The NHRA Gatornationals is one of NHRA’s “original seven” events, launched in the ground-breaking 1970 “Super Season” that also included the introduction of Pro Stock and the first Funny Car championship. The event will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year (spoiler alert: Big party … don’t miss it!) and I could fill column after column with the incredible, amazing, and crazy things that have taken place at Gainesville Raceway over the years (spoiler alert: our History of the Gatornationals book is due out early next year), but I don’t want to give away the store just yet, so I thought that this week I’d just focus on just one intriguing aspects of the event that will probably be included in said book, and that would be the large number of truly wild final rounds that have become part of the event’s lore.
1970 Funny Car: It didn’t take the event long to make history as the debut race featured the first all-team Funny Car final. Of course the category was still in its infancy (the Gators was just the eighth Funny Car eliminator ever contested) but it was still pretty big news when Leonard Hughes, near lane, in the new Candies & Hughes Barracuda, faced off against Larry Reyes in the team’s 1969 car. Reyes and Roland Leong were fresh off their win at the Winternationals in the Hawaiian when C&H asked them to campaign the car at the Gators. The old car was quicker but Reyes was asked to let the new car win the final, reportedly to advance a sponsorship that C&H were working on, which he did, leaving super late and shutting off early to a 7.12 that probably would have been the class’ first six-second pass to Hughes’ winning 7.29.
1972 Top Fuel: Florida hero Don Garlits didn’t win the first of his four Gatornationals titles until the third edition of the event, but did so in convincing fashion, running 6.15, the quickest pass in class history, in the semifinals against Tom McEwen and then 6.17 at 243.90 mph (the fastest speed ever) in the final to beat the 6.24, 238.09 of national record holder Clayton Harris in what was then the quickest and fastest side-by-side race in history.
1974 Pro Stock: Wally Booth earned the first Pro Stock victory for car manufacturer AMC after his Hornet stung the field, including final-round opponent Jack Roush and the new Gapp & Roush Mustang. Usual driver Wayne Gapp wheeled their trusty old Pinto to the No. 1 qualifier spot but lost early to Bob Glidden. It was the only final-round appearance of Roush's driving career and preceded his amazing NASCAR ownership career.
1975 Funny Car: Pretty much any category that begins with the words “1975 Funny Car” is going to include Don Prudhomme, who won six of eight events that year with the vaunted Army Monza, and this one certainly does. Prudhomme, who defeated Don Schumacher to win the ‘74 Gators, also won the 1975 title in one of the weirder final rounds in class history. "The Snake" was shut off on the line for an oil leak, which appeared to give Tom Prock – father of Robert Hight crew chief Jimmy – a bye run to his first career win. Unfortunately for Prock, his final dry hop to the starting line broke the rear end. Officials gave both racers 45 minutes to make repairs, which for "the Snake" meant repairing the oil-pan gasket, while Prock and company couldn’t change out the rear end in time. Prudhomme soloed to his second of three straight and five overall Gainesville Funny Car wins.
1982 Top Fuel: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it didn’t get much better than Shirley Muldowney racing Garlits, which they did often at match races but, unbelievably, only twice in final rounds at an NHRA national event. The first, of course, came when Garlits beat “the lady dragster driver” in the ’75 Indy final and the second, stingingly for Garlits, at his hometrack, where Muldowney evened the score, 5.86 to 6.18. The final, showcased recently in our Flashback Friday on NHRA All Access, was preceded by some spirited pit-area footage. Garlits, in a not-so-subtle jab, had donned a Lucille Lee t-shirt (Lee, the only other woman competing in Top Fuel at the time, had just beaten Muldowney in the final round of the March Meet and would soon win the Southern Nationals). Muldowney, interviewed by the always-amazing Steve Evans said, “I like to beat him because for some reason people think it’s prestigious to beat ‘Big Daddy’ ” and, when asked by Evans to rate Garlits as a starting-line driver, she called him “marginal.” This rivalry was for real, folks.
1982 Funny Car: Austin Coil would go on to become the most successful Funny Car crew chief in history, but before his driver, Frank Hawley, lined the famed Chi-Town Hustler up against plucky Tim Grose in the final round at this race, Coil hadn’t yet won a national event. Although a relentless and very successful match-race team, the Chi-Town’s only other previous final round was with Denny Savage at the wheel at the 1975 World Finals, where they lost to Don Prudhomme. Hawley and Coil were hot off a successful season debut at the Winternationals, where they were the No. 1 qualifier and reached the semifinals before Hawley lost on a narrow holeshot to Raymond Beadle, and went the distance this time when Grose’s parachute shook out early in the final en route to their first of two straight season championships.
1984 Funny Car: Joe Amato had already made drag racing history in Top Fuel when his high-winged dragster made the sport’s first 260-mph pass (260.11) in the semifinals, kicking off instant speculation about how long it would take a Funny Car to break the same barrier. Kenny Bernstein’s swoop, wind-tunnel-massaged Budweiser King Ford Tempo had run as fast as 257.87, but that was still more than two mph shy of the mark. The speculation didn’t last long as Bernstein stunningly duplicated Amato’s speed en route to beating John Collins in the Funny Car final. Amato then one-upped Bernstein by winning Top Fuel over low qualifier Gary Beck at a blistering 262.39 but the race remains the only one where both nitro classes broke the same speed barrier at the same event.
