Steve Plueger’s name may be familiar to longtime race fans as one half of the Plueger & Gyger Funny Car team that raced in the 1970s or, if you’re a little newer fan maybe you remember him as a prolific chassis builder and crew chief, including handling both roles for an up-and-coming driver named John Force, or, if you’re a last-decade fan you may know him as a force in the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks, where he won three champions while he also continued to field a “big show” car on the Mello Yello Series with varying degrees of limited success.
Any way you slice it, the man was a walking history book for the class, past and present, before we lost him suddenly on March 22, and so deeply loved and revered by those who knew him, worked and drove with him, or learned from him. It was everywhere on social media and in my Inbox; that’s a good measuring stick for me.
Longtime friends Tommy Naccarato and Randy Fish were among those who shared info with me, and Force even issued a standalone press release saluting the man.
Plueger was born in 1944, the same year that his dad, Fred, moved the family from Iowa to California in 1944 to follow a job in the aerospace industry, so he literally was born into a world of speed and power.
By the time Plueger was 10, his family had moved to Oregon and the curious youngster had begun to show signs of his mechanical aptitude, working on tractors and other farm equipment and making his first forays to the dragstrip. A return to Southern California brought not only more opportunity for the family but to young Steve, a front-row seat at one of the sport’s most storied venues, Lions Drag Strip, and a deep introduction to those within the sport.
After working days at North American Aviation with his father, Steve would work nights for legendary chassis builder Don Long learning the craft of building cars. Another apprenticeship, this one with gasser great Chuck Finders, followed.
Plueger’s first owned race car was a Long-built front -engine Top Fuel dragster, driven by Steve Carbone, and he also teamed up on a gasser with Gary Densham, who would remain a lifelong customer even after both switched to Funny Car, Densham driving and Plueger building.
Plueger built cars for a Who’s Who of West Coast Funny Car teams, including Lil’ John Lombardo, with whom he briefly teamed. But it was with Ken Gyger that Plueger really made the big-time with a Donovan-powered ’72 Mach I Mustang that Dave Condit drove to victory at the 1974 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, resetting the national record to 6.16 in the process.
Around this time, Plueger went into business with Richard Conklin, forming S&R Race Cars that built dozens of Funny Cars and at least one incarnation of “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry’s L.A. Dart wheelstander. Through his partnership with Condit and the Beaver brothers, he met their cousin, a struggling Funny Car racer named John Force. Plueger agreed to take the fledgling under his wing and serve as his crew chief in 1978.
“My brother Louis, Uncle Beaves (Gene Beaver), and Plueger gave me my start,” Force said. “I always dreamed that one day I would drive the Plueger-and Gyger car like my cousin Dave Condit.”
Force’s first final-round appearance – the first of nine before he’d win – came with Plueger tuning at 1979 Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La., where he lost to Kenny Bernstein and his Chelsea King Arrow. Until Force brought Funny Car production in-house in recent years, Plueger cars are what carried him to the majority of his championships and event wins.
Check out this great photo above that Force sent. It's Force, third from the right, getting a congratulatory handshake from Seattle International Raceway track operator Jim Rockstad after driving his Plueger-tuned Wendy’s Corvette to a Funny Car victory at the track in 1979. An unidentified track official stands between Force and wife Laurie. On the left are brother Louie Force and crew members Mark Quaternik, Plueger and Roy Mehus. (Longtime Insider readers will remember Mehus as the guy who sold Force his first Funny Car.)
In his statement, Force wrote as if talking directly to Plueger, “You and I always agreed that it ain’t over until we say it’s over and it ain’t over. We’ve still got a lot of races to win and I know that you’ll be there to help guide me, like always. You never failed me. I always got a call after a good weekend or a bad one. It didn’t matter. I could think of a million things to say, but that wouldn’t bring you back. The best thing I can say is that you were family, like a brother. We fought and argued but whenever I needed you, you were there.”
According to Fish, Plueger also had a big hand in another future Funny Car: the 18-wheeler race car trailer that he helped create for Billy Meyer in 1977.
“Steve told me the story of how he converted a used, Factory-Yamaha motocross team hauler into drag racing's first-known, high-profile tractor-trailer rig,” he said. “Steve stripped the entire innards of Meyer's new hauler, and installed cabinets, tool boxes, sourced and built hydraulic systems, and all from scratch.”
“At the time I got the big rig because we were carrying so many parts and equipment that the traditional crew cab and trailer were dangerous,” Meyer told National Dragster a few years ago. “Of course, I also realized the promotional value of having that huge, rolling billboard, especially when I was the only one who had one.”
Plueger later partnered with his brother to form P&P Fabrication and raced for a while with Steve Chrisman and Lombardo, building many chassis in a single-car garage in Artesia, Calif., before moving to a more spacious home in La Mirada.
Recalled Naccarato, “Longtime friend Jim Phillips and myself built him a brand new main shop and renovated the existing garages, as well as completely renovated the house and soon after moving in, Steve detailed to me how we were going to get back into racing and thus we did with the idea being that of having fun. I’m glad to say that the last 28 years of Steve’s life were exactly that! He deserved it! Worked hard for it! But most times, it was also trying as well. My dad would tell me how he would go into the kitchen at 3:30 in the morning to get a drink of water and he would see Steve’s lights on working hard till God knows what time! This is a man that worked hard his entire life. A trip to Plueger’s, whether it be to his shop or on the phone was a lengthy one, but it was also very informative and entertaining! Just ask anyone that knew him!”
