Great Race: 1983 Golden Gate Nationals
by Kevin McKenna
The 1983 Golden Gate Nationals, the final NHRA national event held at Baylands Raceway Park, began soggy — rain washed out the entire first day of qualifying — but ended in spectacular fashion when Gary Beck smashed the 5.3-second barrier in the Top Fuel final. In between, Northern California fans witnessed an event that has been compared favorably with some of the greatest races in NHRA history.
The Golden Gate Nationals, held just three years (1981-83), was much more than a warm-up for the World Finals at Southern California's Orange County Int'l Raceway two weeks later. During its run, the event was one of the few NHRA races that featured nighttime qualifying. Ironically, the 1983 edition was also the last time that an NHRA national event featured eight-car fields in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock; however, what the race may have lacked in quantity, it sure made up for in quality.
For several years, Beck and car owner Larry Minor fielded the most potent team in Top Fuel. Beck was the first driver in the 5.6s and 5.5s, and in 1982, he became the first racer to dip into the 5.4-second zone by running a 5.48 at the U.S. Nationals. He bettered the mark early in the 1983 season with a 5.44 at the Gatornationals, and by the time the tour rolled into Baylands, most knowledgeable insiders fully expected to see the sport's first 5.3-second run. Beck did not disappoint.
After qualifying in the top spot with a 5.55, Beck opened eliminations with a pair of 5.47 runs. In the final against Gary Ormsby, Beck's car moved visibly harder than it had in previous rounds, and he illuminated the scoreboard with a 5.391 blast. So dominant was his performance that the next-quickest elapsed time of the event was Ormsby's 5.54 in the final round, and no other driver ran better than 5.60 during the weekend. The victory also helped Beck clinch his second and final NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship.
The Funny Car class was no less exciting. Billy Meyer downed Raymond Beadle in the final, 5.75 to 5.78, in what was then the quickest side-by-side Funny Car race of all time. Meyer had finished second to Frank Hawley in the 1982 points battle but had slumped badly in 1983, winning just one round of competition heading into the Baylands event. Meyer was not even ranked in the top 10, but after qualifying sixth with a 5.90, his Chief Auto Parts/7-Eleven Pontiac came to life with a 5.84 in the semi's and a 5.75 in the final against low qualifier Beadle.
With a qualified field of just eight cars, the bump was a 5.91, and the list of alternates featured some of the day's biggest Funny Car stars, such as Al Segrini, Tom McEwen, Don Prudhomme, Tom Anderson, Mike Dunn, and John Collins.
Hawley qualified the Austin Coil-tuned Chi-Town Hustler in the third spot and beat John Force in round one to clinch his second consecutive Winston Funny Car championship.
Though both fuel championships were decided at the event, the Pro Stock points battle only got tighter when Frank Iaconio, a popular figure in Pro Stock, took over first place after a final-round victory against Lee Shepherd. Entering the event, Iaconio, who built his own engines and was his own crew chief, was trailing Shepherd in the points battle but emerged with a slim 104-point lead (based on a system that awarded 100 points per round-win). Iaconio qualified in the top spot with a 7.65, and his 182.18 mph top speed was not only the fastest run of the event but also the first half of a potential speed record. Unfortunately for Iaconio, he lost out on a chance to bank 200 bonus points after failing to back up the speed.
After beating Butch Leal and Roy Hill, Iaconio reached the final, where his clutch .412 light helped him score a crucial win against the Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Camaro, 7.69 to 7.68. Ironically, Iaconio ultimately lost the championship two weeks later at the World Finals when he was involved in a controversial first-round race against Reid Whisnant's Dodge Charger.
The Alcohol Funny Car field featured most of the day's heavy hitters, such as national champs Frank Manzo and Fred Mandoline, but the star of the show was Vern Moats, who routed the field with his Hamm's Beer Datsun. Moats qualified in the top spot with a 6.40, which was then the quickest run of all time. In eliminations, he stepped up with a pair of 6.36 runs en route to a final-round victory over Manzo.
Dennis Forcelle claimed the Alcohol Dragster title after current Federal-Mogul Dragster team owner Jerry Darien fouled, and East Coast veteran racer Bob Kaiser claimed the Comp title with his C/EA Opel. Other event winners were Ron Zoelle (Super Stock), Glenn Wann (Stock), and Dan DiVita (Super Gas), whose win was especially memorable because it clinched the 1983 Winston Super Gas title and the coveted Quaker State Sportsman Cup title.