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Reliving a previous wet and waylaid Winternationals

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

For those of you wondered why NHRA didn’t just pick up and move the entire Winternationals mess to this weekend, you'd only need one look outside the window here at Chateau ND to know why. It' been pouring this morning, and is not expected to stop all weekend. Although most weather predictors are notoriously spotty – I'd like to have the kind of job where I don’t need to be right the vast majority of the time – the long-range projections on this one seemed more obvious than normal, so it was a good decision to finish on Tuesday/Wednesday.

We mentioned in our coverage that this was the first Tuesday finish for the Winternationals since 1978 (thanks to Todd Veney for reminding me early enough in the coverage so as not to make a fool of myself in our live reporting), so I thought I'd haul out the '78 issues of National DRAGSTER to see what those poor fools had to deal with and exactly what led to the delayed conclusion.

The '78 race had all the earmarkings of a brawl from the get-go as then-four-time Pomona winner (1963, '71, '73, and '75) Don Garlits announced he'd be going on the full tour to reclaim the Top Fuel championship he last held in 1975, trying to wrest it away from Shirley Muldowney, who had just claimed the first of her three crowns. Gary Beck and Jeb Allen were eager to improve on dismal 1977 outings and chassis builder Sherm Gunn had a new chassis underway for sand drag racing champ Larry Minor and new driver Larry Bowers.

Don Prudhomme was preparing to defend his Funny Car crown for the fourth straight year (which he would do successfully) but after two of the greatest seasons in drag racing history (winning six of eight events in 1975 and seven of eight in 1976), he'd won "only" three in 1977 and was feeling the heat from guys like Gordie Bonin, Billy Meyer, and Raymond Beadle, who was switching from his familiar Mustang to a new Plymouth Arrow, as did Meyer. Kenny Bernstein was making his reappearance on the scene in a new Arrow out of Ed Pink's shop bannering his Chelsea King chain of restaurants.

Pro Stock was in a complete state of flux as "Dyno Don" Nicholson had scored a popular championship in 1977, taking the title from Larry Lombardo and Bill Jenkins, who had taken it the year before from two-time champ Bob Glidden, who owned the current national record at 8.50 with his Pinto. Big-block Camaro campaigner Warren Johnson was making the long tow again from Fridley, Minn., on the heels of yet another Division 5 championship, riding a streak of 11 consecutive wins in the division.

At stake was a share of the $175,000 championships fund that seems paltry by today's standards; the champs in Top Fuel and Funny Car could earn year a cool $15,000 and the Pro Stock king $10,000.

(Above) This great photo was very symbolic of the water-logged 1978 Winternationals. (Below) DRAGSTER photogs borrowed the toy boat from Scott Hooker, son of Colorado racer Ray Hooker, who was originally sailing his boat in a lake in the pits before the ND shutterbugs commandeered it.

After the drought that was 1977, the winter of 1978 was a wet one in SoCal, and maybe the loss to rain of Orange County Int'l Raceway's Super Bowl of Drag Racing event—a slugfest between Prudhomme, Beadle, Tom McEwen, Meyer, Pat Foster (in Joe Pisano's Arrow), Tripp Shumake (in Johnny Loper's car), Ed McCulloch's new American Home Shield Arrow, and Lil John Lombardo -- two weeks before might have been an ominous sign. The race went off the next weekend with rubber washed clean from the rain and an extra heavy onset of dew that led to treacherous traction.

Back in the late 1970s, teams were pretty much allowed unlimited number of qualifying runs, but the '78 Winternationals marked a turning point toward the sessions we all know now. Due to the size of the fields, unlimited passes were allowed only between noon and 5. p.m. on Thursday. For Friday and Saturday, Pro cars were allowed only two runs, which could be made any time between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Top Fuel and Funny Car both paid $5,000 to win, while the Pro Stock champ would bank $2,500. A new driver's award medallion, similar to an Olympic medal, was to awarded to each of the eight category winners and would become a staple for NHRA winners for decades.

Originally scheduled for Feb. 2-5, the 18th annual Winternationals had clear sailing through the first three days --that is unless you count a 35-sack attack of Greasweep applied to the track for oildowns Saturday, the mowing down of the Christmas Tree, and the later drilling of assistant starter Ray Helms, who was hit by an errant roadster and suffered a compound fracture of his left leg.

