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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

The Winternationals

Story and Photos by Phil Elliott

When you type that as one word, you better be at Pomona because the National Hot Rod Association has trademarked and registered it. The year 2003 marks the 43rd running of the second national event NHRA conceived which begins the second year of involvement of POWERade as the series sponsor. K&N Filters was also back as event sponsor.

Following my visit to Las Vegas the previous weekend, I drove north to Carson City, Nevada, where I have chosen to make/find a new life. I was there just three partial days before turning back south. I meant to make it all the way to my sister's home in Diamond Bar - just about five miles from FairPlex. But, fatigue overtook me and I stopped in Boron. 

At 6am Thursday, I finished my drive, picked up my credentials and was standing on the starting line before 8am chatting with longtime photog (ex-National Dragster) Bill Crites.

The first pair.
The first pair.

As is the norm, Stock Eliminator started the festivities, and it wasn't long before I could tell two things - the stick cars were spinning their tires heavily and when cars did hook up, the track was extremely fast. Within the first few pairs, my jaw hit the ground when Al Corda pounded out a 9.97 in his A/FIA Firebird.

Al Corda recorded a spectacular 9.97 to become the first stocker in the nines.
Al Corda recorded a spectacular 9.97 to become the first stocker in the nines. 

The same held true for Super Stock - some of the stick cars spun their tires, especially in the right lane, while most pulled their front ends high and mighty. Continuous inspections by Safety Safari folk and upset crew folk failed to find or cure the mystery.

By the end of that first day of qualifying, I'd been impressed not only with Al Corda's outstanding nine-second Stocker performance, but in several other things as well.

In Comp, the fact that zero blown cars showed up at Pomona impressed me negatively.

When the alcohol funny cars rounded the turn, my friend John Knox ran a 6.03/238 -- a near career best for the Washingtonian -- but ended in the infamous sandtrap. His Froggy Mustang was damaged beyond return. Many of the other funnies had serious troubles as well.

Among the alcohol dragster entries, although Morgan Lucas (5.34/269) and Mark Hentges (5.44/261) led things, it was Mark Niver's hand-hewn piece (5.64/261) that caught my eye. Also, Tony Bartone came west with an all-new A/FD that thumped out an immediate 5.44/251 for third.

Pro Stockers immediately showed high 6.8 numbers, causing railbirds to wonder of just what the best cars were capable. When Mark Pawuk ran 6.818/201 then Troy Coughlin's 6.809/202 flashed on the scoreboards, all nodded in agreement that it was going to get better. But it didn't, at least not Thursday. Tire spin and shake hampered several of the 'names'.

Mark Pawuk.
Mark Pawuk.

Most Top Fuel entries struggled with the track or had mechanical woes. There were several 4.7s - Robert Reehl, Mike Strasburg and Clay Millican - and even a pair of 4.6s - Darrell Russell and Doug Herbert. The last pairing was the best by far, Larry Dixon's 4.586/313 and Tony Schumacher's 4.593/315.

Dixon vs. The Sarge.
Dixon vs. The Sarge.

After seeing Bob Gilbertson's Raybestos-Boninfante-O'Reilly-Trick Tank Camaro at Las Vegas, I was pleasantly surprised with his 4.883/309, which was #1Q for a short time. It was one pair after Gary Scelzi's 4.884/311, a superb public debut for the newest Oakley team. Two pairs later, Bruce Sarver gave the Levi, Ray & Shoup team a career best performance with 4.759/318 for the top of the heap. In the other lane, Bruce Sarver punched the American Chemicals Toyota to a 4.884 at only 265mph. After pre-season rumors, I was surprised to see the car at all.

Tim Wilkerson fired the first big shot of the weekend with a 4.75.
Tim Wilkerson fired the first big shot of the weekend with a 4.75. 

American Chemical now sponsors Alan Johnson's Toyota.
American Chemical now sponsors Alan Johnson's Toyota.

