PONTIAC CAPTURES THIRD NHRA MANUFACTURER'S CUP Warren Johnson Wins Pro Stock Crown Cruz Pedregon Sets National Record - Three Times! LOS ANGELES (November 10, 1998) - It's been a year of tremendous success and excitement for Team Pontiac on...
PONTIAC CAPTURES THIRD NHRA MANUFACTURER'S CUP Warren Johnson Wins Pro Stock Crown Cruz Pedregon Sets National Record - Three Times!
LOS ANGELES (November 10, 1998) - It's been a year of tremendous success and excitement for Team Pontiac on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Next week, the series converges on Pomona Raceway for the 34th Annual Winston Finals and the conclusion of the 1998 race season. It's been a tough campaign, but one the Detroit auto manufacturer can be proud of.
After 21 races, Pontiac has clinched the NHRA Manufacturer's Cup for the third consecutive year compiling 26 national event victories in 49 final rounds, and 33 No. 1 qualifying positions. The Sportsman racers have added another 26 wins reconfirming Pontiac's position as the premier automobile manufacturer in the series. In September, Car Craft Magazine named Pontiac the Automobile Manufacturer of the Year.
In Pro Stock, Warren Johnson grabbed his fourth Winston championship after winning nine races in 12 final rounds and taking the No. 1 qualifying position 12 times. At the Mac Tools Gatornationals in March, Johnson drove his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird to a new national record in elapsed time at 6.873 seconds and top speed at 201.20 mph. He then reset both ends of the national record seven months later at the Revell Nationals in Dallas with a quarter mile pass of 6.867 seconds at 201.34 mph.
Six times this season the "Professor of Pro Stock" was top qualifier, set low elapsed time and top speed of the meet, and won the race. In addition, Johnson goes into the final race at Pomona with 72 career wins, second on the NHRA's list for all time wins by a professional driver. In September, he was named Pro Stock driver of the year by Car Craft Magazine.
"As close as this category is, I think you have on an average, five or six hundredths difference top to bottom in qualifying," said Johnson. "There really isn't much room for error on any part of it. Not only the driving part, but the setup, the maintenance, and reading the computer to make sure that if you have changing track conditions you make the right choices. It's a pretty diligent effort on everybody's part at WJ Enterprises.
"I'm very fortunate that at 55 years of age, I'm still able to do this at the pace I'm doing it. There are a lot of guys who have given up on life at 55 and I'm out here having more fun than one person should be allowed to have. This is not a job for me, this is an opportunity, and I just love what I'm doing. I don't look at a time clock. I think there may be two percent of the people in the country who absolutely enjoy their job, and to me, this is just an opportunity to succeed. I'm just fortunate to be in the physical condition where I can do this. Driving a race car is nothing difficult. It's just a series of decisions that have to be made quickly and when you screw up, the results are spectacular."
Jim Yates enters the Winston Finals in fourth place in the points standings. The Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver has won one race in five final rounds and secured the No. 1 qualifying position at the Chief Winternationals in Pomona. Although he has not had the kind of year that made him a two-time Winston champion, Yates has managed to qualify in the top three positions at ten events and in the top half of the field 15 times. Plagued by three DNQ's early in the year, the 45 year-old Virginian has advanced to no less than the semi-final round 13 times! He has a won-loss record of 34-17 giving him a .667 winning percentage on race day. Yates is only 37 points out of third place. A strong showing at Pomona would move him past Kurt Johnson for that tightly contested points position.
"This has just been one of those years," explained Yates. "I think right now the guys, Rich Purdy, Bob Ingles and the rest of the team, have this Splitfire Pontiac Firebird running really, really fast. It puts big numbers on the board and it can run right there with Warren (Johnson). This car is faster now than we've been able to run all year. We just have to get back in the winning mode and learn how to do the right things at the right times. Every time we get in a position where we look like we can win a race, we trip over our own feet. The key is that we have the performance back to where we can run the good numbers every time out.
"We know we have the ability, we know we have the power, we know we have the team. If we can just make all the right decisions on race day, maybe we can get us another trophy. If it were easy we wouldn't be out here working so hard at it. There are a lot of teams trying to win, but only a couple of teams doing it. You have to give Warren credit. He's on his game. He's running like we were last year. This time last year, we were winning about every race and now he's in that mode. He's doing a great job and all we can do is strive to catch up with him. I think performance-wise we've done that. Now we have to execute properly on Sunday."
