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My greatest Gatornats hits

08 Mar 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

With the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals just two weeks after the season opener for the first time in ages, I'm already again finding myself gearing up for a trip to the drags. Unlike the Pomona lid-lifter, this one will require more than a 10-minute dash in the ol' Mustang from home to Parker Avenue. Heck, it will take twice that long just to drive to the airport.

We have new stuff planned for race coverage at the Gatornats that will keep me hopping while I'm there, and – stop me if you've heard this before — it's a frantic week here at National DRAGSTER before I head out. You know, this is a glorious job and all and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but 29 straight years of weekly deadlines will drive a guy to drink. You should see my Diet Coke bill.

Anyway, as I did before the Winternationals, and knowing that the rest of the week will preclude my usual Friday entry, I thought I'd look in the archives at some of my past Gatornationals-themed columns to give you more than enough stuff to tide you over into next week.

In 2008, I penned a column all about gators – and I don’t mean just the race name. I took a look at the famed reptile that for years graced the event logo and got the story behind the illustration from National DRAGSTER's own John Jodauga. [Read column]

That entry – as is tradition around here – spawned a bunch of responses about other gator-themed things, from race cars to parts advertisements to a reminder of the Gainesville Raceway pet gator Clyde to Chase Knight's very cool Golden Gator turbocharged Top Alcohol Dragster. [Read column]

In 2009, the 25th anniversary of my first trip to the Gatornationals, I shared the tale of that trip east to the race, which was made in far more time than it will take this year. I rode in the tractor-trailer of Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Jim DePasse on a story assignment to see what it was like to be a member of a travel team and crewmember for an event. It was a wild time, and one I'll never forget. At the time, DePasse was a quasi teammate to the Larry Minor crew, so our road mates for the cross-country journey were Gary Beck, Bernie Fedderly, Willie Wolter, and the rest of the Hemet gang. Talk about some fine company.

The trip was fraught with misadventure, from highway breakdowns to corny jokes to a bout with gout to broken engine parts and other assorted nuisances, but I still had a great time. [Read column]

When I finally did get back to Gainesville, I marveled over how much the place had changed and talked about the still-running staff joke we call "the Gators curse." Who will be this year's victim? [Read column]

That year was the event's 40th, so I sat down and – in one of the many learn-how lessons that helped me pull together this year's NHRA 60 Greatest Moments -- powered through my 40 greatest Gatornationals moments. In Part 1, which spanned the first race in 1970 through 1981, I covered such fine occurrences as the first all-team Funny Car final (1970), Don Garlits' first Gatornats win (1972), Jim Bucher's rare Chevy-powered Top Fuel national record (1973), AMC's first Pro Stock win (1974), Don Prudhomme's back-to-back Funny Car wins (1974-75), James Warren's Top Fuel win (1976), Len Imbrogno's wild Funny Car crash (1980), Jeb Allen finally breaking Garlits' six-year-old class mark of 5.63 with a 5.62 (1981), and many others. [Read column]

In Part 2, I hit such highlights as the Chi-Town Hustler's surprising Funny Car win and Raymond Beadle's midtrack barrel roll (1982), the dual 260-mph passes of Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein (1984), the loss of Lee Shepherd prior to the 1985 race, the huge forest fire that year caused by Bob Gottschalk's flaming flopper, Garlits' debut of Swamp Rat XXX and breaking the 270-mph barrier (1987), Darrell Gwynn's back-to-back Top Fuel wins (1989-90), Bernstein's shattering of the 300-mph barrier (1992), Scott Kalitta's blowover in the 1996 Top Fuel final, Al Hofmann's fiery Funny Car win (1997), the all-Harley Pro Stock Motorcycle final (2004), and much more. In fact, my original plan for 40 great moments had to be expanded to 50. That's how great a race the Gatornationals is. [Read column]

Anyway, that's it for me for the week. Thursday I'll be eastbound and down and come to you guys live from Gainesville Raceway with another round of NHRA Interactive chatting, so hop on there, and let's talk racing. I'll be back the following week (day to be determined by what happens in G-ville), so keep those cards and letters coming in the meantime.