The NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series presents the third in a series of nine U.S. Nationals special reports as the NHRA celebrates its 50th Anniversary of the famed event. Part 3: Indy Dominators: NHRA drivers gain legendary status by making a ...
The NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series presents the third in a series of nine U.S. Nationals special reports as the NHRA celebrates its 50th Anniversary of the famed event.
Part 3: Indy Dominators: NHRA drivers gain legendary status by making a habit out of winning the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals
NRHA Editor's Note: There are just some tracks that smile down on certain competitors. You may not see it, but when these drivers pulls through the staging lanes and peer down the quarter-mile, they have a twinkle in their eye and a little confidence in their step. Why? Because they are at Indianapolis Raceway Park and they have done very well on this strip of land. This year the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series celebrates the 50th anniversary of the most prestigious race on the circuit - the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. There is a particular group of drivers that have made a big impact at the biggest race of each season. They are the Indy Dominators.
GLENDORA, Calif. - Every major sport features an event that stands above the rest. An event so large that it defines a particular sport.
The NFL has the Super Bowl. Major League Baseball has the World Series. For stock car racers, the premier event is the Daytona 500. The Indy 500 reigns supreme in the world of open wheel racing.
For NHRA drag racers there is one significant event so rich with history and tradition that every driver dreams of simply being a part of it. Should a driver actually win the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals -- a Labor Day tradition -- the emotion felt is beyond what can be captured in dreams.
Success on the sport's biggest stage is rare. For those who have made a habit of winning the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals over the years, their status immediately jumps to legendary. For at the time when the competition was at its finest and the pressure at the highest, these drivers found the ability to rise to the challenge.
Indeed. NHRA's biggest stars achieved their greatness by being great in the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Ed "The Ace" McCulloch, Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson have made a habit out of winning the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, creating drag racing's biggest dynasties in the process.
The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2004 and many of these legends will continue their pursuit of drag racing's biggest prize. Some will be looking to add to the win totals as drivers, while others have moved into team owner roles and crew chief positions. The $2.6 million race, which features more than 10 hours of coverage on ESPN's family of networks, is the 18th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
Garlits, voted the No. 1 driver in NHRA history during NHRA's 50th anniversary celebration in 2001, won the race eight times during a career that has spanned parts of six decades. His legend was solidified during an incredible comeback stretch in the mid-'80s when he drove his famed Swamp Rat dragster to three-consecutive victories.
"It is the biggest drag race in the world, the most important race in the sport," said Garlits, who returned to the event in 2001 at age 69 in another much-heralded comeback attempt and produced more magic, clocking his first 4-second run and speed at more than 300 mph.
"It means everything," he continued. "It defines a driver's career."
Prudhomme won the U.S. Nationals seven times, and showed his versatility behind the wheel by winning four titles in Funny Car and three in Top Fuel.
"The first time we won in '65, it was a big thing for me," Prudhomme said. "When I look back on the things that I've done, Indy stands out as a race that I have a lot of pride in. As years went on, I was able to win it in Funny Car a few times. I think back to the last time I won in '89 and Wally (Parks) was there. He was at the top end when I won and I gave him a big hug after the race. That kind of capped my career as a driver and having Wally there was like a grand finale for me. After that, I walked away from Funny Car with a lot of pride."
Glidden, a local fan-favorite from nearby Whiteland, Ind., won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals nine times in Pro Stock out of 15 final round appearances. His legend was largely created during an amazing run of 13 consecutive final round appearances at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals from 1977-'89.
"To be honest I never really thought about the streak while it was going on, we were just racing and trying to do our best," Glidden said. "As I look back now I feel like we were pretty lucky. It just seemed like our best always came out at that race."
During the streak, Glidden won the race seven times. His two other victories came in 1973-'74.
"Indy was a very special place for us over the years, it was our home, we tested there and we had a lot of success there," Glidden said. "It just seemed like when we raced there special things would happen. A lot of times my season turned around at that race and we went on to win the championship. We were just very fortunate."
Another driver who produced U.S. Nationals victories in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, McCulloch, won Indy six times -- five in a Funny Car and one in a dragster.
"Winning Indy for the first time in 1971 was very special," McCulloch said. "At the time, I thought that was the biggest thing that could ever possibly happen in my life. It's the biggest race and it has the most tradition. It was such a big deal for all the guys in my era. We've handed it down to generation after generation and we always put so much emphasis on how big and prestigious the race is and what it means."
McCulloch, now a crew chief for two-time U.S. Nationals runner-up Doug Herbert, driver of the Snap-on Tools dragster, hopes to give his new driver a taste of Indy's winner's circle. He says the gap between those who have dominated the race and those who are still seeking their first victory, is all about the approach.
"Some drivers just put the U.S. Nationals at such a high level and mentally and physically prepare themselves to be better," McCulloch said. "You have to understand the history and tradition and just go out there and do it."
Johnson has won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals six times in Pro Stock, his most recent victory coming in 1999. Johnson, who has competed in eight finals in the event, says the best drivers winning at Indy is not an accident.
"As the pre-eminent racers of the sport, it's only logical that they would have a greater chance at success," Johnson said. "A major factor working in their favor is the increased pressure that comes from every racer bringing their 'A' game to Indy. Each of these racers has become successful by thriving under such pressure. The heightened atmosphere of the U.S. Nationals creates an even greater gap in performance, further increasing their likelihood of winning. Top racers at the top race, produce top results."
Johnson says an NHRA driver who never experiences the thrill of winning Indy, holds an incomplete resume.
"As a racer you receive universal acclaim if you win at Indy," Johnson said. "If you do nothing else in your drag racing career, you have to win the U.S. Nationals. When you win that race, making the trip to the winner's circle is so much sweeter because you know every racer there brought their 'A' game and you beat them at their very best. It's our biggest race of the year and to win it is a real feather in your cap."
Among the next generation of drivers, Tony Schumacher has positioned himself as an Indy dominator, winning the race three times in the last four years. In 1996 Schumacher made his first professional start at the race, and advanced to the final round where he lost to Cory McClenathan.
"Every driver has certain tracks that they're good at," Schumacher said. "I am extremely fortunate that mine is Indy."
Schumacher is a true historian of the sport and when he sees his name included with such legends as a multi-time winner of the biggest event, he gets goosebumps.
"It is truly incredible to be included in such a group," said Schumacher, who notes his first U.S. Nationals win in 2000 is his most cherished. "I mean, those guys are legends. It's hard to imagine that here I am, still a relatively young guy, lumped in with names that have been linked to the sport for a long time. It's an honor because you have the best-of-the-best show up at Indy, so if you can win, you know you have beat the best. You always dream about winning Indy and when you do, it's such a great feeling -- one that's very hard to describe."