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NHRA: Amato, Force, Coughlin, Seeling, Kopp Earn Wins

17 May 1998

ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. -- John Force and Joe Amato aren't in the same professional category, but that didn't keep the two drivers from waging a personal battle during the 29th annual Mopar Parts Nationals, May 17 at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.

Force's Castrol GTX Mustang and Amato's Tenneco Automotive dragster squared off in a battle of speed. In the end, Force's Mustang was King of the Hill, clocking the fastest speed in NHRA history at 323.89 mph.

The two drivers were among the winners at the $1.6-million race, the eighth of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Jeg Coughlin, Angelle Seeling and Larry Kopp were also winners in their respective pro categories.

Force fired the first shot in the Funny Car vs. Top Fuel dragster war, unloading an impressive 323.35 during opening qualifying. During final eliminations Amato reclaimed the fastest speed for the Top Fuel contingent for a brief moment, only to watch Force power away to the new speed mark in the final.

"After Amato took back the fastest speed from us he said top fuel dragsters were the Kings of the sport and funny cars were the Queens," Force said. "Well, I guess I get to be Queen for another day. But at the next dance, I get to lead.

"Joe's a good guy, we had a lot of fun with that this weekend," Force added. "The two kinds of cars are pretty similar. Funny Cars are a little heavier. Running that kind of speed doesn't mean we're making any more power. It just means that we've got a little bit of an edge with downforce right now."

Amato had one final chance to take the fastest speed title back in a final round match-up with Cory McClenathan, but it wasn't to be. Amato, from Exeter, Pa., was more interested in beating McClenathan.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Amato said. "I'm having a lot of fun out here mixing it up with these guys. I wanted to win that race, but I also wanted to run faster than Force. But he got us on that one. They've been working hard and they deserve a lot of credit. We didn't want to be too aggressive and end up smoking the tires in the final, so we were pretty conservative. We still have the quickest and fastest dragster in the world, but I guess Force gets to be the King of Speed for now. Until the next race anyway."

In a final between two of the sport's heavyweights, Amato powered away to a 4.614 at 319.90, while McClenathan's McDonald's dragster was just a tick slower at 4.660 at 314.39. It was the second straight win for Amato, who cut McClenathan's point lead to 69.

"We made a move on Cory today," Amato said. "It seemed like he couldn't lose but we got him today."

Amato cruised to wins over Jim Head and Doug Kalitta, but had to out-pedal Larry Dixon in a close, tire- smoking semi-final.

"When you look back at races you win there's always a round where you got a little lucky and that was us today against Dixon," Amato said. "Once we got by that round, we were determined. We really needed this win."

While Force was proud of his record speed, he was equally as satisfied with earning his first win of the season.

"I didn't want to get in the habit of losing," said Force, who posted runner-up finishes in four other finals this season. "This win was important and the entire team was real hungry going after it. We weren't going to back down today. Everybody was pumped up."

Force ran 4.845 at 323.89, while Epler's EasyCare Dodge Avenger lost traction from the start and limped across the finish line at 11.796 at 77.33.

Force had been consistent all day with runs in the 4.80's in victories over Dale Creasy Jr., Cory Lee and Chuck Etchells. Epler had been equally as impressive, running a 4.939 at 308.99 in a semi-final win over Whit Bazemore.

"We knew Epler could run with us but our car was strong and it tracked on down there, it's a good old hot rod," said Force, who said he wasn't taking any of the competition for granted this weekend. The seven-time Winston champion says every team in the class is much improved.

"Look at the numbers that were floating around here this weekend, a lot of drivers were cranking out 4.80's and 4.90's," Force said. "There were some amazing speeds and some close competition. That's what racing is all about. There's a lot of teams that are competitive now and I'm enjoying that."

The win was a much needed motivator for the Castrol team. The speed record was a bonus.

"You don't plan for a run like that, it's just destiny I guess," Force said. "We did what we thought we needed to win the race. Everything else just fell into place for us."

With the win, Force increased his Winston points lead to 99 over Etchells. Cruz Pedregon, who set the low elapsed time of the race (4.832), but left the starting line early for a second round loss, dropped to third in the standings, 118 behind Force.

Columbus, Ohio's Coughlin earned his first Pro Stock win of the season and had to beat two veterans along the way. After knocking off Warren Johnson and defending Winston champion Jim Yates in the quarters and semis, Coughlin was rewarded with an easy final round win over a red-lighting Mike Edwards.

Coughlin's Dick Maskin-powered Oldsmobile Cutlass ran 6.932 at 198.52 anyway, showcasing the quickness and power it used all day long. It was definitely the young driver's day.

"If you qualify in the top-16 in Pro Stock every race is going to be tough," Coughlin said. "Taking W.J. out in the second round and Yates out in the semis says a lot about our team. It really surprised me when Mike left early. I was real happy there about 30-feet into that last run."

Yates now trails Winston leader Johnson by 157. Coughlin moved to third, 182 points out of first place.

Angelle Seeling earned the Pro Stock Motorcycle win over first-time finalist Greg Underdahl. Seeling rode her Team Winston Suzuki to a winning pass of 7.286 at 180.72. Underdahl's machine ran a slower 7.883 at 150.46.

"We try to get 100 percent out of our Winston Suzuki and we finally did it," said Seeling, from New Orleans. "George Bryce (team owner) gives me great motorcycles and I just have to do my job on the bike."

Larry Kopp, from Baltimore, Md., earned his second straight Pro Stock Truck victory in three events this season, outrunning John Lingenfelter in the final. Kopp ran 7.707 at 175.30 in his G-Force Transmission Chevy to Lingenfelter's slower 7.883 at 150.46 in his Summit Racing Equipment S-10.

"We can't get too confident right now," Kopp said. "We still have nine races to go and as long as we maintain our momentum we'll be good. Our goal is to win the Winston championship for Chevrolet."

Top Pro Stock qualifier Kurt Johnson earned $50,000 for the victory in the NHRA Pro Stock Challenge. It was Johnson's second win in the special event for the year-long quickest eight qualifiers in the category. Johnson ran 6.970 at 198.00 in his AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro to defeat first-time finalist Steve Schmidt, who ran 7.001 at 198.41 in his Dynagear Pontiac Firebird.

"This is my favorite track," said Johnson, of Lawrenceville, Ga. "We just seem to do well here. We made some changes to the car from Friday night. I guess we made the right calls."

The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event is the inaugural FRAM Route 66 Nationals, May 28-31 at the state-of-the-art Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill.