Jim Baker's Then and Now

Arizona National Redux!

In the year 1956, the fledgling NHRA Nationals were completed near Phoenix, AZ, at an airstrip just west of town close to a burg called Pixlie. The track was old fashioned concrete with weather strips and NO lane prep. Calvin Rice won Top Eliminator with a flat head Ford-powered dragster.


About 26-30 years ago, the Arizona drag racing landscape made a drastic change. It started when the Fort McDowell tribe failed to renew Jim Rogers’ agreement to have racing at Beeline Dragway. The AHRA (American Hot Rod Association) had prevailed since the track’s inception in 1964 and a number of AHRA Winternational races were held there.


We remember 1967 when (now 81) Connie Kalitta won the race near Phoenix with his awesome Ford Cammer-powered slingshot. The Michigan racer then went to Pomona and the NHRA Winternationals, won again and took off to the east coast.


At the time (1967) the NASCAR Daytona Speed Weeks had included drag racing. So Connie won his third Winter National race in succession. Kalitta certainly earned many accolades for his 81st birthday during the Arizona event this year. Just two weeks prior, his nephew Doug hoisted the Wally at the NHRA Winternationals. His favorite DHL-sponsored Funny Car, the 2018 World Champion with driver J.R. Todd, was runner up….HAPPY BIRTHDAY CONNIE!


But that was no more sensational than Texas pipeline contractor Billy Torrence picking off a full field of Top Fuel Dragster professionals to win the title at Wild Horse Pass.

And what was different than any previous Arizona Nationals, was rain forced a two-day race! All the ticket holders from rained out (plus cold) Friday were infused with a near sell out Saturday crowd, to create a slammed Saturday with only a two-shot qualifying scene.

Dickie Venables, Matt Hagan’s crew chief, proved himself the ‘wizard of Arizona’ during the event. On rained out and cold Friday, a few cars were allowed to run. None made it to the finish line under power, except Hagan. He ripped off an astonishing 3.94 ET, but soon after the race was called for the day. On Saturday, the DSR racer qualified second with a 3.88 blast. Sunday he took no prisoners winning from the #2 spot when National Champion J.R. Todd lost traction at the hit.

This photo was at the 1/8th mile and stretched in both directions, before the starting line, and way past the quarter mile score boards. The pit area went around the lake, and used all available space.

Many folks just hoped they could see a little bit. Funny Car racing was one sided. Last year Courtney Force went all the way home from the #1 qualifier. This after her father 16-time National Champion, John was involved in an explosion and crash. Courtney retired after 2018, but her car and crew chiefs are now with father John who finished in the semi-finals. Matt Hagan made a similar 2019 statement.

Pro Stock semi-finals were great! Eventual winner Jeg Coughlin used an .004 on the tree plus a time of 6.54 secs, to stop his teammate Erica Enders in the semi-finals. Erica left first with a .002 light but lost by around 7 inches when her 6.57 ET could not hold the lead.


In 1970, the first year of the new Pro Stock category, Bill Jenkins showed the world how to spell Camaro when he beat favorite Ronnie Sox at Beeline Dragway. The victory would go to Jenkins three more times before the engineers at MOPAR took over.

Bill Kent stopped ageless Ralph Van Paepegham in a close battle for the Competition Eliminator crown. Ralph, from Idaho, was racing back when I did. He has not fallen off his great pace, though, as he claimed the title one week later in the Division 7 opener.

Jennifer Weins, who races with family and friends out of Las Vegas, was awarded ‘Best Appearing Car’ at the AZ Nationals. Yep, that is a blower and she races in Top Dragster.

To close the show at the 1962 Arizona Nationals (AHRA Winternationals), Walt Arfons brought his revolutionary new jet-powered dragster out for a spin. This was at Mel Larson’s brand new Arizona Raceway on Grand Avenue. Current fans knew it as Speed World. It was certainly packed too!

To close the overcrowded Saturday at the Arizona Nationals, Scotty Arriaga made a tremendous run in the ‘Wicked Sensations’ jet car. Scotty and Al are father and son. Al was there with the team; he and I go way back to the early ‘70s. The Arriagas are certainly one of Arizona’s longest operating drag racing teams. In the early ‘70s Al built and ran a ’71 Camaro Pro Stock. He then bought a F/C and named it the Spanish Galleon; next he purchased and raced the ‘Mob’ AA/FA. Then thirty years ago it was and still is jets.


That’s a wrap for the short story of National Event racing in Arizona over the years. The 2019 edition at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park was probably a two-day record for the Valley of the Sun. Weather this year has been unseasonably rainy and cold and it certainly did not miss the Arizona Nationals! But the race fans stayed the course and the Nationals finished on a high note. Arizona has always been a popular location for Drag Racing!


Until Next Time, Be On Time! 



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