AutoZone Winternationals preview

POMONA, Calif. - NHRA Winston championship hopes and dreams come alive once again at the historic Pomona Raceway as the NHRA kicks off its 50th anniversary with another earth-shaking season of the fastest form of motorsports on the planet. ...

POMONA, Calif. - NHRA Winston championship hopes and dreams come alive once again at the historic Pomona Raceway as the NHRA kicks off its 50th anniversary with another earth-shaking season of the fastest form of motorsports on the planet. Every team enters the 2001 season with aspirations to rise above the rest of the competition in hopes of capturing championship glory. Their 10-month quest will begin at the 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals at Pomona Raceway, Feb. 1-4. Gary Scelzi, Jerry Toliver, Jeg Coughlin and Bob Panella are the defending event winners in their respective pro categories for the $1.9 million race, the first of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Scelzi, from Fresno, Calif., began his record-setting 2000 season with a victory here over rival Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel final. It was the first step towards Scelzi's third Winston championship in four years. Scelzi and Schumacher will be heavy favorites for the series title all season. They will face stiff competition from five-time Winston champ Kenny Bernstein, emerging championship contender Larry Dixon, and the Mike Dunn-Darrell Gwynn team with their new Yankee dragster, among others.

Toliver, from Huntington Beach, Calif., established himself as a serious contender for the series crown early last season at this event by driving past Tony Pedregon for the Funny Car win. Pedregon's teammate and team owner, John Force, will begin the pursuit of his record-breaking 11th Winston championship and try to move closer to the 100-win mark for his career.

Columbus, Ohio's, Coughlin began his remarkable 2000 Pro Stock season with a win over five-time Winston champ Warren Johnson. Coughlin took the points lead at the season-opener and never relinquished the lead to earn his first championship. Coughlin will be facing many worthy challengers in the ultra-competitive 'door-slammer' category. Johnson and his son 0Kurt Johnson, Coughlin's brother Troy Coughlin, Ron Krisher, Jim Yates and Mark Pawuk will all be looking to get a jump on the field with a strong performance at Pomona.

Panella, from Stockton, Calif., was the eventual Winston champion for the second straight season and it all began with a Pro Stock Truck victory over upstart Greg Stanfield. Randy Daniels, John Coughlin and Stanfield are other contenders looking to deny Panella of another championship.

Mike Dunn played the waiting game last year and it paid off.
Dunn and team owner Darrell Gwynn sat out the majority of 2000 due to the lack of a title sponsor for the Top Fuel racing team. Despite offers from other teams, Dunn remained loyal and stayed with Gwynn as they waited for the financial backing necessary to run the 6,000 horsepower, nitro-burning machines. During the 2000 U.S. Nationals, Gwynn revealed his three-year, $10 million deal with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that featured Dunn as the pilot of the vehicle sporting the familiar blue-and-white pinstripes. The car debuted for the final three races of 2000. Good things come to those who wait. The Yankee dragster will return to Southern California at the 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals, Feb. 1-4, at Pomona Raceway when the NHRA kicks off its 50th anniversary. The $1.9 million race is the first of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. "I knew Darrell had some deals in the works at the beginning of last year," said Dunn. "That all fell apart, then we didn't have anything by early July. I knew Darrell wasn't going to pay me to sit on my butt for another year either, but I would finish out my contract to him, which ran through 2000. We were still confident we would find something and get a program together. Then all of a sudden the Yankee deal came around and it was a pretty big surprise to everyone. Sometimes you gamble and it pays off. We were lucky and it paid off big time." Dunn competed in the final three races last year, using those events as a test session to gain information for the 2001 season. It was quite a test session. Dunn recorded the three quickest times of the year running on the new 90 percent nitro-methane rule implemented by the NHRA at the beginning of 2000. He was the No. 1 qualifier at two of those events, and he made it as far as the semifinals in the season finale. "When we first started testing down in Gainesville, we couldn't get anything right," said Dunn. "We finally started getting things to respond the way we wanted and it all started to work and then it all came around real quick. With the way we ran at the end of last year, and with the budget we have, me, Darrell, and the whole team are excited about the upcoming season."

