Atlanta Fram Nationals Preview (All Classes)

NHRA'S RECORD-SETTING THRILL SHOW COMING TO ATLANTA DRAGWAY COMMERCE, Ga.-- Next stop for the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series record-setting thrill show of speed: Atlanta Dragway. The 22 event, $30-million drag racing series has earned...

NHRA'S RECORD-SETTING THRILL SHOW COMING TO ATLANTA DRAGWAY COMMERCE, Ga.-- Next stop for the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series record-setting thrill show of speed: Atlanta Dragway. The 22 event, $30-million drag racing series has earned all rights and privileges to that marquee headline during the course of the last three events. In just two short months, records in every NHRA professional category have been rewritten.

Consider some of the major performances. Top Fuel's Cory McClenathan drove his McDonald's dragster to a record speed mark of 322.92 mph at Phoenix's ATSCO Nationals. Joe Amato lowered the Top Fuel elapsed time mark to 4.539 seconds at Houston Raceway Park. In Funny Car, Cruz Pedregon now owns both the E.T. and speed records, at 4.819, 317.23, thanks to very impressive outings at Gainesville, Fla. and Houston.

Warren Johnson posted a record-setting Pro Stock performance at the Mac Tools Gatornationals, with an E.T. of 6.873 seconds and a speed of 201.20 mph. Matt Hines established new Pro Stock Motorcycle standards in Florida at 7.245, 187.57. Even Larry Kopp got in on the fun at Houston during the Pro Stock Truck debut, letting his fellow opponents know that to be record-setters they would have to better his Chevrolet S-10's 7.635 E.T. and 174.83 mph speed.

For the first time in history, all five NHRA professional categories will be featured at a single event. Teams in each one of those eliminator categories will be gunning for more performance milestones and their share of the $1.6-million purse at the Fram National,s April 16-19, the fifth NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event of the season.

Defending event champions include Kenny Bernstein in Top Fuel, Randy Anderson in Funny Car, Jim Yates in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle's John Myers.

Bernstein, of Lake Forest, Calif., has had a roller coaster ride of a season so far, posting a win at the Mac Tools Gatornationals and a semi-final appearance at the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, along with a DNQ at the ATSCO Nationals and a first round loss at the recent Houston Pennzoil Nationals. He hopes to get the Bud King dragster headed in the right direction with a win at Atlanta. It'll be tough however, with contenders like Winston points leader McClenathan, top challenger Jim Head and 1996 Fram Nationals winner Larry Dixon all having excellent seasons.

In Funny Car, Anderson had one of his best outings of the season at Houston, losing in the semi- finals to eventual runner-up John Force. Anderson will need that momentum at Atlanta, however, because Force has ruled at this event for the last six seasons, advancing to the final each time and winning on four occasions. Force's teammate, Tony Pedregon, is the most recent winner. Another top challenger, Cruz Pedregon, would like to put his record-holding Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird into the winner's circle for the first time at Atlanta Dragway.

Yates needs to repeat his Atlanta win of a year ago if he's to catch Winston points leader Johnson, who has increased his lead by 97 over the course of the last two races. Two-time finalist Jeg Coughlin, Pennzoil Nationals finalist Mike Thomas, 1995 Fram Nationals winner Mark Thomas and 1997 runner-up Kurt Johnson are all threats to win in Pro Stock.

Hines leads the Winston point standings in Pro Stock Motorcycle and Dodge Dakota driver David Nickens is on top in Pro Stock Truck.

BERNSTEIN READY TO END ROLLER COASTER RIDE OF A SEASON

COMMERCE, Ga. -- The roller coaster ride that Kenny Bernstein has been on during the first part of the 1998 NHRA season is enough to make even the most adventurous thrill seeker come away with white knuckles. It's not really the fast downhill speeds that he's worried about; but rather the weird loop- to-loops that he would like to put an end to at the 18th annual Fram Nationals, April 16-19 at Atlanta Dragway.

The $1.6-million race is the fifth of 22 in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Bernstein, a veteran of nearly three decades in professional drag racing, has seen it all. This season, however, he and his Budweiser King Top Fuel team are getting a little different view.

In the last four races that were good for Winston points, Bernstein has made a semi-final appearance at Pomona, suffered a nasty DNQ at Phoenix, posted a win at Gainesville, and struggled to qualify at Houston before making a first round exit. If he were playing baseball, all he would need is a second round loss to complete the cycle.

Throw in a hefty $100,000 payday for winning the Top Fuel prize at the Winston Invitational, NHRA's $650,000 non-points All-Star race, and you've got to wonder, what's next?

"It's definitely been an up and down season," said Bernstein, a resident of Lake Forest, Calif. "We've had a couple of bad breaks here and there and made it look a lot worse than it really is. In years past, when we struggled we were really out to lunch. We didn't have a clue as to what to do and we fought it really hard. This time even though we've shown some inconsistency at a few races, it's not been a performance problem, but rather different mechanical problems."

