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47th Annual NHRA Carquest Auto Parts Winternationals
at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona

Pomona, CA
Feb 8, 9, 10, 11 –‘07

Story by Richard Parks and Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz

  The 47th Annual NHRA CarQuest Auto Parts Winternationals were held on February 8-11, 2007, at the Auto Club of Southern California Pomona Raceway. It’s hard to believe that this is the 47th year that we have watched drag racing at this venerable old track. The weather was cool and cloudy with hints of rain threatening every day of the event, but only materializing on Saturday morning. The weather made the track slippery and many cars ended up in the sand trap at the end of the track, but the cool air enhanced performance and many drivers had excellent times. In the Funny Cars, the news is split between the return of Kenny Bernstein to a class he once dominated before moving on to Top Fuel dragsters, and the debut of Ashley Force. Bernstein came out of retirement when offered a new sponsorship. A few years ago it was the Funny Car drivers who were switching to Top Fuel dragsters, but now that trend seems to be going the other way. The level of skill among professional drag racing has gotten better and considerably deeper. From first to sixteenth, the ability is there to win at any time. The facility has also improved with the new Sky-Box suites and improvements to the track. The Safety Safari is the best in all car racing. We watched them in action, both men and women, dedicated to safety and friendly and professional. This was probably the most well run event I have ever seen at the drag races.

  The racing lived up to the pre-race expectations. Bernstein looked good in his new car. Ashley Force has a more subdued demeanor than her illustrious father, John Force, but not by much. Ashley is a driver’s driver. She admitted that she is nervous but she isn’t a first time driver in a car that just anyone could dominate in. She has proven that she can handle the Alcohol Funny Cars, and she looked comfortably in the Top Fuel Funny Car as well. John thought so because he took his daughter out on the course and showed her all the tricks that he knows about this class, and he was her biggest fan, becoming so hoarse that he lost his voice. Ashley told us, “I know the routine well, but seeing my dad running around like a chicken with his head cut off did make me a little nervous to prove that I could do it. Yes, I’m relieved that my first run is over. It was a little stressful and the side windows popped out on my run. Austin Coil is speaking in my ear and my dad is yelling in my other ear.” We asked her how her parents reacted and she said, “my dad is nuts and my mother is sane, but it’s really fun having two such opposite parents.” Ashley went on to say, “my dad advised me that the greatest pressure is what you put on yourself. When you’re in the car all you want to do is cut a light and get down the track as fast as you can. The main focus is getting qualified for the finals, and then you take it one round at a time.” Ashley started in Super Comps, then moved up in class, learning as she went. “Every driver starts out as a rookie,” she said, “Kenny Bernstein and my dad kind of bond and both of them said that I’m going to be okay. Don Schumacher came over and said that I did a good job, and everyone complimented me.” Ashley said that all of her competitors have been so gracious and supportive. She recently talked to her 2nd grade teacher who had watched her and her father being interviewed. “You’re so nice,” said her teacher, “but your dad says so many bad words.” 


Kenny Bernstein debuts his new Top Fuel Funny Car.


Ashley Force qualifies her first time out in a Top Fuel Funny Car!!


  The races are more than just what’s going on at the track. The vendors and the manufacturers bizarre are full of activity as fans look for decals, parts, and advice or are just curious. Drag racing is a user-friendly sport and it is likely that you will bump into your favorite driver, crew chief or celebrity at the event. Dave Danish was there viewing the races. He’s the track manager at Auto Club of Southern California Dragway at Fontana, California. His season began in the second week of January and will run up to December. Danish told me that there isn’t an off season anymore in drag racing. “When they’re not racing, they’re testing their cars, and California Dragway does a lot of business.” Rick Lalor was representing the Auto Club of Southern California. Rick is the Vice President of Motorsports Sponsorships and the Auto Club is a major sponsor in racing events, but that is only a part of what they do. The ACSC uses racing to promote safety and to get street racers to go to the safe and sanctioned racetracks to do their racing. Auto Clubs all over the country are helping to make driving safer for all. Dr Joe Oliver is a longstanding fan of dragracing and came from Texas to see the races. Gordon Browning helped NHRA to form programs with the police departments in Southern California that helped to curb illegal street racing in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. 

