NHRA Drag Racing 60th Anniversary: The Circuit's 16 Biggest Moments

PJ Sapienza@@pjsapiContributor IIIAugust 25, 2011

NHRA Drag Racing 60th Anniversary: The Circuit's 16 Biggest Moments

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    The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary this season.  The sport has grown from racing on abandoned air fields and streets to mega facilities spread across the country.

    The NHRA has 22 national events a year as well as many regional races at more than 130 tracks across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.  They lay claim to the being the world’s largest motorsports organization with over 80,000 members.

    In celebration of their 60th year—and with their most prestigious race, The U.S. Nationals upon us—here are 16 of the biggest moments in NHRA history.

No. 16: The Birth of NHRA

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    The rest of the list would not be possible if the NHRA was never founded by Wally Parks in 1951.  By forming the NHRA, Parks allowed racers a safer place to compete than what they had been using. 

    The sanctioning body not only provided safety standards but also performance rules that allowed the sport to grow.

    As mentioned earlier, the organization has grown to over 80,000 members and holds more than 5,000 events at its member tracks each year.  What was started as an effort to standardize safety and performance has now become a multi-million dollar business

No. 15: Coke to the Rescue

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    Winston announced for the 2001 season they would no longer be the series sponsor for NHRA.  This was a tremendous blow to the organization as Winston had been with them since 1975. 

    The growing backlash and regulations against cigarette manufactures had forced Winston to cut back on sponsorships.  While the move was disappointing it was not a complete surprise.  Still it sent shock waves through the organization.

    The NHRA surprised many people when they brought the Coca-Cola family on as their series sponsor.  Powerade was the first brand that carried the series sponsor label, then Full Throttle took over.

    Some will point out that Coke wasn't as involved as Winston.  While that may be true, it still does not take away from the fact that the NHRA was able to woo one of the biggest and most recognizable businesses in the world to be apart of their organization.

No. 14: John Force

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    It might seem odd to include a person on this type of list but John Force is more than just some person.  He has won more events and championships than any other driver in the history of NHRA. 

    His list of records in the NHRA is comparable to the strangle hold that Wayne Gretzky has on hockey records.

    His importance goes beyond the track.  He is the face of the NHRA.  Ask any non-fan to name a driver and more than likely, Force will be the one that is mentioned.   

    His career reads like a Hollywood movie script, perhaps the Rocky of drag racing.  He grew up poor, drove a truck as a young adult and tried to chase his dream of racing funny cars.  He struggled to start His start and barely made it race to race. 

    After many years, even when he succeeded a little, he just could not finish the deal.  He made it the final round of a race nine times before he finally secured his first win.

    After 130 wins and 15 championships, though, he has gone from being the guy who everyone could beat to the guy that everyone chases.

    Force has spread beyond the track.  While he was not the first driver to bring in big sponsors he has become the master of sponsor plugs and cultivating that relationship. 

    Once the guy who would sleep in his truck at the track, he now owns a multi-million dollar racing empire.  As an owner he has added two additional championships to his resume and brought along drivers such as Eric Medlen, Mike Neff and Robert Hight.

    His sense of marketing lead to his family being cast in the A&E reality show "Driving Force."  It aired for two seasons before an on-track accident prevented John from continuing production.

    He is coming off his 15th championship season and is still as focused as ever.  His talent trickled down to the next generation as three of his daughters have entered various classes within the sport. 

    With their success, the Force empire will remain in the sport for many years to come.

No. 13: Blast from the Past

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    There are a few sports that still embrace its history.  Hockey has a passion for the original six teams. Baseball holds on to tradition and thanks to the growth of nostalgic racing, so does the NHRA.

    In the late 1980s Tom McEwan was without a sponsor.  He decided to build a funny car with a 1957 Chevy body to run exhibition passes.  The car was a fan favorite and helped to start the nostalgia movement.

    Now there are nostalgia events held at several locations across the county with The NHRA Hot Rod Reunion being one of the biggest.  A nostalgia event brings classes from the past back to life.  Old funny car bodies, gassers, early super stocks and much safer versions of front engine dragsters can be seen.

    Fans that were around during the early years of the NHRA are drawn to these events to remember their past.  Younger fans who love to experience what racing used to be get to see the history of the sport come alive.

    At several NHRA national events nostalgia vehicles are brought in to make exhibition runs.  Often times the original drivers of these cars are there as well.  Imagine being to see Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle still play baseball.  With the nostalgia program, drag racing fans can still see their past favorites.

No. 12: 1984 Gatornationals

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    This event will go down as the Race for Speed.  The 260mph barrier was surpassed by both Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car.  This was the first time both classes broke the same barrier at the same race.

