Drag Illustrated Issue 175, March / April 2022 - Page 66

D . I . COLUMNIST

On the Road with Van Abernethy

The month of March is an exciting time for drag racing fans here on the East Coast , as the legendary Gatornationals represents the first opportunity we have to see NHRA national event-level drag racing contested in the Southeast . By the time this issue begins to land in subscribers ’ mailboxes , the 53rd annual Amalie Oil Gatornationals will be complete and winners crowned , but as I sit here penning this column , the beloved “ Gators ” is still a few days away , and memories of this legendary event have caused me to wax nostalgic this month .

The Gatornationals is a special event for a number of reasons , not the least of which is because the event has found a permanent home at Florida ’ s Gainesville Raceway , while several other events on the tour have been moved from venue to venue . Hey , sometimes change is good , but there ’ s also something reassuring about dependable happenings , and the Gatornationals certainly delivers .
Besides that , the number of milestones that have taken place at the Gators is quite staggering . Obviously , the most heralded milestone for many was when Kenny Bernstein first eclipsed the magical 300-mph barrier at the 1992 running . To this day , I pull up the footage on YouTube at least once a year , just so I can relive the magic of that day . Prior to Bernstein ’ s epic blast down Gainesville ’ s quarter mile , the Gatornationals was also the site of drag racing ’ s first 260-mph and 270-mph Top Fuel runs , respectively .
Ever since the inaugural running of the Gatornationals in 1970 , you can always count on this East Coast facility to deliver memorable moments . Ironically , Pro Stock became a professional class the same year , and Bill “ Grumpy ” Jenkins became
the first Gatornationals Pro Stock winner , after getting past Ronnie Sox on a holeshot .
A half-century ago , Florida legend “ Big Daddy ” Don Garlits and Clayton Harris dazzled fans with the fastest side-by-side drag race in history with Garlits ’ 6.17 at 243 mph besting Harris ’ 6.24 at 238 mph . These were astounding performances in 1972 !
Switching gears back to Pro Stock , I ’ ve always had a soft spot in my heart for American Motors Corporation , and it was none other than Gainesville at the Gatornationals where the fledgling car company first tasted victory in 1974 when
Wally Booth put his AMC Hornet in the winner ’ s circle . By the end of 1976 , AMC ’ s short-lived involvement in drag racing was pretty much history .
Among the most notable crashes from decades past was when Top Fuel veteran Chris Karamesines crashed a show-quality dragster that had been plated with 24K gold , including the rear wheels , wing struts , injectors , valve covers , roll cage , steering wheel ... right down to
the nuts and bolts . The crash scattered pieces of gold all over the facility , which set off something of a treasure hunt more than a mere cleanup of the usual junk parts !
By 1976 , Don Prudhomme was pretty much unstoppable in Funny Car and his victory that year marked his third straight Gatornationals win . Amazingly , Prudhomme won seven of eight national events that year .
Early in his career , Pennsylvania native Joe Amato won his first national event at Gainesville in 1979 in Alcohol Dragster . He would , of course , go on to enjoy tremendous success in Top Fuel , dominating the
late 1980s and winning the Gators four times .
Shirley Muldowney also has fond memories of Gainesville , especially in 1982 , which represented her second straight Gatornationals victory after she beat archrival Don Garlits in finals .
The Gators also played an important role in Warren Johnson ’ s decorated Pro Stock career . Having won an astounding 97 titles , his first came in 1984 at Gainesville .
Eddie Hill also won his first national event title at the 1988 running of the Gators , when the fan-friendly veteran got past Joe Amato in the thrilling finals . Hill would also post record speed ( 288.73 mph ) at this event – absolutely incredible considering this was 34 years ago !
In 1989 , Darrell Alderman gave Dodge their first Pro Stock victory since 1971 when he defeated Frank Iaconio in a Chevy Camaro .
By the time the 2000s rolled around , Harley-Davidson had entered NHRA ’ s Pro Stock Motorcycle category , with Andrew Hines scoring the first victory for the iconic American motorcycle manufacturer at the Gators in 2004 . The following year at Gainesville , Hines rode his Screamin ’ Eagle V-Rod to the first 6-second pass in class history .
Another major two-wheeled milestone came 13 years later in 2018 , when Hector Arana Jr . clocked the first 200-mph pass in Pro Stock Motorcycle history at Gainesville while riding his Lucas Oil-sponsored Buell .
The sportsman ranks have also produced amazing achievements at this race , namely when brothers Sal and Peter Biondo collected trophies at the same event in Comp Eliminator and Super Stock , respectively . In 2016 , Jeff Strickland was victorious in two classes at the same Gatornationals when he won in Stock and Top Dragster .
The list honestly goes on forever it seems , and when it comes to meaningful milestones in drag racing , the more than half-century-old Gatornationals has produced plenty . With the 53rd running only days away , the excitement is certainly building at the thoughts of more history being made at this fabled event held in the Sunshine State . DI
PHOTO COURTESY OF NHRA / NATIONAL DRAGSTER
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