Great Race: 1984 U.S. Nationals

by Kevin McKenna

Top Fuel legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was once quoted as saying, "Retiring is easy; I've done it dozens of times."

Indeed, Garlits hung up his helmet many times during the course of his 40-year career, and more often than not, he came back stronger than ever. Of his many memorable comebacks, none was more dramatic or as rewarding as his victory at the 1984 U.S. Nationals.

Winless on the NHRA tour since the 1979 World Finals in Ontario, Calif., Garlits had made only sporadic appearances on the NHRA tour during the 1984 season and had been mostly uncompetitive, due in large part to a lack of proper funding.

That problem was remedied by Garlits' old buddy, former Top Fuel driver and Florida businessman Art Malone, who stepped in and offered his support for a run at the U.S. Nationals title.

Top Fuel qualifying produced a heart-stopping moment when Phil Hobbs crashed the Barber & Engler entry. Hobbs had been experimenting with a ground-effects package in lieu of a rear wing and smoked the tires just off the starting line. He was not seriously injured.

With an arsenal of fresh parts, Garlits qualified third in the field with a 5.59 and set top speed of the event with a 261.62-mph blast, a full eight miles per hour faster than he had ever gone. In eliminations, "Big Daddy" downed Shannon Stuart, Howard Haight, and Larry Minor to reach the final, where he made his quickest run of the weekend, a 5.52 to defeat old friend Connie Kalitta.

Garlits' Indy win, the sixth of his seven career U.S. Nationals titles, signified a rebirth of Top Fuel. Injuries to Shirley Muldowney and Doug Kerhulas and dwindling car counts had many predicting the demise of NHRA's fastest class.

However, buoyed by his victory and armed with a major sponsorship from Super Shops, "Big Daddy" committed to run the entire tour in 1985 and successfully defended his Indy title en route to his third Winston crown.

Top Fuel qualifying was marred by a horrific crash involving veteran Phil Hobbs in the Barber & Engler entry. Using an experimental ground-effects tunnel in lieu of a rear wing, Hobbs' car smoked the tires, hopped the guardrail, and came to a stop on the other side. Hobbs was not seriously injured.

Overshadowed but no less stunning than Garlits' Top Fuel victory was the Funny Car triumph of upstart Jim Head. The Columbus, Ohio, contractor, who raced in Top Fuel from the late 1970s until the 1983 season with little success, built a Funny Car for the 1984 campaign. Though he ran respectably, Head was no threat to win until he downed Kenny Bernstein's 260-mph Budweiser King Tempo in the final round.

Head didn't qualify until the last session and was just 14th quickest with a 5.90, well off the pace set by leader Mark Oswald, who drove the Candies & Hughes Firebird to a 5.69.

Head ran consistent 5.9s in eliminations, and three of his opponents Jody Smart, Ed McCulloch, and Bernstein smoked the tires. In round two, Big Bud Shootout winner Tom McEwen lost his chance for a double when a driveline coupler broke at half-track.

The top half of the 16-car Funny Car field all ran 5.80 or better during the event, but Head's string of mid-5.9 runs was enough.

Warren Johnson, near lane, downed hometown favorite Bob Glidden by a razor-thin 7.63 to 7.65 margin in the Pro Stock final. The win helped Johnson claim the points lead, but he later surrendered it to Lee Shepherd.

For the eighth consecutive season, Bob Glidden appeared in the U.S. Nationals Pro Stock final, but this time, the hometown favorite was downed by Warren Johnson, who powered to a 7.63 to 7.65 win with his Hurst Olds Cutlass.

From the beginning of the event, it was practically a given that Glidden and W.J. would meet in the final. They led qualifying with runs of 7.64 and 7.66, respectively. The only other drivers in the 7.6s were Frank Iaconio, who fell to Glidden in round two, and Butch Leal, who was upset in round one by Ken Dondero.

With the win and Lee Shepherd's surprising round-two loss, Johnson claimed the points lead in Pro Stock, though Shepherd would later win the Winston title.

Al DaPozzo scored his fifth career victory in Top Alcohol Dragster when he drove his Team Strange Evil Spirit entry to a 6.44 to 6.78 win over Texan Bubba Sewell in the final.

DaPozzo, who had red-lighted at six prior events in 1984, opened eliminations with a 6.67 and was progressively quicker in each eliminations round with his Rodeck-powered dragster.

Forty-four drivers attempted to qualify for the Alcohol Funny Car field, but none was quicker or more consistent than Brad Anderson, who clinched the national championship with his fifth win of the season. Anderson's Firebird was the only car to run in the 6.3s or exceed 220 mph in eliminations, and he downed Ken Veney in the final, 6.37 to a tire-shaking 6.70.

Earlier in the event, Anderson was involved in a bizarre race against Steve Group. Actually, it took three races to decide a winner because the Tree malfunctioned twice. In the first race, a yellow light never illuminated on Anderson's side of the Tree. On the first re-run, the Tree was inadvertently set for a five-tenths countdown. On the third try, Anderson powered to a 6.39 to 6.58 victory.

Future Pro Stock star Larry Morgan capped a stellar year in Super Stock by driving his Castrol GTX Pontiac to a third national event win. Morgan claimed the title when Ron Terrell fouled in the final round.

The Super Gas final was one of the most crucial races of the year. It pitted Tommy Costales against David Simmons, who entered the race ranked first and second, respectively, in the Winston points standings. Simmons won the race with a perfect 9.900 pass, but it wasn't enough to prevent Costales from clinching the title. The race also had a bearing on the outcome of the Quaker State Sportsman Cup, which went to Comp driver Coleman Roddy. Had Costales won the final, he would have passed Roddy for the $15,000 top prize.

Other Sportsman winners were Doug Kjono, who won the only national event title of his career when he drove his four-cylinder-powered F/ED past Ron Baker's B/SM Mustang in the Comp final, and Bill Quinn, who topped Steve Benyo in Stock.

Top Fuel Bike racer Elmer Trett, who would lose his life at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1996, gave the fans a scare in the 1984 edition of the event when he came off his 200-mph Kawasaki early in an eliminations run against eventual winner Sam Wills. Trett was not injured, and Wills went on to record a 7.03, the quickest pass in the class' history at the time.

George Bryce, who went on to win four Winston Pro Stock Bike titles as a team owner with John Myers and Angelle Seeling, claimed the Funny Bike win with a narrow 7.61 to 7.63 final-round victory over Terry Kizer.