The 2001 season was more than just a collection of 24 National Hot Rod Association drag racing events. Familiar faces were crowned champions, records were broken, rivalries were established and legends returned to the quarter-mile strip as the NHRA celebrated its 50th anniversary.
A list naming the Top-50 Greatest Drivers of all time was unveiled throughout the year-long 50th anniversary celebration. During pre-race ceremonies at the NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was named as the sport's all-time greatest. Garlits was in good company that day, as John Force and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Bob Glidden and Shirley Muldowney rounded out the top five.
"I wanted to be No. 1 because I had been around longer than anyone had. I spent every waking moment thinking about drag racing and I think I've given a lot to the sport," Garlits said. "This makes you feel good. I don't know who was on the (selection) panel, but I know it was a nice cross-section of the country. For people to feel that way about you is pretty special."
Some of drag racing's best drivers are still on the track every weekend - and winning plenty. John Force once again dominated the Funny Car competition and the NHRA record book in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Force increased his career victory total to 98 en route to an unprecedented 11th NHRA World title. He could have reached the 100-win plateau, if it weren't for his own teammates. Force faced teammates Tony Pedregon and Gary Densham four times in the final round of competition, losing each time. Force took home six wins this season, nonetheless.
"Getting the 11th was important," Force said after clinching the championship at Texas Motor Speedway Oct. 21. "Getting the 10th and tying Glidden was also important. I was with Glidden last week and he congratulated me. That made me feel good. It's Ford's 100th anniversary and it's the NHRA's 50th anniversary. My car seems to do well at the right time and the right place."
Force picked up a rivalry as well as trophies this season. Whit Bazemore and the Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird team proved to be a worthy adversary throughout the year. Bazemore finished in second place in the standings with help from three victories, but promised it would be the last time he would follow Force in the points race.
"I got to hand it to Bazemore," Force said. "He said, 'It's your 11th, so enjoy it. It's going to be your last.' His crew was laughing. If that team stays together, without a doubt, he will get it. It's all a matter of time. They've got to wear me out sooner or later. What keeps me going right now is the love of the sport."
Force and Bazemore were just two players in some of the most competitive Funny Car events in NHRA history. The category had its first all-four-second field set in February at the Phoenix event and the class also set the record for the quickest field in NHRA history nine times. The national elapsed time record was set three times between Force and Bazemore. At the beginning of the season the E.T. record was 4.788 set by Force in April 1999 in Houston. Force set the record in Chicago in June with a 4.763 pass. At the second race in Chicago, in September, Bazemore set the record with a 4.750 run. By season's end Force re-claimed the record in Reading, with a 4.731 in October.
"It was a tremendous year," Bernstein said. "It was really tough the last six or seven races. Either team could have made a mistake. I'm glad the season is over because I'm beat up pretty good. It has been very hard since September, but it was a wonderful battle."
Johnson had more than his fair share of battles in Pro Stock competition as 15 different drivers took home a trophy this season. Johnson was one of only four drivers to collect multiple wins as he went undefeated in six final round appearances, wrapping up his sixth NHRA World Championship. Johnson also passed Glidden to become the winningest Pro Stock driver in NHRA history with 87 wins.
"It was one of those seasons where we were real good or real bad," Johnson said. "There wasn't anything in-between. That's how this year went for everyone in Pro Stock. We just feel fortunate to have won six races and the championship."
After 27 years as the series sponsor, R.J. Reynolds and the Winston Brand ended its relationship with NHRA because of the Master Settlement Agreement that stated Winston could no longer sponsor more than one series. That just added to the meaning of Savoie's second straight championship on her Team Winston Suzuki in Pro Stock Motorcycle competition. Savoie, only the second female to win a NHRA championship, made history again this season. Savoie earned seven victories, upping her career total to 22 and making her the winningest female in NHRA history.
Savoie's title hopes came down to the final race. When second-place Antron Brown lost in the first round, Savoie had earned her second title. She went on to win the event.
"This is very special for me because I am the first Winston Pro Stock Motorcycle champion and I am also the last Winston Pro Stock champion," Savoie said. "That means a lot to me."
Panella continued his dominance in Pro Stock Trucks, winning three consecutive NHRA World Championships. Panella won five truck races this season.
Beyond the races, several awards were given once the season concluded. The 2001 Rookie of the Year went to Darrell Russell. A top fuel driver, Russell won two events in seven final round appearances. The Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award went to Pro Stock Motorcycle rider GT Tonglet. Only 18 years old, Tonglet collected one victory in three final rounds.
The 2002 season will officially kick off with the 42nd annual K&N Filters NHRA
Winternationals at Pomona Raceway Feb. 7-10.
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