her joy turned to terror as she lost control of her Chevy Beretta and rolled the car. The car careened off the guardrail on its roof and came to a stop, literally "upside down and on fire" – and you thought that only happened to Funny Cars. Mills was rescued by the NHRA Safety Safari and transported to the local hospital to be treated for burns to her right hand but returned in time to take part in her winner's circle ceremonies.

35. Mark Oswald won Funny Car at the 1991 event, but it took a massive pit-area thrash to reach the winner's circle after an exploding rear tire ripped off a huge chunk of the In-N-Out Burger machine in the semifinals. It wasn't exactly the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" of 1981 Winternationals fame, but chunks of shredded fiberglass were glued back together and sheet metal riveted and taped to the car to get it to the line, where Oswald defeated John Force (who was just beginning his first of 14 title defenses) in the final.

36. After months of buildup, the 300-mph barrier crumbled beneath the wheels of Kenny Bernstein's Dale Armstrong-tuned Budweiser King dragster March 20, 1992, in the first pair of Friday's second qualifying session at a speed of 301.70 mph. Bernstein didn't win the event; that honor went to Hill, who was in the Gators final for the fourth time in five years (and would win the 1993 race to make it five finals in six years). At 56, Hill became the oldest driver to win an NHRA Pro class. He still holds that mark, albeit from 1996, when he won the Mile-High Nationals at age 60 years, four months.

37. More history was made at the silver-anniversary Gatornationals in 1994 when Connie and Scott Kalitta faced off in the first father-son Top Fuel final. Scott, near lane, and crew chief LaHaie were fresh off setting the national record (4.72) in Houston and had grabbed the other half of the national record with a stout 305.18-mph top-end charge during their 4.79 semifinal defeat of Bernstein. Connie and crew chief Tim Richards, meanwhile, could run no better than a trio of 4.89s leading to the final, but Richards didn't become "the General" by marching in place. He twisted all of the knobs in the right direction for the final round, and Connie zoomed to a tenth-better 4.794, which was low e.t. of the meet and easily outdistanced his son's slowing 4.95. The victory was the eighth of Connie's career but his first since 1986.

38. Two years later, Scott Kalitta was part of another memorable final round at the Gatornationals. Against Top Fuel newcomer Blaine Johnson, Kalitta roared off the line in the money round and seemed en route to an easy win after Johnson's mount smoked the tires. Things quickly turned from great to not so great as Kalitta's dragster climbed into the Florida night air and eventually blew over at three-quarter-track. I watched amazed as Kalitta's car slammed back to the track on all four wheels and slid backward to the finish line and looked as if he still might somehow miraculously cross the finish line ahead of Johnson. Johnson, seeing Kalitta's plight, pedaled and, unsure of what Kalitta's skittering mount might do next, tried to squeeze past in the left lane. Johnson did get there first – winning what surely is the slowest Top Fuel final in history, 10.40 to 14.74 – but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Kalitta's mount already had brushed the guardwall as it slid along.

39. The 1997 event also had a final round to remember as the late Al Hofmann won Funny Car in a blaze of glory, literally. Hofmann had just defeated Mark Oswald, who had again made the final with the In-N-Out Burger car, when the crankshaft in Hofmann's Pontiac sheared at the No. 2 main engine, setting off a huge oil-and-fuel-fed fire. The car quickly became a rolling inferno and hit the guardrail hard enough to create a compound fracture of Hofmann's right arm and a hairline break of his right wrist. He was transported by helicopter to nearby Shands Hospital and missed the winner's circle, a dubious historic first in the NHRA annals. His car was even less fortunate, as the accompany photo will attest.

40. Everyone knows that Johnson broke the 200-mph barrier in Pro Stock in Virginia in 1997, but few remember that he came tantalizingly close to doing it in Gainesville first, six weeks earlier. W.J.'s GM Performance Parts Pontiac ran four 199-mph speeds, including an oh-so-close 199.91-mph blast during Friday qualifying.

41. A year later, W.J. ran six 200-mph passes en route to yet another win at the Gators, during which he, Cruz Pedregon, and Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Matt Hines set national records. Amato ran 4.52 in Top Fuel, then the quickest e.t. ever, but didn't win the race; that honor went to Bernstein, who won in Gainesville for the first time since his 1988 win there in Funny Car.

