FOR 50 YEARS NHRA WINTERNATIONALS HAS CREATED ITS SHARE OF MEMORABLE HOT-RODDING MOMENTS
POMONA, Calif. - Since 1961, the Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals has been NHRA's official season kick-off event. For 50 years, drag racers have flocked to venerable Auto Club Raceway at Pomona to show off their new race cars, paint schemes, sponsors and new drivers. With each new season world championship hopes begin anew.
Since then, a lot has changed on the drag racing landscape. There's big money on the line for the race victory as well as the season championship. There's worldwide television exposure. There's bigger sponsors and bigger race car transporters. On the track the performances are quicker and faster. And did we mention there's more pressure on each driver to win?
While the days of racing for fun and driving cross-country with your hot-rod affixed to the back of a flat-bed trailer are long gone, the memories for several of the sport's biggest icons remain.
Many of NHRA's legendary drivers will be participating in various special events and autograph sessions at the 50th annual Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 11-14 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and sharing their stories from hot-rodding's glory days. Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.
For Bob Glidden, seven-time winner of the Winternationals and 10-time NHRA Pro Stock world champion, the race always meant the first opportunity to see how the competition stacked up for the season.
"Certainly it was proven to us that Pomona was a great springboard to the whole season," Glidden said. "And if we could go and run well at Pomona, we ordinarily ran well throughout the season. Fortunately, for us, the track there at Pomona was just a great place for us to be, because we were lucky enough to win a lot of races there."
"Big Daddy" Don Garlits, who annually towed his race car from Florida, claimed Winternationals trophies in Top Fuel five times, and always loved to check out the latest gadgets and gizmos in Pomona.
"The Winternationals was a special deal because that's where we saw the new cars," said Garlits, voted the greatest drag racer of all time in 2001 during NHRA's 50th anniversary season. "That's where we tested our new stuff like that rear engine car was tested. Well, I tested a lot of stuff there. The first port nozzles in drag racing were tested there in Pomona. The wing on the car in 1963 was tested there in Pomona. It was a test bed. Of course if it didn't work real well, you went home and regrouped and you had time because there wasn't a race real soon afterwards. But it was just a great deal because we loved it. It was out in California where all the manufacturers were, all the equipment was out there. The track was great, and there were lots of competitors."
According to Garlits, sometimes the real adventure was actually making it to the track, not making it down the dragstrip.
"We towed on open trailers and four door sedans," Garlits said. "The used ones I might add. We were all good mechanics. Most of those cars ran real good. They didn't look all that good, but they were pretty sound automobiles. We could make that trip from Tampa to Los Angeles in 54 hours, me and Art Malone and Connie Swingle. And we did it many times just like that. It was fun."
A young Kenny Bernstein advanced to the final round in his very first race, at the Winternationals in 1973, where he lost to Don Schumacher. Now with six world championship crowns and 69 victories to his credit after an amazing career behind the wheel, Bernstein reflects on those early days with a big smile. Bernstein went on to win the Winternationals in both Funny Car (1987) and Top Fuel (1992), one of only three drivers in NHRA history to accomplish the feat.
"You know, the Winternationals for me, being from Texas, we called it the 'Big Go West' back in the early days," Bernstein recalled. "That's what they named it. For all the kids back when we were growing up, we couldn't wait to have our chance to go to Pomona for the Winternationals. Then later when I did become able to do this as a profession, the Winternationals always marked the start, obviously of the season. But it was almost a welcome race in the sense that you had been off for a couple of months and you were anxious to get back to it. You wanted to see all the new cars, all the new looks, all the new teams -- whatever was coming would always show up at Pomona."