Great Race: 1979 Silver Anniversary U.S. Nationals
by Phil Burgess
It's commonly understood that any U.S. Nationals victory is a career-crowning achievement, but along the event's 47-year history, there have been those that might have been a bit more meaningful based on their historical context or the performances at the event. A case in point would have to be the 1979 U.S. Nationals, which celebrated the great event's silver anniversary.
A yearlong buildup to the special occasion brought a fever pitch to the event, which was heavy on nostalgia and drama.
"Just being a part of this year's U.S. Nationals meant something special to everyone associated with drag racing's most prestigious event, and that carried from the racers to the fans and on to the officials, media, crewmembers, and on down the line," read the post-race report in National DRAGSTER. "It was the drag race being talked about all year, being planned for months, and the one that culminated in the fashion every single person expected — but much, much more."
The 25th U.S. Nationals was a race that everyone wanted to attend and be a part of in some big or small way, as evidence by the whopping 60-plus car count in Top Fuel. The quality was there, too. The event sported the quickest fields in history, with record bumps in Top Fuel (6.01, 32-car field), Funny Car (6.13), Pro Stock (8.79), Pro Comp (6.80, 32-car field), and Comp (-.133).
Don "the Snake" Prudhomme reset the NHRA Funny Car national record at 5.95 seconds, and Gordie Bonin, who joined the Cragar 5-Second Funny Car Club with a run of 5.97, set the national speed record at 245.90 mph en route to the Funny Car title.
NHRA pulled out all the stops to make the event memorable, including staging a reenactment of the ribbon-cutting ceremony from the 1955 Nationals, starring Art Chrisman's famed #25 entry, and a nostalgic, tire-smoking, 160-mph run by Don Garlits in Swamp Rat 1 that was flagged off by Nationals' anti-rain dancer Bob Beezer.
Special awards were given to officials who had worked at all 24 previous events and to Al Brown, who had competed in all 24. Past champions were paraded down the return road in cars with model years from 1955 to 1978.
Of the nearly 1,000 competitors who took part in eliminations, 10 walked away and into the sunset clutching a very memorable trophy: Kelly Brown (Top Fuel), Bonin (Funny Car), Bob Glidden (Pro Stock), Roy Thacker (Fuel Bike), Terry Vance (Pro Bike), Billy Williams (Pro Comp), Bobby Cross (Comp), Don Coonce (Modified), Don Wolff (Super Stock), and Bobby Blankenship (Stock).
The Top Fuel field also set a record for five-second qualifiers at 27 (breaking the mark of 24 established at the decade's other great performance race, the 1975 World Finals), including 10 qualifiers in the 5.80s. Frank Rupert, the No. 1 alternate, and veteran Jerry Ruth crashed trying to make the field and suffered broken bones.
Eventual winner Brown's injuries were sustained between the framerails in claiming his fourth win of the season and his eighth in less than two years. Brown's Bill Schultz-tuned Winston champion Over the Hill Gang entry went through two engines in eliminations and had to borrow a third from Funny Car racer John Lombardo, which Brown also used up in defeating Johnny Abbott in the final, 5.88, 245.23 to an engine-wounding 6.33 at 196.50 mph.
Brown and Schultz had qualified just 13th at 5.919, but put together a string of 5.80s and 5.90s in eliminations, including the best time of eliminations, a 5.813 in round one, which was punctuated by a broken rod or two. Richard Tharp set low e.t. of the meet during qualifying at 5.810 seconds with the potent Candies & Hughes entry, and Shirley Muldowney nabbed top speed honors with a blast of 250.69 mph in qualifying.
After setting the speed record at 245.90 in qualifying, Bonin — who did not set top speed; that went to Pat Foster's unbacked-up 246.57 in the Super Shops Arrow — qualified his Jerry Verheul-tuned Bubble Up Firebird No. 2 behind Prudhomme, then defeated Billy Meyer, Tom Hoover, and defending event champ Tom McEwen to reach the final round, where he was the heavy favorite against Kosty Ivanof's Boston Shaker Corvette.
Ivanof had used a career-best 6.12 just to make the tough field, then upset Tripp Shumake, Raymond Beadle, and Ron Colson to reach his second career final and his first since losing the money run at the 1974 Le Grandnational against Shirl Greer. While Bonin had run as quick as 6.04 (low e.t. of eliminations) in round two, Ivanof's best run was his 6.20 holeshot win over Beadle's 6.17.
Whether Ivanof could pull off another giant-killing will never be known because his Corvette developed an oil leak behind the line and had to be shut off, allowing Bonin to solo for the win with just a 6.30.
Glidden edged closer to Don Prudhomme's career-leading 28 national event wins with his 26th Pro Stock title and clinched his fourth Winston Championship in the process. The win also was his fourth of an eventual nine at Indy. The win was secured when Larry Lombardo red-lighted in the title bout with Bill Jenkins' Chevy Camaro.
Glidden's Plymouth Arrow dominated the entire event, clicking off a string of 8.50s, including a low e.t. 8.56. Glidden also was the low qualifier at 8.582, edging out Frank Iaconio's 8.584. Iaconio had set top speed at 160.42 mph. The record bump spot was 8.79, with California's Larry Johnson sitting on the bubble.
For all of its greatness and grandeur, the Silver Anniversary U.S. Nationals was rocked by the deaths of Top Fuel Bike rider Ernie Rife, who lost control of his bike at the top end, and cameraman Joe Rooks, who was killed by debris from Rupert's crash.