Force, Amato speed to victories
Reprinted from the May 29, 1998 issue of National DRAGSTER
ENGLISHTOWN — It's a meaningless number, really. Recorded in the final 66 feet of the track, it's inconsequential when it comes to determining qualifying position, and in eliminations it has little bearing on who wins and who loses. But at the Mopar Parts Nationals in Englishtown, speed was the story.
Seven-time Winston Funny Car champ John Force set the drag racing world on its proverbial ear Friday night when he became the first Funny Car driver to crack the 320-mph barrier. Force's 323.35-mph blast was five mph faster than any Funny Car had ever gone, faster than any Top Fuel dragster in history, and was the first of his four passes in excess of 320 mph.
Not to be outdone, five-time Winston Top Fuel champ Joe Amato reclaimed drag racing's speed crown with a 323.50-mph charge in round two, but Force took it right back with a 323.89 blast from his Austin Coil/Bernie Fedderly-tuned Castrol Mustang in the final, where he defeated a tire-smoking Jim Epler for his first win of the season.
Amato joined Force in the winner's circle, but he had to settle for second-best in the speed department. Though unable to his improve on his 323, Amato ran 321 twice to establish a new national speed record en route to his third straight final and second straight win before an estimated four-day crowd of 104,800 at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
Amato, who qualified his Jimmy Prock-tuned Tenneco Automotive dragster No. 2 with a 4.588, defeated two-time 1998 finalist Jim Head, Castrol Lone Star Nationals runner-up Doug Kalitta, and Chief Auto Parts Winternationals winner Larry Dixon en route to the final.
Amato ran a low e.t. of the meet 4.57 to take out Kalitta in round two, then defeated Dixon in a tire-smoking semifinal duel before squaring off against Winston points leader Cory McClenathan in the final.
McClenathan, looking for his fifth win in as many finals this season, had defeated Amato three weeks prior in the final in Richmond, but Amato reversed that outcome with a 4.61 to 4.66 decision and his fifth Mopar Parts Nationals title.
Amato, who had been anything but consistent through this season's first five races, is currently in second place in the Winston standings, 69 points behind McClenathan.
After four runner-ups in five races, Force finally broke through for his first win of the season and first since last October. After qualifying second with a 4.84 behind Cruz Pedregon's track-record 4.83, Force ran 4.91, 4.88, and 4.88 in victories over Dale Creasy Jr., Cory Lee, and two-time 1998 winner Chuck Etchells to reach the final.
Epler, on the other hand, was extremely fortunate to get there. His first-round opponent, Gary Densham, crossed the centerline and was disqualified, and Pedregon red-lighted against him in round two. Epler then ran a 4.93 in the semifinals to defeat Whit Bazemore before going up in smoke in the final opposite Force's 4.84.
Force's victory was the 68th of his career and third at this race. With it, he increased his lead in the Winston standings to 99 points over Etchells.
As racers in the fuel classes battled for speed supremacy, those in the normally aspirated ranks were hardly rewriting the record books. Instead, they were locked in a mental war of reading the conditions.
Jeg Coughlin Jr., who gained notoriety last year for winning titles in four categories, scored his first win of 1998 with his Jeg's Mail Order Parts Olds, but he didn't do it in true holeshot fashion. The only round in which he left first was the second to stop points leader Warren Johnson. In the semifinals, he relied on Richard Maskin power to drive around Jim Yates for his first trip to the final since the season opener in Pomona.
Mike Edwards, in his second straight final, flinched at the start and drew a .337 red-light foul to make Coughlin's stout 6.92 a winner.
When Matt Hines broke a transmission in the opening round of Pro Stock Bike, the door was wide open for his closest nemesis, Angelle Seeling, to scoop up the title. Aboard her Winston Suzuki, a fan favorite, she knocked off C.J. Smith and teammate John Myers before coming out on the winning end of the quickest side-by-side race in class history. Her 7.284 put an end to John Smith's 7.297.
The final was no contest. Seeling motored away from first-time finalist Greg Underdahl, 7.28 to 7.39, for her first win since last year's Sears Craftsman Nationals in Topeka.
Larry Kopp's journey to the Pro Stock Truck winner's circle was not similar to his in Atlanta, but the outcome was exactly according to script.
The class' top campaigner didn't come from the pole, as he had at the Fram Nationals. When top qualifier David Nickens fouled against John Lingenfelter in the semi's and No. 2 qualifier Jerry Haas was late in round two, Kopp, who qualified third, became the top dog again. In the final, Lingenfelter's off-pace 7.88 was no match for the 7.70 turned in by Kopp, who extended his stranglehold on NHRA's newest class. -- Steve
Waldron and John Miller