Fish, a veteran of many drag racing-themed magazines, certainly knew Plueger well, first professionally and then personally for the last two decades and was witness to the fertile mind and hard work that permeated what he called “Pluegerville."
“Virtually every time I stopped to see ‘Pluegs,’ he had a chassis on the jig with the name Jim Dunn on it,” said Fish. “By the same token, Steve built cars for the biggest names in this addiction-prone, quarter-mile sport.
“To name but a few, Steve Plueger's innovations include the first [nitro Hemi] dry-sump oil pump, specially designed to clear the top frame rails on modern-day Funny Cars and Pro Mods; the first to fabricate side-by-side, matching, low-profile fuel and oil tanks; and the first to solidly-mount the rear end assembly for Funny Cars. The list goes on and on.”
“I think it was his best most successful time of racing, also his most frustrating,” added Naccarato. “He was always inventing or coming up with something that would make something better, safer. The Plueger Dry Sump, which is built by best friend and confidante Steve Leach of RCD Manufacturing, was conceived for one express purpose—and Steve told me this himself as he was building the mock-up prototype out of milled hardwood—was to protect John Force, who at the time was having one too many fires. He had the initial concept of the stove-pipe and body panel venting system for a supercharger explosion, all to protect John, who he looked at as family in a most paternal manner. That paternal pride and admiration would carry on over to Robert Hight as well.”
“A striking, stark, white Firebird, was Steve's second-to-last, self-funded Big Show Car,” recalled Fish, who says the car was originally ordered by Cruz Pedregon, who later canceled the order, so Plueger took it himself and put "The Best Funny Car Driver Without a Ride," Dale Pulde, into the car. "At the time, Steve allowed me to do a story on it, and he went into great detail about his self-designed clutch management system. Inside the box was a mechanical bell-crank, that operated in sync with the fuel/ignition/clutch operation. Pulde and Plueger were working out the bugs in short order. But then NHRA mandated the use of computers, rev limiters, and magnetos that all spoke the same language. The cost to upgrade those systems was out of the question for a self-funded, fuel Funny Car legend, but he went on become the undisputed 'King of Nostalgia Funny Car,' fielding a two-car, twin championship-winning NHRA Heritage Series effort."
According to another world champion NFC tuner, my old ND pal Brad Littlefield, Plueger won each of the first three official NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series Nostalgia Funny Car championships in 2008-2010 with three different drivers: Bucky Austin, Garrett Bateman, and Leah Pritchett. He also had great success with Ron Capps moonlighting in the seat and setting a record of 5.63 seconds that stood for several years.
Opined Pritchett, today one of NHRA’s big show stars who got her started with Plueger, on her Facebook page, “Just ‘cause death is part of life doesn't make it any easier. Our friend and legend Steve Plueger went to meet his creator this week ... the same guy that gifted him with extraordinary Funny Car chassis, fab, and tuning skills, along with an overflow of charisma and the best most inappropriate couth like no other. My first real Wally was had with this team because of this man and his tune to 250 mph solely by pipes, plugs, and bearings mentality, who eventually gave me a shot and threw me a number to chase based off a convo in the staging lanes where I told him someday I was gonna go pro and people laughed, and he said ‘Gurrrl, I'll help you get there.’ We both kept our words.”
Bateman posted to his Facebook page, “It was an absolute honor and a privilege to drive for Steve Plueger. The man was an unbelievable tuner, chassis builder, and one of the most hardcore drag racers I will ever know. When others used computers, we didn’t. When others used air shifters, we went manual. When others used a tach, we just had an oil pressure gauge. Three consecutive championships with three different drivers and I was damn lucky to be one of them. Plueger is gone, but the stories will live on.”
Amen. And I’m glad and proud to be able to share just a few of them here RIP Steve Plueger.
Also, I wanted to mention the passing of Ron Pellegrini last week. Again, longtime Insider readers might remember the column I did with him a few years ago (The Johnny Appleseed of the Fiberglass Forest) that detailed how he not only arguably had the first Funny Car, but how he created a business, Fiberglass Ltd., that created Funny Car bodies for almost the entire class for years. Because it's all there in that column, I won't rehash it here, but Jon Asher also wrote a fine obit about him that you can find posted across the interwebs.
For me personally, Pellegrini was always just an email away when I needed answers to something piece of Funny Car history, and his emails, with subject lines like "Rat hunting with Ivo and Prudhomme," were always a welcome unsolicited start to my day when something struck his fancy. As I was combing through some of those old emails I came across one after I wrote the popular-but-somewhat-sad "Dry Hops in Heaven" column about all those who had left up and were now racing in the hereafter.
"To whom it may concern." he addressed it with I'm sure a wink in his eye. "Great story, got some of the dust out of my tear ducts. Please keep my name of the list as long as you can as I still have some living to do."
He did, staying in touch with many of his longtime friends, sharing stories about the past and ideas for the future. I'm gonna miss him.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]