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NHRA Southern Nationals 2003

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NHRA Southern Nationals 2003

The 23rd annual NHRA POWERade Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals presented by Pontiac was contested at Atlanta Dragway on May 1-4, 2003.

by David Dilbeck

Qualifying at the 2003 NHRA Southern Nationals was another test of the drivers' and tuners' talents (as it was last year). Once again, rain washed out one of the Pro qualifying sessions on Friday, leaving just three chances to make the 16 car final elimination fields. Saturday again brought threats of rain, but the weather held and 5 of the 8 Pro track records fell during the morning qualifying session. Eliminations were completed on Sunday as scheduled.

Top Fuel

2002 NHRA Top Fuel World Champion Larry Dixon, Jr. driving Don the Snake Prudhomme's Miller Lite dragster defeated Darrell Russell (in Joe Amato's Bilstein Engine Flush dragster) in the final to regain the NHRA points lead and win his second straight Southern Nationals title. Dixon's 4.569 @ 323.89 out paced Russell's tire smoking 9.884 @ 107.52 in the final. This was Dixon's 3rd win of 2003 and his 28th overall.

Rookie Top Fuel driver Brandon Bernstein ran a 4.505 @ 327.98 Saturday morning to reset the track ET record (previously set by his dad, Kenny Bernstein, in 2001 at 4.521) and the track speed record that was held by Tony Schumacher (327.74 - 2002). These times held for Low ET and Top Speed of the meet. Brandon lost to Clay Millican in the second round.

The living legend, 71-year-old Big Daddy Don Garlits made one of his four 2003 racing appearances at Commerce and thrilled the partisan crowd with a last ditch qualifying run (4.788 @ 319.98) that held for the #16 spot. Garlits lost in the first round to Bernstein, but carded an even better 4.737 in the losing effort. You should have heard the crowd roar for Garlits when he was introduced prior to his initial qualifying pass!

Georgia Top Fuel racer, Chris Vandergriff, did a great job in his initial NHRA competition event. Chris, the General Manager of Hedman Husler Hedders, drove the Vandergriff Motorsports-Alps Spas sponsored fueler to a 14th best 4.701 @ 306.95 in qualifying. His first round 4.749 came up short to David Baca's 4.603, but Chris did put a .04 gate job on Baca. Hopefully, the Vandergriff team will find the funding to keep Chris' dream of driving Top Fuel dragsters alive - we need a Georgia based Top Fueler on the tour again.

Funny Car

NHRA points leader, Tony Pedregon scored again at the event where he won his first Funny Car title (1996 Southern Nationals). Pedregon, driving John Force's Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang team car, won his 4th race of 2003 and his 23rd overall. Tony qualified #2 with a 4.799 @ 320.58, but John Force set a new track record of 4.768 (Funny Car Low ET) to garner the #1 qualifying spot. This was Force's first #1 qualifying effort in 2003, but his 113th career #1. Force, who celebrated his 54th birthday Sunday, lost to Johnny Gray in the semi-final round. Pedregon defeated Johnny Gray's tire smoking Checker Schuck's Kragen Pontiac Firebird in the final with a 4.874 @ 318.77.

Former Atlanta resident and 2002 Southern Nationals Funny Car winner, Whit Bazemore drove his Don Schumacher-owned Matco Tools Dodge Stratus to the 3rd best qualifying time of 4.802 @ 322.73. Bazemore lost to Tony Pedregon in the semi-final round after going up in smoke early in the race. Bazemore's 322.73 was Top Speed for Funny Car.

Pro Stock

Hometown favorite, Warren Johnson won his 2nd Pro Stock title of the season (90 overall victories) when he defeated his former crewchief, Greg Anderson, in the final round with a holeshot aided 6.853 @ 201.46 to Greg's 6.839 @ 202.94. WJ qualified his GM Performance Parts Pontiac Grand Am in the #6 position with a 6.849 @ 201.82.

Greg Anderson was the #1 qualifier (3rd straight #1 qualifier at the Southern Nationals) with a 6.821 @ 203.00 (track record) pass in his Vegas General Construction Pontiac Grand Am. Greg set Low ET for Pro Stock in the first round at 6.815. This was Greg's 3rd consecutive runner-up performance at the Southern Nationals.

Kurt Johnson (#3 qualifier) set Top Speed for Pro Stock (another track record) at 203.12 in his second round loss to WJ. WJ's 6.845 @ 202.27 beat Kurt's 6.824 @ 203.12 in his AC Delco Chevrolet Cavalier.

Terry Adams (Barry Grant Chevrolet Cavalier team car) qualified #11 with a 6.863 @ 201.31 pass, but fouled against Warren Johnson in round one. Barry Grant's tough luck in qualifying continues as he finished in the 20th position with a 6.882 @ 200.38 best in his Chevrolet Cavalier.

