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50 Memorable Moments in Gatornationals history

The Gatornationals, the third oldest event on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, has a deep and rich heritage that ensures its place in the history books and in the hearts and minds of racers and fans alike. Here's a look back at 50 Memorable Moments from the event’s colorful history.
15 Mar 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

The Gatornationals, the third oldest event on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, has a deep and rich heritage that ensures its place in the history books and in the hearts and minds of racers and fans alike. Added to the national event schedule in 1970 as part of NHRA’s expansive “Super Season” as the East Coast brother of the season-opening Winternationals in California, the Gatornationals quickly established itself as a premiere event with record-breaking performances, packed grandstands, and ever-growing lore.

Below is a look back at 50 Memorable Moments from the event’s colorful history. You can find a complete pictorial history of all of these moments in the new issue of National Dragster.

1970: The famed Candies & Hughes operation had both cars in what was the first-all-team Funny Car final in NHRA history. Leonard Hughes, near lane, was driving the team’s new Barracuda while Larry Reyes, fresh off his Winternationals win in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, saddled up in the C&H team’s ’69 car, which was being tuned by Leong. In what was later revealed to be an orchestrated moment, Hughes defeated Reyes on a holeshot, 7.29 to a shutoff 7.12 that likely would have been the class’ first six-second pass.

1970:  Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins bagged the first Gatornationals Pro Stock title with his ’68 Camaro on a 9.90 to 9.86 holeshot tally against Ronnie Sox. All three Pro winners, including Top Fuel champ Dave Chenevert and Funny Car winner Leonard Hughes won their final rounds on holeshots.

1972: Florida legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits finally scored the first of four Gatornationals Top Fuel titles in typical “Big” fashion: He ran 6.15, the quickest time in class history, earlier in the day, then ran 6.17, 243.90 (the fastest speed ever) in the final to beat the 6.24, 238.09 of national record holder Clayton Harris in what was then the quickest and fastest side-by-side race in history.

1973: Butch Maas rode out a nasty fire in Mickey Thompson’s sleek Grand Am Funny Car, and the smoldering wreck came to a dramatic stop right next to the track’s “The End” sign. Maas spent two months in the burn center near Gainesville before being released to recover at home, then resumed his career.

1974: Wally Booth scored the first Pro Stock victory for car manufacturer AMC after his Hornet stung the field, including final-round opponent Jack Roush (yes, that Jack Roush) and the new Gapp & Roush Mustang. Teammate Wayne Gapp wheeled their trusty old Pinto to the No. 1 qualifier spot but lost early to Bob Glidden. It was the final-round appearance of Roush’s drag racing career, but Booth would win four more times in his AMC, including an all-Hornet Pro Stock final-round victory over Dave Kanners at the 1976 World Finals.

1975: Legendary Top Fuel pilot Chris Karamesines set off an inadvertent treasure hunt when he crashed his dragster and scattered parts after losing control during a qualifying pass. Karamesines’ show-quality dragster was covered in 24 karat gold plating, including the rear wheels, wing struts, spill plates, injectors, valve covers, roll cage, steering wheel, hand brake, and windscreen all the way down to the nuts and bolts, and even the Dzus fasteners had been plated in pure gold. 

1975: Don Prudhomme won what is arguably one of weirdest Funny Car finals in history. “The Snake” was shut off on the line for an oil leak, which appeared to give Tom Prock — father of Robert Hight crew chief Jimmy — a solo to what would have been the only win of his career. Unfortunately for Prock, his final dry hop to the starting line broke the rear end. Officials gave both racers 45 minutes to make repairs, which for “the Snake” meant repairing the oil-pan gasket, and Prock and company couldn’t change out the rear end in time. Prudhomme soloed to what was his second of six wins (in eight events) that season.

1976: James Warren, who ruled the West Coast Top Fuel scene for decades, only won two national events in his fabled Top Fuel career, the second of which was, oddly enough, at the Gators. The Ridge Route Terrors, whose only other Wally was earned in a front-engine car at the 1968 Winternationals, were runner-up to Frank Bradley at the 1976 Winters, then beat Chevy stalwart Bucher in the final in Gainesville.

