Author: Waldron, Steve
Date published: August 27, 2010
With this being the first of our preview issues for the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil, I thought it only appropriate that I tackle an Indy-related topic. While researching the most memorable moments feature that begins on page 42, I couldn't help but think back to my most memorable Indy. It was my first, in 1990, and though it may not go down in history as one of the greatest U.S. Nationals, for me there will never be another like it.
I was hired the previous summer and wasn't quite up to speed when the 1989 event rolled around, so I had to wait until 1990. By then, I had moved from copy editor to associate editor, and I and former staffer Terry Cole were assigned the Top Alcohol Funny Car and Top Alcohol Dragster categories, respectively. Covering their Pro beats were Editor Phil Burgess (Top Fuel), the late Chris Martin (Funny Car), and former staffers Todd Veney (Pro Stock) and Melvyn Record (Pro Stock Motorcycle). I wouldn't cover a Pro category in Indy until 1999, but that's another story.
As I remember it, the 1990 U.S. Nationals went pretty much according to script. There were no once-in-a-lifetime upsets. In fact, three of the four Pro champs - Joe Amato in Top Fuel, Ed McCulloch in Funny Car, and Dave Schultz in Pro Stock Motorcycle - won Indy for at least the third time. For Pro Stock champ Jerry Eckman, it was his fifth win of the season. Coincidentally, Amato and Schultz had won Indy in 1987 and 1988 and lost in the semifinals in 1989. McCulloch's fifth Indy victory made him the winningest Funny Car driver in U.S. Nationals history and gave him victories in three decades (1971, 1972, 1980, 1988, and 1990).
From the time that he set the early qualifying pace Thursday at 5.05, you could see Amato's victory coming. His Tim Richards-tuned entry was never more than a few hundredths from that on four of five remaining qualifying runs and in all four rounds of eliminations. The only surprise was that Amato's final-round opponent wasn't season-long points rival Gary Ormsby, who had made the only foursecond run of the event, a 4.99, and posted several 5.0s. Instead, it was Frank Hawley. Driving the dragster that Darrell Gwynn had won with the year before, Hawley improved dramatically on race day after six disappointing qualifying passes. Still, he was no match for Amato, who gated Hawley by five-hundredths and won easily with a 5.04, his best run of the weekend. Considering that Gwynn was making his first appearance at an NHRA event since the April 1990 crash that left him paralyzed, his team's final-round showing was a fitting tribute.
McCulloch's Funny Car victory, which put him behind only the three best racers ever - Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, and Bob Glidden - on the all-time Indy win list, was highlighted by a second-round victory over season-long points leader John Force. When Tom Hoover upset Chuck Etchells in the first semifinal, all that stood between McCulloch and an unprecedented fifth Indy win were D.A. Santucci, who hadn't won a national event since 1969, and Hoover, who hadn't won since 1979. Not surprisingly, neither could match McCulloch's consistent 5.3-second performance.
Despite his four previous victories in 1990 and his unblemished final-round record, Eckman's prospects didn't look good once eliminations were under way. He stumbled to admittedly lucky secondround and semifinal wins against Butch Leal and Joe Lepone. Meanwhile, defending Indy champ Larry Morgan had reset the track record twice, and in the final, he made a run better than any of Eckman's all weekend. But a desperate engine/clutch swap by Eckman before the final paid off, and he left first and held on for a dramatic 7.35 to 7.35 win.
Schultz's Pro Stock Motorcycle win was the most convincing. He qualified his Vance & Hinespowered Kawasaki No. 1 with an out-of-the-box 7.86, and though he fell off his qualifying pace by a tenth in taking a tire-spinning first-round win, Schultz regained control in the late rounds, defeating Steve Meiterman in the semifinals with a 7.83 and Jim Bernard in the final with a 7.82, the quickest run of the event.
But what I remember most was Pat Austin's third straight Indy Top Alcohol Funny Car win and the incredible show put on by him and the other TAFC racers, who were without question the Sportsman stars of the event. Rookie Frank Madden, driving his ex-Frank Manzo Thunderbird, paced the quickest field ever with a 6.02. Bringing up the rear was Jody Austin with a 6.14, an e.t. nearly five-hundredths better than the previous quickest bump, 6.20 from the 1989 Big Go. So quick was the field that the top eight ran 6.0s, including Austin, who clocked a third-best 6.05. After a first-round 6.08, Austin recorded 6.00s in the final three rounds, including a 6.002 in the final (low e.t.) against Danny Townsend, who slowed from his 6.0 pace to a 6.17.
"We beat the best field in NHRA history," said Austin after his 31st victory, which moved him past Kenny Bernstein on NHRA's all-time win list. "The first year we won [Indy] meant a lot to me, and the second year meant a lot because we ran the first five in U.S. Nationals history. But to come here and win again with three 6.00s, I'm just ecstatic."
A year later, though overshadowed by his runnerup in Top Fuel in his remarkable Pro debut, Austin became only the second driver in NHRA history to win four consecutive U.S. Nationals titles and only the third to reach the final in two eliminators at the same event. Austin remains one of only three drivers to accomplish that feat in Indy - Scotty Richardson won Stock and was runner-up in Super Gas in 1996, and David Rampy won Super Comp and was runnerup in Comp in 1998 - and no driver has ever won two classes in Indy on the same day.
Maybe this will be the year that someone doubles. That would certainly make this Indy something special, just as in 1990.