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 Columns & Editorials

March 24, 2001


by Robin Smith Meiser
Like most "Roundy Rounds" (AKA oval track stock car racing) fans, I have always been a bit disdainful of drag racing. I am joined in this prejudice by many stock car racing fans. It's kind of like a Gators versus the Seminoles thing; if you like one you usually don't like the other, or so I thought until St. Patrick's Day when I went to the 32nd Annual Mac Tools Gatornational NHRA Winston Drag Race in Gainesville.

Fans prepare for the thunder!

I knew the names of the major players like John Force, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Schumacher. While I have not been an ardent straight line-racing fan, I have always had a great respect for them and the awesome speeds they travel. Any race fan knows Kenny Bernstein was the first person to ever break the 300-mile per hour barrier in 1992 at the Gatornationals in his Bud King Funny Car. What I remember the most about Bernstein is he was the owner of Ricky Rudd and Brett Bodine's Quaker State NASCAR race team in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Since then Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher has broken the 330-mile per hour mark.

It's easy to say that, 300 miles per hour but do you have any idea how fast that really is? I learned first hand on March 17 the awesome power of drag racing. I was lucky enough to stand approximately 50 feet behind Bernstein and the others when they did their "burn outs" at the start line. I got to watch first hand their reaction time as the Christmas Tree lights came on and they stepped on the gas to power their way down the quarter mile. The ground rumbled like I imagine an earthquake must; your eardrums and heart felt like they would burst from the thunderous roar; your throat and eyes burned from the alcohol fuel that smelled more like formaldehyde than petrol; the heat and flames that burst from the tailpipes felt as if it would singe the hair right off your head.

I had the thrill of meeting John Force, getting his autograph and shaking his hand. I must say I have always had a soft spot for him, when I watched drag racing it was to see him, he is my drag racing hero. He is now one of my top racing heroes because he took one minute out his busy schedule for me. It's amazing how little satisfies most race fans when it comes to their heroes.
Robin Meets one of her heros.

One of the truly great things I learned about professional drag racing was when you buy a ticket to an NHRA event you have total pit access and can get close up and meet the stars. Each one of the professional drivers had stands with autograph cards in their pit area and actually posted when they were available for autographs. Unfortunately, their NASCAR brethren have become so popular that necessity precludes this from happening at most Winston Cup event due to their hectic schedules. One thing I noticed too that I haven't seen in the Winston Cup garage in a long while was drivers with their heads bent over the engines of their cars, assisting their crews.

Best of all, I got to feel like I was part of a race team again, as my friend and local Stock division driver Al Peters won his first three elimination rounds with my good buddy Dan Miller serving as his crew chief.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see Al race as the rain began to fall forcing a postponement of the Gatornationals final eliminations to April 21. I did, however, get to meet a few of his fellow competitors and learned they are no different than the local stock car drivers I know and love. I got to sit around with them for a couple of hours and just shoot the bull. I listened to these grown men, gossip worse than women and in that respect, they are definately no different than their stock car racing counterparts.

I met men such as Scott Helms of Crystal Springs who has raced in the G Stock Automatic Stock division for the past five years and spoke longingly of being like his brother Kevin Helms who is in his first year of full time drag racing. However, on this weekend he got beat by own buddy Al Peters, the man wearing a special pass around his neck this year given to past world champions which reads "Proud Champion". Funny, I have known Al for years but never realized what a great drag racer he is.

I also met Jack Baillie of Tarpon Springs who has been to every Gatornational event ever held with his wife. They started going to the traditional Gainesville event while they were still dating. They bemoaned the fact that they used to be able to take their entire family to the events for the entire weekend for less than $100. In that respect, race fans are alike, we all agree that it costs way too much to attend professional races and feel that the sanctioning bodies are shutting out the fans that have made their sports popular by inflating ticket prices.

Most of all, I learned that the drag racing family grieves just as much for their fallen hero, Florida's own Dave Schultz, who passed away from colon cancer on February 11, one week before stock car racing lost their greatest hero Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on February 18. Schultz, a six.-time NHRA Pro Bike champion won the Gatornationals in the year 2000. Last August he was diagnosed with colon cancer but went on to compete and win his 45th national event at Houston Raceway Park despite undergoing chemotherapy. I met Dave once at one of Randy "Hondo" Fox's Christmas parties and found him to be an extremely likeable guy. He is on the same pedestal as Earnhardt, that's for sure.

At any rate, I learned alot on March 17. I expanded my horizons and spread my wings like I said I wanted to do when I left Charlotte County Speedway as their media/public relations director. I opened my mind, all those saying we use when we try new experiences. This was definately one experience that I know I will repeat and I have found a new sport that I think I will grow to love.

By Robin Meiser
NOTE:Anybody else that wants to expand their horizons can get more information about the Gatornationals by calling 1-800-884-6472 or visiting www.gainesvilleraceway.com. To learn more about the National Hot Rod Association, visit www.nhra.com. You can order tickets for final eliminations that will run April 21 from Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com.

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