JOHNSON AND PEDREGON LOOK TO REPEAT AT THE GATORNATIONALS GAINESVILLE, Fla. (March 11, 1999) The NHRA championship tour makes its first East Coast appearance of the year at the 30th Annual Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 18-21 at Gainesville...
JOHNSON AND PEDREGON LOOK TO REPEAT AT THE GATORNATIONALS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (March 11, 1999) The NHRA championship tour makes its first East Coast appearance of the year at the 30th Annual Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 18-21 at Gainesville Raceway, the third race on the 22-event Winston Drag Racing circuit. This perennial spring celebration of speed is recognized for its capacity crowds, enthusiastic race fans, great side-by-side competition and record-setting performance numbers.
In Pro Stock…
Warren Johnson returns as the event's defending champion and looking to pick up his first win of the year after qualifying No. 1 at the first two races of the season at Pomona and Phoenix. Johnson's GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird set both ends of the national record last year at the Mac Tools Gatornationals with an elapsed time of 6.867 seconds and top speed of 201.32 mph. The "Professor of Pro Stock" has won at the Gatornationals seven times (1984-85, 1991-94, 1998). The four-time Winston champion is currently fourth in the Winston standings. "Until Phoenix, we didn't have the opportunity to run this new Firebird in competition under extremely warm conditions. Prior to the Gatornationals, we're going to take the car to Florida early and run the heck out of it until we learn what it likes under those kind of conditions. It's only going to get hotter as the season moves forward, but we should be able to gather up enough data that will enable us to establish a good setup for the race car."
In 1988, Bruce Allen visited the winner's circle at Gainesville and would like nothing better than to add another victory to his career total at this year's event. The Outlaw Fuel Additives Pontiac Firebird enters the season's third race just five points out of the Winston top 10. "If we can get a couple of rounds under our belt then we'll be right there. Winning the race is always your goal and when you do win then you don't even have to think about collecting points because all of that just takes care of itself. But your season-long plan is to win the points championship so you're really just collecting points at every race. We have a nice chance to jump up the standings in Florida, so we're excited. "As we saw last year, things can happen in a hurry in Gainesville. To win there, you have to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at you. It's an awesome race track that is very smooth and very, very quick. I can't wait to get there."
Jim Yates is a two-time champion (1996-97) at the Gatornationals. The Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird pilot and two-time Winston champion comes into this year's race tied for sixth place with Steve Schmidt in the points standings and looks to make a move to the front of the pack. He was runner-up at last year's race and holds an 11-1 win-loss record over the last three years at Gainesville Raceway. "The combination we have is pretty fast right now on this Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird. We needed a little more horsepower and this DRCE engine is really starting to come through for us. It gives us the raw material to compete with the front of the pack. With that in mind, we have to get this car to be as fast as it can be. As long as we can go out there and run good, I think we'll be fast. And when that happens, we'll win some races. I want to get back to that winner's circle at Gainesville and I think we have the package with this program to do that."
For Tom Martino and the Century 21 Pontiac Firebird Racing team, going to Florida for the Gatornationals is part of a long-standing tradition. As an East Coast resident of New Jersey, the Gainesville race is the first major drag racing event of the season and one of the locations where many of today's Northeast racers were exposed to the NHRA. Martino has spent the last three weeks poring over the Century 21 Firebird in an aggressive testing schedule in hopes of solving problems that have hampered the team during this season's first two events. "What this new car needs to run has been a mystery to us so far. Our dynamometer tests show that we're generating horsepower, but somehow we're not getting it to the ground. We've been working on the Century 21 Firebird non-stop since Phoenix trying to establish a consistent baseline that we can work from at the races. "Gainesville is a big race for us. We'll have a lot of friends and family on hand, and we want to make sure to show them what we can do. We have several more tests planned right up until the event to make sure we get this thing straightened out."
Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird driver Mike Thomas is looking to dismiss his mechanical gremlins and get his program back on the winning track at the Mac Tools Gatornationals. Thomas jumped to the No. 3 qualifying position at Phoenix and hopes to carry that momentum forward at Gainesville. "We're going to change all this bad luck in Gainesville. We should have made several more runs like the 6.845-second pass in Houston by now. The power we're producing should give us a chance to win every race we go to. But, you have to get the right breaks every once in awhile. So far we haven't gotten any breaks. "I see everything turning our way in Florida. If the weather is just right, that track can be the quickest one on the circuit. If that's the case, then it would be a perfect time for us to make a statement to the rest of the Pro Stock class. My engines have all been freshened and everything is set for us to be extremely quick."