The last pair was John Force and Tony Pedregon, teammates and the reining numbers 1 and 2 in the FC world. Like Pro Stock, fans wondered what was in store. But, though Force got down the track, it wasn't the spectacular numbers hope for by him, his team, or the legions of Force-ites. Tony spun his tires.

Tony Pedregon was amazing at Pomona, running straight 4.70s.
Tony Pedregon was amazing at Pomona, running straight 4.70s.


By the end of Sportsman qualifying, Gary Harper had surpassed Al Corda for the top spot in Stock, his F Truck/SA 1.358-seconds under its 13.60 index. In Super Stock, a pair of SS/AA Barracudas grabbed the top spots - Jerry Jenkins (8.780) and Mike Ogburn (8.781) - against a 10.00 index. In Comp, Scott Hedlund's B/SM Cavalier motored to an 8.159, .681 under its index, for #1Q.

The alcohol cars made up for a rather rocky start and improved a great deal. Thought the bumps were still somewhat soft, the fields were not. The dragster entries banged out 5.5s and 5.4s seemingly with ease, and Bartone stepped up a tenth (5.339/271) to surpass young Mr. Lucas. The same held true among the funny cars. Where Jay Payne and Bucky Austin had been up top Thursday with 5.7s, it was Cy Chesterman's Coca-Cola Firebird on the pole Friday with a stunning 5.581/257. He was followed by Doug Gordon (5.620/256), Payne (5.681/254), Ed Marx (5.688/252), and Mert Littlefield (5.694/250).

With the bump already at a good 6.885 after just one session, it seemed a sure bet that Pro Stock was on its way to records. The ambient temperature was 63 degrees and the track temperature was still near 90 degrees.

Mark Osborne, now in Steve Schmidt's Pontiac, showed quickly just how true those predictions were. In the opening pairing, he boomed out a 6.796/202 for #1Q. In the next pair, Barry Grant and his hired hand Terry Adams recorded nearly identical 6.81/203 times, followed by Darrell Alderman's 6.803/203 and a host of other bottom eighties. In fact, by the time Jeg Coughlin moved past Osborne with a 6.790/203, low 6.80s seemed passÚ.

The same happened in Funny Car, with bottom-halfers hitting 4.9s, and top halfers in the 4.8s -- or better. Scelzi's 4.866/321 picked him up a bit, Force's 4.809/321 made him a player, and Gary Densham slid into 2nd with a strong 4.774/323.

Fires and trouble still held several Top Fuel teams in limbo. Paul Romine recorded a 4.641/314 in John Mitchell's car but experienced a blower explosion and fire. Rhonda Hartman ran a clean and dry 4.661/316, followed by Brandon Bernstein's 4.566/320, then David Baca's 4.657/284 and Cory McClenathan's 4.677/321.

Clay Millican received a late session single and he uncorked a career best 4.522/326 for the front spot. Crew chief Mike Kloeber was happily utilizing the NHRA engine combo as opposed to the IHRA 90% nitro/25% overdrive limiters.

After the crowd calmed down, they witnessed Doug Herbert's 4.616/319 and Tony Schumacher's 4.593/313.

Bumping up or into the AFC field included Brett Williamson (5.849/242), Bucky Austin (5.591/258), Mark Woznichak (5.656/254), Mike Andreotti (5.725/249), and John Patton (5.830/250). The bump ended at John Weaver's very realistic 5.849.

In the first pairing for dragsters, Morgan Lucas took bale the pole with a 5.289/266. Beside him, though he probably felt like his car was chained to a stump, Don Hudson moved from 19th to 9th (at that moment) with a stout 5.518/261!

In the next pair, Brandon Johnson found 5.515/255 strength to jump from outside to 9th, but experienced a similar phenomenon to the previous pairing - he trailed Niver by a big margin as the latter hit a career best elapsed time, a 5.405/257 that grabbed temporary 4th.

