Great Race: 1988 Supernationals
by Kevin McKenna
NHRA elected to shelve Supernationals as an event title following the spectacular Ontario Motor Speedway event in 1973, but revived it more than a decade later for the inaugural event at the new Houston Raceway Park. It turned out to be an appropriate title: The 1988 Fram Supernationals ultimately became not only one of the best races of the decade, but arguably one of the best events ever.
Barriers were broken in all three Pro classes during qualifying. Gene Snow made NHRA's first four-second Top Fuel run, Ed McCulloch wheeled Larry Minor's Miller Olds to a 5.25 to set the pace in Funny Car, and unheralded independent Pro Stock racer Frank Sanchez trumped Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson by breaking into the 7.2-second zone for the first time. Ironically, none of the barrier-breakers made it to the winner's circle on Sunday, and it was Eddie Hill, Mike Dunn, and Glidden who were crowned champions of the inaugural event. And, in the case of Snow and Sanchez, glory was short-lived — their historic runs were bettered before the ink could dry in the record books.
Hill, who had run the sport's first four-second e.t. at the Texas Motorplex six months earlier, almost didn't get the chance to break the record or win the event. Hill, not qualified heading into the last session, was out of parts and seemingly out of luck after destroying superchargers on his first three runs. He even issued a press release announcing that he was withdrawing from the event, but reconsidered when several of his competitors, most notably Earl Whiting and Darrell Gwynn, offered their assistance.
Down to his lost shot, Hill qualified third with a 5.03, ironically knocking Whiting's earlier 5.28 run out of the field and placing Shirley Muldowney, at 5.22, on the bump. It was the sport's quickest Top Fuel field.
"That was great sportsmanship on Earl's part," said Hill. "I went over and told him that I was sorry I bumped him, but he told me that it was his fault; he should have run better."
The drama continued in the semifinals when Hill and Snow squared off for what many expected to be the sport's first side-by-side fours. Hill did his part with a 4.99, but Snow blazed the tires and hiked the front end and had to abort at half-track.
In the final, Hill faced off with Joe Amato, who had earlier gotten a leg up on the speed record with a 287.35-mph blast. With Hill looking to better the e.t. record and Amato trying to break Frank Bradley's speed mark of 286.71, the final figured to be an all-timer. However, Amato, like Snow before him, blazed the tires and had the best seat in the house for Hill's stunning 4.93, a run that wasn't bettered for a full year.
Sanchez also etched his name in the record books with the sport's first 7.2-second run, a 7.29 from the Saturday-morning qualifying session. His glory was short-lived, though, when Glidden followed a few minutes later with a national record 7.27 from his Ford Probe, which was making its competition debut in Houston. Ultimately, the Pro Stock field became the quickest in history, with Frank Iaconio on the bump at 7.37 and 14 of the 16 qualifiers checking in with career bests.
On race day, Glidden was solidly in the 7.3s and won the 66th of his 85 national event titles with a 7.33 to 7.31 holeshot win over Warren Johnson in the final. More importantly, the victory allowed Glidden to clinch his ninth career Winston championship.
Dunn scored in Funny Car when he drove Joe Pisano's JP-1 Olds to a 5.40 to 5.53 win over Bruce Larson's Sentry Olds in the final. Dunn qualified with a third-best 5.37 and had top speed of the meet with a 274.97 blast. He ran only a 5.59 in round one and nearly fell to rookie Tony McCallum, but escaped when McCallum blew the body off his Thunderbird. Later, Dunn stopped Jerry Caminito and Don Prudhomme to reach the final.
Sportsman winners included familiar names such as Mike Troxel (Alcohol Dragster), Pat Austin (Alcohol Funny Car) Tom Weakley (Comp), Jeff Taylor (Super Stock), Greg Stanfield (Stock), Charles Swindoll (Super Comp), and Scotty Richardson (Super Gas).
In the case of Richardson and Stanfield, the Houston race marked their first of many victories in what have become very successful careers. Troxel, Austin, and Taylor used their Houston wins to help clinch 1988 Winston titles in their respective eliminators.
Sunday's final eliminations were held under dark and cloudy skies and faced the constant threat of rain, but the bad weather managed to hold off just long enough for the race to be completed. Minutes after the Top Fuel final closed the show, a major thunderstorm erupted, but it wasn't enough to dampen the spirits of the event's inaugural champions.