1987 Funny Car: Call this one “Return of the Snake.” After going winless since 1982 and sitting out 1986 due to lack of sponsorship, Prudhomme let everyone know that "the Snake" was back as he powered his new Skoal Bandit Pontiac through the 1987 Gatornationals field, breaking a 55-race victory drought, the longest of his career to that point. He set the world back on its axis in Gainesville with a strong but not dominating performance, topping it with a final-round victory against old pal Roland Leong and new Hawaiian driver Johnny West.
1990 Top Fuel: We didn’t know it at the time, but Darrell Gwynn’s final-round victory, his second straight at his homestate event, would be his last. Gwynn defeated Eddie Hill in the final for the second straight year but less than a month later, Gwynn's Coors Extra Gold dragster broke in two during an exhibition run in England, paralyzing him and causing his left arm to be amputated at the elbow.
1990 Super Gas: This otherwise out-of-the-spotlight final will be remembered for what happened after Vonnie Mills won the title. Final-round opponent Bob Carroll red-lighted in the final, but Mills, who also had won the Gatornationals in 1987, ran it all out anyway. Just past the finish line, though, her joy turned to terror as she lost control of her Chevy Beretta and rolled the car. The car careened off the guardrail on its roof and came to a stop, upside down and on fire. Mills was rescued by the NHRA Safety Safari and transported to the local hospital to be treated for burns to her right hand but returned in time to take part in her winner's circle ceremonies.
1991 Funny Car: Current Top Fuel tuner Mark Oswald won Funny Car at the 1991 event, but it took a massive pit-area thrash to reach the winner's circle after an exploding rear tire ripped off a huge chunk of the In-N-Out Burger machine in the semifinals. It wasn't exactly the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" of 1981 Winternationals fame, but chunks of shredded fiberglass were glued back together and sheet metal riveted and taped to the car to get it to the line, where Oswald, who had left the Candies & Hughes team the year before, defeated John Force in the final.
1994 Top Fuel: History was when Connie and Scott Kalitta faced off in the first father-son Top Fuel final. Scott, near lane, and crew chief LaHaie were fresh off setting the national record (4.72) in Houston and had grabbed the other half of the national record with a stout 305.18-mph top-end charge during their 4.79 semifinal defeat of Bernstein. Connie and crew chief Tim Richards, meanwhile, could run no better than a trio of 4.89s leading to the final, but Richards didn't become "the General" by marching in place. He twisted all of the knobs in the right direction for the final round, and Connie zoomed to a tenth-better 4.794, which was low e.t. of the meet and easily outdistanced his son's slowing 4.95. The victory was the eighth of Connie's career but his first since 1986.
1996 Top Fuel: Scott Kalitta was part of another memorable final round two years later. Racing Top Fuel newcomer Blaine Johnson and his future hall of fame tuning brother Alan, Kalitta roared off the line in the money round and seemed en route to an easy win after Johnson's mount smoked the tires. Things quickly turned from great to not so great as Kalitta's dragster climbed into the Florida night air and eventually blew over at three-quarter-track. I watched amazed as Kalitta's car slammed back to the track on all four wheels and slid backward to the finish line and looked as if he still might somehow miraculously cross the finish line ahead of Johnson. Johnson, seeing Kalitta's plight, pedaled and, unsure of what Kalitta's skittering mount might do next, tried to squeeze past in the left lane. Johnson did get there first –- winning what surely is the slowest Top Fuel final in history, 10.40 to 14.74 –- but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Kalitta's mount already had brushed the guardwall as it slid along.
1997 Funny Car: Al Hofmann won Funny Car in a blaze of glory, literally. Hofmann had just defeated Oswald, who had again made the final with the In-N-Out Burger car, when the crankshaft in Hofmann's Pontiac sheared at the No. 2 main engine, setting off a huge oil-and-fuel-fed fire. The car quickly became a rolling inferno and hit the guardrail hard enough to create a compound fracture of Hofmann's right arm and a hairline break of his right wrist. He was transported by helicopter to nearby Shands Hospital and missed the winner's circle, a dubious historic first in the NHRA annals. His car was even less fortunate, as the accompany photo will attest.
2004 Pro Stock Motorcycle: Andrew Hines scored the first Pro Stock Motorcycle victory for Harley-Davidson when he defeated teammate GT Tonglet in the final round. After checking out the final results from qualifying on NHRA.com, Willie and Bill Davidson, grandsons of the company founder, flew down to the event and were in attendance Sunday for the historic event. The following year was pretty good to Hines, too, as he rode his Screamin' Eagle V-Rod to the class' first six-second pass, a 6.991 in Friday's second qualifying session.
So, there you have it, some unforgettable moments from the vast history of this great event, a history that seems to grow larger and deeper each year. Like I said in the opening, you won’t want to miss next year’s 50th anniversary spectacular which will be a salute to the history and heroes that the followers of this column so deeply love and respect.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]