One legendary career came to a close. One career has just begun to blossom and another continues to dominate like no other. In the 51st season of NHRA drag racing, there were many memorable highlights throughout the 23-event NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
Larry Dixon played the spoiler in Bernstein's retirement tour, earning the Top Fuel championship for the first time in his career. Dixon took the points lead with a win at the season opener at Pomona, Calif., in February and never looked back. He is only the second Top Fuel champion to hold the points lead all season. Dixon won nine events in 14 final round appearances.
John Force had to work a little longer than usual this season, but the results were typical. He won the Funny Car championship, beating out his teammate Tony Pedregon at the final event of the season. Force drove his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang further into the record books, earning the 12th Funny Car championship of his career and 10th straight. He claimed his 100th victory in April and went on to win his 106th at the Finals. He is second only to Richard Petty (200) in terms of event wins in all of motorsports.
The Pro Stock ranks put 13 different drivers into winner's circle this year - not a big surprise considering 15 drivers took home trophies in 2001. The big surprise, however, was the dominating performance of Jeg Coughlin. He started the season by not even qualifying for the opener in Pomona but he raced back into the competition. Coughlin earned eight victories en route to his second Pro Stock championship.
Angelle Savoie didn't get her first win until May at the Atlanta race, but she proved to be the best rider in the category for the third consecutive season, earning the Pro Stock Bike championship. Savoie held off the likes of Craig Treble and Matt Hines in order to earn her third title, tying her with Shirley Muldowney for the most championships by a female competitor in NHRA history.
"It is truly an honor to be the first champ since POWERade came on," Dixon said. "They are going to take us to the next level and I am just glad I can give this to Don Prudhomme. He has his own plane and big old houses. Now I can give him the first Top Fuel championship of his career and the No. 1 on the car."
Don Prudhomme could not have asked for a better anniversary gift from his Miller Lite Top Fuel team. Prudhomme celebrated his 40th year in drag racing. He spent 32 years in the driver's seat, retiring to team owner after the 1994 season with four Funny Car titles on his resume. His choice in driver and team paid off as Dixon piloted the team to the Top Fuel record for final round appearances and tied the record for wins in a season with Gary Scelzi (2000).
Bernstein didn't relinquish the Top Fuel crown easily. The defending champion was down 259 points after the first 11 events of the season. Bernstein had captured two victories in that span, but Dixon had seven going into St. Louis - a track that had eluded Bernstein in the previous five years. Dixon and the Miller Lite team allowed Bernstein back into the race for the title, as they posted a DNQ for the event. Bernstein went on to win, claiming a big victory for his sponsor and cutting Dixon's lead to 157 points.
"It was a fight all season with Kenny," Dixon said. "We started off so strong and then we struggled. Kenny kept us honest all year. I told Kenny last year when he beat us in the semifinals to clinch the championship that I was glad he was racing another season. That way I could have a heads-up battle with him. Luckily there was a rematch and I won the rematch."
Dixon's struggles lasted just two races. He was back in the semifinals at Seattle, posted runner-up finishes in Brainerd and Indy and was in winner's circle by Memphis. By the end of October, Dixon had clinched the title, celebrating the championship with an event victory to boot at Las Vegas. While he bested Bernstein this season, Dixon didn't forget the second-place finish to the veteran in 2001.
"I don't want Bernstein to retire," Dixon said. "I think he should come back and race again next year. Brandon can wait one more year, but I think Bernstein and I should see who can go the best two out of three."
"It was a tough loss," Pedregon said. "We had our chances, but we just didn't get the job done. I told everyone that catching John (in the points) was one thing, but passing him was another. He's very tough when his back is to the wall. But I'm a very positive person and I know we can build on what we have here to make another run at the championship next year."
The race for the title ended when Force beat Pedregon in a photo-finish race at the Finals. Prior to the matchup, Force had been questioned as to whether the teams would race each other fairly.
"I did my job (during the Finals) and Tony and I raced heads-up, just like I promised we would," Force said. "Tony's a great driver and he has a lot of championships ahead of him, but I'm not ready for them to throw me out just yet. I've still got a couple of races left in me."
Del Worsham was the only driver able to break up the Force Racing trio in the final Funny Car standings. Worsham earned four victories behind the wheel of his Checker Schuck's Kragen Pontiac Firebird. He finished third in the points, behind Force and Pedregon, but ahead of the third Force Racing car, Gary Densham's Auto Club Ford Mustang.
Densham earned two wins in 2002 and was the only nitro driver to set a national record. He set the record for speed with a run of 326.87 at the season opener in February.
There weren't any national records set in Pro Stock this season, but don't tell the drivers the season wasn't one of the toughest in history. Of the 15 different winners, there were five who finished outside the top 10 of the Pro Stock point standings.
The 2002 Road to the Future Award, honoring the top rookie in competition went to Pro Stock driver Gene Wilson. The 24-year-old driver joined the Mopar Parts Dodge team in March at the Gainesville event. Wilson was the runner-up at three races and moved up from 13th place in the standings prior to the Finals, finishing ninth overall.
Savoie said her third championship was just as sweet as the first one. She opened the season with sponsorship woes, but the team didn't let that affect the performance on the track when it counted. She set the national E.T. record in Englishtown, N.J. in May with a run of 7.049 seconds on her Mohegan Sun Suzuki.
"This has probably been the roughest year of my career," Savoie said. "There were a couple of times during the season when I wasn't sure if I was going to make it mentally with everything going on in my life. The first championship was definitely the best, but this one I have worked the hardest for, more than the first two put together. Now that I have tied Shirley, I feel legitimate because that's big. What she has done for women in our sport is amazing. It is really an honor to be equal to her."
The 2003 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series kicks off at the K&N Filters Winternationals at Pomona Raceway, Feb. 6-9. The 23-event season also will conclude at the same track, Nov. 6-9.
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