When we first announced the debut of the SCAG Power Equipment PRO Superstar Shootout presented by Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage back in early August 2023, the press release I wrote and distributed declared, “The PRO Superstar Shootout will also be the first time Bradenton Motorsports Park has hosted an event with 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars.” Unknowingly at the time, that statement wasn’t entirely correct.
While it’s true that the modern-day Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars capable of running at 330-plus MPH haven’t raced at Bradenton, the historic Florida Gulf Coast track has hosted some of the biggest names in nitro racing since the early 1970s. A few weeks after the race announcement, while catching up at the NHRA U.S. Nationals, National Dragster Senior Editor Kevin McKenna told me a bit about the track’s nitro racing background, including the fact that South Florida’s Paul Smith was likely making runs at Bradenton in his nitro Funny Car not long after the track opened in the early ‘70s.
In the weeks leading up to this weekend’s PRO Superstar Shootout, I wanted to learn more about the history of nitro racing at Bradenton. There’s not a ton of online resources for this, but this CompetitionPlusTV upload of ESPN’s coverage of the 1988 IHRA Super Nationals at Bradenton offers a great look at national-event level nitro racing at the track. Fans will recognize some familiar names and faces, like John Force, who will compete at Bradenton again this weekend nearly 40 years later, or Scott Kalitta, who actually lived in nearby Snead Island until his untimely passing in 2008.
When I was at Bradenton a couple weeks ago for the U.S. Street Nationals, I asked around to see who might be able to share some memories from the track’s nitro past. I ended up sitting down with Jeanette Williams, whose history at Bradenton started in 1974 when she started coming to the races as a fan. She started working for original track owners Stanley Swartz and Gene Tharpe the following year, beginning a relationship with the facility that continues today.
When Art Malone bought the track in the early ‘80s, Williams continued to work there and later took over management with husband Troy. The couple took over the lease from 1996 through 2001 when Alan Chervitz bought the track. Jeanette then took a hiatus from official involvement that ended about four years ago when she went back to work the gates with the current team under the ownership of Victor Alvarez. She’s attended almost every running of the Snowbird Outlaw Nationals, which used to feature nitro racing, since 1974.
Williams, the mother of original Million Dollar Race winners Troy Williams Jr. and Gary Williams, shared her Bradenton nitro racing memories in this interview held in the historic race control tower at Bradenton Motorsports Park.
A lot of people don’t realize some big names raced here back in the day. Who are some of the racers you remember seeing here?
[Don] Garlits and Shirley [Muldowney], Shirl Greer, and ‘The Greek’ [Chris Karamesines] – those kind of guys were coming. Art [Malone] had raced Top Fuel, then him and Garlits became ‘Garlits and Malone’ and everything, so he was really big on Top Fuel. But when I started coming in the ‘70s, it was really cool because all the Top Fuel guys came in with duallies with ramps up them. Nobody had big rigs or anything.
The Snowbirds is now known as one of the big outlaw Pro Mod and drag radial events of the season, but it used to include various other classes like nitro cars at one time. What do you recall of that period?
Well, Stanley and Gene had full fields [of nitro cars], and then they had tapered down. Then when Art bought the track in ’83, he was a former Top Fuel racer, so he brought back the Top Fuel racers and everything. Then Herb Parks got killed here at the Snowbirds [in 1988]. Rocky Epperly was driving. I don’t think he drove again after that. It was a freak accident on the starting line. [Read more about the incident here: http://motorsportmemorial.org/focus.php?db=ct&n=1940]
In the early ‘90s, we started doing some match racing and we would have the two McDonalds cars, [Cruz] Pedregon and [Cory] McClenathan. But we didn’t have a full field. It was more four or six Top Fuel. Paul Smith raced a lot here and he did a lot of racing for us as a fill-in.
Garlits made his comeback here at the Snowbirds in I think it was ’91 in Paul’s car. Right after [Kenny] Bernstein set the 300 MPH record in Gainesville, he was racing here. I think he ran 301 something. There’s a mirror upstairs that was signed by him with the E.T. and speed on it. I think it’s worn off now, but we still have it hanging up there from when he raced here.
When my husband and I started leasing the track in ’96, Steve Earwood from Rockingham helped us. We brought Shirley and Garlits and Force with the Castrol cars to come out and run.
The Snowbirds was never a points race for the fuel cars, right?
No, it wasn’t a points race, it was just something that Stanley and Gene did, and then Art, like I said, picked it back up. The teams used it basically as a test session before the Gators. I think we had Pro Stock cars like ‘The Professor’ [Warren Johnson] and his son [Kurt]. [Jim] Head used to test here. They all used to run here and come down and test with us.
But it wasn’t a points race or anything, it was just an end-of-the-year thing. I think at the time they were paying $30,000 for Top Fuel to win. At that time, it was pretty good money to get them here. The teams liked it as an end-of-the-year, first-of-the-next-year test session.
Then we started hiring them in for a show. But the Snowbirds was always like the IHRA thing where they did Top Fuel, Funny Car, the jets, of course, and Richard Hutchins with the wheelstander, fireworks. It was always just a show and it was always something everybody in the area looked for. We always had a really good crowd for it.
Not many of those names are still racing, but John Force is and he’ll be competing in the PRO Superstar Shootout. What’s it going to be like seeing him and all the other modern nitro racers back at Bradenton?
Well, it’s changed so much. It’s gotten to where it’s so fast over the years. But yeah, I look forward to seeing some of them because, like I said, they came here for winter testing, and I got to be pretty good friends with some of them. John Force was always super nice. I’m happy that it’s coming back here. I love Top Fuel and I think it’s going to draw a spectacular crowd and I think it’s going to be a really good show. It’s going to be something that will be epic for here.
On that note, what’s the local reception for this race been like?
Everybody’s so excited about it. Everybody’s been asking me about it. I tell them, you need to get your tickets early because I think they’re going to sell out. I think it’s going to be a sellout crowd. I think it’s going to be an awesome show.
Victor [Alvarez, track owner] has been working on doing a lot of improvements here at the track. I think it’s going to just be a fantastic show. We just set records this week [at the U.S. Street Nationals], so I’m looking to see some really good racing and times.
The inaugural SCAG Power Equipment PRO Superstar Shootout presented by JHG, Feb. 8-10, will feature invitation-only fields in Top Fuel and Funny Car – both $250,000 to win – and Pro Stock ($125,000 to win) with total payouts of more than $1.3 million. Sportsman racing will be represented by FTI Performance Top Sportsman ($50,000 to win), Stock ($30,000 to win), and Super Stock ($30,000 to win.