Memories of Atlanta
This weekend finishes off the first of what will be several three-in-a-row stretches with the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta. I usually attend this race – have been since 1984 -- but after hitting the preceding races in Charlotte and Houston, it was time for someone else to share the fun. I’m actually going to miss going; I always enjoy a trip down South, and the event always seems to create great story lines or otherwise memorable moments.
The Southern Nationals made its debut on the NHRA tour in 1981, which was kind of a tumultuous year for the schedule. The rain-plagued Fallnationals in Seattle was axed, replaced by the Golden Gate Nationals at good ol’ Baylands (nee Fremont) Raceway; the season’s penultimate event, the World Finals, moved from Ontario Motor Speedway to Orange County Int’l Raceway; and the SPORTSnationals moved from its homey location at Beech Bend Raceway Park to the old Houston Int’l Dragway. The Golden Gates had just a three-year run, the SPORTSnats moved to Indy two years later, and OCIR closed in 1983, but the Atlanta event remains firmly on the calendar for this year’s 33rd edition.
I was still “just” a fan when NHRA introduced the race, and even though I wasn’t yet an NHRA employee, I grasped the significance of planting an NHRA national event in the Peach State, deep in the heart of IHRA territory, where previously we only had the Gatornationals. I’ll never forget the promotional tagline NHRA used in advertising for the event: “It’ll be a peach, y’all.” Ouch.
But the event has turned into a real peach, full of great memories. Here are a few of them.
The 1982 event had two weird final rounds. (Above) Lucille Lee became just the second woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel Wally when she soloed after TR-3 Resin Glaze teammate Steve Hodkinson’s mount lost fire after the burnout. I’ve heard all kinds of conspiracy theories over the years about this one, that team owner Marc Danekas had Hodkinson shut off so that the more marketable Lee could win, but with Lee and Danekas both gone, we may never know. (Below) Yes, this is the Alcohol Funny Car final. Yes, those are two dragsters. Back in the early 1980s, the Alcohol Dragsters and Alcohol Funny Cars ran separate eliminators, and the two winners would then face off in another final round to determine the event’s Pro Comp champ. Anyway, the Atlanta Alcohol Funny Car field was well short of eight cars, so some of the nonqualified dragsters were allowed to run with the Funny Cars and whipped them all. The final round of “Alcohol Funny Car" went to Jeff Jones, far lane, over the late Scott Kalitta. Jones then lost to the late Don Woosley – the TAD winner – in the Pro Comp final.
This was the highlight of the first Southern Nationals I attended, in 1984. Alcohol Dragster world champ Bill Walsh launched into a monster wheelie – it got much higher than in this photo -- in the first round against Bruce McDowell. He landed it safely but lost the round. Walsh had a short but spectacular career, winning three straight championships (1984-86) and 12 of the 17 final rounds in which he appeared.
Anyone who saw this – live or on TV – won’t soon forget it. In the 1986 semifinals of Pro Stock, a rogue gust of wind caught Bob Glidden’s parachute, and he dumped the laundry after beating Butch Leal, sending him into a terrifying series of barrel rolls.
From my starting-line perch, I was sure that the class icon wasn’t going to just walk away from this one, yet, as famously recorded, not only did he exit his Chief Auto Parts Thunderbird under his own power, but he also had the presence of mind to use his driving jacket to cover his busted intake manifold lest someone get a peek inside the magical motor.
I think this was the first time that most of us got a hint that some really proprietary stuff was going on down there and saw the lengths to which teams would go to keep those secrets from prying eyes. (Try walking into a Pro Stock team’s pit area with a camera today!)
At that same 1986 event, this happened the morning after the race was delayed following Glidden’s crash. In the semifinals of Alcohol Funny Car, Terry Mullins and Rick Wayne got together at half-track, putting Mullins’ Trans Am on its roof. Neither driver was injured. Wayne was awarded the round-win but obviously could not come back to contest the final round against Frank Manzo.