Tom Martino currently sits in eighth place in the standings but he's not doing so quietly. Martino's Jesel Valve Train Firebird won at Brainerd and advanced to the final round at Richmond and Houston. He's hoping a strong showing at Pomona can put him in the seventh spot at season's end.
"We've been focusing so hard on trying to make enough power to run with everyone else in the class that we sort of lost track of what we do best, and that's race the car," explained Martino. "The last two years we've raced Pro Stock, our best quality was being able to adapt to the track and do well on race day. We've gone back to our old routine like checking the track regularly, thinking about race day and not worrying about finding two or three more horsepower."
After struggling earlier in the season, Mark Pawuk's Summit Racing Pontiac Firebird appears to have hit it's stride. Two strong back-to-back qualifying efforts at Dallas and Houston and another good showing at Reading has restored the vitality back into their race program. Pawuk is currently 10th in the Winston standings and hopes a good performance at the Winston Finals can move them into ninth-place. He ran his career best elapsed time and top speed at the Revell Nationals in Dallas where he qualified No. 2 with a performance number of 6.889ET/199.55MPH.
"You seem to enjoy racing a whole lot more when you're running better," said Pawuk. "The guys have been working really hard at the shop and on the team. Maybe we're finally starting to pull this thing together and move this program in the right direction. We had two great qualifying runs at Dallas and Houston. If we can get a couple of breaks, and I can drive just a little bit better, then maybe we can close this year with a win for the Summit Racing Firebird."
Mike Thomas is hoping to close out the season on a positive note. Thomas' Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird is seventh in the Winston standings after a win at Chicago and a runner-up finish at the Pennzoil Nationals in Houston in March.
"I've done the math and figured out that I can finish in sixth, seventh or eighth place in the points standings," Thomas said. "I want sixth. Actually, I want to go out there and drive and not even think about who's doing what or how many points we have or someone else has. All of that stuff will take care of itself. I just need to focus on driving and win this race.
"No matter how we finish, this has been a memorable year for us. I'd really like to have some fun in Pomona to celebrate our best season as a pro team. We have shown that we have the power to compete with the best cars in the world and I'm already anxious to start a new season. Once I reassemble a top-notch team, I believe we'll the Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird will be hard to beat."
Bruce Allen's season has been up and down, but the Outlaw Pontiac Firebird driver has a final round appearance at Atlanta to show for his efforts. George Marnell's Tenneco Pontiac Firebird has shown flashes of brilliance and a final event win at Pomona is not out of the question.
"Pomona is unique," Allen said. "I guess because the track is at the fairgrounds it takes on a different feel than all the other races we compete in. There are always an enormous amount of fans there and they all follow drag racing and know what's going on in our world. I know that we always have a good time with the people in the pits and out on the track. The track itself is a little bit of a mystery. It's always off a little on Thursday and Friday so your two best runs are on Saturday. To me, that's how it should be. I like it a lot.
"We have just taken possession of our brand-new car and we have a lot of testing to do before we get to Pomona to see if we can get it ready in time. Either way, the Outlaw Firebird should be able to go fast and compete for the title. We are certainly not going to hold anything back. I want to finish the season with a bang."
In Funny Car, Cruz Pedregon's Interstate Batteries/Hot Rod Magazine team has emerged as one of the top contenders in the class. The Wes Cerny tuned nitro-powered Pontiac Firebird has won four national events in five final rounds, the $100,000 Winston Invitational at Rockingham, and rocketed to the No. 1 qualifying position 11 times!
Three times this season, Pedregon has set the elapsed time national record. He did it first at the Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., with a run of 4.873 seconds. He shattered the number the very next race at the Pennzoil Nationals in Houston with an elapsed time of 4.819 seconds. Last weekend at the Matco Tools Supernationals, Pedregon did it again at Houston Raceway Park with a performance number of 4.807 seconds. He is in third-place in the Winston standings.
"Wes (Cerny) sticks to his game plan and I think that, aside from his knowledge of running these cars, is his greatest attribute -- not getting emotional and worrying about who's in the other lane," said Pedregon. "I really wish there were more races left in the season because I think we could give Force a run for his money. We left some races on the table this year, we have to accept that, and look towards next year. We have contract extensions with our sponsors that we're going to announce soon and hopefully, we can get the win in Pomona, come back next year and try and pick up where we left off.