  Another policeman was Bud Coons and his wife Bev. Bud Coons was assigned to car clubs in the 1950’s in the Pomona area and was instrumental in the Pomona Valley Timing Association that ran races at the Fairgrounds in the very early 50’s. Coons was one of the first employees of the fledgling NHRA and let a team composed of Chick Cannon, Eric ‘Rick’ Rickman, and Bud Evans on the first Drag Safari and Safety Safari tours. They crossed the country, talking to youths, car clubs, police and fire departments and showed young drag racers how to set up racing organizations and work with the local authorities to make drag racing safe and enjoyable. Cannon and Rickman were also in attendance at the races. Ruth and Wayne McMurtry were put to work. Ruth handling the hostess role in the suites and Wayne making sure that the facilities were in working order. Wayne is a long time drag racer who lives in Northern New Mexico and has run the facilities department for NHRA. White-haired John Bandimere, owner and manager of the Bandimere Raceway outside of Denver, Colorado was on hand. Drivers and spectators alike love to go to Bandimere, as John always makes sure everyone is well looked after. Bernie and John Calvert were also watching the races. John was the 1995 and ’96 Superstock champion at the Winternationals, and won the 1991 Stock championship in NHRA. John’s two sons, Brent and John are also drag racers. Brent is the Pomona Jr Dragracing champion, and John won the 2006 Division 7 Jr Dragracing championship and then went to Bandimere Raceway to win the World Jr Dragracing title.

  Jim Edmonds and Marie Binz were watching the races. Jim was the Media Relations Director for NHRA from 1969 to 1979, and then became the Editorial Director of Programs until his retirement in 1997. Kelly Clancy and Lance Haack represented Racing Champion Group (RC2). Bob Jacobsen does quality die cast reproductions of cars for the collectibles market. He explained how expensive it is to make the dies. “It’s around $50,000 to make dies for 1/24th scale cars with about 60 parts, and over $100,000 to make the dies for the same car if it has 150 parts to it. The cars are made in China, but there are some American firms that can make a custom diecast collectible in smaller quantities. It is just more expensive per unit. It’s getting tougher and tougher to do diecast cars every year. Unless it’s going to gross over a million dollars, the toy car companies aren’t interested,” he said. I asked him about the detail on the cars. “They have a decal process that’s gone state of the art and is better than painting, and that is helping to expand the diecast selection and keep costs down,” he told me. They have a great collectibles show for the public on Saturday’s following the race, held at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, on the other side of the huge Los Angeles County Fairplex site, in Pomona, California. 

Reporters cornered Robert Hight, one of the four drivers for John Force’s Race Team, in the Shav Glick Media Center at the track. Hight is married to one of John’s daughter’s and is a friendly and personable young man, as good a mechanic as he is a driver. “We have two Auto Club sponsored cars at Pomona, with brand new clutches and a lot of unanswered questions during testing. I ran a 4.693 ET, and it’s a great tribute to my crew. They put me first in qualifying on Thursday. I know how this Funny Car works, I’ve built them, but as a driver I’ve got to concentrate on driving.” He was asked about Ashley Force’s first trip down the track. “It’s very exciting to see Ashley start her professional career in the Funny Car class. She really knows how to focus. The track is in good shape and Ashley will do very well. A 4.79 ET won’t cut it at this race, there are so many good drivers out here, and some great drivers won’t make it through qualifying. We’re really excited about adding Ashley to the Force Team, which is now a 4 car racing team. We all have to take risks now and run hard just to do well with the competition in the division. Even though Ashley is a serious competitor, all the other racers have been giving her advice on how to succeed,” Hight said. There will be plenty of excitement this year just watching the Force family. Their TV show has garnered great reviews and it is impossible to script. John loses everything when he has to follow a script, but just get him going on a subject and get out of his way, because his personality takes over and electrifies the audience with his enthusiasm and zest for life. 


Robert Hight was disqualified in the Final when he “touched” the centerline.


