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NHRA: Force, Scelzi, Edwards, Hines and Kopp Take U.S. Nationals Victories

8 September 1998

INDIANAPOLIS -- At drag racing's biggest event, drag racing's biggest star stole the show.

After winning the Funny Car final, John Force walked back down the return road, which paralleled a fence lined with screaming fans. The 49-year-old former truck driver accepted congratulations with handshakes and high-fives all the way back down the quarter-mile, creating yet another signature scene at the U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious event in straightline motorsports.

Gary Scelzi, Mike Edwards, Matt Hines and Larry Kopp were also winners in their respective categories at the $2.5 million race, the 16th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Two NHRA special event winners were also crowned at the event. Ron Capps claimed the Big Bud Shootout, while Hines earned his third straight NHRA Pro Bike Dash payday and special $10,000 'double-up' bonus from NHRA for winning the Dash and U.S. Nationals.

Force, of Yorba Linda, Calif., earned his second Funny Car victory of the season and third U.S. Nationals trophy, all while reclaiming the Winston points lead with a victory over Randy Anderson.

Following the victory, Force took in the moment -- and decided to share his 69th career win with his legion of fans.

"That's what this sport is all about," Force said after his victory parade. "The fans have kept me going this year. They haven't gave up on me. I wanted to win this one for them and show them that I've still got it. These young guys are gettin' pretty tough, but I ain't retired just yet."

Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang covered Indianapolis Raceway Park's quarter-mile in 4.992 at 306.43, while Anderson's Parts America Pontiac Firebird, aided by the tuning expertise of recently hired Jim Dunn, slowed near the finish but ran a respectable 5.041 at 290.13.

"If you're going to pick a place to win, this is it," said Force. "The thing that motivated me were all the headlines I read about Capps and Snake before this event. The competition has been there all weekend. We're just glad to be able to win another race this year. I've been to a lot of final rounds this year, but just haven't been doing too many interviews. We needed this win."

He topped Freddie Neely in the first round, Capps in the second and Del Worsham in the semis. He says his win over Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme's team in round two was a major momentum builder.

"We struggled a little bit this weekend, so before that round we went back and changed everything and it worked," said Force, who earned more than $85,000 for the win. "I think we threw them a curve ball there. Our hot rod picked up the pace and rumbled on down the track on that pass. We really needed that one. It was a big win."

Seven-time Winston champion Force moves 25 points ahead of Capps with the victory.

Despite losing the Winston lead, Capps, of San Diego, had a profitable weekend earning $100,000 for winning the Big Bud Shootout, a special event for Funny Cars showcasing the eight best qualifiers in NHRA races held since the Shootout here one year ago.

Capps, driving the Roland Leong-tuned Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro, drove away from Interstate Batteries driver Cruz Pedregon in the Shootout final. Capps ran 5.005 seconds at 304.56 mph to earn his first Shootout victory. Runner-up Pedregon ran 5.092 at 300.00 in a Pontiac Firebird in his fourth Shootout final round appearance.

"Even though we kept our focus and managed to win the big money, that was a tough loss to Force during eliminations," Capps said. "We really wanted to keep our momentum going and win 'em both and keep the Winston lead. I really learned a lot about myself this weekend and of what the media attention is like when you're in the lead. I'm not sure I was ready for it. The weekend has been phenomenal anyway. We're still right there in points."

Fresno, Calif.'s Scelzi earned his second consecutive Top Fuel victory and third of the season by out-pedaling Mike Dunn's dragster to the finish in a wild, tire-smoking side-by-side battle. It was Scelzi's first U.S. Nationals victory.

"We beat Dunn at Brainerd in the same kind of duel," said Scelzi, who earned approximately $85,000 with the victory. "Mike has always been one of my heroes in drag racing and going into that final I really thought he was due for a win. I just tried to stay focused this weekend and it worked out for us.

"After I found out I had won the race, I was just numb. This is the U.S. Nationals. There's so much emotion surrounding this event, from Blaine's (Johnson) death here two years ago to the intensity of the battle for the Winston championship this season."

