As a car-obsessed teenager growing up in Utica. N.Y. in the early 1980s, Phil Burkart Jr. always gravitated to the town’s hot-rodding hotpot, the Custom Body Enterprises shop of the Castronovo brothers, who fielded a Funny Car, first driven by brother Phil and tuned by Fred, that was a mainstay of NHRA competition through two decades.
Burkart’s father did machine work for the Castronovos’ famed collision-repair shop so the impressionable youngster got to know the family well.
“The Custom Body shop was only three miles down the road from the us, and that’s where the Funny Car bug really got me,” said Burkart.
Dubbed “the Utica Flash,” the car was later driven by the likes of Rick Johnson, Bobby Hilton, Tom Prock, Tim Grose, Al Segrini, and Paul Smith, who drove the Castronovos’ Dodge Daytona to a second-place finish behind Mark Oswald in the 1985 IHRA Funny Car championship battle. The Custom Body car made its final outing at the 1987 U.S. Nationals with Segrini at the wheel.
All of this shared history comes full circle this weekend when Burkart saddles up in Smith’s Rock Batteries Funny Car, which bears a remembrance to Fred, who passed away in May, on its hood.
Burkart, who still lives in Utica where he runs the engine and speed shop his father founded, didn’t get into a Funny Car right away, starting out with a nine-second rear-engined dragster, but that was followed by his first flopper, a carbureted, gas-burning ’72 Camaro-bodied. He eventually moved into the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks in 1991 and then into nitro Funny Car in 1998, licensing in Smith’s Drag Racing School car. Burkart, who drove the second Worsham Racing/Checker-Schuck’s-Kragen Funny Car from 2004-06, winning three of his four Wallys with them, and has become a reliable part-time and fill-in driver, most notably being John Force’s hand-picked substitute following Force’s season-ending injury in late 2007. Earlier this year he drove Robert Schwab’s entry at the season’s first three events.
Smith, who has been racing Funny Cars since the 1970s, first as a driver – he was the NHRA championship runner-up in NHRA in 1974 -- has become a reliable mentor and/or tuner for a number of drivers, including, Johnny Gray, Todd Paton, Jeff Arend, and most recently, Blake Alexander, and his own sons, Mike and John. John was originally scheduled to drive the family car this weekend but instead will concentrate his efforts on tuning Justin Schriefer’s Funny Car.
It’s Smith’s first time racing at Indy since 2016, but his past successes give him a lot of optimism. In 2015, he and Alexander upset Jack Beckman in round one and the following year Dave Richards’ Smith-tuned car upset Beckman as well in round one.
“I love this race,” said Smith. “It’s Indy, the biggest race there is. You’re proud to race here. My sons are both here [Mike will help tune for Burkart] and my grandkids are here; it’s just a great weekend for us. I’ve got plenty of parts and the help of my good buddy, Steve Earwood and Rock Batteries. We’re looking forward to this weekend.”