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2002 Gators: Qualifying

By Phil R. Elliott

I hadn't been to Gainesville since 1984, the year both Joe Amato's TF and Kenny Bernstein's FC exceeded 260mph for the first time. Exciting stuff. It was at that event too that I met Mike Gray who had just purchased AHRA -- he hired me the following Tuesday to produce Drag World.

Actually, other than the tower and some buildings, Gainesville Raceway now under the management of ex-police officer Don Robertson was fully recognizable. There have been a lot of paving and other improvements, including a complete road course, but it maintains its old-style feeling.

The biggest news I heard before the Pros ran was that after further testing in Steve Schmidt's Grand Am, veteran Bob Glidden was hanging up his Nomex underwear again. "I'm just not comfortable in the car," Glidden said in a formal press release. "I've done a pitiful job of driving and these guys on this team have been busting their butts and they deserve better. I'm done." Interestingly, Schmidt hopped in the car and wiggled and sashayed all the way through for a 6.867/201 that ended 6th after session one. Bob was right there watching -- he just grinned, shook his head and walked away.

Another retiree (sort of) was Mark Osborne who, following qualifying at both Phoenix and Pomona, said goodbye to Mopar Performance/Nickens Racing in favor of more time with family and business back in Virginia. In the first pairing his replacement, reigning IHRA PS world champ Gene Wilson (son of fishing great Orlando Wilson) switched sanctions and brands but came up short when the Neon shook.

According to David Nickens, he received "literally hundreds of applications" and quickly assembled a short list including Wilson, Tony Gillig, Santo Volpe, Rickie Smith, Bo Nickens, and Tom Martino. Wilson, who won 8 out of 11 races in Charlie Hunt's Cougar to dominate IHRA last season, was the first to test a back-up Dodge Neon R/T, impressed the team and ended up with the seat.

The reason I said "sort of" with regard to Mr. Osborne was because he showed in Florida at the controls of Troy Humphrey's Firebird, the same car that took Greg Anderson to wins in 2001. Neither Osborne nor Humphrey wishes to make the full tour so their team-up should be decent. They would end up a DNQ with a best of 6.901.

Late in that first session, Ron Krisher did what is becoming commonplace by running a 6.821/203.25 for provisional #1Q and both ends of the track record.

The bump was already Darrell Alderman's 6.901, and those in the know agreed that without a night qualifying session, there might not be much shuffling, although there were a whopping 21 drivers who would try their best to infiltrate.

In the second session, virtually everyone picked up slightly, the first to get major notice being PST grad Mark Whisnant who leaped from 26th to 11th with a 6.882/201. That bumped Alderman for a split second he was in the opposite lane and recorded a 6.884 to jump back in. Such was the way it went for several pairs until J.R. Carr's 6.886/200 was #16Q. Most of the heavy hitters stayed reasonably consistent.

Among those trying to qualify was Swedish driver Michael Malmgren in an AC Delco backed 2001 Camaro. His best of the weekend came in session one, a 6.967 that kept him from playing Sunday.

It was midway through session three (Saturday morning) that things shuffled again, when both Tom Martino and Gene Wilson jumped up with 6.879/200 and 6.882/201 numbers, respectively. Mike Edwards' 6.880/200.59 came next and it got him in too.

To give you an idea of the tightness of the Gainesville group, a few pairs later Alderman picked up from his 6.884/200 to a 6.873/201 a seemingly minuscule .011-second improvement. But, it moved the ex-champ from 18th to 9th! In the other lane, Carr improved by .019 and jumped from 19th to 6th! V. Gaines had a similar .016 pickup for an improvement from 18th to 8th! Whisnant's 6.880 was .002 better than his previous best and only matched Edwards' ET run just moments earlier. But, his speed was 201.55, so he earned the bump.

