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NHRA Southern Nationals 2002
by David Dilbeck
Rain and changing weather conditions tested the talents of the drivers and tuners during the Southern Nationals held at Atlanta Dragway (Commerce, Georgia). Thursday was warm and sunny, while rain washed out most of Friday's racing. Only one Pro qualifying session and limited sportsman action took place Friday. Saturday brought morning rain (again) and it wasn't until mid-afternoon until qualifying began in earnest. NHRA got in two Pro sessions, complete with the awesome sights of night fuel racing. Qualifying wasn't finished until around 10 PM. Finally, on Sunday, the sun broke through for pleasant racing conditions.
Larry Dixon, Jr. driving Don the Snake Prudhomme's Miller Lite dragster defeated Doug Herbert's Snap On Tools fueler in the final to earn his 5th Top Fuel title this year. Dixon's 4.637 @ 318.09 out paced Herbert's up in smoke 5.039 @ 231.87.
Kenny Bernstein lost to Dixon in the semi final round after qualifying #1 with a 4.544 which held for Low E.T. of the event. This was the retiring Budweiser King driver's last appearance at Atlanta Dragway.
Tony Schumacher set Top Speed of the event ( and a new track record ) 327.74 in the Army Top Fueler.
Former Atlanta resident Whit Bazemore defeated arch rival John Force for his second straight Funny Car title. Bazemore's Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird (owned by Don Schumacher) beat Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang in the final 4.963 @ 310.41 to Force's tire smoking 5.559 @ 195.51.
"To win in Atlanta is a dream come true," Bazemore said. "This is where I watched drag racing for the first time. I wanted to be a funny car driver before I ever saw it in person. When I did, it scared me, but I still wanted to do it. I dreamed about racing here and winning here."
John Force defeated Whit in the final of the Southern Nationals in 1999. "We lost to Force in the final round that year," Bazemore said. "That was the most frustrating loss of my career, and I have had a lot of losses. To get that right ( by beating Force on Sunday ) means a lot to me. Nothing is better than racing him in the final here."
Gary Densham qualified #1 ( and set a new track record ) with a 4.808 in Friday's qualifying session.
Tony Pedregon set Top Speed ( and a track record ) for Funny Car at 325.69 in the first round of eliminations.
Allen Johnson became the seventh different Pro Stock winner this year, defeating #1 qualifier Greg Anderson in the final at Atlanta. Johnson's hemi powered Dodge Neon R/T recorded a 6.907 @ 200.92 to defeat Anderson's 7.676 @ 138.41 in his Chevy Cavalier.
Gene Wilson (2001 IHRA Pro Stock Champion and son of fishing great Orlando Wilson) lost to Jim Yates in the second round.
Atlanta's Eric Shelton ran a 25th best 7.190 in his Dodge R/T.
Former Georgia Tech and NBA basketball star Tom Hammond failed to make the program with a 29th best 7.525.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Star Racing (Americus, Georgia) debuted a new sponsor (CVEC Power Systems) at the Southern Nationals. Their first event flying the CVEC colors was a near perfect race for them. Angelle Savoie qualified #1 (7.124 @ 189.76), set Low ET and Top Speed (7.113 & 189.76), had low et of every round, won the event, and the team garnered best appearing crew honors!
Angelle defeated Matt Hines in the final 7.162 @ 187.91 to Matt's 7.181 @ 188.25. Matt cut a perfect .400 light and Angelle was right there with a .402.
Dave Feazell ran a quickest ever Harley Davidson (NHRA) pass at 7.517 @ 174.46, but fell short of qualifying (#22). G.T Tonglet recorded a 24th best 7.619 @ 167.18 on the Vance & Hines Harley Davidson.
Pro Mod was won by Steve Vick. Vick, the #8 qualifier in his '68 Camaro (Nitrous), defeated Thomas Patterson's '63 Corvette (Blown) in the final 6.292 @ 224.02 to a losing 6.353 @ 223.73. Tommy Mauney qualified #1 with a Low ET/Top Speed 6.206 @ 227.84.