    In Top Fuel, Joe Amato was the first to clear 260mph.  By the time the race was over he had bumped the record up to 262.39mph.  Kenny Bernstein quickly followed in his Funny Car when he shocked everyone with a 260.11mph blast.

    The record-breaking speeds were facilitated by technological breakthroughs of the time. In Amato’s case he introduced a car with many secret new developments. The most noticeable was a new super tall rear wing on the car.

    All dragsters at the time carried smaller, shorter wings which were meant to create down force on the rear tires thus creating better traction.  Better traction means that more power can be applied. 

    With the taller wing Amato was able to increase the down force. It wasn’t long until the entire class was sporting the taller wing.

    Bernstein had his Ford Tempo body go through a tremendous amount of testing in a wind tunnel.  Through this, he was able to learn important lessons in aerodynamics. He added some new tricks to the tune-up that allowed him to reach record-settings numbers.

No. 11: Match Racing

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    While NHRA didn’t specially have a role in match racing, there is no doubt that they benefitted greatly from them, which is why it makes the list. Match races were big events, especially in the 1960s-70s. 

    As the NHRA schedule grew from the 1980s through the 2000s, the amount of match races decreased. But the importance and need for them didn’t.

    Unlike a national event, where championship points and prize money are on the line, a match was is an exhibition.  Usually two drivers were paid to come into a track and race each other. 

    Many remember old radio ads, shouting “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” as it called fans to come to their local track to watch “Big Daddy” Don Garlits race Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney or "Jungle Jim" Lieberman go up against the Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. 

    These competitors would be paid to race a best-of-three series against a rival driver. 

    Over the years, as the NHRA grew larger many tracks simply were not big enough to handle a national event.  With these smaller events, the big name drivers were able to take drag racing and the exciting power of nitro-powered cars to the people. 

     As great as it is to watch drag racing on TV, it is a totally different experience to be able to see, smell and feel the power of these cars in person.  The match races, which covered the country, brought the racing to everyone.  Although often underestimated, they really helped the NHRA grow into what it is today.

No. 10: 1982 U.S. Nationals

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    The U.S. Nationals is the biggest and oldest event on the NHRA circuit.  Winning this race can make a racer's career.  The 1982 Nationals boasted drama, performance and the start of something new.

    In the drama department there was Shirley Muldowney and Connie Kalitta.  The once close friends and teammates had now become the most heated rivals in drag racing.  They now faced each other in the final round of the biggest race.  Muldowney would win the race in what would be one of her most memorable wins in her illustrious career.

    The performance marks reached at this race were unheard of.  In a sport where hundredths and even thousandths of a second can decide a race, people were shocked at Gary Beck’s run.  

    He became the first dragster to reach the 5.4 second zone.  His 5.48 was almost a tenth quicker than the previous best time ever.  During the event only two other drivers were even able to make it into the 5.5 second zone.

    Not to be outdone, Don Prudhomme and his funny car destroyed the record books as he blew away the previous funny car record by almost two tenths of a second when he ran a 5.63. 

    His time was so impressive that it would have qualified him fifth in the Top Fuel field.  Early in the race Tom Anderson had just become the quickest funny car when he ran a 5.79.

    Just after that run, Prudhomme ran a 5.73 followed by an eye-popping 5.63 the next day. 

    Other milestone performances included Ken Veney breaking the funny car speed record when he went 254mph.  Pro Stock achieved the first all seven second field in their class history as well.  

    Despite great performance marks neither Veney, Anderson, Prudhomme or Beck would go onto win the event.

    The race also saw the birth of the first event within an event as the Big Bid Shootout made its debut. 

    This was a special race for funny cars in which each driver had to earn one of the coveted eight spots by qualifying throughout the season.  Frank Hawley won the inaugural event. 

    The success of this special race ushered in similar races for Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.


No. 9: Funny Car Blast

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    In 1993, funny cars broke two major barriers, perhaps the last two great barriers the class will see in quarter-mile action. The great part is that they happened at the same event, the 1993 Sears Craftsman Nationals in Topeka, Kansas.

    The class had been closing in the first four-second run for a while.  The season was winding down and all of the drivers were hoping to go into the offseason as the first four-second funny car.

    To make matters even more exciting, Castrol had put up a $25,000 reward to the first driver to accomplish the feat.

     An overconfident John Force, who had already clinched that season’s championship in his Castrol sponsored car, offered to pay half the reward.

