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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

2000 AHRA World Finals

By David Hapgood
Thanks to James Morgan

Wyatt Radke was part of the big funny car show at Spokane. Photo by David Hapgood
Wyatt Radke went to the finals of the big funny car show at Spokane,
but lost to Peter Russo. Photo by David Hapgood

My girlfriend and I flew up on Saturday morning. They had already run the night before so I was anxious to get to the track before we missed any more of the race.

I don't know what it is about that town but it seems like a place that time forgot. Old time America. The moment you land in Spokane everything feels laid back. I think this must have something to do with the ongoing "success" of the race: 1970s style town, 1970s style race.

A quick tour of the pits found the teams casually going about their business and a light crowd wandering through. Densham's car was out but he was the only heavy hitter out early. Nearby a couple of almost unlettered, white monster rigs (trailers) were locked up with nobody around. No doubt these were the stars and, sure enough, a closer look revealed the name "Cruz Pedregon, 1992 Funny Car World Champion" on the back of one of them. The other, I assumed, belonged to Cory Lee. Sleeping in at the hotel.

As you may recall, Spokane's format calls for two qualifying sessions on Saturday but only the night session is mandatory and most pros skip the afternoon session. However, the pit area was really buzzing: Jack Wyatt, the Greek, Don Sosenka's new Firebird, Terry Haddock, Gordie Bonin's new T/F car, Wyatt Radke in Randy Anderson's old Firebird, Terry Capp from the old days (Wheeler Dealer), and the list really did go on and on. Also, there were some others I had never heard of... Phil Burgess, Charlie McIntosh, Bob Hurley, and Lee Kohlman. I was expecting a booked-in 8-car format but there seemed to be too many of them (I'm NOT complaining!)

Checking Friday's qualifying list in the tower revealed a grand total of 24 nitro cars on the premises. And I then knew that this was going to be a good one. Just when independent nitro looked dead. Will wonders never cease? We were going to see an actual battle to qualify for the event. Things were looking up.

The bump from Friday night was a scary 21.34 seconds in T/F and a 13.72 in Funny Car. Only a few drivers had made anything close to full passes. Peter Russo was #1 in Funny Car at 6.12. Ron Smith was #1 in T/F with a 5.59. It seemed the all-asphalt (no concrete pad) track was going to give the drivers a handful again this year.

The afternoon session began on AHRA time -- 45 minutes late! Last year a grand total of three nitro cars turned out for the afternoon session (with two of them breaking on the burnouts) so I was a little weary of getting my hopes up. Turned out there was nothing to worry about. We were going backwards to a time when nitro was more abundant. One car after another made the turn from staging lanes around the tower. A set of fuelers followed by a Funny Car followed by more fuelers and then some more funnies. It was the most laid back format I've ever seen -- the sort I'd read about as a kid. I was loving it.

The track was a HANDFUL, but these guys were getting used to it, although I have never seen so much HARD tire blazing at full speed. It takes GUTS to drive them like that. In these conditions, the fuelers were handling more like Funny Cars! ETs were in the mid 5s for T/F.

Looking at the qualifying list, I noticed that Gary Densham wasn't in the show yet. The NEC Firebird pulled around the corner. I guess Densham won this event three times 1996-1998 and clearly they wanted to win it again... At least more than Cory Lee and Cruz Ped who weren't yet even at the track (with Cruz Ped solidly OUT of the show at the moment). Densham's run lasted about a quarter of a second before he shut off. I was sure he'd try to put it through anyway but he never got back on it.

Craig Smith was the number one qualifier in Top Fuel. Photo by David Hapgood
Craig Smith was the number one qualifier in Top Fuel. Photo by David Hapgood

While the session's improvements were not that noticeable in Funny Car (the bump moved from 13.72 to 12.71), T/F got a real shakeup with the bump going from 21.34 to 6.62. New #1 qualifier was Craig Smith with a 5.49. The night session no doubt would shake things up even more. The weather was holding out and I just knew we were about to experience the best night of racing I'd seen in decades.

