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Great Gatornationals moments, part 2

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

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!