Regardless of what may have happened on the track in the past four races, Bernstein says the key is that through all the adversity his team is still in the hunt for a second Winston championship in Top Fuel.

"I don't think we've ever seen the competition like we have in Top Fuel today," said Bernstein, the defending Fram Nationals Top Fuel winner. "Actually that's a good thing because it's keeping everybody pretty close. Even a team like ours, who didn't qualify, then won the next race went from 10th to fourth just like that. Now we've drifted back to sixth after Houston, but with all this competition there's no one car running away with it. In years past at this stage if you had a couple of bad races you would be way out of the game already and never have a chance to come back. I don't feel that way this year."

* Magic number: After Cory McClenathan powered his McDonald's dragster to an NHRA national speed record run of 322.92 mph at Phoenix, the chatter in the Top Fuel pits hit an all time level. Many drivers, including Kenny Bernstein, feel the top speed for the season will be 325 mph.

However, when and where it will occur is still the debate. Bernstein, who recorded the first 300 mph pass at Gainesville in 1992 says he doesn't see it happening until the late stages of the season.

"Several of us have been running in the 320s, it seems to be happening more often than not," he said. "I think 325 is still the magic number for this year, but I think you'll see it more toward the fall of the year. We're about to get into the summer and it'll be a little more difficult to run fast then."

CONSISTENCY THE KEY FOR ANDERSON REPEAT AT FRAM NATIONALS

COMMERCE, Ga. -- Some call it the sophomore jinx.

Randy Anderson, pumped up and ready to go following a very successful freshman debut in Funny Car last season, won't accept that. He calls it a consistency problem.

After four races in 1998, Anderson's Parts America Funny Car team is still looking for the winning combination it used last year to take two victories, advance to four final rounds and finish an impressive sixth in the Winston championship standings.

What better medicine than a trip back to the place where it all started for the Ontario, Calif. racer one year ago.

Last season Anderson came to Atlanta Dragway with a pair of first round losses, a DNQ and a second round defeat. But in one magical weekend, everything came together. Anderson defeated Funny Car kingpin John Force in the final, and his team gained much needed confidence and momentum.

He'll try to duplicate that effort at the 18th annual Fram Nationals, April 16-19 at Atlanta Dragway. The $1.6-million race is the fifth of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"Obviously that was a really good race for us and we'll always have great memories from that first win," Anderson said. "But I've won some races at Atlanta in Alcohol Funny Car, too. It's always seemed to be a good track for us. It's always nice going back to a place where you've had some success to get things going."

Anderson says each track in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series has its own little secrets. The Georgia quarter-mile is no different.

"Atlanta is the type of track that is going to be loose at the top end," he said. "You can't get too greedy there because if you do you'll smoke the tires about 700-800 feet down track. It doesn't allow you to throw a violent combination at it like Gainesville or Houston does. You really have to be smart there and not put too much clutch into the setup."

However, Anderson realizes that while some tracks provide a certain mental comfort zone, the ability to win races rests within the team's execution.

"The main thing we need to work on is our consistency," Anderson said. "The car hasn't been repeating. Everybody who is winning out here has been consistent. That's the biggest thing that we need to work on right now to get our Parts America Pontiac Firebird making the kind of laps that we want. We're in about the same situation now that we were last year. Hopefully we can have some of the same results coming up."

* Atlanta dominator: Seven-time NHRA Winston Funny Car champion John Force has shown a knack for being successful at Atlanta Dragway over the years. The Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver has made eight final round appearances at the track, including a stretch of four straight victories from 1992- 1995.

In the last two seasons, Force has lost to a pair of newcomers to the category, teammate Tony Pedregon in 1996 and Randy Anderson in 1997.

JOHNSON SAYS LUCK, EXPERIENCE KEY IN WINNING AT ATLANTA

COMMERCE, Ga. -- Kurt Johnson says his success at Atlanta Dragway over the years has nothing to do with its close proximity to his home in nearby Sugar Hill. He says he's just been lucky to make the Pro Stock final at the last two events, beating Jim Yates there in 1996 before posting a runner- up finish to the defending Winston champion last year.

The AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro driver will admit that in order to be in a position to get lucky, he had to get there. That's where a little thing called experience comes into play.

He'll try to combine the two ingredients -- luck and experience -- in an attempt to make a fourth final appearance and possibly get a second win at Atlanta Dragway's 18th annual Fram Nationals, April 16-19. The $1.6-million race is the fifth of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"I made my first final round appearance there in 1993 and have been fortunate there in the last couple of years," Johnson said. "We do a lot of testing there so we're real familiar with the race track. We know where the bumps are, we know what kind of gear to run and we know how the air is. I'd say in overall experience, we have more at that place than we do anywhere else.

"Once you have the experience, you need a little bit of luck to help you get that trophy. It doesn't matter how you win a race, it seems like one round you've got to get lucky to win. Experience and luck, that's all it is."

While his father Warren is having another career year, setting record after record and winning race after race, Kurt has been working steadily to develop a combination with his new 1998 Chevrolet Camaro. He feels confident that once he gets his hot rod figured out, he'll be right back in the hunt again.

