At the only Gatornationals ever contested in the Fall and the only one that likely ever will be, two-time NHRA Pro Mod winner Jim Whiteley sailed through qualifying with back-to-back 5.8s, advanced to the middle rounds of eliminations solely on his reflexes, and finally bowed out against career-long nemesis “Trickie Rickie” Smith, the eventual winner, in the quarterfinals.
Whiteley, whose son, Steven, won this race in 2017 on the biggest day of his racing career, cut a killer .026 light and streaked down the track straight and true to a 5.89 at 243.85 mph in the Friday evening session. Saturday afternoon in teams’ only attempt to qualify, he picked up to a 5.86/244 that carried him to the No. 5 position in the final order, his highest all year.
The YNot/J&A Service driver faced Aeromotive owner Steve Matusek, a national event winner himself, in the opening round in Matusek’s first start in a ’20 Mustang that replaced the spectacular turbocharged Tequila Comisario Mustang he destroyed in the first round at Indy in that car’s debut. With a .068 reaction time, Matusek wasn’t exactly late, but Whiteley, reminiscent of his glory days as a Top Alcohol champion, had him all the way with a superior .032 reaction time for a holeshot win.
Matusek’s 5.850 in the unfamiliar new machine was only marginally quicker than Whiteley’s 5.856 in his ’63 ‘Vette, and their reaction times made for a margin of victory of just 11 feet in the traps. For Whiteley, the weekend came to an end in the quarterfinals, when Smith, the former IHRA star and many-time NHRA Pro Mod champ, rumbled to a 5.79/249. Whiteley got loose in low gear, got back in the gas just in case Smith encountered difficulties downtrack, and coasted silently across the finish line four and a half seconds later with a 10.30 at 83 mph.