In the cool twilight of an autumn Saturday in Pomona, Joe Amato set top fuel drag racing history in a $50,000 win over Dick LaHaie and set up a similar meeting today for double the prize.
Amato blistered through the quarter-mile in 5.110 seconds on the L.A. County Fairplex strip to beat LaHaie's 5.124 in the fastest side-by-side top fuel race in National Hot Rod Assn. history.
Their speeds were as impressive as their times. Amato reached 283.73 m.p.h. and LaHaie 281.07.
Saturday's win gave the 43-year-old Pennsylvania millionaire his second Cragar/Weld Wheel championship in three years.
Today's shootout in the Winston Finals between Amato and LaHaie--if they both win their first round matches--will come in the semifinals and be worth $100,000 and the world championship. If the winner goes on to win the Winston Finals, it will be worth another $20,000.
"It was so close at the end, I didn't know who won," Amato said. "I like the pressure. I like it in business and I like it on the line in a race. Tomorrow will be double the pressure, and double the money, besides the world championship."
Amato owns Keystone Automotive Warehouse in Exeter, Pa., the world's largest distributor of high-performance automotive parts.
Amato, who became the first driver ever over 280 last Labor Day at Indianapolis, won the NHRA world title in 1984. LaHaie, 45, a veteran campaigner from Lansing, Mich., whose daughter Kim is his crew chief, has never won.
"I had him off the line, but we had a little wheel spin about 300 feet down the track and it was just enough to be the difference," LaHaie said. "I'll be happy to lose the battle to Joe today if we can win the war against him tomorrow."
In six meetings this season, each driver has won three times. Amato, however, has a 158-point lead, 12,410 to 12,252. Each round today pays 200 points to the winner, so if Amato and LaHaie meet it will virtually be winner-take-all.
It was almost that way Saturday, too. While Amato collected $50,000, LaHaie's runner-up purse was only $6,000.
Conditions were ideal Saturday, cool and calm, and the professional drivers responded with track and event records in every category during time trials for today's finals.
In top fuel, LaHaie ran a record 5.118 seconds and former drag boat champion Eddie Hill set a speed record of 283.91 m.p.h. Amato's 5.110 in the Cragar/Weld final did not count because it was not a qualifying run.
Funny car driver Mark Oswald of Cincinnati bettered the NHRA world record with a 5.337 second run in his T-Bird. However, Oswald needs to run 5.411 or better today to have his record accepted.
The current record is 5.366 by Ed (Ace) McCulloch of Hemet, made last month on the all-concrete Texas Motorplex track.
'We're confident if the conditions are right, like they were today, we can run quick enough to back up our record," Oswald said.
Kenny Bernstein of Newport Beach, who qualified fifth in his Le Sabre, has already clinched the funny car championship and its $100,000 bonus.
Mike Dunn equaled his NHRA funny car record of 280.72 m.p.h. in a Firenza. The Ontario veteran also posted that identical speed last month at the Texas facility.
Perennial pro stock champion Bob Glidden continued his amazing string of records in his Ford Thunderbird with a run of 7.360 seconds at 188.40 m.p.h. Both were records for the eight-time NHRA champion from Whiteland, Ind.
More amazing, however, is the fact that Glidden swept the No. 1 position in all 14 national events this year and extended his record as low qualifier to 22 consecutive championships.
Glidden will be going for a record 60th career pro stock win today. He clinched his eighth championship last month at Phoenix.
Championships in seven sportsman categories will be decided in today's Winston Finals, as well as the three professional classes. Eliminations will start at 11 a.m.