Kalitta's holeshot win memorable

— -- Bill Stephens The 39th Automobile Club of Southern California Finals at the Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., had promised to be one of the most eventful NHRA POWERade spectaculars of the 2003 season. How could it not be? On tap were the retirement of the legendary Shirley Muldowney, the second retirement of another drag racing icon, Kenny Bernstein, the coronation of a new Funny Car champion, Tony Pedregon, and the return of another NHRA great, Bob Glidden. But on Saturday, in the final round of the $100,000 Budweiser Shootout for Top Fuel Dragsters, the matchup between Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta was, unquestionably, the most sensational drag race of the year. The race-within-a-race special event comprises an eight-car field determined by a dedicated points fund which accumulates based on the qualifying positions logged over the past year at the previous 22 national events. During qualifying for the Auto Club Finals, the eight most consistently quick drivers during that period are paired off in a three-round tournament with $100,000 going to the winner. Kalitta, who won the Budweiser cash in 1998, entered this year's Shootout as the No. 4 qualifier while Schumacher earned the No. 3 slot, having never gone the distance in this high-stakes affair. Right from the beginning of the event, both drivers quickly proved they were going all out for the money with Kalitta dropping Doug Herbert in the first round, 4.51/331.45 to 9.58/92.80. Schumacher clobbered David Baca in his opening round pairing with the lowest elapsed time and fastest speed of the weekend so far, 4.45/332.10. In Round 2, Kalitta was again very quick, beating Cory McClenathan with a 4.48/329.83 while Schumacher ran another 4.40's pass in defeating defending Shootout champion, Larry Dixon, with a 4.49/329.26. It was truly appropriate for the two quickest dragsters in the sport to face each other in the final round. Kalitta's 4.428 which he clocked in Joliet this past September is the quickest run in NHRA history and Schumacher's 4.441 from Reading, Pa., in October -- the current national record -- is the sport's second-quickest lap. With skies darkening over the Fairplex and temperatures creeping downward, the conditions were close to ideal for the 8000-horsepower, nitromethane-fueled race cars. The huge crowd was expecting a landmark payoff to the day's activities and they were not disappointed. When the Christmas Tree went green, Kalitta left 2/100's of a second sooner than Schumacher and that proved to be the difference in the race as each car remained stuck to the groove and howled to the finish line with eight-foot flames shooting from both banks of their exhaust pipes. The winlight flashed in Kalitta's lane but the numbers which came up on the scoreboard set off a rousing wave of applause from the Fairplex grandstands. On a holeshot, Kalitta had beaten Schumacher in the quickest side-by-side race in NHRA history: 4.479/330.88 to 4.471/329.58. "That one was close," said Kalitta as he received the ceremonial check for $100,000. "I knew that Schumacher car would have plenty for us but luckily, we got there first." "What a great race," exclaimed Schumacher, gracious in defeat. "Any driver hates to lose on a holeshot but I think we just proved that we have a race car that can run with anyone. That was a rush." And for the millions of fans of NHRA POWERade Drag Racing, it was the very best race of 2003. Period. Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.