It was the 50th anniversary celebration for one of drag racing’s most historic events: the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, and it was Chevrolet racers again leaving their mark in both the Sportsman and Professional levels.
When the final tally was complete come Sunday evening, the Bowtie brand sent eight different racers to the event’s historic winner’s circle.
Super Stock produced a successful title defense for Kevin Riner. Just one year earlier, Riner raced his SS/JA 1998 Camaro to its first-ever NHRA national event title, and in 2019 the North Carolina racer did it again. Kevin ran a final round time of 10.27 to defeat Virginia’s Mark Alvey’s GT/JA 1987 Camaro.
The event’s highly competitive index classes: Super Street (10.90) and Super Gas (9.90) featured wins by Doug Ramsey and Ed Richardson, respectively. Ramsey earned his first-ever NHRA Wally driving his North Carolina-based Chevy Camaro when he beat Colby Fuller to the stripe. Richardson drove his highly reliable 1963 Corvette to victory, which was the sixth time for that Florida-based racer.
Top Sportsman, a particularly fierce category in the Southeast, was once again a demanding affair. Driving his 1969 Camaro, Sandy Wilkins emerged a winner in that star-studded affair. Wilkins, after qualifying 10th, outgunned Bruce Thrift in the final round, and his winning time of 6.655 at 197.71 mph, gave him NHRA national event career win number three.
The Gatornationals marked the season starting block for the E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service, which was an insanely fast and record-setting affair. After resetting the all-time quickest bump spot at 5.753, it was “game on” for that swift class. The final boiled down to a head-to-head confrontation between two Middle East-based teams: the AAP race team from Qatar versus Bahrain 1 Racing — both fielding supercharged Chevy Camaros. Todd Tutterow, driver of the AAP 1968 Camaro used a holeshot to win the championship round over Steve “Fast” Jackson. Incredibly, in that final, Jackson recorded the quickest e.t. ever in the class: a 5.643, which fell just short of Tutterow’s quicker-leaving 5.662.
After flirting with the idea of moving out of Pro Stock last season, Bo Butner is certainly glad he nixed that notion. The talented Indiana-based driver, who was the 2017 NHRA Pro Stock world champion, scored his second win of the season. Bo had an unobstructed path to victory in the final when his scheduled opponent, Alex Laughlin, had his machine fail on the starting line. Bo’s event-winning time in his 2019 Camaro was a 6.505 at 212.29 mph.
Funny Car class racing produced two big wins for Chevrolet fans in both the Nitro and Top Alcohol eliminators. Robert Hight wheeled the Auto Club Camaro to its second victory of the season when he outgunned Tim Wilkerson in the final round. For the super-skilled John Force Racing team driver, this win was the fourth time he has won at Gainesville Raceway. Hight was dominant and consistent throughout, qualifying Number One (3.868), and setting low e.t. of the race at 3.852.
The TAFC event crown went to another California-based driver: Sean Bellemeur who wheeled the Bartone Brothers race car to a more-than-convincing victory. Bellemeur upped his NHRA national event win total to 12 when he beat Doug Gordon in another Chevy Camaro final round. In fact, Sean recorded the quickest e.t. in class history with a numbing NHRA national record setting 5.352 to seal the deal.
Perhaps the event’s biggest story came from the momentum-rich SAM Tech.edu Factory Stock Showdown division, as the category overall improved by a monumental margin in performance. Going into the 2019 season the official NHRA national record for a FS/XX car was 7.929, set late last season. But that benchmark became mincemeat during class qualifying action as 31 cars benefited from outstanding atmospheric and track conditions, as the entire qualified field exceeded the previous national record — with the bump being set at 7.920.
The COPO Camaro driven by Louisiana’s Stephen Bell was the top finishing Chevy car, losing out in the final round when he just could not handle Drew Skillman’s record-setting 7.736 e.t. pace.
This edition of the Sam Tech.edu Factory Stock Showdown featured a highly competitive mix of the Big Three North American automakers, as the NHRA currently seems to have its rules formula right. It was an inspiring show and is what the future of drag racing needs to be more about. CHP
Photography by Bruce Biegler