In the 50 years that the Funny Car class has been contested in NHRA, there has been no shortage of memorable and unpredictable moments. Over the course of 802 events, 89 winners have been crowned with several surprises along the way. We ranked the top-10 biggest upset winners in the history of the fabulous flopper category.
1. K.C. Spurlock, 1990 Winternationals
At the start of John Force’s first NHRA championship campaign, few expected Spurlock to take his new Funny Car to the winner’s circle with a nine-day-old license following a one-year stint in the alcohol ranks and some experience in sprint cars. He qualified on the bump with a 5.57 and stepped up with a 5.32 to defeat Force in the first round. His Ronnie Swearingen-tuned hot rod went on to defeat R.C. Sherman and reigning champion Bruce Larson before Ed McCulloch smoked the tires against him in the final.
2. Bob Bode, 2010 Lucas Oil Nationals
The most recent entry on the list is Illinois native and plastic-bag manufacturer Bode. The independent campaigner ran a slew of mid-4.1-second runs under the guide of crew chief Walt Przybyl to stun the competition in one of the biggest upsets in history. Bode defeated Cruz Pedregon in the first round, used a holeshot advantage to upset Bob Tasca III in the second round, and went 4.16 in the semi’s against a tire-smoking Tim Wilkerson. Jack Beckman was the heavy favorite in the final, but his Funny Car went up in immediate tire smoke while Bode cruised on through to a 4.24 for the victory.
3. Bob Gilbertson, 2000 O’Reilly Nationals
After a seven-year absence from the category, Gilbertson took the wheel of his Trick Tank Funny Car tuned by Paul Smith and won Houston from the No. 16 qualifying position. Gilbertson never ran quicker than 5.02 and never needed to. First-round opponent John Force and semifinal opponent Ron Capps both smoked the tires, the latter crossing the centerline afterward. Jim Epler fouled in the second round. No. 2 qualifier Jerry Toliver ran low e.t. of every eliminations round, including the final, but jumped the gun on the Tree and triggered the win light in Gilbertson’s lane for the only win of his Funny Car career.
4. Craig Epperly, 1981 Springnationals
Epperly had never driven down a dragstrip before he earned his Funny Car license one year earlier. At 24 years old, he wheeled Don Tate’s Amos Satterlee-tuned Super Star Dodge Omni to victory in Columbus. He beat Tripp Shumake in the first round, scored a holeshot win over Tom Anderson, outran John Collins, and sealed the deal in a thrilling 6.210 to 6.214 final-round decision over reigning champ Raymond Beadle.
5. Sherm Gunn, 1984 NHRA Finals
All of the attention was on a three-way championship battle between Mark Oswald, Kenny Bernstein, and Billy Meyer when the chassis builder from Azusa, Calif., flew under the radar to arrive in the winner’s circle. With only two previous round-wins in his four-year career to that point, Gunn qualified No. 11 with a 5.89 and ended Bernstein’s championship hopes with a holeshot in the first round. He defeated Don “the Snake” Prudhomme in round two and decided the title in the semi’s when he outran Meyer, 5.91 to 5.99. Newly crowned champion Oswald shut off with engine damage in the final, so Gunn singled to victory.
6. Jeff Arend, 1996 Keystone Nationals
Arend wasn’t even slated to drive at the Reading event. Car owner Paul Smith had planned to be behind the wheel, but an ankle injury flared up at 1 p.m. Friday, and Arend, who graduated from his drag racing school two years earlier and competed in his Funny Car sporadically, was a suitable replacement because he was already attending the event as a spectator. In his 14th event, Arend qualified 10th and left the starting line first in every eliminations round. He beat Dean Skuza, Al Hofmann, and Del Worsham to reach the final against a heavily favored Tony Pedregon. Smith stepped his car up to win a 5.18 to 5.20 battle.
7. Del Worsham, 1991 Southern Nationals
This is one of the more difficult upset wins to put in context. Looking back, Worsham is one of the greatest pure talents to set foot in a Funny Car, so the fact that he got into the winner’s circle is no surprise in hindsight. However, he was a 21-year-old rookie in his seventh start in the only car he had ever driven at the time that he won in Atlanta, and he and father Chuck entered the event facing the reality that they would likely need to head back to Southern California to regroup after the event unless their fortunes changed. Worsham was a huge underdog against Mark Oswald in the final, and Oswald lost traction and had to pedal while Worsham cruised to a 5.50 to score the victory. He also won the Englishtown event that season.
8. Gary Burgin, 1976 U.S. Nationals
The late driver of the Orange Baron was a threat everywhere he went, but 1976 was the year of “the Snake.” Don Prudhomme had won every single round of competition with his dominant Army Monza that season except for one — the final round of Indy. Burgin reached the final by beating John Lombardo, Tom Prock, and Raymond Beadle, and Prudhomme was six- to seven-hundredths quicker during each eliminations round after qualifying No. 1 with an outstanding 5.97. The perfect season came to an end when Burgin went 6.25 in the final while Prudhomme slowed to a 6.46.
9. Gary Clapshaw, 1995 Mid-South Nationals
The Nevada racer wheeled his unsponsored Fuelish Pleasure Ford Mustang to the winner’s circle in Memphis, Tenn., in a surprising final that would crown a first-time winner regardless of the outcome. With John Force, Cruz Pedregon, and other heavy hitters going by the wayside early in eliminations, Chuck Etchells and Al Hofmann seemed to be on a collision course until they were upended in the semifinals by Clapshaw and Gary Densham. Densham held lane choice (5.20 to 5.31), but Clapshaw was able to replicate his efforts with a 5.33 while Densham slowed to a 5.45.
10. Tony Bartone, 2008 Schuck’s Nationals
“T-Bone” is a national champion in the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks and the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series Nostalgia Top Fuel category, and he earned his only win in the Professional ranks at Pacific Raceways in Seattle while driving Jim Dunn’s Canidae Pet Food Funny Car. With only one other final-round appearance at the spring Las Vegas event in 2005, Bartone was able to win with Dunn tuning masterfully on a warm racing surface. Bartone cut a psychic .004 light against Gary Scelzi in round one and defeated Mike Neff and Tony Pedregon in the following rounds. He got into a pedalfest with final-round opponent Ron Capps, and Bartone pulled off the win with a 4.45 to 4.70 in the final. With a Funny Car victory marked off of his career checklist, Bartone returned to the alcohol ranks the following season and promptly won the first event of the 2009 season.