Perhaps more than any other honoree among NHRA's 50 greatest drivers, Frank Manzo is enjoying greater success now than he has at any point in his storied career. Manzo has won more NHRA national events in Federal-Mogul Funny Car (41) than...
Perhaps more than any other honoree among NHRA's 50 greatest drivers, Frank Manzo is enjoying greater success now than he has at any point in his storied career.
Manzo has won more NHRA national events in Federal-Mogul Funny Car (41) than anyone except Pat Austin (68), and has claimed more championships than any of his peers. He won his first national title in Alcohol Funny Car's first season (1981) and has won six altogether, including each since 1997.
It took late-season victories at back-to-back national events that annually are among the most competitive on the tour -- the U.S. Nationals and Keystone Nationals -- for Manzo to earn the 1997 title, his first in 11 years. That championship also is remembered for his fearless comeback from a traumatic top-end fire at a Division 1 event that was the equal of any fuel-car inferno.
Last year, in the performance of his career, Manzo dominated Federal-Mogul Funny Car racing with seven national event victories and five divisional wins. It was the first "perfect" season since 1991 in a class requiring five national and five divisional wins for the maximum 850 points.
It all began for Manzo in the mid-1970s when the part-time sportsman racer from northern New Jersey took a shine to the growing Alcohol Funny Car category. He called Kenny Cox, one of the leading builders of the day, to build him a car.
Manzo grew increasingly competitive in the late 1970s, and in 1980 won his first NHRA national event, the now-defunct Sportsnationals in Bowling Green, Ky., where he defeated the blown alcohol dragster of Mike Kosky in the final. That first title came at the wheel of an altered (actually, it was Manzo's existing Alcohol Funny Car chassis with the '76 Monza shell removed and a '23-T Ford body installed).
In the same car in 1981 -- following the discontinuation of Pro Comp and the creation of the Alcohol Funny Car and Alcohol Dragster categories -- Manzo, still in his late 20s, won the first Alcohol Funny Car championship. It was the first year that titles were determined on the basis of a year-long points series and not according to who won a single event, the World Finals in Ontario, Calif.
In addition to ruling the roost in Division 1, Manzo defeated Jerry Gwynn to win the Southern Nationals and Arnie Karp to win Le Grandnational, and finished second to Ken Veney at the Summernationals in Englishtown, Manzo's home track. That Englishtown runner-up would begin an amazing run of success for New Jersey's greatest drag racer at the track just 10 minutes from his Morganville home: He won in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1998, and 2000, and was runner-up in 1983, 1986, 1991, 1992, and 1999.
Manzo also has dominated Atlanta Dragway, site of his major first Alcohol Funny Car win 20 years ago. After winning the inaugural Southern Nationals in 1981, he advanced to finals there in 1983, 1986, 1987, 1994, 1995, and 2000 and won them all except for the 1996 race, which went to current Funny Car rookie Tony Bartone -- who seemed to win everything that season.
Manzo has always been particularly tough in final-round competition. Except for the early 1990s, when he raced only part-time, and 1999, when he lost one close race after another to Bartone, Manzo has been like money in the bank in final rounds. He's won 17 of his last 18 against everyone but Bartone, and 41 of 61 overall.
As befits a driver of his stature, Manzo has the same two-wins-for-every-loss record in final-round competition at drag racing's grandest event, the U.S. Nationals, which he has won four times, including last year. Manzo's two most recent Indy wins have come on holeshots, over Jim Sickles in 1997 and over Bartone in 2000, and his only final-round losses there have been heartbreakers -- 6.11 to 6.13 against Austin in 1986 in what was the quickest race in history to that point, and 5.64 to 5.65 against Bartone in 1999 in what also was a quickest-ever result.
Manzo got the last laugh both times, eventually winning the 1986 and 1999 championships. In both of those years and in 1981, his first championship campaign, Manzo completed his season before his points rivals did and could only watch as the championship was decided.
All three times, the title was to be Manzo's unless his nearest challenger won his last points-earning race. All three times, his rival reached the final, but in each case lost: Gary Southern to Brad Anderson at the 1981 World Finals, Austin to Anderson at the 1986 Fallnationals, and Bartone to Austin at the 1999 SuperNationals.
Last year, Manzo didn't have to sit by the phone or watch from the fence to learn whether he'd be crowned champion. With a perfect five-for-five season in both national and divisional racing, he was untouchable.
Manzo was assured the 2000 championship when Austin lost in round two at the U.S. Nationals, but he went on to win that event anyway, then scored again the following weekend in Englishtown and the week after that in Reading. In doing so, he became the first Federal-Mogul Funny Car driver to go an entire season without losing a single round in national competition.
NHRA's Top 50 Drivers will be unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.
As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.