Madison: Hot starts - student rivals the teacher

Hot starts: the student rivals the teacher. MADISON, Ill. - The student is starting to look a lot like the teacher these days. When it comes to some of the best starts in an NHRA season, there is one driver whose performance stands out in more...

Hot starts: the student rivals the teacher.

MADISON, Ill. - The student is starting to look a lot like the teacher these days. When it comes to some of the best starts in an NHRA season, there is one driver whose performance stands out in more than 50 years of racing: Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.

In 1976, Prudhomme earned Funny Car victories in seven of the eight national events during the eight-race season. He also grabbed a runner-up honor in the race he didn't win. Today, that season is remembered as one of the best performances in NHRA history. Now Prudhomme is the owner for three teams, including Top Fuel points leader Larry Dixon and the Miller Lite Dragster. Dixon has turned heads this season by claiming seven wins and three runner-up finishes in the first 11 races of the year.

Dixon will be driving toward another victory during the sixth annual Sears Craftsman NHRA Nationals, June 27-30, at Gateway International Raceway. Doug Kalitta, Tony Pedregon, Warren Johnson and GT Tonglet are the defending winners of the $1.8 million race. It is the 12th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

While Dixon has been behind the wheel of the most consistent car in the Top Fuel ranks, he said he will never be able to match the 1976 results.

"Nobody will ever be able to touch that season," Dixon, an Indianapolis resident, said. "That winning percentage is unbeatable, it was just a crazy season. We could win every race from now on and we still would not be as good as him."

Dixon and Prudhomme are equally flattering towards each other's accomplishments. Sill, Prudhomme insists he could not have expected his Miller Lite team to perform any better in the first half of the season.

"I don't think there can be a better start," Prudhomme said. "I'd ask for one, but I don't think it exists. It is the kind of thing that you dream about as a driver, as a crew chief and as a team owner. It has worked out for myself, Larry and (crew chief) Dick LaHaie. It is something that in my 40 years of experience, you always work for. It's been one of those seasons that is difficult to duplicate."

In 1976, Prudhomme won five races to start the season, was the runner-up in the sixth race and finished the season with two more victories.

"I don't see any similarities between drag racing now and then. It is so much different," Prudhomme said. "It does take the same determination now that it did back then. Outside of that, it is way different. The competition is greater than it has ever been. I would probably say that it is a much tougher time to win several races than when I did it.

"At the time, I thought it was a big deal, and it was, winning that many races. Larry is doing a better job now and I am not sure if I was that good of a driver back then."

Dixon agrees the competition has changed, but doesn't agree with much else. "I think Prudhomme is being a little modest there," Dixon said. "What he did and how dominant he was...I can't imagine what he would have done if there had been 23 races a season. He would have had 100 wins in the 1970s. It's amazing how consistent he was because they did a lot of traveling between exhibition races on top of all the points races.

"That's why I dig working for Snake. He has been through everything and has been at the absolute top of the game."

Last year Dixon and the blue beer car finished second to the champion, Kenny Bernstein, and the red Budweiser King Dragster. The race for the championship came down the final race of the season, with Dixon coming up just shy of the title. That experience, in Prudhomme's opinion, was invaluable.

"We don't talk about advice anymore, we've done all that," Prudhomme said. "Last year was good for him to finish second. He learned a lot from that and he finally learned how every round, every day counts when you are racing for a championship. I think in years past he only thought it counted on Sunday. He knows now it counts every day that you are at the race track. He has really matured."

Dixon doesn't want to finish in second place again, but he knows how important the 2001 season was to himself and the team.

"We did finish in second place and no one wants to be second," Dixon said. "But I wouldn't trade that season for anything. It was a very valuable learning experience for me. Snake and LaHaie have been through everything and I am constantly learning from them."

Regardless of who is doing the teaching and who is doing the learning, one thing is certain - all seems to be well in the Miller Lite camp.

"We are having a good time," Prudhomme said. "So far the season is going well and hopefully we can remain consistent. I don't like to compare myself to Larry. I had my day in the sun, and it was (incredible). I can still remember doing burnouts in the funny car. I'd jump out of the car and pull the sparkplugs out to see what the run looked like. We didn't have computers, just yourself and the toolbox and whatever you could get your hands on to get the job done.

"I think now the driver has to be in better physical shape, sharper and well tuned to the sport. With the type of equipment have now and crew chiefs, it's a lot bigger deal."

Only time will tell whether Dixon came come close to matching Prudhomme's historical season.

"That was a nice way to start the season but we will have to see how things pan out through the long haul," Dixon said. "The car has been perfect except for the (first-round loss in Houston). That was due to a broken input shaft, but we can't always control everything. I'd like to have Houston back, but that is about it. I'm overwhelmed by this start."

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Doug Kalitta , Dick LaHaie , GT Tonglet