Motor Racing / Shav Glick : Prudhomme, Bernstein Will Switch to Top-Fuel Dragsters Next Season

The face of drag racing will have a new look next season.

Don (Snake) Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein, the two most successful funny car drivers of all time, are switching to top-fuel dragsters.

Prudhomme, 48, had the biggest weekend of his career over the Labor Day weekend. He won the Big Bud Shootout and $50,000 on Sunday, and the National Hot Rod Assn.'s U.S. Nationals and another $60,000 on Monday at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

"I've had a lot of great wins in my career, but nothing has topped the two wins last weekend," Prudhomme said after returning home to Granada Hills. "Winning all that money was great, but winning Indy is every driver's dream.

"I feel like I've done it all in funny cars now and I'm looking forward to getting back into a top fueler."

Prudhomme won three U.S. Nationals top-fuel championships in 1965, 1969 and 1970 before switching to funny cars in 1973. Monday's win was his fourth U.S. Nationals in a funny car. He also won four consecutive NHRA funny car series championships from 1975 to 1978.

"I'd ordered a top-fuel chassis from Dave Uyehara just in case I decided to make a change and then when young Don Gay Jr. had that accident last July in Denver it really affected me," Prudhomme said. "From now on, I want that engine behind me."

Gay, a rookie funny car driver whose family is part owner of the Houston Raceway Park drag strip, was driving for the second time in a national event when he crashed during a qualifying run and his car exploded in flames. Prudhomme was driving in the adjacent lane.

"I had shut off when I saw the kid was in trouble," Prudhomme recalled. "He hit the wall and caught fire and I stopped and helped the Safety Safari (NHRA safety crew) pull him out of the car. He was unconscious and had quit breathing. It was a terribly frightening situation and I knew right then and there that I didn't want to run any more with the engine sitting in front of me. I knew it was time to get back in a top fueler."

Gay suffered burns over his arms and back. He needed skin grafts and is recuperating at his home in Dickinson, Tex.

Bernstein, 45, is a four-time NHRA champion who hopes to better Prudhomme's record by winning a fifth title this year. With five events remaining in the 19-event season, Bernstein trails Bruce Larson, of Dauphin, Pa., 11,730 points to 9,862.

"Top fuel is the king of the sport," Bernstein said in announcing that he has ordered two top-fuel chassis from Mike Kase. "They're the quickest and fastest, and our team wants to accept the challenge top-fuel racing has to offer. Nobody has won championships in both categories, and we'd like to be the first to gain that distinction."

The Newport Beach driver is also the only driver other than Prudhomme to have won the Bud Shootout and the U.S. Nationals on successive days. He did it in 1983.

"Rules are another factor that we took into consideration before we decided to change," Bernstein said. "The rules in funny car are so stringent that we're pretty much limited with what we can do with wheelbase, body style and aerodynamics, and we think it will be increasingly difficult to make the kind of technological gains in funny car as in top fuel.

"Top-fuel cars have a long wheelbase, the engine is in the rear and with the wing high up in the air, they gain a tremendous amount of down force."

Bernstein also owns an Indy car team, with Jim Crawford as the driver, and a NASCAR team, with Ricky Rudd driving, although Bernstein announced last weekend that Brett Bodine will replace Rudd next year.

Darrell Gwynn of Miami set a national top-fuel elapsed time record of 4.981 seconds during qualifying for the U.S. Nationals last Sunday.

MOTORCYCLES--The Western Eastern Roadracers' Assn. will hold a 24-hour endurance race Saturday and Sunday at Willow Springs Raceway as part of the EBC Brakes national championship series. Fifty teams will compete on the 2.5-mile road course in the 11th round of a 15-race schedule. Human Race team, the defending series champion riding Yamahas, holds a slight lead over Team Suzuki. The Vance & Hines team, last year's Willow Springs winner, set a record of 2,135 miles in 1987. The twice-around-the-clock race will start at 1 p.m. Saturday. A Formula USA team will follow the 24-hour on Sunday.

