Great Race: 1996 Western Auto Nationals
by Steve Waldron
At the same racetrack where Gary Ormsby recorded drag racing's first 4.8-second run six years earlier, his Castrol teammate, John Force, became the first to do it in Funny Car when he ran a 4.889 at the 1996 Western Auto Nationals in Topeka. As significant as Force's accomplishment was, it was just one of many highlights from one of the all-time great races.
After four days of furious action at Heartland Park Topeka, not only had the 4.8-second Funny Car barrier been broken, but the 4.5-second Top Fuel barrier and the 310-mph Funny Car barrier also had been shattered.
Five-time Winston champ Joe Amato kicked off Saturday night's final Top Fuel qualifying session with the sport's first 4.5-second run, a 4.595 at 314.13 mph.
"All weekend the guys said that the car had a low 4.6 in it if it ever ran on the big end, and it definitely did," said Amato. "The front tires smoked like the landing gear on an airplane when it came back down after the leave, and it kept pulling all the way."
On the final run of the session, the late Blaine Johnson made Amato the sport's first No. 2 4.5-second qualifier when he recorded a 4.592 at 310.06 mph, a time that he would back up Sunday in round two with a 4.62 for the first 4.5-second national record.
"I'm sorry for Joe that he didn't get the full spotlight," said Johnson, who swiped the $4,000 Budweiser low qualifier bonus from Amato. "He got the first 4.5, but we got paid for ours."
A day earlier, eventual winner Scott Kalitta's American Int'l Airways dragster ran a 4.63 at 315.67 mph, the then-fastest run ever, which qualified him fourth behind Johnson, Amato, and Kenny Bernstein's 4.62 at 308.74 mph. In eliminations, Kalitta sped past Jim Head and Andy Woods in the first two rounds, then ran a 4.69 at 314.90 mph in the semifinals to beat his father, Connie, and back up his earlier 315 for the national speed record. In the final, Kalitta ran a 4.66 at 314.68 against an up-in-smoke Bernstein.
The Top Fuel field, anchored by Gordy Bonin's 4.84, was the quickest ever and featured six cars in the 4.6s.
Not to be outdone, the Funny Car contingent put on quite a show of its own. In the same Saturday session that Amato and Johnson ran 4.5s, Force recorded his historic 4.88, which he later backed it up for a new national record. In nailing down his 55th career victory, Force also had the distinction of being the first Funny Car driver to make eight four-second runs at one event. There were 15 four-second Funny Car runs in all.
Force wasn't alone in the spotlight, however. On Friday evening, Chuck Etchells recorded the then-fastest Funny Car run in history with a 308.74-mph blast. Al Hofmann followed with a 306.53 in Saturday's first session, which backed up the 308.21 that he turned in round one for a temporary national record. Cruz Pedregon then upstaged them both when he clocked the first Funny Car run in excess of 310 mph with a 310.34 in his second-round victory against his younger brother, Tony. Pedregon then reset the national record when he ran 311.20 mph in his semifinal victory against Mark Oswald.
In the final, Force and Pedregon didn't disappoint. Force, whose Castrol GTX entry had run 4.99, 4.97, 4.99, and 4.88 in qualifying and 4.98, 4.96, and 4.93 en route to the final, left first, .450 to .476, and held on to win the quickest side-by-side Funny Car race in history, 4.93 to 4.94.
Afterward, Force dedicated his victory to National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Leslie Lovett, who died just days before the event.
"I remember I'd come to a track with a bitchin' paint job and a new sponsor, then I'd get beat," said Force. "And he told me, 'Force, you're just not as good a driver as you think you are. It ain't about paint jobs. It's about winning races, and you ain't doing that.' It kinda pissed me off, but I got to thinking, 'You know, he's right,' so I kept at it. I got eight four-second [e.t.] slips this weekend, and every one of those slips has his name on it."
With temperatures in the low 90s and humidity as high as 75 percent, the normally aspirated Pro Stock cars didn't fare nearly as well as their nitro-breathing brethren. The moist air resulted in a tight field but no record performances, just another Warren Johnson victory against rival Jim Yates.
Racing on his 53rd birthday, Johnson wheeled his GM Performance Parts Pontiac Firebird to the event's only 7.0-second run with a 7.09 at 194.17 mph, low e.t. and top speed, in the semifinals. In the final, Yates, who qualified No. 1 for just the second time in his career, ran one-hundredth of a second slower than Johnson, 7.11 to 7.10, and gave up four-thousandths at the start, .442 to Johnson's .438. It was Yates' second straight final-round loss to Johnson and second in a row at this event.