The 48th Annual CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals took place on February 7-10, 2008 at the Auto Club of Southern California Raceway at Pomona, on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Fairplex, located in Pomona, California. This famous dragstrip has been in operation since the very early 1950’s, first hosting an NHRA race in 1953, with the first Winternationals run in 1961. This is the first race of the season for the National Hot Rod Association and marks the first time that the founder, heart and soul of the organization, Wally Parks, will not be in attendance. Parks passed away the previous September at the age of 94, but he would have been very proud of the way the organization handled the pressures of a huge race. It hasn’t been easy for the NHRA since the end of the 2007 season and the start of this new championship series. John Force, the first among equals in the pantheon of racing stars, was injured seriously, and the pro series was put up for sale and the founder of the NHRA passed away. Doug Herbert, a popular and successful Top Fuel dragster owner and racer, lost his two sons, Jon and James in a horrific auto accident just two weeks before the race. Jon was only 17 and his brother, James, was just 12. The racing community rallied around the Herbert family, letting them know how much they cared. Force recovered, the sale of the pro series did not go through and the organization and racers adapted well to the new changes. Wet and cold weather had been the norm prior to the race, leaving the surrounding mountains covered in snow. The first day of racing dawned clear, warm and sunny and the stands began to fill. A good opening day on Thursday usually means a solid week of fan participation and the weather held up for all four days of the event.
Herbert gamely came west from his North Carolina home after the death of his two sons and dedicated this season to the memory of his boys. He posted a very good run in qualifying on Thursday, covering the quarter-mile track in 4.545 elapsed time at 327.98 miles per hour. Tony Schumacher took the lead in Thursday’s qualifying session in the T/F dragster class at 4.513 e.t. at 331.53 mph. Scott Kalitta had the best time in Thursday’s Funny Car qualifying at 4.818, going 322.65 mph. Greg Anderson, one of the most consistent winners in the Pro Stock class, went 6.635 e.t. at 208.91 mph. The perfect weather for people may not have been perfect for the cars, which do best with a tinge of cool moist air and a cool, biting track. The sunny, warm and dry air brought out the crowds and it was obvious that some played hooky from the office and classroom. Some of the students were there at the racetrack courtesy of the NHRA Youth Services Department and the local school districts. These programs show high school students that drag racing can offer a future, not only in driving race cars, but in marketing, sales, PR, mechanics and management. One of the rising stars in Top Fuel is the former Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, Antron Brown. He turned in a quick 4.495 et at 330.07 to take the lead in qualifying on Friday. He attributed his success to crew chief Lee Beard. Brown is African/American, one of two competing in Top Fuel this year. The other is J.R. Todd, who came very close to winning the division last year. Brandon Bernstein in T/F and Cruz Pedregon in the Funny Car class, made good runs to position themselves for the finals on Sunday.
I was invited into the Media Room to interview some of the writers, journalists and photographers. Many of these men and women labor long hours to bring you the news, but seldom are they seen or praised for their dedication to the sport. The Media Room is dedicated to Shav Glick, who passed away last year. Glick is one of the greatest sportswriters in automotive racing and the reason for his success was due to his sure and steady reporting. He rarely minced words, preferring fact and accuracy over hyperbole and verbiage. He gave the reader the true and unvarnished account and he loved auto racing. He loved to play golf, especially with his friend and co-writer on the Los Angeles Times, Jim Murray. Murray liked auto racing, but thought that it was often too poorly run and didn’t stress safety. Murray brought to his writing style an Irish love of wording and phrasing. He was an odist, whose style was more sung in praise than written. Together the two journalists created a vivid account of modern American auto racing. Glick and Murray’s successor is Martin Henderson at the Times and he holds the seat that once belonged to Shav. There is a pecking order in the Media Room and the center-right seat on the second row, is the one that all the writers hope to have one day, Shav’s seat. In charge of the Media Room is Anthony Vestal, who is the Media Director for NHRA. His staff includes Michael Padian who is the PR manager with the writers, and Brian Hacker, Zak Elcock and Lachelle Seymour who are in media relations. It is their job to help the writers and photographers get their stories in on time. They provide handouts, do interviews with the drivers and crews, and give refreshments and places to work. The Media Room is quiet, but the activity is non-stop and the press will type furiously during and after a run by the cars. The Media Room looks straight down the race course and has feeds for laptops so that the writers can keep reports current and send them directly to their magazines, websites and newspapers. Where the deadlines used to be at midnight, today the writer will be submitting reports to his publisher as the race progresses. The pressure is intense and the NHRA staff is professional and very supportive.
