NHRA 1985 Keystone Nationals, The Little Race That Could
Story: Drag Racing Action Online
Images: Phil Hutchison/Auto Imagery/NHRA/Mike Lewis
Maple Grove Dragway in Mohnton Pa. about an hour west of Philadelphia has been a favorite track for racers and fans for years. Opened in 1962 by the Stauffer family who owned the property and the adjacent Maple Grove Park featuring the “Largest Pool on the East Coast”, the track has featured a weekly schedule and numerous high profile events over the years.
The track has been for the most part, NHRA sanctioned, but for a short time in the 60’s, the track was part of the fledging NASCAR drag racing body but the track returned to the NHRA in 1969 where it has remained since.
In 1971 track managers Mike Lewis and his father Joe hired Lex Dudas as event director. Within a year Joe stepped aside and Dudas became a co manager until 1978 when he accepted the role of NHRA Division Two director. A move that would prove to become fortuitous later in the track’s history.
Touring Pros like Doug Kerhulas often made a stop at the “Grove”
Up to 1980, NHRA divisional events included Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock in an eight and sometimes, 16 car fields. Racers chasing the championship would attend these races and many of the events were “mini” national events. Maple Grove was famous for having some of the biggest hitters at their divisional since it was smack dab in the middle of, what was back then, the height of the summer touring schedule.
Future NHRA World Champ Joe Amato at the Budweiser Nationals
As former Maple Grove president and manager Mike Lewis said, “After the professional cars stopped racing at the divisional level, NHRA decided to showcase a few regional events throughout the country in addition to the national events. Two of the biggest regionals back then were the Popular Hot Rodding event at Martin Mich. and our Super Stock and Budweiser Nationals. Both races attracted a good amount of Pro racers and eventually were the only two regionals still standing.
Mike Lewis and Lex Dudas
Lewis adds,” With the growth of our regionals and with a little bit of magic from Lex Dudas, both events became half point events in 1983 and 1984. Lex was Division Two director and was good friends with Bernie Partridge who was Vice President of NHRA’s Field Department. Lex got to attend quite a lot of NHRA meetings and he would meet with NHRA president Dallas Gardner. Through these gatherings Lex knew that NHRA was looking to expand their national event base and was considering Maple Grove and Firebird Raceway in Phoenix.
Fuel Funny Car racer John Speelman at a Winston divisional
“We weren’t just quite ready for a large scale national event at Maple Grove but the potential was there. We always had a lot of Funny Cars at our regionals as most touring racers were looking to have the track book them in during the season. Top Fuel not so much but we still had a quality field of dragsters at our events.
“So at the end of 1984 NHRA contacted us for a potential race in 1985. Bernie Partridge actually came to one of our board meetings in 1984 and said ‘Guys it’s time. If you are willing to make some investments in the facility we would like to have a race here in 1985’. We sat down as a family, looked at the cost, and considered the growth opportunity and we decided to go for it.
Al Segrini always a crowd favorite at Maple Grove at the regional events
“As far as the date, we had moved the Dutch Classic, which featured Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock as well as Sportsman, from a spring race to the fall and had great success with that time of year. So we thought maybe that would be the slot we could use. We liked the name Keystone Nationals and the rest is history.
“What I recall specifically from the event was the weather. It was like October weather, the air was so good. Racers back then did not have the sophisticated computers and knowledge of weather conditions they have now and if you did not back your blower down with the air and temperatures, it could disastrous. We had, I think, 15 blower explosions during the race. From the first qualifier to Tim Grose’s Funny Car blowing up in the finals. The daytime temperatures didn’t get over 70 degrees and a lot of the time the temps were in the 50’s.”
Noted drag race historian and NHRA announcer Bob Frey was behind the microphone at the inaugural Keystones and had this to say about the race. “I remember a lot about the ’85 Keystone Nationals. It was a big deal, had lots of excitement and lots, and I mean lots, of engine explosions. In fact, the headline in National Dragster about the event said..”Keystone Nationals Explodes to Life.”
Frey continued, “Gary Ormsby explodes on the starting line, Gary Beck, Frank Kramberger and many others all blew up in spectacular fashion including Tim Grose who blew out is windshield (among other things) in the final round. But more than that it was the overall thrill of the event at “The Grove”.
