Sears Point: Event preview

SONOMA, Calif. - Not since the golden age of drag racing has there been so many intensely personal rivalries in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Over the years, several memorable rivalries have contributed to the overall growth of the sport...

SONOMA, Calif. - Not since the golden age of drag racing has there been so many intensely personal rivalries in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Over the years, several memorable rivalries have contributed to the overall growth of the sport of drag racing, creating drama, excitement and intrigue.

In the 1970s, Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme and Tom 'The Mongoose' McEwen enjoyed many side-by-side battles, creating one of the most anticipated Funny Car confrontations ever. Shirley Muldowney and 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits brought a battle of the sexes to the Top Fuel world during the '70s and '80s. In Pro Stock, Bob Glidden and Lee Shepherd put fans on their feet in numerous Chevy vs. Ford final round epics during the early '80s. This season rivalries are emerging in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock that may bring a bit of nostalgia into the chase for 2000 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series championships in those categories.

In Top Fuel, two-time Winston champion Gary Scelzi and defending champ Tony Schumacher have declared war on each other and are locked in a tight points battle. Jerry Toliver has emerged as a major threat to John Force's Funny Car domination. In Pro Stock, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Warren Johnson have developed a fierce opposition, as Coughlin tries to unseat the five-time Winston champ.

No question, the stakes will be high for those racers pursing Winston championship glory at the 13th annual FRAM Autolite Nationals, Aug. 4-6, at scenic Sears Point Raceway, located just north of San Francisco on the San Pablo Bay.

Doug Kalitta, Whit Bazemore and Jim Yates are the defending pro category winners of the $1.8 million race, the 15th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Kalitta, from Ann Arbor, Mich., was a Top Fuel winner for the second straight time at Sears Point Raceway, defeating Schumacher in the final round. Kalitta and Schumacher are both top contenders this season, along with current Winston points leader Scelzi, driver of the Team Winston dragster. Kenny Bernstein, Larry Dixon and Cory McClenathan also are among top threats to win the event.

Bazemore, from Indianapolis, had a memorable weekend, driving his Kendall Oil Chevrolet Camaro to the victory and in the process clocked performance bests for elapsed time and speed. Runner-up Frank Pedregon heads the list of top contenders in the 6,000 horsepower category, along with Winston points leader Toliver and nine-time NHRA Winston champion Force. Scotty Cannon, Dean Skuza and Costa Mesa's Del Worsham will also be racing for victory. Alexandria, Va.'s Yates, driver of the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird, outdistanced the AC Delco Chevy Camaro of Kurt Johnson for his 22nd career Pro Stock victory here one year ago. While Yates and Johnson seek a final round rematch, several other noted drivers, including Ron Krisher, W. Johnson and points leader Coughlin, also hope to find their way to the winner's circle.

Fuel catergories

Whit Bazemore had always dreamed of winning an NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event in the fashion that he did last August at Sears Point Raceway.

Essentially, he dominated.

He earned the victory by posting four consistent elimination rounds in his Kendall Chevy Camaro. The Indianapolis resident also claimed the No. 1 qualifying position, posted low elapsed time and recorded top speed for the event to complete the weekend in grand fashion.

These days Bazemore remembers that weekend and sighs. The 2000 season has been a struggle for the veteran Funny Car driver, who has had trouble duplicating that kind of performance.

A multitude of problems and early-round exits eventually led team owner Chuck Etchells to make a personnel change following the event in Columbus, Ohio. Etchells hired Terry Manzer as the team's crew chief, replacing the longtime tuning duo of Tim and Kim Richards.

Two races later, with Manzer's addition, Bazemore made a return to the winner's circle, claiming a victory at Bandimere Speedway near Denver. "Chuck made a very tough decision about a month ago," Bazemore said. "It has been an emotional time. We are very tight with Tim and Kim, but life goes on."

And as life goes on, Bazemore hopes that more victories will be around the corner, too. He will try to earn his eighth career victory at the 13th annual FRAM Autolite Nationals, Aug. 4-6, at Sears Point Raceway. The $1.8 million race is the 15th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"My confidence was at an all-time low before Denver and that's saying a lot because usually I'm a pretty cocky guy," Bazemore said. "Now I'm really excited about the rest of the season. There's still a long way to go, but if we work and work and work, we can still salvage this season. I'll tell you what, you really find out what you're made of when you're at rock-bottom." Bazemore advanced to five final rounds last season on his way to a third place finish in the Winston point standings. Although his memorable run at Sears Point produced his only victory, he gained ground in the points order by posting several semifinal finishes.

