ENNIS, Texas. - Two NHRA Winston champions were crowned Saturday at the 15th annual O'Reilly Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec at the Texas Motorplex. Gary Scelzi claimed his third Top Fuel NHRA Winston championship while Bob Panella Jr. earned his second career NHRA Winston Pro Stock Truck championship.
Cory McClenathan, John Force, Kurt Johnson and Steve Johns were the winners at the $1.8 million race, the 22nd of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
Scelzi, from Fresno, Calif., lost to eventual event runner-up Melanie Troxel in the semi-finals but left with a 226 point lead over Larry Dixon to clinch the 2000 NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship. "This is a special thing for me and (team owner and crew chief) Alan (Johnson) and everybody," said Scelzi. "There are guys on the team that have never won a race before and then there are those guys that have been there since the beginning that this is nothing new to them."
Scelzi needed only to complete the bye run in the first round to clinch his third championship. Scelzi smoked the tires right off the starting line in the opening round for an uneventful way to clinch a championship. "We were trying something since we had a free shot," Scelzi said, the 1998 and 1999 NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion. "We were hoping it was going to make it down the track. We didn't plan on smoking the tires."
Much like Scelzi's championship, Panella's title came without an event win at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals. "Fortunately the qualifying scenario worked to my advantage and we did what we had to do," said Panella. "We would have liked to have won the race but I'll take the championship over the race any day."
Panella won his second career NHRA Winston Pro Stock Truck championship winning five races in 2000 with one remaining. After winning his second NHRA Winston title, Panella dispelled the rumors of moving over to another professional category in the NHRA. "I'm happy where I am at," said, Panella, a former competition eliminator driver. "I enjoy the challenge. We work real hard to try to make as much horsepower as possible with 358 cubic inches. It's fun to flex your muscles now and then."
The qualifying at the 15th annual O'Reilly Nationals was the first time an elimination order was determined using the NHRA Winston points standings following the Matco Tools SuperNationals. The event had been originally postponed on October 21 because persistent rain showers prevented qualifying to be completed. The rainy weather again washed out the entire day of qualifying two weeks later and officials were forced to use the unprecedented format in order to complete the race.
Force, from Yorba Linda, Calif., recorded his tenth victory of the 2000 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season, defeating Jerry Toliver with a run 4.863 seconds at 302.55 mph in the Funny Car category. Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang exploded the super charger at the finish line of the quarter-mile to edge Toliver's Chevrolet Camaro. "We killed Frankenstein, only (crew chief Austin) Coil could kill Frankenstein," said Force, "It was trucking and it blew just short of the lights." Force was running a special monster theme Funny Car Ford Mustang body that was destroyed as a result of the explosion.
Force clinched his tenth NHRA Winston Funny Car championship last weekend in Houston at the Matco Tools SuperNationals while running on a four disc clutch engine. Force won his tenth event of the season using the five disc clutch. "This is the first time we've run a five disc clutch," said Force, the all time winningest driver in NHRA history. "She's a bad boy and she has consistency that we've never had before.
Force had to beat Cristen Powell, Del Worsham, and Tony Pedregon before facing Toliver. McClenathan, from Anaheim, Calif., didn't need the 4.659 at 314.02 to defeat Melanie Troxel who lost traction in the final, giving McClenathan his second win in a row. "Two wins in barely less than a week is like a dream come true," said McClenathan, "It always looks good if you can win, especially when you don't have a job."
McClenathan will be out of work come the 2001 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season if he does not find another ride. McClenathan's current team owner, Joe Gibbs, has announced he will not continue to run a car next year in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. McClenathan will try to keep MBNA as his primary sponsor next season no matter who he drives for. "MBNA and I are working to stay together for next year," said McClenathan. "I don't like to talk before it happens. Hopefully I'll have a job next year, but right now I am worried about racing."
McClenathan beat Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Mike Dunn and Larry Dixon before meeting Troxel in the final. Johnson, from Lawrenceville, Ga., used a 6.966 at 196.73 run to edge 2000 NHRA Winston Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin. The win was Johnson's fifth this season in his AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro. "We needed this win to put a few points on a few cars out there." said Johnson. "I love this kind of racing. You just go out and take a shot. It's like going to Vegas because it's a gamble."
Since qualifying positions for all four professional categories were set based on the 2000 NHRA Winston championship points, Johnson was able to win the O'Reilly Fall Nationals without making a qualifying pass. "We looked at all the information we had from last year to here and racing under these condition and put a package together that we thought that would get down the track," said Johnson, the 1993 NHRA rookie of the year. "With the extra spray on the track it ran 6.92 and we knew we really had something. We didn't really change anything all day long."
Johnson held off Larry Morgan, Richie Stevens and Troy Coughlin before eliminating Coughlin. Johns, from Lancaster, Pa., defeated Randy Daniels with a run of 7.566 at 178.05 in the Pro Stock Truck finals. Johns last win came at the last year's season finale in Pomona at the 1999 Auto Club NHRA Finals. "That was 11 months and three weeks ago," said Johns. "I thought I was going to go dry for a year."
Lane choice was a major factor in Johns' win. The Pro Stock and Pro Stock Truck performance in the right lane was noticeably down compared to the left lane. "Maintaining lane choice had to win us this race, plus we ran pretty good," said Johns. "It was pretty lopsided as bad as it was here this weekend. I felt the guy in the right lane didn't even have a chance the last two rounds, so that took some of the pressure off." Johns kept lane choice all day and chose the left lane all four times. The win moves Johns up to fourth place in the NHRA Winston points standings. Johns defeated Mark Whisnant, Taylor Lastor, Bob Panella and Daniels to earn his second career victory.
The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event is the 36th annual Auto Club of
Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway in Pomona, Calif., November 9-12.