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Funny Car vs. Top Fuel Showdown revisited

16 May 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
John Force won the historic event in his Superman-themed Castrol GTX Mustang, defeating Top Fuel driver Bob Vandergriff Jr. in the $200,000-to-win race.

This past weekend's ESPN coverage of the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals from Bristol Dragway included a clip of the final-round encounter between the Superman Funny Car of John Force and the Jerzees Top Fuel dragster of Bob Vandergriff Jr. in the inaugural Winston No Bull Showdown, held a decade earlier in Bristol.

Newer fans tuning in may have wondered what the heck we were doing racing Funny Cars against fuel dragsters, so I'm here to 'splain it.

The Winston Showdown only lasted two years – 1999 and 2000 – and it marked NHRA's return to Bristol Dragway, the onetime home of the Springnationals through 1967. NHRA hadn’t staged a race in Bristol since that 1967 Springnationals – the race moved to Englishtown in 1968, then Dallas until 1971, before moving to its long-term home in Columbus, Ohio – and this was some kind of homecoming. The joint had changed, for sure, thanks to a magnificent rebuild by new owner Bruton Smith, and it served as a great stage for this special event.

So, what set the stage for this showdown of the fuel classes?

Well, some would probably say it had been a long time brewing. The Top Fuelers were the undisputed kings of drag racing through the 1960s, but the Funny Cars began to chew into their fan base – and driver ranks – in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, Top Fuel was in serious trouble in car count and sponsor support, and it took Don Garlits' heroic win in Indy in 1984 to turn the tide even after IHRA has cancelled its fuel dragster racing.

The two fuel classes peacefully coexisted throughout the 1990s, and it took one weekend in Englishtown in 1998 to get the ol' competitive juices flowing again. At Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, Force upset the applecart when his 323.35-mph blast topped the fastest run ever by a Top Fueler (322.92, posted by Cory McClenathan earlier that year in Phoenix).

During final eliminations, Joe Amato reclaimed the fastest speed for the Top Fuelers with a 323.50-mph blast in round one against Doug Kalitta, but Force stole it right back in the Funny Car final, where his 4.84 trouncing of Jim Epler came at a stunning speed of 323.89. Amato, who was in the Top Fuel final against McClenathan, had one final chance to take the fastest speed title back, and although he won the race, his 319.90-mph shot was well short of reclaiming the glory.

In typical Force exuberance, he crowed crazily, "After Amato took back the fastest speed from us, he said Top Fuel dragsters were the kings of the sport and Funny Cars were the queens. Well, I guess I get to be queen for another day. But at the next dance, I get to lead." (Huh?)

Our good friends at R.J. Reynolds weren't quite ready to let it rest at that and a few months later announced the Showdown as a means of – perhaps – settling the issue once and for all. The Showdown, which replaced the Winston Invitational all-star event, offered a combined $727,000, the largest guaranteed purse in NHRA history, to pay a combined Top Fuel dragster-Funny Car field that included 24 cars, 12 of each flavor. But a lot more than just big bucks was on the line.

"The Funny Car guys have always been considered the little brothers in this sport," said Force at the announcement. "Well it's time for us to step up and play with big brother. This will really show the fans what it's all about. It'll be neat, but I'm focusing my attention on one guy. I've been keeping my eye on him, and he's been running great this year. I want to race Louie the Lizard (on Kenny Bernstein's Top Fuel dragster) and take him out."

"We welcome John's challenge," Bernstein responded. "And we remember our days in Funny Car when we whipped Force like a dog every week. I don't think it'll be any different when the Top Fuel boys line up against him in Bristol."

Ouch, KB.

The format called for the first 10 spots in Top Fuel and Funny Car each to be filled by the reigning season champion and the most recent, active race winners. The remaining spots were to be filled through qualifying at the event.

The Top Fuelers and Funny Cars ran against one another in all four rounds of qualifying to give both sets of drivers a chance to get accustomed to the handicapped start, the amount of which for eliminations was determined in those qualifying heats as the difference between the averages of the quickest six e.t.s in each class after four qualifying runs, which turned out to be .37-second.

This handicap start was tougher on the dragster drivers as they had to will themselves not to react to the sound of the Funny Cars' early leaves and the header blasts directed at their open cockpits.

Vandergriff (who remains winless to this day) surprised everyone by not only taking one of the two open spots for non-winners but by qualifying No. 1 with a 4.55. Behind him were, in order, Gary Scelzi, Amato, McClenathan, Bernstein, and Jim Head. Tony Schumacher – as hard as it is to believe now – also was without a win and earned the No. 7 spot in Top Fuel. The rest of the field was rounded out by Doug Herbert, Doug Kalitta, Mike Dunn, Larry Dixon, and Cristen Powell.

Force led the Funny Car side with a 4.944 and was followed on the sheets by Whit Bazemore's 4.954 and the 4.975 of Tommy Johnson Jr., one of the two drivers who had to qualify to make the show. Behind him was the other driver to do so, Scotty Cannon, followed by Cruz Pedregon, Tony Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Ron Capps, Phil Burkart Jr., Chuck Etchells, Dean Skuza, and Al Hofmann.

Vandergriff opened eliminations by defeating Hofmann, then beat tire-smoking Schumacher in one of just two all-Top Fuel races in the 25 heats (only the first round assured a Top Fuel versus Funny Car pairing, but fate worked it out so that almost every pairing through five rounds was a mix of the two). Vandergriff then beat Johnson, who had lost in round two to McClenathan but was reinserted in the third round due to having the quickest losing time of the round, then advanced to the final on Etchells' red-light.

Force overcame Powell's psychic .410 light in round one, then beat Head's dragster. Force's third-round 4.941 just barely held off Kalitta's 4.623, and he followed with 4.879 blast to beat Cory Mac. (Cory Mac would win the Showdown the following year, defeating Capps in the final.)

Coming into the final, the dragsters had won 12 of the 22 head-to-head battles and were ensured the "win" in that stat regardless of the outcome of the final, but, of course, they wanted the event win, too.

Both cars smoked the tires, and, as is well-known, few people can outpedal Force when the final – let alone a $200,000 prize – is on the line. Force recovered first and better to chalk up a 5.47 to 5.87 victory and was quite thrilled with the win.

"I've won Indy, and I've won eight championships, but this is the biggest deal of my career," said Force. "The dragsters are the kings of the sport, and we aren't going to change that, but for this weekend, Funny Cars rule."