2002 Gatornationals: Da Race
By Phil R. Elliott
Among the choices of headlines that could have been used
are, "Dixon Dominates, Leads Beer War," "Force Loses First
Round, Doesn't Get 100th Win Yet," and "Seniors
Fail To Make a Dent."
Instead, the race should be headlined with a simplistic
title that speaks to what it was, a thrilling, stunning, sun-soaked event.
The MAC Tools Gatornationals set records for attendance.
It seems an easy statement to make, on a subject that receives far too
little mention. However, it is a subject that deserves to be shouted long
and loud, especially in light of the world situation.
I don't have real numbers, but let me just say that it
was difficult to get around in the pits, and the stands were plenty full,
even on Thursday. Congrats to all concerned.
Next, considering the amount of Goodyear smoke expelled
into the air surrounding the swampland, the gigantic tire and rubber
company from Akron received a fair share of ridicule.
My opinion is as follows.
Gainesville is and has always been known as a high
traction surface and most years, the place has been a bastion of
performance. In 2002, it was not. Previously, nitro teams knew they could
throw virtually everything in their arsenals at the storied facility. This
time, that was not the case.
The problem was in change, or more to the point, a
stubborn belief that change was unnecessary. Open-minded crew chiefs
seemed less troubled than those with the attitude that they knew better.
This tire is different than the old one. It is a
different size, is a different compound, and has different makeup as to
tread, sidewall and shoulder. Why wouldn't it need a totally different
combination of fuel, clutch, timing, blower overdrive, etc.?
As long as some teams continue to use their old logbook
stats for the old tires they'll be troubled. As soon as everyone opens
their minds to the fact that changing the tire has affectively changed
everything, drag racing will feel this downturn.
But keep in mind that we're talking about trying to
harness 6,000+ horsepower through a pair of rear tires. A slight miss in
any setting will reap spinning tires as the result. Simple. To point at
this new, safer tire as the entire "problem" is an inaccurate
Of the elders entered in TF, only Ms. Muldowney remained
when the race began. She faced Mrs. Smith in round one, and both
distaffers smoked their tires. Rhonda gave up the race earlier than did
Shirley, and the pink car fireballed in the lights. The crew, including
husband Rahn Tobler, Bob Brandt and Pat Galvin, made it back for round
two, but the car smoked its tires again against eventual winner Larry
Dixon had the best ET (4.682/313) of the initial stanza
in a win over an improving Andrew Cowin (4.840/296), but Cory McClenathan
(4.673/315) was right there performance wise. Also improving was Paul
Romine (4.732/303) in a tight win over Doug Herbert (4.740/312), and
remaining competitive/consistent were David Grubnic (4.818/307), Tony
Schumacher (4.750/306), and Kenny Bernstein (4.732/314) in a win over
Bruce Litton (4.831/304).
Bernstein drove around Tony Shoe to start the second
round, his improving 4.688/316 coming at a moment the Army was slowing to
a sub par (for them) 4.832/311. Romine's 4.835/295 was enough when Doug
Kalitta smoldered the tires. Cory Mac pulled away from Grubnic for a
4.713/316 to 4.850/306 victory. And Dixon's 4.663/313 was the class of
the round over Muldowney.
One of the many outspoken detractors of the new Goodyear
tire has been Tim Richards. He has gone so far as to beg NHRA to allow him
to run the old tire on the Budweiser King. Of course, because NHRA and
Goodyear have developed the new tire for safety reasons, the request has
been denied. Considering the consistency "the General" achieved
in Florida, it appears he has gotten a handle on what the tires require.
Once again, in the semis, the big red one charged to a
steady number, a 4.671/313, that might have been a single. Opponent
McClenathan, under the tutelage of Wes Cerny, coasted after losing
The other semi pairing was only slightly more dramatic.
