NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Top Fuel seasons, then and now

17 Jun 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

OK, Insider experts, what do Top Fuel racers Carl Olson, Don Garlits, Chip Woodall, Jeb Allen, Art Marshall, Gary Beck, Jim Walther, and Don Moody have in common? I’ll give you some time to think about it as the column progresses.

If you’ve been following my Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER this year, you’ve watched the history of NHRA unfold a year at a time, seen NHRA bloom into a major racing force, and watched how the schedule and the eliminators expanded and how the sport in general grew. I don’t like to mix the content here with what’s in print, but I can’t help myself this week because of the interesting period that we’ve reached.

This week, I covered the 1970 season -- NHRA’s self-titled “Super Season" in which the national event schedule went from four races to seven with the addition of the Gatornationals, Summernationals (York, Pa.), and Supernationals (Ontario, Calif., version) -- and what really struck me as I was recounting the event winners was the list of winners in Top Fuel: Larry Dixon Sr., Dave Chenevert, Bob Gibson, Pete Robinson, Don Prudhomme, Ronnie Martin, and Rick Ramsey.

Consider the following:

Five of those seven winners – Dixon, Chenevert, Gibson, Martin, and Ramsey – scored the first and only wins of their Top Fuel careers that year.

Rookie Top Fuel pilot Bob Gibson won the 1970 Springnationals in Dallas.

Four of the five – Dixon, Gibson, Martin, and Ramsey – did it while appearing in the only final round of their careers. Only Chenevert, runner-up the previous year at the World Finals to Steve Carbone, had been in a final, and he would not reach another.

Dixon defeated Tony Nancy in the Winternationals final, and Chenevert beat Jim Paoli for the Gatornationals win, and it also was the only Top Fuel final in the careers of those two.

Gibson, a 22-year-old rookie who was wheeling the Carroll Bros.’ home-state Texas Whips dragster, defeated Jim Nicoll, who reached three final rounds that season – the only three of his NHRA career – yet lost all of them, including his spectacular Indy loss to Prudhomme.

The 1970 season was one of only four campaigns from Top Fuel's first year in 1963 to present in which no one won more than one event. Two of those -- 1967 (Connie Kalitta, Prudhomme, Garlits, Bennie Osborn) and 1969 (John Mulligan, Hank Westmoreland, Prudhomme, Carbone) – occurred in four-race seasons, so not having a repeat winner isn’t all that surprising considering how many cars were competing then.

The last time that there was not a repeat winner was during 1972’s eight-race schedule, when the aforementioned Messrs. Olson, Garlits, Woodall, Allen, Marshall, Beck, Walther, and Moody split the season bragging rights eight ways, making that octet an interesting footnote in Top Fuel history that has not been duplicated in the 38 seasons that have followed..

From that point, at least one racer has collected more than one Top Fuel Wally a season. Now, you might think that’s a no-brainer because, exponentially, as the number of events increased – to 10 in 1979, 15 in 1986, and 22 in 1997 – there were more chances to win and less cars competing, but you’d be surprised at how it breaks down. Below is a quick box that I compiled that shows the number of events that each champ has won from 1974 on – 1974 being the first year that champs weren’t decided by who won the World Finals – as well as the percentage of the champ’s wins against the schedule and the number of other drivers to score more than one win that season.

YearEventsChampion (number of wins)Champ Win pct.Other Repeaters
19747Gary Beck (3)430
19758Don Garlits (4)500
19769Richard Tharp (2)221
19779Shirley Muldowney (3)331
19789Kelly Brown (4)442
197910Rob Bruins (0)02
198010Muldowney (4)400
198111Jeb Allen (4)362
198212Muldowney (4)332
198312Beck (4)332
198411Joe Amato (3)272
198513Garlits (6)461
198614Garlits (5)362
198714Dick LaHaie (5)362
198816Amato (4)252
198919Gary Ormsby (6)323
199019Amato (6)323
199118Amato (4)223
199218Amato (3)174
199318Eddie Hill (6)332
199418Scott Kalitta (5)283
199519Kalitta (6)323
199619Kenny Bernstein (4)214
199722Gary Scelzi (5)233
199822Scelzi (6)273
199922Tony Schumacher (1).055
200024Scelzi (9)385
200124Bernstein (8)335
200223Larry Dixon (9)394
200323Dixon (8)354
200423Schumacher (10)433
200523Schumacher (9)394
200623Schumacher (5)225
200723Schumacher (6)265
200824Schumacher (15)632
200924Schumacher (5)214
201023Dixon (12)522