Scelzi covered the distance in 5.961 seconds at 282.57 mph in the Team Winston dragster, while Dunn slowed dramatically near mid-track and crossed the finish line in 8.456 at 100.21 in the Team Mopar rail.

"Dale Earnhardt got his win at Daytona this year and Gary Scelzi finally got his win at the U.S. Nationals," Scelzi said with a smile. "This is a race I've always wanted, always dreamed about. I'm so fortunate to be with Alan Johnson and Team Winston."

Scelzi advanced to his fourth final round of the year with wins over Kenny Bernstein, top qualifier Larry Dixon and Doug Kalitta.

"We had another tough day and faced a lot of the hitters," Scelzi said. "This is a constant game of focus. Fortunately we were able to keep ours in check today."

With the win, Scelzi moved into second place in the Winston standings, 20 points behind leader Cory McClenathan. Joe Amato, who lost to McClenathan in the first round dropped to third, 46 points out of first.

Edwards, of Broken Arrow, Okla., ended the Johnson family stronghold on the U.S. Nationals Pro Stock trophy by defeating Warren Johnson in a close final. Johnson or son Kurt have won the last six Pro Stock titles at Indy.

An emotional Edwards dedicated the team's first Indy victory to his late team owner John Kight.

"This is everything John and I worked for when we started our partnership in 1996," said Edwards, who outran Robert Patrick, Kurt Johnson and Jim Yates to advance to his third final round of the season. "All the hard work has come to this. This is the one we always dreamed of winning. Without him we couldn't be here today. He was like a father to me. I'm surprised a big rainbow doesn't break out over in the horizon with John's smile looking out over it. This win was definitely for John."

Edwards covered the distance in 7.034 at 194.46 in his JK Racing Pontiac Firebird, running slightly quicker than Johnson's losing GM Goodwrench Service Firebird, which trailed at 7.045 at 196.46.

Johnson's ninth final round appearance increased his Winston Pro Stock lead to 382 over closest challenger Jeg Coughlin, who lost in the second round and was one of seven Pro Stock drivers making their first U.S. Nationals start. Other first-timers included John Nobile, Richie Stevens, Bob Benza, Terry Adams, Mark Thomas and Robert Patrick.

Hines, from Trinidad, Colo., earned his ninth Pro Stock Motorcycle victory of the season, defeating familiar final round foe Angelle Seeling for the fifth time this season when she left the starting line too early. Hines ran 7.461 at 175.47 on a Suzuki to get the victory and extend his Winston points lead by 293 over Seeling.

Hines defeated Seeling in the Dash final as well. Hines ran 7.370 seconds at 182.55 mph, while Seeling ran 7.433 at 175.98 in her first final round appearance in the special event showcasing the top NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifiers since this event last year.

"I'm glad to finally win this race," said Hines, who pocketed approximately $35,000 during the weekend. "Winning the race and the Dash is something we've always tried to do but never quite got there. We knew Angelle would be looking for some revenge in the final after we beat her in the Dash. She took a gamble, had a red-light start, and made it easy for us. It was a great weekend."

Kopp, of Baltimore, earned his fourth Pro Stock Truck victory of the season. Kopp ran 7.760 at 173.77 in a Chevrolet S-10 to take the win over first time finalist Bob Panella Jr., who lost traction after the start and limped across the finish line at 10.803 at 84.41, also in an S-10.

"I want to cry," an emotional Kopp said following the victory. "I can't believe I won the U.S. Nationals. When you win the U.S. Nationals that's something that stays with you for the rest of your career."

With the win, Kopp increases his Winston points lead to 131 over John Lingenfelter, who lost to Kopp in the semi-finals.

With their victories, Force and Edwards become the latest drivers to qualify for the Winston Showdown, NHRA's all-star race to be held July 8-10, 1999 at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee. Scelzi and Hines have already qualified for the special event.

The six-day estimated attendance for the race was 164,500.

The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event will be the 14th annual Pioneer Keystone Nationals, Sept. 17-20 at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa.