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Funny Car's 'one-hit wonders'

11 Aug 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
"Fast Eddie"Schartman scored what is arguably the first Funny Car win, at the 1966 World Finals. He's one of 29 drivers to own just a single win in the class.

Friday’s column about Top Fuel’s “one-hit wonders” inspired a lot of comments (and two quick corrections). Perhaps the biggest surprise for people was hearing that there had been fewer than 100 winners in the category, which is pretty surprising for a class that’s been around for 46 years.

After Larry Dixon (Jr.) e-mailed to remind me that I had left his dad off the list (I had sorted the winners by name, and because we no longer refer to the son as Dixon Jr. anymore [at his request quite a few years ago], the name of his dad, winner of the 1970 Winternationals, had been lumped in with all of his wins), the total grew to 42 one-time winners. The second correction, as noted by several, was that Bobby Vodnik’s win in Indy in 1963 was actually a Top Eliminator win because nitro was not allowed at Indy that year. This further screwed with my percentages and dropped the total back to 41 one-timers (See? I was right all along!); that correction dropped the one-time-winner percentage to 44.56 percent, which is still pretty staggering. Think about that for a second: More than four in 10 drivers who won a national event in Top Fuel were not able to do it again. Tell me it’s not hard to win in Top Fuel!

Anyway, the most intriguing challenge was issued by reader Jon Sammels, who bet me a six-pack of my favorite beverage that the percentage of first-time winners in Funny Car was even higher. Naturally — and thirstily — I accepted.

Top NHRA Funny Car winners
1John Force126
2Tony Pedregon42
3Don Prudhomme35
4Kenny Bernstein30
5Ron Capps29
6Cruz Pedregon26
7Del Worsham24
8Whit Bazemore20
9Mark Oswald18
 Ed McCulloch18
11Al Hofmann15
12Chuck Etchells13
 Tim Wilkerson13
 Raymond Beadle13
15Gary Scelzi12
16Robert Hight11
 Billy Meyer11
18Mike Dunn10
19Gordie Bonin9
20Gary Densham8
21Tommy Johnson Jr.7
 Jack Beckman7
 Bruce Larson7
 Frank Hawley7
25Dale Pulde6
 Eric Medlen6

Jon’s logic was interesting. “If the Funny Car pattern follows Top Fuel, a lot of these ‘one-hit wonders’ also will be in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where the careers seemed a bit shorter,” he wrote. “And with powerhouses like John Force, Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Pedregon hogging up a lot of the wins, there’s not going to be a lot left for everyone else to grab multiple wins.”

Even though Top Fuel had about a three-season jump on its flip-top nitro brethren, only 19 more winner’s trophies had been awarded, 658 to Funny Car’s 639 (the NHRA schedule only had four or five events on the calendar in the mid-1960s). Eighty-three different drivers have bathed in the glow of an NHRA national event Funny Car crown, and though the average number of wins of all Top Fuel drivers combined is 7.14 (657 divided by 92) and Funny Car was only slightly higher at 7.69 (639/83), there were considerably fewer one-shot winners. Of the 83 winners, more than a third (30, or 36.14 percent) were not able to repeat the feat.

All things considered, the numbers still were pretty close, so I’ll go easy on Jon and expect a six-pack of Diet Coke on my desk in the next week or so.

I found it interesting that it takes six wins in each class to crack the top 25 and 18 in each to make the top 10. Looking a little deeper into the numbers, I found that 15 Funny Car drivers have two wins versus 13 for Top Fuel. Close!

As I did in Top Fuel, I developed a matrix, which can be found at the bottom of this column, charting not just the lone wins for the 30 but also any Funny Car runner-ups and wins in other classes. (Unlike in Top Fuel, though, I ordered these chronologically rather than alphabetically, which I think shows a little more of the trending that took place.)

As in Top Fuel, it’s hard to call a lot of these guys “one-shot wonders.” Scott Kalitta, of course, only won once in nitro Funny Car, in Houston in 1989, but was a two-time world champ in Top Fuel with 17 wins. Ditto for Tony Bartone, who may only have cashed in in Seattle last year in Jim Dunn’s fuel coupe but also owns 27 Top Alcohol Funny Car wins (including two already this year) and three in Top Alcohol Dragster. Melanie Troxel may only have the 2008 Bristol race on her Funny Car win résumé, but she also has four Top Fuel wins (and 11 runner-ups) and two Top Alcohol Dragster victories (and two runner-ups). Tommy Grove never won again in Funny Car after scoring at the 1967 Springnationals in Bristol, but by that time, he already owned two other wins, in Stock at the 1964 Winternationals and in Comp in Bristol the year before (in what essentially was a Funny Car).

Butch Maas drove dozens of cars over his drag racing career, but his Funny Car victory at the 1971 Winternationals -- and car owner Roland Leong's fifth in eight years at the event --- was his lone NHRA national event win.

Dave Beebe scored at the 1973 Springnationals, and although he didn’t appear in another Funny Car final and never won another national event, he was runner-up in Top Fuel at the World Finals in 1966. Ditto for Gary Clapshaw, who didn’t duplicate his 1995 Mid-South Nationals win in Funny Car but did take a surprising runner-up in Top Fuel to Tony Schumacher at the 2000 U.S. Nationals. And what about Larry Reyes? The popular pilot flew Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Funny Car through the lights backward at the 1969 Winternationals, then came back and won the race the next year. Leong won the Winternationals again the next year, with Butch Maas, whose victory was the only one of his much-traveled career.

