MOUNT AIRY — J. R. Gonyea has been drag racing for 15 years.
Gonyea had the biggest day of his racing career two weeks ago when he was runner-up inthe International Hot Rod Association AEA/All Pro Winter Nationals in Darlington, S.C.
One of 68 competitors in the top dragster category, Gonyea was probably one of the least experienced in national competition. The racewas the first national event that he ever competed in.
And he almost won it all.
"I had been to them as a spectator, but never as acompetitor," Gonyea said.
Gonyea outraced everyone except Tom Dauber, the 1991 IHRA Top Dragster world champion.
"I was surprised,"he said. "It was a thrill just to qualify. I was worried going to a national event and just making the field."
Gonyea barely made the first cut to 32 cars, which left him on the bubble. But no one knocked him off. And once he made the final field, his years of experience racing locally paid off.
The race driver has come a long way sincehe started drag racing 15 years ago in a 1967 Chevrolet Impala SS. While the rest of his family went oval-track racing, Gonyea became interested in drag racing.
"I liked speed so I started to hang out atthe drag strip," he said. "As most everyone knows, if you hang around the drag strip a short time, you are going to get hooked."
He has been racing ever since.
Before switching to the top dragster class, Gonyea raced in the Super Gas division in a 1970 Chevelle for 10 years.
His record with the Chevelle was nothing to be ashamed of. He always finished in the top five in points and in 1987 was Class I champion. He went to the bracket nationals seven out of eight years.
Three years ago, Gonyea decided to make the change.
"I felt I was as far as I could go in my class," he said. "In the top dragster class there is no limit on how far or fast you can go -- just the money."
The Top Dragster category was added to the IHRA National Eventschedule last year. Gonyea decided that if they had the class this year, he was going to run it.
Once he decided to try national competition, Gonyea knew he needed to build a motor that would be competitive. He had Carroll's Machine Shop in Gaithersburg, Montgomery County, do the machine work, while Ladd's Head Porting Service in Elkridge,Howard County, supplied the cylinder heads. Gonyea assembled the alcohol-injected, big-block 475-cubic-inch Chevrolet motor himself.
The dragster can hit about 175 mph.
Despite the much higher speed of a dragster compared with the Super Gas car he drove before, the dragster is safer.
"It is a much safer car," Gonyea said. "You are surrounded by chrome alloy tubing. It is faster, but easier to drive and I wouldn't drive anything else now."
Finishing second in his first national event has changed the way Gonyea will go into the 1992 season. With only one motor, he will not run as much locally.
With one national race under his belt, and a No. 2 spot in the points standings toward the coveted IHRA World Championship, Gonyea is looking forward to the next event, The 'Bama Nitrous Nationals in Huntsville, Ala., May 1-3.
"I would be a fool not to go," the 35-year-old racersaid. "I am going to try and make all national events and hopefully pick up some sponsor help along the way to help pay some of the bills.
"I won't have any trouble once I get there, but it's just a matter of getting there," he added. "I need to pick up a sponsor to do what I want to do."
During the week, Gonyea is a mechanic at Taylorsville Shell, which is owned by sprint car driver Darryl Winkler.
Gonyea's wife, Sissy, and their family -- children, Katie, 12, Jennifer, 7, and identical 2-year-old twins Erin and Trisha -- are proud of his accomplishments and hope to accompany him next month.
There are 14 events remaining on the IHRA schedule. It is still a long way togo before the Fall Nationals in Bristol, Tenn., rounds out the season. Regardless of what happens, Gonyea is off to a good start and has struck a blow for the quality of local drivers.