POMONA, Calif. -- Frank Manzo went out on top, winning his final race in Top Alcohol Funny Car, the AAA Finals at Pomona, with low e.t. and top speed, and Jim Whiteley narrowly missed doing the same in Top Alcohol Dragster, uncharacteristically faltering in the final against first-time winner Johnny Ahten after dominating all weekend.
Manzo, who has said all year that he would retire after the season, ran the only 5.4 all weekend and parlayed consistent low .50s, including a 5.53 in the final against Clint Thompson, into his 105th and last national event victory. "You don't know you're going to win 220-some races - however many it is - when you start racing," said Manzo, 61, who also has 125 divisional/regional wins in his unparalleled career. "You just start, you keep going, and this is where you end up."
The only thing Manzo didn't do in his final race as a driver was qualify No. 1 for the record field (5.63 bump). He was third, behind championship runner-up John Lombardo and Annie Whiteley, but quickly established control in eliminations with low e.t. of all four rounds. His 5.50 in a first-round win over Kris Hool took low e.t. from Lombardo, and he dropped it to 5.49 in round two against Von Smith. "The track was awesome," said Manzo, who had won at Pomona but never at the Finals. "You just don't believe it could really be that good, but that's the smoothest run I've made in a couple months."
Every driver in the second round was in the 5.50s except Manzo and Shane Westerfield, who just missed in a 5.62 loss to Cody Perkins. Good reaction times and 5.50s as a sub for ailing Terry Ruckman carried Perkins to wins over Top 10 drivers Steve Gasparrelli and Westerfield and into the semifinals, where he went up in smoke the one time Thompson was vulnerable. Thompson's engine faded at the end of a 5.64 and he crossed the finish line at just 247 mph, trailing smoke.
In the other semifinal bout, Annie Whiteley, who qualified No. 2 with a 5.53 and never ran slower than that in eliminations, came closer than anyone to beating Manzo, leaving right with him in a 5.52 to 5.53 race. "That's probably the best car out here," he said. "She's my pick to win the championship next year."
Thompson and crew completed repairs in time to face Manzo in a national event final for the second time. Unlike the 2010 Charlotte race, which was decided by two feet, this one was over early when Thompson's car lost traction and Manzo had the track to himself on the last run he'll ever make, a 5.53 at 265 mph.
"This is a dream," said Manzo, who was emotional before the final, very aware of the situation. "To win my final race like this is incredible." The championship that was at least still a mathematical possibility for other drivers just a month ago ended up a 150-point landslide, and Manzo walks away with a record 17 championships, including the last eight.
Jim Whiteley, who also had the championship locked up weeks ago and also won by more than 100 points, was denied a win in his final race when he shook and lost the blower belt against Ahten, who scored with a 5.42. "That was our lucky round," said Ahten, who was solidly in the 5.30s in every other round. "The track was getting cold, and we were nervous about shaking the tires and hoped [Whiteley's crew chief] Norm [Grimes] would try to rotate the earth. It left good, started to chatter, and I said, 'Come on - don't shake. The car was going 221 at half-track, but I kept waiting for him to blow past me the whole time. I couldn't believe he didn't."
It was the first win of Ahten's nine-year career after three runner-ups in divisional/regional competition, including one this year in Seattle. "I've let it slip through my fingers and really tried not to focus on 'If I win this round I get a Wally' and treated the final like any other run," said Ahten, who had good lights in every round and his best, .012 and .016, in the last two. "The car was marching to half-track all weekend, but we could never keep all the cylinders lit to the end like we did in Vegas. We couldn't get any wheel speed in air that good on a track that tight. But I guess it doesn't matter now." Until the Tree came on in the final, everything pointed toward another Whiteley whitewash. He had 17 mph on Ahten all weekend - 275-276 mph to 258-259 - and low e.t. and top speed. He owned qualifying (5.22 and 5.21) and, knowing that each run could be his last, unleashed another barrage of low 5.20s in eliminations: 5.24, 5.27, and 5.22, all at more than 275 mph, against Bill Litton, Ray Martin, and Garrett Bateman.
Ahten was just as consistent but about a tenth back with a 5.39, 5.35, and 5.36 against a Murderer's Row of past national event champs: Shawn Cowie, Joey Severance, and Mark Taliaferro, who lost on a semifinal holeshot, 5.36 to 5.30. "That was the big one, the round we really had to have," said Ahten, a Los Angeles County firefighter. "He and Cowie both flew past me going 270-something, and I didn't know who won either time. I didn't catch the win-light against Whiteley, either, and for a second I was afraid I red-lighted. I couldn't believe it when everybody was waving at me and it hit me that I beat him in his last race, in Manzo's last race. If you're from here, Pomona is your Indy. I was a kid in the stands when the Finals was at Orange County, and standing up there with Manzo at the end of the race was incredible."
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