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Amato, Bernstein Clinch Drag Titles : With Pressure Off, Overall Champions Give Way to Others in Pomona Races

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein won the $150,000 world championship drag-racing prizes Sunday at the County Fairplex at Pomona, but they weren’t so greedy as to also win the $25,000 that went to the winners of the Winston Finals.

Amato won his second National Hot Rod Assn. top fuel championship by winning his first-round match against Gary Ormsby after his only challenger, Eddie Hill, lost to defending national champion Dick LaHaie. Amato, from Old Forge, Pa., also won in 1984.

Darrell Gwynn of Miami defeated Amato in the 2nd round and went on to win his 3rd straight Winston Finals, defeating rookie Dennis Forcelle of Minneapolis in the final. It was Gwynn’s 6th victory of the season, moving him into a tie with Don (Big Daddy) Garlits for most top fuel victories in a season.

It also enabled Gwynn, who lost his beer company sponsorship for next year despite his winning record, to move past Hill into 2nd place--worth $40,000--in the Winston standings.

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A record Winston Finals crowd estimated at 40,000 attended the 24th annual event, last of the 16-race NHRA season.

“This is always a big race to win because it carries over all winter long,” Gwynn said. “No one can beat us now until we come back here in February for the Winternationals.”

Bernstein, who needed a bit more work to win his 4th straight NHRA funny car crown, was helped by Tom Hoover. When Hoover upset Mark Oswald in the 2nd round, Bernstein’s victory over Don (Snake) Prudhomme clinched the title.

The only other 4-time funny car champion is Prudhomme, a winner from 1975 to 1978.

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Bernstein made it to the final round before losing to John Force in an all-Orange County final. Bernstein lives in Newport Beach, Force in Yorba Linda.

Warren Johnson of Duluth, Ga., driving an Olds Ciera, defeated Morris Johnson Jr. of Richmond, Va., in a Pontiac Trans Am, in a final of unrelated Johnsons to win his 2nd Winston Finals in pro stock. Johnson Jr. had earlier upset 9-time world champion Bob Glidden in the semifinals.

It was a day in which nearly everyone--except those whose cars smoked their tires--ended up happy. The warm weather was a major cause of problems for 14 cars, which found the slippery track surface difficult to handle.

“It’s hard to feel disappointed when you win the championship, which is what we were focused in on all week,” Bernstein said. “We didn’t care what it took to win, one round or everything, that was our purpose. Once we knew we had won (when Oswald lost), getting into the finals and making our first run in the 29s (a qualifying run of 5.295, Bernstein’s all-time best) was just icing on the cake.”

Oswald, who finished second to Bernstein in the standings for the 3rd straight year, lost the day’s closest race, 5.44 to 5.46, to Hoover.

“As far as the Hoover race, we just didn’t have the power that time,” Oswald said. “He won and that was it. We’re getting a little tired of this 2nd-place stuff, but it’ll only make us work harder over the winter to turn things around.”

Force, who said he has been coming to Pomona for races for more than 15 years in one way or another, was concerned about how he would feel this morning after “drinking about 10,000 beers with fellows I’ve promised a beer if I ever won here.”

It was Force’s 3rd win this season in his Olds Cutlass funny car, but he said it was the most nerve-wracking.

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“I was busy signing autographs and talking with my buddies before the final round when I looked up and noticed that (crew chief) Austin Coil was changing engines. I about had a heart attack, I didn’t know what was happening, but Austin got the job done.

“All I had to do was get the car off the starting line and down to the finish as fast as I could. Kenny (Bernstein) left on me, but I was hoping for the muscle that I knew Austin had put in the car. I knew it was there when I caught him.”

In the 2nd round, knowing the championship was his, Amato suffered a lapse of sorts on the starting line and allowed Gwynn to beat him off the line and score an upset victory. Gwynn, last year’s Winston Finals champion, had an .051 second quicker reaction time than Amato and he carried it through to the finish despite Amato’s faster speed of 273.39 to 272.33.

“Winning $50,000 yesterday (in the Cragar Classic) and $150,000 today couldn’t help but give us a little letdown,” Amato said. “I don’t mean we didn’t go all out against Gwynn, but it had to affect us.

“No one ever won the Cragar and came back to win the Winston Finals. I don’t know why. But maybe it’s good to spread the money around a little. We won our share, so now maybe someone new can pick up a little change.”

Hill’s season ended with a blower explosion. It was the same blower that Hill had borrowed from Earl Whiting 3 weeks ago in Houston--after destroying 3 of his own in successive runs--to set an NHRA record of 4.990 seconds.

“The engine probably got too hot waiting to be pushed back to the starting line after the burnout,” Hill said.

The reverser failed in Hill’s dragster and it took 7 crewmen and Eddie’s wife, Ercie, to push it back to the line. Two of the crew were treated for inhaling nitro-methane fumes.

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“LaHaie got too hot, too, and smoked the tires himself. After the race, I congratulated him on being such a sport, waiting for us like he did.”

Nine-time pro stock champion Bob Glidden also had a slow start, giving up .083 seconds to Morris Johnson Jr. in the semifinal round, which was too much to overcome. Even a 7.41-second elapsed time to 7.46 for Johnson wasn’t enough as Glidden’s streak of 4 straight NHRA victories ended.

“It was a shame to lose because that last run was probably the best one of the week for the Probe,” Glidden said. “I just don’t know what happened at the time. I was way late, and I don’t know why.”

It was the 3rd time this year that Johnson had defeated Glidden.

Terry Vance, of Santa Fe Springs, winner of 13 national pro stock motorcycle championships, rode his ’88 Suzuki to victory in the final over Russ Olmstead of Herber Springs, Ark., and then announced his retirement.

Vance, 35, has been racing for nearly 20 years and was the first top fuel motorcycle racer to break the 200 m.p.h. barrier.


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