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It's good to be back in Gainesville

Reliving "the Gators curse" in my first return to Gainesville in six years
14 Mar 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been to Gainesville Raceway, and the old gal has changed quite a bit. Actually, as these photos at right, from 1971 and 2007, attest, it’s barely recognizable from its earliest years.

I was last here in 2002, for one of NHRA’s sport compact events, but I haven’t been to the Gatornationals in so long that I can’t even remember. Since becoming the high muckety-muck of all NHRA editorial productions a dozen or so years ago, my travel has been curtailed –- voluntarily –- to better keep an eye on the burgeoning beast, but you couldn’t have kept me away from Gainesville in my earlier days.

The race has always been huge on everyone’s radar screens, from the racers to the fans to the media, and when the DRAGSTER staff submits its travel requests each winter, G-ville is always near the top of everyone’s lists, so there’s been a rotating cast attending the event.

It would be hard to forget my first trip to Gainesville, which was in 1984. I didn’t fly here; I drove, which is quite a trip from California, but I had good company. I made the eastward trek in the company of Alcohol Funny Car racer Jim DePasse to write a story for ND about what it’s like to travel across country with a race team. DePasse, who was a pretty good SoCal match racer at the time, had just entered into a partnership with mega fuel-team owner Larry Minor, who supplied him with an engine and tuning help from his talented crew in exchange for being able to share DePasse’s trailer for his growing operation.

I learned a lot that weekend, about the rigors of nonstop cross-country travel in a non-air-ride-equipped tractor, about working on an alcohol car, and, sadly, about the disappointment of not qualifying. I also learned, oddly enough, about gout, when DePasse woke up Saturday morning with severe pain in the big toe of his throttle foot. He spent the morning in Shands hospital getting diagnosed with gout (apparently, approximately 75 percent of first attacks hit the big toe … go figure) and made it to the track that afternoon for a game yet painful (and unsuccessful) last shot at the field.

It also began what was a long-running joke among the DRAGSTER staff called “the Gators curse.” The next year, I got laid out Thursday by food poisoning. The next year, one of my fellow editorial staffers developed a terrible ear infection that became evident only as our plane began to descend into Atlanta en route. His moaning just about drowned out the jet engines. He had to live with the pain again on ascent out of Atlanta and on descent into Jacksonville. I did my best to act like “this guy ain’t with me,” even though he was seated next to me. The next year, we got forced into the grassy median by someone who liked our lane better than his, which led to a flat tire … and so it went for several years, but the curse died somewhere along the way, at least according to the staff that went there.

I began to have my doubts when I woke up Monday with the first hints of a cold and the hard drive in my laptop stopped driving. But a healthy dose of Zicam and vitamins and the quick work of the NHRA IT Department solved both of those problems, and I was back in business on both fronts by Wednesday. I got way ahead on all my week’s work, including the weekly Nitro News newsletter, packed my suitcase flawlessly, and hit the rack early to prepare for an early departure, thinking good thoughts …

Until 3:38 a.m. when my daughter burst through my dreams with the urgent notification that the toilet was overflowing. Swell. Nothing I like better than charging ankle-deep into cold water at o’dark–thirty, plunger in hand. As any teller of tales can attest, sometimes you just can’t make up stuff this good. I tamed the turbulent toilet, which upon my arrival was gushing water like an out-of-control fire hydrant, pressed a load of freshly laundered towels into mop-up duty, and had at it. Fifteen minutes later, the floor and my feet were dry and disinfected, and I climbed back into bed, never to be able to regain sleep. “Curse o’ the Gators?” I wondered.

But I digress.

The place looks swell, even coated in water as it is now from a fast-moving rainstorm that’s blasting through here. Of course, the new tower is awesome-looking; Bob Wilber had some swell photos in his blog yesterday of the new media center, which is, hands-down, the best one on the tour. It’s roomy, well-equipped –- including a dedicated room for press conferences and driver interviews -- and, with a third-floor location, offers a nice vantage point. I know all of that means little to most of you who will never be here, but everyone here can’t stop talking about it … me included.

The first time I was here, the then-new tower was fresh and new (and the old timing tower still stood adjacent to the starting line), and the huge grandstands so familiar to Gainesville fans did not yet exist. The last time I was here five years ago, it was with the old tower, of course, and the skyboxes weren’t here. The old 301 Club grandstands from which I shot finish-line photos for so many years are now located on the starting line on the spectator side. The place looks more and more impressive with each passing year.

Now if we could just get the rain to stop. Curse of the Gators?

Of course, it’s not going to be a Gainesville trip without a stop at Sonny’s BBQ, perhaps the most famous Gainesville restaurant. You pretty much can’t be there anytime during the weekend and not find racers there, even during racing days. The nearest one is just about two miles from the track, so it’s not uncommon for teams to rush over for a quick bite or to send a crewmember over for a BBQ run. In fact, if it doesn’t stop raining anytime soon, I may need to make a trip over there in the very near future.

But for now, we sit and wait and tell old war stories in the pressroom. Everyone who’s anyone in our media world seems to be here, and we’d love to have something to write about besides the media room and the rain.

Crossed fingers …