Dick LaHaie and Joe Amato went to the next to last round of a 14-event season to decide the Winston world top fuel drag racing championship last year. Out of 26,262 points the two accumulated, LaHaie's winning margin was 42.
Indications are that the two friendly rivals may do it all over again this season. In Sunday's final round of the 28th annual Chief Auto Parts Winternationals at the Pomona Fairplex, it was LaHaie and Amato lined up against one another.
As he did in the semifinals of last November's Winston Finals, LaHaie powered his Larry Minor-owned top fueler to victory while setting a Winternationals record of 5.132 seconds elapsed time. When his tires began to smoke halfway down the quarter-mile strip, Amato shut off and conceded the win.
In a day of stunning upsets in the other professional classes, Dale Pulde of Granada Hills won the funny car division and Butch Leal of Blacklick, Ohio, who grew up in Van Nuys, won the pro stock.
An all-time record drag racing crowd of 56,000 watched under a sunny sky as records fell in nearly every round.
It was apparent early that it would be an unusual day. The four fastest qualifiers in pro stock, including eight-time world champion Bob Glidden, lost in the first round. Three of the four fastest funny car qualifiers, including track record holder Ed (Ace) McCulloch, fell in the first round, and defending champion Kenny Bernstein went in the second round.
Consequently, the funny car finals matched the No. 11 qualifier, Pulde, against No. 12, Jim Head of Columbus, Ohio, and the pro stock finals had Leal, No. 8, against No. 11, Mark Pawuk of Medina, Ohio.
"It just goes to show how tight drag racing has become," Leal said. "The fields are so competitive that each event is a shootout."
Only in top fuel, drag racing's top of the line, was there a semblance of order.
LaHaie, 46, whose daughter Kim is his crew chief, was remarkably consistent as he ran 5.202 to eliminate former pro football star Dan Pastorini, 5.248 to beat Frank Bradley, 5.210 to turn back former boat drag racer Eddie Hill, and then had his best run of 5.132 to win the $30,000 championship.
"All week we have been experimenting to find the right setup," said LaHaie, of Lansing, Mich. "We ran 5.19 Thursday and again Friday with totally different combinations. Saturday we had too much horsepower and smoked the tires on both runs.
"Kim and I sat down last night and decided we had to change the clutch settings until we hit it right. Kim made changes between every round and I think the results show that she had it on the nose for the final run. She's an amazing lady."
LaHaie's toughest run came in the semifinals when he edged Hill by the narrowest of margins. LaHaie's reaction time was slightly quicker, .486 second to .521, but Hill thundered his new dragster through the lights at 284.72 m.p.h.--the fastest speed of the meeting.
"I knew Eddie would be tough, he always is," LaHaie said. "He looked awfully strong when he beat Shirley (Muldowney) and Larry Minor."
Hill ran what at the time was a record 5.177 to eliminate Muldowney and came right back with a 5.186 to sideline Minor in what was something of a grudge match.
Hill had apparently won the No. 1 qualifying position Saturday until National Hot Rod Assn. officials discovered he had illegal rims. This moved Minor back into the No. 1 spot and promoted the San Jacinto potato rancher to comment that he felt anyone caught cheating should be disqualified completely.
"Being labeled a cheater was a very painful experience for me, my wife and my crew," Hill said Sunday. "It simply isn't true. We have never cheated and never will. I would quit the sport before I would cheat to be competitive."
Hill said he was unaware that his newly purchased magnesium wheels were three-eighths of an inch over the 16-inch limit.
"We never thought to check the wheel, as we never dreamed a manufacturer would deliberately provide a wheel that wasn't legal," Hill said. "Apparently, NHRA officials felt the same in technical inspection, because they passed the wheels without measuring them."
One thing is different this season from last. In 1987, LaHaie never led in points until the final day of the season when he caught and passed Amato. This year he is starting off with a 248-point lead, 1,178 to 930.
"Getting fast time in that last run was a 100-point swing for us," LaHaie said. "Low ET for the meet is worth 50 points and we took it away from Joe so it was a 100-point swing. We may need that by the time the season winds down."
Glidden's loss, to unheralded Morris Johnson Jr. of Midlothian, Va., was the day's biggest stunner. Glidden had won the last five NHRA championship events and is the defending pro stock series champion.
Johnson, in a Trans-Am, beat Glidden's Ford Thunderbird off the starting line and managed to maintain his edge all the way. Johnson had a 7.441 to Glidden's 7.457 even though Glidden's top speed of 189.03 bettered Johnson's 185.52.