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Fri, 7 Sep 2001, 06:28 AM

You Couldn't Ask For Much More!!
By Bob Frey





As a drag racing fan, and, especially as a sportsman racing fan, the recently concluded MAC Tools U.S. Nationals was about as good as it gets. Sure, there was a lot of attention focused on Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney, but the real fans, those who appreciate good drag racing action regardless of class, got everything they could possibly have wanted from the sportsman racers at Indy. I know I did.

Keith Stark
I guess the best place to start is at the top, and, in the sportsman classes, that means the Federal Mogul Dragster and Funny Car categories. At Indy, two drivers who took completely different routes to the title, won out over a couple of very competitive fields. Keith Stark, who has been a practitioner of the fuel injected, nitro-methane burning dragsters for as long as I can remember, won the dragster class, while Frank Manzo, the ultimate driver in a sportsman car, won the Funny Car division. Keith, who not only rebounded from a horrendous accident several years ago in Gainesville, but he came back and won at the Florida track the very next year, took out Bill Reichert to win his first, Indy crown. I spoke with Keith several times over the weekend and you could see the determination in his face, the drive, so to speak, to purge all of the bad memories and prove that he is the epitome of what makes this sport great. Here is a guy who just underwent the seventeenth operation on his hand, and still he finds ways to tune a car and make it run as well as anyone in the country. A guy who has no feeling on the outside of the injured hand, but has enough sensation in the palm of his hand to be able to "feel" the car and know exactly what itís doing when heís driving. Thatís some kind of racer! And when the win light came on in his lane, you could feel the sense of pride that was building up inside of him, pride for a job well done.


Frank Manzo
Frank Manzo, who won his first World Championship back in 1981, is about to win his seventh, and I donít think thereís anything anyone can do to stop him. Oh, sure, ití s mathematically possible, but all of the stars and the planets would have to line up just right for another driver to be able to beat him. Frank, the Indy champ in 1986, í94, í97, and 2000, added the 2001 title to his long list of accomplishments and he did it in typical, Frank Manzo style. He was the top qualifier, he set low elapsed time of the meet and, except for Fred Hagenís top speed of 253.95, he had the best speed on race day. Frank is, indeed, the man! His final round match against Jay Payne pitted the two, quickest cars of the weekend against one another. And, when I spoke to Jay after the race, he said, "Hey, we gave it our best shot, but against Frankie, that just wasnít good enough." Well, then, what more could a guy do? Frankís final round time of 5.724 came after runs of 5.717, 5.722 and the monster first-round run of 5.638. As we like to say in New Jersey, "anyone want a piece of that?" I didnít think so.

As exciting as the two, top classes were, the themes that were being played out in the other sportsman classes were equally exciting. First, Bucky Hess won the big SS/AA Shootout for the first time in his career. Good thing, too, Ďcause Bucky probably needs the money. Actually, I think that Bucky, and most of the other guys, would have run that deal for free, or at least, for bragging rights. It was one of the highlights of the weekend. Congratulations, Bucky.


Santo Volpe
There are several guys whom I worked with at Indy who realize that Competition Eliminator is always worth the price of admission. Guys like Leo Taugher, Lewis Bloom, my "bud" from New Jersey, Bob Unkefer and Alan Reinhart, and for us to watch Santo Volpe mow down the Comp field was like watching a great artist at work. Slowly, OK, quickly, methodically, Santo took Bob Phelpsí supercharged Corvette down the track and into the next round, beating some of the best stars in the Comp class in the process. Brian Olsonís A/ND, NHRAís top 50 driver, David Rampy, and the incomparable Jeff Taylor, all fell before the rampaging Corvette. Robert Bailey, who hadnít done too badly on his side of the ladder, who be Santoís last victim, and Robert, try as he might, just wouldnít have enough on this day to stop Santo in his bid for a little Indy immortality. Not since Tom Trisch, way back in 1981, had a AA/A entered the Indy winnerís circle. And, while Iím not saying that it will be twenty years before it happens again, donít look for this to be an every-year experience. This year, however, it was really exciting. The only thing that could have made it better, was if Santoís wife, Susan, could have been there to see him win. Maybe next year.


Peter Biondo
As cool as the SS/AA shootout was, seeing one of the big, bad, Barracudaís march through the Super Stock field on Monday was pretty neat, too. Jerry Jenkins, driving one of the classic 1968 hemi cars, beat everybody who got in his way, until he finally made it to the title run. There, however, waiting for him, was the "Terminator," Peter Biondo, in Phil Monteithís Pontiac Firebird. Peter, who had reaction times of .515, .529 and .507 in the three, previous rounds, did it again, with a stellar .509 in the final. Even though Jerry had a great .527 of his own, he was still "last off the line," and that would cost him. Peter, who had to beat Dan Fletcher in order to get to the semi-finals, ran just about "dead on" his dial, and would win his fourth, Indy title. While next year may seem like a long time away for Jerry, he should know that he gave the fans some real thrills while running down just about everyone in Super Stock. And, youíve got to remember, only two other guys have ever won the eliminator in one of the í68 cars. Jerry, you did good.

If you are a lover of stick, shift cars, then Stock Eliminator was for you at Indy. Ten of the final sixteen cars in the eliminator were four-speeds, and two of them, both Fords and both Waldoís, were in the final. Son, Eric, beat dad, Jim, in a classic race that saw the elder Waldo actually have the better reaction time (.548 - .576). At least dad will have something to brag about next year. The .548, by the way, was Jimís worst reaction time of the last, four rounds. Not bad, huh? Especially for a guy who has been doing this almost as long as Frank Manzo. And, even though he lost, you could hear the pride in his voice as he joined Leo Taugher in the winnerís circle. "I couldnít be prouder," he said choking back a tear. "What more could a father ask for than to race his son in the finals at Indy?" What more, indeed.

The "Super" classes, comp and gas, rounded out the Indy sportsman racing. Damon Dabbs, a long-time runner in the bracket classes, as well as the "90" categories, won Indy the easy way, that is, there was no one in the other lane. After a real rush at the end of the day, Jim Hughes, who has a whole fleet of cars, couldnít answer the bell for the money run and, sadly, for him, Damon got the single. And two guys who had never made it to a final round at an NHRA national event, Larry Edmoundson and Steve Shaughnessy, staged the weirdest Super Gas final that Iíve ever seen. Apparently, neither guy wanted to lose by breaking out, so, at about half-track, they began pacing each other. In the end, Larry got the win with a 10.42, while Steve trailed with a 10.56. Unless Iím missing something, which is a real possibility, that could open up a whole new way of racing in Super Gas. Then againÖ

>From the first race on Wednesday, to the finals the next Monday, the sportsman racers did more than just "fill in" between the pro sessions. And, while that may be the perception sometimes, never let anyone lose sight of the fact that itís these guys and girls who provide some of the best action at every, NHRA national event. I know, for me, they certainly did at the 47th running of the U.S. Nationals.



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