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Sat, 8 Sep 2001, 10:52 AM

NHRA's 50 Greatest Drivers
Courtesy of NHRA Communications

#13 - Pat Austin

Pat Austin is the most successful drag racer born after the 1940s and the best driver of his generation. His 68 Alcohol Funny Car wins are 25 more than the next-winningest sportsman racer, and his 73 overall wins, including five in Top Fuel, make him the fourth-winningest NHRA driver ever, just ahead of Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato, and Don Prudhomme, all of whom he beat in finals.

In his mid-20s, Austin won more races with his Castrol GTX Olds Alcohol Funny Cars than anyone in any class. He was the winningest driver in drag racing from 1980 to 1996 -- and didn't even begin driving until 1985. From the end of the 1970s through 1996, Austin won 62 NHRA national event titles, more than John Force (61), Warren Johnson (59), Bob Glidden (58), or anyone else in that span.

From 1987 to 1991, Austin appeared in 57 national event finals and won 43. He was as fast as anyone and always seemed to leave first. He was winning so much that by the early 1990s, it was expected of him to win, and it became routine. With his father, Walt, tuning and his big brother, Mike, assisting, they were an unbeatable combination.

Austin claimed his first NHRA title in what now seems another era, in 1986, when "Big Daddy" Don Garlits won Top Fuel and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen won Funny Car. Austin was a holeshot winner in the first round of his first national event and runner-up at the second, the 1985 Springnationals. Less than a year later, at the 1986 Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La., just before Garlits and McEwen won their finals, Austin put away Dal Denton for his first NHRA title. The next time out, he won again, over Arnie Karp at the Springnationals.

Austin was runner-up four more times through early 1987 and just missed winning the sport's top honors, the U.S. Nationals and the championship, in 1986. He lost by a few feet to Frank Manzo in the U.S. Nationals final and lost the 1986 championship when nemesis Brad Anderson beat him in the final round of the Fallnationals in Phoenix.

Then came 1987, the start of a five-year stretch in which Austin won four championships -- every year but 1989, which actually might have been his best season -- and four U.S. Nationals titles. He won six times in eight finals in 1987 and another eight times, including his first victory at Indy, in 1988.

In 1989, Austin won more than he ever had -- nine national events, including the U.S. Nationals, where he ran his first five in the final -- but Anderson fared better in divisional competition and outscored him for the championship. 1990 was another banner year: nine wins, three runner-ups (all to Danny Townsend), and another championship.

In 1991, Austin had the Alcohol Funny Car championship clinched by July with the class' first perfect season (five national event wins and five divisional wins), but the year will best be remembered for what he did at the U.S. Nationals, where he nearly became the first to win two classes at the same event -- and not one in an eight-second car and the other in a similar nine-second car.

Following the death of former Top Fuel champion Gary Ormsby to colon cancer late that summer, Austin's team bought Ormsby's operation just before the U.S. Nationals and Pat, who had made exactly one run in a dragster -- a 5.08 at his home track, Seattle International Raceway -- headed to Indy, where he was to run both cars. He reached the final in Alcohol Funny Car and beat Tony Bartone, then a rookie, and amazingly got to the Top Fuel final against Kenny Bernstein, who then was in just his second year back in a dragster.

In eliminations for the first time on fuel that day, Austin had beaten legends Eddie Hill and McEwen on holeshots. The bubble burst in the final when he popped the blower on the burnout and watched from the guardrail in disgust as Bernstein, his future rival, went up in smoke on his single.

Austin vowed to win in both cars before the year was out and actually did so two races later in Topeka, where he beat Chuck Cheeseman for the Alcohol Funny Car title and ran a 4.97, his first four-second pass, and cut a .407 light to beat Joe Amato for Top Fuel. He was the first driver to ever win two eliminator titles at the same event. Avenging his Indy loss to Bernstein, Austin beat him in the final round of the 1991 Winston Finals in Pomona, then opened 1992 there by setting the national record at the Winternationals.

Austin won Top Fuel at the next event, Phoenix, and doubled up at that event with a final-round win over his uncle, Bucky Austin, in Alcohol Funny Car, becoming the first to win in two classes at the same race twice. He also settled accounts with Indianapolis Raceway Park by beating Doug Herbert in the 1993 Top Fuel final in a smoke-filled race, and won a fifth and final Top Fuel title on a holeshot over Don Prudhomme in Englishtown in 1994.

In 1995, Austin became the first Alcohol Funny Car driver to reach 250 mph, doing it on the same run as Newberry did but reaching the finish line first by thousandths of a second.

Austin has won no championships since 1991, but has amassed a record over the last 10 years that would stand on its own as one of the best even if he hadn't accomplished what he did through 1991. Since 1992, he's won 28 national events and been runner-up 23 times. He has had a winning record every year of his career, has won at least one national event every year of his career except his rookie season and 1997, and currently is ranked in the top five in the Federal-Mogul Funny Car national points standings.

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