In his first career Top Fuel race, Josh Hart wasn’t feeling the way most people would. He wasn’t nervous at all. He said he became comfortable very fast at the 2021 NHRA Gatornationals and was calmer than a normal driver.
Hart had made it to the final round of the Top Fuel race in his debut race in the category. If the stakes weren’t high enough, he is from Ocala and was playing in basically a home crowd.
Not only did he pull out the win, but he did so in dramatic fashion. His opponent, Shawn Langdon, blew out a tire, and Josh’s near instantaneous reaction time of 0.026 seconds won him the race.
“To go to your home race, with your own business on the side of it, at the highest level in top fuel, and win your very first race out,” Hart said. “There’s no greater story book than that.”
Hart had done the unthinkable, and over the past year, he has proved it was not a fluke. Now with two Top Fuel wins under his belt, Hart heads into the 2022 Gatornationals — set for Thursday through Sunday at the Gainesville Raceway — aspiring to repeat history in front of an even bigger fanbase.
The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) hosts races around the United States bringing in people from around the world, with its three biggest events being held in Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Gainesville.
In over 50 years of operation, the Gatornationals has become one of the biggest races in the sport of drag racing. It’s a four-day event in which over 500 cars from around the world race in more than 10 categories of drag racing. Kasey Coler, the Vice President of Track Management and Operations for the NHRA, said the event is one of the top two or three races drivers dream to compete in.
It acts as the season opener for all the races East of the Mississippi. The race is bringing in drag racing enthusiasts from around the world.
“When it comes to our fans, when it comes to our racers, for a lot of them, this is the first time that they’re on track or get to see racing in 2022,” Coler said.
The NHRA has faced hurdles ever since the Gatornationals were uprooted in 2020. The event had already started, and its Thursday activities had wrapped up. Then, other sports began shutting down that night due to the presence of COVID-19, and the organization realized it couldn’t move forward with the Gatornationals.
The event was held in September later that year and again back in Gainesville in March 2021. With their return only a year removed, Coler says the Gatornationals will be remembered as the place where COVID-19 took over the NHRA and the sports world in general.
“Gainesville always is a special place, but I think it’s always going to be kind of in the back of a lot of our teams’ and drivers’ minds,” he said. “It was also the day that the music stopped for us, and it feels really good to be back here.”
Despite these complications, Coler says the Gatornationals are back and better than ever with a large crowd and bigger and better attractions than ever before. This year, the race is bringing in around 130,000 fans.
Outside of the main races, this year’s event will feature the Pep Boys Callout, an eight-person all-star race involving the top NHRA racers. Besides racing, it will include free live music, midway and pit tours, autographs, many food and beverage options and educational programs for high schoolers.
“The unique thing about our sport is it is a full day,” Coler said, “although our cars go down the track in less than four seconds.”
While these add-ons are expected to help bring in a bigger crowd, the Gatornationals have a sentimental value with its fans that Coler says are the biggest draw. The NHRA has a rich history in Gainesville. World records have been broken in the city, including 1992 when Kenny Bernstein broke the 300 mph barrier.
“History means a lot to Gainesville,” he said. “World records have been known to be set there.”
Hart’s debut win was no exception. He was the first driver since Darrell Russell in 2001 to win in their professional debut.
Aside from his success on the track, Hart has made an impression on the people around him. He said his business relationships have been big in helping grow his shop and form his career as a racer, and Coler agrees.
“He’s worked really hard to make sure that he’s got a solid team and a solid business underneath him,” he said.
Outside of his business skills, his peers talked about his character. They said he is a great person, and they are proud to work with him.
“He doesn’t let the success get to his head,” said Ben Williams, a salesman at Modern Muscle Cars. “He’s very humble. He’s a very good guy.”
His coworkers and team members from Burnyzz talked about how much they support him. They know how much racing means to him, and spend Sundays watching his races to see how he does.
John Kohlweiss, an employee at Burnyzz Speed Shop, said he has been on teams with him, and he was at the Gatornationals last year when he won. Kohlweiss said it was a very special moment,and he was happy to be there for it,
“It was just like none other,” he said. “It came full circle for him.”
As for Hart, he said he will continue to focus on himself. Even when his opponent has deeper pockets and he is the underdog, he still sticks by his motto.
Originating from a tattoo his wife has, he started standing by the phrase: “anything’s possible.” He is excited to have the opportunity to perform in front of his home crowd again this year with his family, friends and business partners expected to make the trip. He loves Ocala and Gainesville and said he appreciated the support from everyone.
“Ocala is like a huge city with a really small hometown feel,” Hart said. “It’s only 30 minutes from Gainesville so it kind of bled over into that pot.”