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BLAINE JOHNSON REMEMBERED AS TOP FUEL TEAMS PREPARE FOR READING
MOHNTON, Pa. -- As they head to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania with heavy hearts, NHRA competitors, officials and sponsors remember Top Fuel driver Blaine Johnson as a talented racer who climbed to the top of drag racing with a tight-knit, family-owned team.
Johnson, 34, from Santa Maria, Calif., died from injuries suffered in an accident Aug. 31 during qualifying for the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. He won three races and leads the NHRA Winston Top Fuel point standings this season, a year in which he became a NHRA superstar.
Fond memories of Johnson will be cherished by all racers at the 12th annual, $1,515,050 Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals, Sept. 12-15 at picturesque Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa. The race is the 16th event in the 19-event, $27-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series in 1996.
"Let there be no doubt that Blaine symbolized the best and brightest that our sport has to offer," said Kenny Bernstein, driver of the Budweiser King Dragster. "His memory rides with us from this day forward."
The family-owned Johnson Racing team won four consecutive NHRA Winston Top Alcohol Dragster championships from 1990-93 and start to establish similar dominance this season in Top Fuel. Blaine Johnson set the elapsed-time national record of 4.592 seconds in July at Topeka, Kan.
Johnson's brother, Alan, was his crew chief. Their father, Everett, also worked on the team.
"Blaine was perhaps the epitome of all that was good in the sport," NHRA President Dallas Gardner said. "He had a dream, he pursued it, his entire family shared his dream, and in a very short time he made an indelible mark on the sport and upon his fellow competitors."
PIONEER ELECTRONICS KEYSTONE NATIONALS TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
--A huge loss: Top Fuel racing lost its best driver when Blaine Johnson was killed at the U.S. Nationals, fellow competitor Larry Dixon said.
Dixon drives the Miller Racing Dragster owned by Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.
"Blaine was a friend of ours," Dixon said. "This is definitely a reality check. We know this can be a dangerous sport.
"I've watched after drivers have been killed at the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway, and they always say how they died doing what they loved to do. But that doesn't make it any better -- we've still lost them.
"Blaine was doing what he loved, and he was the best at what he did. He was the best driver, and he had the best race car. It's a major blow to everyone here."
--In memory of Blaine: A memorial fund to benefit Blaine Johnson's family has been established. The address is: Blaine Johnson Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 5546, Santa Maria, Calif. 93456.
--The new kid: Tony Schumacher advanced to the final of the U.S. Nationals in the Peek Brothers Racing Dragster in the first race of his Top Fuel career.
Schumacher, 26, is the son of Funny Car pioneer Don Schumacher, who won the 1970 U.S. Nationals Funny Car title. Tony Schumacher started his driving career last season in a Top Alcohol Funny Car and continued in that category this year.
--Tire talk: There's more to a Goodyear Eagle drag racing rear tire than what meets the eye.
The length of the cord used in one rear Eagle tire could fly a kite four miles high. The rubber itself, rolled out, is almost 10 feet long.
--Three-peat?: Scott Kalitta will try to become the first Top Fuel driver to win this event three consecutive years.
Darrell Gwynn won in 1988-89, and Dick LaHaie won in 1986-87. LaHaie now is crew chief of Kalitta's American International Airways Dragster.
Kalitta will need a reverse of recent fortunes to achieve the feat at Maple Grove. He has lost in the first round at the last four NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series national events.
--Quite a thrill: Top Fuel team owner Darrell Gwynn got the opportunity to ride in a race car for the first time since his accident six years ago when he rode along with driver Rich Bickle in Richard Petty's Dodge Ram NASCAR SuperTruck at Chrysler's test track in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Gwynn, who owns Mopar Dragster driven by Mike Dunn, and Bickle were at Chrysler with all of Chrysler's factory-sponsored race teams Aug. 20-21 for a ride and drive for the corporation's executives.
"This is the first time I've gone fast since my accident in 1990," Gwynn said. "It's also the closest I've been to a guard rail since then - and I loved every minute of it. Bickle is a great driver, the ride was awesome, and we hit it off real good. It sounds like he wants to race a Top Fueler and we would love to race a truck."
Gwynn was paralyzed from the chest down and lost the lower portion of his left arm in the accident in 1990.
--Coil's wife looks at Top Fuel: Lisa Coil, wife of John Force's crew chief Austin Coil, was scheduled to make additional NHRA licensing runs in a Top Fuel dragster at Indianapolis Raceway Park one day after the U.S. Nationals.
Coil began made her first licensing runs earlier this summer.
--Give it a go, Joe: It's becoming a familiar question for Joe Amato as his fans start asking him each September when he is going to win his "hometown" race at Maple Grove.
Amato, from Old Forge, Pa., has finished runner-up at the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals in 1985, 1989 and 1991.
--Schedule: Pro qualifying starts at 3 p.m. Sept. 13 and is followed by a night-qualifying session at 7 p.m. Qualifying ends with sessions at noon and 4 p.m. Sept. 14, with final eliminations starting at 11 a.m. Sept. 15. Sportsman competition starts at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 12.
--Tickets: Tickets are available for the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals. Call Maple Grove Raceway at (610) 856-7812 for ticket information. Tickets also can be purchased at Ticketmaster outlets. To order tickets by phone from Ticketmaster, call (215) 336- 2000.
--On TV: The Nashville Network (TNN) will televise 60 minutes of live final-round competition from the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals at 5 p.m. (EDT) Sept. 15.
--On the Web: The NHRA home page on the World Wide Web at http://www.goracing.com/nhra/ offers more information about NHRA Winston Drag Racing, including qualifying and eliminations results, news, point standings, statistics, driver biographies and video clips. -30-
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