Why This Gatornationals Was a 'Greater-nationals'






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Publication: National Dragster
Author: Burgess, Phil
Date published: March 25, 2011

The 2011 edition of the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals was as good as they come, and I could make some pretty strong arguments for it being the best ever. In fact, in honor of this having been the event's 42nd edition, I'm going to list 42 things that I thought made this an amazing Gatornationals. Even if you dismiss my list, it would be hard to argue that it wasn't among the top five.

And away we go ...

1. All four Pro Stock national records were obliterated. The Pro Stock e.t. mark was bettered by more than two-hundredths and the bike e.t. record by more than three-hundredths. The Pro Stock speed mark was boosted by more than a mph, and the bike record went up almost 2 mph.

2. Six of the eight track records fell. The only ones that weren't toppled were Tony Schumacher's 3.797 e.t. in Top Fuel (Shoe had low e.t. at 3.814) and Matt Hagan's 316.15 speed record in Funny Car (Mike Neff was fastest at 312.71).

3. The records tumbled due to unseasonably cold conditions Friday and Saturday. Both mornings, we woke to temps in the 30s.

4. It has been a pretty sparse year for highlights for Mike Edwards, so it was good to see him be the guy to break the 6.50 barrier in Pro Stock.

5. Darrell Gwynn and Don Garlits match raced in battery-powered dragsters built to resemble the duo's 1986 cars. Garlits won the first two rounds Friday and Saturday, and Gwynn won Sunday. "Friday and Saturday are for qualifying; Sunday is the real deal," quipped Gwynn.

6. Sunday morning's Track Walk to benefit the Darrell Gwynn Foundation was amazing and had a huge turnout of fans and a ton of drivers.

7. The list of heroes at the event who signed autographs was impressive and included familiar names such as Dick LaHaie, Wayne Gapp, Dale Funk, Marvin Graham, and Herm Petersen.

8. It was good to see LaHaie back at the drags. The 1985 Gatornationals winner, who has overcome serious health issues, also rode in the pre-finalround hot rod parade with wife Claudia in their cherry Crosley.

9. Adjacent to the autograph tent was the impressive Car Corral, which hosted not only sweet hot rods but also a lot of vintage racing machines.

10. The Cacklefest is always a crowd-pleaser, and anything with "Big Daddy" in it is going to draw the attention of the crowd.

11. Among those cackling was Art Marshall, who was at the wheel of the Jim and Alison Lee slingshot. Marshall was the last driver of a frontengine Top Fueler to win a Wally (1971 Grandnational).

12. Naming the dragstrip in Kenny Bernstein's honor was cool, and "the King of Speed" had no idea it was coming.

13. The naming of the Garlits grandstand was equally cool for a different reason. Everyone knows that Garlits has had issues with NHRA and vice versa, but those days are a distant memory.

14. Garlits had the honor of issuing Sunday's start-up command, urging the first two Top Fuel teams to "Put some fire in them pipes!"

15. Cool flyover by a pair of Coast Guard jets just as "Big Daddy" gave the order.

16. We all knew that Del Worsham would win this year in Top Fuel, but in his second race? Awesome!

17. We all knew that Neff would win in his return to Funny Car this year, but in his second race? Awesome!

18. With his first-round victory over Terry McMillen, Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon joined John Force, Bernstein, and Warren Johnson as the only Full Throttle Drag Racing Series drivers to win 600 rounds.

19. Jason Line joked in Pomona that he would like to win every race this year. He's off to a pretty good start, and no one else is laughing.

20. Eddie Krawiec got fans revved up when he came close to the unthinkable 200-mph mark in Pro Stock Motorcycle, but he said that it's still more than a year away.

21. Larry Morgan raced at his 500th Pro Stock event. For more on NHRA's "iron men," see Out of the Groove on page 17.

22. Before the event, McMillen visited Gatorland, where Tim Williams, the dean of gator wrestling, showed McMillen the finer points of staying safe while wrestling gators. Williams also brought a couple of his 5-foot gators to the race. Wally and Willy (as in '"Will He Bite?") were a big hit with the fans, who got to pose with them.

23. One of Hector Arana's great weekends, with the barrier-breaking, record-setting 6.777, was tempered by the failure of his son Hector Jr. to qualify in his Pro Stock Motorcycle debut.

24. This year's rookie battle will be a good one among Arana Jr., Vince Nobile, Brian Thiel, Buddy Perkinson, and many others, including alligator farmer Gerald Savoie, who impressed in his debut on the ex-Don Schumacher Racing Suzuki.

25. Speaking of motorcycle newcomers, Angelle Sampey is a new mother after delivering 5-pound, 10-ounce Ava Jane March 10.

26. The other social talk of the pits was the engagement of another former Pro Stock Motorcycle star, Matt Hines, who popped the question to sidelined Top Fuel star Hillary Will. No wedding date is set.

27. Erica Enders showed that her Winternationals pole was no fluke when the driver of the ZaZa Energy Chevy reset the national speed record in Pro Stock with a pass of 213.57, which she backed up with a run of 212.83.

28. In one of the most eagerly watched Pro Stock pairings in memory, Enders defended NHRA honor with a first-round victory over NASCAR champ Kurt Busch.

29. Nostalgia Funny Cars were part of the scene as well. Mike Smith saddled up in the Brand X Mustang to face Jon Capps in an ex-"Jungle Jim" Liberman Camaro. Smith ran 5.99 to win.

30. The U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Chorus performed "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" to the cheers of the crowd.

31. Frank Manzo qualified No. 1 in TAFC with a national record 5.437, then bettered it in the first round with a 5.432. His speed, 267.64, backed up his 268.06 for the national record as well, taking it from Alexis DeJoria, who had set it earlier in the day.

32. The TAFC e.t. record had gone unbroken for 66 races but has been reset at the last two races.

33. Force couldn't talk his way out of a pre-race speeding ticket in the notorious Waldo speed trap. Said Force, "I go right into the John Force bull drive talk to get out; 'Hey, you know how fast I'm going to be going at the Gators this weekend?' And he said, 'I don't know how fast you are, but I know what my speed deal showed, and you got a ticket.' Told me, 'Shut up, get back in the car, and see you at the Gatornationals.' "

34. With racers such as Sal and Peter Biondo, Dan Fletcher, and Edmond Richardson taking part, it was an all-star set of Sportsman final rounds.

35. Richardson lost a heartbreaker to Tom Dauber: Both ran perfect 8.900s, but Dauber's slight .007 to .009 holeshot made the difference.

36. The Biondo brothers shared the winner's circle for the third time in their careers; Sal won Comp, Peter Super Stock.

37. Be sure to check out NDAssociate Editor Brad Littlefield's new weekly Monday Morning Crew Chief column on NHRA.com. It made its debut after the Gators.

38. The NHRA Interactive chat was a huge hit online, as was the new photo blog implemented at the event.

39. It was great to have Clay Millican back with new sponsor Parts Plus. The guy is entertaining!

40. Karen Stoffer left empty-handed but at one time held the PSM speed record and reached the final.

41. Neat to have the Gators back as the second race of the season, where it belongs!

42. No rain!

There were scores more, and you can read about them all throughout this issue and the next. Who's ready for Las Vegas?

Author affiliation:

pburgess@nhra.com

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