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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 assumption.

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.

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 adhesion early.

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 belt.

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, statwise.

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 4.677/319.

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 gone.

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 another day.

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 foul start.

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 6.904/200!

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 Performance team.

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 stay.

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 class field.

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 6.342/222!

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 One Suzuki.

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) to 7.249/180.

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 fortunate.

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 McCulloch.

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


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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