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Great Gatornationals moments? No problem (part 1)

10 Mar 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

The 2009 ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals will mark the 40th anniversary of NHRA's annual March classic, and looking back over its long and illustrious history, it's safe to say that it's been crammed with well more than 40 years of memories and history.

You might remember that at last year's event, banners were hung on the main grandstand at Gainesville Raceway to salute five of the event's more memorable moments: the first all-team Funny Car final (Leonard Hughes versus Larry Reyes, 1970); Don Garlits' debut of the Swamp Rat XXX Top Fueler and subsequent breaking of the 270-mph barrier (1986); Darrell Gwynn's final Top Fuel win (1990); Kenny Bernstein's shattering of the 300-mph barrier (1992); and Andrew Hines' toppling of the six-second barrier in Pro Stock Motorcycle (2005).

That hanging handful of history only scrapes the surface of what remains one of the most storied events on the calendar. In fact, it would be easy for me to compile a top 25 list of memorable moments, heck, maybe even a top 50.

What? Was that a dare you uttered? A challenge? Ha! How about 40? Twenty today, and 20 Friday. Such a deal.

For the record, Gainesville Dragway – as it was known then and for several years afterward – officially opened for business Dec. 7, 1968, for a two-day event patterned after a points meet, and it didn’t take long for the track to get into the record-breaking business. Southeast legend Bo Laws set four records with his Corvette to lead the way. The iconic three-story tower was part of the opening-day landscape, as were a short-lived 80-foot crossover bridge that spanned the staging lanes and sponsored finish-line scoreboards similar to those at Indy. It didn't take long for NHRA to award the new jewel of the Southeast with a national event, which it did the following June in anticipation of 1970's much-heralded Super Season. It became the season's second event on the calendar – a de facto East Coast season opener – and remained that way on the schedule until 1989, when the new Houston event was moved between it and the Winternationals. A year later, when the Phoenix event was moved from the fall to February, the Gainesville event became the fourth race on the schedule and stayed there until 1999, when the spring Houston race was moved behind it due to weather concerns.

Okay, but on to the rich and wondrous history of the event itself. Some of these I read about in magazines in my youth, some I saw on television, and others I have witnessed personally during my Gators-going tenure here. It seems fair and reasonable to do this chronologically rather than to try to rewrite a list that's already begun.

Leonard Hughes, near lane, beat temporary teammate Larry Reyes on a holeshot in the 1970 Gatornationals Funny Car final.

1. As noted above, it was an all-Candies & Hughes Funny Car final at the debut event in 1970, but what few know is that runner-up Reyes, fresh off his Winternationals win in Roland Leong's Hawaiian, was still employed by Leong, and they ran the race as C&H's partners. Hughes was driving the team's new Barracuda, and Reyes saddled up in the '69 car, which actually was the better of the two cars. It was never really discussed historically (until now), but Reyes was "asked" to lose the final round to Hughes as the team was working on a big sponsorship. One only has to look at the e.t.s -- Hughes defeated Reyes on a holeshot, 7.29 to a shutoff 7.12 – to get an inkling that something wasn't kosher (a fact to which all parties now confess), but the real shame is that had Reyes not aborted his final-round pass, he would likely have recorded the class' first six-second pass.

2. All three Pro finals at that first event were decided by holeshots. In addition to Hughes' gatejob, Dave Chenevert won Top Fuel – and the only Wally of his career -- against Jim Paoli, 6.74 to 6.61, and Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins bagged Pro Stock with his '69 Camaro on a 9.90 to 9.86 tally against Ronnie Sox. As appropriate as it would have been to have the state's finest racer, Garlits, win the debut event, it didn’t happen because despite outclassing the field in every sense – he ran in the 6.50s on four passes when no one else could even run one --- he broke the transmission.

3. Jimmy King, of King & Marshall fame, also won the only Top Fuel crown of his career the following year, also on a holeshot, 6.90 to 6.80 against Sarge Arciero. For the second straight year, Garlits qualified low but went home without a trophy.

After dominating the first two Gatornationals but coming away winless, Don Garlits won his first of four Gators titles in 1972.

4. In 1972, Garlits finally scored the first of four Gatornationals Top Fuel titles in typically "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.

5. Chevrolet fans rejoiced at the 1973 event, where the late Jim Bucher earned a piece of history as the first Top Fuel racer to set the NHRA national record with Bowtie power, a sizzling 6.07 in round two against Carl Olson. Unfortunately for Bucher, a cracked cylinder head led to a blower explosion in the final, giving the win to Herm Petersen, whose win was the – stop me if you've heard this before – only one of his long career. Both ends of the national record were broken in all three Pro classes, with Pat Foster (Funny Car) and "Dyno Don" Nicholson (Pro Stock) winning the event after setting records.

