WADE: Is Funny Car The Next Pro Stock?

Susan Wade

SEATTLE — For years, the hallmark of the NHRA’s Pro Stock class was its fierce rivalries among the Big Three American automakers and their loyalists.

The class’ first race in 1970 featured eight Chrysler entries, five Chevrolet Camaros and three Ford Mavericks. For at least the last few events this year, Alan Prusinesky and his Dodge Dart kept the 16-car starting lineup from being an all-Chevy field. Ford — which once boasted “Dyno Don” Nicholson, the Wayne Gapp/Jack Roush tandem and the iconic Bob Glidden with his 85 victories and 10 championships — has no presence.

That gradual progression from heyday to ho-hum corresponds, roughly, to the class’ unfair and unfortunate downward spiral toward irrelevance. Part of that stems from the fact that in the class’ infancy fans clearly could identify the automaker — those cars looked like the production automobiles they had at home in their driveways. That’s not the case today —and that could be terrific news for the NHRA Funny Car class.

This year’s Funny Car championship came down to a race between a Toyota driver (J.R. Todd) and a Chevy driver (Robert Hight), with a Dodge driver (Ron Capps) and a Ford driver (Tim Wilkerson) in the top four.

During the recent SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Ford Motor Co. signaled a deeper dive into the Funny Car class with its peek at the new Mustang body it has been devloping since October 2017.
That demonstrates a committed Ford, just as owner-driver Bob Tasca had envisioned when he cautioned the company not to abandon NHRA drag racing. Tasca, who for 20 years has sat on a Ford product advisory board on which his grandfather and father also once served, was relentless in waving data in front of company decision-makers after Ford exited professional drag racing. He said their reaction to his flood of data was: “We like it. We get it. But how are you going to win? That’s the only reason why we race, ultimately.”

“Slugger” Labbe, an elite NASCAR crew chief for 33 years, is employed by Toyota Racing Development and is working heavily behind the scenes in the NHRA. He said he became hooked on the straightliners through Top Fuel buddies Rod Fuller and Rob Flynn. In addition to working with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, he focuses on NHRA drag racing.

“I support the teams, providing them with anything they may need in terms of database programs and anything we can do — improve the parts and pieces, improve the chassis. With the teams racing, seemingly, every week, we try to do some things for them in research and development. We do a lot of measuring of the tracks and conditions we race in,” Labbe said. “I’m looking months down the road, while the teams are racing day to day. So when they do have the opportunity to test, we’ll have parts and pieces ready for them to test. It’s a neat job.

“Andy Graves at TRD (which usually brings four representatives to each NHRA race) called and asked me if I’d be interested in taking over this account for TRD and supporting the Toyota drag-racing program with different innovations and different thoughts,” he continued. “I try to bring some of the NASCAR mentality that I’ve been used to for the last 33 years, as well as bring some of the technology and mindset over to the NHRA.

“We’ve done a lot of cool things with our NHRA teams to try to get better and put even more speed into the race cars,” Labbe added. “The Funny Car side has been really fun. Just a few weeks ago, the Kalitta team built me a Funny Car to bring to the TRD office in North Carolina. So now I can take engineers out and show them different parts and pieces. We get to show them what we’re working on and what we’re looking to work on for future development. Things like that are really cool. We’re buying into what the teams are doing, and they’re buying into what we’re doing.  We’re just trying to get them to victory circle as fast as we can.”

Unlike in the NHRA Pro Stock class, which is headed toward a 16-race schedule, General Motors has a strong but limited presence in the Funny Car category. John Force Racing’s trio of Chevrolet Camaros — with Force, Robert Hight, and  boss’ daughter, Courtney Force, in the cockpits — wave the bowtie banner at every event.

Don Schumacher Racing has a full four-car complement for Dodge-Mopar, which also has a heavy involvement in the sportsman ranks and the increasingly popular (and championship-winning) Factory Stock Showdown class. Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr. drive the Dodge Charger Funny Cars that have won a combined four championships.

On the watch of Steve Beahm, head of parts and service and passenger-car brands (including Dodge), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles debuted the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car body for Beckman and Hagan to drive.

Along with introducing the 2019 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack 1320 production car that’s geared for both the street and the drag strip, for grassroots racers, the Dodge brand sponsored a pair of races.

With every domestic automaker and Toyota (which has its state-of-the-art North American headquarters at Plano, Texas) elbowing for supremacy in the Funny Car class, a significant shift has occurred.