Down to his last shot to get in, two-time NHRA world champion Jim Whiteley deftly guided his new ’69 Camaro down Gainesville Raceway’s treacherous left lane and into the Gatornationals Pro Mod field under the lights Saturday night. Minutes later, others wouldn’t fare so well: Whiteley’s crew chief, 2019-20 NHRA world champ Stevie Jackson, failed to qualify by two-thousandths of a second, and Brandon Pesz had it much worse, veering across the track at 200+ mph and careening into Dustin Nesloney in a fiery crash that destroyed both cars.
Under pressure, Whiteley drove his J&A/YNot Racing team into eliminations at the first race of the 2021 NHRA season with a 5.826 at 246.17 mph. He barely made it, 16th in the 16-car qualified field and just ahead of “Stevie Fast’s” indistinguishable 5.828/246.84. But had Whiteley gone the distance from the bump, it wouldn’t have been unprecedented – for him. The former Top Alcohol Dragster champ won Pro Mod at Houston five years ago from the No. 18 spot, slipping into the field as an alternate for Sidnei Frigo, who survived a horrifying high-speed qualifying crash that ended upside-down in a muddy ditch.
At Gainesville, Whiteley motored to a competitive 5.88 at 243 mph on his first qualifying attempt and picked up to a quicker and faster but ultimately disappointing 5.87/243 Saturday morning that left him just outside the field. The sun was down and darkness had long set in when he came through with the 5.82, then looked on helplessly as others pushed it to the limit – and, in Pesz’s case, over the limit – trying in vain to bump him out.
Race day ended early Sunday morning when Whiteley, victimized by his own intensity, disqualified himself as he never had before. He staged first, and, when it was time to leave, reacted to a corner of the Tree that had nothing to do with him: opponent Justin Bond’s staged light. When it came on, Whiteley took off. Bond, who’d qualified No. 1 with a national record 5.638, cruised unopposed to a 5.72 win, and one pair later eventual winner Jose Gonzalez swiped his record with a new all-time best of 5.621.