2024 Gatornationals Fan Fest

Funny Car driver John Force, left, talks with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits during the Burnyzz & Gatornationals Fanfest at Burnyzz Speed Shop in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.

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Posted March 7, 2024 | By Andy Filmore

Over two dozen top National Hot Rod Association drivers- including racing legends “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and John Force-met and signed autographs at the Gatornationals Fan Fest held at Burnyzz Speed Shop in southeast Marion County Wednesday night.

The local speed shop, owned by NHRA Top Fuel driver Josh and Brittanie Hart and family, saw hundreds of fans file past the drivers to shake hands and get an autographed card with a photo and race history during the lead off event for the 55th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville,Florida on Mar. 7 to 10.

Robert Appleby, a Navy veteran of the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm, met Garlits for the first time.
“I love it. The NHRA drivers are nice, available and polite,” he said.

Appleby was pleasantly surprised when he stopped near the center table where  Garlits, billed as “NHRA ‘s number one racer of all time,” a  competitive racer for 53 years and 17 time World  Champion sat next to  Funny Car driver and 16 time NHRA champion John Force.

“I thanked( Garlits and Force ) and they looked up and said ‘no, thank you for your service’,” said Appleby, who wore a Navy veteran cap.

John Force commented on how he’s  been chasing after Don Garlits – who is 92 according to induction bio for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America – his entire career but he’s “never going to catch him” while Garlits remarked about John Force still driving competitively at age 74.

The two legendary drivers were flanked by Hart, winner of two Top Fuel titles in his debut season and “two time U.S. Nationals Top Alcohol Dragster winner,“ according to NHRA.com and Force ‘s daughter, Brittany Force, a two time NHRA World Champion.

Kory Jones of Ocala and Emilia Soto, 8, and Eve Soto, 6, came to see the drivers. Emilia likes race cars because they’re cool “and go fast.”

Gatornationals Fan Fest included a car show which stated about a hour before the driver autograph session with a mix of perhaps 300 collectible cars and  trucks according to Richard Clemons with Burnyzz Speed Shop.

Rondo Fernandez showed off his C-10 and K-5 Chevy trucks, both 1971 models, while Micheal and Jenni Bennett of Gainesville, Florida, displayed their official 1994 GMC Sierra 1500 Gainesville Raceway “track truck” with official paint scheme which they purchased from the track.

Vince Biel showed his 1965 Chevrolet C-10 which he has owned for 40 years. The pickup has a six cylinder engine with performance upgrades. Biel, a Navy veteran of submarine service in the 1970s , said he’s plans attend the Gatornationals with a group from The  Villages.

A special guest at the event was Darrell Gwynn, one of NHRA’s “50 greatest drivers of all time” who was paralyzed after a  1990 racing crash and now champions the cause of persons who suffer spinal cord injuries through organizations like his Darrell Gwynn Foundation.  A former member of Gwynn’s race crew, Ken Veney and his wife Rona, visiting from Ohio, met with Gwynn at the event.

When the doors opened for the meet  and autograph session a line of hundreds of fans moved steadily past the group of drivers seated at a row of tables .

At the head of the line was Scott Adimando who had a drag race trophy known as a “Wally” which was won by Force in Seattle in 1993. He later got Force’s autograph on the trophy.

Air Force veteran Gordon Ratliff, 86, greeted Garlits who he knew years ago in Michigan. Vietnam War veteran Scott Henry, also turned out for the event.

Don Garlits was accompanied by his daughter Donna Garlits and his great grandson Braden.

Junior Dragsters- some whose cars travel  up to 80 mph-  were at the autograph tables including Braxton Scott, Rilee Scott, and 11-year-old  twins, Rydin and Zandir Cook.

Additional drivers included Justin Ashley,NHRA 2020 Rookie of the Year  who has 13 career wins; Funny Car driver Austin Prock, NHRA 2019 Rookie of the Year; Dave Richard’s, driving his first  Funny Car full NHRA schedule in 2024; and, Cody Krohn, 20, licensed for Top Fuel racing in 2023, according to codykrohnracing.com and the “youngest licensed Top Fuel Driver” according to his autograph card.

“Flyin” Ryan Oehler, 39, NHRA motorcycle racer was on hand to greet fans along with assistant Katy Sines. Oehker said his 2,600 c.c. Harley Davidson has traveled from 0 to 200 mph in 6.5 seconds.

Shawn Reed, Top Fuel , with a career best of 3.709 at 329.5 mph and Angelle Sampey, NHRA motorcycle with 46  career wins, were among those in the autograph line.

Fan Chris King called the meet and autograph session a “dream” and Sylvia Walborn and drag race fan Gary Wilson of Ocala was among the attendees.

Amy Chenard and her husband James Clark of New Brunswick, Canada made their way along the autograph line as did the Jeff and Diane Luxen of Alberta, Canada

The Luxens have included a launch at Cape Canaveral, polo at Wellington  and the Gatornationals Fan Fest  at Burnyzz Speed Shop during their current visit.

“I remember Don Garlits racing in Alberta,” said Jeff Luxen,65.

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