1976: With his Funny Car victory — his third straight at the Gatornationals — Don Prudhomme became the winningest driver in the sport’s history with 16 wins, breaking his tie with Garlits. Prudhomme won seven of the eight events that bicentennial year, losing only in the final round in Indy to Gary Burgin. Prudhomme remained the sport’s winningest driver before being surpassed by Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden in late 1980.

1977: “240 Gordie” Bonin began one of the oddest courtships with Gatornationals glory when he drove his Bubble Up Trans Am to low e.t. and top speed (6.19, 238.72), then won the race every other year through 1981. Bonin singled for the 1977 title after Roger Lindamood was unable to return after destroying the engine in his Color Me Gone entry in beating red-lighting Prudhomme in the semifinals. The final-four loss for Prudhomme, who battled the flu all weekend, was his first non-final-round appearance in 13 straight national events spanning three seasons.

1978: Garlits won his second straight and third Gatornationals title in one of his few cars that was not black. His Donovan-powered digger, painted blue and white, escaped with the victory after low qualifier Kelly Brown — who would win the season championship that year — lost the engine just off the line and Garlits smoked the tires to a 6.55.

1979: Future NHRA Hall of Famer Joe Amato won his first NHRA national event title in Gainesville, but not in the Top Fuel class he would dominate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The plucky Pennsylvania pilot won his first of 57 titles in the Top Alcohol Dragster class with his Hurst/Airheart dragster after competing in Top Alcohol Funny Car. Amato also won the Gatornationals in 1981 in TAD and four times in Top Fuel —1984, 1987, 1991, and 1997 — to put him among the event’s winningest drivers. Only Warren Johnson (nine) and John Force and Frank Manzo (eight) have more Gatornationals wins.

1979: Bob Glidden defeated Ronnie Sox in the Pro Stock final that was unusual for a number of reasons. First, Ford stalwart Glidden was wheeling a Plymouth; second, with Sox at the wheel of the Sox & Martin Dodge Omni, it represented the first all-Mopar final in nearly six years (’73 Springnationals); and finally, despite winning 63 more times before his retirement in 1997, Glidden, then the winningest drive in class history, never was able to win the Gatornationals again in nearly 20 tries.

1980: Len Imbrogno, who decades later would become NHRA’s director of sportsman racing and member tracks, took a wild ride in Funny Car qualifying in Kenny Thornburg’s Centurion Pontiac Trans Am. After a wheelstand on the first attempt, he crossed the centerline on his second pass. Things got decidedly worse Saturday when Imbrogno got out of shape due to excessive tire shake and made a hard right turn into the guardrail, launching the fire bottle like a bottle rocket, before sliding the length of the course along the guardrail.

1981: Eventual Top Fuel world champ Jeb Allen, who had won Top Fuel at the event the year before, ran a 5.62 elapsed time, the quickest escaped time in history, during Thursday qualifying. What made it so special was that it finally eclipsed the historic 5.63 national record pass recorded more than five years earlier by Don Garlits at the 1975 World Finals. Allen was unable to back up his 5.62 for a new record as an oil leak halted his only other qualifying attempt, and he was defeated in round one of eliminations.

1982: Shirley Muldowney won her second straight Gatornationals Top Fuel crown by defeating homestate hero Don Garlits in a classic final-round showdown between the biggest Top Fuel stars of the era. They qualified fifth and sixth, favoring Garlits by only a few thousandths of a second, but Muldowney’s 5.90 defeat of her other arch-rival, Connie Kalitta, earned her lane choice against “Big Daddy”. Garlits, who had to change engines before the final, left first, .469 to .484, but that was the only time he led as she wheeled her way to a 5.86 to 6.28 decision.

1982: Nitro tuner Austin Coil, who later guided John Force to 15 of his 16 season championships, began to show just how good he really would be by guiding driver Frank Hawley and the underdog Chi-Town Hustler to the Funny Car win. It was the first national event win for Coil, Hawley, and the iconic Hustler legend, and it helped springboard the team to the first of two straight season championships.

