Atlanta Race Story

SCELZI, FORCE, JOHNSON, SEELING AND DANIELS WIN ADVANCE AUTO PARTS SOUTHERN NATIONALS COMMERCE, Ga. -- Defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi earned his second victory of the season May 17 at the 19th...


COMMERCE, Ga. -- Defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi earned his second victory of the season May 17 at the 19th annual Advance Auto Parts Southern Nationals, continuing his climb back into championship contention following an uncharacteristic slow start to the season.

Scelzi, from Fresno, Calif., powered his Team Winston dragster to his 13th career victory when final round opponent Doug Kalitta pressed the throttle too soon on his Kitty Hawk dragster.

John Force, Warren Johnson, Angelle Seeling, and Randy Daniels were also winners in their respective pro categories at the $1.6 million race, the seventh of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

The $40,000 win was Scelzi's first ever at Atlanta Dragway and gives the team some much-needed momentum following an early season slump that has included one DNQ (did not qualify) and four first-round losses.

Scelzi covered the distance in 4.698 seconds at 307.23 mph while Kalitta turned the tree red with a .258 reaction, well in front of a perfect .400 light. The final round gimme was a pleasant surprise for Scelzi following three tough round battles early on.

"Lane choice was the key to winning today, we had it all day," said Scelzi, who defeated Terry Mullins, Joe Amato and current Winston points leader Mike Dunn to advance to the final round. "It was critical that we stayed in the right lane. Not that the track was a one-lane racetrack, but we felt more comfortable in the right lane. Overall, I thought there was some pretty good racing today. It sure was a good view from where I was sitting."

Kenny Bernstein had the day's wildest ride. The veteran driver opened Top Fuel eliminations with a flurry as his Budweiser King dragster went out of control just off the starting line when his right rear tire apparently sheared away from the rear-axle. The car went out of control, crossed the center line and rolled onto its side. Bernstein, 54 and holder of 52 NHRA national event victories, climbed from his dragster and gave the crowd a thumbs-up immediately following the incident. He suffered only a minor injury to his right hand in the incident.

With the win, Scelzi moves into eighth in the Winston point standings, 166 behind leader Dunn.

"Dunn's going to be tough to catch," Scelzi said. "He's got a big lead. If that team keeps going to semi-finals and final rounds, it's going to be a long season for the rest of us. We're still right there, but need some more things to go our way. We've got to continue to crawl before we can walk, but it's not out of the question to have somebody come from this far back and win the championship."

Force, from Yorba Linda, Calif., continued to keep a strong grip on the competition with his fifth Funny Car victory of the season, defeating Whit Bazemore in a photo-finish. It was Force's 75th career victory, worth approximately $40,000. It was also the first final round meeting between the two rivals.

Force covered the distance in 5.147 at 283.61 in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, while Bazemore's Chuck Etchells-owned Kendall Oil Chevrolet Camaro was just a tick slower, running 5.182 at 280.84.

"When you get a Ford vs. Chevy deal that's always exciting for the fans and you always want to prove that you can flex your muscles when you get the opportunity," said Force, who also defeated the Ponitacs of Frank Pedregon and Del Worsham and teammate Tony Pedregon's identically-prepared Mustang in his march to the final round. "We pulled her back a little bit for the final and when I hit the throttle the car dropped a cylinder and moved me out near the wall. It took a gamble and decided to steer it back to the center rather than letting it smoke the tires out of the groove. Next thing I knew, Bazemore was right on me at the end. It was a good race, we didn't know who won until we got out of our cars."

Force extended his Winston points lead to 139 over teammate Tony Pedregon. Bazemore, who outran Ron Capps, Jim Epler and Scotty Cannon to earn the right to face Force, moved to third in the point standings with 448.

Johnson, from nearby Buford, Ga., earned his third Pro Stock victory of the season in his GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird when fellow Firebird driver Richie Stevens fouled at the start.

Once again Johnson ran the table on the competition, earning the No. 1 qualifying position, setting both the low elapsed time and top speed of the event and methodically outdistancing an all-star cast that included Tom Martino, Mark Pawuk and Jim Yates to advance to the final.

The final was a classic battle between youth and experience. Stevens was just 8 years old when Johnson earned his first Southern Nationals victory.

"That's an interesting way to look at it," said Johnson of his 75th win. "I've always said there's two ways to be successful; with youth and enthusiasm or age and treachery. In a lot of cases experience on a racetrack plays in your favor. I don't think there's no such thing as knowing too much."

Johnson, who owns four NHRA Winston championships in his 25-plus years of racing, had the performance advantage and lane choice, so 20-year-old Stevens took the gamble and went for a perfect light, but came up short.

"I knew Richie was going to do everything he could to win the race," Johnson said. "That's what it's all about. You can't fault him for that. You have to give the kid credit for going up there with the positive attitude that he has to do everything in his power to win. He tried his best and came up a little short. In this business you have a winner and a loser and one day he's going to be on the winning side."

The win moves Johnson to second in the Winston standings, eight points behind his son Kurt.

Team Winston Suzuki rider Seeling, from New Orleans, earned her second Pro Stock Motorcycle victory of the season when arch-rival Matt Hines ripped the throttle too early on his Eagle One Suzuki.

It was Seeling's sixth career victory, and first at Atlanta Dragway. It was an emotional victory for Seeling, who drives for Georgia-based team owner George Bryce.

Seeling set the low e.t. for the event in the final, running 7.288 seconds with a speed of 183.47 mph. Hines, two- time defending champion in the category, knew Seeling had the performance advantage going into the round and tried to leave the starting line with a perfect reaction.

"Matt was trying hard and doing all that he could do," said Seeling, 28, who lost to Hines in five of seven finals last year. "You can't fault him for trying to win the race. He realized we had the quicker bike so he tried to beat me at the start. This is a great win for this time here at our home track. We're glad we come away with a win for all of our great fans at this track. It's been a great weekend."

Seeling increased her Winston points lead to 103 over Hines with the win.

Daniels, from Grantsboro, N.C., earned his second Pro Stock Truck victory of the season, defeating points leader Mark Osborne in a battle of Chevrolet S-10s. Daniels ran 7.641 at 176.53, while Osborne lost traction at mid-track and slowed to an 11.073 at 81.17.

"We really needed this one, it feels great," said Daniels, 31. "Mark's been pretty tough lately but we felt like we had the power to run with him. Fortunately it worked out for us."

With the victory, Daniels moved to third in the point standings, 106 behind leader Osborne.

The estimated four-day attendance was 100,200, an event record.

The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event is the Mopar Parts Nationals, May 20-23, at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Mark Pawuk , Warren Johnson , Jim Epler , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Doug Kalitta , Randy Daniels , Chuck Etchells , Scotty Cannon , Tom Martino , George Bryce