The cradle of drag racing is Southern California, but “Big Daddy” Don Garlits rocked the establishment 50 years ago when the Gatornationals gave the NHRA its so-called East Coast opener at Gainesville Raceway.
Garlits, with his long line of innovative Swamp Rat Top Fuel entries, made this stop in Gainesville, Fla., his own with four victories, but even more so with an enormous presence through the years. His International Drag Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony is a major draw and his Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., is a bucket-list visit for more than a few fans.
Kenny Bernstein called Garlits “King Kong,” because “he made this sport go in the beginning.” But Bernstein’s March 20, 1992, run that shattered the 300-mph barrier is arguably the most memorable feat at this fabled jewel of a race track.
In ideal, oxygen-rich conditions, Bernstein blasted his Dale Armstrong-tuned Budweiser King dragster to a quarter-mile speed of 301.70 mph. That crowned him the “King of Speed” — but at first Bernstein didn’t realize what he had done.
He said he and Armstrong “had not even talked about a 300-mph run. We hadn’t talked about getting to 300, other than we wanted to. It wasn’t like it was preplanned that this run was going to be the one,” Bernstein recalled. “The car left the starting line, ran really good. When I turned on the turnoff, the guy that helps you, one of them was holding up three fingers. The first thing I thought was that he meant we qualified No. 3.
Subscribers OnlyThis content is accessible to subscribers only. To read the rest of this article, please login, or if you are not a subscriber, signup here and explore our subscription options starting at just $19.95 per year. Subscribers have access to all premium content including SPEED SPORT Magazine features and editorial and exclusive programs and features on SPEEDSPORT.tv. Don't miss out on this tremendous value!
“I was pretty disappointed, because I thought it was a No. 1 qualifying run,” Bernstein added. “He reached in and pounded me on the chest and said, ‘You just ran 300.’ It didn’t dawn on me at first. I said, ‘Do what?’ That’s what the three fingers were. From that point on, it was just ecstatic. It was craziness.”
All Armstrong had seen was the “4.82” E.T. flashing on the scoreboard; he hadn’t noticed the speed.
Everyone else did. And that’s a huge reason today’s racers insist that a trophy from Gainesville Raceway is like an Olympic gold medal.[caption id="attachment_291570" align="alignleft" width="300"] Kenny Bernstein in 1992 at Gainesville Raceway (NHRA/National Dragster Photo)[/caption]
“The Gatornationals is a special race,” three-time Funny Car event winner Robert Hight said. “When Kenny broke the 300-mph barrier, that was so big for our sport. It definitely proved we were the fastest motorsport and had some of the most dominant teams.”
Tony Schumacher became the Top Fuel Gatornationals victory leader in 2017, passing Garlits, Joe Amato and Larry Dixon with his fifth triumph. He called the feat “a record I won’t forget for a long, long time.” He said, “The Gatornationals to me, even as a kid, was always one of the greatest moments for my father. It’s a great chance, great opportunity.”
This year’s edition will be a great opportunity for fans to celebrate NHRA’s legends. Eight of them will race in Toyota Camrys, wrapped to replicate their favorite race cars. NHRA President Glen Cromwell said, “We’ve been celebrating these icons of the sport for the last year leading up to the Gatornationals, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them on the track.”
The legends are Shirley Muldowney, Warren Johnson, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Terry Vance, Amato, Bernstein and Garlits.