Stockbridge resident Mark Whisnant qualified his RW Performance/Snap On Tools Chevrolet Cavalier in the #16 spot with a final qualifying effort of 6.872 @ 199.70. Mark took a shot at the tree in the first round against Greg Anderson, but fouled with a -0.021 reaction time.

Gene Wilson came up short in the Mopar Performance Dodge Stratus with a 26th best 6.918 @ 199.58.

Newly licensed Chris Garner made his national event debut with a 32nd best 7.023 @ 196.96. The Alpharetta, GA driver finished his licensing at Bristol last week.

Ron Krisher (#17 - 6.875 @ 200.05) failed to qualify in his Valvoline Chevrolet Cavalier, ending his qualifying streak of 76 consecutive events.

Tom Lee was shaking down the Dodge Stratus slated for Darrell Alderman. Alderman will switch from the Neon when the Stratus is competitive. Tom ran a best of 6.899 @ 200.26 that placed him in the #22 position.

Atlanta Pro Stock racer Eric Shelton informed me Friday that he was not competing at Commerce due to his leased engine being wounded the weekend before in testing. He told me that he would be back in action very soon.

Pro Stock Motorcycle

New NHRA Pro Stock Bike points leader, Geno Scali rode his #1 qualified Team Trim-Tex Suzuki (7.181 @ 186.92) to the win over Antron Brown in the final. Both riders left early, but Antron left first and suffered the disqualification. Scali set Low ET in the first round with a 7.167, ran a 7.180 in the second, and posted a 7.172 in his semi-final victory. This marks the first time in Scali's career that he has led the points race.

The only category that Scali didn't dominate was speed. Top Speed (and a new track record) was set by Shawn Gann at 190.73 in qualifying. Gann fouled in his semi-final match up against Scali, throwing away a 7.174.

Fan favorite, Angelle Savoie fouled in the first round after qualifying #2 with a 7.192. Angelle lost to Matthew Smith's 7.377 with her 7.186 (reaction time -0.002).

Fred Collis (Americus, GA), running with Star Racing power, qualified in the #10 position with a 7.263 @ 182.95 pass. Fred fouled against Mike Berry in the first round (-0.007 RT).

Craig Treble had his qualifying streak ended at 58 consecutive events after running a 17th best 7.339.

Harley Davidson riders Andrew Hines and GT Tonglet qualified their bikes in the top half of the field. Himes went 7.214 @ 185.43 for the # 5 position and GT Tonglet qualified #8 with a 7.234 @ 183.24. Both riders lost in the second round, but Hines set a new Harley (NHRA Pro Stock Bike) performance mark of 7.179 in the first round. Vance & Hines have the Harley Davidsons performing at a competitive level this year.

Top Alcohol Dragster

Marty Thacker (B/AD) won Top Alcohol Dragster over Arthur Gallant (A/FD), 5.454 @ 262.44 to 5.455 @ 248.61. Bill Reichert's #1 qualifying pass (5.279 @ 274.27) held up as Low ET and Top Speed in his A/FD.

Top Alcohol Funny Car

Frank Manzo won Top Alcohol Funny Car with a 5.614 @ 257.24 in his Kendall Oil Pontiac Firebird over Bob Newberry's shut off 14 second pass in his Valvoline Camaro. Frank set new track records of 5.603 @ 259.06 while qualifying #1. In the first round, Manzo reset the track records and set a new National speed record with a 5.589 @ 260.56 that held for Low ET and Top Speed. This was Frank's 52nd NHRA National event win.

Competition Eliminator

Competition Eliminator was won by David Rampy in his A/EA '32 Bantam over Charlie Westcott, Jr.'s F/SM Pontiac Grand Am. Rampy qualified #1 and he also won at Bristol last weekend. Georgia competitors Van Puckett (F/AA - Snellville, Georgia Q-24) and Don Eberly (G/SMA - Brunswick, Georgia Q-26) went out in the first round.

Super Stock

Super Stock was won by Lincoln Morehead in his GT/EA 1987 Camaro. Lincoln's winning 10.037 defeated Dan Fletcher's SS/IA Summit Racing Camaro runner-up performance of 10.250. This was a repeat of last years Southern Nationals Super Stock final round. Joe LoCicero (Snellville, Georgia - 2001 Southern Nationals Super Stock Champ - GT/CA- Q - 16) went farther than any other Georgian in Super Stock. He made it to the 5th round only to lose to Dan Fletcher. Leland Poppell (Odum, GA - Q- 24) went out in round two. Everett Hill (Fayetteville, GA - Q- 6), Robert Burgin (Cuthbert, GA- Q- 21), Woody Adcock (Columbus, GA- Q - 37), and Jonathan Horton (Bonaire, GA- Q- 46) lost in round one.

