A year ago at this time, Blaine Johnson of Santa Maria was the hottest thing in drag racing, driving a family-owned top-fuel dragster prepared by his brother Alan.
He was the No. 1 qualifier and winner of the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, then set a National Hot Rod Assn. elapsed-time record of 4.592 seconds at Topeka, Kan., and was the fastest qualifier in 10 of the first 15 events.
When the season reached Indianapolis for the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, Johnson held a 113-point lead over Kenny Bernstein.
Blaine Johnson was killed in an accident during qualifying for the U.S. Nationals, but the family’s dedication to drag racing never wavered. Alan worked with Jim Head’s team for the remainder of the season. His long-range plan, however, was to return to the top-fuel class with the family’s car, the one his brother drove.
This year, the Johnson family (father Everett is on the crew and mother Agnes handles the bookkeeping) formed Team Winston and selected Gary Scelzi, an old family friend from Fresno, as the driver. The season heats up today with the finals of the 37th annual Chief Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona Raceway, the start of a 22-race NHRA season.
Scelzi, in only his third competitive quarter-mile pass in a top-fuel dragster, bettered Winternationals records Saturday with a 314.79-mph run in 4.620 seconds. It earned him the No. 1 position where Blaine Johnson sat last year.
The Johnsons found Scelzi right where they had started--in the sand drag pits of Central California.
Johnson remembered watching him in 1977 at a sand drag in Hanford when both were teenagers starting a life of speed. Scelzi also had success in alcohol dragsters, winning the Pacific Division alcohol dragster championship last year, much as Blaine had done earlier.
“When the phone call came, I couldn’t believe it,” Scelzi said. “I’ve wanted to drive a top-fuel dragster in the NHRA for as long as I can remember. I knew someday I’d get a ride, but to get my first fuel job with Alan is a real honor.
“I’d never been in a top-fuel dragster before he called. I wish there were words to describe what it’s like. No matter how many times you’ve been on the starting line, you just have no idea.”
Scelzi posted his quick time in the morning session, and in the afternoon, two veterans, Bernstein and Joe Amato, took their best shots at the rookie from Fresno. Both came close but couldn’t catch him--Bernstein at 4.628 and Amato at 4.629.
The day’s final side-by-side qualifying run matched defending series champion Bernstein--who went on to win the championship last year--against Scelzi, a dress rehearsal perhaps for today’s final round. Bernstein won with his 4.628, but Scelzi was right beside him at 4.64.
“We didn’t make any changes, we just ran it like it ran earlier,” Johnson said. “I think we have a little extra left for tomorrow. The car seems to fit Gary very well. In the beginning, the car seemed to drive him a little, now he seems to be driving the car.
“The thing I like about Gary is his intensity. He’s the kind of a guy that I know will go the distance because he’s in this sport because of an intense love for drag racing. He wants to win races. He’s not in it for the money.”
The car is new this year but patterned closely after the one Blaine Johnson drove last year.
“We only made some minor changes,” Johnson said. “It seems to work better than the old car.”
Scelzi will meet Spike Gorr of Mission Viejo in the first round when eliminations start at 10:30 a.m. Bernstein will open against Doug Herbert.
Driver of the year John Force took the No. 1 spot in funny cars with his 4.957-second clocking from Friday, leaving Al Hofmann in the No. 2 position despite his track-record 308-mph run. Like Force, Hofmann drives a Pontiac Firebird, not a Dodge as reported in Saturday’s editions.
When Warren Johnson could not improve on his Thursday time of 6.967 seconds in pro stock, defending champion Jim Yates moved into the top qualifying position with an event-record 6.952.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
DRAGS AT A GLANCE
* WHAT: Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, First event of 22-event National Hot Rod Assn. drag racing season.
* WHERE: Pomona Raceway, Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, Pomona.
* WHEN: Today, final eliminations, 10:30 a.m.
* TV: 4-5:30 p.m., TNN.
* TICKETS: $46, reserved $58. Admission includes pit pass.