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NHRA: Amato, Hofmann, Johnson, Seeling and Panella Claim Pennzoil Nationals Victories

12 October 1998

MEMPHIS -- Joe Amato keeps hanging tough. The veteran driver greatly improved his chances of claiming a record sixth Winston Top Fuel championship by putting on a spectacular performance in winning the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone at Memphis Motorsports Park Oct. 11.

Al Hofmann, Warren Johnson, Angelle Seeling and Bob Panella were also winners in their respective professional categories at the $1.5-million race, the 18th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Amato, of Exeter, Pa., earned his fourth Top Fuel victory of the season, outrunning Kenny Bernstein in a classic final round battle. Amato covered the quarter-mile distance in 4.640 seconds at 318.92 mph, holding off a determined Bernstein, who ran a slower 4.696 at 315.12 in his Budweiser King dragster.

Amato's dragster was extremely consistent throughout eliminations, posting consecutive mid-4.60 second runs in round wins over Steve Smith, Bruce Sarver and Tony Schumacher. However, he saved his best for last, posting his quickest effort of the day in the final against long time rival Bernstein.

"We did the things we had to do to win today," Amato said. "Jimmy (Prock, crew chief) made the right calls based on the conditions we had here today and our Tenneco Automotive car responded by going down the track every run. Hopefully today's effort is a sign of some good things to come during the last four races as we pursue a sixth NHRA Winston championship."

Amato moved to within 48 points of Scelzi's Winston lead with the victory, worth approximately $40,000.

"Kenny helped us in the points race by beating Scelzi in the semifinals," Amato said. "He had a good run going against us but we were just a bit quicker. I knew it was going to be a tough final because Kenny's car was running real well this weekend too. It's always fun to race against Kenny, a real challenge, we just happened to get this one."

Cory McClenathan remained in second in the points standings despite a second round loss to Scelzi, who says the weekend effort was a good one as far as the big picture is concerned.

"It's unfortunate that we didn't beat Kenny in the semis, but we had a great weekend anyway," Scelzi said. "We picked up 20 points on Cory in our battle for the Winston championship. I wish we had won the race, but we're focused on the war, not one battle. I still believe the Winston championship will be decided during the Winston Finals at Pomona."

Hofmann, of Umatilla, Fla., drove his GM Performance Parts Pontiac Firebird to his first victory of the season in Funny Car in impressive fashion, defeating top qualifier Cruz Pedregon in the final. It was Hofmann's first win since the 1997 Revell Nationals, at Dallas.

"The win was great," Hofmann said. "We really needed this bad, especially for our sponsors, all the guys who have stuck by us during this year."

Hofmann advanced to the final round by defeating Del Worsham in a wild, tire-smoking first round battle, and then clicking off consecutive 4.95 second blasts in round wins over John Force and Dean Skuza.

He says his second round win over arch-rival Force was even bigger than the $40,000 victory itself.

"After we took Force out the win didn't matter," Hofmann said with a wide grin. "That made our day. Actually, it makes my year. He brought out that Elvis car again... I think he's finally going to realize that Elvis has left the building. It's over."

Points challenger Ron Capps ended a wild weekend with an uncharacteristic first round loss in the team's backup car. The Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro driver lost the service of his primary machine in a spectacular wheelstand during qualifying. His Z28 went vertical at the start, soared at a 35-degree angle with rear tires barely skimming the surface, before landing on all four tires at mid-track. The car suffered extensive chassis damage as it bounce-landed. Capps, doing his best Raymond Beadle impersonation, climbed from his machine uninjured and promptly took a bow before a very boisterous standing room-only crowd.

"I was just afraid the car was going to come down on top of the guardrail," said Capps. "We had it set for a 4.80 and it left the starting line with the front wheels a little higher than usual. All of a sudden it went straight up like a rocket. I could hear the wind underneath blowing and holding the car up. It really felt like it was going backwards. I just gritted my teeth and held on. When it was over, I climbed out and let the fans know I was OK. I had never heard a crowd be so loud before."

Force leads Capps by 110 points in the Winston championship chase following the event.

Duluth, Ga.'s Johnson claimed his seventh Pro Stock victory of the season and moved even closer to a fourth Winston championship by defeating son Kurt in the final round. The elder Johnson's GM Goodwrench Firebird ran 6.901 at 199.20, outdistancing his son's AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro, which posted a slower 6.964 at 198.50.

The 55-year-old Johnson proved once again why he's earned the nickname 'Professor' over the years, giving his son a quick lesson in Starting Line 101. Johnson executed a near-perfect .410 reaction time, negating his son's tremendous holeshot ability in the final. Besides, family bragging rights were on the line.

"There's a little bit of a rivalry there," said Johnson. "I really wanted to get the win because you can't let those kids whip up on you too often. Kurt is really coming around here at the end of the year and did a great job driving today. He got to the final on holeshots, but I just couldn't let that happen in the final."

Johnson, who was extremely quick and fast throughout the weekend, said the combination of a revamped racetrack and quality weather provided a nice arena for performance.

"I think every driver out here is indebted to Chris Pook (track owner) for tuning the track up like he has in the past year," Johnson said. "It's as good a track as we race on all year. That wasn't the case a few years ago. Now with the cooler weather conditions it's not only better for the racers, but for the fans as well."

With the victory, Johnson extended his Winston lead to 373 points over son Kurt.

Seeling, of New Orleans, continued her hot streak in Pro Stock Motorcycle, taking the easy final round victory when Matt Hines left the starting line too early. Seeling cruised to a 7.289 at 182.53 on her Team Winston Suzuki.

Seeling, who held the performance advantage most of the weekend, had a feeling Hines would try to get the holeshot start.

"It doesn't matter how we won the race, just that we won," said Seeling of her third victory of the season. "One year ago at this race I turned on the red-light against Matt in the final. That was the only shot we had at winning the race. This year it was the other way around. The Team Winston Suzuki is running better than ever."

Hines remains 252 points ahead of Seeling in the Winston standings.

Panella, of Stockton, Calif., earned his first Pro Stock Truck victory in a battle between Chevrolet S-10s. Panella covered the quarter-mile distance in 7.654 at 174.73, overcoming a holeshot start by first time finalist Jeter, who ran a slower 7.706 at 174.80.

"We had a good day, it's pretty much indescribable," said Panella. "We made good, consistent runs all day. We had some close races, like the final, but that's the way it's supposed to be. Fortunately, we came out on top."

Jeter, who recently switched to Grumpy Jenkins horsepower, saw immediate results with the runner-up finish and a quick 7.601 second elapsed time national record.

"It was a great weekend for us," Jeter said. "We got the record and made it to the final round. With three- thousandths of a second margin of victory, that's a drag race. I don't mind losing a good drag race like that."

Problems continued to plague Winston leader Larry Kopp, who lost on a red-light start in the first round. Semifinalist John Lingenfelter moved to within 10 points of Kopp's series lead following the event.

With their victories, Amato, Hofmann and Johnson all secured starting positions in the inaugural Winston Showdown, NHRA's all-star event which will be held July 8-10, 1999 at Bristol Dragway, Bristol, Tenn.

The estimated four day attendance was 71,150.

The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event is the rain-delayed Parts America Nationals, Oct. 17 at Heartland Park, Topeka, Kan.