GAINESVILLE, Fla. - For any champion, the short celebration between seasons can seem like an eternity. It's a time for reflection over a job well done. Mission accomplished. After the last champagne toast, however, it's back to work. No one ...
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - For any champion, the short celebration between seasons can seem like an eternity. It's a time for reflection over a job well done. Mission accomplished.
After the last champagne toast, however, it's back to work.
No one needed to remind NHRA Pro Stock Truck champion Bob Panella to get back to work following his 1999 NHRA Winston championship triumph. After being presented his championship trophy, he was thinking about defending his title quicker than his truck can cover the quarter-mile. For the uninitiated, that's about 7.5 seconds.
"I thought about it all winter," said Panella, from Stockton, Calif. "I saw Larry Kopp win the championship in '98 and come back in '99 and struggle. I didn't want to fall into that same trap. I don't know if opening the season with a win means anything, but I did all I could do to make sure we were ready to win races this season. I want to defend the title the best I can throughout the year. I hope to keep this pace going for 14 races."
Panella's pace looked promising at the Pro Stock Truck season-opener at Pomona Raceway in early February, as he efficiently disposed of several quality competitors en route to his fifth career victory.
The game plan will be the same for the Chevy S-10 driver at the 31st annual Mac Tools Gatornationals, March 16-19, at Gainesville Raceway. The $1.9 million race is the second of 14 events for Pro Stock Trucks in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series for 2000.
With the talented competition in the category it's not hard to see why Panella is busy looking over his shoulder.
Longtime sportsman threat Rob Slavinski and crafty engine builder Steve Johns have combined to provide the one-two punch for Kessinger Motorsports' two-truck Castrol Super Clean team; four-time NHRA Super Stock champion Greg Stanfield is among the best drivers in any pro category; reaction-time guru Brad Jeter is the new pilot of Jerry Haas' Chevy S-10; gritty Tim Freeman will be tough as nails behind the wheel of Kopp's once-crowned S-10; and brothers John and Mike Coughlin always carry the Jeg's racing colors with pride.
"Everybody on my team worked real hard to keep our S-10 on top because we knew it would be more intense this season," said Panella, who edged Jeter for the Winston crown last year. "We welcome the competition, too. That's what makes it fun. There are 15 or 20 trucks out there at every other event that will give us heck. We're fortunate to have already won an event. I'm sure things won't always go our way as the year goes on. Guys like Greg Stanfield, Steve Johns and Brad Jeter are going to be tough competitors. I'm happy to be a part of it. I just hope I can defend the title."
Panella's strategic off-season didn't include a lot of testing. He wanted to make sure his S-10 was working properly. That was the first order of business.
"We didn't really change anything - we just focused on making sure the truck and the parts were fresh to start the season," Panella said. "Our main goal was to avoid going backwards."
He also added a second S-10, driven by Ontario, Calif. native Jeff Gracia. Panella says the extra data collected during each event comes in handy. "We're going to do our best to keep both trucks going all year long," Panella said. "Hopefully at Gainesville we can finish one-two. If the funding is there and the motor program stays competitive, we're planning on both trucks going the distance. I sure have the crew to do it."
His talented workaholic crew includes one new secret weapon. "I have an ex-Warren Johnson crew member now - Mike Stryker - and he sure knows how to work," Panella said. "I tell you, there's no shortage of energy in our pit area these days."