The 45th annual Amalie Oil Gatornationals launch Friday afternoon at Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville, carrying competition into the weekend in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series? first east coast event of 2014.
Slotted as the third race of the season, the event has become a fixture on the drag racing schedule, bolstered by high car counts in multiple divisions and high speeds.
One high profile class, the Top Fuel dragsters, accelerate from a standstill to 100 miles per hour in under one second and can exceed 280 miles per hour in merely 660 feet, subjecting drivers to an average force of 4.0 G. Last year?s winning speed in Gainesville from Antron Brown nearly eclipsed 320 mph.
Shawn Langdon is the defending Top Fuel champion, winning seven races during the 2013 season with the Al-Anabi Silver Racing Team and claiming seven number one?qualifying positions. The first NHRA racer to win championship titles in the NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League, the Lucas Oil NHRA Drag Racing Series and the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series says drivers look forward to the Gainesville event each year.
“Interaction and fan involvement is always big,? Langdon said on SportsScene with Steve Russell. ?The stands are packed and the pits are packed. Every ticket is a pit pass, so a lot of fans come into the pit and want to see everything. They’re excited about it, and in turn, that really pumps you up as a driver.”
Fellow racing star Erica Enders-Stevens, who made history in 2012 as the first female winner in the Pro Stock class in NHRA history, seconds Langdon?s sentiment about the series? paramount accessibility and fan interest in the region.
?The fans feel like they’re actually a part of something. You don’t have to get a background check to go into the garage like in NASCAR. It’s a great deal,” Enders-Stevens said.
Gatornationals occupy a special place in drag racing lore. The quarter-mile track has been the spot of many milestones, including Kenny Bernstein?s Top Fuel run in 1992 that shattered the 300 mph barrier. Even outside of the NHRA?s passionate fan base, the event still carries weight for the casual fan seeking spring break speed.
?I love it, and I’m not just saying that because we’re here,? Enders-Stevens said. ?This track has a lot of history for me and a lot of history for our sport. Even if you mention to the not-so-avid drag racing fan ‘we’re going to Gainesville for the Gatornationals,’ everybody knows what the Gatornationals are. It’s a fun race.”
Other divisions competing include the Pro Stock Motorcycle Series, who hit the track for their first run of the season. Qualifying for each class takes place throughout the day on Friday and Saturday, culminating with elimination rounds and the finals on Sunday.
The eliminations will air on tape delay Sunday night on ESPN2. Tickets for all three days are still available.