Dunn, who usually wore contact lenses while racing, underwent LASIK eye surgery during the off-season. LASIK eye surgery involves using a special blade to create a small flap in the cornea, and then reshaping the cornea with a state-of-the-art excimer laser. In the hands of an experienced surgeon the procedure is virtually painless. Most patients return to work the next day. "I feel good," said Dunn after the procedure. "It is still a little blurry at night, but everything went well. The actual cut in the cornea heals in about 24 hours, but you have to be careful for about a month. I'll be ready to race when it is time." Based on their season-ending performance, and Dunn's new vision, the Gwynn-owned Yankee dragster will be a formidable contender for the Winston championship the next few seasons.

Coughlin seeking third straight AutoZone Winternationals title
Jeg Coughlin Jr. has his roots and success firmly established in the Midwest. However, he can't overlook his accomplishments in Southern California. Coughlin, from Columbus, Ohio, will be seeking his third straight season-opening win when the NHRA's opens its 50th Anniversary with the 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals, Feb. 1-4, at Pomona Raceway. The $1.9 million race is the first of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. "Team Jeg's has had a lot of success racing in Pomona," said Coughlin. "Our team enjoys racing there and our record at the track reflects that. The fans are great and they bring a heightened level of excitement to racing in NHRA's backyard." Last season's win at the historic Pomona Raceway was the first of 10 for Coughlin en route to his first NHRA Winston Pro Stock championship. He assumed the points lead at the Winternationals, won six of the first seven events, and closed the season strong to secure his first series title. Coughlin isn't expecting such an early advantage this season. "I think that the 2001 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season will be the most competitive season that the Pro Stock class has ever seen," said Coughlin. "The new body styles and rules that NHRA has put in place will make NHRA's most competitive class even more competitive. Fans will see more 200 mph runs and some of the best side-by-side racing that our sport has to offer." Entering 2001 at Pomona, Coughlin will be behind the wheel of his familiar yellow-and-black Jeg's Mail Order Oldsmobile Cutlass. However, the door-slammer category will introduce new vehicles this year, including the Chevy Cavalier, Pontiac Grand Am and the Dodge R/T. "We have taken delivery of two 2001 Cavaliers," said Coughlin. "The Cavalier that I will drive we received January 15th and (brother) Troy's new Cavalier we got on the 22nd. There are modifications and changes that we do to our vehicles in house after taking delivery of them that require a lot of time. We decided to start the 2001 NHRA season with our Oldsmobile Cutlass. Our game plan is to debut our JEG'S Mail Order Chevy Cavaliers at the Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida." With all the information the Jeg's team has collected over the past few years on their Oldsmobiles, Coughlin is hoping their team will have a slight edge over their competitors in the early going. "We have a wealth of data and information on our Oldsmobile," said Coughlin. "Our game plan is to use that to our advantage during the start of the season. We will begin testing our new Cavaliers when we return from Pomona and will have them ready to race by the time we get to Florida." If Coughlin can benefit from an early season advantage of any kind, the remaining Pro Stock competitors might experience a season similar to 2000: Everyone trailing the yellow-and-black ride and battling for second place in the Winston point standings.

SCHEDULE: @Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2 p.m. on Feb 1 and Feb. 2. Qualifying continues at noon and 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 3. Eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Feb. 4. TICKETS: @Tickets are available for the 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals. Call (800) 884-6472, or Ticketmaster for ticket information. ON TV: @ESPN will televise one hour of coverage of final eliminations from the AutoZone Winternationals on Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. (ET) and repeat final round coverage on ESPN2 on Feb. 4 at 11 p.m. (ET). ESPN2 will televise two hour of qualifying highlights on Feb. 3 at 9:30 p.m. (ET).

NHRA NOTES & QUOTES * AMATO HIRES RUSSELLL TO DRIVE DRAGSTER: Five-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Joe Amato, who retired at the end of the 2000 season due to an eye condition, hired sportsman racer Darrell Russell to drive the Amato-owned dragster in 2001, the NHRA's 50th Anniversary season. "It's not easy for someone like me, who has been in the car for so long to get out and let someone else sit in the seat," said the 56-year old Amato. "It was a tough decision, but the right one. My focus had to be on finding the right driver, and I feel I've found him in Darrell. "When I started looking for a driver, Gary Scelzi told me about Darrell. I wasn't too familiar with him, but Gary said he was a good driver who came from a good family and that he would make a good Rookie of the Year candidate. Once I met Darrell, he convinced me that he was ready to move up to the professional ranks." Russell, 32, has competed in a Federal-Mogul dragster since 1991, has been named the Division Four Driver of the year three times, and was a six-time Federal-Mogul All-Star representative. "It's been a lifelong dream to race against the best in our sport," said Russell. "I've been able to accomplish a lot in an alcohol dragster, but the time is right to move up. Getting a chance to run in the NHRA Winston series is a thrill. Getting to drive for Joe Amato, a legend in our sport, is unbelievable. I plan on being a good listener because there is so much I can learn from Joe. "I feel like a football player who has just finished four years of college football and then the phone rings and they tell you that you are the top draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Obviously, it didn't take long for me to say yes. I knew right away that this is what I want to do."

* PRUDHOMME'S TWO FUNNY CARS TO DEBUT AT POMONA: The legendary Don "The Snake" Prudhomme has added another vehicle to his already impressive race team.

Beginning at the 2001 AutoZone Winternationals, Prudhomme will field two Funny Cars in NHRA competition, both having the primary sponsor of Skoal Racing. Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. are the two nitro-pilots that Prudhomme hopes can unseat John Force as the Winston champion as the number of two-car teams continues to rise in the Funny Car category. "U.S. Smokeless Tobacco has made a serious commitment to drag racing and we are very excited to be the team chosen to make it happen," said Prudhomme. "I am delighted Skoal Racing will become the primary sponsor on both race cars since I raced under that program when I was still driving." Johnson, from Ottumwa, Iowa, has driven a Funny Car for part of the past two seasons. His three-year contract with Prudhomme gives him the job security he has been yearning for. "Now I can focus on one thing, and that is winning," said Johnson. "One of the most exciting things about driving for Prudhomme is the organization and how he runs it. This isn't a race team, it's a first-class organization. It's going to be a pleasure to be part of it. I'm looking forward to having Capps as a teammate. We've always gotten along, maybe because we both grew up around the sport and came up through the ranks. We haven't forgotten where we came from."

* K. JOHNSON ECLIPSES 203 MPH IN CHEVY CAVALIER DURING TESTING: Kurt Johnson was in Florida testing his new Chevrolet Cavalier when he made one of the fastest unofficial Pro Stock passes ever recorded. He covered the quarter-mile in 6.81 seconds at 203.20 mph. The new body design definitely showed its potential," said Johnson, runner-up to Jeg Coughlin last season in the Winston points standings. "It's an easy car to drive - it feels extremely stable at the top end. The chassis has a lot of bite, so we're working on taming it down. Our goal is to make the package so consistent that it runs low 6.80s and over 200 mph every time I let out the clutch."

* TEAMMATES SCELZI AND SARVER IMPRESSIVE AT SPRING TRAINING 2001: Gary Scelzi and his Team Winston dragster and Bruce Sarver of the e-moola Pontiac Firebird, both Alan Johnson-tuned vehicles, were the quickest competitors in their respective categories at the Spring Training 2001 test session held in Tucson, Ariz.

Three-time and defending Winston Top Fuel champion Scelzi clocked an impressive 4.647 second, 304.60 mph pass in his dragster. Sarver, steered his Funny Car to a thrilling 4.835 at 297.02 mph.

Scelzi will open his defense of his third NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship at the AutoZone Winternationals, Feb. 1-4, at Pomona Raceway.

