With the 28th annual Chief Auto Parts Winternationals opening the National Hot Rod Assn. season today at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, there seem to be many questions waiting to be answered.
Will the lightning-fast fairgrounds strip produce drag racing's first quarter-mile run in less than five seconds? Or, as the dragster crowd says it, "in the fours."
Or will one of the 3,000 horsepower top fuel dragsters be the first to reach 290 m.p.h.?
Darrell Gwynn of Miami, starting his fourth season as a top fuel driver although he is only 26, holds the NHRA record at 5.08 seconds and last October ran 5.09 at Pomona during the World Finals.
"Running in the fours is a monumental E. T. (elapsed time) barrier that could very well fall at Pomona," Gwynn said. "We're not the only team with a shot at it, either, but I have a positive outlook about our chances."
Former world champion Joe Amato of Old Forge, Pa., who was the first to better the 280 barrier, seems poised to get 290, too. He has the fastest single run of 287.72, made last year at Ennis, Tex.
National champion Dick LaHaie of Lansing, Mich., who defeated Amato by the narrowest of margins for the championship last year, got off to a good start in last week's preseason meet at Firebird Raceway, near Phoenix, when he ran 276.07 to defeat Amato. LaHaie, with his daughter Kim as crew chief, edged Amato by 42 points out of more 23,000 accumulated by the two drivers.
One would-be challenger, a man who made a career of breaking barriers, won't be at Pomona in a driver's suit. Big Daddy Don Garlits, the defending Winternationals champion from Ocala, Fla., is taking the year off to help create an autobiographical motion picture of his career. He will be on hand Sunday, however, as a TV commentator.
Is this the year that a funny car driver can turn back Kenny Bernstein? Or, how about pro stock. Is Bob Glidden vulnerable?
Indications are that Bernstein may be ripe for the taking, but no single driver has stepped forward to claim the No. 1 spot that Bernstein has held for three straight years.
John Force of Yorba Linda put himself in a strong position when he ran a 5.346 last week at Firebird--the quickest elapsed time in funny car history. Force was in a new Austin Coil-prepared Olds.
Even though Bernstein was a runaway winner of his third championship last year, he did it by winning 7 of the first 10 national events. In the final five major NHRA events, the Newport Beach businessman/race driver was shut out. The winners were Force, Mark Oswald twice, Ed (Ace) McCulloch and Billy Meyer.
"The field has definitely caught up with Bernstein," said Frank Hawley, former two-time champion who now runs a drag racing school in Gainesville, Fla. "The only question is which one of the other guys is ready to take command."
In an attempt to regain his winning ways and defend his Winternationals title, Bernstein has switched to a new Buick Reatta.
Beating Glidden may be another matter. The eight-time champion from Whiteland, Ind., will bring a five-race win streak to Pomona and he also has a string of 22 consecutive low qualifying performances. Glidden, 43, will be driving the same Ford Thunderbird that he won with last season.
The Winternationals is the first of 16 events on the $15 million Winston tour that will determine the world drag racing champions. A bonus of $100,000 will go to the top fuel and funny car champions, and the pro stock champion will receive $50,000.
Qualifying will start today at 8 a.m., with the three professional classes scheduled at 2 p.m. A similar schedule Friday will be followed by a double session Saturday.
Final eliminations in all categories will start Sunday at 11 a.m.
STOCK CARS--NASCAR will open its Winston Cup series this week at Daytona International Speedway in Florida with several new looks. When qualifying is held Saturday for the two front-row spots in the Feb. 14 Daytona 500, a one-inch carburetor restrictor plate will hold speeds down below the 200 m.p.h. mark. The fastest during winter testing was Geoff Bodine, 192.802, in a new Chevrolet. Last year's fast qualifier was Bill Elliott at 210.364. For the first time in a major racing series, drivers, mechanics and crew members will be subject to drug testing under an edict issued by NASCAR president Bill France Jr. And drivers will be competing for a record purse of $1,546,595, which is more than 20 times the original Daytona 500 purse in 1959 of $67,760.
SPORTS CARS--Top Gun's Tom Cruise is expected to drive a Bob Sharp-prepared Nissan in the Showroom Stock class during this weekend's California Sports Car Club season opener at Riverside International Raceway. The national championship races will help determine points leaders for the Sports Car Club of America national runoffs next October at Road Atlanta. Practice and qualifying is Saturday with seven races Sunday.