The last pair of the session gave everyone something to cheer about. Yates and Krisher staged the first "burndown" of the season, a nearly one-minute ordeal that got the fans excited and had both starter Rick Stewart and NHRA veep Graham Light fuming. Why Light felt it necessary to usurp Stewart's authority on a seemingly trivial matter that has no bearing on any outcome is beyond me. And, it made me wonder what the late Buster Couch would have done in the aftermath possibly call security to have Graham removed from his starting line or place him upside down in one of the water barrels? Whatever, though the drivers ran the session's best, 6.863/201 and 6.841/203, respectively, neither improved.

With heat blazing down all day, the final session appeared to be a matter of making final adjustments toward raceday settings, and nothing else. Unless there was a heavy shake, most cars slowed by .02-.05, with one exception. That being David Strouse's Cutlass, way deep in the alternate list, which for whatever reason improved from 6.954 to a 6.933. That may seem insignificant to most, but I'll bet to the New Jersey team, they took it as a victory.

The final spread was a tight .059, a number that is not the best ever. However, when you take into consideration that Mr. Krisher was .024 ahead of the #2Q, and the rest of the field was bunched in .035, his recent advantage takes on a clearer perspective.

The first funny car to the starting line was Todd Paton's #99, an all-white Camaro. The second generation Ontario driver, with his dad Barry as crewchief, was returning to the scene of a 1999 TAFC victory and where a year later he stepped into a nitro FC for the first time. The team's first run was not representative of their 100% win record in Canadian match races.

In the next pairing, Dale Creasy rode the Craftsman Firebird to a 5.254/249 and in the last pairing John Force hit a 5.005/300 in the Castrol Mustang. Between those runs, the entire session should be considered wasted motion. There were broken motors, oil from loose fittings, smoked tires and a host of mistakes.

Friday afternoon, on a track that registered 117 degrees, Johnny Gray started things with a 5.072/287, and right behind him, Checker-Schucks-Kragen teammate Del Worsham recorded a pedaling 5.222/287. Next up, John Lawson pedaled to a 5.181/280. Then, Cruz Pedregon started slow but picked up to a fine 5.036/301 for the Advance Auto Parts team.

In the next pair, Gary Densham and Bob Bode recorded decent times, but not without heavy cost as both pitched major parts in the lights. The AAA Mustang had a fireball on its way to a 5.038/292, while the Avenger blew a blower.

Al Hoffman was all over the left lane in Jim Dunn's K&N Filter Firebird, but manhandled it to a 5.046/297. It was the last run the car would make all weekend as the two great racers came to an impasse and parted ways. The car remained qualified, however, causing a round one single.

Bob Gilbertson pedaled his S&S/Fram Firebird twice for a 5.210/233 result, Scotty Cannon boomed to a 4.957/307, and in the final pair, Force stayed consistent with a 5.014/314 while Tim Wilkerson defeated him with a stunning 4.997/305.

When Friday ended, Scotty met with the press and admitted how difficult it was for crew chief Mike Neff to back down a potent combo like that in the Oakley Firebird to cope with the conditions at hand. He also revealed to having severe handling problems that might be caused by a bent chassis or rear end mounting bracket.

On Saturday, Gary Scelzi brought the White Cap Toyota into play with a nice 5.081/295 clocking, then Tony Pedregon earned an invitation with a 5.006/314 from the Castrol Mustang.

There were hosts of tire smoking runs until Whit Bazemore hung on for a 5.001/302 timeslip. Immediately following the run, crew chief Lee Beard stated "When you run wimpy tires, you've gotta run a wimpy tune-up."

Late in the session, Cruz showed consistency with a 5.04/298 and Wilkerson looked like a genius with an improving 4.962/310.

The afternoon session, which saw track temps of around 120 degrees, proved very dramatic. Ron Capps' smokeless 5.006/296 in the Skoal green Camaro put him in the show. Skuza's 5.049/302 got him a spot as well, as did Tommy Johnson's 5.021/291 in Skoal blue.