Next up, John Haley moved to the head of the blown alky entries with a stunning 5.361/264 that whipped up on Mark Hentges. Bartone ran 5.363 at a whopping 270mph speed a few minutes later, to show superior horsepower.

In the final pair, Joey Severance improved to a 5.421/260 as Greg Tacke had his rear wing detach at about 250mph and unfortunately interact with the left wall (behind Severance). He clamored out unhurt but the car will need some TLC before it makes another pass.


For session three, the weather was once again an asset, with temperatures of just 66 degrees. Pro Stock began with Jim Yates on the 6.830 bubble and Warren Johnson on the very bottom of the list, a long ways from where he wanted to be. After a winter of very positive test results, both were certain to move up.

The first pair both got in - Mark Whisnant (6.826/202) and Bruce Allen (6.804/202). Then came a bomb dropped by sophomore Pro Greg Stanfield (6.772/203) from his Neon. In the other lane was Kenny Koretsky, who has had a fabulous pre-season but could not find a handle at Pomona. A short time later, Warren Johnson climbed to the second rung (6.775/204.54) with a career best and a track record speed.

Virtually everyone improved but few more broke in until Allen Johnson came to the line (6.780/204). He moved from 29th to 3rd. Mark Pawuk and Randy Daniels moved up/in (6.797/202 and 6.817/202, respectively), while Steve Johns improved by .004 (6.814/203) to move from 17th to 15th. The whole session was a constant reshuffle. Late, Kurt Johnson slammed through the timers at 204.11, and his .005 improvement picked him up two spots. Lastly, Darrell Alderman blasted to a 6.779/203 to put the third Dodge in the top four.

Bruce Sarver started things in the FC department with a piston eating 4.893/303, followed by Ron Capps' 4.862/319 and Del Worsham's 4.858/315. The performance show was tremendous. There were several 4.9s, then a 4.821/318 from Tim Wilkerson in a car that folk better be watching for during 2003. Johnny Gray put the second C-S-K car into the top half of the field with a 4.864/306, then Whit Bazemore recorded a 4.830/319 only to be outshone by Tony Pedregon at a superb 4.766/324.

Once again, John Force finished the session but fell far from expectations.

The four pairs of the Big Bud Shootout began the third qualifying shot in Top Fuel and four out of those eight ran 4.59s! One of those, turned by Darrell Russell, lost to Bernstein's 4.57! Poor Andrew Cowin, who went through tremendous trauma just to get a ride in less than a month, had the misfortune of a major oil leak before staging.

Most of the rest of the session was filled with 4.7s and 4.8s.

Many races on the NHRA tour have a handicap for Pro Stockers - the Friday night qualifying session where every one of the qualifiers make the field with no chance of movement later. Most Winternationals are different because the weather remains cool enough to make adequate qualifying power in every session.

The final session bump was a 6.814, and while most every car improved, none got in until Brad Jeter hit a 6.811/202. A few pairs later, Randy Daniels' 6.808/202 got him in too. Then there were a string of 6.80 numbers that affectively brought the bump down and down. Ron Krisher's 6.791/203 picked him up six spots, and Jeg's 6.779/203 moved him up one.

The first two pairs in FC failed to do more than make noise and hollow promises, then Bob Bode grabbed a 4.904/307 beside Frank Pedregon's 4.895/311. The two moved to 15th and 14th, respectively. Then, Dean Skuza's 4.889/309 and Scotty Cannon's 4.890/313 gave them 14th and 15th, bumping Bode back out.

Performance continued - Sarver (4.842/313), Gray (4.813/314), Worsham (4.802/318), Scelzi (4.790/322), Bazemore (4.766/325), T. Pedregon (4.771/312) - as the masters of nitro turned in many of the best runs in history. F. Pedregon's 4.895 ended as the bump.

For the final Top Fuel session, the bubble was Mike Strasburg's 4.755, with four potent entries outside looking in. The first pair out was the final of the Big Bud Shootout, and those combatants showed that there was plenty of track to race on. 