"This year I see about five cars that are going to really battle it out for the Winston title," said Scelzi. "I think Mike Dunn is a big player, and Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher and Kenny Bernstein are going to have something to say about Team Winston trying to repeat in 2001. And you never know, someone else could come out of the pack and play the role of spoiler. I think you'll see the pack stay pretty bunched up until about Denver, then the herd is going to thin itself out a little and you'll be left with the major players.

Scelzi has some impressive numbers at the famed Southern California dragstrip: ** He is looking to join Joe Amato as just the second Top Fueler in NHRA Winston Drag Racing history to capture at least four dragster titles. Amato leads the way with five career Top Fuel championships. ** He returns to Southern California with a two-race winning streak at Pomona Raceway on the line. He captured both national events contested at the Fairplex in 2000, defeating rival Tony Schumacher in the finals of both the AutoZone Winternationals and the AAA of Southern California NHRA Finals. ** Since Pomona Raceway first hosted two national events a year in 1984, only four Top Fuel drivers have swept Pomona: Scelzi (2000), Mike Dunn (1999), Gary Ormsby (1989) and Darrell Gwynn (1986). ** Scelzi's three career victories at Pomona Raceway equals his record for most wins at any single venue, tying his three victories at Gateway International Raceway in St. Louis. In addition to sweeping both Pomona events in 2000, Scelzi also captured the 1997 Chief Auto Parts Winternationals in his first career start.

* TOM COMPTON ON NIGHT RACING RETURNING TO POMONA: "As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it is fitting that we return to our birthplace, Southern California, and offer our fans, for the first-time ever, night racing at Pomona," said Tom Compton, president of the NHRA. "Nighttime racing hearkens back to the sport's early days when there were more than 20 active drag racing strips in Southern California, offering night racing on a weekly basis. It has been more than 20 years since the last drag race took place at night in Southern California. The roar and visual spectacle of 6,000-horsepower machines under the lights will be truly amazing." The 50th Anniversary Nationals will be an NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event, featuring additional nostalgia racing categories representative of the sport's storied history The race is being held at historic Pomona Raceway, July 5-7, to commemorate the NHRA's 50th anniversary.

* NHRA MOTORSPORTS MUSEUM TO HOST OPEN HOUSE: An open house "Salute to NHRA's 50th Anniversary," presented by AC Delco and highlighted by free admission, will headline the NHRA Motorsports Museum activities at Fairplex Pomona, Friday night, Feb. 2, 5-10 p.m.

Located on McKinley Avenue at Gate 1 at Fairplex, the 30,000 square foot Museum will feature the unveiling of two vintage racecars, adding to its collection of some 80 vehicles. A re-creation of the Beebe and Mulligan "Fighting Irish" Top Fuel Dragster, winner of the 1969 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona and the addition of "TV Tommy" Ivo's twin-engined Buick powered 1960 dragster to the existing Ivo exhibit at the Museum will highlight the evening.

NHRA Founder Wally Parks will greet fans all evening as he celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the sport he has nurtured since 1951. Dozens of past NHRA Winternationals champions, celebrity artists and authors, and a great selection of nostalgic souvenirs also will be featured. Admission will be free from 5-10 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 2 courtesy of AC Delco, a performance product and race car sponsor on the NHRA drag racing circuit for many years. Tram service will be provided free of charge from Pomona Raceway to the Museum on Friday evening, and throughout race weekend, courtesy of Foothill Beverage of Pomona, distributors of Budweiser beer.

* JOHN FORCE NOMINATED FOR HIS SECOND STRAIGHT ESPN ESPY AWARD: 10-TIME NHRA Winston Funny Car champion John Force is nominated for an ESPN ESPY Award in the Driver of the Year category. He is nominated along with Bobby Labonte, Gil de Ferran, and Buddy Lazier. It is Force's second straight year of being nominated for the award. The awards ceremony will be held Feb. 12 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.


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Series NHRA
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Bruce Sarver , Jeg Coughlin , Troy Coughlin , Bob Panella , Larry Dixon , Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Ron Krisher , Randy Daniels , Buddy Lazier , Gil de Ferran , Greg Stanfield , Darrell Gwynn , Jerry Toliver , Tommy Johnson Jr.