How Top Fuel­ers Lost the Ti­tle Kings of Speed to Funny Cars

Drag Racer - - CONTENTS - Text by Jeff Burk Pho­tos by Auto Imagery and Will Lester


For the past 60 years, drag racers have ex­pended most of their en­ergy and money at­tempt­ing to fig­ure out how to de­velop more horse­power and make their cars faster than their competitors. Until the last 10 years or so, racers, es­pe­cially professional racers, and fans re­garded the most significant ac­com­plish­ments in the his­tory of the sport to speed.

The first 200-mph-plus quar­ter-mile laps in Funny Car, Top Fuel and Pro Stock are mega-his­tor­i­cal in the minds of racers and fans. Chris Karamesines, Don Gar­l­its, Gene Snow, Bill Kuhlmann and War­ren John­son are all hugely im­por­tant, ground-break­ing fig­ures in drag racing be­cause each broke ma­jor speed bar­ri­ers at a time where be­ing the fastest car in a pro class was of­ten as im­por­tant as a na­tional event win. For six decades, a ni­troburn­ing Top Fuel car has gen­er­ally held the ti­tle of fastest car in drag racing. Oc­ca­sion­ally, at some na­tional events, nitro Funny Cars would record Top Speed of the meet, best­ing drag­sters for the ti­tle, but over­all, it was the drag­sters that went fastest.

This year, there was a his­toric shift in the drag racing scene that would have gone largely un­no­ticed had it not been for drag racing his­to­rian and an­nouncer Bret Kep­ner. When DSR Funny Car driver Matt Ha­gan ran a record speed of 338.85 mph in May of this year, Kep­ner noted that not only was it the fastest FC speed in drag racing his­tory, but also, it was faster than the 337.58 Top Fuel mark Tony Schu­macher recorded in 2005 on the quar­ter-mile at Brain­erd, Min­nesota. Kep­ner noted that Ha­gan's speed mark wiped away the last NHRA quar­ter-mile speed record that was faster than the cur­rent 1,000-foot speed records; his point be­ing that quar­ter­mile records were no longer rel­e­vant to mod­ern (post 2007) drag racing.

The fact is through­out the his­tory of NHRA drag racing, beginning in 1965 when nitro

Funny Cars came to be, that at al­most any point through 2016 Top Fuel cars cap­tured all of the ma­jor speed mile­stones be­fore their Funny Car coun­ter­parts.

Dur­ing the '60s and '70s, Top Fuel speed records were gen­er­ally 15-20 mph faster than nitro Funny Cars. In those decades, Top Fuel drag­ster tech­nol­ogy was far ahead of that of Funny Cars. Joe Amato de­vel­oped a rear-wing com­bi­na­tion and lo­ca­tion that pro­vided the drag­sters much more down­force than their Funny Car com­pa­tri­ots. Gen­er­ally, Top Fuel cars had the ad­van­tage of stream­lin­ing and more down­force, plus it didn't hurt that at that time NHRA was still at­tempt­ing to keep their Funny Cars at least re­sem­bling real cars and re­sisted al­most any aero pack­ages for them.

In the mid-'80s, nitro Funny Cars be­gan catch­ing up with Top Fuel cars in the speed cat­e­gory. For ex­am­ple, in September 1987, Joe Amato set the Top Fuel speed record at 280.98 mph. A month later, Mike Dunn re­set the Funny Car speed record at 280.72.

This was a mean­ing­ful pe­riod in the sport for de­vel­op­ing horse­power and tak­ing ad­van­tage of the sci­ence of aero­dy­nam­ics.

Kenny Bern­stein and his crew chief, Dale Arm­strong, hired Bon­neville racers, the Ariv­ette brothers, to build a Buick FC body. What they cre­ated was un­rec­og­niz­able as a Buick, push­ing the aero­dy­namic rules of the day to the ex­treme. The press dubbed the car The Bat­mo­bile. The Top Fuel teams of the era made at­tempts to in­cor­po­rate aero into their drag­ster de­signs with Gary Ormsby, Don Gar­l­its and Gene Snow lead­ing the pro­gram. Ormsby and Gar­l­its had some suc­cess with stream­liner bod­ies, but even­tu­ally, the bod­ies were deemed too heavy and lost fa­vor. The only ves­tige of aero left in to­day's Top Fuel cars is in the canopy cars of DSR.