Scott Weis pushed the Race Girl entry to a 4.740/298 to move into the field and push Strasburg out. The B&J Transmission, Strasburg family entry out of Utah was next to run, but a fine 4.776/302 failed to get them a spot. Andrew Cowin gave the Carrier Boyz their career best, a fiery 4.833/293, in the other lane.

John Smith was stouter at a 4.616/315 in a match with Robert Reehl who was then sitting on the new 4.744 bump spot. What happened next was typical of the drama of such high performance qualifying. When Smith crossed the stripe, he bumped Reehl. When Reehl crossed the stripe at 4.687/291 with a fireball of his own, he jumped up to 14th and bumped out Weis.

Melanie Troxel get into the field, but the young team experienced problems.
Melanie Troxel get into the field, but the young team experienced problems.

With those moves, the bubble was handed to Melanie Troxel's 4.723, and her volunteer crew pushed her out of line knowing the field was set. She was experiencing a mysterious fuel delivery problem that caused serious damage on every run. Not only did Tommy Johnson's fiancÚ experience internal engine damage on every attempt but the fires burned up lines, hoses, chutes and everything else in the way.

Jim Head gained a thou, Darrell Russell a couple thou and two spots, and then it was time for Millican and Kalitta.

The low qualifier ran a consistent 4.558/325 for the Werner team, but few even noticed. In the other lane, Doug Kalitta hit an outstanding 4.482/332.18, the best run in a couple years!

For stat freaks, the run broke Andrew Cowin's one-year-old track ET record, tied Kenny Bernstein's track speed record, and was the second fastest run ever. The incrementals were as follows: 0.841, 2.143, 3.048/277.54 at 660, and 3.815 to 1,000. Congrats go out to the Mac Tools team.

If you asked me at that point who would win the race, based 100% on pre-season testing and qualifying, I would have gone with Larry Dixon, either Whit Bazemore or Gary Scelzi, and one of the Johnsons, Warren or Kurt. 

Sentimentally, I might have chosen Brandon Bernstein, Tim Wilkerson, and Mark Osborne. I have my reasons. Brandon is sorta obvious, a rookie, thrown in the mix that the day before had lost the Bud SO by inches. Wilkerson because he's been operating his team at the 90% level for the last couple years and finally is able to push things a little harder. Osborne because team owner Steve Schmidt went through hell and high water a year ago with cars, engines, drivers and inexplicable traumas.

Predictions being what they are, Scelzi, Bernstein, Osborne were all defeated in round one. Many other favorites joined them on the sidelines after the first round, including Kalitta, Russell, Densham, Force, Sarver, Pawuk, Stanfield, and both Jeg and Troy Coughlin.

One of the changes for 2003 that hampered several drivers was the switch to light emitting diode (LED) bulbs on the tree facing the drivers. The bulbs are much quicker to light than a normal filament that takes time to heat up before it comes to full illumination. Virtually everyone was forced to slow down their or their car's reactions. There were many redlites during both Professional and Sportsman eliminations.

By the end of the day, Larry Dixon had indeed won, the final came over Cory McClenathan in Darrell Gwynn's machine, using Dick LaHaie choreography throughout. Except for a falter in the second round of qualifying (Friday), the Don Prudhomme-owned Miller Lite entry was a chapter out of the consistency handbook -- 4.586/313, 4.591/324, 4.558/324, 4.535/327, 4.533 325, 4.514 326 and 4.541 322. An amazing feat for a simply amazing group.

Also in the winners circle was Tony Pedregon. After 2002 when he got within a few points of taking out boss John Force for the championship, Castrol crewchief John Medlin gave his driver a similar grouping to Dixon's -- 
4.766/324 to qualify 3rd, 4.771/312, 4.739/324, 4.788/321, 4.785/323 and a final round 4.765/ 324 over first time finalist, Johnny Gray.

