I realize this is probably one issue late, as the Gatornationals was held two months ago but that event meant so much to me. I always looked forward to attending, as I “think” my very first time was 1975. My how the time flies!
The Gators is the premier East Coast event early in the new season every year. There are plenty of new cars for the new season, new paint schemes, sometimes new crews and it has great weather while sometimes the rest of the country is having snow and ice.
I would always drive down to that race except for the one-year Bret Kepner picked me up and I rode with him. As you might expect, the stories of that trip can't be shared here in this column for various reasons. Suffice it to say it involved the long arm of the law along with the fact so many details have been forgotten by me as well as I plead the fifth amendment on certain things.
More to the point though, the Gators has gone on to be a crowd pleaser, and that can be said for the racers as well. Add in the fact it’s Florida in March and you have the makings of a great time by all. But boy, has the place sure changed a lot since those early days.
Getting into and out of this event in its early years was quite the task sometimes taking hours to finally get in the facility just to park. The city of Gainesville eventually embraced the track, NHRA, the racers and the spectators and it's safe to say this one race event alone brings millions to the city of Gainesville and surrounding areas, encompassing sold out hotels, busy restaurants, and family shopping of all sorts.
Opened in 1969, it was back in 1970 the track held the now very famous first annual NHRA Gatornationals, and the place has never looked back, nor any better than it does today. The NHRA eventually bought the place and over time renovated it to its present-day looking form, with permanent aluminum seating on both sides of the track, with the pit side stands also having corporate and sponsor Skybox suites attached. Back when I got there for my first time the tower stood on the pit side of the track and was a cinder block style building of about three floors. That was eventually torn down and a wider three-story building was erected behind and to the left of the starting line. That building was also three floors which housed the timing deck, a split room for Media, and Sponsor suites, along with seating on the roof which looked down track. Today there is an all new modern looking tower that sits at an angle behind the starting line, and naturally looks down track.
Other renovations included a completely concrete track surface new this year, more concrete and asphalt pits for all the Pro cars, and improved parking for the spectators along with better drainage in case of rain, which somehow always seems to be an issue. With on-track improvements this track is one of the longest on the circuit with a high-tech containment system should a car go that far.
Just for grins, I looked up who won in the three Pro classes at my first Gators, thinking I might remember one of them. The answer to that is NO! Age has fogged my memories, but Top Fuel was won by none other than Dale Funk, in the appropriately named "Kentucky Moonshiner car", while Don Prudhomme took the FC honors, and it was Bob Glidden winning in Pro Stock.
By the time you are reading this the 50th Annual NHRA Gatornationals event will have taken place, and if you were there, I’m sure you will have enjoyed some great racing and some wonderful 50th festivities. Though I was unable to attend, I’m glad I still get to jog my memory and Remember When.