42. Plucky Top Alcohol Dragster racer Keith Stark, who was severely injured in a half-track rollover crash the year before in Gainesville, returned to the scene of the wreck and scored a courageous and inspiring victory at the 1998 event. Stark suffered broken arms and hands and lost his left ring finger at the 1997 event while racing Jay Payne in the second round. Six hand surgeries later, ironically, it was Payne whom Stark beat in the 1998 final to complete his comeback.

43. Warren Johnson won Pro Stock at the Gatornationals for the sixth time in the 1990s, but it was another Johnson, unrelated Allen, who left the crowd talking to itself after crashing his Amoco Dodge Avenger at the top end. A.J. was leading Greg Anderson in round one when he lost the handle and the car got loose and sashayed around its lane before turning turtle and barrel-rolling a dizzying 12 times after the tires first dug in. Although Johnson received only bumps and bruises, the car was totaled.

44. The 32nd edition of the event in 2001 holds a special place in history as it was delayed on race day for more than a month, from March 18 until April 21, due to rain and a poor forecast for the following days. Only one open weekend existed between the two dates, in two weeks, between the Houston and Las Vegas events, but NHRA decided that would create too tough of a travel schedule for the teams and opted for the unusual long delay. When the race resumed, John Force won his seventh – and, to date, his most recent – Gatornationals Funny Car title.

45. The comeback of Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden didn’t last long as the legend unexpectedly announced at the 2002 Gainesville event that he was done. After DNQs in Pomona and Phoenix in Steve Schmidt's Grand Am and a poor pre-Gators test outing, Glidden declared, "I've done a pitiful job of driving. I'm done; that's the name of that tune, and that's it, period." It wasn't, of course, as he came back at the end of the following year for a one-race shot in Larry Morgan's car at the 2003 Finals, where he also failed to qualify. That's it, period. So far.

46. The 2003 race was especially memorable to the Sportsman winners, who actually did their winning farther south, at Orlando Speed World Dragway, after persistent heavy rain in the days leading up to the event flooded much of the Gainesville pit area. Charlie Westcott Jr. (Comp), Monty Bogan (Super Stock), Dave Walther (Stock), Corky Markwart (Super Comp), and Bryan Robinson (Super Gas) hold the distinction of being the only Gatornationals winners not to light the win lamp at Gainesville Raceway.

47. Hines scored the first Pro Stock Motorcycle victory for Harley-Davidson at the 2004 event, where he defeated teammate GT Tonglet in the final round. After checking out the final results from qualifying on NHRA.com, Willie and Bill Davidson, grandsons of the company founder, flew down to the event and were in attendance Sunday for the historic event.

48. The following year was pretty good to Hines, too, as he rode his Screamin' Eagle V-Rod to the class' first six-second pass, a 6.991 in Friday's second qualifying session. He earned $10,000 as the first member of the Mickey Thompson Six-Second Pro Stock Bike Club. Hines didn't win the event, though; that honor went to Steve Johnson, who was able to celebrate this win, the second of his career. Johnson's first was the year before in Madison, but under the pall of the death of Darrell Russell, when no one felt much like celebrating.

49. In 2006, Dave Grubnic became the third Kalitta Motorsports driver to win the Gatornationals, following on the heels of team patriarch Connie Kalitta (1994) and teammate Doug Kalitta (2000, 2005). Ironically, the team's most successful driver, two-time world champ Scott, never won the event though, as noted above, was a two-time runner-up under some pretty extraordinary circumstances.

50. Anderson led a Pro Stock performance parade in 2007 by winning and resetting the national record with a 6.536 that stood as the class' best run and the national record for almost two years until Anderson himself broke it this year in Pomona with a 6.528. It remains the second-quickest pass in class history. Also at that event, Anderson became the first driver to eclipse 210 mph with a 211.20, but teammate Jason Line left with the speed record at 211.69. Angelle Sampey also set the Pro Stock Motorcycle record at 6.911 to lead the quickest field in history but didn't win the race as Karen Stoffer became the first No. 16 qualifier to win from the field's final spot in almost four years.

So there you have it … 50 great moments from 40 years of the Gatornationals. They may not be your 50 most memorable, but you can’t argue that they aren't all memorable in their own right. Thanks for following. Now on with this year's race, and the start of my next Gatornationals Top 50 list!
 

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