After leaving the track to stock up on groceries and eat out we returned to see that Cruz Pedregon and Cory Lee had their cars unpacked. The RAT FINK car looks pretty good with the green metal flake flames. Cruz's car looks like his old McDonald's cars.

The stands were filling up -- more full than last year. It was party time! After watching a Pro Mod execute the best save I've ever seen by a doorslammer (top end fishtailing -- fans rising quickly to their feet!) and after seeing a full session of alky dragsters and floppers (the floppers having real trouble in our lane), I became a little nervous about our sitting at the 600 foot mark. Spokane Raceway Park -- the track where if the car bites badly enough it's going to take out a section of the crowd with it! Just a little too close because there's nowhere to hide under those cement bleachers. I figured the people in front of us were already too drunk to react and if I ducked, they'd take the hit for me. 

Saw the bizarre sight of a Funny Car popping the burst panel (which sucked in the pressure hatch (!) -- he did it twice that day) and kept his foot on the throttle for the final 700 feet with the burst panel out. Weird. Concluding the alky program was a little primered altered which took a ride in the strip of gravel against the wall (right in front of us). Now we were ready to roll with the nitro cars. Night had fully set in and the crowd was getting larger and rowdier by the minute. A warm night; just perfect.

Funnies were first. Wyatt Radke was the man -- laid down a bullet, no tire smoke, HARD flames -- a run that will stick in my memory bank for all times. Really a beautiful pass -- the session wasn't going to be all tire smoke after all. Not too speedy compared to NHRA, but his 5.79 was plenty fast at this track. Cory Lee did not improve on his 7.11. What was the track going to do when its paid superstars got bumped? Sounded like DNQ meant DNQ! (Which was a hoot because the biggest star of all, Cruz Ped, was sitting on an 18-second ET with just this final shot to go). A definite buzz was in the air.

All the cars were out and running and it was GREAT! Pass after pass after pass. Almost everyone was hooking up, even if they weren't setting the world on fire with their ETs. Down in the concrete bleacher canyon of SRP, it felt like we were at the center of the damn universe. The crowd was loving every second of it. And where else are you going to see a totally unknown car (Phil Burgess) with a giant fanged clown mural on the hood of his beat up Cutlass pull off a great burnout and back up to do battle, exhaust cackling? I tell you, there is no better seat in the drag racing world these days.

The field was quickening; the bump was changing every run. Next up was Mr. Pedregon -- last chance. I was pulling for an aborted run but it was clear... up until the 800-foot mark where he clicked it off. The crowd went wild. He coasted through with a 6.41 Damn! At Spokane, a 6.41 makes the show.

At long last came Gary Densham, way out of the program, versus Terry Haddock in the Impulse. The bump was Cory Lee's 7.11, so some biggie was going to be out on Sunday, maybe both of them. The announcer was hyping Densham as the 3-time champ, etc., etc., etc. This was one of the more memorable runs of the evening. 

Light went green, both cars immediately up in smoke hard, shut off in unison at about 100 feet, both swaying to the left and then to the right IN PERFECT UNISON (I kid you not, Densham a little ahead and swaying a little harder). Then the header flames back up to the roofs, both cars back on the throttle, again in unison! Then more tire smoke from both at the same time but now at good speed, really skating. Then both shut off in unison. Then Terry Haddock hammered it one last time as he went by, giving us a beautiful rear end view of the IMPULSE as the exhaust flames went up hard and the car turned and headed into the other lane, one great final gut shaking blast... And what a sight to see the header flames through the tire smoke. WOW! What a run!

So Cory Lee made the field and Densham was DNQ and that was that. Jack Wyatt, Jason Duchene, even Charlie McIntosh in the low, low buck "Queen City Radiator" Avenger all outqualified old pro Densham (Gary NEVER should have fired Richard Bays. Biggest mistake he ever made).

