- Auto Racing - NHRA opening event full of surprises

Monday, February 5
NHRA opening event full of surprises

POMONA, Calif. -- If National Hot Rod Association officials were hoping for something a little unusual to spool up a little topspin for their 50th anniversary celebration this past weekend, they got more than they might have imagined.

In the opening event of the year -- the 41st Autozone Winternationals at the Fairplex -- there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of the unlikely in almost every one of the four professional categories. Had there been betting parlors at Pomona Raceway, the house probably would have cleaned up after Sunday's final rounds.

Top Fuel
Gary Scelzi, who wrapped up his third Top Fuel title in four years in 2000, came to Pomona with plenty of swagger. And why not? He was the defending Winston champion, the defending event champion, and was in position to win back-to-back Winternationals Top Fuel crowns, something that nobody had ever accomplished in the 40-year history of the event. Scelzi, however, was gone by the end of the second round after smoking his tires against part-time Top Fuel racer Bobby Baldwin.

The loss also prevented Scelzi from landing the $50,000 bonus put up by NHRA for winning both the Budweiser Shootout and the Auto Club Finals. Scelzi did win the Shootout on Saturday and the Auto Club Finals in November but didn't get the double-up bonus. The NHRA had announced last November, after the second and final rounds of the Shootout were postponed because of rain, that the 50K bonus would be offered at the Winternationals instead of the Finals. Team Winston wasn't thrilled with that call, but after Scelzi dropped his second-round matchup against Baldwin, 5.30 seconds/202 mph to 7.39/126, the issue became moot.

This weekend belonged to young rookie Darrell Russell, who recently was hired by five-time Winston Top Fuel champion Joe Amato to replace him as driver of the Valvoline/Keystone Automotive dragster. Russell looked like a seasoned veteran from the moment he hit the Pomona racing surface. After going to the final round of the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday and narrowly missing the $100,000 first prize when he lost to Scelzi, Russell entered Sunday qualified ninth with a best of 4.66/313.

Victories over Andrew Cowin (4.78/300 to 9.03/81), No. 1 qualifier Doug Kalitta (4.66/309 to 6.34/149) and Baldwin (4.67/308 to 4.86/298) sent Russell to the final round against No. 2 qualifier and 1999 winner Mike Dunn, with the chance to do what only one other rookie driver in Top Fuel (Gary Scelzi in 1997) had ever done: Win his first national event in his first professional appearance.

For Russell, rock-solid consistency was the difference in the final when Mike Dunn smoked his tires down-track while Russell streaked to another 4.60-pass: 4.66/309 to Dunn's struggling 5.56/231.

Irony? When Amato was considering whom he might hire to drive his car, another Top Fuel champion lobbied heavily for Joe to consider Russell. The driver? Gary Scelzi.

Funny Car
The question that racers and fans ask every year at this time has been the same since 1990, the year John Force won the first of his 10 Winston championships. "Can he do it again?" And the answer is usually, "Yes!"

Force was, like Gary Scelzi, another defending Winston champion who departed the festivities early. Very early. Would you believe after the first round? For Force, who has three Winternationals titles, it was only his second first-round loss at this race in 11 visits. And the driver who stuck a fork in him was his arch-nemesis, Whit Bazemore, now employed by Don Schumacher to drive his Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird.

With Force out almost before the crowd had warmed their seats, the door was left wide open for several very strong teams to jump in and take advantage. No. 1 qualifier Tommy Johnson Jr., driving the second of two Funny Cars fielded by Don Prudhomme, looked like he might make some noise in his first race for the Snake. Didn't happen. He fell to the driver who had come to an initial agreement with Johnson late last year to drive his Kendall Camaro, Chuck Etchells. Etchells inflicted some payback on Johnson with a 5.01/306-5.06/290 victory.

But lurking backstage was Bruce Sarver, who had gone to the final round at Pomona last November and lost to Force in the Auto Club of Southern California Finals. After a sputtering initial qualifying pass on Thursday, 7.46/108, Sarver would never go slower than a 4.95 the rest of the weekend. After qualifying sixth, Sarver slipped past Johnny Gray (4.95/296 to 5.89/164), Al Hofmann (4.93/303 to 6.00/157) and Bazemore (4.90/305 to 4.93/307) before facing No. 5 qualifier Tony Pedregon in the final.

Tony Pedragon came in to the race as last year's runner-up, and after making the field on his last qualifying attempt on Saturday with a blistering 4.88/314, he also showed impressive consistency throughout race day. In the final, Sarver uncorked the quickest run of eliminations and literally drove away from Force's team driver with a thundering 4.88/308 to Pedragon's 4.95/284.

It was Sarver's second national event win of his career -- both in Funny Car -- and gave team owner Alan Johnson reason to celebrate after seeing his Top Fuel pilot, Gary Scelzi, upset in Round 2.

Pro Stock
The NHRA professional category that has seen the most changes during the offseason is clearly Pro Stock. New engine guidelines, body styles, and driver swaps have given the class a whole new look and feel while some other aspects of the class remain the same. Primarily, Jeg Coughlin and the father-son team of Warren Johnson and Kurt Johnson will have plenty to say about where the Winston title will go at season's end.

Bruce Allen, a driver who last won a national event in 1992, enjoyed a fabulous performance in his Reher & Morrison Pontiac Grand Am during qualifying and took the pole with a 6.82/201 -- this after winning the preseason Pontiac Pro Stock Superbowl in Houston two weeks ago. His two opening-round wins over Troy Coughlin (6.90/199 to 6.95/197) and Richie Stevens (6.90/199 to 6.94/198) proved he would be another impact player in the class this year. But his good fortune in Pomona came to a screeching halt in the semifinals when Kurt Johnson outpowered Allen with a convincing 6.88/200-6.93/199 decision.

In the final round, facing another veteran driver on the rise -- three-time Winston champion Darrell Alderman -- Kurt had all he needed to pick up his first national event win of 2001. With Alderman running his slowest pass of eliminations, 6.93/200, Kurt breezed past with a potent 6.91/200. Kurt's dad, Warren, had lost in the semis to Alderman in one of the day's most intriguing races, pairing two drivers who hold little affection for each other.

Defending Winston and event champion Jeg Coughlin was never a factor as he was victimized by the elder Johnson in the second round. It was Kurt's first-ever Winternationals Pro Stock title.

Pro Stock Truck
Bob Panella has been the biggest hitter in Pro Stock Truck for two years. He has been a dominant champion during that time and came to Pomona this year as the defending Winternationals champion. But a driver who harassed and harangued Panella throughout the 2000 racing season was soft-spoken Randy Daniels, who finished second in Winston points last year.

Panella, a former standout in Sportsman racing, and Daniels, a second-generation driver whose father, Harley, is a former two-time Sportsman champion, are arguably the odds-on favorites to once again parry and thrust for the 2001 championship. This weekend, it was Daniels who had all the right moves.

Daniels captured the No. 1 qualifying spot with an impressive 7.461/180. Panella had to settle for the No. 2 spot with his 7.465/180 sprint. Although he reset the national top speed record during qualifying, 181.42 mph, Panella's day ended in disappointment when he barely lost his second-round race on a holeshot against the driver he beat in last year's final, Greg Stanfield, 7.53/178 to 7.52/180.

In the Pro Stock Truck final, Daniels was his usually tough self, spotting Stanfield three-hundreths of a second at the starting line but tracking him down from behind to win his first Winternationals trophy, 7.52/179 to 7.55/179.

Next stop on the NHRA tour will be the 17th Annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Ariz., the weekend of Feb. 16.


AutoZone Winternationals NHRA final results