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Top Sportsman will be a "top" show for NHRA's Division 2

by Dale Wilson

Some racers and race fans might never have believed it -- the NHRA running a born-and-bred IHRA sportsman class. But believe it they will -- during the rest of the 2002 season, NHRA's Division 2 will host Top Sportsman, those wild, 6-second and 200-mph door cars that have been a staple of the IHRA and a class that many consider a stepping stone to Pro Modified.

The division 2 schedule says it plainly: Top Sportsman will be contested at three WCS points races, the ones at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway on July 18-20; Atlanta (Georgia) Dragway on August 9-11; Darlington (South Carolina) Dragway on October 4-6; and during the Florida Winter Series, at Moroso Motorsports Park's Citrus Nationals on November 30-December 1; and at the Sportsman Open at Orlando Speed World on December 13-15.

NHRA Division 2 director Bill Holt says it is merely an extension of his and his track managers' innovative ideas that brings Top Sportsman, an IHRA class that has been around for two decades, to race under the NHRA flag. After all, didn't the recently completed Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway host 24 Pro Modified cars? The crowd, Holt says, loved 'em.

But the move to contest an all-run, quarter-mile, big-money Top Sportsman show at five NHRA tracks came about through a simple telephone call between Darlington Dragway's Larry Hensley and friend and Top Sportsman racer Will Roberson of Williston, South Carolina. Hensley asked Roberson, whose "new" Tim McAmis-built '57 Chevy won best-engineered at a big race in Shreveport, Louisiana recently, what it would take for Roberson to come and race at one of Darlington's WCS points races.

Roberson said it would take a lot. "He told me that his car doesn't have a class to run in, and besides, his car won't pull its own weight if he turns the bottle off, and there is no bottle class at NHRA points races," Hensley said. "I said, 'You know, you're right.' That's what got me talking about it."

Hensley has been talking the drag racing talk for years. Now the general manager of Darlington Dragway, it was he who shifted Darlington's allegiance from the IHRA to the NHRA, after Darlington flew the IHRA flag 30 years. He switched membership last year, in December.

He ran the Mororo and Miami-Hollywood tracks for four years, and in the mid-1960s through the 1970s raced Funny Cars. He was once on the road with the Allman Brothers Band, and he opened a Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop in Sarasota back when Harleys weren't the superstars of the two-wheel crowd that they are now. "We just about couldn't give them away," he says. "But I've been in drag racing most of my life."

Seeing the success that Top Sportsman enjoyed at the IHRA races, Hensley thought to himself, "Why can't we bring some of that success and show over to the NHRA?", specifically in division 2, the birthplace of fast, FAST door cars.

At the division 2 track operators banquet at Jacksonville, Florida earlier this year, he threw out his idea. "I saw that throughout all the WCS tracks that hold points races, they're picking up 10 cars a year, maybe 20," Hensley said he told them. "When we took a break, I told (division 2 director) Bill Holt that I had an answer for the car counts. 'We need to bring in Top Sportsman. I've watched them for a year in the IHRA, and that's the class to bring into the NHRA. We've already sold them on Pro Mod, we need to steal the support class to go with it.'"

Holt, Hensley said, was a little shocked. He asked him what the low ET in that class was. Hensley answered, "Oh, I don't know, about a 6.40 or so. He said, 'What?' I said, 'There are some bad asses over there. They don't play. The majority of the cars run in the 7-flat range.'"

Holt told Hensley he didn't know if it would work but he'd be willing to listen to some more, so when they got back in the meeting, Holt told those assembled that Hensley thinks the division needs to bring Top Sportsman over here to the NHRA. "He asked (division 2 tech director) Jim Collins and he said, 'Hell yeah, it'll work. I go to all those IHRA races and they run a lot of cars. I think it will work well, especially in division 2,'" Hensley said.

Holt took it into consideration, and now, this week (May 15), NHRA is ready to announce the move. They finalized the WCS schedule recently.

