NHRA: Scelzi, Capps, Martino and Hines Win at Brainerd
24 August 1998BRAINERD, Minn. -- This time, a set of blown, smoky tires didn't create a blown opportunity for Gary Scelzi and his Team Winston crew.
Rather, the defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion took control of his destiny and erased seven months of missed opportunities by winning the 17th annual VisionAire NorthStar Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.
Ron Capps, Tom Martino and Matt Hines were also winners in their respective professional categories at the $1.5 million race, the 15th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
Fresno, Calif.'s Scelzi claimed his second victory of the season, passing Mike Dunn's tire-smoking dragster at mid-track in the Top Fuel final. Scelzi covered the quarter-mile in 4.829 seconds at 303.23 mph in the Team Winston dragster, while Dunn ran a slower 5.273 at 259.96 in the Team Mopar dragster.
"The car left OK and then it blew the tires off, smoked 'em really good," said Scelzi, who pocketed $40,000 with the win. "My head hit the dash and I pedaled it. Fortunately it took off and kept charging. I kept looking over for Mike and he wasn't there and I saw the win light come on as I crossed the finish line. Today was a good day."
Said Dunn, "The car went out there a long way, then it rattled and smoked the tires. I tried to grab the brake and the car started to recover. As soon as I let off, it just blew the tires off the car. I grabbed the brake again and tried to pedal it and saw Gary go by. We made three good runs but just didn't make the fourth one we needed to get in the winner's circle."
For Scelzi, it was a really good day. He defeated three of the sport's top kingpins -- Jim Head, five-time winner and Winston leader Cory McClenathan and three-time winner Joe Amato -- to advance to his third final round of the season.
"There's so many tough guys out here, it was a war today," Scelzi said. "Almost everybody on our side of the ladder had won a couple of races this year, been in a final or done something spectacular. It was definitely a dog fight."
Like he did so many times last season in his championship run, Scelzi says he generated power from above to give him the confidence he needed to claim his seventh career trophy.
"Everybody knows I have a picture of Blaine Johnson in my car and sometimes when I feel like I'm not doing my job I'll rub that picture. John Myers' accident a week ago was another setback. It really got to me. Today we won this thing and there's three people that really helped me -- Blaine Johnson, T. Wayne Robertson and John Myers.
"John won his first Top Fuel race today. That's what he really wanted to do, drive a fuel funny car or fuel dragster. I was really fortunate to get to spend some quality time with John and he was a great human being and my heart goes out to his family. Today was a great win and those guys were riding with me."
With the win, Scelzi moves to within 51 points of McClenathan's Winston championship lead. Amato's semi- final appearance places him only one point behind the leader.
Scelzi says the stage is set for a major drama to unfold over the final seven races.
"My thoughts are the same as they were last year, we want to win the Winston championship," Scelzi said. "That's what is important to us. We haven't won all the races that Cory has, and we might not be as quick or fast as Amato, but this team has fought hard and stuck together and we just keep getting closer to our goal. We just haven't won or capitalized at times when we should have. We're still having fun, even when we're getting beat, and that's the main thing. It's still way too soon to tell, there's so many talented guys out there. But that's what makes a win like this so special, we beat the best of the best."
Capps, of San Diego, earned his fourth victory of the season and second straight in Funny Car as he pulled away from Dean Skuza in the final. Capps ran 5.098 at 291.16 in his Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro, while Skuza's Matco Tools Dodge Avenger smoked the tires at the start and ran 7.848 at 112.57.
"I was a little concerned in that final because we hadn't faced Skuza that much this season," said Capps, who defeated Dale Creasy Jr., Whit Bazemore and Del Worsham to advance to the trophy round. "If you're racing a guy like John Force you really know what to expect. He's going to stage pretty quickly, cut a good light and run strong. With Skuza, we really didn't know what he was going to do. Fortunately, everything worked out. It was a great weekend."
At the starting line in the final, Capps wasn't taking any chances. He deep-staged his Don Prudhomme-owned Camaro and left the line with authority. After a quick pedal near mid-track, he crossed the finish line well in front of Skuza.
"I didn't want to make a mistake there," said Capps, who earned $40,000 for the victory. "I pulled in deep because the closer you are to the finish line the better your chances of winning are. I felt like my concentration would be better if I did it. I didn't want to red-light. I wanted to get to the other end of the track first. Fortunately my strategy worked out."
And his strategy in the driver's seat was aided by the tuning expertise of crew chief Roland Leong and the Copenhagen team. His car was extremely consistent throughout the weekend.
"Roland is simply awesome," Capps said. "I'm so lucky to be driving this car. The guys told me after that last run that I saved it by pedaling the car. Well, the way I see it, that was a chance for me to give them one back. Heck, they've tuned the car so well this year that they've made me a star."
With the victory, Capps moves into the Winston lead, 31 points ahead of Force. For the first time since 1989, Force will not be the Winston points leader entering drag racing's biggest event, the U.S. Nationals.
Farmingdale, N.J.'s Martino claimed his first Pro Stock win of the season, outrunning Mark Osborne in the final. Martino covered the distance in 7.165 at 191.81 in his Six Flags Pontiac Firebird, beating the quicker Osborne (7.115 at 194.34), also driving a Firebird, on a holeshot.
Martino also beat Kurt Johnson on a holeshot in a tight semi-final matchup. He used horsepower to beat Steve Schmidt and Richie Stevens in the first two rounds.
"We never thought we would win with the motor we had at this race," Martino said. "We made some good calls throughout the day. We were a little off in the last two rounds, but fortunately my driving stepped up a little bit and we were lucky enough to win."
Warren Johnson, who lost to Osborne in the semi-finals, increased his Winston lead over closest challenger Jeg Coughlin, who lost in the first round.
Hines, from Trinidad, Colo., defeated Angelle Seeling in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final, earning his eighth victory of the season. Hines ran 7.421 at 180.79 on a Suzuki, while Seeling's Suzuki was a tick slower at 7.445 at 182.55.
It was an emotional victory for Hines, one of many competitors in the category who was shaken by the recent death of fellow rider John Myers. Myers, a three time NHRA Winston champion in the two-wheel category, died from internal injures suffered in a non-racing related motorcycle accident in early August near his Birmingham, Ala. home.
"It was pretty tough to concentrate this weekend," Hines said. "John meant a lot to everybody out here. When I heard that he passed away it made it really tough to focus on racing."
To show how much Myers meant to his fellow competitors, all Pro Stock Motorcycle riders at this event pooled their earnings and made a joint contribution to the John Myers Memorial Fund. The total collective contribution was more than $20,000. The fund was estabished for Myers' 22-month-old daughter, Christina, and his wife of 12 years, Kerry.
With their victories, Scelzi, Capps, Martino and Hines become the first drivers qualified for the inaugural Winston Shootout, NHRA's all-star event, to be held July 8-10, 1999 at Bristol Dragway, Bristol, Tenn.
The estimated four-day attendance was 115,500, a Brainerd International Raceway record.
The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event will be the 44th annual U.S. Nationals, Sept. 2-7 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.