Drags at Orlando Speed World
At its essence, drag racing is really about who has the quickest and fastest hot rod and beats all comers on any given day at the track. Back in the days before corporate sponsors, team orders and 12 different class winners that ultimate racer was called the Top Eliminator.
It’s very difficult to find that kind of drag racing these days, but it’s not impossible. This is what took place last Oct. 26-28 at Florida’s historic Orlando Speed World dragstrip when promoters Carl Weisinger and David Vidal put on a heads-up, run-watcha-brung race for Sport Compact race cars. The quickest 16 qualified cars would race with one winner taking home 20 grand!
The rules were basic and few: any engine, any tire, no weight minimum and any body style was legal. Turbocharging, nitrous oxide, EFI or any combination thereof was legal, but all cars had to pass strict NHRA tech for safety. An amazing 118 Sport Compact race teams from the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada showed up, vying to be one of the quickest 16. Many knew they had almost no chance of qualifying, much less winning, but they participated anyway.
The race is unique in recent drag racing history. It’s a drag racing legend that there used to be 100 Top Fuel cars at some West Coast races in the early-‘60s but this reporter can find no documented record of a one-class, heads-up, no breakout race with a documented 118 entries.
For two days and nights of qualifying, the teams leaned on themselves and their equipment. They ran as hard as they could on every lap. Blown engines, transmissions and other drivetrain components were just part of the program. When there are just 16 spots and 118 entries you can’t take it easy on your equipment if you expect to make the field.
The bump for the quickest 16 cars was a stout 7.387. Number-one qualifier Jorge Juarbe and his all-steel, turbocharged, six-banger Toyota Corolla were on the pole with a 6.861/206.83. Next came Canadian Top Sportsman racer Carl Brunet’s Pontiac GXP powered by a 132-ci turbocharged Saab four-cylinder, recording a 6.91 at 207 mph.
There would be four different brands of sport compacts dipping into the six-second zone using four significantly different power plants.
Qualifying for this race required more than just horsepower. Almost all of the cars entered had wheelbases less than 100 inches and all of the qualifiers but one coupled a 90-plus-inch wheelbase with a four- or five-speed transmission and 1,000-plus-hp. It took a skillful tuner, clutch man and driver to keep one of these ill-handling beasties on four wheels from the starting line to the quarter-mile mark.
Juarbe, driving for car owner Carlos Ruiz and his team from Puerto Rico, had a career weekend. Juarbe not only won the Quick-16 title, but was runner-up to Ramon Lopez Jr. in the Mech-Tech-sponsored second chance bracket race. With about 80 cars entered in that race, eight rounds were required to win and the final came down to a couple of eight-second ‘slammers.
In the main event final, Brunet put a .071 holeshot on Juarbe and ran a respectable 6.97/200.71 but couldn’t hold off Juarbe’s top-end charge. He set Low E.T. and Top Speed of the meet with a 6.84/215.93 effort.
Juarbe’s win nabbed the $20,000 first-prize money, plus his 6.69 E.T. was good for Low E.T. of the meet and an additional $5,000. The team left the event with $25,000. Brunet got $4,000 for his runner-up effort.
Puerto Rican racer Miguel Marrero, driving a turbocharged two-rotor-powered Mazda, was on the bump spot with a 7.38/185.18. Marrero qualified two cars and had to withdraw one of them, so Denny Perez, who qualified 17th, moved into the field. If the race had qualified 32 cars instead of 16, the bump would have been a stout 7.85! Interestingly, the number-32 qualifier also held down the number-one qualifier because Jorge Juarbe, driving two different turbocharged six-cylinder ‘86 Toyota Corollas, qualified both first and 32nd.
The first round of eliminations had a couple of upset winners. Boris Rojas from Florida, who qualified his Starlet in the 13th spot, advanced to the second round over number-four qualifier Paul Reyes Bauzo from Bayemon, Puerto Rico, when Bauzo went .047 red, wasting a 7.00/198.99 that was his best effort of the weekend.
The number-three qualifier, Damon Chin in a Celica, who got into the race on a qualify-or-go-home effort Sunday morning, exited the race early when he “bulbed” against number-14 qualifier Jaime Rodriguez and his ‘80 Corolla. Chin had to be bummed when his opponent Rodriguez broke on the launch but coasted to the win.
The one and two qualifiers, Juarbe and Brunet, made six-second laps to advance to the second round. Juarbe’s teammate, Jorge Lazcano, had a horrible .507 RT but still advanced to the next round when Hector Mendez’s car had some issues and could only muster a 7.60 E.T., not good enough to hold off Lazcano’s 7.03/184.88 effort.
The second round saw all but one of the higher qualified cars advance. The exception was number six qualifier, Carlos J. Santiago, who was upset by Rodriguez and his Corolla in a battle of four-cylinder-powered cars. Rodriguez’s 7.50/171.46 easily covered Santiago’s troubled 8.88 losing effort.
Juarbe’s potent Corolla made a statement, setting Low E.T. of the meet with a 6.69 /212.76 that trailered Miguel Marrero and his three-rotor Mazda RX-8. Marrero gave it his best effort by leaving first and recording his best E.T. of the event, a 7.06 at 185.36, but it just wasn’t enough for the win.
The semis began as darkness fell. Both the air temperature and track temperatures dropped, causing the engines to make more power and making the track a little harder to negotiate. The first pairing found Brunet’s Saab-powered Pontiac GXP matched against Rodriguez’s Corolla. Rodriguez left first, but he lost traction and rattled the tires, and Brunet quickly made up the holeshot and motored for the win.
In the other semifinal, teammates Lazcano and Juarbe met. Lazcano, driving his own car, left first but was second to the finish line. Juarbe won with the quickest E.T. of the round, a 6.769/205.82 effort that buried Lazcano’s off-pace 8.88/97.96.
The final round was an international affair between a team from Puerto Rico and one from Canada.
The fans in the stands had been at the track for nearly 10 hours when the final round pair arrived at the water boxes, but they were still enthusiastic and weren’t about to leave yet.
Talk about drivers and tuners under pressure. The money difference between the winner and the runner-up was more than $16,000, but even more important was national pride and bragging rights.
Brunet left as the last yellow light faded and the green started to blossom, putting a car-length holeshot on his opponent. He held that lead until the 1,000-foot mark when his tires lost traction, allowing Juarbe’s much shorter wheelbased Toyota—that ran down the track like it was on rails—to catch and pass the Canadian just before the finish line lights.
When the win light in Juarbe’s lane started flashing the crowd went crazy. Puerto Rican flags were waving in the stands and people were really celebrating. On the starting line, the Juarbe crew mobbed the car owner and their tuner. It was a Hollywood ending to a historic drag race and a reminder of drag racing.
Text and Photos by Jeff Burk