What a difference a year can make. Prior to his win at Denver, Bazemore had not advanced past the second round during the first half of the season. "When you're winning, it's easy to be good," Bazemore said. "But when you're struggling, it's very, very hard. We needed to make a statement and we did." Bazemore, who moved to eighth place in the points standings with the win, hopes the second half of the season is as good as the first half was bad. "It felt odd having to reassert ourselves as contenders," Bazemore said. "Our backs were against the wall. We were nowhere near where we wanted to be. Hopefully the win at Denver will give us some momentum going into the next few races and we can build on it for the rest of the season."

FORCE, TOLIVER BATTLING: As John Force seeks a record 10th NHRA Winston title, the drama could become extremely intense as the season unfolds. Current Winston points leader Jerry Toliver has already demonstrated that he's not going to give up pursuit of his first Winston championship without a fight.

With so much on the line for Force, expect crew chief Austin Coil to tune Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang for optimum performance. Rival crew chief Dale Armstrong will also have Toliver's WWF Racing Pontiac Firebird in championship mode.

The matchup - both on and off the track - has all the necessary ingredients to produce one of the most competitive and memorable Funny Car epics in the history of the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"Toliver's got a good team over there," said Force, who has claimed six wins in six final round appearances this season, his most recent coming last weekend in Seattle. "It's been fun to be in a fight. I think that brings out the best in this team. We're pretty motivated right now."

SARVER LOOKING TO BREAK INTO TOP 10: Perhaps the thing Bruce Sarver was thinking when he advanced to the semifinals in his first attempt at racing a 6,000 horsepower Funny Car was why it took him so long to make the switch from Top Fuel.

He drove his E-Moola.com Pontiac Firebird to a third round appearance at the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and looked to be on his way to establishing himself as a major threat for the NHRA Winston championship crown.

It took only the next two races to give him a big reality check. Back-to-back DNQs at Phoenix and Gainesville, Fla., led to a first round loss at Las Vegas, which eventually led to him missing the event in Houston while the team tried to regroup.

Since that time there have been no more DNQs, and Sarver seems to be getting more comfortable in the car with each passing event. A pair of second round appearances at Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis led to a semifinal appearance at Denver.

Sarver now sits 12th in the Winston point standings, but is certain that he can improve on that position and find his way into the Winston top 10 by season's end.

"We're only a few rounds out of 10th and if we could pick up the momentum I feel comfortable that we could crack that," said the Bakersfield, Calif. racer, a former Top Fuel competitor. "If things go our way, we might get some luck and then we can start playing hardball real soon. We're going to try and be a top-five car before too long."

Team owner Alan Johnson promoted Richard Hogan to the position of crew chief after Rob Flynn left the team to become a consultant for the two-car Checker Schuck's Kragen team. Sarver hopes the personnel shifts will add a spark to the team's performance during the season's second half.

"We go into every race with the attitude that it's a new season," Sarver said. "There are a lot of tough cars out here, but if you look at the top 15 teams, anyone of them could possibly be a top-five contender. I feel real confident about our chances right now."

KALITTA GOES FOR THREE: Doug Kalitta will try to become the first three-time Top Fuel winner at Sears Point Raceway as he defends titles he earned during NHRA's last two visits to the quarter-mile track located just north of the San Pablo Bay.

Kalitta topped Bruce Sarver for the victory there in '98, and defeated Tony Schumacher for the crown one year ago. Kalitta, who drives the MGM Grand Dragster, opened fast with a victory at the Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., but has fell on hard times recently, posting three straight first round losses.

However, a runner-up finish in Seattle gives Kalitta hope about the team's chances for winning a third straight at what is quickly becoming his favorite track on the circuit.

"I think we're on the right track to getting the car consistent," Kalitta said. "We've changed some stuff around and the tune-up is more aggressive. I think we're going to be more competitive than we've been in the last couple of races." Jim Yates can't wait to get out of the mountains. The two-time NHRA Winston Pro Stock champion is in the mood for some lowland racing. After consecutive weeks of performing at high-altitude tracks in Tennessee and Colorado, the Alexandria, Va. resident is eager to put a couple of early round losses behind and start focusing on winning some races.

And that's for good reason. Yates hasn't claimed a victory in quite a while.

In fact, it was one year ago when Yates drove his Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird to his last career win -- at Sears Point Raceway, just north of the picturesque San Pablo Bay. Yates hopes a return to coastal conditions puts his racing program back in contention. Based on past results alone, he'll definitely be a top contender at the 13th annual FRAM Autolite Nationals, Aug. 4-6, at Sears Point Raceway. Yates is a three-time winner of the $1.8 million race, the 15th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. "I'm ready to get back to sea level conditions," said Yates, who has posted two runner-up finishes this season. "We made some major changes on the car and I think a lot of things that we've done to the chassis will apply." Both of Yates' strong runs this season have come at sea level venues. At Houston he was the event's quick qualifier before losing a close final to Jeg Coughlin. At Richmond, Va., Yates also lost a final round decision to Coughlin in a thrilling side-by-side affair.