The blue Miller Lite machine sped to perfection, a 4.664/314, while
opponent Romine shook, smoked, pedaled and then pitched a blower drive
So it was the beer war in the final for the umpteenth
time, Larry Dixon's third final of the three-race season, and obviously
a race between the two best dragsters on the property.
Miller crew chief Dick LaHaie, from his years on the
AHRA and match circuits, has a history of great performance under hot,
sticky conditions. Team owner Don Prudhomme has five Gainesville wins of
his own. Larry Dixon previously had two Florida wins, and LaHaie one of
his own -- a total of eight. In the other lane, Kenny Bernstein had four
Gainesville wins in his kit bag, and his crew chief Tim Richards had
another four, also a total of eight, making for a dead even match,
The final was a good one, with both drivers performing
well (RTs .477 to .491), and both cars performing flawlessly, even though
the red car was in the supposedly bad right lane. This day, as has the
early season, belonged to Larry Dixon over Kenny Bernstein, 4.629/319 to
The funny car teams were really no better or worse than
the dragster teams at mastering the combination and art of negotiation.
In round one, the Toyota grabbed a stunning 4.902/314
upset over Tim Wilkerson, who smoked his Goodyears after previously not
putting a tire wrong. Gary Scelzi had only run a 5.059/299 for #13Q.
Pole sitter Gary Densham ran a similar but expected
4.901/314 over a faltering Bob Gilbertson. Then #2Q Whit Bazemore dodged a
bullet when his tires spun hard in the middle of the course, slowing him
to a vulnerable 5.091/278. Luckily, Bob Bode had crossed the centerline
behind him. John Lawson upset Cruz Pedregon, Johnny Gray did likewise to
Scotty Cannon, and Dean Skuza shocked the crowd and John Force. Tony
Pedregon singled when the Jim Dunn-Al Hoffman K&N Filter failed to
show, and Ron Capps took out his teammate, Tommy Johnson.
Of the top half of the qualified field, fully half were
In the second, Gray held off Skuza after a brilliant
gate job (RTs .460 to .531), 5.105/304 to 5.092/299! Then, Capps'
5.018/303 was enough to hold off a down-on-power Densham, Lawson fouled
against a heavily tire smoking Scelzi, and Tony P drove away from
Bazemore, 4.968/317 to 5.017/303.
When all the preparation was done for the semi-finals,
there was nothing the crews could do but watch their drivers perform. When
Allen Johnson and Ed McCulloch watched their protégés light the prestage
and stage beams, they had no way of knowing what was about to happen
though they certainly hoped for a different outcome.
Both cars launched together, nearly as one, and stayed
that way for a few hundred feet. But, the Skoal Camaro came loose,
followed quickly by the White Cap Toyota. Both drivers pedaled several
times, both cars crossed and re-crossed, and after what seemed like an
eternity, the win light came on in Gary Scelzi's lane. Ron Capps was
quick to admit it had been quite a race, but he will have to wait for
The other race was a little more predictable, with the
Force faction powering Tony Pedregon to a 4.991/316 to defeat the
5.150/302 of Johnny Gray and the Checker-Schucks-Kragen contingent.
Before the final, stat freaks added up the performances
of the two last combatants standing and gave the huge advantage to Tony
Pedregon. He was the last of the top half qualifiers, and his string of
times – 5.006, 5.000, 4.968, and 4.991 – were far superior to those of
Gary Scelzi – 5.059, 4.902, 6.194 and 5.483 – though the Toyota had a
slight edge in the best number run.
This time, the pencil pushers were right and the Castrol
Mustang grabbed the lead. Scelzi's tires spun early, he pedaled and
pursued but although Pedregon's engine began to sing in a minor key, the
race was his, 5.090/281 to 5.750/197.
While the fuelers floundered, the Pro Stockers seemed to
go right down the concrete and asphalt that has evolved out of the swamp.
Well most of them.
When Steve Schmidt's Pontiac shook and skittered in
the second pair of round one, many looked at each other and wondered –
Could the problems really have been totally with Bob Glidden?
