Flaky Finishes Rev Up Finals

Times Staff Writer

For crazy finishes, there is nothing like the National Hot Rod Assn. finals.

Two championship rounds of the 39th Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, as the skies were darkening Sunday over Pomona Raceway, bordered on the bizarre.

Six-time champion Kenny Bernstein, a substitute driver for his son, Brandon, won the top fuel final with the slowest winning run of the day, 6.039 seconds elapsed time, at 194.41 mph, on a program dotted with 4.5-second runs at more than 320 mph.

As Bernstein, of Lake Forest, and Scott Kalitta, of Snead Island, Fla., exploded off the starting line, the tires on both cars started shaking and spinning, sending up smoke.

Bernstein, who has said he's retiring for the second time at age 59, won by pedaling his Budweiser King top fueler down the track, pumping the accelerator up and down seven times to keep moving forward. Kalitta was not so fortunate, coasting the quarter-mile at 58 mph.

"When it's your day, I guess it's your day," said Bernstein, who hinted that he might be back again next year as a teammate to Brandon, who missed more than half the season because of a broken back. It was Bernstein's fourth win in his last five events.

"I kept trying to catch the shake, but I couldn't get the wheels to stop spinning," he said. "Every time I hit the throttle, they would spin again. I actually thought I was going to go upside down."

Scott was the second Kalitta in a final round in two days. Doug, Scott's cousin, won the Budweiser Shootout and $100,000 by defeating Tony Schumacher on Saturday. Bernstein sidelined Doug in the second round Sunday and won $40,000.

If possible, the funny car final was more unbelievable.

Del Worsham jumped the start, an automatic disqualification, but won when Cory Lee, his Pontiac Firebird teammate from Corona, crossed the center line. In NHRA rules, the loser in a double disqualification is the one with the most grievous foul.

"I knew I red-lit, then I heard on the radio that I had won," said Worsham, a veteran driver from Chino Hills with 15 career wins. "I've won races a lot of ways, but never that way. I never knew he crossed the line, he was behind me."

Curiously, Lee came within inches of crossing the line in his semifinal win over Gary Scelzi of Fresno.

"That was five seconds of the most agonizing, heart-stopping action in my life, I really didn't know if it got the center line or not," Lee said of the semifinal run. "We had to wait for the ruling, and the guys went nuts at the starting line, but they weren't any happier than me."

The guys went nuts after the final run too, but with disbelief and disappointment.

Shirley Muldowney, the other champion retiring, did not fare as well as Bernstein, but the greatest female driver in motorsports history did not go without a fight. After defeating No. 3 qualifier Paul Romine of Indianapolis in the first round with a hole-shot, she got off the line first again against Cory McClenathan of Riverside, but it wasn't enough a second time.

McClenathan's powerful New York Yankee dragster, owned by legendary driver Darrell Gwynn, overcame Muldowney's quick start to win with a 4.552 clocking to 4.707.

"It was wonderful coming back out here and seeing so many old friends," said Muldowney, who lives in Armada, Mich. "You know I lived in Northridge for nine years before the earthquake sent me back to Michigan. It's been a great career. It had to end sometime, and now is the time."

McClenathan lost to Bernstein when he smoked his tires in the first 60 feet.

The powerful Mustang funny car team of owner John Force, Tony Pedregon and Gary Densham, which has won 13 of the last 14 NHRA championships and 13 of 22 national events this year, failed to advance into the semifinal round.

Twelve-time champion Force red-lighted in the second round, losing to Scelzi; newly crowned 2003 champion Pedregon was upset by Lee after Tony had defeated older brother Cruz in a first-round family duel; and Densham was dispatched in the first round by Bob Bode of Barrington, Ill.

Greg Anderson of Monroesville, N.C., added to his pro stock championship by winning the final event over Kurt Johnson of Sugar Hill, Ga., 6.735 seconds to 6.749. It gave Anderson a pro stock record of 12 wins in a season, moving him out of a tie with Darrell Alderman, who won 11 in 1991.

Other than Anderson, it was not a good day for champions.

Top fuel winner Larry Dixon Jr. of Indianapolis smoked his tires off the starting line and lost to Scott Kalitta in the second round. Pro stock bike champion Geno Scali lost to Michael Phillips of Baton Rouge, La., who in turn lost to three-time champion Angelle Savoie of Mathews, La.

Savoie lost the finals to No. 1 qualifier Craig Treble of Chandler, Ariz., when she jumped the start and triggered the red light.

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