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Friday, March 15
Superstars highlight Gatornationals
By Bill Stephens
"Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney are competing at this weekend's Mac Tools Gatornationals amidst the unblinking glare of the media spotlight. The thousands of drag racing fans who have turned out at Gainesville Raceway to see these two top finishers in the NHRA's list of 50 greatest drivers are not only getting to see these racing superstars reliving history in their Top Fuel dragsters. They are also being treated to the sight of some of the sport's most famous and respected tuners providing their expertise to two of the most famous drag racers of all time.
The Garlits pit resembled a veritable mini-Hall of Fame on Friday as Dale Armstrong, the man who tuned Kenny Bernstein to four Funny Car championships between 1985 and 1988 and the sport's first 300 mph pass at this very facility ten years ago, is serving as head wrench for Big Daddy. Clutch wizard, Bob Brooks, considered the most experienced and accomplished clutch technician in the sport is also on the Garlits crew. And 1989 NHRA Funny Car champion, Bruce Larson, and the man who last drove a Garlits-owned Top Fuel dragster in the mid-1990's, is also lending his hand.
"I'm doing this because it's not a full-time commitment," said Armstrong, who most recently tuned for Jerry Toliver's WWF F/C team. "It's still enjoyable enough to do on a short-term basis and I've know Big Daddy for a long time which makes it even more fun. But this isn't an indication that I'll be doing a lot of races this year."
At Muldowney's pit area, a quick look reveals that her husband and tuner for 25 years, Rahn Tobler, is flanked by an equally impressive crew. Bob Brandt, who tuned Don "The Snake" Prudhomme to four Funny Car titles between 1975 and 1978, is offering his services this weekend. As is Gary "Skippy" Kennedy, a veteran tuner with noteworthy credentials accrued with such teams as Toliver's WWF operation and Tim Wilkerson.
"We're just having a really good time," exclaimed Muldowney. "We've got our usual great bunch of guys working this weekend and having all the help we're getting from Bob and Skippy is really a pleasure."
After two qualifying sessions on Friday, Muldowney is ninth in the field with her 4.79/249 run in the second session, while Garlits sits on the bump spot with his shut-off 7.59/101 in his revolutionary "Swamp Rat XXXIV" mono-wing machine.
While Muldowney has a five-race commitment for the 2002 season, plans are a bit more sketchy for Garlits, who has not announced his further plans for the year. But with the tremendous excitement and interest that he and Muldowney have generated this weekend in Gainesville, drag racing fans across the country are enthusiastically hoping that the two pioneers will both continue their reunion performances for many races to come.
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