Twenty one Pro Mods attempted to qualify for the 8 positions! These colorful (and wild!) cars put on quite a show.
The rain delayed Bristol Pro Mod final was held Saturday at Commerce. Thomas Patterson defeated Rickie Smith for the Bristol title.
Top Alcohol Dragster
Michael Gunderson (A/FD) won Top Alcohol Dragster over Cliff Bozzelli 5.415 @ 259.61 to 5.474 @ 259.11. Marty Thacker's #1 qualifying 5.412 held up as Low ET and Gunderson set Top Speed at 268.54.
Top Alcohol Funny Car
Jay Payne picked up the Top Alcohol Funny Car trophy with a 5.704 @ 253.47 over Bob Newberry's 5.739 @ 250.04. Payne set Low ET at 5.636 in the semi final. Top Speed was Von Smith's 255.73 in the first round.
Competition Eliminator was won by Robert Bailey in his A/ED over Scott Tidwell's C/A. Tidwell fouled in the final. Robert ran 7.296 to Scott's 7.606. Georgia competitors Richard Larsen (A/ND - Tyrone, Georgia) and Don Eberly (C/EA - Brunswick, Georgia) went out in the first round. Van Puckett (H/AA - Snellville, Georgia) lost in the 2nd round.
Super Stock was won by Lincoln Morehead in his GT/DA 1990 Camaro. Lincoln's winning 10.085 defeated Dan Fletcher's SS/IA Summit Racing Camaro runner-up performance of 10.242. Local racers Joe LoCicero (Snellville, Georgia - 2001 Southern Nationals Super Stock Champ - GT/CA) and Jonathan Horton (Bonaire, Georgia - SS/DA) both went down in the second round.
Stock Eliminator was won by Dan Fletcher (B/SA) over Lee Zane (J/SA). Dan was very impressive at his sponsor's race (as he usually is wherever he races) with a win and a r/u. Legendary drag racer Randy Payne (Rome, Georgia - K/SA) went out in the first round after qualifying in the 6th position. Mike Mayhew (Savannah, Georgia - N/SA) and Craig Couris (Atlanta, Georgia - E/SA) lost in the 2nd round. Michael Davis III (Columbus, Georgia - B/SA), Robbie Shaw (Douglasville, Georgia - M/SA), Russell Johnson (Tyrone, Georgia - B/SA), and Wayne Shaw (Douglasville, Georgia - F/SA) all went out in the 3rd round.
Super Comp was won by Todd Hickey (8.955) over Ray Connolly (8.967). Georgia racers Joe A. Smith (Lawrenceville), Henry Reubin III (Atlanta), and J. D. Reid (Covington) went out in the second round. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville (Roswell) surprised a few by lasting until the 4th round in his wild looking '49 Ford.
Super Gas winner Mark Horton (Summit Racing) ran a 10.135 to defeat Jeremy Jensen's 13.973. Georgia racers Al Walker (Lawrenceville), Jimmy Fuller (Savannah), Gus Upshaw (Tifton), and Gary Dorsey (Savannah) all went down in round 2. Chris Fitton (Savannah), Ronnie Wilkerson (Buford), and David Bell (Screven(?)) lost in the 3rd. Jeff Abernathy (Gainesville) made it farther than the other Georgia guys, lasting until the 4th round.
Super Street was won by Tom Depascale over a fouling Mike Giuliano. Georgia racers Fred Chalfant (Jessup), Scott Dahlem (Acworth), and Edward Swearingen (Reynolds) went out in the 2nd round. Lester Barnes (Jackson) made it to the 3rd round in his 1980 Plymouth Arrow.
I had the honor of being invited to attend a wake for Buster Couch by Randy Payne. The wake was held after Saturday qualifying ended. Thank you, Mr. Payne, for inviting me (and my friends) to Buster's wake.
Also attending the race was William Parris (former Pro Stock racer from Rome, Georgia). I was able to meet and talk with Mr. Parris Thursday at Randy Payne's pit. Look for Mr. Parris to be back in drag racing after a long layoff. Details later.
