Columnist checks two items off bucket list on trip to Gator Nationals

My best friend and car buddy Bob Catton and his wife, Joyce, gave me a great birthday present this year: Top Eliminator Club tickets to this year’s 48th annual Amalie Motor Oil National Hot Rod Association Gator Nationals, drag races held from my birthday, March 16, through March 19 at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Florida.

It wasn’t a hard gift to accept.

The Gator Nats had been on my bucket list for about 30 years. I’ve been very fortunate to have attended at least one of every major NHRA national events since I started going to them way when I was a teenager in 1961.

The gift couldn’t have come at a better time. This year’s winter was really giving me the blahs. Then, unfortunately, my hope of seeing cool collector cars at the Championship Auto Shows World of Wheels Rod and Custom show at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont from March 3 to 5 fell through. I had double carpal tunnel surgery on my hands the day before the show started and could not attend. Then the car blues really set in. Not attending this year’s car show really had me down.

My wife quickly got us plane tickets for Florida, and just like that, those blues started to dissipate. I already could smell the sweet aroma of methanol racing fuel along with the pungent odor from nitromethane that top fuel dragsters and funny cars burn.

On the day we were supposed to leave for the sunshine state and big-time professional drag racing, winter storm Stella hit, and our flight to Florida was canceled. My wife somehow got us on a new flight the next day at 8:30 a.m. The next morning, there still were a few snowflakes coming down, but when we were airborne and looking down on the Chicago skyline, leaving the Windy City behind never felt so good – almost as good as the temperature being in the 60s when we landed in Florida.

As we drove to the east side of the state, I was really enjoying seeing convertibles on the highway with their tops down and smiling, happy people inside. Warm weather and sun will do that.

Thursday and Friday at the Gainesville race facility was enjoyed by watching all of the drag race team car haulers pull into the pits and set up. The logistics of it all never fails to amaze me. In addition, all of the amateur Sportsman class teams with their over-the-top motorhomes and matching car-hauling trailers were pulling into the adjacent overflow parking lots at the same time.

A few “top fuel” dragsters and funny cars made some tune-up passes Friday and already were putting up qualifying times and huge, super fast miles per hour numbers, and this was just more or less a test and tune session for all the new arrivals. Speeds of more than 230 mph in the mid three- to high four-second range were not uncommon.

The Gainesville Raceway really is a premiere drag race facility. It’s vast in size, beautiful in landscape, and the racetrack itself is laser straight and smooth, with tons of seating on both sides of the track for race fans to enjoy top flight NHRA drag racing. It was going to be a great race weekend.

The next day, Saturday, while walking through the pit area, I ran into Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, one of the biggest names if not the biggest legend in all of drag racing. He had one of his “swamp rat” front engine dragsters from his drag race museum in Ocala, Florida, on display.

I chatted with him about the first time I saw him race way back in 1959, when I was just 16 years old at the Great Lakes drag strip in Union Grove, Wisconsin. He told me he always liked racing at the strip in the early days because they always paid him the money they promised him, something a lot of drag strips didn’t do back in the day.

Soon it was time for lunch with our Top Eliminator Club tickets. For years, lunch served to the drag race community usually has consisted of some form of corn dogs, hot dogs, burgers, cheesy fries and a Coke. But the Top Eliminator lunch area was a huge buffet with more food than I could count under a large, white hospitality tent, and a nice cold beer. My mom made me a cheese sandwich to take to the first drag race I ever attended in 1958. “Boy, things have changed,” I related to my buddy Bob.

After lunch, Bob and I headed back to our choice seats high above all the action in the south grandstands. Right off the top in the first round of qualifying, famed drag racer Doug Kalitta in his Mac Tools-sponsored top fuel rail posted a low 4-second run at 331 mph, and the crowd went absolutely nuts.

After watching all the qualifying runs, it was late in the day, so we headed back to our hotel in Coco Beach, where I had an opportunity to check off one more box on my bucket list. A lot of people were gathering on the beach to watch a rocket launch scheduled for 1 in the morning. Floridians treat a rocket launch like a big-time sporting event. They come to the beach with coolers, lawn chairs and blankets. Then a few minutes before launch time, everyone on the beach faced north toward Cape Canaveral Air Force Base Space Complex 37, about 4 miles away. Then, right on time, the biggest, loudest, brightest explosion I have ever seen took place. The bright white light at blastoff lit up the ocean’s surface for miles, and then came the multiple crackle of explosions as the rocket went straight up into the night sky.

Looking up at the rocket, the flames coming from the bottom of the ship surprised me. The glow resembled an orange flame, much like a blow torch turned wide open. And then it was gone, out of sight. The crowd roared and cheered as if someone had just hit a grand slam home run. It will forever stay in my mind as the most impressive display of raw power from a man-made machine I’ve ever seen.

In the end, it was the seasoned veterans taking all the marbles at Gator Nationals. Tony Schumacher took Top Fuel Dragster, and John Force won Top Fuel Funny Car. Believe it or not, these cars actually accelerate faster than a rocket in the space of a quarter mile.

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