    In the second qualifying session the track and weather conditions were perfect for record breaking runs.  Force had the first crack at the track but broke after his burnout and did not get to make a pass.  Three pairs later, Chuck Etchells was able to write his name into the history books with his 4.987 run.

    After the first four, all eyes turned to the 300mph barrier.  This seemed like a long shot as the record at the time was just over 295mph.  Five miles per hour is a pretty steep jump to make.

    In qualifying, though, several cars had surpassed 296 with Jim Epler topping the list at 299.27mph.

    Finally, in the first round of eliminations, Epler ran 300.40 mph.  He was the first funny car to reach 300mph, and the ninth driver into the slick 50 300mph club. 

    Generally the 16 spots for such a performance-based club (which were reserved for the first 16 drivers to reach 300mph) would go to dragsters since they are the fastest class.  Eller’s epic run earned him a spot in that exclusive club.

No. 8: The Beginning of Winston

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    In 1975, Winston had signed on to be the series sponsor for NHRA.  Under their sponsorship the NHRA had its first season long championship points system.

    The partnership lasted 26 years and was a major success for both groups.  Not only did Winston sponsor the series but they also sponsored drivers and helped promote the sport. The NHRA owes much of its growth to the time that Winston spent with them.

    The 1975 season was a great one.  As will be seen on another slide, the 1975 Finals was a tremendous race.  With amazing performance records and tight championship battles, the season had all the drama, excitement and performance one could want. 

No. 7: Diversity

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    The NHRA is far ahead of other motorsports in diversity.  In fact, other motorsports have tried to set up special programs to promote diversity. 

    NHRA allows for equal competition for all.  As far back as 1964, Barbara Hamilton received a competition license.  She was followed by Shirley Shahan, who was the first women to win a national event in 1966.                                        

    The road was not always easy, especially as Shirley Muldowney began to beat up on the boys in the sport's top class, Top Fuel Dragster during the 1970s.  She overcame the “boy’s club” and is now considered one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever had. 

    She finished her career as the first three-time Top Fuel champion.

    Since then, many other women have gone on the win races and championships.  Angelle Sampey was a three-time champion in Pro Stock Motorcycle.  Melanie Troxel is one of only 14 drivers to have won in both Top Fuel dragster and Funny Car.  Karen Stoffer is in the championship race this year and has led in points for most of the season.  It is no longer a surprise or even news when a woman wins a race.

    The diversity extends beyond women, though, as African-Americans and Hispanics have had great success winning races and championships as well.  Antron Brown, Peggy Llewellyn and Cruz and Tony Pedregon are just some of the minorities who have done very well in the NHRA.

    NHRA is an organization where gender, race and age does not matter.  Eddie Hill, Warren Johnson and John Force have each who won races beyond the age of 60 while Jeb Allen, L.E. Tonglet, Vincent Nobile and Del Worsham have won before the age of 22.

    The diversity in drag racing is a great accomplishment for NHRA and something of which they should be proud.

No. 6: Same Day TV

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    There was a time when only a couple of drag races were shown on TV a year.  Usually as part of the old ABC Wide World of Sports show. 

    The success of that limited programming time eventually led to more regular showings as early cable TV found room for the NHRA.

    Today not only is every event seen on TV (ESPN2), but so is qualifying.  Unlike days of the past where races would be seen weeks or even months after the race actually took place, now coverage is the same day. 

    The nature of drag racing is not conducive to live coverage but same day action has been a huge coop for NHRA.

    Even the sportsman series has made it to TV where their races are shown a week later from the pro categories.

    The TV coverage has helped grow the sport, as great announcers such as Steve Evans, Dave McClelland and Mike Dunn have been able to bring fans the action.

No. 5: 1975 World Finals

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    This was the first year of the Winston sponsorship and the final race of the season did not disappoint.

    Top Fuel saw impressive performances as Don Garlits broke the 250mph barrier in a record setting 250.63 record run.  The sport saw the first all five second field in Top Fuel as well.

    Garlits did not own all the performance marks as his chief rival for the championship, Gary Beck, had set the ET record at 5.69 earlier in the event. 

    Garlits would run a 5.63 to not only take away the record, but the points as well.  This helped him secure the first Top Fuel Championship under the Winston banner.

    Funny Car was not to be outdone as Don Prudhomme was putting the finishing touches on one of the most dominating seasons the sport has even seen.  He had long wrapped up the season championship but entered the race wanting more.

    By the end of the weekend not only did he win the race but, in doing so, he shocked those in attendance with the first five-second funny car pass. 

    He didn’t stop there as he also set the record in speed, becoming the first funny car over 240mph.  It would be three years before another funny car driver would hit the five-second zone.

