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NHRA: Bernstein, Bazemore, Thomas, Hines and Kopp Win at Route 66

1 June 1998


JOLIET, Ill. -- When drag racing's spotlight gets its biggest, Kenny Bernstein tends to have a flair for stepping right in the middle of it.

Bernstein did just that at the inaugural FRAM Route 66 Nationals. The veteran driver allowed the huge crowd that gathered at the futuristic stadium-designed Route 66 Raceway to enjoy his 50th career NHRA victory.

Whit Bazemore, Mike Thomas, Matt Hines and Larry Kopp were also winners in their respective professional categories at the $1.5 million race, the ninth of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. The event was contested before 135,000, an NHRA inaugural event record.

Lake Forest, Calif.'s Bernstein won a classic tire-smoking pedaling match in the Top Fuel final over Gary Scelzi. Bernstein was on and off the throttle of his Budweiser King dragster, nursing it to a 5.586 at 265.43 at the finish, well in front of Scelzi. A piece of debris tripped the finish beam in Scelzi's lane, resulting in no time or speed for Scelzi's Team Winston dragster.

"That was one of those hang on, stab it and jab it and steer it for all you can," said Bernstein after the run. "It shook the tires and we hadn't experienced that much during the season so it caught me somewhat off guard. I just pedaled it and started to try and squeeze the throttle. I didn't see Gary over in the other lane, so I just kept in it."

While the win was a historic milestone for Bernstein in the sport, more importantly it was his second win in a season that has been like a wicked roller-coaster ride.

"This certainly helps the team's momentum," said Bernstein, who advanced to the final by defeating Mike Dunn, Joe Amato and Paul Romine. "Even though we've been struggling a little bit during the last five races I wasn't too concerned. We knew we were making the power to be competitive, we just had to get it under control."

Bernstein, who earned $50,000 for the win, was extremely thrilled to become the first Top Fuel winner at NHRA's newest facility.

"This track took our sport to the next level as far as facilities go, no question about it," Bernstein said. "The fans were treated to some great racing during the weekend, but it's going to be even better next year as the track surface matures."

Winston points leader Cory McClenathan lost in the first round but remained in front of the pack. However, Joe Amato, Scelzi and Bernstein all gained ground.

Bazemore, from Indianapolis, charged to his first Funny Car win of the season in his Team Winston Ford Mustang, topping the tire-smoking Pontiac Firebird of young Del Worsham. Bazemore ran 5.001 at 297.42, while Worsham's machine limped across the finish line, 7.683 at 113.47.

Ironically, Bazemore's first career victory took place on the same weekend one year ago, a similar warm and muggy Sunday in late May.

"I guess I like it when it's hot," said Bazemore with a smile following the race, clutching his winner's trophy tightly. "These little guys are hard to come by, and expensive too. I'm going to hang on to him."

Bazemore's day became better with each round. His Mustang was responsible for the quickest pass of eliminations, a 4.962 second blast in a semi-final round win over Chuck Etchells. Bazemore also defeated Dean Skuza and Ron Capps in close, side-by-side affairs. He says his day was just a mirror of how tough the competition in Funny Car is these days.

"It's the most competitive I've seen it since I started racing," Bazemore said. "One minor slip and you lose. Thankfully, today we were able to be very consistent and it paid off. We kinda turned the corner at Englishtown and started to run a lot better."

Despite losing in the first round, seven-time Winston champ John Force remained in the Winston lead, 61 points ahead of Etchells. With the win, Bazemore moved to seventh in the standings.

Knoxville, Tenn.'s Thomas was an upset winner in Pro Stock, claiming his first career victory. Thomas drove his Pennzoil Pontiac to a 7.024 at 196.39 to defeat three-time NHRA Winston champion Warren Johnson, who slowed near the finish line at 7.075 at 194.80 in his GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said Thomas. "To win at a great facility like this and beat Warren Johnson, it couldn't have happened any better. Our team has jelled over the last year and we're having fun. That always seems to be the key to success."

Johnson's fifth final round appearance of the season increased his Winston points lead over Jim Yates, who did not qualify for the second time this season.

Hines, from Trinidad, Colo. earned the Pro Stock Motorcycle victory over Angelle Seeling, who fouled with a red-light start. Hines ran 7.296 at 184.02 on his Eagle One Suzuki to pick up his fourth victory of the season.

"It's especially gratifying to win against Angelle because she's been tough lately," Hines said. "I hoped I wouldn't have to race her. We were pretty quick and she knew she had to take a shot at the starting line. She cut a perfect light the round before and almost did it again (.397) against us."

Hines increased his Winston lead to 126 over Seeling with the win.

Larry Kopp, from Baltimore, drove his Accurate Binding Chevrolet S-10 to a 7.772 second, 174.37 mph victory over Team Mopar's Bill Henderson in Pro Stock Truck. Henderson ran a slower 7.887 at 171.55 in his Dodge Dakota.

"I had a good light there and we were definitely faster," said Kopp, who defeated Sondra Sikes, Brad Jeter and Scott Tidwell to advance to the final. "We knew we had an advantage going into the final, so as long as I did my job we were in good shape."

It was the third consecutive victory for Kopp, who leads the Winston Pro Stock Truck point standings by 144 over Team Mopar's David Nickens. With such a dominating start to the 12-race truck season, Kopp is cautiously optimistic about his chances for a Winston championship.

"If we take the attitude that we are going to kick everyone's butt, it's not going to happen," Kopp said. "We just want to do our best, go round by round and win."

The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event will be the 34th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing, June 11-14 at National Trail Raceway near Columbus, Ohio.