"Wes is very good on equipment. Even for as fast and as hard as the Interstate Batteries Firebird runs, he's not a believer in throwing parts away. He's very efficient and has a philosophy that these engines don't need to destroy themselves to perform the way you'd like."
At the first race of the season at Pomona, Al Hofmann stunned the sold-out Pomona Raceway crowd with a qualifying run of 4.862 seconds. At that time, it was the quickest elapsed time in NHRA Funny Car history. After holding on to the No. 1 qualifying position at Pomona, the GM Performance Parts Pontiac Firebird repeated its strong numbers at Phoenix and Gainesville and then entered into a long battle with clutch discs that hampered the car's performance.
At the Pennzoil Nationals in Memphis, Hofmann's team finally broke out of their slump by charging to the No. 7 qualifying position and defeating Cruz Pedregon in the final round for their first win since the 1997 Revell Nationals. Hofmann hopes to win a second race at Pomona and use that as a catapult towards the 1999 race season.
"Our Firebird is capable of running in the 4.80s for the very reason that we're a high horsepower car," explained Hofmann. "When you look at the times some of the teams were posting during the middle of the season, no one has really come close to the numbers that we were running at the beginning of the year. That's because the tracks we run on at mid-season, and the hot weather conditions aren't conducive to those kind of times.
"Our entire focus now turns to winning another race. As far as where we will end up in the standings at the end of the year, I would be happy for a top-10 finish, especially after looking at how we've performed at certain points of the year."
Tim Wilkerson hopes that he can finish up at Pomona with a victory. Earlier in the year, Wilkerson's JCIT Pontiac Firebird appeared to be the car to beat after runner-up finishes at the Chief Winternationals and the Pennzoil Nationals in Houston. The No. 1 qualifier at St. Louis and Indianapolis, Wilkerson has qualified in the top-five at 15 events. But lately, his team has fought clutch disk battles of their own, and hopes to rebound at the Winston Finals.
"We really thought the JCIT Firebird was going to go quicker than a 4.94 in our first round race at Houston against Force," said Wilkerson. "But we're pretty happy with that number because we've struggled at the last three races. We haven't been able to do anything right. We made three or four runs in Houston that will give us some direction heading into Pomona and maybe we can do some good there. The team's spirits are high and we know if we can keep swinging, sooner or later that other guy is going to fall."
At the Matco Tools Supernationals in Houston, Randy Anderson ran his career best numbers when he drove his Parts America Pontiac Firebird to the No. 2 qualifying position with an elapsed time of 4.848 seconds at 318.92 mph. He was runner-up at the U.S. Nationals.
Del Worsham hopes that he can hang on to the 10th and final spot in the Winston standings. He was runner-up at the Fram Nationals in Chicago and advanced to the semi-finals at Brainerd and Indianapolis. He has qualified his Checkers/ Schuck's/ Kragen Pontiac Firebird in the top half of the field at seven events this year.
Dale Creasy comes into the last race of the season looking for his first career win. Known for their ability to get the most out of a car running on a very tight budget, the Creasy family program has qualified their Pontiac Firebird Funny Car at 13 of the 18 events they have entered this year.
In Top Fuel, Cory McClenathan has fought a ferocious campaign in an attempt to win his first Winston championship. McClenathan's McDonald's/Pontiac dragster has won six races in eight final rounds for a .737 race day winning percentage. He will finish the 1998 season in second place behind Gary Scelzi, but a win at Pomona will give McClenathan more victories in a season than any driver in Top Fuel history.
"We'll be back, ready to go next year with a new sponsor and Pontiac will be in our corner once again," said McClenathan. "We're looking forward to that. Right now, even though Scelzi has the championship locked up, we would like nothing more than to win the Big Bud Shootout, get that seventh win in Pomona and make history by winning the most races in a season by a Top Fuel team. If we could go out winning that race, that would definitely be a positive end to the season."
McClenathan's Pontiac Top Fuel teammate, Shelly Anderson, is looking to end the season on a high-note as well, and Pomona is just her kind of race track. She won the Chief Winternationals and the Budweiser Classic here in 1994.
After 21 races, a Winston championship and national records solidly in place in Pro Stock and Funny Car, it's been another exciting race season on the NHRA Winston championship tour for the series' dominant auto manufacturer.