Time Capsule – 1972 NHRA Gatornationals
Just as I was graduating from the University of Florida with a journalism degree in March 1970, the new Gainesville Raceway hosted the first NHRA Gatornationals and I was in attendance.
Same for 1971. But in 1972 I possessed a Pentax 35mm SLR and wrangled a photographer’s pass. In those days, that meant parking my ’70 Z28 in the pits (really!) and all the time I wanted to spend at the guardrail. It was well worth using the bulk of my vacation time for the annual trek from South Florida to Gainesville. Of course, when you’re single at the time it’s easier to do!
If you grew up around drag racing in the South in that era, you knew the huge popularity of the Pro Stockers. In addition to a big field trying to qualify at the Gators, the raceway held a summer event that I’m told by Florida racing veterans (my memory’s not that good) featured a 64-car bracket for Pro Stock. I was lucky to attend a couple of those hot-and-humid summer events and it was Pro Stock heaven!
In ’72 my favorite Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins switched to the smaller Vega body in Pro Stock, but Don Carlton won the Gatornationals with his 1972 Barracuda. And Ed McCullouch took home the Funny Car title while Don Garlits took home the Top Fuel Wally. Shirley Muldowney was there, too.
Another tradition then was the push start lane in front of the fans for the dragsters. Pushed to speed, the drivers fired the nitro burners and roared by the fans before turning around and staging.
Don Garlits, who won Top Fuel and set a then-record ET of 6.15 seconds at the event, towed his dragster behind a Dodge pickup with a small topper in the bed. None of today’s big rigs were even a fantasy in those days.
For Florida drag racing fans, our local favorites were there. Bo Laws from Orlando probably campaigned his Camaro. Jim Waibel of Lakeland competed with his SS/O Olds Cutlass. That was his first year as an independent after racing as part of the Smothers Brothers Racing Team.
My personal favorite – Ollie Olsen of West Palm Beach – campaigned his Pro Stock Mopar after racing successfully in the gas classes with his iconic black and copper A/G Willys named Will-A-Meaner.
Years of watching local racers in front of small crowds at South Florida strips made us look forward to the March drive to Gainesville every spring for the Gators. And as an added attraction for many of us, the first Sonny’s Barbeque was on Waldo Road on the way out to the raceway. At least one visit was mandatory, even if the lines were long!
The Sonny’s mothership is still there, looking almost like it did 45 years ago, so if you head to next year’s Gatornationals, check it out. You might see me there at dinner.