Another unforgettable moment of the 1986 race was the Top Fuel victory by former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, who proved himself more than just a bored athlete looking for a thrill. He had gone to the semifinals at the preceding Gatornationals – losing to Don Garlits’ famed Swamp Rat XXX – but no one expected him to actually win one of the damned things with less than a year’s worth of driving experience.
He qualified just eighth, nearly two-tenths behind polesitting Joe Amato, but after a first-round bye when Jack Revelle's dragster lost a transmission (yes, kids, the fuel cars had transmissions then), Pastorini defeated Dick LaHaie, Bill Mullins, and Gene Snow, who had a combined 75 years of racing experience. Pastorini won the rounds against LaHaie and Mullins after expertly backpedaling through tire smoke to boot.
The funny story from the event, though, came in qualifying. Here’s how we reported it in ND:
Apparently, crew chief Donnie Couch had put in a piston that "shouldn't have been in there" because they were low on parts. The K-B started to smoke noticeably as it approached the line, and Couch, upon seeing it, made the universal, crossed-hands sign for half-pass to Dan, fearing detonation.
Apparently, though, they had never gone over the signs, because Dan buried his foot in it, racking up the aforementioned 5.67. When Couch got down to the top end, Dan got out of the car and asked, "By the way, what does this mean?" duplicating the gesture.
I’m sure that either Couch or Pastorini, both of whom I understand follow this column, can share the story behind the story in a future column.
Rain pushed the final to Monday, when Couch – with tuning help from fuel-system genius Sid Waterman – wrenched Pastorini to a 5.56 to trounce “the Snowman's” 5.64 in the final for the big and surprising win.
Some Funny Car history was made at Atlanta Dragway, too. (Above) At the 1989 event, Eric Reed became the first African-American to reach an NHRA Professional final round when he worked his way to the Funny Car final against Mike Dunn.
Although Dunn, driving Joe Pisano’s Olds, took the win, Reed’s name went into the history books.
For a frame of reference, it would be 10 more years – at the 1999 event in Dallas – before Antron Brown would make his first final-round appearance, in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Two years later, Del Worsham (right) won Funny Car in Atlanta to become – at 21 years, 2 months – the youngest driver to score in Funny Car. And, believe it or not, he still holds the record.
(Worsham’s longstanding record pales in comparison, however, to the Top Fuel mark, which 18-year, 1-month-old Jeb Allen set in winning the 1972 Summernationals. It has survived more than 40 years. The record for youngest Pro Stock winner is just two years old, set by Vincent Nobile, 19 years, 6 months, when he won the 2011 Houston event.)
Mike Dunn also got to be the buzz kill for another great Atlanta story in 1993, when he drove Darrell Gwynn’s La Victoria entry to victory against IndyCar racer John Andretti in the Top Fuel semifinals. John, the nephew of famed Mario Andretti, was making his Top Fuel debut in former baseball slugger Jack Clark’s Taco Bell-sponsored dragster and showed that some skills do translate. They qualified for a very quick show, ran in the fours at nearly 300 mph, and beat reigning season champ Joe Amato.
In one of the more unusual sights on a starting line anywhere, the entire rear end was violently ripped out of Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Mopar Top Fueler after he blew a tire shortly off the line while racing Connie Kalitta in the 1994 semifinals. It goes without saying that he didn’t win the round.
A few years later, at the 1999 event, Kenny Bernstein sheared the right-rear wheel studs on his Budweiser dragster in the first round against another Kalitta – Connie’s nephew, Doug – in the first round of Top Fuel. Fortunately for all, Kalitta had smoked the tires because Bernstein’s red rocket tricycle went into Kalitta’s lane before rolling. Kalitta took evasive action, and everyone walked away.
And, of course, even more Funny Car history was made at the 2008 race when Ashley Force Hood became the first female winner in Funny Car. She had three runner-ups and broke through for the big win against her famous dad in the final, setting the bar for sisters Courtney and Brittany, who have since followed her into the nitro ranks.
So there you have it, a brief but action-packed history of highlights from Atlanta. Thanks for reading. It’s been a peach, y’all.