As in Top Fuel, quite a number of one-time winners were just that — they had no wins in other classes and never made it back to a final again in any class, let alone in Funny Car; this was especially true in the class’ first year, when guys such as “Fast Eddie” Schartman, Doug Thorley, Maas, “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller, and Larry Fullerton match raced more than they campaigned on the national event tour.

Schartman, driving Roy Steffey’s S/XS Mercury Comet, became Funny Car’s first world champ when he defeated Don Nicholson in the final at the World Finals in Tulsa, Okla., in 1966. Schartman set both ends of the S/XS national record at 8.61 and 172.72 mph. Fullerton duplicated that feat six years later in Amarillo, Texas; the veteran racer’s only visit to the national event winner’s circle with his popular Trojan Horse Mustang was at the World Finals and earned him the world championship. Dave Condit, the longtime driver of the notorious L.A. Hooker flopper, drove the Plueger & Gyger Mustang to his only win at the 1974 Supernationals, though he was a bit upstaged by the drama of Shirl Greer’s fiery and brave world championship bid and the 6.16 national record set by Dale Pulde in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am. Earlier that year, Greer had recorded his only national event win, in Montreal.

As you can see from the list, a large portion of these one-time Funny Car winners — 14, in fact — were from the 1970s; there are only three from the 1990s and four so far from the 2000s, though I expect Bob Tasca III to no longer be on this list at the end of the year.

Certainly two of the longest long shots on the list are Craig Epperly, who drove Don Tate’s Superstar Plymouth Horizon to the win in Columbus, Ohio, in 1981, and local Pomona favorite Sherm Gunn, who won the World Finals in 1984 in the event’s first year in Pomona. Neither driver had been to a final before, nor did they return to a final.

Craig Epperly's lone victory, at the 1981 Springnationals, was clinched with a final-round defeat of world champ Raymond Beadle.

Tate had dabbled with nitro as a partner to the Trillo Bros. (several T ‘n’ T cars, including fuel altereds and Funny Cars), but after Jim Trillo crashed their Funny Car in 1980, they split, and Tate took the Superstar name with him. He hired Epperly, and the addition of respected crew chief “Famous Amos” Satterlee certainly helped produce that moment of magic in Columbus, which was capped by a surprising final-round victory against then reigning season and event champ Raymond Beadle. The event had been delayed a week by rain and resumed on the second Sunday, a Bristol 2008-like long day of on-again, off-again racing that didn’t conclude until 1:30 a.m. Monday. After beating Tripp Shumake, Tom Anderson, and John Collins in the first three frames, Epperly left slightly on Beadle, .497 to .504, then held on for a narrow 6.210 to 6.214 victory.

Epperly finished the season a respectable sixth, but the team broke up at season’s end for unknown reasons. Epperly continued to wheel nitro Funny Cars for four seasons, driving for Joe Pisano, Anthony Almada (the A Team Daytona), and the H.B. Gold team of Billy McCahill and “Uncle Beavs,” Gene Beaver. Epperly’s brother, Rocky, later made headlines as the driver of former airplane racer Frank Taylor’s Dago Red Top Fueler, which set the national record at 257.14 at the 1983 World Finals at OCIR.

Sherm Gunn defeated Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, and Mark Oswald en route to his surprising victory at the 1984 World Finals.

Gunn, who had established a solid reputation as a chassis builder, had campaigned both alcohol and nitro Funny Cars since 1975 (preceded by years in gassers and an alky-burning altered) but primarily ran on the West Coast, where he was a staple at match races at Irwindale and OCIR. His national event nitro Funny Car successes to that point in a four-year career consisted of just a pair of round-wins, yet he beat four of the era’s best —Bernstein (on a holeshot), Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, and, in the final, Mark Oswald. Gunn certainly looked to be, well, outgunned in the final as Oswald had shoed the Candies & Hughes/Old Milwaukee Firebird to a pair of 5.70s (and a class-history-best 261.62-mph shot) in the opening rounds; Gunn’s best was a 5.91 to defeat Meyer in the semifinals. Gunn left slightly on Oswald, whose mount blew a head gasket in a brief blaze of fire before it hit the 100-foot mark. Gunn fired off his best run of the meet, a 5.87, to make it official. Oswald probably forgave Gunn the upset victory because Gunn’s defeat of championship hopeful Meyer in the semi’s clinched the 1984 world title for Oswald.

OK, so there you have it, Funny Car’s “one-hit wonders.” The only question now is who is going to bet me about Pro Stock’s solo acts?

DriverFunny Car winFC R/UsOther wins
Ed Schartman1966 Tulsa00
Tom Grove1967 Bristol02
Doug Thorley1967 Indy00
Clare Sanders1969 Pomona00
Larry Reyes1970 Pomona10
Phil Castronovo1971 Amarillo10
Butch Maas1971 Pomona00
Sam Miller1971 Montreal00
Larry Arnold1971 Ontario20
Larry Fullerton1972 Amarillo00
Dave Beebe1973 Columbus00
Pat Foster1973 Gainesville30
Frank Hall1973 Amarillo10
Shirl Greer1974 Montreal10
Dave Condit1974 Ontario00
Jim Liberman1975 Englishtown10
Johnny White1977 Baton Rouge00
Denny Savage1978 Englishtown10
Craig Epperly1981 Columbus00
Sherm Gunn1984 Pomona 200
John Collins1985 Phoenix20
Rick Johnson1985 Montreal00
Scott Kalitta1989 Houston117
Gary Clapshaw1995 Memphis00
Jeff Arend1996 Reading10
Kenji Okazaki1997 Englishtown10
Bob Gilbertson2000 Houston 140
Melanie Troxel2008 Bristol06
Tony Bartone2008 Seattle130
Bob Tasca III2009 Gainesville12