With those three runs tabulated, the bump was Dale Creasy's 5.254. Bode next rode to a Glen Mikres-tuned 5.158/277, bumping Creasy, giving himself 15th and putting Gilbertson's 5.210 on the bubble. In the other lane, John Lawson moved the Lucas Oil Firebird up the charts with a 5.057/296.

There was only one car remaining to grab a spot, the hottest driver currently on the POWERade NHRA circuit, Del Worsham's C-S-K Firebird. His history of last-second qualifying fireworks assured many observers that he'd do it again, while crewchief dad Chuck Worsham showed serious concern. With the third longest qualifying streak and the second spot in points at stake, Del headed off on a hoped-for shot that would be heard at least around Gainesville. The run was a 5.248/226, not enough to make the field.

Showing that it could be done were Cruz (4.992), Densham (4.885/320.36), Whitt (4.916/313) and Cannon (4.960/313).

For the long cars, the combo of track temp and tires was no better than for the short ones. Friday early, Doug Herbert's 4.710/306 and Tony Schumacher's 4.816/301 were bests among 17 cars.

Actually there were 18, but Steve Smith's engine turned sour when he moved the handles to the "high side" and he shut off before staging. An instant replay of that exact scenario started session two, and Smith's name still did not appear on the sheets.

Clay Millican zipped to #2Q with a 4.759/310 next; crew chief Mike Kloeber choosing not to make the earlier session seemed not to be a factor. A few pairs later, Kenny Bernstein vaulted the Budweiser King to the top of the heap with the first "sixty" of the weekend, a wiggly 4.694/310.

Scott Weis came next, his decent 4.808/270 giving him 4th for the moment and his fireball giving the Safety Safari something to clean up.

In the just cleaned left lane, Larry Dixon strolled to a seemingly effortless 4.604/321.96, a number that gave the Miller Lite the pole for good.

Over in the other lane, Cory McClenathan hit a 4.740/315 that would have been superb against any other foe.

Others showing shining combos during session two included Shirley Muldowney (4.790 at only 249mph!), Rhonda Hartman (4.784/297), Schumacher (4.717/320), and Doug Kalitta (4.702/313).

Steve Smith finally got in the subpart field momentarily in session three, with a laboring halftrack 5.929. It was a session that saw a lot of 4.90s and 4.80s, with soft early numbers and crew chiefs at a loss for just what to do.

One incident that had everyone talking was the pairing between one of the younger and one of the elder among current drivers. Following a pairing that saw the Gwynn Racing-NYY machine (Yankees did not appear anywhere on the car) spin its tires early for Andrew Cowin, and the 20th anniversary Heart Like a Wheel entry (can you believe it has been that long?!) fireballed heavily for Ms. Muldowney. When they both coasted to a stop, Andrew hopped out of his mount, walked in front of the pink car and extended both arms with hands palms up as if to say, "What was up with that?"

Though I watched the staging procedures of both on this run, and the runs, I saw nothing out of the ordinary so I know not to what the young Australian was referring. She must have though because she came out of her car like a jack-in-the-box at the end of its song, unloaded a string of expletives and ended up pushing him. I saw video of the episode but only have witnesses' reports about the audio portion.

Clear at the end of the session, Kalitta and Schumacher put on a rare side-by-side race, 4.711/309 to 4.736/321. Then Bernstein billowed his Goodyears while Dixon ran another smooth 4.669/312.

With nobody in the place knowing what to expect in the final session, drama was high. The bump was Andrew Cowan's 5.821 (that "5" is not a typo), #15Q was Paul Romine's more realistic 4.951, and both Don Garlits and Chris Karamesines were on the outside.

The first pairing was Garlits vs. Steve Smith, a pair of non-qualified black dragsters.

Don Garlits had been working since mid-2001 to return his mono-strut SR-34 to competitiveness. One after another pitfall was encountered and overcome by the swamp genius, until he ran head-on into rules.

