Earth shaking, 8,000 horsepower Funny Cars (along with Top Fuel dragsters) are recognized as the top class in professional drag racing. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, when these thunderous machines first started showing up at drag strips across the country over 50 years ago, more than a few cynics thought that Funny Cars were merely a fad. Today, (48 years since Top Fuel Funny Cars (TF/FC) became a major National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) class) these nitromethane-burning machines are still a primary draw to national drag racing events. So, how did that happen?
From Drag to Top Fuel
As drag racing gained popularity in the mid-1960s, some racers sought to put the power of a stripped-down Top Fuel, or rail, dragster into a full-bodied car. Due to the limits of the bias-ply tires of the era, however, drivers of these shorter wheelbase machines weren’t able to gain sufficient traction. To overcome this issue, competitors began altering the wheelbases of their cars (initially Dodge Chargers and Coronets) to shift more vehicle weight over the rear tires. This was accomplished by moving a car’s front and rear axles forward so that more weight would sit behind them. The result of this modification more often than not looked “funny.” As more of these “funny-looking” machines started to show up at events, the name most people used to describe them stuck. The acceptance of these creations, however, was not immediate.
From Gasser to Even Faster
When Funny Cars were being developed and refined in the 1960s, they were still viewed as an oddity. Starting in 1955, the top high-performance street-car-based drag racing division was the Gasser class. Gassers were essentially stock cars (often 1930s Fords and Willys) with stripped-out interiors, lifted front axles (to aid in weight transfer to the back tires), and lightweight fiberglass body panels. But the more radically modified Funny Cars evolved to be faster than their Gasser forerunners. By 1972, the NHRA eliminated the Gasser class altogether.
Many of the early Funny Cars from the 1960s featured traditional car bodies with doors that opened and closed. The trend towards single-piece fiberglass bodies (also known as “flopper” bodies) was sparked by racer Jim Lytle, who fitted one to his 1934 Ford Tudor Funny Car. This setup became the preferred one by the 1970s, as it allowed car builders to simply weld up a tube-frame chassis that helped produced optimal traction that could be covered with an easier-to-produce body. The result was a simpler vehicle with better performance than an altered wheelbase production-car-based machine.
Grassroots to Mainstream
In the 1970s, Funny Car racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen drew a younger and more mainstream interest to the sport thanks to sponsorship from Hot Wheels. The on-track action the larger crowds came to see improved as Funny Cars were refined and made even more powerful. Altered wheelbase Funny Cars from the 1960s typically completed the quarter mile in 9 to 11 seconds at 120 to 140 miles per hour. By the 1970s, however, the nitro-powered machines were putting down times in the high 6-second range at over 200 mph.
Fine Tuning Pays Off in the 80’s
By the time the 1980s arrived, Funny Car bodies had become even more aerodynamic, which helped produce better elapsed times. Five-time NHRA Funny Car champ Kenny Bernstein was at the cutting edge of this aerodynamic movement. In 1990, however, Bernstein moved from Funny Car to Top Fuel. That season, John Force scored his first of 16 NHRA Funny Car championships. Since then, Force became a mainstream celebrity thanks, in part, to the 2006-2007 A&E reality show “Driving Force.” There have, however, been tough times as well.
Following the death of Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta in a July 2008 accident, the NHRA reduced the length of Funny Car (and Top Fuel) drag races from a quarter mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet in the interest of safety. Although the NHRA has gotten more serious about safety, that doesn’t mean that the cars have gotten slower. In fact, the current NHRA Funny Car elapsed time and speed record is 3.793 seconds and 339.87 mph, both of which were set by Robert Hight in 2017. For perspective, the current Top Fuel records are 3.640 seconds by Leah Pritchett and 333.66 mph by Brittany Force, both in 2017. Funny Cars can be faster than Top Fuel cars thanks to their aerodynamic body shells.
So, what does the future hold for Funny Cars? While more and more auto manufacturers are shifting their attention toward hybrid and electric vehicle technology, it is tough to envision electric motors replacing a Funny Car’s signature nitro-fueled V8. Top Fuel racing legend Don Garlits has experimented with an electric rail dragster that can complete the quarter mile at close to 200 mph. But electric cars don’t have the same roar and speed as a nitro car. As long as there are fans that show up to see fast, striking, and loud Funny Cars, they will likely continue to see these impressive machines in person.
Want to know what it’s like to grip the wheel of a 250+ mph mega booster? Join our conversation with Northeastern, PA Funny Car legend John Anderika during the month of October!