With 514 drag racing entries to funnel through a tight three-night schedule, rain was the last thing the National Hot Rod Assn. needed for the first day of its Pep Boys 50th Anniversary Nationals, but that's what it got Thursday.
Although the start of sportsman qualifying was delayed nearly six hours by the surprising showers, NHRA officials managed to squeeze in all professional qualifying by cutting out several sportsman sessions and moving the curfew an hour later to 9 p.m.
With a minimum of time-consuming oil downs among the nitro-burning top fuel and funny car entries, starter Rick Stewart did a masterful job of moving the program along, getting the final funny car pair down the quartermile strip at 8:51 p.m.
Even the 16 nostalgic front-engine dragsters, look-alikes from the 1960s and '70s, had their day. Howard Haight of Upland was fast qualifier at 215.62 mph.
Despite the weather distractions, however, Pomona Raceway's first night event had much the same look as its annual daylight sessions.
Night or day, it makes no difference to Kenny Bernstein, who has been the fastest top fuel qualifier in six of 12 events and, after his 4.633-second run at 317.64 mph, is halfway to No. 7. Mike Dunn bettered Bernstein's speed at 320.81, but couldn't match his elapsed time.
Only 14 top fuelers showed up so everyone will race Saturday, even Tim Gibson with his 80.02-mph speed.
"We were all cautious in the first round and even a little cautious in the night run," said Bernstein. "I think the track proved to be better than we anticipated. We'll see most of the guys hop things up tomorrow and the times will come down."
Funny car favorite John Force, after leading through a nervous first session, smoked his tires coming off the new cement launching pad in the night run and dropped to eighth place.
Scotty Cannon survived a harrowing ride in his first time out when the parachute in his Firebird funny car did not open and he stopped by running into a sand pit. He came back to take the provisional pole in 4.862 seconds at 318.29 mph.
"When we hit the sand, it cracked the fiberglass in three or four places, but it didn't hurt us any," said Cannon.
Gary Densham, driving one of Force's Mustangs, set a track record of 319.07 mph, but his 4.877-second e.t. fell short of Cannon's. The third Force driver, Tony Pedregon, is third.
George Marnell of Las Vegas, driving a Grand Am, surprised his fellow pro stock competitors with a 6.958-second time in the evening session.
Angelle Savoie took another step toward her third win this season with a 7.260-second run on her '95 Suzuki in the pro stock motorcycle class.
Two more qualifying sessions tonight, starting at 3:30 p.m., will set the fields for Saturday's 4 p.m. final eliminations.
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Drag Racing Facts
What: Pep Boys NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals, No. 13 of 24-race, $50-million Winston Drag Racing series.
Where: Pomona Raceway.
When: Today, qualifying, 3:30-10 p.m.; Saturday, final eliminations, 4 p.m.
Television: Today, ESPN2, 4:30 p.m., 9 p.m.; Saturday, ESPN2, 7 p.m.; Sunday, ESPN2, 12:30 p.m. (delayed).
Ticket prices: Today, $35, juniors 6-12, $10; Saturday, $48, juniors $10.