50 Years of the Gatornationals

Part 3: 1981-85

Words and photos by Steve Gruenwald

This was the Kalitta team handout at the 1984 Gatornationals. Show was shot the preceding year.

Chet Smith was an engine builder from Ohio, I believe. He moved to south Florida and I met him in the late '70s. He had built this really wild Vega panel wheelstander and it was great to see him run in front of the crowd at the Gators in 1981.


Don Prudhomme waits in the staging lanes at the 1981 Gators at the far end of the grandstands. Back then they would to tow the cars down in front of the crowd toward the starting line. You could also walk in the lanes before they ran. Unlike today the staging lane are a restricted area. It was easy to get photos while the drivers hung out and waited to run.

Bob Motz has been at it a long time. This shot also from 1981.

The wildest race at the 1982 Gatornationals was this first round matchup with number-one qualifier Raymond Beadle in the Blue Max taking on Al Segrini in his Super Brut Dodge Omni. Beadle was out first and had severe tire shake, tried to drive through it and wound up rolling it over at mid track! My friend and fellow photographer Dennis Rothacker got this great shot and used it for his business card for a few years.

One of the sights at the Gators in 1982 was Stan Barrett's land speed record rocket. I believe this was the old Blue Flame that Gary Gabelich drove.


In the pits to say hello to his old boss Don Garlits was Connie Swingle (beard) in 1982.

1982 saw 25-year-old Frank Hawley drive the Chi-Town Hustler to their first ever win. He beat Tim Grose, whose chute came out a few hundred feet off the starting line. Hawley would return 1983 and win the Funny Car title for a second straight year.

Frank Manzo showed up at the Gators with this sharp looking Monza TA/FC in 1982. He did not win, but he did win in 1983. Then again in '95,'98 and 2000. He wasn't done, he also wins in '02, '08, 09 and 2010 for a total of eight. He is tied for second on the list of all-time winners at the Gatornationals. Who is he tied with for second, and who has the most wins Pro or Sportsman in Gainesville?

On Sunday at the 1983 Gatornationals Gary Beck’s string of raceday 5.40's with a new national record at 5.448 in the semis earned him a place in the final against Connie Kalitta. A 5.497 at 251.39 was all it took as Kalitta slowed to a 7-second pass.

The first of a few Tom McEwen pics I have through the years is one of him signing a young boy’s cast. This shows him in the staging lanes with his Coors Corvette in 1984.

1984 also saw Brad Anderson's Trans Am TA/FC defeat Bogie Kell, who won Pro Comp here in 1978.

Shirley takes out Big Daddy in 1984 Gators Top Fuel action. The guy with the hat is CJ "Pappy" Hart.

Kenny Bernstein ran 260.11 in the final round to win his first Funny Car title at the Gatornationals in 1984. He would repeat in 1985 and win again in 1998. He would also win in T/F in 1988. He is one of two drivers to win in both T/F and F/C at the Gators! Do you know who the other driver is?


Lee Beard has tuned a lot of championship drivers in his career. Here he is with Gary Ormsby in 1984.

Joe Amato would be the first to go 260 mph after he ran 260.11 in his semifinal win over Gary Ormsby. Bernstein would then run 260 in the final and Amato upped the ante by running 262.39 to win his third Gators trophy in  1984. His first in Top Fuel, he also won Pro Comp in 1979 and T/AD in 1981. Later he would win in 1987, ‘91 and ‘97.

Dale Bartlett's Citation nitro FC lights it up at the 1984 Gators during qualifying.

Terry Mullins’ crew chief Howard Moon was learning the ropes with this top end fire in Mullins TA/FC in 1985.

Bob Gottschalk's nitro FC feared much worse. Not only did he burn his car to the ground, but he set the woods on fire on the north side of the track in the shutdown in 1985 before there were walls.

March 1985: McEwen to Tom Prock (on the right): "How long do you think it will be before Snake here wins this race again?" “I don't know, 1987?” says Prock. Correct!  


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