The first run here, a 6.867/201 that earned Schmidt #7Q,
and the last run in qualifying, a 6.939/200, reached the finish line
through perseverance only -- they both wiggled the whole way. The other
two runs saw severe tire shake, exactly like that in R1, and exactly like
about a dozen runs Glidden has attempted in 2002. All along, it has been
Bob's contention that things might have been different had he not been
sitting in a borrowed car.
Virtually every first round winner, save Mark Whisnant,
ran in the 6.8s. Mark just happened to be the recipient of Ron Krisher's
The second burndown of the season happened in R1,
between speed equipment mail order cars Jeg's and Summit. Jeg Coughlin
staged first against Mark Pawuk, then went on to the win. Also, the first
two winners of 2002, George Marnell and Bruce Allen, met, with the slight
win going to the man from Nevada.
Marnell wasn't so good in R2 however, as his Grand Am
spun its tires and lost to Warren Johnson, who had only qualified 11th.
Darrell Alderman had to drive around a Tom Hammonds holeshot and needed a
6.902, best of the round, to do it. Vieri Gaines went down to a big
Whisnant holeshot in a battle of Krisher vs. R&M power, respectively.
And Jeg took out Jim Yates in a crazy match.
After a near fatal line-lock failure that slid him in
deep, Coughlin looked heroic with a .404RT, then his 6.987/199 held off a
Many spoke of rookies who'd gone all the way in early
races, referring to second generation and PST upgrade, Mark Whisnant. One
of those mentioned was Jeg Coughlin, who started the semis here with a
slight lead (RTs .471 to .488) and win over the newcomer, 6.913/199 to
6.918/201. The latter will certainly come through soon.
Others predicted a long burndown in the other semi, but
both drivers went right in to stage, then Darrell Alderman dealt out
Warren Johnson (RTs .474 to .496), 6.902/201 to a quicker 6.899/201.
The final was between two men that need no directions to
any winner's circle. And, after duplicate .469 reactions, the two took
the race to the wire, where Darrell Alderman nipped Jeg Coughlin,
6.927/200 to 6.940/200. Chalk up another win for the factory Mopar
As I stated in the qualifying story, the most impressive
fact about Pro Modified was that neither Bill Kuhlmann's AMS 69 Corvette
nor Fred Hahn in Jim Oddy's Summit Corvette made the tight 6.301 to
6.361 eight-car field. And, since Doug Winters' new 57 Chevy was also
among the DNQs, the Pro Modified Challenge sponsor, AMS Staff Leasing, was
not represented in eliminations.
And, to my ear, the loudest crowd response of qualifying
was for Tommy Gray's Undertaker 53 Corvette. These folk are here to
According to press releases, AMS Staff Leasing is the
nation's largest professional employee organization specializing in the
construction industry, with headquarters in Dallas and 50 offices
nationwide. AMS provides workers' compensation insurance, payroll
services, and employee benefit programs to 5,000 customers that employ
approximately 60,000 people.
In R1, #5Q Mitch Stott blasted out a stunning 6.267/227
that gave him best numbers of the race. And except for Bob Rieger's
blown 57 Chevy, every other winner and loser was between 6.318 and Cody
Mcmanama's 6.430, recording speeds between 216.27 and 224.40! This was a
Besides Rieger, the first round losers were Chip King,
Rickie Smith and Mcmanama.
In the semis, two drivers that have switched from gas to
huffers met, with Stott's 63 Corvette powering around Mike Ashley's 53
Studebaker, 6.300/226 to 6.351/220. The other two were lifetime nitrous
proponents, Shannon Jenkins and Ed Hoover. A tiny holeshot (RTs .464 to
.471) put the 68 Camaro out to a necessary lead, because the 63 Corvette
was slightly quicker. The race was won by just .005, 6.344/222 to
The final was a popular blower vs. nitrous oxide match,
with arguably the smartest driver/tuner ever to turn on a blue bottle
sitting in the right lane. And, at the start, Shannon Jenkins laid the
tree out flat (RTs .416 to .491) and recorded another decent 6.338/222
despite the fact that his mount moved around in the first 100 feet. Mitch
Stott, still very new to the blower brigade, stretch his shifts perfectly,
but his 6.281/226 fell .01 short. The Tuscaloosa, Alabama ace had won the
first AMS event.
