Funny car challenger Mark Oswald and defending 3-time champion Kenny Bernstein took turns firing their best shots at one another Saturday in their battle for the National Hot Rod Assn. championship, but when the long day of qualifying was over for today’s 24th annual Winston Finals, Bernstein had picked up only an almost insignificant 12 points.
This gave the Newport Beach veteran a 252-point margin over Oswald in his quest to become the second driver to win 4 consecutive national funny car championships. Don (Snake) Prudhomme won 4 in a row between 1975 and 1978.
A crowd of 35,000 watched the tense battle between the two long-time rivals as the cool weather at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona made for ideal racing conditions.
First, in the morning round, Oswald ripped off a 277.00 m.p.h. in his Candies & Hughes-prepared Thunderbird--fastest speed of the event. This, if no one betters it today, would give Oswald, the 1984 champion, another 50 points.
“When Oswald did that, it severely narrowed our margin going into Sunday’s eliminations,” Bernstein said. “It meant that if we met during the day and he won, he would win the championship.”
On his final run, with the sun rapidly disappearing, Bernstein responded with a record-breaking run of 5.29 seconds in his red and white Buick Reatta. It was well below the National Hot Rod Assn. record of 5.305 seconds set by Prudhomme last August in Kent, Wash.
The time, if it is not bettered today, will give Bernstein 50 points and put him back in the driver’s seat for the $150,000 championship bonus.
“It sure neutralized Mark’s run, I’ll say that,” a rather subdued Bernstein said. “If this was in the middle of the season, and I ran in the 5.20s, I would be off the wall I’d be so excited, but with the championship at stake tomorrow, I’ve got to maintain my coolness.”
Bernstein’s time, which must be backed up today with a run of 5.347 seconds or quicker to become an official record, is the third fastest in drag racing history. Ed (Ace) McCulloch ran a 5.23 in an International Hot Rod Assn. event at Ennis, Tex., and a 5.25 in an NHRA event at Houston, but neither were backed up.
“Tomorrow’s the Super Bowl,” Oswald said. “It’s me or Bernstein. Win or lose, it’s been a great season for both teams.
“Both of us had plenty of chances to wrap this thing up, and it’s unfortunate we didn’t get the job done earlier. The fans will sure get their money’s worth Sunday.”
If both Bernstein and Oswald win in the earlier rounds, they will meet in the semifinals.
Bernstein credited his quick final run, which moved him from sixth place to first in qualifying, with changes his crew made in the clutch.
The 12 points Bernstein picked up were the result of his being No. 1 and Oswald No. 7 in the qualifying order.
“We were struggling for the past 4 days, and we rolled the dice and made some changes,” Bernstein said. “We weren’t sure it (the clutch) would hold, but we took a shot at it. Dale Armstrong (crew chief) also made some changes to the fuel system.”
Consistent Joe Amato clicked off 5 runs in the 5.0-second bracket to win the No. 1 qualifying berth for today’s top fuel championship and then defeated Darrell Gwynn to win the Cragar Classic and its $50,000 bonus.
It was Amato’s third Cragar win since it was inaugurated 4 years ago.
Amato is also virtually a cinch to win the national championship today and the $150,000 bonus. He has an almost unsurmountable lead over Eddie Hill, winner of the last two NHRA events, going into the final day of the season.
“We won (the Crager race) last year and then went out the next day and blew the whole deal,” Amato recalled. “This time I expect a different ending.”
Last year, Amato defeated Dick LaHaie in the Crager finals, then lost to LaHaie in the semifinal round of the Winston Finals--a loss which enabled LaHaie to overcome Amato’s lead and win the championship.
Going into today’s final rounds, the 1984 champion from Old Forge, Pa., leads Hill by 1,036 points with only 1,100 at stake.
In his five runs this week, Amato ran the most consistently fast clockings in the sport’s history: 5.033 Thursday, 5.034 Friday, and 5.016, 5.054 and 5.058 on Saturday.
All were below the track and Winston Finals record of 5.098 seconds set by Gwynn last year. The NHRA record is 4.990 by Hill three weeks ago in Houston.
“We got that thing running like a bracket car,” Amato said. “I’ve never had a car run like that as long as I’ve been racing.
“The chassis was sprung so tight that it felt like it arched in the middle and the rear wheels were trying to run over the front ones.”
Amato said he might make a try for his first run in the 4-second bracket today if he wins his first round match with Gary Ormsby, which would clinch the championship.
“We can’t be too aggressive in the first round and open the door for Eddie (Hill). Not the way he’s been running lately. Our first priority is the championship. After we get that, we may try for a record, but to tell the truth we were right on the ragged edge of spinning the tires against Gwynn.”
Warren Johnson, a veteran pro stock driver from Duluth, Minn., turned the tables on 9-time champion Bob Glidden of Whiteland, Ind., with a run of 7.380 seconds in his Olds Ciera to win the No. 1 position in pro stock. This dropped Glidden back to second with a 7.388.
“We’re not paid to be number 2,” Glidden snapped. “Everyone wants to be on top, so we’re definitely not very happy right now. We still need to do a little more chassis work on the Probe to get consistently smooth runs.”
Glidden, who clinched the championship bonus of $100,000 two races ago, has won a record 67 events in the NHRA and last Sunday at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz., when he defeated Johnson in the finals, it was his seventh win of the year.
Last year he won 8 times, the national record for professional drivers.