Eric Medlen lost to Scelzi in the semifinal


Gary Scelzi (far lane) beats Mike Ashley in semifinal


Robert Hight (far lane) defeats Jeff Arend in the semifinal

  Eric Medlen is the other Force Team driver, and it will be a donnybrook watching this talented and entertaining family battle one another and the finest field of Funny Car drivers and teams ever assembled. Force, who has qualified for 392 consecutive races dating back to 1987, was having trouble all weekend with his car. He had failed to qualify and Ashley who had qualified fourth on Thursday was unable to better her time and watched other drivers run better times. She sat at the number 16 position, the last available spot, which the racers call the “bump” for good reason. John, who wanted nothing better than to see his daughter make the finals, and knowing this was his last chance, must have felt the irony of the situation. “Instinct takes over,” he said and he sizzled down the track in a fine 4.709 at 326.40 to bump his little girl out of the race. When he got back his wife gave him a scowl and he knew he was in the doghouse. “It was painful,” he said, “bumping my daughter out of the race.” Ashley had one last chance and she didn’t waste it. “When I was at the starting line I was thinking do I want my dad to be the one to knock me out of my first race,” she said. Her run was good enough to put her back in the finals in the 15th spot where she would race against her partner, Robert Hight, adding excitement for the next day’s racing. Gary Scelzi, another Funny Car competitor, was entranced by the Force Fight. 

“What drama this all was, watching them duel, and also being a part of it,” said Scelzi. Just then Scelzi’s crew chief, Mike Neff, told him to get back in his car as they had some racing yet to do.

  It was obvious that the Force Team stole the thunder, but there was great racing in the other categories as well. Tony Schumacher continued his strong runs with a 4.472 on the track where last November he stole the championship in an unbelievable finish at the World’s Finals. Rod Fuller, Brandon Bernstein and Doug Kalitta all had quick 4.5 ET’s, and J.R. Todd ran 4.482 to win the finals. Gary Scelzi had a 333.49 mph Funny Car run, which was the 3rd fastest speed in that class ever, and yet it was the Force’s who even in defeat on Sunday, were the talk of the town. John, Ashley and Medlen would bow out, leaving Hight as the only member of the team with a chance at the title. In that final race, in the cold and dark with the lights barely highlighting the track, cars and crowd, with the headers streaming fire and the hearts of all throbbing for a glance at glory, Hight’s car broke and he sat forlornly as Scelzi rocketed down the track just one mph slower than his great run the day before. The Force’s didn’t claim victory that day, but in their struggle they won the hearts of the fans. “Watching Ashley qualify was the greatest day of my life, except of course for the day she was born,” said the loquacious speedster. Every day that John Force is on the racetrack is the greatest day for the fans and spectators who adore this genial and gracious man.

We ran into Jerry Toliver, a former Funny Car driver and boat racer. He started racing cars then transferred to drag boat racing and spent nine years in the boats before renewing his car-racing career. Sidetracked for a few years, he hopes to have an announcement about a new sponsor. “It was fun but the boats are too dangerous. First you survive the crash, then you drown. I got beat up a lot in the capsules. I raced just before Tim Capaldi died at Puddingtone Lake. He was in the protective capsule and it separated from the boat in about thirty feet of murky water, but a line holding the capsule didn’t break free and let the capsule come to the surface and he drowned. I broke my back in the boats. They’re just not safe,” Jerry said. Kenny Sargent and Crash Gladys from the SpeedFreaks radio and TV shows were there with Toliver. The TV show is based out of Encino, California and the national radio show on ESPN2 is out of Culver City. Lugg Nutt and Stat Man Carruthers are the other two in the four-person team. The radio show began in June of 2000, and the TV show debuted on ESPN2 in 2004. In a short time they have risen to be the top rated motorsports show in America. 