    Pro Stock was full of drama as Bob Glidden and Wayne Gapp were battling for the championship. 

    Gapp and his partner Jack Roush, were vying for their first championship and led points entering the race.  In the first round they looked to have secured the championship when Glidden red lighted against Paul Blevins. 

    After the run Blevins was disqualified for not passing the weight inspection.  This meant that Glidden was back in the race and that the championship battle was still on.

    In the second round, Gapp lost when his motor broke, opening the door for Glidden.  Glidden still needed to make the finals in order to seal the come from behind victory.  He succeeded when he beat rival Bill Jenkins to secure the race win as well as the championship.

No. 4: A Funny Car Is Born

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    In the mid 1960s a new type of race car was evolving.  What started with simply moving the front and rear axles around has now evolved into the 8,000 horsepower beast we see today. Funny cars were born in the 60s and in 1969 NHRA made funny car an official class. 

    Throughout the 1970s the funny car class really helped the NHRA increase its fan base.  The class was very popular on the match race circuit as well.  Funny cars were very colorful, difficult to drive and did long smoky burnouts, which fans loved. 

    The class caught the attention of the car manufactures.  An advantage that the funny cars had over the dragsters was that they were modeled after actual cars. 

    Car manufactures spent a great deal of money trying to one up their competition.  The research and technological advances that car manufacturers put into the class greatly helped to improve the performance.

    They believed in the "win on Sunday, buy on Monday" mantra and felt that a successful funny car would help their sales.

    Eventually major sponsors got involved as well.  The funny car body allowed for more signage space which really attracted sponsors.   In the 1970s, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen teamed up with Hot Wheels to form one of the most lucrative and famous sponsorship deals in NHRA history. 

    For a while the class even surpassed the faster dragsters in popularity.  While the funny cars have changed greatly over the years their wild side and personality of the drivers still draws the fans to them.

No. 3: King of Speed Is Crowned

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    In 1984 Kenny Bernstein destroyed the funny car record books becoming the first 260mph driver in the class.  By 1992, he had moved to Top Fuel Dragster, the kings of the sport. 

    He would forever earn the King of Speed nickname when he didn’t just break the 300mph barrier but blasted right through it.  His 301.70mph left little doubt as to his claim to the throne. It would be 11 months before another driver would reach 300.

    Throughout many great performances, many have claimed how it would be the last, only to be proven wrong.  Little did we know then that this run would be the last great barrier for Top Fuel. 

    As the cars have become so fast and powerful, safety precautions have been made, including shortening the track, ensuring that 400mph will never happen.

No. 2: The Rear Engine Dragster

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    In 1971 “Big Daddy” Don Garlits debuted a technological breakthrough that would revolutionize the sport of drag racing.  Prior to 1971, all dragsters had the driver sitting behind the motor. 

    With the amount of power that these machines had and with the use of the volatile nitro methane as its fuel, it were a dangerous ride.

    It was common to find drivers soaked in hot oil after a run if the engine had any damage.  A fireball from the engine meant the driver was sitting in flames and any parts that came off the engine ended up in the cockpit as well.

    In 1970, Garlits was involved in an accident that took part of his foot.  His transmission exploded splitting the car in two, right by his feet.  The injury forced Garlits to miss the rest of the season.

    While healing he decided to take a chance at perfecting the rear engine design.  Others had made attempts at a rear engine dragster but none were successful enough for anyone to fully adopt.  At the Winternationals, the first event of the 1971 season, Garlits debuted his rear engine design.

    He won that first race and two of out the first three he entered with the new dragster.  In the one race he didn’t win he still had a runner-up finish.  The success, performance and safety of the design changed the class forever. By the end of 1972, the front engine dragster was basically extinct for competitive competition.

No. 1: The Run

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    In the end, drag racing comes down to what happens on the track, which is why this moment tops the list. 

    In 2006 Tony Schumacher trailed Doug Kalitta entering the final race of the season.  Schumacher needed Kalitta to lose early in the race in order to have a chance to catch him.  When Kalitta made it to the semi-finals before losing, it looked like he had done enough to clinch the championship.

    Schumacher not only need to win the race, but he also had to set a record in doing so to earn the 20 bonus points needed to pass Kalitta.  Schumacher won his semi-final matchup and faced his teammate Melanie Troxel in the final. 

    He beat Troxel in the finals but all eyes turned to the scoreboard as he needed to run quicker than 4.437 in order to set the record and win the championship.  When his time of 4.428 came up the crowd went wild. 

    In the greatest gut check, pressure-packed moment in drag racing history, Schumacher and his team had overcome the odds to capture the championship.