POMONA, CA (Feb. 4) " Larry Dixon and Don Prudhomme's Miller Lite Top Fuel Team kicked off the NHRA's 2001 50th Anniversary season on the right track as they posted a semifinal finish and claimed third place in the Winston points race Sunday at the 41st Annual Autozone Winternationals at Pomona Raceway.
No. 3 seed Dixon, the 1998 Winternationals champion, began his quest for a second title at Pomona with his first career meeting against No. 14 Robert Rheel. Dixon used a lap of 4.621 seconds at 314.83 mph, the second quickest of the opening session, to move past Reehl's pass of 4.880 seconds at 276.46 mph. The opening round win extended Dixon's streak of first round wins dating back to Oct. 29, 2000 (Houston). Dixon's second round opponent would be No. 6 seed David Grubnic and would mark his sixth career meeting with "Aussie Dave." The Miller Lite pilot used a time of 4. 634 seconds at 314.90 mph to improve his record to 5 wins and 1 loss to Grubnic who posted a lap o f 4.752 seconds at 310.63 mph. Dixon's elapsed time against Grub was also the second fastest of that session.
Dixon's efforts would be rewarded with a trip to the semifinal round and a meeting with Mike Dunn, familiar territory for the Miller Lite driver who reached the "final four" on 13 occasions last season. It would be Dunn who prevailed however, as the New York Yankees Dragster cruised to a time of 4.630 seconds at 318.70 mph to move past Dixon's effort of 6.240 sec onds at 141.21 mph. With the setback, Dixon's career mark moved to 7 wins and 17 setbacks in 24 meetings with Dunn, a driver who Dixon has not defeated since June 26, 1999 (St. Louis).
With his semifinal finish, establishing top speed of the event (318.84 mph) and earning 76 points to claim third place in points race, there is plenty for Dixon to be happy about before heading to the second race of the season, the Checker Shucks Kragen Nationals in Phoenix (Feb. 15-18).
"If you don't win the race you are always disappointed, at l east I am because I am a competitor, but it could have been worse," said Dixon. "We went to the semifinals and we did have top speed of the meet. With the way that things went that we worked on in the wintertime, if we had done any worse I would have been disappointed."
"But we came in here and we can run with these guys now, where at the end of last year we couldn't. It definitely gives you more of a posit ive attitude going into a race knowing that you have the chance of winning and that's something that Dick LaHaie and the Miller Lite Team worked hard on and it seems to be producing. In the semis we lost lane choice by .001 of a s econd and maybe that was the difference in this race. We'll never kn ow, but we have a good car that we'll take to Phoenix and we'll be able to take on these guys for the rest of the year."
With the new season comes a minor adjustment for Dixon as it relates to the starting line. The NHRA has implemented a computerized timing device that will dictate when the lights drop and send the cars down the track. The new wrinkle did not seem to faze Dixon this weekend. "They let us know in the off season about the auto-start system where basically the tree activates al l on its own," said Dixon. It pretty much seemed the same, but ev eryone's lights were really slow this weekend and I don't know if that had so mething to do with it or not, but I was able to get a light when I needed it and that's the important part."
Another important part of the season's opening weekend was the NHRA's celebration of past champions at Pomona, including Dixon's father Larry Dixon Sr., who was honored along with his fully restored Howard Cams Rattler front-engine dragster which won the Pomona crown in 1970. It was an emotional event with the entire Dixon family on hand.
"That took me back 30 years," said Dixon. "I was sitting there trying to think of when the last time was that I saw my dad push started in a top fuel
car, let alone a front engine car on top of that. The last time he drove a front engine car was 1971, so there was a lot of emotion. When he was getting suited up and getting in the car, it just flashed back to me that I used to shake his hand after putting his gloves on. It's stuff that you forget about and it all just comes back to you, so it was a real neat deal for me and for everyone involved."
Rookie driver Darrell Russell won the Top Fuel title in his first event since taking over for Joe Amato who retired at the end of last season. Bruce Sarver won the Funny Car title and Kurt Johnson took home the ProStock crown.