GM Racers Prepare To Converge On Historic Gainesville Raceway GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 11, 2005 - The NHRA POWERade tour moves to Florida for one of the most popular events on the 23-race schedule, and for what traditionally has been one of the...
GM Racers Prepare To Converge On Historic Gainesville Raceway
GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 11, 2005 - The NHRA POWERade tour moves to Florida for one of the most popular events on the 23-race schedule, and for what traditionally has been one of the hardest fought contests of the season. The 36th annual Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway is one of the oldest and most prestigious eliminators on the tour, and marks the first time this year that racers will compete at an East Coast venue. Traditionally that has meant large car counts and standing-room-only grandstands, and the sea-level altitude and quality of the Gainesville quarter-mile have historically contributed to record-breaking performances.
GM Performance Parts Pontiac driver Warren Johnson advanced to his first career Pro Stock final round at the 1976 Gatornationals. Since then he's won nine times at the spring classic (1984-85, 1991-94, 1998-99, 2000), close to 10 percent of his 92 career victory total, with his most recent Florida win against final-round opponent Troy Coughlin in 2000.
"Gainesville is definitely one of the anomaly tracks for me," said Johnson. "When you look at how we've performed there over the years, it's one of those things where if you know why you were more successful at some track than others, you'd be able to utilize that information and hopefully be successful at all racetracks. It's hard to pinpoint the specific reasons why, but Gainesville is a track that always seems to play into our way of racing just a little bit better."
Capitalizing on the sea-level altitude and tremendous atmospheric conditions probably more than any other competitor in the history of the venue, Johnson has set the national speed record at Gainesville Raceway on six separate occasions (1984 - 182.55 mph; 1992 - 194.46 mph; 1993 - 196.24 mph; 1997 - 199.91 mph; 1998 - 201.20 mph; 1999 - 201.37 mph) and the national elapsed-time record twice (1998 - 6.873 seconds; 1999 - 6.866 seconds). Johnson has also earned low qualifying honors eight times at the legendary strip (1988, 1993-97, 1999-00).
"Our cars have traditionally run a lot of speed and Gainesville is certainly one of the smoother tracks on the circuit," said Johnson. "Especially since it's been resurfaced in the last few years. You couple that in with the fact that the atmospheric conditions are usually pretty decent for these naturally aspirated engines, and that's crucial given Mother Nature dictates how much horsepower we can make. That's probably why we've been able to set the record so many times there. Overall, it's been a pretty decent racetrack on the circuit, especially in the early years when we competed at some places where their surfaces brought into question whether or not they were race tracks."
As the "Professor" prepares for this most recent edition of the Gatornationals, he'll be looking to take advantage of a productive winter at his North Georgia race shop, and a pair of strong opening-season runs at Pomona, Calif., and Phoenix.
"We're making sure that everything we have from Phoenix and Pomona is fresh," said Johnson. "We're also working on getting some cylinder heads and blocks done so that we can build up our arsenal of DRCE3s for the middle of the season. It's a matter of where we've been capable of getting into the arena where we're competitive, and now our focus is to build either similar or slightly better engines.
"We're certainly grateful that all of work over the winter time, our so-called offseason, paid off. Everybody busted their butts here trying to get the horsepower up to where we needed it to be, and we came in with a new Pontiac at Pomona that I feel helped our performance. At the same time, Kurt (Johnson) will be getting a new Chevy Cobalt here shortly and that will put him in a fresh race car. Those two factors, more horsepower and newer, better race cars, probably have contributed to our performance increase. Now it's just a matter of fine tuning it from there and hopefully we can get ahead of the pack."
While Johnson attempts to gather in career win No. 93, two-time POWERade title holder (2003-04) Greg Anderson will be trying to defend his 2004 Gatornationals crown.
