Jack Chrisman, circa 1966. Photos courtesy NHRA.
Ask a dozen drag racing fans exactly when the term “Funny Car” came about, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. This much is clear: It was first used to describe production cars with wheelbases altered to improve traction, making them look just a bit “funny” compared to stock examples. Also clear is that the first “Funny Car” title was awarded to Eddie Schartman at the 1966 NHRA World Finals, making 2016 the golden anniversary of the Funny Car. The NHRA will be marking the occasion throughout the 2016 season, beginning with special events at the Circle K Winternationals, scheduled for February 11-14 in Pomona, California.
“Fast Eddie” Schartman, on his way to the first Funny Car championship in 1966.
Supplementing the weekend’s contemporary racing action will be displays of historic Funny Cars, including burnout demonstrations and exhibition runs. An autograph and Q&A session will feature drivers like Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ed McCulloch, Al Segrini, Tom Prock, Clare Sanders (first Winternationals Funny Car winner), and Gas Ronda.
The art of the burnout will be demonstrated by Ron Huegli in the Tiki Warrior and Greg Howland in Zeus, and cars scheduled to make passes include the Candies & Hughes Barracuda; the Fighting Irish ’71 Camaro; the Stone, Woods & Cook Mustang; and the Bays & Rupert ’69 Camaro. Funny cars to be displayed include the “Jungle Jim” Chevy Nova, the Gas Ronda Mustang, Mickey Thompson’s Mustang, John Force’s Brute Force Monza (and Brute Force Vega), the Chi-Town Hustler, Larry Fullerton’s Maverick, the Beach City Corvette, Willie Borsch’s Mustang, and the Vels-Parnelli Jones Mustang.
Gas Ronda at the 1969 Springnationals.
As Phil Burgess points out in Dragster Insider, the evolution of what would become the Funny Car class can be traced through the development of Super Stock drag racing, which in 1962 included the A/Factory Experimental (A/FX) class. An Experimental Stock (XS) class came later, and in March of 1964 a pair of “Dodge Charger” exhibition vehicles, built from Dodge 330 sedans by the Dragmaster shop and commissioned by the Southern California Dodge Dealers Association, debuted a new exhibition class dubbed S/FX. According to which account one reads, the S either stood for Super or Supercharged, but in either case denoted a stock-appearing car with impressive performance.
The Ramchargers Challenger in 1971.
The Dodge Chargers featured a supercharged 426 Max Wedge V-8, bored and stroked to produce 480 cu.in. and fueled by gasoline. Driver Jimmy Nix had petitioned the NHRA to allow the use of nitromethane, but concerns about S/FX class safety ended the discussion prematurely. Running against teammate (and fellow Chrysler employee) Jim Johnson, the duo routinely produced runs in the high 10s, at a trap speed of 135 MPH. Despite the retention of the stock wheelbase, many point to these “Dodge Chargers” as the first Funny Cars for their purpose-built but production-appearing nature, down to parachute packs concealed within their trunks.
Ed McCulloch at the 1972 finals.
Continuing the theme of building ever-wilder cars with a stock appearance, Jack Chrisman debuted a heavily modified Mercury Comet, dubbed the “Super Cyclone,” later in the 1964 season. At a passing glance, the car appeared to be stock (aside from the obvious hood scoop), but actually wore a fiberglass body with Plexiglas windows. Powered by a nitro-burning supercharged 427 V-8 (which put him in the B/Fuel Dragster class), Chrisman’s Comet initially ran in the low tens at over 150 MPH, but additional refinement over the winter of 1964 produced a much faster car.
Jungle Jim Liberman’s 1976 Monza.
Swapping the original FE 427 for a “Cammer” SOHC 427 and moving the engine back two feet from its original position dropped Chrisman’s time into the 9s, producing trap speeds over 160 MPH. The downside to this radical alteration was that Chrisman was now driving the car from what would have been the back seat, though comfort and appearance were secondary considerations to the best elapsed time. The trend of altering drivetrain positions and wheelbases to gain a performance advantage, which dated to the early 1950s, began to take on steam, and by mid-1965, “Funny Cars” were becoming ever more popular as the season progressed.
The modern Funny Car: John Force launches his 2015 Peak Antifreeze Chevrolet Camaro.
In 1966, Mercury’s racing director, Fran Hernandez, created the forerunner of the modern Funny Car by combining a one-piece removable fiberglass body with a steel tube frame chassis. It took a while for these creations to be called Funny Cars; initially, they were known either as flip-top bodies, floppers or even just flops, but by the end of the 1966 season there was no denying their performance and spectator appeal. A new class was born, and half a century later, Funny Cars remain one of drag racing’s most beloved classes.
The NHRA will honor the Funny Car’s 50th birthday throughout the 2016 season. For details on upcoming events, visit NHRA.com.