The first round featured Garlits’ victory over Gary Ormsby
Mike Lewis adds, “Another thing I remember about the first event, was that on Friday, the qualifying was not that well attended, Saturday was a little better but it wasn’t Englishtown. Come Sunday we filled the place. And with all the records being set the fans realized this was not the Budweiser Nationals but with Kenny Bernstein and Mark Oswald and everybody that was anybody in the sport, this was the real thing. It was so popular; we turned people away at the gate for the next few years.
“One person who was instrumental in making the event a success was John Gardella from Castrol. Castrol GTX sponsored the race for the first few years and John, who had worked with businessman Andy Granatelli, had a history in activation strategy, brought in the Castrol show cars to display before the race. Pat Austin would do five show car visits along with Gary Ormsby and John Force doing one or two before the race too.
Lewis continues, “John Ernesto was also a big part of our success. He created a supplement for the Reading Eagle’s Sunday paper the week before the event that at one time was 48 pages. He had a crew going to Pomona and Englishtown getting material for the supplement and later had the track involved with the United Way kickoff in downtown Reading further getting our name out there. NHRA gave him a Media award for all his hard work. We were blessed to have that kind of community relationship and a sponsor that really cared about the race. This success continued and in 1990, the year of the Darrell Gwynn softball game against the NASCAR drivers, we had the largest single day attendance in NHRA history. And it all started with a visit by Bernie Partridge in 1984.“
The race, by all standards was a huge success. Top Fuel, which was in the middle of a downside of competitors, still had 13 cars vying for a spot in the eight-car field with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits taking Top Fuel over local favorite Joe Amato.
Funny Car had Tim Grose’s Skoal Bandit beating Kenny Bernstein’s’ all conquering Bud car in an explosive final.
Funny Car champ Tim Grose and his partner Barb Hogan
Pro Stock was a Bruce Allen affair with the Reher Morrison Camaro defeating Warren Johnson in the finals. The Pro Stock bump was a record 7.688.
During qualifying Kenny Bernstein blew everybody’s mind with an incredible 5.56 in his “Budweiser King” Tempo, which was the first leg of a new National Record and later backed it up. Bernstein, by the time he left the Keystones, had enough Winston points to claim the ’85 Championship.
Gary Beck ran the third quickest Top Fuel elapsed time ever in Larry Minor’s car running a 5.400 and Bob Glidden’s Ford set the NHRA Pro Stock record during Friday’s qualifying at a 7.49.
Bill Walsh won Alcohol Dragster and secured his second World title. Frank Manzo’s Trans Am took the Alcohol Funny Car title and Larry Morgan drove the event sponsor Castrol GTX H/A Pontiac Fiero to the Competition title.
Future NHRA world champ Ron Orbin won Super Gas. Bob Marshall won Super Stock and Ed Bednaz was the Stock champ at the unbelievable inaugural event.
Bob Frey adds to his recollections of the historic event, “The semi-finals of FC were memorable because Della Woods was there, and although her car broke on the burnout it was a pretty cool experience for her and the fans. It was a great race and I had a lot of fun announcing there.”
Michigan racer Della Woods made a lot of fans at the 1985 race becoming the first woman to make it to the semi finals in Funny Car
Big Daddy celebrates his Keystone Nats win with former crew chief Ron Barrow
Event title sponsors have come and gone over the years and recently the Koretsky family has taken ownership of the track from the Stauffers. And the title rights are now held by Pep Boys but to the faithful, the race will always be the Keystone Nationals.
Lex Dudas (left) with Alcohol Dragster aces Rich McPhillips and Rich Jr in 2014
Lex Dudas returned to his home track in 2004 as Director of Sales and Marketing and was promoted to Vice President & General Manager in 2007. Lex left us in 2018 after a long battle with cancer. Mike Lewis continues his love of racing and is currently involved with the Maynard Family Racing operations (formally DSR) and lives in Avon Indiana. NHRA announcer Bob Frey retired at the end of 2012 to spend more time with his family in New Jersey but still shows up to NHRA events from time to time.
Check out Richard Shute’s images from the race. They are great. Go to:Look at Drag Racing at
Finals of Funny Car at the inaugural Keystone Nationals Check out that crowd!