The Butch Maas-driven Mickey Thompson Grand Am met a fiery end in 1973.

6. Also in 1973, Butch Maas, in Mickey Thompson's sleek Grand Am, and Jim Nicoll, in his Speed Equipment World Vega, both rode out nasty top-end fires. Maas – whose career will be featured in this column in a few weeks – and the smoldering wreck came to a photographic stop right next to the track's "The End" sign.

7. More history was in store at the 1974 event, where 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. Usual driver Wayne Gapp wheeled their trusty old Pinto to the No. 1 qualifier spot but lost early to Bob Glidden. It was the (say it with me) only final-round appearance of Roush's driving career.

Don Prudhomme brought back his Indy-winning 'Cuda in 1974 to win the Gators.

8. The 1974 Funny Car final was notable for the body styles of the two finalists. Prudhomme had debuted an aerodynamically slick and trick Vega at the Winternationals but hated the car and later sold it to Tom Hoover. Prudhomme dragged his trusty ol' "plain Jane" 'Cuda out of mothballs, painted in his new Army livery, and whupped the Gators field. In the final, he beat Don Schumacher, who had tossed the body off his own aero-influenced Super Shoe Vega in qualifying but patched it up for eliminations.

9. Prudhomme also won the 1975 Funny Car title in one of the weirder final rounds in class 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 (all together now!) 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.

10. As tough as it is for us, the Warren & Coburn faithful, to fathom, James Warren only won two national events in his fabled Top Fuel career, the second of which was at the 1976 race. 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. Gary Beck recorded the track's first five-second pass that year with a 5.92. This year, of course, we'll see its first three-second run, albeit it at 1,000 feet.

"The Snake's" Army Monza, one of the winningest cars in NHRA history, won the Gatornationals back to back in 1975 and 1976.

11. Also in 1976, Prudhomme won his third straight Gatornationals crown and, in the process, 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.

12. "240 Gordie" Bonin began one of the oddest courtships with Gatornationals glory in 1977, when he won his first title (imagine that!), powering the 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.

13. The bridesmaids finally got hitched at the 1978 event as Dale Pulde, a two-time runner-up in Funny Car in a seven-year career, and Frank Iaconio, who had logged four Pro Stock runner-ups, each scored his first national event win. Pulde slid the War Eagle Trans Am past Billy Meyer's Aqua Slide 'n' Dive Arrow to claim his initial Wally, and Iaconio got a gift from low qualifier Glidden, who red-lighted in the final.

14. Garlits won his second straight and third Gatornationals title in 1978 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.

15. Brown took it one round further the following year as his star continued to ascend, but few could have predicted the future trajectory of the 1979 Top Alcohol Dragster winner: Joe Amato. The plucky Pennsylvania pilot won his first of 57 titles – 52 of which were in Top Fuel – 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 (seven) have more Gatornationals wins.

Bob Glidden won 85 national events but only won the Gatornationals twice, the final time in this Plymouth Arrow in 1979.

16. Here's one that makes you go "Huh?" Glidden won Pro Stock at the 1979 Gatornationals with his Plymouth Arrow, which was newsworthy in and of itself because he beat Ronnie Sox in the first all-Mopar final since the 1973 Springnationals (where Butch Leal beat Don Carlton) and because in 63 more wins before his 1997 retirement, he never won the Gatornationals again.

17. Prudhomme won Funny Car again in 1980, but only after the heroic efforts of NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs with the Safety Safari, who concocted a witch's brew of a traction compound to rescue a very green track and almost blew himself up in the process. For years afterward, a dented saucepan with the words "Desperate men do desperate things" lettered on it hung in Gibbs' office. Gibbs' reward? Prudhomme unleashed one of the greatest on-track assaults in history with five five-second runs, including an astounding 5.93.

18. Len Imbrogno, who decades later would work for NHRA, 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.

Jeb Allen finally broke Don Garlits' six-year-old class mark of 5.63 with a 5.62 at the 1981 Gatornationals.

19. The 1981 Gatornationals was another performance barnburner. Eventual world champ Jeb Allen, who won Top Fuel the year before, ran 5.62 to finally supplant the 5.63 recorded more than five years earlier by Garlits at the 1975 Supernationals as the quickest run in Top Fuel history.

20. Shirley Muldowney won her first of two straight Gatornationals Top Fuel crowns at the 1981 event, where she bested Jody Smart in the final round. The following year, she denied Garlits in a classic final-round showdown.

Okay, there are 20 without even breaking a sweat. And in just the first 11 years of the race! Are you impressed yet? Twenty more coming your way Friday -- at this rate, I may need 60! -- when I'll be filing from G-ville, where I travel Thursday.