COMMERCE, Ga. - As a kid growing up outside Atlanta, Whit Bazemore poured over racing magazines, built model cars and kept a close eye on ABC's Wide World of Sports, which would every now and then show a national drag racing event.
He knew that one day he wanted to race a Funny Car. He was certain of it. And then he saw a funny car in person for the first time as a seventh-grader. His mother and the mother of a friend let the kids skip school on a Friday and brought them here to the Atlanta Dragway.
"The speed was just beyond belief," he said. "It was actually kind of frightening, but it was still what I'd always wanted to do. To finally see it live, it was like, 'Holy smokes, I don't know if I can do that after all, maybe I'll be a bus driver instead."'
But he stuck with it through that initial trepidation, through his first career as a promising commercial photographer and through the lean racing years where finding two nickels to rub together proved every bit the challenge of any competitor on the track.
"All the stars lined up," he said. "It was kind of meant to be. It's what I always wanted to do and here we are. God has looked down on me. I've been really blessed. It's a hard job but it's also an honor to have it. There aren't many people who do this, or do it well."
Bazemore, 39, did it well enough during the second half last year to enter this season as the No. 1 contender to take the NHRA Funny Car championship owned for the last nine years by John Force.
After a slow start early in the year, Bazemore qualified No. 1 at nine of the last 12 events of the 2001 season and won three times and was runner-up twice in that span. But he and his Matco Tools team couldn't maintain that momentum early this season. Bazemore won just one round in the first four events of the season.
But, in the last two events, at Houston three weeks ago and at Bristol, Tenn., last week, he won six rounds - reaching the semifinals in Houston and winning the Bristol race.
"We've struggled this year a lot, harder than we ever did last year, but maybe we've turned the corner quicker," he said. "This weekend will tell us a lot, especially if it's hot. If we have hot weather here and we run really well, then we're going to be awfully excited about the rest of the season. If we don't, then we still have a lot of work to do."
Bazemore didn't get off to a blazing start Friday. He smoked the tires on his only qualifying pass and was 13th. Two qualifying runs were scheduled for each division (Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Stock, Funny Car and Top Fuel) Friday but because of inclement weather only one was made in each division.
Saturday's rounds were delayed by rain. IfSaturday's sessions were rained out, Bazemore will enter today's elimination rounds as the 13th of 16 seeds.
Either way, the graduate of North Fulton High School still has work to do to overcome his slow start. He sits sixth in the points race, 116 points and five spots behind, of course, Force.
"You definitely make your own luck, but we haven't had any," Bazemore said. "You just have to work harder and be patient, make changes and get the job done a better way. That gives you better luck."
There's no place Bazemore would rather get lucky than here.
"We'd like to get this one under our belts," he said. "Winning this race would mean as much as winning the Nationals because it's the home track. I spent a lot of time here wanting to race and not racing."