The late-'80s and early'90s rep­re­sent a golden era of nitro per­for­mance, es­pe­cially when it comes to big speed with the help of big­ger fuel pumps, big­ger and bet­ter su­per­charg­ers, 44amp mag­ne­tos and bet­ter tires. Bern­stein and Don Prudhomme left FC and went Top Fuel racing. Top Fuel­ers were the kings of the sport.

It took Top Fuel­ers just five years to raise the speed record from

280 mph in 1987 to Bern­stein's dra­matic 301.70 ef­fort in 1992 at Gainesville. It took nitro coupes al­most six years to break the 300-mph bar­rier.

From the '90s on, a com­bi­na­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances—in­clud­ing track prep, five-disc clutches and al­most in­fin­itely tune­able fuel sys­tems—saw Top Fuel cars and tuners dom­i­nate the sport in terms of speed. By 1998, the NHRA quar­ter-mile Top Fuel speed record had in­creased by more than 25 mph to over 326, and by 2005, the NHRA speed record was 336.15, both set by Tony Schu­macher, who also ran the fastest quar­ter­mile speed in his­tory at 337.58. Funny Cars con­tin­ued to trail drag­sters as far as set­ting speed records. Funny Cars gained just 23 mph through 1998 and 33 mph through 2007.

Beginning in 2008, the land­scape in NHRA's Top Fuel and Funny Car classes saw mas­sive changes. The tragic death of Scott Kalitta di­rectly caused the NHRA to shorten the track length for nitro cars from 1,320 feet to 1,000 feet. Ad­di­tion­ally, the NHRA man­dated safety rules changes that added con­sid­er­able weight to both classes (cur­rently the min­i­mum weight for Funny Cars is 2,565 pounds, and 2,320 pounds for drag­sters). Nonethe­less, fuel drag­sters re­mained quicker and marginally faster than fuel coupes through 2015. At the end of the 2015 sea­son, the NHRA Funny Car speed record of 331.45 was just 1-mph slower than the Top Fuel mark of 332.75.

Beginning in 2016, Funny Car teams im­proved the per­for­mance of their fuel coupes, while Top Fuel cars and teams ba­si­cally main­tained the sta­tus quo. Funny Cars set Top Speed for nitro cars at 17 of 24 NHRA na­tional events. De­spite the trend, Top Fuel­ers could still claim the fastest speed recorded at an NHRA na­tional event until the mid­dle of 2017 when Matt Ha­gan ran 338.85 at Topeka, Kansas. That speed eclipsed the all-time speed record for NHRA nitro cars of 337.58, a speed recorded 12 years prior in 2005 by Tony Schu­macher driv­ing a drag­ster

on the quar­ter-mile at Brain­erd, Min­nesota.

Ha­gan's record-break­ing pass was even more im­pres­sive for sev­eral rea­sons: He only had a 1,000-foot track; he drove a nitro Funny Car; and the Funny Car min­i­mum weight is at least 200 pounds heav­ier than a drag­ster.

In 2017, the trend of nitro Fun­nies be­ing the fastest cars in automobile racing (ex­clud­ing land speed competition) has con­tin­ued. So far this sea­son, Funny Cars have had Top Speed at ev­ery race.

So the ques­tion is: how did the Top Fuel­ers, the for­mer kings of speed, get dethroned?

It would ap­pear that a com­bi­na­tion of fa­vor­able rules for and technical ad­vances by the nitro coupe tuners and crew chiefs have con­trib­uted to their speed ad­van­tage. The sin­gle most im­por­tant fac­tor may be that rev lim­iters are set to al­low Funny Cars to rev their en­gines 200 more rpm than drag­sters. Given that there is an NHRA-man­dated gear ra­tio num­ber for both Top Fuel and Funny Cars, any way you do the math the Funny

Cars should be faster.

