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Hot times in ol' Hot-lanta

10 May 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Fair warning that this will be this week's only Insider column because come Thursday, I'll be in the air again (surrounded by an airplane) on my way to Atlanta for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at good ol' Atlanta Dragway.

The race has been part of the NHRA calendar since 1981, making it the seventh-oldest event on the schedule, behind only those in Indy, Pomona, Gainesville, Englishtown, and Denver, and it has seen its fair share of NHRA history in its 30 installments, much more than people easily remember.

Atlanta Int'l Dragway was built in 1976 but didn't become an NHRA member track until 1980. With NHRA's only other presence in the Southeast on 1980's 10-event schedule being the Gatornationals, adding the Southern Nationals in the heart of IHRA country was a major step on NHRA's behalf to stake its claim south of the Mason-Dixon line (a claim that now includes Bristol and two races in Charlotte) and added the name of another well-recognized marquee metropolis to its marketing portfolio.

In much the same way that Texas Motorplex is said to be in Dallas and Morrison-based Bandimere Speedway in Denver, Atlanta Dragway isn’t in Atlanta but in Commerce, about an hour north. The town of Commerce sure has grown up around the track since I first went there in 1986; I barely recognized the place last year after its extended absence from my travel itinerary. The track, too, has undergone change, with a major reconstruction in 1987 (so much so that the owners dubbed it "The New Atlanta Dragway"), and in 1993, NHRA purchased the facility and has continued to upgrade it since.

As I mentioned, one thing that has never been in short supply is memorable moments. It was the site in 1982 of NHRA's first all-team Top Fuel final, between Lucille Lee and her TR-3 Resin Glaze campmate Steve Hodkinson, and the site of Lee's only win. Lee was just the second woman to win a fuel dragster title after (of course) Shirley Muldowney, but she came from pretty much out of nowhere to star for a brief time on the NHRA stage. She famously beat Muldowney in the 1982 March Meet final, then Muldowney turned the tables on her in the first all-female national event Top Fuel final at the 1983 Springnationals in Columbus.

The 1982 race also was famous for having a Top Alcohol Dragster win the Top Alcohol Funny Car final. After initially racing them head to head, NHRA separated the alky diggers and Funny Cars to race among themselves in 1982, and the winners of each faced off for the overall Pro Comp title. There were so few Funny Cars at the 1982 event that NHRA inserted some of the nonqualifying Top Alcohol Dragsters into the Top Alcohol Funny Car field and two of those drivers, Jeff Jones and Scott Kalitta, reached the final, where Jones beat Kalitta.

The 1984 race will always be remembered for future Top Alcohol Dragster champ Bill Walsh's skyscraping wheelie in the final round against Bruce McDowell, and 1985 will be known for Butch Leal's stunning Pro Stock victory – he became the first driver other than Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, Frank Iaconio, or the late Lee Shepherd to win in more than half a decade – but the 1986 race may go into the books as the most amazing Atlanta event ever.

After all, it was at that event where former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini won his only national event title in Top Fuel, defeating Gene Snow in the final – and the race was also the scene of Glidden's terrifying semifinal top-end rollover after beating Leal to the stripe. I remember watching this one from the starting line in disbelief as Mr. Pro Stock went on his head and over and over again. Wife Etta's shrieks echo in my ears, and the sight of Chief Starter Buster Couch trying to console her is forever burned in my brain.

Glidden's Thunderbird rolled six and a half times in the shutdown area, and Glidden famously emerged unhurt from the car and had the presence of mind to cover his cracked-open intake manifold with his firesuit jacket to keep its secrets from prying eyes. Warren Johnson earned his first Atlanta win on a bye run.

W.J. has won the race four times since – most memorably in 1993 – when he defeated his son, Kurt, in the first father-son final in NHRA history, but he's not the winningest Pro driver in the event's history. Nor, surprisingly, is John Force, who has won the race seven times. That honor still belongs to the late Dave Schultz, who owned the event aboard his Pro Stock Motorcycle, winning it eight times, including six straight (1990-95). It probably shouldn’t surprise you that Frank Manzo is the event's all-time winner.

No driver has had more success in Atlanta than 10-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champ Manzo, who in 2008 won for the 13th time in 14 final rounds. TAFC has not been contested in Atlanta since then, so he's still the reigning champ. Interestingly, Manzo scored his first of 92 wins at the inaugural Atlanta event in 1981.

More history and trivia for Atlanta? Sure thing. The event was the site of Del Worsham's first win in Funny Car in 1991, a feat that earned him the still-standing record for youngest class winner at 21 years, 2 months. Worsham scored his win in just his seventh start, but Randy Anderson went that one better when he upset Force in the final in 1997 in just his sixth start.

Atlanta has been good to Force, though. He won his milestone 75th race there in 1999 – interestingly, W.J., won his 75th in Atlanta as well, in 2003 – and Ashley Force Hood made NHRA history as Funny Car's first female winner in 2008, when she defeated her father in the final round,

Ron Capps made it to his first Professional final in Atlanta in 1995, behind the wheel of Roger Primm’s Top Fueler. Despite three more trips to the final in Atlanta (in his more familiar Funny Car), he has yet to win the race. Capps has good company. Atlanta Dragway is the only current venue on the tour at  which his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher has not won.

In 1992, less than a year after Pat Austin became the first to win in two classes at the same event (1991 Topeka, Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Funny Car), Edmond Richardson became the second by scoring in Super Comp and Super Street. That amazing feat has only been accomplished 18 times in NHRA history, and Richardson has posted five of those doubles.

Echoing Pastorini's Atlanta heroics, IndyCar racer John Andretti -- nephew of racing great Mario -- made his Top Fuel debut in 1993 and drove Jack Clark’s Taco Bell-backed dragster to the semifinals. A year later, the late Darrell Russell scored his first national event win in Top Alcohol Dragster in Atlanta. As recently as 2009, Atlanta was serving up memories: Morgan Lucas in Top Fuel and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle scored their first wins, breaking respective final-round jinxes of five and six losses.

So, as you can see, "Hot-lanta" has a sizzling history of firsts and milestones in its record books. I'm betting more are in store this year.

I'll see you next week.