Following Pro Stock Bike qualifying, most relegated the
final would be a typical Matt Hines vs. Angelle Savoie affair. Considering
that they were only followed into the "teens" by one rider, it
was a fairly safe assumption, especially considering that Hines had a
7.156/193.85 performance under the saddle of the Vance & Hines Eagle
Both won their first rounds, with Angelle the only rider
that again hit a "teen," a 7.192/185 number nearly matched by
#3Q Shawn Gann's 7.201/182 and Craig Treble's 7.218/182. Hines won,
but slowed to a 7.273/185.
In round two, Reggie Shower's miraculous .407RT
stopped Hines cold, 7.304 to 7.290! Antron Brown was next to tune in to
the electronic gods, his reaction time a great .410, and his time a decent
7.282/181. Unfortunately, Treble nabbed a .417RT and a 7.216/185 for the
win. A pair of .457RTs came next, with Gann pulling away from Steve
Johnson, 7.183/181 to 7.311/181. Seconds later, Mrs. Savoie blasted out a
7.188/185 to overwhelm Mike Berry's 7.378/181.
Craig Treble easily made the final with a 7.283/181 on
the Matco Tools Suzuki when Reggie Showers' transmission faltered, and
Angelle Savoie outran Shawn Gann, 7.173/186.59 (her best of the weekend)
In the final, a slight edge went to Treble at the start
(RTs .429 to .454) and it was enough when the usual Star power never
appeared. Angelle only earned runner-up, 7.248/181 to 7.262/184.
Art Gallant won TAD eliminator in his A/FD, exactly the
way he had done two weeks earlier at the Lucas Oil WCS event at the same
facility. It is a great start to the season for the Massachusetts driver,
but his Gainesville win almost didn't happen at all. In round one, he
smoked his tires like his TF superiors, lifted and coasted. Just like the
other fuelers, high fuel volume fills the cylinders quickly on injected
cars and touching the throttle tends to launch heads and other parts to
great heights. Gallant was right in not pedaling, though certainly he had
a huge desire to step down hard. Luckily, his opponent was even less
Gallant's string was 5.31, 5.32 (both in qualifying)
then 5.38, 5.37, and 5.36 – tremendous consistency in this category.
David Wells and Ben Marshall lost in the semis, and New
Jersey driver Cliff Bozzelli drove well for the runner-up spot.
Frank Manzo won TAFC, but his Kendall Dodge did not
exactly dominate the eliminator. Following qualifying, he was #2Q behind
Jay Payne's Valvoline Camaro, both in the "sixties" and both
over 250mph. The best speed went to #3Q Von Smith at 255.68.
Payne broke in R1 to open up the field somewhat, and
Frank Manzo beat tough guy Bob Newberry in R2. Meanwhile, Von Smith
holeshot Mark White, and Todd Veney's Firebird did likewise with Jeff
Veney earned the bye in the semis, while Manzo's
5.697/252 defeated Smith's 5.764/252 to set up the final which Manzo did
dominate, his 5.684/253 beat Veney' 5.843/247.
Competition Eliminator went to Mike Saye's Oldsmobile
Cutlass, 8.973, 150.21 over Steve Ambrose six-cylinder 23T J/AA, while
ex-IHRA standout James Wilson took Super Stock with his GT/AA Firebird
over Lincoln Morehead's GT/EA Camaro. The E/SA Camaro of Jimmy Hidalgo
beat John Gray's H/SA Nova for Stock, and the Super classes went to Todd
Ewing over Timothy Archer and Mike Minigh over Bill Leber.
Flyin' Phil Elliott
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