Sun, 17 Nov 2002, 03:05 PM
Year In Review….Top Alcohol Dragster.
By Bob Frey
Photo copyright 2002 Auto Imagery, Inc.
Wally and Arthur
When Arthur Gallant was crowned champion of the Top Alcohol Dragster class this year
it marked a milestone in NHRA drag racing history. Never before, since the class was
instituted in 1981, had the driver of a fuel- injected dragster been crowned
national champion. Prior to ’81, these cars, and their supercharged counterparts,
all ran under the umbrella of the "Pro Comp" class and Dave Settles, in an
injected car, did win the championship in 1977. But, for the most part, the blown
cars have pretty much had their way in the class, with the exception of a few
records or one-shot performances by the nitro cars. Keith Stark, David Baca, Mark
Woods and others all produced elapsed times and top speeds that the blown cars could
only dream about, and yet, when all the smoke had died down, it was always a
supercharged car that ended up with the number one on it at the end of the year.
In the interest of fair reporting it must be stated that the year had a decidedly
different look to it almost right from the start. Rick Santos, the reigning and
five-time champion, ran one race and then announced that his car owner, Jack O’
Bannon, had decided not to race for the remainder of the season. And, even though he
did run at the final two events of the season, Rick never was a factor this year and
his departure left the class wide open. NHRA’s new format, the one that had the
alcohol cars only running at sixteen of the twenty-three races on the tour this
year, also added a new dimension to the point’s chase and it made every event that
much more important to the racers. After five national events at which the cars ran,
we had five different winners, three blown cars and two injected ones and the race
Gallant launches hard.
Early on, it looked like the west coast drivers, Steve Federlin, Duane Shields and
Darren Nicholson would be very strong. Steve ripped through the field at the
Winternationals with a string of brilliant reaction times, while Darren and Duane
got an early jump on the field with impressive showings at the Division 7 races in
Phoenix and Tucson. But when the tour hit its first east coast stop in Gainesville,
it was readily apparent that anyone who wanted to dethrone Mr. Santos would have to
contend with the quiet, soft-spoken guy from New England, Art Gallant. Arthur, with
his Pep Boys dragster, qualified number one and never looked back en route to his
win in Florida. Actually, Arthur escaped the first round at that race in one of the
stranger runs of the year, when both he and his opponent, Rich McPhillips, had
mechanical problems and their cars shut off, but Arthur was able to coast across and
get the win with a time of 13.357 at 72 miles per hour. After that one, lucky round,
he ran 5.38, 5.37 and 5.36 to secure his first win since 1999 and only the second of
his career, a career that began with a final round meeting with Joe Amato in Sanair
back in 1981. Arthur didn’t make many bad runs the rest of the year and he didn’t
get many lucky round wins, either. It should also be pointed out that the
Gainesville semi-finals, like so many races this year, featured two blown cars and
two injected ones.
As we headed into the middle of the season, several drivers began to make a move in
the points, most notably Duane Shields and Cliff Bozzelli. Shields, the Division 7
runner from Las Vegas, came to Englishtown and beat everyone, including Gallant in
the final round, and he left the Garden State with the point’s lead and the national
record. Yes, a supercharged car had gone 5.263 to take the record, a mark that he
would hold until the last day of the season. And, again, that semi-final round
included two blown cars and two injected ones. Bozzelli, the second generation racer
from New Jersey, lost to Gallant in one semi-final, but he served notice that his
two divisional wins were no fluke and that he would be a factor for the rest of the
season. Following E’town, Gallant then helped his own cause with a pair of wins at
the Division 1 events at Atco, New Jersey and Lebanon Valley in New York.
