The goal: come home with a championship trophy. The place: Tulsa Raceway Park. It’s late September and the last event on the 2020 NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series schedule. Kin Bates, Bobby Cottrell, and Pete Wittenberg all arrived at Tulsa leading the points standings in A/Fuel, Funny Car, and Top Fuel, respectively. Bates held a very slim three-point lead over pursuer Wayne Ramay, but Ramay also made the long tow from California specifically to win his first series championship. Bobby Cottrell was seeking a third straight Funny Car title but Jerry Espeseth was still within reach of the defending champion. Wittenberg, seventh in 2019, needed a strong showing at Tulsa to fend off pursuers Jim Murphy and Dusty Green.
Qualifying went splendidly for the leaders as all three locked down No. 1 positions. Bates ran a 6.025; yet Wayne Ramay was still close with a 6.132. Cottrell ran a blistering 5.559 right off the trailer Friday evening while Espeseth responded with a fine 5.695 of his own. Wittenberg’s 5.709 gave him a comfortable performance margin over Tyler Hilton and Jim Murphy, both of whom carded 5.83s.
The A/Fueldragster field was small and Bates’ No. 1 position gave him a single run, which saw him run a 6.098 at 226.47. Now, it was all up to Wayne Ramay to oust Garry Wheeler, driving the Grand Prix injected nitro digger. Ramay’s dream died right there in round one. Wheeler torched Ramay off the line and ran a winning 6.325 as Ramay encountered problems and shut off. The championship won, Bates and the team from Anderson, Calif.now concentrated on sweeping all honors. It didn’t happen. Bates inexplicably fouled out and Wheeler cruised to the victory.
Funny Car also had a short field with just five competitors answering the call for eliminations. Like Bates, Cottrell got a bye run into round two and Cottrell laid down a sweet 5.619. Espeseth reciprocated with a 5.697 of his own. In round two, Espeseth needed Mike Peck to take out Cottrell to have any chance of overtaking the Whittier, Calif., speedster. That did not happen. Bucky Austin’s Bardahl express punished the asphalt with a 5.680 and Mike Peck was unable to match any time close to that. It was done: Cottrell was the Funny Car champion for the third straight year. That said, Cottrell and Espeseth put on a fitting finale in the last round with Espeseth’s 5.582 at 252.47 mph edging out Cottrell’s 5.653 at 252.00 mph.
In Top Fuel, Wittenberg needed all of his off-pace 6.169 in round one to escape a stubborn Brendan Murry, setting up a critical showdown with Dusty Green in round two. In the same round, Jim Murphy was upset by No. 6 qualifier Tim Cullinan’s valiant 5.887, ending his quest for a championship. It became game, set, match for Wittenberg when Green was shut off on the line in that critical round-two matchup, and Wittenberg slammed the gate with a 5.890 at only 195.76. Though somewhat anti-climactic, the final round saw Hilton driving the Great Expectations dragster win a seesaw drag race over Wittenberg, 6.397 to 6.434.
The Tulsa Nitro Nationals also featured fuel altereds, gassers, and bracket classes. Steve Vang won fuel altered over Roger Lechtenberg in a compelling eighth-mile duel of 4.264 with a .022 RT to Lechtenberg’s 4.302 with a .052 RT. Kevin Thomas’ ’57 Chevy was victorious over Harry Barker’s ’53 Chevy Bel Air in the gasser final; 10.99 Eliminator went to Tulsa resident Paul Bridgewater driving a ’71 Chevy Vega; and 11-12.99 Eliminator was won by Martin Brown from Collinsville, Okla.