"The Camaro has been trying to throw us a little bit of a curve right now," he said. "We had to change the suspension around to adapt to the new body style. We've run fast at times and qualified good, but when it gets hot it tends to spin the tires a little more than we would like. We're going to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep after it."

His hard work paid off at the recent Winston Invitational, NHRA's special non-points all-star race, where he qualified fourth and beat Jim Yates, Mark Pawuk and Steve Schmidt to advance to the final, before eventually losing out on the big $50,000 payday to Mark Osborne.

"When you look at the fields that are spread by five-hundredths of a second, anybody can win one of these races," Johnson said. "The power is real close on all these cars. I realize that dad is flying, but things can change in an instant. It's just a crew chief and driver's race. The crew chief is trying to adapt the power to the track and the driver's job is to let the clutch out on time on Sunday. As long as you can make it in the top 16 for Sunday, you have a chance at winning. It's that close."

* The streak: Three-time NHRA Winston Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson, also a hometown favorite from nearby Duluth, will attempt to keep his winning streak alive at Atlanta Dragway's Fram Nationals. Johnson, driver of the GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird has posted consecutive victories at the ATSCO Nationals in Phoenix, Gainesville, Fla.'s Mac Tools Gatornationals and Houston's Pennzoil Nationals.

SCHULTZ HOPES TO CONTINUE ATLANTA MOTORCYCLE DOMINANCE

COMMERCE, Ga. -- No NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series professional category competitor has been as dominant at Atlanta Dragway as Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Dave Schultz. The Fort Myers, Fla. rider has won eight bike titles at the track, including seven straight from 1990 - 1996.

He hopes to keep the trend going at the 18th annual Fram Nationals, April 16-19. The $1.6- million race is the fifth of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

The Sunoco Suzuki rider says he has always liked the Atlanta quarter-mile.

"Atlanta has a little bit of a tenuous personality, and I like that," says Schultz, who owns six NHRA Winston championships. "From lane to lane it takes two different strategies. There's a pretty precise groove for the bikes to keep them straight and smooth. That's probably where my advantage lies. Typically, our races there have been in the time of year when the weather can be unpredictable and have drastic changes from one day to the next. In the past I've been able to respond to a totally new tune-up quicker than the rest of the guys could."

Today, however, Schultz realizes other teams have put their programs in a position to challenge. He says it's tougher now than ever in the category.

"The advantage I once had is starting to go away because there's several guys out here who are considered the heavy hitters now," said the 49-year-old Schultz, the winningest NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider in history with 42 victories. "My experience won't spread the gap as much as it did in the past because there's a lot more experienced riders out here now."

In the past, fans of the category were treated to the Dave Schultz - John Myers Show. Today, younger riders like defending Winston champion Matt Hines, Angelle Seeling and John Smith have moved into contention.

"I'm pretty resolved that our class is tightening up a lot," Schultz said. "Matt and Angelle are doing a good job, but you also have some other people that haven't showed their hand yet, that can be players and sneak up on you in any round. They might not put together a string of four good rounds, but they might have one of four that could be the one when you're in the other lane. That's starting to happen more of the time."

In the interest of the category, he says it's the best thing that could happen.

"This is something I've worked for, for a long time," Schultz said. "I actually find myself working harder on other people's stuff now than I do my own. I'm enjoying seeing the class grow. When John (Myers) and I were winning all the races, it slowed the growth. Now that John and I are getting chopped off at the knees most of the time and aren't the only players in the game, it makes it a lot better. Some people may not realize this, but John and I aren't going to go away either, we're still going to be in final rounds and win races. But this is an exciting time, I really enjoy the good competition."

Schultz' last win came over one year ago at the 1997 Gatornationals, but he's determined to get back into the winner's circle soon. He hopes a new bike, new engine program and two new teammates in Antron Brown and Stephanie Reaves will help turn the tide back in his favor.

"Our plan for this year was to come into stride near mid-season," Schultz said. "When everyone's all spent out and flattened out and nosed over we plan to still be going up."

GENERAL INFORMATION:

* Schedule: Pro qualifying is at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. April 17. Qualifying continues at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. April 18. Opening Pro Stock Truck qualifying will be held on April 16 at noon and 3 p.m. Pro Stock Truck final eliminations will start at 11 a.m. April 18. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. April 19. Federal-Mogul competition starts at 10 a.m. April 16.

        * Tickets: Tickets are available for the Fram Nationals. Call
(800)  884-6472, or Ticketmaster, (404) 249-6400, for ticket information. 

* On TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of highlights and live final round coverage from the Fram Nationals on April 19 at 8 p.m. (EST). ESPN2 will show two hours of same-day qualifying highlights on April 18 at 10 p.m. (EST).

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mark Thomas , Jim Head , Antron Brown , Mike Thomas , Matt Hines , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Mark Pawuk , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Joe Amato , Stephanie Reaves , Larry Kopp , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Steve Schmidt