1982: 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. 

1984: The 1984 season 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. Amato did it in the Top Fuel semifinals and Bernstein in winning the Funny Car final.

1984: Warren Johnson, who years after his retirement is still the winningest driver in Pro Stock history with 97 victories, earned his first career victory in Gainesville in 1984. At the wheel of his Hurst Olds, W.J. defeated Frank Iaconio in the final, then won eight more times at Gainesville Raceway over the next 16 years and remains the winningest driver in Gatornationals history. 

1985: Just weeks after Pro Stock champion Lee Shepherd was killed in a testing accident, his Pro Stock peers staged an emotional tribute prior to the first round of eliminations 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.

1985: During Funny Car qualifying, Bob Gottschalk rode out a harrowing fireball after the supercharger on his Camaro exploded. He lost control and slid into the woods along the shutdown area, sparking a blaze that burned for hours. The NHRA Safety Safari had to rush in to extricate him from the car, which was wedged between two trees, then dived into the heart of the forest fire, hoses blasting, to also extinguish that blaze.

1986: Don Garlits unveiled his latest creation, the streamlined Swamp Rat XXX dragster, in dramatic fashion. With its enclosed front end and cockpit, it looked like it could do 270 mph standing still, and “Big Daddy” broke the 270-mph barrier in the semifinals of the 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. Garlits then beat Dick LaHaie in the final for his last of four Gatornationals wins. 

1987: After going winless since 1982 and sitting out 1986 due to lack of sponsorship, Don Prudhomme let everyone know that “the Snake” was back as he powered his new Skoal Bandit Pontiac through the Funny Car field, breaking a 55-race victory drought, the longest of his career to that point. He set the world back on its axis in Gainesville, topping it with a final-round victory against old pal Roland Leong and new Hawaiian driver Johnny West.

1988: Nitro veteran 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, in the semifinals, a 5.066 elapsed time — the quickest pass in the sport’s history and a new national record — and went on to beat Joe Amato in the final round.

1989: Darrell Alderman, at the wheel of the Wayne County Speed Shop Daytona, scored Dodge’s first Pro Stock win since 1971, defeating Frank Iaconio’s Chevy Camaro in the final round. The last driver to win before Alderman was Mike Fons in a Challenger at the 1971 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, and the end of Pro Stock’s second season. Alderman would go on to win world championships for Dodge in 1990, ’91, and ’94.

1989: Top Fuel veteran Gene Snow experienced the mother of all engine failures during qualifying. 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. 

1990: Florida’s other Top Fuel favorite son, Darrell Gwynn, won Top Fuel back to back in 1989 and 1990. The 1990 victory 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. He remains a Gainesville favorite and continues to host the annual “Track Walk for Those Who Can’t” at the event.

1990: Vonnie Mills won the Super Gas title on final-round opponent Bob Carroll’s red-light, but Mills, ran it all out anyway. Just past the finish line, she lost control of her Chevy Beretta and rolled the car. The car careened off the guardrail on its roof, caught fire, and came to a stop. 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.

1991: 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. Chunks of shredded fiberglass and sheet metal were glued back together and riveted and taped to the car to get it to the line, where Oswald defeated John Force in the final.

1992: 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. 

1992: Even after breaking the 300-mph barrier, Kenny 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 and remained the oldest Top Fuel winner (60 years, four months, after winning the 1996 Denver event) until 63-year-old Terry McMillen’s win at the 2017 fall Las Vegas event.

1993: Bowling alley operator Jack Ostrander almost had a 7-10 split on his hands when his Top Fuel dragster broke the chassis and jack-knifed as he was crossing the finish line. Ostrander landed the car safely.

1994: At the silver-anniversary Gatornationals, Connie and Scott Kalitta faced off in the first father-son Top Fuel final. Scott, near lane, and crew chief LaHaie held both ends of the national record at the time (4.72, 305.18 on the quarter-mile), but Connie’s crew chief Tim Richards twisted all of the knobs in the right direction for the final round, running a tenth of a second quicker than they had all event, and Connie zoomed to a 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.