Stock Eliminator

The Stock Eliminator final produced a pair of dead on runs with Tom Rhoda's (0.046) 10.423 winning over Jeff Strickland's (0.058) 10.988. Georgia resident Brandon Wood (Q-38) goes to the semi-final round (5th round), but loses to Jeff Strickland with a -0.003 foul. Tom Stevenson (Q-23) and Wayne Shaw (Q-5) lose out in round two. Robbie Shaw (Q-2), Woodro Josey (Q-6), "Butch Payne" (Q-7), Craig Couris (Q-13), Bobby Lundholm (Q-40), Russell Johnson (Q-42), Bob Lundholm (Q-47), and Norman Griffis, Jr. (Q-56) are first round runner-ups.

Super Comp

Super Comp winner Todd Ewing (8.928) beat Shane Carr (8.896) in the final. Georgia racers J.D. Reid and Arnold Reed made it to round 3 before losing while Peabody Harrell, Bubba Watts, Sherman Adcock, Jr., David Tatum III, and Jimmy Fuller lost in round 2. J. D. Reid's dragster was honored with the best appearing car award.

Super Gas

Corky Markwart (9.896 - Largo, FL) won Super Gas over Bruce Duncan (9.859 - Crawfordville, FL) with a perfect reaction time in the final (0.000). Georgia racers Ronnie Wilkerson and Robert Brooks go three rounds. Tracy Barnes, Lawrence Roundtree, Jimmy Fuller, David Watson, and Gary Dorsey, Sr. lose in round 2.

Super Street

Quentin Holloway (10.972 - Greensboro, NC) wins Super Street in his '67 Chevelle over Tom De Pascale (10.897 - Sayreville, NJ) in his '74 Vega. Georgia racers Allen Sharp and Jason DeWitt lose in round 2.

Random Notes

On Thursday, I had the pleasure to meet contributor David R. Burlington. Fred Simmons and I met with David at Whit Bazemore's pit area and we made a tour around the pit area and got to know each other a little. It was nice meeting David after emailing each other for quite some time.

The Pro Stockers were pitted at the top end of the track this year. Reports say that the Pro Stock racers wanted to be on pavement and this is where the NHRA put them.

On our pit tour, we stopped by to take a look at Scott Geoffrion's Ford Pro Stocker. We were fortunate enough to have Scott come out and talk to us for a little while and he even went out of his way to pose for photos and autograph handouts for us. Its good to see Scott doing so well with his great looking car! Scott seems like a genuinely nice guy and I wish him much success.

I hadn't had a chance to talk to Julius Hughes III lately (he had joined the MOPAR Pro Stock team of Larry Morgan at the beginning of the year), so our next stop was the Larrry Morgan MOPAR Pro Stock pit. Julius III is the son of the late NHRA drag racing Hall of Fame member Julius Hughes, Jr. Among many other things, Julius (Jr.) was the 1965 NHRA Division 2 Top Fuel Champion and he owned and operated the Atlanta Speed Shop and the Atlanta Speed Shop Dragway. Julius III was hospitable as always and we even got the chance to talk to drag racing legend Bob Glidden. Glidden was nice enough to sign autographs and pose for a couple of pictures. I hope they have quick success in getting Larry Morgan's and Gene Wilson's Pro Stock Dodges sorted out. By the way, Julius' dog was on hand and his name is "Nitro".

I stopped by and said hello to current Pro Stock driver Mark Whisnant. Mark drives the RW Performance Chevy Cavalier that is owned by Pro Stock pioneer Reid Whisnant. Mark and the RW Performance Team are doing a good job in the intensely competitive Pro Stock class this year. They are doing an amazing job considering they do not have a major sponsor and that they have been racing in Pro Stock for just a little over a year. It won't be long before you see the Whisnants in the winner's circle.

We stopped by the American Racing trailer on the manufacturers midway to visit with pal Bob Gibson. Bob is a super nice guy and he even has a couple of nostalgia funny cars that he races. Look for Bob and his Tom and Jerry Duster funny at the National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky next month. It was good to visit with Bob at Commerce - the last time I had seen him was at the World Drag Expo in Atlanta (January 2003). If you need a set of wheels, go by and see Bob (or his wife) at any of the NHRA national events. They'll treat you right, but man are custom wheels expensive these days! My age is showing when I tell you that most of my cars didn't cost what a new set of custom wheels cost these days!

I had previously emailed Don Garlits about a possible interview while he was at Commerce. Well, we went by his trailer and Don said that he would give me a few minutes Thursday afternoon. If any of you have ever been around Mr. Garlits, you know that he is a focused and intense individual while he is racing (or preparing to race). I was very happy to have this invitation and came back at the time Big Daddy had told me. After waiting around a few minutes (and talking to crewmember Cory Lee), Mr. Garlits told me that he would "kill two birds with one stone". It seems as though his (and his wife Pat's) dogs were in dire need of a grassy area. Don instructed me (and Fred) to get in the back of the minivan as he and Mrs. Garlits (and their dogs) climbed in the front. My interview was conducted as Big Daddy drove us through the pits at Atlanta Dragway! After the dogs had taken care of their business (and Mr. Garlits had autographed several items for Fred and myself), he dropped us back out at his pit area. Thanks Mr. Garlits, for a once in a lifetime opportunity - to ride around with my all time drag racing hero!