Over the decades, Big Daddy and Big Wally have been on collision courses many times, both figuratively and literally. This time, the two aging pioneers (though Mr. Parks probably was unaware of most of the steps in this most recent chapter) took sides over safety issues on Garlits racecar.

Interviews printed elsewhere show Don's stubborn beliefs for why he insisted that running fuel through the frame rails of SR-34 was far safer than current "dry" rails and I'm not going to dispute him. The fact is, he builds his own stuff (in this case he and Murf McKinney worked together from Garlits' design); his dragster has much larger main and bottom rails than is mandatory; and by running fuel in the rails, one can instantly see if a crack develops.

At the end of 2001, after asking for several minor changes in SR-34 and promising to allow the car to run at the World Finals, NHRA nitro liaison Ray Alley reversed his decision and placed a rule on the books outlawing the practice of using frame rails for fuel lines. Word at Gainesville was that NHRA president Tom Compton had mandated that Garlits' car be grandfathered and remain legal.

For the initial effort, the latest in engine, fuel system, clutch and computer technology was added to SR-34, and some of the best names in the business among them Dale Armstrong, Bob Brooks, T.C. Lemmons, Frank Oglesby and Tim Bucher -- threw in their talents. It may have been a case of "too many cooks" as the superhuman try was not enough. Garlits' 5.095/289 gained him a temporary bubble, but meant that he still has not seen a "four" or a run over 300mph in a vehicle he owns.

In the very next pair, "the Greek" bumped Garlits out with a 5.032/288 that gave him the 16th spot. The ageless Karamesines had showed at Gainesville with his car in retro gold and white livery.

The crowd wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry when just a few minutes later, Cowin bumped Greek with a pedaling 4.995/277 that remained the final spot on the ladder. Ironically, all that drama and it was the baby-faced Aussie back on the bump.

The best times of the session went to Cory Mac, a 4.691/315 that gave him #2Q and put a smile on Wes Cerny's face.

The only other competitive time went to Bernstein, a 4.762/315 that overshadowed a tire spinning Dixon.

I'm not going to detail Pro Modified qualifying. It has been covered infinite terms elsewhere. I was impressed with how strong these cars have become since I was with IHRA. Also, this were the only category that was specially showcased by allowing all to be towed and displayed in front of the crowd on the return road. The major point of the top names in Pro Mod Fred Hahn and Bill Kuhlmann -- NOT making the field shows just how truly keen this invitational group was.

Most of the ink surrounding Pro Stock Bike flowed from two sources the new Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod ridden by G.T. Tonglet and the still sponsorless Angelle Savoie.

The latter was in red-and-yellow Star Racing leathers and on George Bryce's brand new TL-1000 Suzuki, with bodywork still in gray gelcoat. She qualified second (7.175/183) behind archrival Matt Hines (7.156/193) and swore that a major deal was just days away.

The former was said to be the first Professional vehicle in NHRA history to have electronic fuel injection a rule allowance not found in the printed pages. It was also claimed to make 325 dyno'd horsepower out of the billet 160ci beauty. It's 7.572/171 best showed less than full potential but a thorough track testing is forthcoming and the exorbitant numbers spent on the exercise should be justified.

A total of 26 two-wheel teams made runs at Gainesville.

The alcohol cars returned to the POWERade NHRA tour in Florida and again were plagued with breakage. Their Friday night qualifying session took 2-1/2 hours to complete, not a good sign to the powers that be. I only hope for their sake that most of the decision makers had headed for dinner meetings before the session began.

Art Gallant, who won the Division 2 points race at the same track two weeks previous, ended up #1Q (5.314/253). Interestingly, the top three qualifiers Gallant, Keith Stark (5.347/272) and Michael Gunderson (5.437/272) were all in A/FDs.

Though 23 dragsters arrived, only 12 funny cars showed up for the first eastern race, and Jay Payne earned #1Q (5.672/252) just ahead of Frank Manzo (5.687/250) and Von Smith (5.700/255).

Flyin' Phil Elliott


Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil

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