Representing the Press Enterprise is Matt Calkins. Bill Center is the sportswriter for the San Diego Tribune. Rob Geiger files reports for www.NHRA.com, a website that is huge and influential in drag racing. National Dragster, the official publication of the NHRA is represented by Editor-in-Chief Phil Burgess and writer Jade Davidson. The National Dragster has been published for nearly fifty years and has over 80,000 readers. Rick Green heads the Fast News Central and has David Gerard and Darryl Jackman assist him with www.dragracecentral.com. The websites are commanding more and more readers and their place in the media is now unquestioned. Another Drag Race Central reporter is Bob Frey, who is also an NHRA announcer. Reporting for Automobile Magazine is Preston Lerner. Bobby Bennett and Roger Richards are the reporters for www.competitionplus.com. Susan Wade and Angela Barrazza are the reporters for National Speed Sport News. Wade is the West Coast Representative of AARWBA, the writers, reporters, photographers and broadcasters association. Her flashing smile, wonderful enthusiasm and helpfulness toward all the reporters, make her an excellent representative for the group. Race Engine Technology is represented by Anne Proffitt. Darr Hawthorne is the writer/photographer for www.dragracingonline.com, one of the premier drag racing websites. Steve Ramirez writes for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Rick Hoff represents The North County Hoff. The Sacramento Union sent Jeannie Broussal. Tim Haddock reports for the Los Angeles Daily News. Will Lester and Louis Brewster cover the beat for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Brewster has been one of the hardest working and dedicated sportswriter on automotive racing in Southern California. Next to Shav Glick, Brewster is one of the staunchest supporters of drag racing and covers the sport faithfully. Damian Dottore is the sports editor for the Orange County Register, the second largest newspaper in the Southern California market.
Next door to the bustling, busy Media Room is the Press and PR overflow room. This room also has a great view of the track and outlets for laptop computers and is filled with public relations, marketing and representatives from the race teams. All the spots are taken and the men and women who are so vital to sponsorship and the race teams all seem to know one another. They work for competing teams but their goals are often very similar. There is a camaraderie balanced by a competitive urge to excel. I met Dave Kommel, who owns www.autoimagery.com and is a photographer. A husband and wife team, Kay and Leon Presto, have been actively covering the auto racing scene for nearly five decades. Kay is a pioneer among the women journalists at the Indy 500, breaking the male-only racing world in the 1960’s. “I love photographing racing events,” Presto told me. “The race teams will work with you if you are patient and give them time to tune in their cars, but you have to be flexible and work around their schedules. The Force and Fellow’s (TransAm) teams are the greatest. Dick Simon is a marvelous team leader in TransAm racing,” she added. Kay’s website is www.carsandcompetition.com. Rick Green, David Gerard and Darryl Jackman run the largest drag racing race-results website in the world. They are constantly typing in the results of the race as it unfolds and putting in short bits of commentary. They do this over 140 races, for national, regional and divisional events in the NHRA and IHRA circuits. They always offer to help and give information to others no matter how busy they are. Liset Marquez was representing the Daily Bulletin from Ontario, California. The Bulletin is part of the LANG Group (Los Angeles News Group). Anthony Vestal interviewed Kurt Johnson, son of Warren Johnson, who races in the Pro Stock class. “We took the information gathered from the computers on the car and switched to the left lane,” said Johnson. “The left lane proved to be the better lane today. This is a brand new race car. We’ve only made 17 runs in it so far this year and it’s been a good car so far. Saturday will be our main tune-up day, but we are happy to be where we are now,” Johnson continued. Brewster asked him about the new 12 car protected bracket, but Johnson told the reporters that the new ruling won’t affect him.