The second half of the season really was like a feeding frenzy for the nitro cars,
with Gary Ormsby, in Randy Meyer’s car, ripping off times that had previously only
been dreamed about, times like 5.13 in Kansas and 5.17 in Chicago, while Bill
Reichert, Mitch Myers and young Morgan Lucas were all winning races in their nitro
cars. At the same time, the divisional events were being dominated by the
supercharged entries driven by Marty Thacker, Alan Bradshaw and Nick Copeland. As
headed for Indianapolis and the MAC Tools U.S. Nationals, no one driver appeared to
have a lock on the championship, although both Shields and Gallant had both done a
pretty good job of piling up the points. It looked like the "Nationals"
may prove to be a make or break race for the contenders to the throne. Oh, I forgot,
only one of the real contenders would be there because Arthur, figuring that the
heat and humidity of Indianapolis in September wouldn’t be conducive to his car’s
tune up, decided to skip the race and it turned out to be a very wise move. After
four days of qualifying and thirty-three cars trying to make the field, the bump
spot was set at a record 5.525, and only four of the nitro cars even made the cut.
Of course, two of them, Ormsby and Dave Hirata, did end up in the top two spots, but
neither of them got past the second round. Shields did, in fact, he made it all the
way to the money run where he met up with the unheralded John Haley, a graduate of
the Frank Hawley school who won the race with a 5.47 to Duane’s 5.55.
As the tour headed down the home stretch, it looked like Shields, Bozzelli and
Gallant would be the ones to battle it for the championship, with Nicholson and
Federlin also in the mix. Shields, who had done so well on his last trip into
Division 1 territory, decided to return to the east coast as he headed for Maple
Grove and the Keystone Nationals. Unfortunately, this time around, his plan didn’t
work out quite as well as he had hoped for. A round one loss coupled with a final
round match between Gallant and Bozzelli pretty much eliminated Duane from title
contention. And when Cliff was shut off on the line before the championship run for
a minor leak, and when Art got the single run in the finals, he just added more
points to his already impressive total. Down the stretch, Cliff, Darren Nicholson
and Steve Federlin all gave it their best shots but, in the end, they were no match
for the Pep Boys sponsored car, which continued to make one good run after another.
Even while other drivers, like Ormsby, for example, were recording the huge numbers,
Gallant was consistent enough to go rounds, win races and take the championship.
Only a small glitch in Texas, when he had mechanical problems in a dream match up
with Santos, and a red light at the season-ending AAA Club Finals, kept Arthur from
having a nearly perfect season.
Meadows, Lucas, and Darien
For the statisticians out there, after the sixteen-race schedule, nine national
events had been won by the A/FD cars (the nitro cars), while seven went into the
supercharged win column. On the divisional level, it was much more one-sided, with
the supercharged cars winning the majority of the races, thirty-seven to be exact,
while the injected cars only took home the bucks on eight occasions. Of course, the
nitro guys did have a field day at the Finals when Morgan Lucas took Jerry Darien’s
car to a national record at 5.23 and Tony Bartone made it an all injected final
round with his New York car, which, by the way, never ran better than it did in
California. Both Morgan and Tony beat blown cars in the semi-finals, too. Just
thought I’d throw that in.
As a fan, I think I enjoyed the 2002 season as much or more than any in recent
memory. The alcohol dragster class was a big part of the excitement this year and it
seemed like every time we turned around, we found an even match between the two
variety of cars, at least as far as the numbers were concerned in the eliminations.
I can’t tell you how many races ended up with four cars of each type in the second
round, and how many times it was two and two in the semis. Still, at the end of the
year, a fuel injected car won the national championship and a fuel injected car took
home the national record, but the blown cars certainly gave a good accounting of
themselves this year and I expect them to do the same in 2003.
Bozzelli and crew.
As a final note, after the AAA Club Finals, Cliff Bozzelli, who made the trip west,
announced that he and his dad, Richard, would be retiring from action to spend more
time with their families. I’ve enjoyed watching both of them race for years and wish
them the very best, they will be missed. But I have a sneaky feeling that they’ll be
back, after all, I still remember the headline in "National Dragster"
about a driver who won in the alcohol class at Pomona in 1987 and then announced
that he was retiring to spend time with his family. That driver’s name was Gary
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