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Austin Seeks Double Play at Pomona

October 25, 1991|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Ormsby's name is still on the sides of the distinctive green, white and red top-fuel dragster that won the Heartland Nationals last month in one of the most dramatic moments in National Hot Rod Assn. history, but the man in the driver's seat was young Pat Austin.

Austin, 26, became the first person to win two eliminator titles on the same day when he drove his dragster through the quarter-mile in 4.97 seconds and defeated three-time Winston champion Joe Amato on the Topeka, Kan., strip. A few minutes earlier, he had won the alcohol funny-car final.

It was only the third time Austin, a former high school football and track and field athlete from Tacoma, Wash., had driven a top-fuel dragster, a nitro-burning monster in drag racing's top-of-the-line class.

Austin will try to repeat his feat this weekend in the 27th annual Winston Finals, last event of the 18-race NHRA season, at the Pomona Fairplex.

Ormsby, holder of the single-run record of 296.05 m.p.h. and winner of the 1989 world top-fuel championship, died of cancer Aug. 28, the day before the U.S. Nationals began in Indianapolis.

Austin drove his first race in Ormsby's car that weekend, narrowly missing a victory.

"We really wanted to win Indy for Gary," Austin said. "Every time I get in the car, my thoughts are to drive the way he would want me to drive. I try to keep the standards for the car that Gary set. I think he would be happy with the way the car is operating now."

Moments before the final run against Kenny Bernstein, Austin's dragster suffered a blower backfire during a burnout--a spinning of the rear wheels to heat and clean tire rubber before a run. Bernstein, even though he lost time smoking his tires, cruised to a solo victory.

"It was a rookie mistake," Austin admitted. "Doing a burnout in a top fueler is different from an alcohol funny car. After I hit the throttle, I backed off, but the tires had hooked up, so I hit it again. Right then, I said to myself, 'I shouldn't be doing this.'

"There is a big weight difference in the cars. In a funny car, you sit right over the tires and you can feel them. In a fueler, the motor is over the rear tires, and it makes the rear end feel heavy. When Bernstein smoked his tires, it just made me feel worse because we could have won."

Fan response to Austin's bid at Indianapolis was enthusiastic, but some of the veteran drivers were not too pleased when the youngster was quoted in National Dragster, the sport's bible, as saying: "I guarantee that I will not only win with the top fueler before the season is over, but I'll win with both cars at the same race."

Big words for a 26-year-old in a world of aging contemporaries. Amato is 47, Bernstein 46, Dick LaHaie 49, Don Prudhomme 50, Shirley Muldowney 51, Gene Snow 53 and Eddie Hill 55.

In his next top-fuel event, the Keystone Nationals at Reading, Pa., Austin lost in the first round. When his car rolled to a stop, Don Garlits, Big Daddy of drag racing, was waiting with a microphone.

"I was still pulling off my helmet when Garlits stuck the mike in my face and said, 'Hey, son, welcome to reality,' " Austin said. "I'll never forget that smirk he had on his face as he said it.

"I feel kind of bad about the way I was quoted. I'm not saying I was misquoted. Maybe I just didn't say it right, but what I meant was that if any two crews could do it (win two events at the same meet), then the two I have could do it."

The top-fuel crew, directed by Lee Beard, came with the car from Ormsby when Austin's father, Walt, negotiated to buy the assets of the team after learning Ormsby would not resume racing.

"It all happened so fast, it was crazy," Austin said. "I'd thought about moving from alky to nitro funny cars as far back as 1988, but I'd never given a thought to a fueler. I gave up on driving a nitro funny car when John Force won the championship. He was my Castrol teammate, and I knew they wouldn't let him get away.

"Then when Gary (Ormsby) got sick, the Castrol people asked if I'd be interested in driving, but when my dad heard that Lee Beard wanted someone more Ormsby's size and with more experience, he advised against it. He said it could be a bad environment for a 300-m.p.h. ride when the crew didn't want you."

Ormsby was 5 feet 7, 150 pounds. Austin, a two-time state prep shotput champion at Franklin Pierce High in Tacoma and an all-state center and defensive tackle in football, is 6 feet, 209 pounds--down from the 260 he weighed when he started racing in 1983.

Veteran Gordie Bonin, who easily fit into Ormsby's seat, was named to drive at Seattle, where he reached the semifinals before losing to Amato.

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