Dave and Louise McClelland were there to watch their grandson, Daniel, race his 1980 Chevy Malibu 4-door station wagon in the M/stock class. McClelland is the southern gentleman with the smooth and silky voice that racing fans everywhere consider to be one of the greatest drag racing announcers. He spent a few minutes with us. “We call Daniel’s car the Big Mac Racing Tuna Tank 7,” he said. “It has a 305 c.i. stock Chevy engine in it. My grandson is 18 years old and helped to build the car with his dad, Kevin McClelland. I’m the sponsor, I guess you could say. My son Kevin won the Nationals in the Super Gas class,” he added. “My racing career started in the 1970’s and then I took some time off to announce and resumed racing in nostalgia events from 1991 through 2002. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t do both racing and announcing. I made my living announcing, but my heart will always be in racing. I won the March Meet at Bakersfield in 1998 and my son won the March Meet in 1997. We always called our cars the Tuna Tank and we’ve had seven cars with that name,” McClelland told me. Bob Frey is another famous NHRA and auto racing announcer. He is not only a fan favorite, but a writer and photographer in a way. His passion is saving race results from long ago races that may have been lost. He collects old programs and score sheets and is fascinated by these past events. If you have any score sheets or race results, let me know and I’ll pass them on to Bob. I met a few of the many interesting racing team publicists and PR people. Jay Wells is with Morgan Lucas Racing and Lucas Oil. Jon Knapp is with AC Delco and the Warren Johnson Racing Team sponsored by General Motors and not only works out of the press room, but has a suite upstairs for distributors and sponsors of their products. Lee Elder represented Goodyear Tire. Dave Densmore is with John Force Racing. Susie Arnold is with the Kenny Bernstein Racing Team and Budweiser. Don Schumacher and the Army Team are represented by Judy Stropus.
Jim Brumfield led a large team from PCG Campbell, which represented Ford Motor Company. Jim was from their Detroit office and PCG Campbell also represents the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. Landspeed Louise Ann Noeth was here to represent the Fossett Land Speed racing team. They are searching for a qualified woman driver to put in their car to try and break the Unlimited land speed record and go over 800 mph on land. Alexis Kinch is the representative for the eastern racing team of Bob Tasca Ford. The NHRA decided to open up one of their suites in the tower to spectators. Normally all the suites are rented out to manufacturers and major sponsors, but this year one of the suites became an ‘open suite.’ The fans bid on-line for a spot and it proved wildly popular. I met Wilfried Eibach there. Wilfried is from Germany, but he has a manufacturing plant in the Corona, California area. A few years ago, he teamed up with Steve Lewis and they created the Eibach Springs Festival of Speed at Irwindale Speedway, in Irwindale, California. The event drew every kind of racing vehicle known to man, including land speed cars, go-karts, quarter midget, drag and oval track racing cars. There hasn’t been anything like it since and we encouraged Wilfried to consider making the Festival of Speed an annual affair. He’s a very busy man, flying to China, Europe, Africa and other points of racing interest to promote his springs, used in most of the top auto racing sports. He told us that the Paris to Dakar road rally had been called off due to terrorist threats, but that they are negotiating with the Mexican government to bring back the Mexican road race. Wilfried said that the race would start in El Paso and end at the Guatemalan border. Gildas Martin, who was with Eibach, added that “the organizers will have leased cars available to the general racing public.” Gildas went on, “we must work through the local cities and gain their support for the race as well as the Government of Mexico, but the publicity for them will be huge.” A young man in the open suite was Sean Tierney. “I like all kinds of racing, except NASCAR,” he told me. “I own a ’05 Scion and I’m looking forward to the Orange County Auto Show and the SEMA show. That’s where the girls are,” he added. There were plenty of cute girls near the starting line, rooting their race teams on.