Top Fuel was next. Kicking it off: King of the Fireballs, Arley Langlo, up against Gary Omlin, who runs it a BIT RICH for my comfort. (And the car is STILL in primer!) But clean runs for both with improved times. And that's the way it went. One blast after another. They even had a couple of front motored fuelers trying to make the cut. We were heading towards an all five-second Top Fuel field! May sound silly but considering a 12.44 was 8th spot last year, but this year's program was pure thunder.

But where was Gordie Bonin? With an earlier 8.13, he had long since been bumped from the program. He had one shot left. He was driving a brand spanking new car and was pitted, oddly enough, against one of the front-motored cars. It was bizarre. Bonin's pass was clean, leaving the front motored car in the dust. It was a good strong pass until the engine went out at half-track... Too dark to see if he'd pitched the blower belt. No more show for Gordie.

Right near the end of this session, the bump had been lowered, via a slew of mid five second passes, to Lee Kohlman's 6.42. Kohlman's car was brand new, too, and sported a giant mural on each side of exhaust pipes spitting out $50 bills, as well as the name (in goofy lettering) "Blown Wages" Kohlman ran his operation out of a fifth wheel gooseneck trailer. I kind of wanted to see them in the show.

Dave Bieneman was the last of final two pairs of T/F cars who could trailer Kohlman, but Bieneman hadn't made a full pass yet. Bieneman's pass was clear, however -- a straight-arrow 5.66 that was good for the fourth spot. That set the final bump at 6.13. Well, it was almost an all 5-second field.

After the jets and wheelstanders and other mayhem, the night was over. What a night it had been! We were, in fact, going nowhere since we were camping at the track. We got to wander the pit area on the way back to the campsite and view the late night thrashing, which, at this event, is more of a social hour. We met some nice racers.

Waking up in a tent to the sound of the microphone test is not the way to go but I slept surprisingly well.

To me, one of the most amazing things about both years Iíve been at this event is just how light the crowds are on Sunday. Saturday night was more packed than last year but Sunday was -- hard to believe -- even lighter than last year. How does the track make any money? It has to be profits off the beer sales. The fans on Saturday night were by and large the drunkest bunch I've ever seen. Well, if that's what it takes to fund nitro, I'm all for it!

Chris Karamesines qualified number five in Top Fuel at 70+ years old! Photo by David Hapgood
Chris Karamesines qualified number five in Top Fuel at 70+ years old!
Photo by David Hapgood

The air was cool on Sunday. We made our way around the pits and eventually settled in at the starting line bleachers, directly across from the tower. Here were the qualifiers:

T/F

1- Craig Smith 5.48
2- Ron Smith 5.59 
3- Bobby Baldwin 5.660 
4- Dave Bieneman 5.662 
5- C. Karamesines 5.69 
6- Terry Capp 5.90 
7- Gary Omlin 6.00 
8- Arley Langlo 6.13 

1A- Lee Kohlman 
2A- Jason Howell 
3A- Gordie Bonin 
4A- Todd Meikle
F/C

1- Wyatt Radke 5.79
2- Jason Duchene 6.06
3- Peter Russo 6.12
4- Cruz Pedregon 6.41
5- Jack Wyatt 6.43
6- Charlie McIntosh 6.61
7- Don Sosenka 6.92
8- Cory Lee 7.11

1A- Gary Densham
2A- Keith Burgess
3A- Terry Haddock

At 12:30 the lanes began to fill with the fuel cars. Shortly after 1:00 P.M., the first round was ready to begin... No parachutists, no celebrities on the starting line, no pre race driver interviews, no Winston Vision, no extra frills, no nuthin'. The first pair was towed to the bleach box, and after what sounded like a local girl singing the Canadian and American national anthems, the first pair fired up. No fanfare, just the stuff that matters in front of half-full grandstands. 