"You look at the Gatornationals, and along with Indy, Pomona, and a couple of other races, it certainly is one of the crown jewels of our schedule," said the Summit Racing Pontiac driver. "You almost double your car count at Gainesville because it seems that's where everyone wants to start their season. About two-thirds of the class begin at Pomona and the other third starts at Gainesville. The depth of the field makes it more difficult because now you have another eight to 10 cars with the capability of qualifying. The track is smooth, it's fast, the weather's always great and we love to compete there - it's one of our favorite places."
After battling to find consistency at the series' first two races, the 2004 Driver of The Year is hoping that this year's Gatornationals are the break-out event that will put him back into contention for a third straight NHRA POWERade title.
"I feel a whole heck of a lot better now than I did before our first two races," said Anderson. "We kind of had it in the back of our minds that things weren't clicking the way they should. When we left for Pomona, it showed there. We came back, made a couple of changes, and it didn't pan out in Phoenix. We needed time and this two-week break has really helped us.
"We expect a lot bigger and better things out of our Summit Racing Pontiac than what we've shown at the last couple of races. We've been burning the wheels off of these Grand Am race cars, we've tested seven days already since we've been home from Phoenix and we'll test again in Bradenton (Fla.) on Tuesday and Wednesday before the Gatornationals. We're trying to get our cars to where they need to be and we're building engine after engine after engine in order to get our power level back to where it needs to be. We're hoping and thinking that we'll be in much better shape at Gainesville."
As a long-time resident of Virginia, Jim Yates was one of those young East Coast fans who made the annual pilgrimage to Gainesville Raceway every spring, so it was only appropriate that the eventual two-time NHRA champion (1996-97) would make his NHRA Pro Stock debut in 1989 at the Gatornationals.
"Years before we raced professionally, Gainesville Raceway was one of the tracks we went to quite a bit just as spectators," said Yates. "It was an outstanding event, it was warm and it was so convenient to where we lived in Virginia. It's where all of us East Coast guys went every spring to see our first race and that still holds true today.
"Gainesville is a pretty simple track to race. There aren't a lot of bumps in it, there's always great air and you can put all that GM horsepower to the ground there. We're using a relatively new car so we don't have the number of runs we need on it yet to quickly figure out a tricky track like Phoenix. It took us until Sunday before we got that place figured out. At Gainesville, since it's such a great surface to race on, we start with a leg up and we're hoping to shine right out of the box during the first qualifying session. Then we can work on the engine tune-up."
Yates will be hoping to add to his victory totals at Gainesville Raceway where he claimed the event trophy in 1996-97 and was runner-up in 1998.
"We've been leasing motors from Steve Schmidt and that looks like it has a ton of potential for us," said Yates. "Steve's making a lot of horsepower and Jamie's (Yates) doing a good job getting it to the ground. We have that new Jerry Haas Pontiac that's working great for us and we're pretty pumped about racing in Gainesville. It takes all eight cylinders of a racing engine to run fast and it takes every component of your race team working together toward the same goal to run fast. Right now, it looks like we have them all."
Pontiac Grand Am driver Mark Pawuk is looking forward to his return to Gainesville Raceway. Over the last 20 years he's experienced his share of success at the Gatornationals, scoring a runner-up to Darrel Alderman in 1995 and earning low qualifying honors in 2001.
"The Gatornationals is one of our majors, so to speak," said Pawuk. "The Gatornationals mark the first time this season we get to race on the East Coast and it really kicks up our schedule a notch - things get pretty busy after that. A lot of knowledgeable drag racing fans from the northern states like to come south for a few days to see their first national event of the year, and that packs the grandstands. The car turnout will be tremendous and that will make it tougher for us to get into the field.
"We're trying to get some motors done for Gainesville and find more power, and if everything goes right, Bob (Ingles) should have one ready for us. We're confident though that we can pick up the performance of what we're running now, make it a little bit better. We'll test on next Monday and Tuesday in Bradenton (Fla.) We're not missing by much, but we need to have the whole thing click, and right now we're working hard trying to get that done."
The 36th annual Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 17 - 20 at Gainesville Raceway is the third race on the 23-event NHRA POWERade tour. Final eliminations will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Sunday, March 20, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.
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