Interesting notes:

1976-77: The only drivers besides the champs to win more than one race in these seasons, Shirley Muldowney and Dennis Baca, respectively, didn’t finish in the top 10 those years.

Rob Bruins went 0-for-1979 but still won the championship.

1979: Rob Bruins became the first Pro driver to win a championship without winning a national event; Kelly Brown won four times that season and Don Garlits three but finished second and third, respectively. Only Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle, 2008) has also won a Pro championship without winning an event).

1985: Only Connie Kalitta also won more than one event.

1988: Second-place Darrell Gwynn won six events to Amato’s four but still finished second.

1990: Gary Ormsby matched Joe Amato’s win total; the season’s other repeaters were surprises in Lori Johns (three, in a fourth-place finish behind Dick LaHaie, who only won once) and Frank Hawley, who scored two wins and finished ninth despite beginning his campaign at the eighth race as a replacement for injured Darrell Gwynn.

"Pat Awesome" won two of the final three events in 1991.

1991: Pat Austin was one of three repeat winners; he won two of the season’s three final events but didn’t finish in the top 10 after beginning his Top Fuel career in Indy after Gary Ormsby’s death; Kenny Bernstein had six wins to Joe Amato’s four and finished second.

1992-94 and 1996: Nine of the top 10 won at least one event; the respective exceptions were Dannielle DePorter (10th), Cory McClenathan (sixth), Mike Dunn (seventh), and Connie Kalitta (ninth). There has never been a season in  which all top 10 Top Fuel finishers have won an event.

1998: The top four – Gary Scelzi (six wins), Cory McClenathan (six), Joe Amato (four), and Kenny Bernstein (four) – gobbled up 20 of the year’s 22 wins. Only Doug Kalitta and Larry Dixon, with one apiece, broke up the stranglehold.

Prior to his "enlistment" with the Army, Tony Schumacher "charged" to his first championship in 1999 despite just one event win flying Exide Batteries colors.

1999: How did Tony Schumacher ever win this championship? He had just one win compared to (in finishing order) three for Gary Scelzi, five for Joe Amato, and four for Mike Dunn. Only Rob Bruins 21 years earlier had won fewer.

2003: Brandon Bernstein won three of the first six events before suffering a season-ending crash at race eight in Englishtown and finished outside the top 10, the last multi-event winner to do so. Dad Kenny jumped into the team’s backup car after E-town and won four times.

2008: Years later, Tony Schumacher’s amazing season continues to shine. Only Larry Dixon and Antron Brown scored more than one win (two each). Four others won once.

2009: Quite a drop-off for Tony Schumacher and a boost for Larry Dixon (who also won five), coinciding with Alan Johnson leaving Schumacher and teaming with Dixon.

2010: Only Tony Schumacher (six) and Cory McClenathan (three) scored multiple wins; Larry Dixon was a perfect 12-0 in final rounds.

Two generations of Dixons shared the winner's circle at the 1970 Winternationals.

I could look at this chart all day and draw correlations between dominance and parity and performance and technological breakthroughs that made these stats what they are, but that's for another day.

The incredible domination of Tony Schumacher (15 of 24 in 2008) and Larry Dixon (12 of 23 last year) brings me conveniently back to 1970, when their dads both scored their first wins – Dixon, as mentioned, in Pomona, and “the Don” in Indy.

Dixon Jr. was 3 years old and shared the Pomona winner’s circle with his dad (he would win the Winternationals 18 years later), and “the Sarge” was only about 9 months old when his dad won Indy, a race that the kid would win for the first time 30 years later (and seven more since!).

Happy Father's Day to all you dads, and to the forefathers of our great sport.