The 37th running of the NHRA U.S. Nationals at the fabled Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1991 will forever be remembered as one of the great “Big Go’s” of all time, due in large part to the heartfelt story of one driver and the gut-wrenching outcome to his weekend that appeared driven by fate.
Washington state native Pat Austin was, at the time, a four-time NHRA Winston Top Alcohol Funny Car champion, having earned his fourth title in the summer of 1991 well ahead f his peers thanks to a perfect season on the national and divisional trail. With a long list of accomplishments in the sportsman ranks to his credit and already a connection with his Castrol GTX sponsorship, Austin and his father Walt purchased the Top Fuel operation of former world champion Gary Ormsby, who was amidst a hard-fought battle with cancer.
The Austin’s were to make their Top Fuel debut at the biggest race of them all in Indianapolis, and when Ormsby sadly passed away on August 28, the week of the U.S. Nationals, the professional rookie suddenly was thrust into the limelight as the sentimental favorite among the tens of thousands of “Big Go” attendees.
The 26-year old Austin didn’t disappoint, driving the late Ormsby’s dragster — tuned by Lee Beard — all the way to the final round on Labor Day, where Kenny Bernstein and the Budweiser King awaited. As he had done the three years prior, Austin drove to this fourth U.S. Nationals crown in Top Alcohol Funny Car and hightailed it back to the staging lanes for this heavily anticipated matchup with Bernstein that had everyone on the property glued to their seats. However, in one of the most disappointing scenes in drag racing history, Austin exploded the supercharger on the Castrol dragster on the burnout and never got the chance to honor Ormsby’s memory at Indy. Everyone on the property was pulling the red and green dragster, and in the background, you can even see late Chief Starter Buster Couch throw his arms in utter disappointment. Austin, visibly upset and deflated, climbed from the car and hopped over the guardrail, and adding insult to injury, had to watch as Bernstein smoked the tires just off the starting line and idled to drag racing immortality.
Austin did capture his first Top Fuel victory in a double-up weekend just two events later at Topeka and avenged his loss to Bernstein at Pomona, but those who were at Indy that fateful weekend in 1991 will tell you there was no better place for that first win to have come, and even though Austin came up just short in his bid, the story and the circumstances will long be remembered.