When the NHRA introduced Western Swing in 1989 – a three-race, three-weekend test of technology and tenacity in high-altitude climates from Denver to Sonoma Wine Country in Northern California to Seattle in the Far Northwest – it was a real game-changer.
Although recent NHRA national event programs have featured as many as four races in a row, they never seemed to match the appeal of the original, which was quite revolutionary in the context of a NHRA program. Consider that in 1987 the tour had only 14 events, so there was no need to scramble them all as it is now, and teams were used to having weeks off between events to fix and restock. No more.
Although the NHRA added the events of Sonoma and Seattle in 1988 (or, in the case of Seattle, added it after an eight-year hiatus after the Fallnationals disappeared), this is the year that the Bandimere Speedway Denver was closed during a major $ 4.2 million renovation, so the Western Swing didn’t start until the following year.
While match runners of the 1970s likely did more events, the idea of a three-race swing as part of the 1989 national events calendar was so unique that National Dragster cataloged the experience through the eyes of five ordinary runners – Michael Brotherton (Top Fuel), Art Hendey (Funny Car), Cory McClenathan (Top Alcohol Dragster), Jett Field (Top Alcohol Funny Car) and Ron Neff (Comp) – who we followed for the three events in a special dossier for ND called “The boys of summer”. This was our first real interaction with Cory Mac, who had just started racing in TAD in April after racing VWs for years. The Mile-High Nationals was his first national event, and he won it and did it by beating reigning world champion Blaine Johnson in the final. Talk about a memorable start!
The 2021 edition of The Swing could be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which is where it ends. The Swing begins, as it did for 30 of its 31 previous incarnations, in Denver, then heads west to Sonoma. Then instead of the runners heading north on Interstate 5 to Seattle, they’ll head south to Pomona, where we’ll be hosting the Historic Winternationals in mid-summer, a gift from farewell to Golden State of COVID-19.
As you can see in the table below, the two weird years of Swing were 2010, when we started in Seattle and ended in Denver (the experience went awry), and last year, when all three events have been knocked out by the pandemic.
|Years||First race||Second race||Third race|
|2020||No Western Swing due to the pandemic|
In addition to the bizarre arrival of the Swing in Pomona, this year Pro Stock Motorcycle riders will have the chance to try and achieve the near impossible feat of sweeping the Swing, a feat accomplished just eight times in 31 previous trials and not since 2009 in the pro ranks. The Two-Wheeled Warriors were scheduled to make their first appearance in Seattle last year before COVID-19 wiped that out, so now they have another chance to sweep the Swing, plus the bonus of becoming the first Pro Stock Motorcycle rider in the world. win the Internationals.
To recap, five different Top Fuel pilots – Joe Amato (1991), McClenathan (1997), Larry Dixon (2003), Tony Schumacher (2008) and Antron Brown (2009) – swept the Swing, and only John Force in Funny Car. (1994), Greg Anderson in Pro Stock (2004) and twice by Sportsman driver Dan Fletcher (1994 and 2013).
Amato and crew chief Tim Richards were the first to do so, but the Force sweep in 1994 was momentous in that he beat the late Chuck Etchells in the final rounds of Denver and Sonoma and took barely won the Sonoma race, scoring a slight victory of just 0.001 seconds on a hole, 5.14 to 5.12. Etchells was knocked out early in Seattle by Kenji Okazaki, and Force completed the sweep by beating Al Hofmann in the final.
The incredible Mr. Fletcher also swept the Swing for the first time that year, making it in Super Stock with his famous orange Camaro Checkmate. His 2013 sweep is perhaps more astonishing because after winning the Super Stock in Denver and the Stock in Sonoma, he won both categories in Seattle in his first and only doubles victory. Four Wallys in three weeks? Astonishing!
Cory Mac’s sweep in 1997 was made even more impressive as he and the McDonald’s team won four in a row, winning at Brainerd two weeks after Seattle. McClenathan’s team was a dream team of future members of the Tuning Hall of Fame led by Mike Green and assisted by Mike Neff, Brian Husen, Dickie Venables and Joe Barlam, all now well established and respected team leaders. .
Tony Schumacher’s 2008 sweep under Alan Johnson was even more impressive as their Western Swing swept was the top three of what would be seven straight wins, covering 31 laps before losing to JR Todd in the eighth race final, who was in Dallas. Schumacher won 15 of 24 races that year.
(Schumacher also holds the ignominious losing record in the three Swing Finals in 2011, falling to Spencer Massey in Denver, Antron Brown in Sonoma and Del Worsham in Seattle.)
Anderson accomplished what Pro Stock greats Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson never could, sweeping the Swing in 2004 in a 15-win season. Johnson came closer in 2011 by winning in Denver and Sonoma but lost in the first round to V. Gaines in Seattle.
TWO OF THREE IS NOT BAD
So while no one in the Pro ranks has swept the Swing since Brown in 2009, many people have come close, including AB himself. Three years after his hat-trick, he won Denver and Sonoma in 2012, but was knocked out by eventual event champion Shawn Langdon in the second round in Seattle.
Allen Johnson of Pro Stock was also aiming for a sweep in the 2012 event after winning in Denver and Sonoma, but was downed in the Seattle semi-final by Erica Enders. Johnson’s incredible streak of Denver hits also likely kept Vincent Nobile in 2013 and Jason Line in 2014 from possible sweeps, as they both won in Sonoma and Seattle after AJ won in Denver. Chris McGaha also won in Sonoma and Seattle in 2015 after watching Larry Morgan upset Johnson in the Denver Finals.
Tommy Johnson Jr. never swept the Swing, but in the years 2015 and 2016 he stopped two more. Jack Beckman, who was denied a sweep in 2007 after winning in Denver and Seattle and then being bounced in the first round in Sonoma by Cruz Pedregon, almost joined Force as a Funny Car sweeper in 2015, winning Denver and Sonoma and reaching the semi-finals in Seattle before losing to eventual event champion Johnson Jr. Force himself attempted another sweep in 2016, a dozen years after his first, racking up wins in Denver and Sonoma before Johnson eliminated him in the first round in Seattle.
(John Force Racing has some sort of other Western Swing under his belt. In 2014, Robert Hight won in Denver, Courtney Force in Sonoma, and John Force in Seattle.)
Most recently, Anderson took another shot in a Pro Stock sweep with 2019 wins in Denver and Sonoma and reached the final in Seattle but was turned down by Matt Hartford. So close !
Brown also came to one round of another Top Fuel sweep, ending the 2017 Swing with wins in Denver and Seattle, but lost the Sonoma final in the middle to his good pal Steve Torrence, and Ron Capps won. in Seattle in 2018 after the finalists in both Denver and Sonoma to start the Swing.
What will happen in 2021?
It’s safe to say that a Pro Stock motorcycle rider could make history as the first two-wheeled swing sweeper. Andrew Hines (2019), Eddie Krawiec (2012 and 2015) and Matt Smith (2007) all won the Denver and Sonoma events in the same year and are obvious favorites.
In Funny Car, I could see red Bob Tasca III adding his name to the list, and overbearing Steve Torrence, understandably, has a chance in Top Fuel. Greg Anderson could add his second sweep and in the middle of it pass Warren Johnson as Pro Stock’s highest-winning rider, and Enders accomplished just about everything except a Western Swing, although she never had won neither Denver nor Sonoma and hasn’t won in Pomona since 2014. I think she would like to change all three.
The fun begins next Friday in Denver, so get ready to step into the Swing of Things.
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
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