Don Garlits – in rare blue and white livery, with "God is Love" and a cross emblazoned on the top of the cowl – fronted the Top Fuel field with a track-record 5.77. Garlits' mount was Donovan-powered, as were the Nos. 2 and 3 qualifiers, Kelly Brown and Pat Dakin. Richard Tharp, in the Candies & Hughes digger, ran 250.69, matching "Big's" longstanding national speed record and also setting a new track record. Ten Top Fuelers qualified in the fives and the bump was 6.04, by Rick Ramsey in the new Ramsey & Withers machine. Dennis Baca, who had won both the U.S. Nationals and World Finals the previous year, didn’t qualify, nor did defending event champ Jerry Ruth or SoCal fave James Warren. In their places were names like John Kimble and Gordon Fabeck.

Shumake's 6.157 paced the flopper field just ahead of "T.V. Tommy" Ivo's 6.159 with "the Snake" in third at 6.17. Ezra Boggs was on the bump with a 6.41 from the Moby Dick Corvette. Glidden had the best marks in Pro Stock with an 8.59 while W.J.'s rat-motored Camaro was No. 2 at 8.62 and top speed at 158.45.

What tale of the 1978 Winternationals would be complete without Jon Asher's iconic shot of fellow Car Craft staffer Al Kirschenbuam playing in the snow on the starting line? (Below) A less-frequently seen pic of Al K checking out some snow-frocked floppers in the pits.

Although there was only an announced 10 percent chance of rain for Sunday, 100 percent of that 10 percent apparently fell on Pomona. Winds savaged the tents on the midway and it became clear that there would be no racing on Sunday, so racing was rescheduled to the following weekend. The rainout was the first for the season opener since 1973, which also took two weeks to complete.

The following Saturday was good enough to get in some rounds of Sportsman action, but Sunday again turned into a big washout after only one round of the Pros (sound familiar?), during which Tharp sent Garlits packing for Florida, 6.05 to 6.17. Action shifted to Monday, which was plagued early by rain, but after employing the jet track dryer and even a rented helicopter to dry the track, the Pros got in round two of racing (in which Muldowney was defeated by Brown) before a light rain began to fall. That shower quickly turned into a downpour and, as the temperature plummeted, was followed first by hail then by honest-to-goodness snow.

Needless to say, the remainder of the day's activity was canceled and moved to Tuesday, and National DRAGSTER had to ship out a second straight issue without naming the winners.

Tuesday was actually Valentine's Day, and with 60 competitors remaining there were 52 broken hearts en route to crowning the eight winners on what was a bright, clear, and dry day in Pomona.

(Above) Kelly Brown, far lane, took Top Fuel honors over Gordon Fabeck, who was appearing in the lone final of his career. (Below) Don Prudhomme won the Winternationals Funny Car title for the fourth straight year.

Brown, appearing in his first final since wheeling the Barry Setzer Vega to a runner-up behind Don Schumacher at the '71 Springnationals, powered the Brissette & Drake entry past Fabeck (the pride of Brush Prairie, Wash.) for Top Fuel honors. Brown would, of course, go on to win the world championship that year.

After beating McEwen in the semi's, Prudhomme, matched up with his mentor, Ivo, in the Funny Car final. Unfortunately for T.V., he split the motor on the dry hop, affording "the Snake's Army Arrow a free pass to his fourth straight Winternationals winner's circle and the 25th Wally of his career. It didn’t come easy though as crew chief Bob Brandt had to go into the hospital Sunday night for a back operation and wasn’t there for the final three rounds, but his crew got a big assist from "Waterbed Fred" Miller of Blue Max fame, who filled in for Brandt. It was Ivo's first appearance in the final round since the '65 Nationals in Indy (where he lost to … guess who? Yep, Prudhomme.) and the last of his career as well.

Glidden beat Lombardo handily in a classic Ford vs. Chevy Pro Stock final,. 8.67 to 8.78, to claim hi 13th trophy,

Future Funny Car pilot Tom Ridings beat future Top Fuel racer Billy Williams for Pro Comp honors while Wayne Clapp won Comp, Jim Mederer scored in Modified, Ron Zoelle in Super Stock, and Jeff Powers in Stock.

It was certainly one of the longest Winternationals in the books, even though it was spread out over 12 non-consecutive days, unlike the seven days it took to complete this year's season opener. It's still fondly remember by those who lived it, much as this year's weeklong affair will be to those of us who survived it.