Theirs is not a household name to the casual drag racing fan, yet they twice finished in the top four in the Top Fuel world championship race, including a third-place finish in 1977 behind Shirley Muldowney and Pat Dakin. To many of us, though, they represented the best of what could be done with a little funding and a lot of determination.
With a budget financed by their diesel-repair business and a few loyal sponsors, Bob and Joy Struksnes, their daughters, and some close neighborhood friends from Minot, N.D., fielded a fuel dragster in the mid- to late 1970s, surprising fans and foes with their resilience and performance.
Although their run in the class lasted only last six years, from 1974 to 1980, few longtime fans have forgotten the plucky team, and a few weeks ago, I was stunned to see that unique last name show up in my Inbox; eldest daughter Sonja wanted to let everyone know that her dad was still around and kicking, as in kick-starting his new Harley. I sent a list of questions to ask her dad so that I could share his story with the readers of this column.
The timing is appropriate because 32 years ago this week, they set top speed of the meet at the 1976 Gatornationals with a 248.61-mph clocking, living up to the nickname Struksnes had acquired by setting numerous track speed records throughout the years: “Backdoor Bob.”
Struksnes became interested in racing when he was in high school and drove a ‘40 Chevy coupe powered by a 392 Hemi with six Stromberg 97s. He began his racing career with a fuel-injected A/Altered, then graduated to a supercharged AA/Altered. In 1974, he made the big jump to Top Fuel. Against all odds, the Struknses team was successful by doing it themselves. It wasn’t uncommon to find Bob and Joy elbow deep in the engine, covered in oil, and smiling all the while.
“I've been a mechanic all my life. I liked the challenge of making it run and going faster, and she was right alongside me,” he said. “Joy and I ran our business together, and we shared the interest of racing. We met people all over the country who came to the races that became friends. When we got to the track, they would visit and help us for the weekend. Fellow racers and sales reps would also give us a hand between rounds. I also got a lot of help from Keith Black and Holly Hedrick.”
Struksnes’ “Backdoor Bob” nickname came from his fellow drivers and announcers simply because “I loved the ride so much that I just drove it through all the lights.” Back then, the speed trap extended 66 feet on either side of the finish line (as opposed to today, where it’s just 66 feet before and ends at the win stripe), and drivers who kept their right foot buried beyond the finish line were said to be “driving it out the back door.”
Struksnes obviously kept the loud pedal to the mat in Seattle in 1976, where he also set top speed, 243.24. He also was runner-up at the 1977 Cajun Nationals to Richard Tharp. Although Muldowney ran away from the competition in 1977 en route to her first of three championships, Struksnes finished only 268 points -– slightly more than a round -- behind Dakin.
The Struksnes team kept busy, running all Division 5 races -– they were two-time Division 5 champs -- and all of the national events as well as match races between, with Joy doing most of the driving.
“Once the season got started, we were gone from home just about every weekend,” he recalled. “My favorite thing is that we were a family race team. Joy would drive the rig to the races with the kids and our two Yorkies. I would fly in because of the business."
After a few close calls on the track and with an expanding family that soon included son Christ, who was born in 1976, the team called it a racing career. In 1981, the Struksnes family added a third daughter. Bob and Joy celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary last year.
“Our three daughters and son all live in Minot,” he said proudly. “I have six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and four Yorkies. Christ and I work together as mechanics at our diesel-repair business. Joy and I are building our dream home on Lake Sakakawea. We are lake people now … not that speed is not a part of that. I do have a fast ski boat.”