BAYTOWN, Texas - A longshot is never given much chance to succeed. But when the right opportunities present themselves, combined with a little luck, anything is possible. Just ask Bob Gilbertson. Gilbertson entered last year's Houston event in...
BAYTOWN, Texas - A longshot is never given much chance to succeed. But when the right opportunities present themselves, combined with a little luck, anything is possible. Just ask Bob Gilbertson.
Gilbertson entered last year's Houston event in the spring with no career victories, no final round appearances, and he had never made a pass under five seconds.
Things would change for Gilbertson, who will make his return to the Lone Star State when he competes behind the wheel of his Team FMTV Stewart & Stevenson Chevy Camaro in the 14th annual O'Reilly Nationals presented by Pennzoil, March 22-25, at ultra-quick Houston Raceway Park. The $1.8 million race is the fourth of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
During Gilbertson's four qualifying attempts at Houston last year, his best effort (5.126 seconds) netted him the No. 16 qualifying position. Not bad, except that meant he had to face the No. 1 qualifier in the first round of eliminations, which happened to be the legendary John Force. In that first round matchup, Force had the advantage off the starting line and he seemed to be on his way to another first round win. Suddenly Force's Funny Car lost traction and he tried to get back on the pedal, but he could only watch as Gilbertson drove down the track for the win.
Gilbertson's day became no easier as he met Jim Epler, who was coming off a win in Las Vegas, in the second round. Epler left the line too early and was disqualified as Gilbertson moved on to the semifinals to face Ron Capps. Capps had the advantage right from the beginning, then he lost traction about 100 feet down the track, regained control of the 6,000-plus horsepower vehicle and crossed the finish line ahead of Gilbertson, who had also lost traction and made it down the track in over seven seconds. One problem for Capps: he touched the centerline before the finish line earning him a disqualification. Gilbertson moved on for his first career final round appearance.
Gilbertson's final round opponent was the brash and animated Jerry Toliver. Toliver was seeking his third win in the first five races, sat atop the Winston standings and wanted to distance himself from the rest of the field. Toliver blazed down the track in 4.934 seconds but fouled at the starting line for leaving too early. It was over before it had begun. Gilbertson had earned his first professional win in NHRA competition without the luxury of a four-second run.
The four drivers Gilbertson defeated that day in Texas finished the season first (Force), second (Capps), third (Toliver) and fifth (Epler) in the Winston standings.
"Last year was my championship race and no one can ever take that away from me," said Gilbertson. "I couldn't believe the good fortune that came our way that day. Beating Force, Epler, Capps, Toliver and taking the title - what a way to spend a day of drag racing."
After Gilbertson's performance last season at HRP, plus the competitiveness of the Funny Car category, no driver can be considered a longshot.
"HRP has long been noted as a fast track and this year there are more Funny Cars than ever before," said the 45-year old Gilbertson. "Once you get qualified in the field, then the real battle starts on Sunday. It proves that if you just qualify, then you have as good a chance of winning the race as John Force. That's what makes drag racing what it is and why people come out in droves to see it."
Gilbertson, from Gastonia, N.C., also realizes that the strength of the field is unbelievable and any racer can win an event on any given day. With the right circumstances, anything is feasible. "Our perfect scenario would be our FMTV team winning a heads up race in the finals against John Force with both cars running a 4.83 elpased time," said Gilbertson. "That would be a perfect way of showing everybody we are for real."