But who to sponsor it? Enter Ronnie "the King" Davis, an IHRA Top Sportsman world champion (1990, 1991 and 1997, plus IHRA's first divisional Top champ, in 2000), whose 632-inch split-window Corvette is sponsored by, among others, Davis In-motion Satellites, Transtar Systems of Orlando, an RV satellite dish system, and John Bleakley Motor Homes of Douglasville and Unidilla, Georgia and Monaco Coaches.

Davis didn't get his nickname "the King" by watching Elvis movies. He won that moniker by winning nearly every bracket race he entered for a period when the Covington, Georgia drag strip was running. It took him only a year, from 1989 to 1990, to become the IHRA world champion in Top. It took Davis only a couple of hours to line up Bleakley's and Monaco's sponsorship for the NHRA sponsorship.

Davis's motto: I get things done yesterday, not the day after.In addition to being John Bleakley's motorsports director, Davis is now an advisor to Holt and the NHRA.

"I knew the King from running at my track and through the IHRA. He was one of the first guys I called," Hensley said. "I said, 'Ronnie, we need support for this.' I told him we were going to run it at three divisionals, and the only thing that will make it fly and give it credibility is a good car count. I know that you see these guys every week, so you need to put the word out."

Davis asked how much money was needed. Hensley told him, and two hours later, he called back and said, "It's a done deal, what else do you need? What about decal (contingency) money?" Davis called Hensley back in another hour and he had 14 contingency sponsors lined up, with more people to get on once they see what's happening with it.

John Bleakley Motor Homes and Monaco Coaches are now the series sponsors, and money will be forthcoming. It will be all-run show on a qualified ladder, qualify on Saturday and race on Sunday, with a points champ crowned at next year's divisional banquet, plus a new schedule for 2003.

It will be run just like any other eliminator, Comp or Super Gas or Stock. Davis, Hensley and Hold went over a lot of the rules and are applying the same things that the IHRA does. The racer who comes over to run the NHRA series has to have an NHRA-certified car, he must have an NHRA license and be an NHRA member, which includes taking a physical. Other than that, the rules are the same as with the IHRA.

"This year, Bill is trying to make it as easy as possible for the transition for the racer who wants to run both NHRA and IHRA, and he has decided that instead of a qualified field, it's all-run, and the only money the racer will get will be a purse supplied by the track," Davis said. At the end of the season, there will be a champion crowned at the NHRA Division 2 banquet, courtesy of John Bleakley Motor Sports, and he will win $2,000 plus a "Wally" and some other things. The No. 2 man will win $1,000, No. 3 will get $500 and No. 4 will get $250. The winner will get a gold card for the next year," Davis said.

"It's a good class, very popular, good for the fans and good for the racers," Davis said. "Of course, most people don't look on sportsman drag racing as entertainment. But you're competing against bowling, swimming, movies and so on, and you have to have an attraction, and Top Sportsman is a very attractive class, and people do like watching it. They (the NHRA) were interested in bringing in a class that's a little more exciting. Some of the classes they had were, frankly, getting stale."

Hensley echoed that. "I think it will help the division 2 operators to have a show. My points race at Darington is just before the IHRA Rockingham World Finals, so my thinking is this: the week before Rockingham, everybody comes to my track to test. I'll probably give the pros (the IHRA alcohol classes) free testing in exchange for a show Saturday night," he said. Top Sportsman will also be run.

Holt says the Top Sportsman guys put on quite a show. "I'm glad to have them," he said. "We've always been the innovative division."

Hensley has other ideas, including the first annual Southern Outlaw Nationals, for Outlaw Pro Mod, Outlaw Pro Street, Outlaw 10.5, Outlaw Pure Street and hard-core grudge racing, to be held over the Memorial Day weekend in a couple of weeks, with race promoter George Howard behind him. They will pay $5,000 to win in the first three classes and $2,000 to win in Outlaw Pure Street, and grudge racers set their own purse, with a free car and driver entry.

But that's another story.


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