Gainesville: Milestone perfomances up for grabs

MILESTONE PERFORMANCE UP FOR GRABS AS NHRA PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE TEAMS TAKE TO THE TRACK AT MAC TOOLS GATORNATIONALS GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Already the site of the first 300 mph Top Fuel run in NHRA history, legendary Gainesville Raceway could add...

MILESTONE PERFORMANCE UP FOR GRABS AS NHRA PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE TEAMS TAKE TO THE TRACK AT MAC TOOLS GATORNATIONALS

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Already the site of the first 300 mph Top Fuel run in NHRA history, legendary Gainesville Raceway could add another important performance milestone to its legacy as one of NHRA's quickest and fastest quarter-mile drag strips during the 36th annual Mac Tools NHRA Gatornationals, March 17-20.

NHRA's Pro Stock Motorcycle teams will be racing hard to achieve the first elapsed time quicker than seven seconds when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series returns to action at the $2 million race, the third of 23 events in the $50 million tour. It is the season-opener for the high-revving two-wheelers, whose season consists of 15 events.

Kenny Bernstein is still heralded as the 'King of Speed' for his historical 301.70 mph pass from the 1992 edition of the Gatornationals. Just who will accomplish the first run of 6.999 seconds or quicker on a Pro Stock Motorcycle is the question category experts have been pondering during the offseason. That question may be answered during the first qualifying session on Friday, March 18 at 11:30 a.m.

With the right weather combination -- preferably crisp, cool and overcast conditions -- the barrier will likely be broken. With more than five bikes capable of achieving the performance, it may come down to luck of the draw in the qualifying order. NHRA rules determine qualifying order for the first session based on last year's final point standings, which means Rickey Gadson (did not compete), Ryan Schnitz (31st) and Chip Ellis (17th), all three predicted as leading top-10 points contenders for 2005, will have the first shot at a permanent spot in the NHRA record book and collecting the hefty $10,000 bonus offered by Mickey Thompson Tires. Overall, the first eight riders in the sixes will become members of the exclusive NHRA Mickey Thompson 6-Second Pro Stock Bike Club.

Defending NHRA POWERade world champion Andrew Hines will have the last shot, but that doesn't worry the 21-year-old rider of the Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson.

"When we get to Gainesville there might be several of us in the sixes," said Hines, who owns the current NHRA national record for elapsed time at 7.016 seconds. "I believe we have two six-second bikes right here in our shop. I'd like to be the first one to do it, but if I'm not, I can live with it."

During offseason testing three-time champ Angelle Sampey recorded the second unofficial run in the six-second zone on a Pro Stock Motorcycle. Her teammate, Antron Brown, clocked the first one at 6.995 seconds, while Sampey followed on her identically-prepared U.S. Army Suzuki with a 6.989 second run.

"It was awesome to run in the sixes, even though it didn't count for anything," Sampey said. "The weather was really great so we knew we'd run fast, and when Antron and I both ran 7.0 (seconds) on shutoff runs, we knew we could do it."

Sampey, who narrowly missed earning a fourth NHRA POWERade world championship title last year by 38 points, says the milestone would be nice, but she wants the big prize at the end of the season.

"This year my focus is on winning another championship," Sampey said. "There's a lot of pressure that goes with racing for a championship. Thankfully, I've learned how to deal with it."

With all of the excitement being generated around breaking the seven-second barrier, along with the addition of a couple of new riders and an expected break-out season for several others, this Pro Stock Motorcycle campaign could be one of the best ever according to veteran rider Steve Johnson.

"Every year I say this is going to be the most exciting and competitive season for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, but I think 2005 really will be," Johnson said.

In Top Fuel, defending series champ Tony Schumacher has raced out to the points lead after winning the second race of the season in Phoenix. Schumacher is the defending race winner at Gainesville, and with Alan Johnson supplying the tune-up, has a very good chance to repeat. He will be challenged by two-time Gatornationals runner-up Scott Kalitta, who is part of a trio of ultra-quick Kalitta Motorsports dragsters that also includes Dave Grubnic and Doug Kalitta. Upstart Morgan Lucas, who has been to three final rounds in the last four races, is making his first pro start in Gainesville and is a top contender, along with '03 winner Brandon Bernstein, a rejuvenated Doug Herbert and two-time series champ Larry Dixon, a three-time Gatornationals winner.

While John Force has owned the Gatornationals in the Funny Car world for most of the last two decades, he will be pushed to the limit this season by a host of challengers. Current series points leader Phil Burkart leads that charge, along with Winternationals winner Tommy Johnson Jr. and Phoenix runner-up Ron Capps. Besides Force's seven victories at the track -- his last coming in '01 -- only four active drivers have won the historic race, including Gary Densham, Cruz and Tony Pedregon and Del Worsham. Others to watch in the 7,000 horsepower category include Whit Bazemore, Gary Scelzi, Eric Medlen and rookie Robert Hight.

The current Pro Stock points leader took a wild tumble at the Gatornationals in 1999, as his car went out of control and flipped multiple times in one of the most spectacular crashes in the history of the 200 mph category, but Allen Johnson hopes to add a better memory at 'The Swamp' this season. After moving into the points lead for the first time in his career with a victory at Phoenix, Johnson would like to drive his J&J Racing Dodge Stratus into the winner's circle at Gainesville Raceway and keep the positive momentum going. He will be challenged by an energized Warren Johnson -- nine time winner of the Gatornationals -- who is making his final appearance as a driver at the storied track this season. Two other veterans that have been making noise early in '05 include two-time Gainesville winner Jim Yates and Phoenix runner-up Ron Krisher. It will be an important race for two-time defending series champ Greg Anderson, who will try to turn his season around after getting off to a sluggish start. Other top contenders include Winternationals winner Dave Connolly, '01 Gatornationals winner Jeg Coughlin and Kurt Johnson, a winner here in '03.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Ron Krisher , Gary Densham , Scott Kalitta , Phil Burkart , Brandon Bernstein , Allen Johnson , Morgan Lucas , Ryan Schnitz , Andrew Hines , Eric Medlen , Steve Johnson , Chip Ellis , Robert Hight , Angelle Sampey , Dave Connolly , Tommy Johnson Jr.