Dynagear Pontiac driver Steve Schmidt is expecting big results at the Gatornationals. His Pro Stock Firebird is beginning to run the numbers that the team experienced earlier in the season during testing. Currently tied for sixth in the Winston standings with Jim Yates, Schmidt is hoping that Gainesville is the race where his team makes their performance break out. He was runner-up at the Gatornationals in 1996. "We have a long-term game plan that's going to make us successful. We felt that it was going to take three or four races for Terry Adams (crew chief) to get acclimated with this Dynagear Firebird under race conditions because he hasn't worked on this particular type of chassis. We felt that if we could just get to the first few races and get qualified and win a couple of rounds here and there, we would be on track to be a serious threat by the fourth or fifth race. We'll have a new engine at Gainesville that we weren't able to test at Phoenix. We'll be testing for three or four days prior to the race, testing engines, working on the race car and the clutch linkage, and we'll be ready to go."
In Funny Car…
Cruz Pedregon will be defending his 1998 Gatornationals victory coming off a runner-up performance at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals in Phoenix, Ariz. An out-of-character DNQ sidelined the Interstate Batteries Pontiac at Pomona, but the Wes Cerny-tuned Firebird appears to be headed back towards the same performance level experienced last season when the team racked up 12 top-qualifying spots. Pedregon was the No. 1 qualifier at the 1998 Mac Tools Gatornationals and set the national elapsed-time record at 4.873 seconds - the first of three times that he accomplished the feat last season. Heading into Gainesville, Pedregon is sixth in the Winston standings. "Getting to the finals at Phoenix moved us up in the points standings and that's basically our primary goal. If we can advance to the semi-finals at every race and rack up points that way, then I think it won't be long until we're back in contention to win the championship. Sometimes you're going to get runner-ups and you're not going to win them all, so we were very encouraged with our performance at Phoenix. That was a confidence builder for myself and the entire Interstate Batteries Pontiac program. "Our Firebird was steady all weekend at Phoenix even through qualifying. Every round it went down the track and that's what it takes to win. The Pomona non-qualifier was a fluke and we're going to continue to work to make our car as competitive as we can possibly make it."
Tim Wilkerson's JCIT Pontiac Firebird will return to competition at the Mac Tools Gatornationals after missing the schedule's previous event at Phoenix. "Our focus is to get this race car back on track - to where the JCIT Pontiac Firebird is once again a machine to be reckoned with. Traditionally, we haven't been so great at Gainesville and it's just a matter of getting a handle on the track and the weather conditions. I'm pretty confident that we can be competitive there, but right now, I just want to get back in the race car. We'll be testing at Houston the week prior to the Gatornationals and hopefully we can get this thing sorted out."
Out of all the drivers who will be competing at the Gatornationals this year, the one with the home-crowd advantage will be Al Hofmann. The ever popular Hofmann makes his home in Umatilla, Fla., which is just 90 minutes from Gainesville Raceway. He won this race in 1997 but suffered a catastrophic accident in his final-round match up with Mark Oswald and spent a large portion of the season recovering from his injuries. "I feel that place owes me a winner's circle celebration. It was a tough way to get a win but with the class as tough as it is, you take them any way you can get them. At least the fans got their money's worth. "I know it sounds like the same old story, but if we can get this Firebird to the finish line, it's gonna fly. Right now, like a lot of teams, we're struggling with consistency. We've been experimenting with some different setups and clutch combinations and I feel that we're right on the edge of getting this car to where it needs to be. Jimbo (Ermalovich) and the rest of the team have been working real hard to make this program a winner. Over the years, Gainesville Raceway has been pretty good to me and I'm just hoping that this race is no exception."
The 30th Annual Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 18-21 is the third race on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Same-day coverage of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, March 21, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. Qualifying highlights of the Mac Tools Gatornationals can be seen on ESPN2 on Friday, March 19, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.