Great Race: 2000 NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals
by John Miller
Bright lights, throngs of visitors, incredible architecture, long-shot winners, big paydays, and a festive atmosphere — the elements that traditionally combine to bring the sparkle to the jewel in the desert called Las Vegas — helped the inaugural NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals strike it rich at the quarter-mile called The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2000.
The race, one of the sport's most anticipated events, and the venue, which upped the ante on what constitutes a cutting-edge facility, lived up to their billings and delivered to racers and race fans alike a jackpot of a debut.
Driving down one of the most famous streets in the world, Las Vegas Boulevard (better known as The Strip), with its billion-dollar hotels and casinos and endless sea of neon lights, it was impossible not to notice that the NHRA Winston tour was in town.
In the sports books of many casinos, including the MGM Grand, Excalibur, and New York, New York, race fans were able to place wagers on their favorite drivers for the first time. The mere fact that casinos would devote valuable time and resources to researching and establishing a betting line for NHRA drag racing spoke volumes of the impact drag racing had on Las Vegas. Fans who bet Funny Car long-shot Jim Epler at 25-1 or Top Fuel champ Kenny Bernstein at 10-1 were no doubt thrilled with the outcome of the event. Even those who took Pro Stock favorite Jeg Coughlin Jr. at 5-2 were able to more than double their money.
Visitors to Las Vegas can quickly become accustomed to luxurious accommodations, and those who made it to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway were not disappointed. Everything about The Strip was first class even though, from start to finish, the track was built in a little more than three months.
The focal point of the track, was the towering main grandstand, which comfortably accommodated more than 20,000 fans. Every seat has a backrest and affords an unobstructed view of the entire track, including its uphill shutdown area and its super-size scoreboards. Though temperatures soared into the 90s for much of the weekend, the design and location of the main grandstand, which features the luxury suites along the top, allowed fans to remain in the shade for most of the day.
Nearly as exciting as the show on the track was the one in the air. Nellis Air Force Base, located just across from the track, gave spectators a thrill with an impromptu air show. Nearly every aircraft in the entire U.S. Air Force arsenal flew overhead at one time or another, including huge C-5 Galaxy transports, AWACS radar planes, A-10 tank busters, and F-16 fighters. One of the most memorable sights of the event occurred at the completion of the national anthem Sunday morning when a pair of F-16s made a low-level pass over the track.
Racers were able to overcome ambient temperatures in the 90s and track temperatures in the treacherous 120-degree range to conquer a green track due to the quarter-mile's incredible smoothness and the skill of crew chiefs.
Fittingly, a city that was built on numbers had plenty of interesting ones at its first NHRA national event. Even if you weren't fortunate enough to place a winning wager on the race's outcome at one of many participating casinos, the weekend's lucky numbers were three, five, and 300.
The lesson in Nevada numerology began with Coughlin's third win in the first four starts of 2000. The driver of the Jeg's Mail Order Cutlass rolled four straight winning 7.07s and scored yet another final-round conquest of perennial rival Warren Johnson.
The 7.07 to 7.10 final-round victory raised Coughlin's career win-loss record against Pro Stock's "Professor" to 5-2 and at the same time stretched his 2000 record to an impressive 13-1.
Epler scored in Funny Car, marking the third win in four starts for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) team, coming on the heels of team owner Jerry Toliver's two wins earlier in 2000. The victory came at the expense of their archrivals from Team Castrol, this time with Tony Pedregon holding the losing hand, 4.98 to 5.41.
Epler and Toliver debuted new WWF paint schemes in Las Vegas, and with his car's namesake, Kane, watching from the sidelines, Epler powered his Big Red Machine Camaro to the No. 2 spot and into the winner's circle Sunday for his first win since the 1993 Winston Finals.
Joining Epler in the LVMP winner's circle was another racer, Bernstein, who broke a long winless streak that dated back to his Top Fuel win at the 1998 Winston Finals.
Bernstein had another thing in common with Epler: Each was the first driver in his respective category to surpass 300 mph; Bernstein in 1992 and Epler in 1993. But the Bud King had even more in common with the man he beat to take the Top Fuel title, Joe Amato.
The two 55-year-old, five-time Winston champions squared off for the money, and both smoked the tires, but Bernstein refused to fold and came away with a trophy to hold, the 53rd of his career.
Angelle Savoie raised the stakes in the Pro Stock Bike battle by winning her first race since the 1999 Memphis stop and 11th of her career with the Winston Suzuki.
Savoie defeated Tony Mullen in the final round, handing him his second straight runner-up when his Suzuki broke the transmission.
Bob Panella Jr. scored in Pro Stock Truck, winning his second title in three starts by denying Randy Daniels his second win of the season. Panella qualified low and raced through eliminations to defeat Daniels in the final, 7.68 to 7.71.