Phil’s Flashback Friday. The 1987 NHRA Winternationals
Story and Images Phil Hutchison
You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination where there are 32 cars entered in Top Fuel and Fuel Funny Car along with 35 Pro Stockers. Next stop, the 1987 NHRA Winternationals.
Connie Kalitta on a unsuccessful attempt to make the show
Apologies to the great Rod Serling aside, the 1987 season opening NHRA Winternationals was one for the books. With today’s Pro fields struggling to fill the 16-car show , the 1987 Winternationals had enough cars for two full fields.
Defending NHRA/Winston Top Fuel champ Don Garlits driving his Swamp Rat XXX won Top Fuel over former Top Fuel champ Joe Amato. In the final Big Daddy put down a 5.29 to Amato’s game 5.415.
Shirley Muldowney lost in the first round to Bill Mullins
Low Qualifier in Top Fuel was New Jersey racer Hank Endres driving the John Carey #2 car. Gene Snow was #2 and Garlits grabbed the #3 spot. Dick LaHaie driving the Miller sponsored dragster of Larry Minor for the first time qualified #5. Amato was the #6 qualifier.
Garlits defeated Larry Minor, Alabama racer Bill Mullins, and Dick LaHaie to make it to the finals. Amato beat Denver Schutz, Gene Snow, and Darrell Gwynn to get the chance to meet Garlits.
Although the win at Pomona made it look like Garlits was going to repeat his 1985-86 championship seasons, he never won another event in 1987.
Tim Morgan from Walnut Creek, Ca got upside down during qualifying but repaired the car and made the first round call as an alternate after Ray Stutz was a no show
The avalanche known as Kenny Bernstein won Funny Car. Bernstein, who had debuted his radical Buick LeSabre Batmobile earlier at the Super Bowl of Drag Racing at Phoenix blew all the other FC driver’s minds. The car, to say the least, stretched the NHRA rulebook to the max with it’s radical body design that by the end of the year, NHRA put rules in place to limit the ingenuity that Funny Car racers could use when it came to body modifications.
Bernstein qualified the Budweiser King Buick on the pole with a 5.482 which was good enough for the NHRA ET record. During eliminations, Bernstein wasn’t challenged too much defeating a shut off John Force in round one, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch in the Miller Beer car in round two, and Dale Pulde in the War Eagle in the semis.
Bernstein (Far Lane) up against McCulloch during qualifying
On the other side of the ladder it was Australian owner/driver Graeme Cowin from Sydney surprising the field. Qualifying #12, Cowin took out former Winston champ Raymond Beadle in round one then put #16 qualifier Tim Grose on the trailer in R2, then beat California racer John Martin to set up an America vs. Australia final.
The fans, who packed the stands all weekend, were beside themselves throughout eliminations as Cowin’s crew had been flying the Australian flag after each round win, and come the finals, Bernstein’s crew was doing the same with the American flag, proudly flying it as they team went down to pick Bernstein up after his wins.
At the green Bernstein was off like a rocket running a 5.49 @ 264 to easily outdistance the Aussie who was down on power in his Pontiac Firebird blowing up in a big flash of fire at half track.
Other than Bernstein’s win, the big news at Pomona in Funny Car was superstar Don Prudhomme failure to qualify his Skoal Bandit Pontiac. After four sessions, the California legend was sitting outside the quick field at 23rd.
John Force who was still months away from his first career win, gets shut off in R1
In Pro Stock eventual winner Warren Johnson rode a bunch of mid 7.40’s in his Oldsmobile Firenza to his first ever Winternationals victory. Johnson used some good driving to defeat the Pontiac Firebird of Butch Lean in the final running a 7.43 @ 187 in the victory.Earlier Johnson set Top Speed and Low ET of the meet, 7.403 seconds @ 188.20 mph
The brand new Ford Thunderbird of Bob Glidden was low qualifier in Pro Stock, 7.425 seconds at 186.76 mph.
By the end of 1987, Dick LaHaie won the Winston title in Top Fuel, Kenny Bernstein would be World Champ in Funny Car, and Bob Glidden would capture the Pro Stock title.
Garlits and Kalitta during Saturday’s qualifying. Garlits would win the event, while Kalitta failed to qualify.
Thanks to NHRA Historian Bob Frey for help with details used in this story!!