  The Wise Guys Car Club can always be found at the races. An enthusiastic and hospitable bunch under any circumstance, the races bring out the best in them. Marco Olson (“I didn’t do it, somebody looks like me”), and John Pricco are always there to welcome guests to their suite. Mitch Kelly, son of the legendary pinstriper Tom Kelly, was with Marco and John. British drag racer Barry Sheavills told us that drag racing is doing quite well in Europe. He drives a Top Fuel Dragster at Avon Park and Santapod Raceways in England. There is also a lot of drag racing in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Norway and in the Persian Gulf Emirates of Bahrain, Dubai and Qatar. “Drag racing is going to be massive in Dubai and Qatar after they build their own dragstrips,” Barry said. I asked him about Santapod, the well-known dragstrip in England. “You Yanks all seemed to come from Santa Ana during the Second World War,” he said. “They were bomber pilots and hotrodders who were stationed at Poddington, so we just named the track Santapod after them and where they were stationed during the war.” The Wise Guys enjoy their club and our eager to show it. “We have to be on our best behavior though, because they are watching us,” said John. I hope they don’t watch them too closely because it would be terrible to lose this group.

  The finals in the Pro categories were anticlimactic compared to the qualifying days. Rain came but was gone by the time the program started. In Top Fuel the winner was J.R. Todd in a time of 4.482 ET seconds, at a speed of 324.98 mph. He defeated Brandon Bernstein, who slowed to 11.397 ET seconds, at a speed of 71.36 mph. Gary Scelzi, in a Dodge Charger, went 4.716, at 332.26 mph to beat Robert Hight, whose Ford Mustang broke. In Pro Stock it was Greg Anderson, in his Pontiac GTO, who sped to a 6.651, and 207.05 mph, who bested a much slower Greg Stanfield, in his GTO, at 7.001, and 163.65 mph. Brandon Johnson, won in Top Alcohol Dragster with a 5.405, 267.37, over Mark Niver, who ran a faltering 21.170, at 59.20 mph. In Top Alcohol Funny Car it was Jay Payne, with his Chevy Camaro, speeding to a 5.779 ET, and a speed of 249.67, defeating Sean Bellemeur, in his Camaro, which broke down at the starting line and posted no time or speed. In other classes, Jody Lang, in a Chevy Malibu, ran a 10.900, 114.53 to edge out Jimmy DeFrank, in his Pontiac Grand Am, 9.055 ET, at 150.21 mph, in Super Stock. Stock Eliminator went to Clark Holroyd, who campaigned a Chevy Nova to an elapsed time of 10.426, and a top end speed of 123.27. Holroyd beat Tibor Kadar in his Pontiac Firebird, who ran 12.084 ET, at 105.99 mph. In the Super Comp class it was Tom Yancer who prevailed in his Dragster, who turned a 8.930 ET and a speed of 170.28 mph, and a quicker response time to defeat Justine Jeffrey’s Dragster, who had a quicker ET and top end speed of 8.899 ET at 171.40 mph. Super Gas rounded out the action with Randy Fabbro, in his Chevy Nova, going 9.908 ET, at 153.23 mph beating Fred Kondrotas, in his Pontiac Trans Am, who ran a quicker ET at 9.895, but a slower 147.92 mph.


You don’t see the wheels up on these Pro Stock cars very often. Jason Line can do it.


Connie Kalitta (l), son Scott Kalitta and Jack Beckman


The Sanyo blimp was “hanging around” all weekend.


– Morgan Lucas launches his Top Fuel Funny Car


– Legendary Chet Herbert (black jacket) looks on as his son Doug Herbert qualifies his Top Fuel Dragster.


Joe Hartley staged the upset of the meet by taking out “the Champ” Tony Schumacher in the first round.


Top Fuel Dragster winner J.R. Todd, “heats’em up”.


– Cory McClenanthan shown some flames


Hillary Will makes the rear tires “tall” during her burnout.


Larry Dixon shown his new SkyTel colors


Top Fuel Funny Car winner Gary Scelzi


The Scott Kalitta Top Fuel Funny Car.


The always popular Ron Capps


Jack Beckman launches his ’07 Dodge Charger


Doug Kalitta lost in the semifinal to J.R.Todd.

Brandon Bernstein (near lane) defeats Rod Fuller in the semifinal


J.R.Todd (near lane) beats David Grubnic in semifinal


– Rod Fuller lost to Bernstein in the semifinals.


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