In a similar power play, WJ won Pro Stock. Like Tony P, he went to qualifying session three before getting a decent pass in, then he really never looked back -- 6.775/204.54, 6.767/204.91, 6.780/204.39, 6.764/204.54 and 6.788 204.01. Interestingly, son Kurt set and backed up the PS speed record during eliminations (204.57) only to have Warren take it away from him and move it up to 204.91. To make matters worse, the two faced off in round two and old dad whooped the kid on the starting line (RTs .005 to .054!).

An additional story is the onslaught of the Mopar team. A total of ten Dodges were in the pits at Pomona, including two new 2003 Stratuses (Stratii?). While just three made the extreme field, all of those were in the top five spots and the rest appeared to produce very high horsepower numbers.

Tony Bartone and Doug Gordon won the alcohol categories.

During eliminations, the New Yorker became the first driver in history to hold both of the alcohol elapsed time records. 

He set the AFC mark of 5.549 back in 2000 at Reading, and stole the TAD record from Morgan Lucas in a round two win over Mark Hentges. The old mark was 5.239 (set at Pomona during the World Finals) and the new is 5.227. After qualifying 2nd at 5.339/271, Bartone hit a safe first round 5.375/265 winner, then 5.227/273.88, 5.259/271 and a final 5.262 266. The winning round came over Lucas, who ran a losing 5.292/273 for the quickest side-by-side Alcohol Dragster in history. Lucas had taken an early lead (RTs .016 to .039) which made the true win .0078! Not bad for supposedly inconsistent injected nitromethane dragsters.

Just to have Cy Chesterman at Pomona in AFC was an odd occurrence because the Iowa veteran rarely ventures too far from the Midwest. But not only did he venture west and qualify his Coca-Cola Trans-Am low at 5.581/257, but he reached the final round with wins over John Weaver, Steve Gasparelli and jay Payne. He faced #3Q Doug Gordon Camaro, which had defeated Bill Gallio, Jason Rupert, and Mert Littlefield. Number 2 qualifier Bucky Austin was what was termed at Pomona an 'LED Loser' - he fouled in R2 by .007!

In the AFC final, Gordon jumped off to a great .008RT and looked to be a sure winner. The catch-up attempt by Chesterman was cut short when his entry banged hard and slowed. The winning performance was a 5.628/255.

A high number of Competition Eliminator drivers felt the sting of the new LED bulbs - 15 out of a total of 31 matches were decided by the evil redlite.

In the final, Brandon Huhtala from Puyallup Wash., left way early with his C/A '97 Olds Cutlass and handed the win to the D/SMA Cavalier of Randy Jones from Monarch Beach Calif. Both had earlier taken at least one CIC hit and been the recipient of at least one foul start.

Jeff Lane took the measure of Super Stock. After qualifying 8th at 1.07 under his SS/CM index, the North Bend, Wash., resident drove the Hancock & Lane Grand Am consistently through the field. Fred Moreno's Cobra Jet SS/GA 69 Mustang was his final victim and it was a holeshot that sealed the La Verne, Californian's fate. Lane was able to slow his eight-second ride far earlier than usual after surpassing the Mustang.

It was an all-California Mopar vs. FoMoCo final in Stock, but more importantly, Curtis Coulter manually shifted a seemingly giant D/S 69 Mercury Cyclone all the way through six rounds before moving too quick in the final. Mike Loge, down from Danville, drove his I/SA 78 Volare into the winners circle.

It was a pair of dragsters that faced off in the Super Comp final, and it was a holeshot (RTs .015 to .055) that won for Jack Beckman, of North Hills, Calif. His 8.914 was enough as Geoff Hughes broke out by .005. The Fallon, Nevada driver had earlier recorded a great .003RT.

It was a double breakout that finished Super Gas. Ed Olpin and Brad Pierce had nearly duplicate starts (RTs .014 and .013) it was a matter of which driver dropped the other first. Neither did. Pierce, from nearby Riverside, took the win in his 58 Corvette with a 9.874 to the 9.863 of the Utah 27 T.

More 2003 Winternationals Photos

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