We ran into Doug Allan, the man that puts out the racing tabloid: Motorsport America. Doug is a nice guy and if you haven't seen his publication, be sure to find one and check it out.

Fred, David and I talked to Lefty Grizzell as he came through the pits on his ever present bicycle.

Fred and I checked out the Vandergriff Motorsports Top Fuel pit and was quite impressed. Chris Vandergriff may be a player in the Top Fuel wars if he can land some additional sponsorship.

I suppose that its obvious that I didn't see a whole lot of racing on Thursday, but I sure had a good time visiting with a bunch of people that I knew (and several that I hadn't met before).

On Friday morning, I stopped by and talked briefly to Reid Whisnant. We've yet to be able to schedule a mutually agreeable time to interview him for the upcoming book (Marvin T. Smith and I are writing a book on the early days of Atlanta area drag racing to hopefully be titled Atlanta Drag Racing: The Golden Years.), but I hope to get the interview completed soon. For those that didn't know, Mr. Whisnant was inducted into the NHRA Division 2 Hall of Fame earlier this year. Congratulations, Reid!

I had a chance to drop by and see Georgia drag racing legend Randy Payne and his Big Stuff Racing Stocker that his son, Butch, drives. Check out the photos in the GDR Photo Album. Mr. Payne is a heckuva nice guy and a pleasure to be around! If you get a chance, go by and see Randy and check out the photos on his trailer walls.

Next on the list was Everett Hill and George Red Givens. These Georgia racers campaign a Super Stock Mustang and we had a nice visit. I had talked to Mr. Givens on the phone, but this was the first time we had met.

Our reunion continued as Ed Miles, Bob Beasley, Fred Miles, David Burlington and myself met and visited for a little while.

Another GDR contributor, pro photographer Jerry Towns was on hand shooting pics on the starting line. Check out Jerry's photos and videos on his GDR page.

Chris Vandergriff made a good showing, qualifying on his first run.

Late on Friday the rains came again. During the delay (that turned into a rainout), Fred and I visited with fishing great Orlando Wilson and his son, Gene. Also on hand was IHRA Pro Stock standout, Charlie Peppers. Lots of laughs and "fish stories"!

Later, in the media room, Fred and I met GDR contributor Amy Glover and listened to Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell chatting with media guys.

On Saturday morning, Doug Allan held his Motorsport Amercia radio show in the media room. Doug did a great job and had several drag racing superstars on the show!

I decided to sit in the top end stands for the morning Pro qualifying session to see if I could get any decent speed shots with my digital camera. I hadn't tried this before and had mixed results. I did manage to get a few decent pics and I enjoyed the racing action. Several of the Pro track records were broken in this session! Brandon Bernstein's 4.50 @ 327 run was impressive, as was John Force's 4.76.

Some of Saturday afternoon's qualifying drama included Don Garlits getting back in the Top Fuel program with his last run, Ron Capps' stuck throttle/engine explosion in his funny car, and Mark Whisnant's successful last ditch qualifying effort in Pro Stock. Capps said that his life flashed before his eyes on that one!

J.D. Reid's Super Comp dragster was honored as Best Appearing Car, Brian Forrester's new Super Comp dragster earned the Best Engineered Vehicle, and Clay Millican and Lehman Racing's Octane Boost 104 Top Fuel team earned the Best Appearing Crew honors.

Rumors Department

A rumor was flying around the pits that Don Garlits will be racing the entire 2004 NHRA circuit.

Is Bob Vandergriff, Sr. going to buy the Atlanta Dragway from the NHRA?

Is former Georgia Funny Car racer Freddie Neely putting together a new funny car deal to race some of the 2003 NHRA events?

Will Clay Millican be racing a monostrut wing Top Fueler in the near future?

Is Garlits having a new monostrut car built by Murf McKinney?

Thank You Department

Thanks to Fred Simmons for helping out over the weekend and sharing his amazing photography skills!

Finally, a special thanks to April Potter and the NHRA for issuing credentials for the race.

Additional Coverage

For Southern Nationals details, go to the Georgia Drag Racing News page.

For additional Southern Nationals photos, see the photos David uploaded in the 2003 Southern Nationals section of our Photo Album.

For last year's coverage, see NHRA Southern Nationals 2002.

For additional coverage of this event, see Tim Glover's Atlanta Dragway Results - May 4, 2003.