I also met Kristin Anderson in the suite and she represents Sparco suits with offices in Irvine, California and Italy. “All the fire suits are made in Italy,” she said. “We make all kinds of fire suits and they range in price from $800 to $1800. Typically the suits are custom made, but you can buy some off the rack. This is our first year in drag racing, but the company started making suits over twenty years ago for Formula 1 racing,” she continued. Connie Kalitta, the grand old man of Kalitta racing, was taking a breather in the NHRA suite. He was covered with specks of rubber and was gracious enough to give me a few words before he had to rush off to be with his team. Connie is a legend among racers; a two-fisted, intense and dedicated drag racer that sometimes pushed harder than he should have. During a racing ban, he took flying lessons from Bob Daniels and became a pilot, then loved flying so much that he started up his own airline company, flying his drag race team and cars from one race track to the next. His racing team consists of three top fuel and one funny car and they are always competitive. His son Scott races the funny car, his nephew Doug races one of the top fuel cars. Also racing for him in top fuel is David Grubnic and Hillary Will. “I expect better track conditions by Saturday, “ he said. Somewhat refreshed, he got up and went back to his team, there was more work to be done. Adrienne Ridder and Marleen Gurrola were taking a short break from their NHRA duties. Adrienne is in communications and Marleen is the Director of Human Resources for the NHRA, reporting to Vice President Peter Clifford. She started at NHRA in 1998 and is celebrating her tenth year with the organization. She named her son, Geoff Gurrola, after the lead musician in the band Jethroe Tull. “He used to cut out little cars from Hot Rod Magazine,” she added about her son. Vestal introduced Cruz Pedregon to the crowd of reporters. “Our run has been a big pressure relief,” Cruz said. One of three famous drag racing brothers, Cruz added, “The car ran well today. We changed the car a lot. Ron Tobler and the new crew have made all the difference in performance. Ron got aggressive with the tuning and we did well in qualifying today, moving up to number two and we’re expecting to reach into the 4.70’s. We’re looking for consistency. There’s pressure on everyone to do well, but racing should be fun. I’m happy for my team,” Cruz said.
After the races concluded for the day on Friday, we went over to the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum for the annual Night of Champions Open House. The Museum holds an open house twice a year on Friday nights during the races in February and November. Admission at these two events is free, the public is invited and there are ample chances to see some of the present and past heroes of drag racing. The first to greet us was Art and Shirley Goldstrum from Las Vegas, Nevada. Art and Shirley, whom we call Goldie, are drag racing fans of the highest level and collectors. They have a large museum in Las Vegas where drag racing memorabilia and cars are on display. James Ibusuki had a display of his artwork at the front entrance. Ibusuki’s style is unique and he has influenced many other artists. John and Blake Bowser are the track managers at the Auto Club of Southern California Famoso Raceway, just north of Bakersfield, California. They are currently getting the track ready for the 50th anniversary of the famous March Meet. Museum board of directors included Steve Gibbs and Dick Wells. Gibbs was the long-time operations manager for the NHRA and the first director of the museum. His lovely and charming wife, Gloria, accompanied him from their home in Utah. Wells is a former editor of National Dragster and a current member of the board for the NHRA. Hillary Will, from Fontana, California was a guest speaker. Hillary is a T/F drag racer for the Kalitta Racing Team. ‘Fast Jack’ Beckman from North Hills, California, represented the Valvoline Team. Antron Brown, from Chesterfield, New Jersey, said, “I’m just living a dream.” Doug Herbert and J. R. Todd also spoke at the open house. Cindy Gibbs was there with her son and her parents, Gloria and Steve Gibbs. NHRA employees included Bob Frey, Wayne Philips, Greg Sharp, Tony Thacker, Rose Dickenson and Sherry Watson. Robin and Orah Mae Millar were present. Orah is the widow of famed drag racing CARtoonist Pete Millar. They have been marketing and saving Pete’s very creative and funny drag cartoons and other artwork.