If you ever want to see a dedicated drag racer, look up Bobby Lagana, Jr. He battles the Top Fuel giants with a few sizeable disadvantages, but I believe he has the desire to make it in this sport. He brings the dragster to the track on a 60's/ 70's style ramp truck! I talked to Bobby Saturday night and was quite impressed with this young man. He could be a super representative for some lucky company that chooses to sponsor him.
Don Sosenka was the suprise of the event. He made it all the way to the semi finals of Top Fuel. He is competing to bring attention to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (his wife Lana has the disease).
Its great to see legendary racer Chris Karamesines still driving a Top Fueler! After observing Mr. Karamesines at work, I believe he can still show a bunch of younger guys how to get it done!
The Friday night Pro qualifying session produced a few interesting speeds on the scoreboards. A 355 mph speed was given to Gary Densham in Funny Car qualifying. Later, in Top Fuel, a 476 mph came up for Kenny Bernstein. Tony Schumacher was credited with a 334 mph pass that the NHRA threw out. These runs were all made in the same lane. Obviously, the 355 and the 476 were bogus, but did we witness the fastest pass in NHRA history? Schumacher's team thought that it may have actually been a legitimate speed, but it is a moot point now.
Retired Funny Car veteran Tom Hoover was spotted in Bob Bode's pit.
The rain interrupted the racing, but it gave me more time to talk to people around the track. I was able to talk to NHRA's Official Starter Rick Stewart and I came out of that conversation with even more respect for this nice guy. Later, Rick spoke at the wake held for Buster Couch. The comments that he made showed how much class Mr. Stewart has. I have been a life long Buster Couch fan, and now, after hearing Mr. Stewart's thoughts, I'm a Rick Iceman Stewart supporter.
I'm a long-time Reid Whisnant fan (back to Reid's Super Stock days) and it was great to see Mark Whisnant qualify the RW Performance Cavalier in the final Pro Stock session! I had the chance to visit with Reid, Mark, and some of his crew during the downtime. The Whisnants (and crew) are a down-to-earth, friendly bunch and I wish them much success with their latest venture.
I met Tom Hammonds Thursday and had a short visit with him. I mentioned that I remembered his quotes in the Atlanta newspapers (Tom was a star basketball player at Georgia Tech before his NBA career) about wanting to be be a Pro drag racer. He smiled and said that those years were great--he had a lot of fun while playing for Tech. Tom is another friendly guy that I hope does well in his drag racing career.
I visited with Atlanta Pro Stock racer Eric Shelton Thursday. Eric is competing in what is probably the toughest class in drag racing and he is currently seeking sponsorship. I believe Eric could be a player in Pro Stock with some financial backing, and judging from my visits with him, he would be a fine spokesman for a company, as well. Check out his website: http://www.sheltonracing.com.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Wilson in the staging lanes Friday. Gene is starting to get the hang of the 'small' 500 CI NHRA Pro Stocks. Gene and Nickens Racing should become a formidable opponent for the other Pro Stock guys before long.
Thursday evening, I had the opportunity to visit with Fred and Sylvia Simmons at their home. Sylvia is quite the hostess and I really appreciate her putting up with a few guys hanging out and talking drag racing for several hours. Marv Smith (my co-author on the Atlanta drag racing history book that we are currently writing) and Ed Miles were also in attendance. We had a great time that lasted too late (early start Friday morning), but it was worth losing the sleep for!
Thanks to Fred Simmons (Photos by Fred Simmons), Marvin T. Smith (Photos by Marvin T. Smith), and Ed Miles for helping out over the weekend and making this one of the most enjoyable drag races (even with all of the rain) that I've attended.
Finally, a special thanks to April Potter and the NHRA for issuing credentials for the race.
For Southern Nationals details, go to the Georgia Drag Racing News page.
For additional Southern Nationals photos, go to: http://www.imagestation.com/album/index.html?id=4291856977.