The NHRA’s “Unfinished Business” promotion seemed like anything but unfinished business by the time Saturday was over, thanks to the shenanigans of Funny Car pioneer Ed “The Ace” McCulloch and “Professor of Pro Stock” Warren Johnson.
The eight-car field of legends racing in identically prepared Toyota Camrys at the 50th edition of the storied Gatornationals was supposed to cap a year-long celebration of drag racing’s pioneers, heroes, champions, and tough guys. Maybe that should be wise-guys.
In an unexpected twist based on the weather forecast, the NHRA moved the final round that was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Amalie-Oil sponsored Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event to Saturday afternoon.
Johnson – who has six championships and 97 victories – officially can claim the title of the NHRA’s legend of legends. He defeated 22-time winner McCulloch in the final that triggered another go down the Gainesville Raceway dragstrip.
As they approached the starting line, McCulloch questioned Johnson’s . . . ahem . . . transparency in preparing for the showdown. After all, Johnson developed the reputation of being wily – and undeniably skilled in preparing his General Motors Pro Stock cars. He enhanced the mystique by smiling wryly and insisting that “Old age and treachery beat youth and inexperience.”
McCulloch suggested Johnson’s car was faster than the other seven in the competition and said, “You can’t make that up in reaction time.” Then he stepped from his car and offered Johnson a friendly challenge: “How about we trade cars right now?”
They didn’t, as Johnson said, “All I’m doing is driving it.” The GM evangelist reportedly had lifted the hood on his assigned Camry, only to have a Toyota representative shut it before he could get a long look at it.
So they raced in the original cars, and Johnson won. At the top end of the track, they shook hands and Johnson said, “I got lucky on that deal. Toyota gave me a good race car.”
Asked if they wanted a do-over, Johnson shrugged and said, “Yeah, I’ll try anything.”
McCulloch certainly was game to get behind the wheel of Johnson’s Camry. He said, “I’d like to try it. Let’s go!”
So they switched cars – but not before Johnson tinkered with something on or near the dashboard. But McCulloch got in and won the rematch and said, “I rest my case.” Then McCulloch said, “He took us to school all weekend long. It’s all in fun.”
Or is it?
The legends tossed around the idea Friday that they would be interested in doing the event again next year, for charity.
Until then – or maybe forever – the verdict of who’s the best of the legends is unread.
Fans chose the first-round pairings.
Johnson on Saturday defeated Shirley Muldowney, who Friday had dusted off her longtime nemesis, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a rematch of their 1982 Top Fuel final on this racetrack. Johnson eliminated Pro Stock Motorcycle founder Terry Vance in the opening round.
McCulloch’s victim Saturday morning was five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato, who knocked off “King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein in the first round. “The Ace” backed up his pre-race trash-talking Friday by beating Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, who had enjoyed a 14-2 advantage over him during their active Funny Car driving days.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019