Great Race: 1983 Winston World Finals
by Steve Waldron
After a record-breaking show at the Golden Gate Nationals in Fremont, Calif., two weeks earlier, the 1983 season finale figured to be anticlimactic. The traction at Southern California's Orange County Int'l Raceway had always been tricky, so it was reasonable to assert that one probably wouldn't see record-setting performances. It just couldn't happen … but it did.
In Top Fuel, Gary Beck, who had wheeled Larry Minor's dragster to a best-ever 5.391 in winning the Golden Gate Nationals, equaled that number in qualifying and backed it up for a national record with a 5.43 in round one. Grabbing the other half of the Top Fuel record was a surprising Rocky Epperly in Frank Taylor's Dago Red dragster. Epperly twice ran 257.14 mph to set the national speed mark. If that wasn't enough, the Top Fuel field was the quickest in history for 16 cars, anchored by Ray Stutz's 5.77.
Funny Car also produced a record field, anchored by Denny Savage's 5.96, as did Pro Stock, which featured a 7.86 bump, and Bob Glidden set the national speed record in Pro Stock at 182.18 mph. In addition, the Alcohol Dragster and Alcohol Funny Car fields were the quickest ever, and Alcohol Funny Car winner Brad Anderson wheeled Mike Grieco's Camaro to class records of 6.34, 221.67.
Add Shirley Muldowney's popular Top Fuel win, John Lombardo's first NHRA major-event victory in Funny Car, and Warren Johnson's winning performance in Pro Stock, and it's easy to understand why Orange County's last World Finals was easily its most memorable.
After his pole-grabbing 5.39 and first-round 5.43, there appeared to be nothing that could keep Beck from duplicating his winning Golden Gate Nationals performance. Unfortunately for him, that wasn't the case. In round two, his blue dragster broke an input shaft as it left the starting line against Richard Tharp and his day was over.
Muldowney, winless since the season-opening Winternationals, showed up with the previous year's dragster and ran low 5.7s on her first three qualifying runs before ripping a 5.56 at 247.25 mph, her best run of the year and good for the No. 3 spot behind Beck and Minor.
After soloing to a 5.60 in round one after Danny Danell exploded a supercharger on his burnout, Muldowney's Rahn Tobler and John Muldowney-wrenched dragster recorded low e.t. of the second round with a 5.65 to trounce Shannon Stuart. Her pink Pioneer-backed dragster then spun the tires for the only time all weekend in a 5.88 to 6.06 semifinal victory over Richard Tharp, but Muldowney rebounded with a fine 5.63 in the final to defeat Joe Amato's up-in-smoke 11.75.
In Funny Car, it seemed fitting that the final round of the last NHRA national event to be held at Orange County would feature two racers whose careers got rolling at the fabled Southern California track. Lombardo and John Force had squared off on the racetrack dozens of times over the years, but never in a race as big as this one.
Both drivers were enjoying the best national event of their lives and both were looking for their first wins. Lombardo, driving his Pat Galvin-tuned Dodge Omni, made the best run of his career in qualifying, a 5.88, as did Force, who thundered to a 5.78 at 249.30 mph, top speed of the meet.
Lombardo appeared to be beaten in round one when he smoked the tires against Frank Hawley, but Hawley had problems and Lombardo got back on the throttle to take a 7.70 to 8.81 win. Lombardo then outran Billy Meyer in round two with a 5.93 and posted a 5.90 to beat Denny Savage in the semifinals.
Force got a break in the semifinals when No. 1 qualifier Don Prudhomme shut off with a fuel leak. He then smoked the tires almost immediately in the final but recovered and went after Lombardo, who began to spin the tires about 200 feet downtrack. The two raced to the finish line together, with Lombardo taking a narrow 6.32 to 6.32 victory.
Johnson, whose Pro Stock victory was his first in exactly one year, qualified his Hurst/Olds third with a 7.65 and in eliminations ran 7.68, 7.70, 7.71, and 7.69, defeating Rickie Smith, Jerry Eckman, Bob Glidden, and Lee Shepherd.
Driving perhaps what was the best race of his life, Johnson beat his final two opponents on holeshots. He held off Glidden's quicker 7.66 in the semifinals, and his .436 to .462 reaction-time advantage was the difference in the final against Shepherd, who ran a 7.68.
Despite the loss, Shepherd came from behind to clinch his third straight Winston Pro Stock championship after points leader and No. 1 qualifier Frank Iaconio was upset by Reid Whisnant in round one. Whisnant clocked a stunning 5.620, the quickest run ever by a Pro Stocker in NHRA competition.