NHRA Puts The Wraps On The 2001 Drag Racing Season
The 2001 season was more than just a collection of 24 National Hot Rod Association drag racing events. Familiar faces were crowned champions, records were broken, rivalries were established and legends returned to the quarter-mile strip as the NHRA celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Warren Johnson, Angelle Savoie and Bob Panella Jr. won NHRA World Championships in their respective categories. All were repeat title winners and three of the champions - Bernstein, Force and Johnson, were also selected as Top-10 drivers in history.
A list naming the Top-50 Greatest Drivers of all time was unveiled throughout the year-long 50th anniversary celebration. During pre-race ceremonies at the NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was named as the sport's all-time greatest. Garlits was in good company that day, as John Force and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Bob Glidden and Shirley Muldowney rounded out the top five.
"I wanted to be No. 1 because I had been around longer than anyone had. I spent every waking moment thinking about drag racing and I think I've given a lot to the sport," Garlits said. "This makes you feel good. I don't know who was on the (selection) panel, but I know it was a nice cross-section of the country. For people to feel that way about you is pretty special."
The Finals was not the first time fans got to see some of the sport's most legendary drivers in action. Garlits and Muldowney both made runs at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park in September - creating one of the most storied events in NHRA history. Garlits recorded a career-best run of 4.720 seconds at 303.37 seconds in a dragster owned by Gary Clapshaw. It was the first time Garlits had been on the strip since 1992 in Atlanta. Muldowney also topped the 300-mph mark as she qualified in the No. 12 spot with a 4.647 pass at 320.20.
Some of drag racing's best drivers are still on the track every weekend - and winning plenty. John Force once again dominated the Funny Car competition and the NHRA record book in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Force increased his career victory total to 98 en route to an unprecedented 11th NHRA World title. He could have reached the 100-win plateau, if it weren't for his own teammates. Force faced teammates Tony Pedregon and Gary Densham four times in the final round of competition, losing each time. Force took home six wins this season, nonetheless.
"Getting the 11th was important," Force said after clinching the championship at Texas Motor Speedway Oct. 21. "Getting the 10th and tying Glidden was also important. I was with Glidden last week and he congratulated me. That made me feel good. It's Ford's 100th anniversary and it's the NHRA's 50th anniversary. My car seems to do well at the right time and the right place."
Force picked up a rivalry as well as trophies this season. Whit Bazemore and the Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird team proved to be a worthy adversary throughout the year. Bazemore finished in second place in the standings with help from three victories, but promised it would be the last time he would follow Force in the points race.
"I got to hand it to Bazemore," Force said. "He said, 'It's your 11th, so enjoy it. It's going to be your last.' His crew was laughing. If that team stays together, without a doubt, he will get it. It's all a matter of time. They've got to wear me out sooner or later. What keeps me going right now is the love of the sport."
Force and Bazemore were just two players in some of the most competitive Funny Car events in NHRA history. The category had its first all-four-second field set in February at the Phoenix event and the class also set the record for the quickest field in NHRA history nine times. The national elapsed time record was set three times between Force and Bazemore. At the beginning of the season the E.T. record was 4.788 set by Force in April 1999 in Houston. Force set the record in Chicago in June with a 4.763 pass. At the second race in Chicago, in September, Bazemore set the record with a 4.750 run. By season's end Force re-claimed the record in Reading, with a 4.731 in October.
The Top Fuel category had its fair share of competitive races and heated rivalries as well. Bernstein and Larry Dixon brought new meaning to the "Beer Wars" as Bernstein's red Budweiser King Dragster and Dixon's blue Miller Lite Dragster were regulars in the Winner's Circle. Bernstein collected eight wins in a career-high 12 final round appearances en route to his sixth NHRA World championship. Dixon had a career year, winning six events out of nine finals and finishing a close second in the points race. The Top Fuel title was not decided until the semifinals at Pomona when Bernstein advanced to the final. Bernstein went on to beat Dunn in the finals.
"It was a tremendous year," Bernstein said. "It was really tough the last six or seven races. Either team could have made a mistake. I'm glad the season is over because I'm beat up pretty good. It has been very hard since September, but it was a wonderful battle."
Johnson had more than his fair share of battles in Pro Stock competition as 15 different drivers took home a trophy this season. Johnson was one of only four drivers to collect multiple wins as he went undefeated in six final round appearances, wrapping up his sixth NHRA World Championship. Johnson also passed Glidden to become the winningest Pro Stock driver in NHRA history with 87 wins.
"It was one of those seasons where we were real good or real bad," Johnson said. "There wasn't anything in-between. That's how this year went for everyone in Pro Stock. We just feel fortunate to have won six races and the championship."
After 27 years as the series sponsor, R.J. Reynolds and the Winston Brand ended its relationship with NHRA because of the Master Settlement Agreement that stated Winston could no longer sponsor more than one series. That just added to the meaning of Savoie's second straight championship on her Team Winston Suzuki in Pro Stock Motorcycle competition. Savoie, only the second female to win a NHRA championship, made history again this season. Savoie earned seven victories, upping her career total to 22 and making her the winningest female in NHRA history.
Savoie's title hopes came down to the final race. When second-place Antron Brown lost in the first round, Savoie had earned her second title. She went on to win the event.
"This is very special for me because I am the first Winston Pro Stock Motorcycle champion and I am also the last Winston Pro Stock champion," Savoie said. "That means a lot to me."
Panella continued his dominance in Pro Stock Trucks, winning three consecutive NHRA World Championships. Panella won five truck races this season.
It has become customary for the NHRA and its sponsors to host a "race within a race" for each category. Each year additional money and trophies are put forth to crown special event champions. At the season finale event, Dixon drove his Miller Lite dragster to victory in the 17th annual Budweiser Shootout, pocketing $100,000 for the win. Funny Car driver Frank Pedregon also took home $100,000 when he sped to victory in the Budweiser Shootout at the U.S. Nationals. The Holley Dominator Duel for the Pro Stock category was held at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. for the 2001 season. Jim Yates scored his second win in the bonus event, taking home an additional $50,000. In his first start in a bonus event, Shawn Gann earned $15,000 for winning the Holley Pro Stock Dominator Duel for the Pro Stock Motorcycles. Jeff Gracia pocketed $20,000 for winning the Holley Pro Stock Dominator Duel for the Pro Stock Truck category at the Route 66 Raceway near Chicago in June.
Beyond the races, several awards were given once the season concluded. The 2001 Rookie of the Year went to Darrell Russell. A top fuel driver, Russell won two events in seven final round appearances. The Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award went to Pro Stock Motorcycle rider GT Tonglet. Only 18 years old, Tonglet collected one victory in three final rounds.
The 2002 season will officially kick off with the 42nd annual K&N Filters NHRA Winternationals at Pomona Raceway Feb. 7-10.