POMONA, Calif. - In a weekend where NHRA celebrated its 1998 Winston champions, one of the most celebrated champions in the history of the sport proved why his legion of fans still call him 'The King.'
Kenny Bernstein wowed an overflow Pomona Raceway crowd Nov. 15 at the 34th annual Winston Finals in impressive fashion, defeating three Top Fuel kingpins en route to his fourth victory of the season and 52nd of his storied career.
Chuck Etchells, Richie Stevens, Matt Hines and Brad Jeter were also winners at the $1.7-million race, the last of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. In an NHRA special event completed Saturday, Doug Kalitta defeated Eddie Hill in the Big Bud Shootout.
Gary Scelzi, John Force and Larry Kopp joined early season title winners Warren Johnson and Matt Hines as 1998 Winston champions in their respective professional categories. Those drivers will be honored at the 1998 NHRA awards ceremony Nov. 17 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts near Los Angeles.
Bernstein, from Lake Forest, Calif., outran two-time champion Scelzi in a close final. The Budweiser King dragster driver covered the quartermile distance in 4.628 seconds at 320.85 mph, while Scelzi was a tick slower in the Winston dragster, running 4.652 at 301.91.
"We knew we had to let it all hang out in the final because we were racing the two-time defending champion," Bernstein said. "Lee Beard and the guys really did a great job with the car this weekend and made the right calls. In the final we had nothing to lose and went for it. Fortunately we got the win."
The 54-year-old veteran pedaled past a pesky Cristen Powell in the first round, then put together a string of 4.60-second runs to oust the top three finishers in the '98 Winston Top Fuel standings -- Joe Amato, Cory McClenathan and Scelzi. With the win, Bernstein secured a fourth place points finish.
"This game is tough out here," Bernstein said. "It's awful hard to compete at the top level in any form of motorsports these days because it's so competitive. You have to have a little luck, and we had that today. But the car also ran great.
"It's been a strange year in a sense. It's been a little frustrating because it's either been really good like this weekend, or really bad. If we can get by the first round, our chances are pretty good for a win."
Scelzi became the first Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to win Winston championships in each of his first two seasons as a professional. It was his eighth final round appearance of the season, and fifth in the last seven races.
"Winning the Winston championship by finishing the season running so well will make the winter a lot shorter and more relaxing," said Scelzi, who finished 141 points ahead of McClenathan in the standings. "It's a great feeling to end the season on top of our game."
While Force celebrated a record eighth Funny Car crown following a semifinal finish, Etchells ended his roller coaster ride of a season in spectacular fashion.
Etchells, from Putnam, Conn., claimed his third Funny Car win, defeating drag racing journeyman Dale Pulde in the final. Etchells covered the quartermile distance in 5.119 at 308.21 in his Kendall Oil Chevrolet Camaro, while Pulde lost traction at the start and limped to the finish at 9.570 at 94.41.
Much like Bernstein, Etchells also faced the heavy-hitters.
"It was like we ran four finals today," Etchells said. "Racing opponents like (Ron) Capps, (Tim) Wilkerson and Force can drain you. It certainly wasn't easy. Any win is good, but winning the Winston Finals is special. To do it like we did today is one I'll never forget."
Etchells, who led the Funny Car point standings midway through the year, gave his team some much needed momentum heading into the 1999 season.
"We've certainly had our share of ups and downs this season," Etchells said. "But to wrap up the year like this certainly makes us want to start the 1999 season tomorrow."
When Force defeated Dean Skuza in the second round, he ended the title winning hopes for Capps, who finished second in the standings, 135 points back.
"I wanted this eighth championship for the NHRA and everyone involved in the sport of drag racing," Force said. "I know that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt don't even race on the same road that I do, but today I got my eighth championship. And we're all still chasing Bob Glidden, who has 10 championships."
Stevens, from New Orleans, won a Pro Stock rookie duel, outrunning Jeg Coughlin for the first victory of his career. Stevens ran 6.945 at 198.10 in his Collins Racing Pontiac Firebird, while Coughlin's Oldsmobile got out of the groove near mid-track and ran 7.625 at 141.02.
"This is the most unbelievable feeling I've ever felt," said Stevens, 20. "We've been battling all year to win and to get it here at the last event is the best. When we started the season I knew it would be tough to win. I've always had confidence in my driving, but until you do it, in the back of your mind you think you might not be able to do it."
The final round match-up between the two youngsters was the first all-rookie Pro Stock final in NHRA history.
"Jeg is a really good driver," said Stevens, who beat Rickie Smith, Kurt Johnson and George Marnell to advance to the final. "I knew it would be a good race. I was really pumped up for it."
Trinidad, Colo.'s Hines punctuated his dominant Pro Stock Motorcycle season with his 10th victory of the year. Hines ran 7.324 at 184.23 on his Eagle One Suzuki, holding off first time finalist Ron Ayers, who ran 7.390 at 180.07, also on a Suzuki.
"What an awesome way to end a great season," Hines said. "It's a great feeling to win here in front of my hometown fans."
Top Fuel rookie Kalitta, from Ann Arbor, Mich., pocketed the $100,000 winner's share in the Big Bud Shootout, an NHRA special event within the Winston Finals that features the eight quickest Top Fuel drivers from the 1998 season. Kalitta, nephew of legendary Connie Kalitta, ran 4.599 seconds at 313.26 mph in his American International Airways dragster, crossing the finish line just in front of the ageless Hill, who ran 4.620 at 307.06 in the Pennzoil dragster.
Kalitta defeated Amato, a five-time winner of the event, and McClenathan to earn the final round birth in the $235,000 event. He says in the final he was worried about Hill, who had been stout in defeating Mike Dunn and Scelzi.
"I was trying not to look over too much (during the run)," said Kalitta of the photo finish. "The car left good and pulled good all the way down. I was just praying. Eddie had been running good all day, so I knew it would be close."
Jeter, 23, of Greenville, S.C., claimed his first Pro Stock Truck victory in a close final. Jeter ran 7.660 at 175.09 in a Chevrolet S-10 to hold off fellow Chevy driver Tim Freeman, who took a holeshot start and ran 7.708 at 175.33.
With the win, Jeter improved to third in the final Winston point standings.
"My crew gave me a good truck all weekend and I knew if I did my job I could win," said Jeter, who defeated Chevy teammates John Lingenfelter and newly crowned champion Kopp to advance to his second final of the season. "It was tough racing those guys, but we were able to pull it off. This is awesome -- I can't explain what I'm feeling right now."
The estimated attendance was 136,000, the largest four-day event attendance
in NHRA history.