First set: Arley Langlo up in smoke hard, #1 qualifier Craig Smith running down the strip all half-assed, blazing them at half track, pedaling, blazing them again, driving it through the lights, weaving like a Funny Car, GO! GO! GO! 5.69 @ 255 mph. Next, two Northwest favorites, #2 qualifier Ron Smith versus Gary Omlin. Omlin a smoker at the green, Smith out clean but then tires blazing at half track, back into it down to the lights where the engine lit up in a big fireball, 5.62 @ 259. 

Then Karamesines versus Bieneman. Karamesines the third car to smoke them hard off the line, but he got back into it, giving Bieneman a good chase to the finish. Bieneman won with a 5.58. Finally, two-time defending champ Bobby Baldwin was up against the Royal Canadian, Terry Capp. Well, Baldwin drew a redlight and the hero was out, throwing away a 5.51 while Capp waited and ran a 5.50 @ 261.

Round one of Funny Car was funny. First pair, Wyatt Radke trailered Cory Lee with a 6.04 @ 247. Lee's lame weekend was put to rest. Next was Jack Wyatt against Cruz Pedregon. A big buildup over the PA for Pedregon but his clutch seemed to have malfunctioned on the green, as he didn't even make an attempt to chase down Wyatt, who limped through to the victory @ 7.53. Next, Castrol of Canada driver Jason Duchene took out Don Sosenka with a 6.50 as Sosenka smoked them harder and earlier. Finally, it was Aussie Peter Russo trailering Charlie McIntosh with a 6.19. Macintosh gave it a good fight.

That was the normal part of the program. Round two was not normal. It turned into a real long afternoon. First round was run, more or less, at 1:00 PM. At 5:00 P.M., we were still waiting for the next round! Finally at 5:30 they rolled out, that is, some of them rolled out.

Top Fuel semis were not pretty. First, Craig Smith versus Dave Bieneman. Smith could not get his car into gear and sat idling while Bieneman soloed to a 5.56 -- no tire smoke. Next pair was to have been Ron Smith versus Terry Capp, but Smith couldn't repair from the first round fire, so Capp just staged and idled through. It was announced that Jason Duchene and Jack Wyatt were both unable to repair their cars, so the semis in Funny Car were canceled altogether! The final would be Radke versus Russo, the other first round winners, and in T/F, Bieneman versus Capp.

It turned out that the finals were worth waiting for. First off, Russo versus Radke was a pretty good match. Radke had been #1 qualifier and was also the fastest in round one, but Russo was pretty close.

The run was smoke-free and pretty straight, and pretty much side by side but with Russo pulling away a little. Both cars were close to the centerline. The win light came on in Russo's lane and it looked like that was the end of the story.

Peter Russo took the AHRA World Championship back to Australia. Note body damage behind rear wheel. Photo by David Hapgood
Peter Russo took the AHRA World Championship back to Australia.
Note body damage behind rear wheel. Photo by David Hapgood

I did hear a loudish "clunk" from the shutdown area. A blower? Didn't sound right but the chutes were still out down there and no sign of fire. The "clunk" was this: as the cars cleared the traps, a crosswind pushed Russo directly into Radke's lane: it was a serious "hit"... Russo's headers all but tore off the side of Radke's Firebird. I have pics of the damage and it was fairly heavy. A tough break for a great team. Russo escaped with scratched paint, a bent fin, cosmetic body damage along the rocker panel, and a 5.76 win. Both had mangled headers.

The T/F final was a great side by side run between Bieneman and Capp. Capp must have slept because it was a lot closer than the 5.41 to 5.60 times show. Capp was the big winner!

An after note to the Radke affair...I was told that when they were loading their damaged car into the trailer, the winch cable broke while the car was high up on the ramps. It rolled backwards, across the pit lane, through a chain link fence and slammed into a giant aspen tree. Some people have all the luck.

Anyway, there's my report... I think this event is the coolest drag race on the planet. Had a great time. The AHRA WORLD FINALS!

David Hapgood
davidh@nethost.multnomah.lib.or.us

 

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