During his five decades as a dedicated NHRA Sportsman racer, George Stassi Jr. has seen and done a lot, but he hadn't turned on a win light in a national event final round until last weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. Stassi, who is set to celebrate his 71st birthday in May, made it to the final for the first time in his career and then secured the Wally by beating Jody Lang, one of the sport’s more successful class racers. A half century in the making, Stassi couldn’t hold back the tears when he was interviewed in front of an appreciative Phoenix crowd on the return road.
“I’d always said that before I quit racing I’d love to win at least one national event,” said Stassi. “I’ve won a couple of points meets, but I really wanted to win a national event, and thank God I was able to do it. I mean, things just fell my way. I got to the final, and I see Jody Lang in the other lane. I think you can count on one hand the number of times he has lost a final. As far as I’m concerned, Jody, Dan Fletcher, and Peter Biondo are the three best racers in the country. To beat Jody was just hard to believe. I’m 70 years old and hate to admit it, but before I even got to the return road, I was crying like a baby. I just couldn’t believe it happened.”
Stassi’s first victory didn’t come easy. In fact, it almost didn’t happen at all. Stassi won the third round when veteran Abe Loewen red-lighted, but the victory came with a heavy price tag when he broke an engine in his SS/HA ’67 Camaro. With a bye run on the ladder and a chance to go to the semifinals for the first time in a decade, Stassi’s weekend appeared to be over. Stassi’s outlook changed when a number of fellow competitors stepped in to help, offering a back-up engine in time for Sunday’s final rounds.
“I was going to go home even though I had a single in the quarterfinals,” said Stassi. “Then a bunch of my fellow racers, including the Broaddus family and the Emmons family, came over and helped. The Broaddus brothers had a spare engine that they offered me. Everyone was unbelievable. They just told me to calm down and not worry about things. You don’t realize how tight the Sportsman community is until you’re in a bind. That is one of the main reasons why I still race; it’s the people I’ve met. It would take an entire issue of National Dragster to thank all the people who’ve helped me.”
Stassi’s new engine was no powerhouse. In fact, it would barely run the 10.60 index in the high altitude of Phoenix, but it was quick enough and consistent enough to get the job done. Mechanical issues aside, it isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that Stassi drove the best race of his life in Phoenix. Following his quarterfinal bye run, Stassi used a .009 light to stop defending Phoenix champ Gary McGlasson and then used another impressive run in the final round to stop Jody Lang, who was appearing in his 41st career final.
“I’m no great driver, but things fell my way,” said Stassi. “We got down to the 1,000-foot mark, and I could see I was coming up on him. I know he likes to dial a little soft, so I said, ‘I’m going to gamble and dump him.' I took a gamble and got lucky.”
Stassi has just one regret regarding his first win, and it’s a big one. His large family, including wife, Rita; daughters, Amber and April; and grandkids, Taylor, Mason, Owen, Grady, Boston, and Brooklyn, were not there to greet him. The Southern California-based Stassi clan attends almost every race except the Phoenix event.
“This is a family deal, and they are with me everyplace I go, except this weekend,” Stassi said. “A few years ago, I thought about selling the car and retiring, but my family wouldn't let me. I think my grandkids would kill me because they love it. I told them, as long as they still like coming to the races, we’ll keep the car. It made me sad that they weren’t there, but I know they were home watching on [NHRA All Access], and I know they were going crazy. I’ll bet even the dog was going nuts. They eat, drink, and sleep drag racing, and if it wasn’t’ for them, the car would never make it to the track.”
The best of the rest: Stassi shared the winner’s circle with a diverse group of racers that included fellow veterans Mike Ferderer and Val Torres, and young guns Kyle Rizzoli and Aaron Kinard (pictured), as well as fellow first-time winner Grant Durie.
Rizzoli bagged his fifth career win and his second in Stock when he downed two-time national champ and Pomona Super Stock winner Justin Lamb in the final round. While his numbers in the final were solid, Rizzoli wasn’t afraid to admit that he has some luck earlier in the event. In round one, Rizzoli and his ’69 Camaro were paired against John Cooper’s ’64 Ford Thunderbolt in a heads-up battle between AA/SA entries. Rizzoli figured he was facing a performance deficit of about four-tenths of a second, so he didn’t have much hope for a victory, but his fortunes turned when Cooper’s car was pushed off the starting line after developing a fluid leak. Later in the event, Rizzoli caught another break when Pomona champ Jerry Emmons was disqualified for excessive breaking.
Torres also upped his career-win total to five after driving past Marco Perivolaris in the Super Comp final. Torres, whose most recent win came last year in Sonoma, gave up a slight lead at the start, .002 to .023, but prevailed on a double breakout. Torres did not have an easy path to the winner’s circle. He had to overcome Trevor Larson’s perfect 8.900 run in the third round but later rallied to win his quarterfinal match against Jeff Conelly with a perfect .000 light.
Nearly three years after his most recent national event win in Las Vegas, Kinard visited the winner’s circle at a national event for the sixth time in his career. A three-time winner of the JEGS SPORTSnationals, Kinard faced off against Ed Olpin in the final round. Olpin, who was coming off a double win in Pomona, won 11-straight rounds of Super Gas competition before a seven-thousandths foul ended his string in the all-Corvette final. Kinard, who entered the final on a hot streak of his own with reaction times of .000 and .001 in the earlier rounds, was ready in the final with a .014 light and a 9.909 for the win. “Ed is someone I’ve always looked up to,” said Kinard. “He has been unbeatable this year, and that put a lot of pressure on me.”
Much like the Pomona season opener two weeks ago, the field in the Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs class again featured a number of entries that flirted with the 6.00-second class limit. After three qualifying passes, the top-six qualifiers had all run 6.10 or quicker, including low qualifier Bob Button, who secured the top spot with a 6.001 at more than 233 mph. Final-round opponents Durie and Tom Koenen both qualified in the bottom half of the field but were consistent enough to win rounds. What promised to be a competitive final ended early when Koenen fouled out by .001-second. With the victory, Alberta-resident Durie joined an extensive list of Canadian drivers who have won an NHRA national event.
By far the most accomplished winner at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park was Mike Ferderer, who collected career title No. 24 in the Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs. Ferderer, who claimed his first victory and the Super Gas national championship in 1985, was able to celebrate early in the final after opponent Richard Okerman fouled by two-thousandths. It was Ferderer’s fourth win at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. He was also a winner in 1999, 2000, and 2009.