It also ap­pears that Funny Cars have an in­her­ent aero ad­van­tage over drag­sters. To­day's Funny Car bod­ies are the re­sult of hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of hours of wind tun­nel test­ing time at Ford, GM and Mopar. Cur­rent Funny Car bod­ies re­sem­ble GTP cars run­ning at LeMans or Day­tona. If it weren't for the lo­gos, most fans wouldn't know a Mus­tang FC from a Chevy, Dodge or a Toy­ota. To­day's Funny Car bod­ies have the out­line of a wedge. The cur­rent bod­ies are aero­dy­nam­i­cally slicker and make more down­force than at any time in the his­tory of the class. Also, Funny Cars were es­pe­cially helped by a new tire that Goodyear in­tro­duced ap­prox­i­mately two years ago, and many teams say they are much less likely to lose trac­tion than with Goodyear's pre­vi­ous of­fer­ing.

If you look at two- or three-year-old pho­tos of Funny Car rear spoil­ers, you will no­tice the old dump-truck-bed-style spoil­ers on the back of the cars. The rear spoiler plate was as tall as the side spoil­ers that sup­ported it. It was very ef­fi­cient in cre­at­ing a lot of down­force and even more aero drag that strained en­gines and parts.

Now, thanks ap­par­ently in part to tires that hook bet­ter, Funny Cars don't re­quire as much down­force as they once did. For the last cou­ple of years, crew chiefs have been mak­ing the rear spoiler plate shorter and nar­rower. In re­cent years, al­co­hol Funny Car and Pro Stock teams have all but elim­i­nated rear deck spoil­ers be­cause the cars go faster with­out them, as do nitro Funny Cars.

To add in­sult to in­jury, the NHRA al­lowed Funny Car teams to build the fa­mous laid-back head­ers. Those head­ers did a cou­ple of things for Funny Cars: They pro­vided thrust that im­proved 60foot times, and they added horse­power. Un­for­tu­nately for the Top Fuel drag­sters, laid-back head­ers ev­i­dently aren't an op­tion, and as far as I can de­ter­mine, none of the pre­mier Top Fuel teams use them.

The last real in­no­va­tion in Top Fuel aero tech was the stream­lin­ers built by Gary Ormsby and Don Gar­l­its. They drove those cars to records and race wins, but they were even­tu­ally re­placed with lighter con­ven­tional drag­sters. The NHRA even made sure that when Don Schu­macher Racing put en­closed canopies on its drag­sters, they didn't gain any ad­van­tage through their use.

Un­less NHRA does some­thing to al­low drag­sters to at­tain greater speeds—and there doesn't ap­pear to be a good rea­son to do so since the pol­icy is set­ting a speed record in the nitro classes means noth­ing other than brag­ging rights for the team— drag­sters' per­for­mances will not im­prove sig­nif­i­cantly. It's rea­son­able to make a case that nitro Funny Cars have ben­e­fited much more from technical ad­vances that they can ac­tu­ally use than have Top Fuel Drag­ster teams. No one should be sur­prised that Funny Cars are con­sis­tently faster than drag­sters, and this fact isn't likely to change in the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Up­date: On July 28, Robert HIght/Jimmy Prock ran the fastest speed in NHRA his­tory—339.87!

Funny Car rear spoiler dy­nam­ics have changed dras­ti­cally through­out the last sev­eral years. New, much more min­i­mal de­signs cre­ate far less drag than the pickup-bed-style rear wings of the past.

Laid-back head­ers im­ple­mented by Funny Car racers in 2015 have upped their speed game.

ABOVE. Kenny Bern­stein and crew chief Dale Arm­strong shocked the sport by break­ing the 300-mph bar­rier (301.70 mph) at the Ga­tors in 1992.

BE­LOW. Kenny Bern­stein and Dale Arm­strong en­listed Bon­neville aero­dy­nam­i­cists, the Ariv­ett Brothers, to help cre­ate the Bat­mo­bile, which de­buted in 1987. It for­ever al­tered the dy­nam­ics of Funny Car body de­sign.

RIGHT. The sum­mer of 1993 at Heart­land Park (Topeka, KS) saw Jim Epler record the first 300-mph run in a Funny Car.

Thoughts on T/F aero­dy­nam­ics were re­ex­am­ined when Joe Amato in­tro­duced his un­ortho­dox rear-wing de­sign in 1984.

Since the ’50s, drag­ster de­sign­ers have at­tempted a plethora of aero de­signs. The mod­ern age of drag racing wit­nessed Don Gar­l­its’ and Gary Ormsby’s stream­lin­ers.

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