Annie Whiteley made the two greatest runs of her career in the semifinals and final round of the NHRA Gatornationals for her fourth career national title and first since Seattle in 2015.
“Sometimes you wonder if things are ever going to go your way again, but a weekend like this makes it all worthwhile,” said Whiteley, who ran a 5.40 (low e.t. of the meet) to edge defending champion John Lombardo in the semifinals and a 5.41 on a final-round single when 2013-2014 Gatornationals winner Dan Pomponio was unable to appear. “The car was just unbelievable all weekend.”
Despite an outstanding 5.45, Whiteley qualified just fifth in the field, then survived major scares in the early round of eliminations. In the opening round, she was just about to get strapped in for what she thought was a single when she was informed that, due to a mistake by NHRA officials, she would not have a bye run but instead would be racing Bill Naves. “We were really going for it that time because with a bye run, why not?” she said. “If it makes it, you know how hard you can push it for the next round, and if it doesn’t, you win anyway because there’s no one in the other lane.”
The car didn’t make it, shaking the tires violently and giving Naves, who qualifying attempt, a shot at the biggest round win of his NHRA career. Fortunately for the J&A Service/YNot Racing team, Whiteley was able to get the powerful beast back under control in time to blow past Naves for a 6.44 to 8.11 win.
In the quarterfinals, Whiteley got a scare of a different kind when opponent Andy Bohl, who had run one 5.4 after another until that point, veered completely into her lane, just missing her. “I’m glad I didn’t see how close he got,” she said. “People had pictures of it and were trying to show me, and I said, ‘I don’t want to think about that.’ ”
She advanced with a solid 5.51, then unloaded the 5.40 on Lombardo, the No. 1 qualifier, and beating him by one-thousandth of a second, stealing low e.t. from him (5.404 to his 5.409) to win a photo-finish decision. Both of them hit 273 mph in the fastest-side-by-side race of all time.
In the final, with the track to herself, she eclipsed her one-run-old career-best speed of 273.05 with a 273.22-mph blast. “It’s weird being on a single in the final,” she said. “You think of the ignition quitting or some dumb little thing breaking. What happens then? Does nobody win? I left, and it was just a perfect run. The front end came up, settled back down, came back up again when I hit second gear and just ran perfectly straight to the finish line. I wish every run could be like that.”