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SPORTS WEEKEND

Kalitta Doesn't Come Up Short

Drag racing: He leads small top-fuel field with 4.578-second run on first day of qualifying.

February 02, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Escalating costs in running a top-fuel team in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Winston drag racing series has raised the possibility that this week's 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals may have a short field.

Only 13 vehicles tried to qualify Thursday at Pomona Raceway, in the first round of time trials to establish a 16-car field for Sunday's final eliminations. Three others were on the grounds and may try today or Saturday.

There was no shortage of speed, however, among those who showed up at the starting line.

Former U.S. Auto Club sprint car champion Doug Kalitta opened his fourth year of top-fuel competition by running the second-quickest first-day qualifying time in the storied history of the fairgrounds drag strip.

Kalitta, whose uncle and crew chief, Connie Kalitta, won the Winternationals in 1967, posted an elapsed time of 4.578 seconds for the quarter-mile strip, hitting 315.71 mph at the end of the run. That gave him the provisional No. 1 starting position.

"That kind of surprised us," said the quiet-spoken airline executive from Ypsilanti, Mich. "It was the first time we'd made a pass since we left here last November. It's a tribute to the crew that we were able to do it with no testing."

Kalitta won the USAC title in 1994 and briefly ran stock cars in the ARCA series before replacing his cousin Scott, a two-time NHRA champion, in the family dragster in 1998.

Only the retired Eddie Hill, with a 4.535 in 1999, has been quicker on opening day at Pomona.

Second quickest was Mike Dunn, who ran 4.606 in Darrell Gwynn's New York Yankee-sponsored dragster. Only five drivers bettered 4.6 seconds.

The Pomona record is 4.503 seconds by Dunn in 1999.

Among the missing top-fuel drivers, unable to raise the estimated $2.3 million it takes to run a full season, were Cory McClenathan and Bob Vandergriff Jr., the seventh and eighth finishers in last year's standings; Dan Lampus, 2000 rookie of the year; and Melanie Troxel, the quickest and fastest female in NHRA history with an e.t. of 4.576 seconds at 326.08 mph.

McClenathan won two races last year, plus the Winston Showdown, the NHRA's all-star race, but was left without a ride when car owner Joe Gibbs pulled out of drag racing. Cory Mac's sponsor, MBNA, is expected to become an associate sponsor of Gwynn's Yankee car this week.

Jerry Tolliver, who stunned funny car enthusiasts when he upset John Force in the Auto Club Finals at Pomona in 1999, and also won last year's Winternationals, started out Thursday as if he meant to repeat. Driving a World Wrestling Federation-XFL Pontiac Firebird, the 212-pound Tolliver was quickest at 4.878 seconds and fastest at 314.09 mph.

Force, seeking an unprecedented 11th NHRA funny car crown, was second, running 4.931.

Track records were broken in pro stock when Bruce Allen became the No. 1 qualifier at 6.828 seconds in a Pontiac, and Kurt Johnson ran 202.18 mph in a Cavalier.

The Facts

* What: 41st AutoZone Winternationals.

* Where: Pomona Raceway.

* When: Today, pro qualifying 2 p.m.; Saturday, noon. Sunday, final eliminations, 11 a.m.

* Television: Saturday, ESPN2, 6:30 p.m. (delayed); Sunday, ESPN, 5 p.m.; and ESPN2, 8 p.m. (delayed).

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