POMONA Calif. - Not since the golden age of drag racing has there been so many intensely personal rivalries in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Over the years, several memorable rivalries have contributed to the overall growth of the sport...
POMONA Calif. - Not since the golden age of drag racing has there been so many intensely personal rivalries in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
Over the years, several memorable rivalries have contributed to the overall growth of the sport of drag racing, creating drama, excitement and intrigue.
In the 1970s, Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme and Tom 'The Mongoose' McEwen enjoyed many side-by-side battles, creating one of the most anticipated Funny Car confrontations ever. Shirley Muldowney and 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits developed a battle of the sexes in the Top Fuel world during the '70s and '80s. In Pro Stock, Bob Glidden and Lee Shepherd put fans on their feet in numerous Chevy vs. Ford final round epics during the early '80s.
During the 50th Anniversary season of NHRA, rivalries are once again emerging in drag racing's top categories, adding thrills, unpredictability and a bit of nostalgia to the chase for 2001 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series championships.
Certainly, there will be a nostalgic feel when heated new age rivals take to the track for the Pep Boys NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals presented by American Racing Wheels, July 5-7 at Pomona Raceway. The $2 million race is the 13th of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series for 2001.
The special event -- which will feature the first nighttime drag racing in Southern California in more than 20 years -- will be a trip down memory lane for many. Throughout the '60s and '70s, Southern California drag racing fans were treated to nighttime match races at a variety of tracks that regularly matched some of the sport's biggest rivals. The host venue for the Pep Boys 50th Anniversary Nationals-- historic Pomona Raceway-- has seen its share of grudge matches over the years.
As new rivals take the stage in 6,000 horsepower machines, waging battles that last less than five seconds at more than 320 mph, the catchy nicknames of a bygone era may have been replaced with corporate logos, but the intense burning desire to win is as hot as ever.
"I know the sport has changed and it's not so much the old brand of hard working guys battling each other on a couple of bucks and a lot of willpower, but the rivalries today are just as intense," says Del Worsham, currently second in Funny Car points standings with two victories. "There's a lot of people in every sport who will always say the good old days are better, it just comes with the territory. I really don't know how they could be better than what we have now. We're here to go fast, and we've never gone faster."
Worsham, who says his biggest rival is San Diego resident Ron Capps, recently posted a career-best 4.779 second time en route to a win over another of his major on-track nemeses, 10-time champion John Force.
"I have a big weight on my shoulder with Capps, because I've never beat him in all these years," said Worsham. "And then there's Force, who's the toughest guy to race."
Force, the sport's most prolific winner with 95 career victories in his familiar Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, is a high target on everyone's list.
"Obviously John Force is the guy that has made all the funny car teams look stupid for the last 10 years," said Whit Bazemore, driver of the Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird. "He is the guy we still have to beat. He is the guy we hate losing to the most and he is the guy that we work harder to beat than anyone else."
Capps, driver of the Skoal Camaro, has come close to pulling off the unthinkable, finishing second in Winston points on two occasions to Force.
"My biggest rival is John Force," Capps said. "Heck, he's everybody's biggest rival. Force is the guy who really brings out the best in you and your team and you really want to beat him."
As for Force, he cut his racing teeth against NHRA legends Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein and that's why he might be a little more focused than most. He says despite his dominating ways during the last decade, he still knows which drivers to be on the lookout for.
"Today we have some of the same rivalries as we used to have," said Force. "The only difference is that in the old days they would fistfight in the parking lot after the race. I'd have to say my biggest rivals are Snake's drivers -- Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson. But there are a lot of guys out there who've beaten me, so I'm always looking over my shoulder."
Yankees Top Fuel dragster driver Mike Dunn, who grew up watching extreme rivals compete in Southern California each weekend, says today's drivers don't really choose their rivals like they did in the past. A driver's biggest rival is usually the one going against him for the Winston championship payday, trophy and ring.
"Today's rivalries are a little different," said Dunn, who is currently involved in a tight Winston points chase with Kenny Bernstein, Larry Dixon, Doug Kalitta, Darrell Russell and Gary Scelzi.
"In the old days you had a lot of grudge matches that people flocked to the track to watch," Dunn continued. "You had Snake versus Mongoose, The King versus The Ace and those were all great rivalries. We still have them today, but the focus now is winning the season-long Winston championship, where back then it was winning a weekend match race to have bragging rights until the next race."
But for some, it remains a sport about bragging rights, despite the influx of money.
"Give me a final round against Force under the lights at Pomona during the 50th Anniversary Nationals," says Capps. "Really, that's what this sport is all about. It doesn't get any better than that."