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Toliver, Toyota Get Breakthrough Win

Funny car victory becomes the first for a Japanese manufacturer in a national drag racing event. The final in top fuel goes to Schumacher.

March 01, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

Toyota, which made an impressive debut in a major NASCAR race last month, made its mark in National Hot Rod Assn. drag racing Sunday when Jerry Toliver won the Powerade funny car championship in a Celica at the K&N Filters Winternationals on Pomona Raceway.

It was the first win for the Japanese manufacturer in a national drag racing event.

Toliver, making a comeback after a nearly two-year absence for lack of a sponsor, defeated veteran Gary Densham of the John Force Racing stable, in a side-by-side final, 4.82 seconds to 4.95 for the quarter-mile from a standing start.

Greg Anderson put together one of the most impressive series of runs in pro stock history to turn back veteran Warren Johnson in a battle of Pontiac Grand Ams and win his fourth straight NHRA final and second straight at Pomona.

The top fuel final was anticlimactic when Doug Kalitta's fuel line broke on the starting line, giving Tony Schumacher a free ride to victory.

A crowd estimated at 35,000, down a bit from past years -- attributed to a week's postponement by rainy weather -- saw a remarkable number of tight races decided by thousandths of a second.

Toliver's 328.22 mph win over Del Worsham in the semifinals was the fourth-fastest in history, but it nearly didn't happen.

After damaging an engine in beating Cory Lee in the second round, Toliver had to sit and watch as crew chief Keith Adams and his crew replaced it not once, but twice, before meeting Worsham. The first engine wouldn't start, forcing a second engine change. Toliver was strapped in while the car was in the pits and the crew made final adjustments.

There was no time to warm the engine before leaving the pit area. It was so close to missing the run that Worsham was moving his car toward the starting line as Toliver pulled into the staging lanes.

"I think it was just destiny, that's something Force says a lot, but I think today it was," said the 6-foot 3-inch, 220-pound former drag boat champion from Temecula. "To have the guys on the crew do what they did and come out and run the fastest I've ever run was just incredible. Who could have thought we could do it?

"It was such a great week that we even won the best-appearing car. That never happened to me before."

Winning had never happened to Toyota before, either. Alan Johnson Performance Celica funny cars had reached the final round five times before but had never won.

It was Toliver's third final-round win at Pomona -- all over Force team drivers. He defeated Force in the 1999 Auto Club Finals and Tony Pedregon in the 2000 Winternationals.

He also sidelined Force's newest driver, rookie Eric Medlen, in a first-round upset when Medlen experienced tire wobble halfway down the strip.

Force, the 12-time NHRA champion, was eliminated by Densham, the third driver on his own team.

"Our ol' heap shook at the start and just ran out of beans [at the finish]," Force said. "I can't feel bad losing to Densham and the AAA car because [the Auto Club] just signed a four-year contract. We've got three good hot rods, and they're just going to get better.

"Eric got beat, but he still had a good week. He brings the excitement."

Anderson was so dominant that each of his four qualifying runs and four elimination runs were quicker and faster than any other pro stock driver could make even once.

His consecutive runs Sunday included a track record 6.706, followed by 6.710, 6.714 and 6.713 against the 60-year-old Johnson, a six-time NHRA champion.

Johnson, pro stock's top dog before Anderson came out of Monroesville, N.C., to challenge him two years ago, had won nine times at Pomona, including last year's Winternationals.

"I can't explain why we are so far ahead of the learning curve with the other drivers," said Anderson, who will turn 43 in two weeks. "I don't know if I've ever had a week like this. We brought a new car here, one I got from Jerry Haas in the off-season, and it has been absolutely awesome. I don't think I made a perfect pass all week, but no matter what I do, it has been fast. Real fast."

There were few surprises in top fuel as the two fastest qualifiers, Kalitta and Schumacher, advanced to the finals.

As the two dragsters moved toward the starting line after tire-warming burnouts, Kalitta's car let out a pop, and a blast of fire knocked down crewman Shawn Dill. After attending to Dill, who was not seriously injured, Kalitta's crew slowly pushed the big red car back to the garage.

"It was shaking real bad on the burnout, and I knew we were not going to be able to make the run," said Kalitta, the No. 1 qualifier. "I was hoping we could at least stage the car and hope for a red light start by Schumacher."

Schumacher, with a free run, did a 4.659-second pass at 243.55 mph to give the Army-sponsored top fueler the championship.

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