"Compared to the rest of the field, our engines definitely perform better at sea level than they do at any kind of altitude above 3,000 feet," Yates said. "We seem to have a combination that doesn't react well in thin air situations."

Yates earned his 22nd career victory last year at Sears Point Raceway by taking out some of the category's best drivers - Darrell Alderman, Coughlin, Mike Edwards and Kurt Johnson in the final. If he's to repeat that success, he'll have to deal with several of those drivers and others, including two-time winner Ron Krisher, Winston Showdown champ Troy Coughlin and a resurgent Mark Pawuk, who recently ended a five-year drought with a win in Columbus, Ohio.

As far as performance goes, Yates knows his team is close to running the number. Five-time NHRA Winston Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson, although trailing in the Winston points chase behind leader Jeg Coughlin and Krisher, posted one of the lowest elapsed times of the season, a 6.833 second effort in Richmond, Va.

"In conditions like we're going to have at some of the tracks coming up I think we should be able to run with the fastest cars in the pack," Yates said.

MOPAR COMEBACK: The final 16-car Pro Stock qualifying order at Denver included four Dodge Avengers, and for the first time since Allen Johnson's memorable win last season at Virginia Motorsports Park, an Avenger advanced to the final round.

Is this the start of something for the Mopar Pro Stock contingent, which has been virtually silent in a Pro Stock world that has been dominated by Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro victories in recent seasons? With a new engine program, spirits are high among two Mopar teams. "We're really on the right track with the new Hemi engine," said Larry Morgan, who qualified third at Denver before losing to Brad Jeter on a holeshot in the second round.

Said Darrell Alderman, who posted his first final round appearance since winning at Englishtown, N.J. in 1997: "It's hard to beat the Hemi engine when the combination is right."

Surprisingly, the driver most excited about a return to competitive racing for Team Mopar's Pro Stock unit is the competition - five-time NHRA Winston champion Warren Johnson.

"I'm curious to see if the Mopar cars are going to run as good at other races as they did at their own sponsored event," said Johnson, who lost to Alderman in the second round at Denver. "If they continue to perform well that means they've stepped up their program. That's good, because we need more cars out here. We don't need all Pontiacs and Chevrolets. We need some Fords and some Dodges -- as many nameplates as we can get. If we can get a good mix at every race, it makes it more interesting for the fans."

W.J. LOOKING FOR CONSISTENCY: With one victory in four final round appearances, Warren Johnson's 2000 season hasn't unfolded like the Buford, Ga. driver first envisioned.

During one stretch of races, Johnson posted three consecutive first round losses, a trend that's almost unheard of in his GM Goodwrench racing stable. A few races later, Johnson posted his fourth first round loss of the year, a disappointing early round match with points challenger Jeg Coughlin. After earning his fourth and fifth Winston championships, respectively, during the last two seasons, Johnson is currently in third place overall in 2000, trailing points leader Coughlin by 285. After making several significant changes to his Pontiac Firebird in recent weeks, Johnson hopes to mount a late season charge and get back into contention for race victories each week.

"Performance-wise I think we're back on the right track," Johnson said. "It's something I've been trying to get back to since the beginning of the season. I'm not saying our team is 100-percent back, but at least we're able to be competitive and that's what we're looking at."

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying is scheduled for 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 4 and continues at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Aug. 5. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. on Aug. 6. TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 13th annual FRAM Autolite Nationals. Call Sears Point Raceway at (800) 870-RACE, or Ticketmaster, for ticket information. ON TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of eliminations coverage of the FRAM Autolite Nationals on Aug. 6 at 9:30 p.m. (ET). ESPN2 also will televise two hours of qualifying highlights on Aug. 5 at 10 p.m. (ET). In addition, ESPN2 will televise NHRA Heat, NHRA's 30-minute preview show, on Aug. 3 at 6:30 p.m. (ET). ON THE WEB: NHRA news, photos and driver information available at www.nhra.com.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , Bruce Sarver , Frank Pedregon , Jeg Coughlin , Troy Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Darrell Alderman , Kenny Bernstein , Brad Jeter , Mark Pawuk , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Dean Skuza , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Doug Kalitta , Ron Krisher , Chuck Etchells , Scotty Cannon , Bob Glidden , Don Garlits , Cory McClenathan , Allen Johnson , Jerry Toliver , Austin Coil , Mike Edwards