High-Profile First Wins at the Winternationals

The Circle K NHRA Winternationals has seen many firsts through the years, including memorable first wins by some of the most recognizable names in the sport. A look at five heroes of the sport who recorded their first national event wins at the Winternationals.
30 Jan 2017
Candida Benson, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
Fast Five
Don Garlits' Swamp Rat V at the 1963 Winternationals

The Circle K NHRA Winternationals has seen many firsts through the years, including memorable first wins by some of the most recognizable names in the sport. Following is a look at five heroes of the sport who recorded their first national event wins at the Winternationals.

Don Garlits, Top Fuel (1963)
Don Garlits in the 1963 Winternationals winner's circle

Arguably the greatest drag racer of all time, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits won his first of 35 NHRA national event titles at the 1963 Winternationals. NHRA had lifted its seven-year nitromethane ban for the event before dropping it forever at both national events the following year, and Garlits couldn’t have been happier.

With a wing mounted over the engine, the first on a Top Fuel dragster, Garlits’ Swamp Rat V entry attracted considerable attention. Initially rejected, Garlits’ winged dragster was allowed to compete, clearing the way for a dominating victory. Not only did Garlits defeat fellow Florida racer Art Malone in the final with an 8.26 at 186.32 mph, but he also set low e.t. at 8.11. Garlits later removed his innovative wing, but he reemployed it eight years later on his first rear-engine car, Swamp Rat XIV, which he debuted with a victory in 1971 at the Winternationals, a race he would win five times.

Bill Jenkins, Stock (1965)
1965 Winternationals Stock final round

Though best known for his success with Chevys, Pro Stock legend Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins won his first NHRA national event with a Dodge. Jenkins had already made quite a name for himself as a mechanic and tuner. He had teamed with Dave Strickler to win Little eliminator at the 1963 Nationals with an A/FX 427-cid ’63 Chevy, and following Chevrolet’s exit from racing, the two won class at the 1964 Nationals with their A/FX ’64 Dodge. But Jenkins scored his biggest win at the 1965 season opener in his own S/SA Black Arrow ’65 Dodge.

Jenkins’ Dodge quickened with each round as he made his way through the all-Plymouth field, but his driving made the difference. After defeating Hank Taylor and D.R. Spence, Jenkins left first and ran an 11.41 to beat Bill Shirey’s 11.39 in the semifinals, then stopped Dick Housey in the final on another holeshot, 11.39 to 11.37. Jenkins would add three more Winternationals wins to his résumé, including NHRA’s first Pro Stock event title in 1970. He scored again in 1972, when he won six of eight NHRA national events, and in 1974, finishing with 13 Pro Stock victories.

Don Prudhomme, Top Fuel (1965)
Don Prudhomme in the 1965 Winternationals winner's circle

By the time he won this Top Fuel title, Don Prudhomme was well on his way to becoming a legend. Nearly unbeatable in Southern California match races in the feared Greer-Black-Prudhomme entry, Prudhomme hooked up with car owner and crew chief Roland Leong for 1965 and quickly took advantage of the opportunity to showcase his talents on a worldwide stage as the Pomona event was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Prudhomme qualified at the top of the 16-car field with a 7.80 at more than 204 mph, just a hundredth ahead of 1963 Winternationals winner “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Running in the 7.7 range on race day, Prudhomme and the Hawaiian team were unbeatable. Giving up a slight advantage to Bill Alexander in the final, Prudhomme quickly made up the difference and established a clear lead by half-track, running 7.76 for the first of what would be 49 victories in NHRA national event competition. In an era when supercharged nitro-burning race cars often smoked the tires and were rarely consistent, Prudhomme turned in one of the most impressive performances ever with four runs between 7.75 and 7.87.

Connie Kalitta, Top Fuel (1967)
Connie Kalitta in the 1967 Winternationals winner's circle

After runner-ups at the 1963 Winternationals in Top Gas and the 1965 Springnationals in Top Fuel, Connie “the Bounty Hunter” Kalitta claimed the first of his 10 NHRA national event Top Fuel titles. Three years earlier, Kalitta had replaced his 392 Hemi with a 427 SOHC Ford and stuck with the once-unworkable combination until by early 1967 he was running better than anyone. Just a week before his NHRA Winternationals victory, Kalitta won the AHRA Winter Nationals in Scottsdale, Ariz., and later than month won the NASCAR Winter Nationals in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Kalitta qualified No. 16, which paired him with No. 32 Chuck Griffith in round one. Kalitta ran a 7.28, the best of the round, and suddenly found himself the favorite. He then defeated Mike Snively with a 7.24 and John Mulligan with a 7.22. In the semifinals, Ford teammate Pete Robinson left first but got out of shape and shut off. Kalitta won easily with a 7.23 to meet Gene Goleman. In a classic Ford vs. Chevy showdown, Goleman slowed to a 7.46, but it’s unlikely that he would have been able to match Kalitta’s amazing 7.17, 218.43.

Lee Shepherd, Modified (1974)
Lee Shepherd's F/Gas Maverick racing at the 1974 Winternationals

Like so many NHRA greats, Lee Shepherd laid the foundation for his remarkable — but all-too-short — Professional career in the Sportsman ranks. Having won the NHRA Division 4 Modified championship in 1973, Shepherd’s impressive Winternationals victory the next year was hardly a surprise. Shepherd, who with partners David Reher and Buddy Morrison would dominate Pro Stock in the early 1980s, won 26 of 56 national events and four world championships from 1980 to 1984.

Driving his partners’ Chevy-powered F/Gas Maverick, Shepherd ran back-to-back 10.67s in victories over John Smith’s M/Gas Volkswagen and defending event champions Bob Riffle’s C/Gas Colt. He stopped Carl Frizzell’s E/MP Camaro in the quarterfinals with a 10.66, then held on to beat former Winternationals winner Fred Teixeira’s B/Gas Corvette with a 10.49. In the final, Shepherd unleashed a 10.39, 130.62 to set both ends of the F/Gas national record and defeat Jim Marshall’s A/MP Dart. Shepherd would win the Winternationals twice in Pro Stock, in 1980 and 1984, and was on his way to a fifth straight Pro Stock championship when he was killed in a testing accident in March 1985.