This weekend marks a 30th Anniversary for me. The idea that I have been able to attend anything including Christmas and my birthday every year since 1980 is both shocking and something I’m proud of. In 1980, my father who is the source of my racing gene, decided that my family would attend the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainsville, Florida. The Gatornationals are the NHRA’s traditional East coast opener with frost bitten racers from the entire country packing the track. At just 7 years of age, I had no idea what I was about to be exposed to. I can still remember walking through the staging lanes for the first time. Pro Stock was in the lanes. I remember seeing Bill “Grumpy” Jenkin’s “Gumpy’s Toy” Camaro parked next to “Dyno” Don Nicholson and Bob Glidden. I found myself entering the world of professional drag racing for the first time. That experience was very influential to me as I have made racing a large part of my life and career.
You don’t string together 30 years without a few near misses along the way. Just a few years into the streak, my father had purchased some Center Line wheels for our car, the 1978 Trans Am that later became my race car. When we put our luggage into the trunk of the car, the new, wider wheels and tires rubbed the inside of the quarter panel. So, with a full trunk, we were off to a local business (Cole Muffler) to purchase some air shocks for the rear of the car. Long story, made short, within two hours the car was on FIRE! This, however, was not a deterrent. We made it to the race with some blankets covering the charred back seat. In fact, that weekend I learned to love the smell of fire extinguisher.
Over the years we have endured massive traffic, medical issues and weather. In 1986, the event was rained out. We decided to return to Gainsville the following week and were rewarded by seeing an underdog driver from New Jersey, Don Campanello win in Pro Stock. He even invited us to stand in his winner’s circle photo. Don Garlits’, 272 MPH historic run in Swamp Rat XXX was icing on the cake. Ed McCulloch won in Funny Car.
History in the making
There have been many historic runs over the years. So many, that National Dragster editor, Phil Burgess, has created a list found at http://www.nhra.com/blog/dragster-insider/ Easy ones include the first 260 (Joe Amato), 270 (Don Garlits) and 300 MPH (Kenny Bernstein) runs in Top Fuel.
There is nothing better than going to an NHRA National event with first time fans. Seeing people experience the most extreme of motor sports in person for the first time is like returning to my own first experience in 1980. I have invited many of my friends during this 30 year streak and each has walked away a fan. (Except for one, my Dad’s friend, who thought it was too loud.) Much has changed over the years, the pit area, the tower and the staging lanes have all evolved. One thing that hasn’t changed is the reaction from people the first time they witness a nitro engine start in the pit area. They laugh while they cry from the nitro fuel. There is nothing in the world of motor sport that can compare to the “live” race day product of the NHRA and The Gatornationals is one of best examples of it. As my streak continues into its 3rd decade, I hope that new fans will begin their own. See you in Gainsville.