1996: Scott Kalitta was part of another memorable final round at the Gatornationals. Against Top Fuel newcomer Blaine Johnson, Kalitta roared off the line and seemed en route to an easy win after Johnson’s mount smoked the tires. Things quickly went south as Kalitta’s dragster climbed into the Florida night air and eventually blew over at three-quarter-track. Kalitta’s car slammed back to the track on all four wheels and slid backward to the finish. Johnson got there first, winning what surely is the slowest Top Fuel final in history, 10.40 to 14.74.

1997: Al Hofmann won Funny Car in a blaze of glory, literally. Hofmann had just defeated Mark Oswald when the crankshaft in Hofmann’s Pontiac sheared at the No. 2 main, 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. 

1998: 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. Stark suffered broken arms and hands and lost his left ring finger in the 1997 crash 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.

1999: Allen Johnson rode out of one of the most terrifying Pro Stock crashes when he lost the handle on his Amoco Dodge Avenger while leading Greg Anderson in round one. 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. Johnson received only bumps and bruises, but the car was totaled.

2004: Andrew Hines scored the first Pro Stock Motorcycle victory for Harley-Davidson when 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.

2005: Andrew Hines rode his Screamin’ Eagle V-Rod to the first six-second pass in Pro Stock Motorcycle history, 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. 

2007: Greg Anderson led a Pro Stock performance parade 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 at the 2009 Winternationals. 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. 

2009: Bob Tasca III, a two-time winner already in the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks, captured his first-ever nitro Funny Car victory with crew chief Chris Cunningham by his side. Tasca beat his best friend, current NHRA of FOX color commentator Tony Pedregon, in the final round to bring home the Wally. 

2010: Tony Schumacher reset the national speed record at 324.98 mph, made the lone 3.7-second run of the event, and, as if that wasn’t enough, he won the whole race, too, defeating Antron Brown in the final round. It was Schumacher’s fourth win in Gainesville. 

2011: When Rodger Brogdon earned the low qualifier position in Pro Stock at this year’s Winternationals, it was his first pole position since the 2011 Gainesville race, where he, Mike Edwards, and Greg Anderson all ran 6.495. Brogdon got the top spot thanks to his superior speed on the run, 213.47 mph compared to the 213.13-mph speed registered by Edwards and the 212.86 clocked by Anderson.

2011: Brothers Sal and Peter Biondo both took home Wallys in Sportsman competition with Sal scoring in Comp eliminator and Peter collecting the gold in Super Stock. It was the third time that the super siblings had doubled at a national event, having previously accomplished it in 1995 and ’96 in Reading.

2014: Erica Enders set the Pro Stock national speed record at 214.69 mph, a performance that was so amazing that five years later it still holds up as the fastest speed ever recorded by a Pro Stock car at Gainesville Raceway.

2015: Greg Anderson earned the 75th win of his career as he claimed Gatornationals Pro Stock glory over KB Racing teammate Jason Line. Anderson is just one of 10 drivers with more than 75 career victories (current total: 91).

2016: Sportsman superstar Jeff Strickland became the first — and still only — racer to win two classes at the same Gatornationals when he scored wins in Stock and Top Dragster. Strickland went on to win the Stock world championship later that year.

2016: Brittany Force and Robert Hight combined for the first double in John Force Racing history, with Force denying Terry McMillen what would have been his first career win in front of his backers from Amalie and Hight defeating Ron Capps for his third Gatornationals triumph.

2018: Seven years and five days after Eddie Krawiec ran the sport’s first 199-mph Pro Stock speed at Gainesville Raceway, Hector Arana Jr. finally eclipsed the magical 200-mph barrier with a 200.23-mph run on his Lucas Oil Racing TV EBR during Friday qualifying at Gainesville Raceway. Arana and his crew were awarded a $10,000 bonus as the first members of the Denso Spark Plugs 200-mph Club, which was announced earlier in the day.

Phil Burgess can reached at pburgess@nhra.com