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Champion Drivers Strut Their Stuff at Pomona


For the first time since 1985, the champions of all National Hot Rod Assn. professional categories have been decided before the season-ending Auto Club Finals at Pomona Raceway.

It didn't mean there would be any letdown, however.

Champions of all three major classes, Gary Scelzi in top fuel, John Force in funny car and Jeg Couglin Jr. in pro stock, all posted No. 1 times in Thursday's first round of qualifying for Sunday's 16-car eliminations.

Scelzi, who clinched his third Winston championship in the last four years last week in Dallas, ran the quarter-mile in 4.617 seconds at 311.77 mph. On a cold and windy day, a number of favorites, including Cory McClenathan and Tony Schumacher, failed to make it to the finish line as smoked tires and blown engines aborted their runs.

"I think a lot of guys came here and used their Dallas set-ups and they were too aggressive," Scelzi said. "Pomona isn't quite Dallas. We were lucky to go off last and Alan [team owner and crew chief Johnson] kept watching early runs and kept making changes. I don't know what he was doing, but obviously it worked."

Neither Scelzi nor Force, who blistered a cold track in 4.908 seconds at 291.63 mph in his Castrol funny car, thought Thursday's speeds would hold up.

"Absolutely not," Scelzi said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we saw some 4.56s tomorrow."

Three-time top fuel champion Shirley Muldowney, making her first NHRA start since 1992, was first off the line in her familiar pink dragster and put up an impressive 4.66-second run at 312.21 mph, good enough for third place. Joe Amato was second with 4.629 at 313.37 mph, fastest of the day.

Schumacher, the 1999 Winston top fuel champion, hoping to make his first start since a near-fatal accident Oct. 7 at Memphis, Tenn., was one of the victims of smoking tires. He made only a short run, but said he expected to be ready today. He tried to make his first start two weeks ago in Houston, but said he felt his injured hand was not strong enough to pull the brakes on a 300-plus mph run.

"It felt fine today, a little sore, but not enough to keep me out of the car," he said. "Like a lot of the guys, we got a little too aggressive with our setup. I would have liked to have made it all the way just to feel what it was like to go to the finish line. I'm not worried, though. We'll do just fine before the weekend is out."

Schumacher had been challenging Scelzi for the championship before his spectacular crash, but after sitting out two events, he is third. Larry Dixon, driving Don Prudhomme's dragster, is second. Dixon qualified fourth Thursday at 4.711 mph.

Another round of qualifying and two more Saturday will set the field for Sunday's eliminations. Also Saturday is the Big Bud Shootout, where Scelzi will be seeking his third win.

Drag Racing Notes

Kenny Bernstein and Sheryl Johnson, his companion of 20 years, were married Wednesday in the Santa Ana Courthouse. They were there to witness the wedding of close friend Robert Goodwin and his girlfriend, Debbie, when they decided to make it a double ceremony. . . . Bernstein also announced Thursday that he is planning to prepare his son, Brandon, 28, to take over the Bud King Racing driving duties in 2002.

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