SPEEDWAY BIKES--Final qualifying races for the U.S. Speedway final will be held tonight at Ascot Park and Friday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. The top 14 riders after qualifying events at Long Beach, Auburn, San Bernardino, Victorville, Ascot and Costa Mesa, plus British Speedway League riders Shawn Moran of Apple Valley and Ronnie Correy of Fullerton will make up the U.S. National field Oct. 7 at Costa Mesa. . . . Correy finished tied for 13th as the lone American in the World Individual final last Saturday night in Munich, West Germany. Hans Nielsen of Denmark was the winner.

MIDGETS--Parnelli Jones' racing sons, P.J. and Page, will both be in the United States Auto Club's Western States doubleheader Sunday night at Ascot Park after scoring breakthrough wins recently. P.J., 19, won the American Racing Series for prospective Indy car drivers last week at Mid-Ohio, and Page, 17, won a three-quarter midget main event at Paso Robles two weeks ago. Both are entered in the full midget race.

Defending champion Sleepy Tripp, with a pair of second-place finishes last weekend at Carson City, Nev., passed Robby Flock for the series lead for the first time this season, 1,003 to 975.

STOCK CARS--The NASCAR Southwest Tour will return to Saugus Speedway Saturday night for the Miller 100. Favorites include points leader Dan Press of Frazier Park, winner of the Miller 125 last June, and Roman Calczynski of Sepulveda, a two-time winner in 1987 and 1988. Both are also former modified stock car champions at Saugus. . . . Only two races remain in the Winston Racing Series at Cajon Speedway with Tobin Whitt and Ed Hale only six points apart going into Saturday night's 30-lap main event. . . . Street stocks return to Ventura Raceway Friday night.

MOTOCROSS--Honda rider Mike Kiedrowski of Canyon Country will replace his injured teammate, Rick Johnson of El Cajon, on the United States team in Sunday's Motocross des Nations in Gaildorf, West Germany. Johnson suffered a chest injury when he fell at a national 500cc race Aug. 20 in Minnesota. Although he raced again Aug. 27, he elected to skip the world championship event in which the U.S. team is seeking its ninth straight win. Other riders will be Jeff Ward and Jeff Stanton. . . . The weekly CMC series will continue Friday night at Ascot Park.

SPRINT CARS--After watching Billy Boat of Phoenix win two races over Labor Day weekend at Manzanita Speedway in Arizona, California Racing Assn. drivers will return to their home track at Ascot Park for a 30-lap main event Saturday night. The wins were the first in CRA for Boat and his car owner, Mardi Madden of Lancaster. . . . Jerry Meyer, leader in the Parnelli Jones Firestone-sponsored series, broke his finger when he hit the fence at Manzanita but he plans to race Saturday night after undergoing surgery.

Looking ahead to the day when Ascot's dirt track closes in 1990, the CRA will hold two non-points races on a paved track--Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield--on Nov. 26 and Dec. 3.

POWERBOATS--The International Hot Boat Assn. will make its final Southern California appearance of the season this weekend at Puddingstone Lake in Frank Bonelli Regional County Park in San Dimas. Featured will be the top-fuel hydro battle between Tom Black of San Pablo, Calif., in Final Effort, and Ron Braaksma of Downey in Madness. Braaksma set an IHBA record of 5.14 seconds for the quarter-mile in last June's Summernationals at Puddingstone. The season will end Nov. 10-12 with the World Finals at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz.

Chip Hanauer will go for an unprecedented eighth straight Gold Cup win in the American Power Boat Assn.'s unlimited hydroplane series Sept. 17 on San Diego's Mission Bay in a boat that broke in half after flipping during a race last July at Syracuse, N.Y. The Seattle driver will drive the rebuilt Circus-Circus in an attempt to match the late Bill Muncey's record of eight Gold Cup wins. Before the crash, Hanauer won with the new boat on Seattle's Lake Washington.

Jeff Jacobs of El Cajon, defending world jet ski champion, and former champion David Gordon of Boston will be featured in the finals of the Western Summer Jet Ski Championships Saturday and Sunday at Long Beach Marine Stadium.

FORMULA ONE--Alain Prost, two-time world champion from France, will leave the McLaren-Honda team to drive for Ferrari next year as a teammate of Nigel Mansell. Prost leads the Formula One standings.

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