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When It Counts Most, LaHaie Defeats Amato : He Takes Drag Racing Title When Foe's Racer Fails in Semifinal Showdown

November 09, 1987|PAT RAY | Times Staff Writer

When he lost a $50,000 race Saturday to Joe Amato in the fastest side-by-side race ever run, Dick LaHaie, a 45-year-old top fuel veteran, said he wouldn't mind losing that battle if he could win the war Sunday.

And that's what happened at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds at Pomona when the two met for the National Hot Rod Assn. world championship and the $100,000 that goes with it. LaHaie beat Amato in their showdown in the semifinal round of the $871,850 Winston Finals when Amato's dragster failed.

"The transmission broke," said a dejected Amato. "This is the first time in five years that I've had a transmission break and it breaks when we had a shot at the world championship, that's what hurts."

For LaHaie, who was beaten by Darrell Gwynn in the final round Sunday, the NHRA title he won in the semifinal round was a long-sought dream come true. The Lansing, Mich., driver has been driving these cars since 1963.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," he said, but admitted that he could not keep from crying when he pulled off the track after the title-clinching run.

"There was a lot of hugging and kissing going on among the crew, until somebody remembered we still had another race to run," he said. The emotion is understandable, though. LaHaie's daughter, Kim, is his crew chief and his son Jeff is also a member of the pit crew.

Later Sunday, in the final, it was no contest as Gwynn, who has won three of his last four races on the Pomona track, easily defeated the new champion, with a 5.13-second run to LaHaie's 5.38.

Asked it there was a letdown for the final, LaHaie said: "I don't think so. I think what happened is that we tossed a facing on the clutch during our burnout. It was about the 10th race on it and those parts do fail."

While LaHaie did what he had to do to win his first championship, he got more than financial support from his car owner, Larry Minor of Hemet.

"We thought if we could get a break, we could win this thing," LaHaie said afterward. "And it was Larry who supplied it."

It happened in the second round of eliminations when LaHaie drew his boss as his opponent, fortunately for him.

Minor got a great start and LaHaie appeared beaten when he smoked the tires halfway down the strip.

"When I looked over and didn't see Dick, I said, 'Oh no,' " Minor said.

"We've worked all year long to win the championship and for me to be the one to beat him was unthinkable so I had to pull back the throttle and hit the brakes," Minor said. "I was glad I was able to help him when he needed it."

That was the only break LaHaie needed. Funny car driver Kenny Bernstein, bidding for his third world title, was eliminated in the first round when he smoked the tires and lost to Long Beach veteran Jim Dunn.

The funny car title went to Billy Meyer, who put together four solid rounds including a 5.47-second trip to defeat LaHaie's Miller teammate, Ed McCulloch, in the final.

While Bernstein had his troubles, pro stock champion Bob Glidden was the class of his division and easily won his 60th career victory in a NHRA national event.

It was also his eighth victory of the year, and his ninth world final win. And he didn't even have to work for it as he saw that his opponent in the finals, Joe Lepone, had red lighted at the start.

"I saw he red lighted so I just let off," was how Glidden described his lastest victory.

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