TV Tommy Ivo was on hand. This legend looks younger than ever. He was a child actor and star in Hollywood movies and a top name in drag racing in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Super fans Paul and Terry Ward never miss an event, along with Bud and Lynne Rasmus. Bud and Lynne are the official crew members of the Winged Express fuel altered nostalgia car. David Peters exhibited his paintings and has been an artist for over 20 years. His work can be seen at www.dragracingartist.com. Steve Covern was another artist, from Laguna Beach, California, who presented his work at the museum. He has been a drag racing artist for over ten years and has exhibited his work at the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach. Pat and Jim Berardini are part of the famous Berardini brothers who raced on the very first drag strips in a brand new sport in the early 1950’s. Their famous roadster, the 404 was one of the “75 greatest Deuce Roadsters ever built,” according to historian Greg Sharp and the Ford Motor Company. Kay Kimes was one of the original land speed racers at Bonneville in 1949. Jim and Randy Travis are car builders and restorers. Jim restored several cars in the museum, including Suddenly, the car driven by Wally Parks at Daytona and Ray Brock at Bonneville, in setting the stock car land speed record for the class. The finals saw Tony Schumacher maintain his dominance in Top Fuel by running a strong 4.499 elapsed time and a 331.28 mph speed to win the top prize in that category. He beat Cory McClenathan who ran a 4.536 at 329.26 mph. John Force recovered from his injuries to go several rounds, but it was his teammate and employee, Robert Hight who won it all in the Funny Car class, posting a 4.861 et at a slowing 284.39 mph to top Cruz Pedregon in a slightly slower 4.879, but a faster 322.50 mph. It’s not how fast you are that wins drag races, but how quick you get to the finish line ahead of your rival. No one has stopped Greg Anderson in the last few years and no one did at this race either. Greg blasted to a 6.616 et at 209.23 mph in Pro Stock to beat Jeg Coughlin who ran a 6.638 et at 208.42 mph.
In the other classes it was Duane Shields, who won the Top Alcohol Dragster class with marks of 5.377 et and 270.00 mph over Joey Severance, who fouled. Frank Manzo, who is perpetually tough, took the Top Alcohol Funny Car category with a time of 5.558 et at 260.26 mph, defeating Brian Hough who went 5.779 et at 250.27 mph. Jim Cowan had a time of 8.188 et at 148.67 mph to beat Dan Fletcher in the Competition Eliminator class. Fletcher recorded times of 9.196 et at 109.60 mph. Dan came right back in Super Stock with his Chevy Camaro and won that class with a time of 9.352 et at 134.56 mph over Brad Rounds who actually had a quicker et of 9.335 and a faster speed of 142.60 mph, which proves that reflexes and a quicker reaction time off the starting line can often win the race even when your car is a bit slower than your opponents. It also proves that if you can’t win in one class; keep on trying until you do win. Drag racing gives racers a lot of possibilities to compete and thrive. Toby Lang won the Stock Eliminator category by recording an 11.630 et at 108.76 mph to triumph over Jimmy DeFrank, who ran a 10.502 et at a faster speed of 125.71 mph. DeFrank was really coming on strong, but just ran out of track. A quarter-mile can seem like a long distance if you’re walking, but it can also seem very short when your opponent has the jump on you in a drag race. The easiest victory in drag racing is to see your opponent red light, cross the center line or foul in some way. No matter how poorly you do in races like that, you are the winner nonetheless. That’s exactly what happened to Kyle Seipel, who won the Super Comp title at 8.924 et and 166.64 mph, when Rick Beckstrom fouled. That’s all from the racetrack. See you in November.
Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].