Shining the spotlight on Funny Car: 900 races, 92 winners, 23 champions
It was less than two years ago — at the fall Las Vegas event in 2019 — that Top Fuel reached its 900-event milestone, and its nitro-burning little brother, Funny Car, reached the same milestone last weekend in New England.
The NHRA on FOX team did a deep dive into the stats and found that Pomona has hosted the most Funny Car races at 89 (not surprising because it’s held two events annually since 1984) followed by Indy (56, again, not surprising, as its our oldest event), and Gainesville, our third oldest event, is third with 52. In all, 33 different venues have staged an NHRA national event Funny Car race.
There have been 92 different winners in those 900 events (I’ve compiled the complete list here), led, of course, by John Force’s 153 wins, and 23 different champions crowned since 1970, the first year the class had a champion, led, again, by Force with 16.
Over the years, I’ve covered the class’ history extensively, from its first seasons to the years since, especially its 50th anniversary season in 2016, so I won’t cover that same ground again.
(If you are interested in a deep look at the class’ history and heroes, here’s a deep link to that 2016 content. You can find a slew of vintage Funny Car articles — including our amazing Top 20 Funny Car drivers list — in the Dragster Insider archive.)
No, instead, I’m just going to make the kind of weird, stream-of-consciousness observations that you pay me the big bucks to make (still waiting on those checks, people) and drop some random nitro notes and flopper facts on your noggins.
BROTHERS IN NITRO
Top Fuel’s first race was the 1963 Winternationals, and Funny Car’s first event was the 1966 World Finals and, and Top Fuel began crowning world champions in 1964 (Jack Williams). Funny Car did not name a champ until 1970 (Gene Snow) when the class first race at every event. Funny Car did not run every event that Top Fuel did until the 1970 season. They’ve been partners in elapsed time every one of the 895 races since the 1970 Winternationals except for the 1981 Cajun Nationals, where the Funny Car drivers actually boycotted the event while seeking a larger purse (which they got).
THE FORCE IS STRONG
It was somehow very appropriate that the class’ legendary kingpin, all-time NHRA wins leader Force, won the New England Nationals, collecting win No. 153, which means he’s won roughly one in every six Funny Car races even though his career didn’t start until the 1977 Winternationals, Funny Car’s 62nd event. Of course, back then he was still eating bologna sandwiches three times a day (if he was lucky) and sleeping six to a hotel room, and didn’t run every event. The Epping event was Force’s 795th start, so he’s won 153 times in 795 events, or one in every 5.19 events at which he was entered. Extrapolating that a little further, removing his 26 career DNQs, he’s won almost exactly every five starts. And, because you asked (probably), if you only count his last 717 starts that begin with his breakthrough first win in Montreal in 1987, he’s won every 4.6 events. Not bad for “an old truck driver.”
As you can see in the graphic below, Force has been pretty good on “the hundreds.”
|200||1988||Pomona (fall)||John Force|
|600||2008||Pomona (winter)||Robert Hight|
THE TOP FIVE
Force obviously is the class’ all-time wins leader (153) and teammate Robert Hight is third with 52, sandwiched around Ron Capps at 65. Force has 16 championships and Hight three to Capps’ lone title, but Capps can claim something that neither Force nor Hight can: He’s just one of 17 drivers in NHRA history to collect wins in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, having won in Top Fuel in Seattle in 1995 before his Funny Car career started. Can you name all 17? (Answer here)
Almost 12 years after his last race win (2009 Brainerd), two-time Funny Car champ and current NHRA on FOX race analyst Tony Pedregon still sits fourth all-time in class-win order with 43 Wallys on the shelf.
Cruz Pedregon and Matt Hagan each have 36 wins — tied for fifth overall — even though Hagan spotted “the Cruzer” 26 wins before notching his first win at the 2010 Houston event. It’s really a tale of the pendulum swing. Pedregon, pictured above right with NHRA Founder Wally Parks, team owner "Coach" Joe Gibbs, and crew chief Bob Brandt, notched 22 of his wins in an eight-year span (1992-2000) and only 14 in the 20 years since Hagan has won all 36 of his in the last 10-plus seasons.
Both Pedregon and Hagan have just one more Funny Car win than Prudhomme, whose last Funny Car win was in 1989, three years before Pedregon scored his first. That’s how good “the Snake” was in the 1970s and ‘80s. Prudhomme was the class’ all-time win leader (35) until Force earned No. 36 at the 1994 Topeka event and never looked back.
Ed Schartman, Doug Thorley, Tommy Grove, Clare Sanders, and Danny Ongais won Funny Car's first five events, and it wasn't until Ongais added his second win, at the 1969 Nationals, that there was a two-time winner. Gene Snow was the first to three wins, all coming in the 1970 season, and Ed McCulloch was the first to four and then five victories thanks to a four-win 1972 campaign.
McCulloch was stuck on five wins from the 1972 Indy event to the 1980 Indy event, and Prudhomme snuck past him during his monstrous six-win 1975 season and pulled even further ahead of everyone with seven wins the following year.
Until the sponsorship well ran dry at the end of last year, Jack Beckman was another sure bet to pass Prudhomme, having won 33 events over the last 14 seasons. Looking at those 33 wins, he didn’t have a lot of easy final rounds as 21 of them were against Funny Car world champions. He beat John Force in six of them, Ron Capps and Robert Hight four times each, Hagan three times, and had solo wins over Cruz Pedregon, Frank Hawley, Del Worsham, and J.R. Todd.
ROLL CALL OF CHAMPS
Speaking of Funny Car world champions, here's the roll call of champs. Remember, from 1970-73, the world champion was the guy who won the World Finals. From 1974-2006, it was a straight points battle, and from 2007 on (excluding last year's "pandemic points"), it was decided in the Countdown to the Championship.
|1970||Gene Snow||Ed McCulloch (Finals r/u)|
|1971||Phil Castronovo||Jake Johnston (Finals r/u)|
|1972||Larry Fullerton||Jake Johnston (Finals r/u)|
|1973||Frank Hall||Bobby Rowe (Finals r/u)|
|1974||Shirl Greer||Paul Smith|
|1975||Don Prudhomme||Gary Burgin|
|1976||Don Prudhomme||Shirl Greer|
|1977||Don Prudhomme||Gordie Bonin|
|1978||Don Prudhomme||Tom McEwen|
|1979||Raymond Beadle||Don Prudhomme|
|1980||Raymond Beadle||Billy Meyer|
|1981||Raymond Beadle||Don Prudhomme|
|1982||Frank Hawley||Billy Meyer|
|1983||Frank Hawley||Mark Oswald|
|1984||Mark Oswald||Billy Meyer|
|1985||Kenny Bernstein||Rick Johnson|
|1986||Kenny Bernstein||Mark Oswald|
|1987||Kenny Bernstein||Mark Oswald|
|1988||Kenny Bernstein||Mark Oswald|
|1989||Bruce Larson||Don Prudhomme|
|1990||John Force||Ed McCulloch|
|1991||John Force||Jim White|
|1992||Cruz Pedregon||John Force|
|1993||John Force||Chuck Etchells|
|1994||John Force||Cruz Pedregon|
|1995||John Force||Al Hofmann|
|1996||John Force||Tony Pedregon|
|1997||John Force||Tony Pedregon|
|1998||John Force||Ron Capps|
|1999||John Force||Tony Pedregon|
|2000||John Force||Ron Capps|
|2001||John Force||Whit Bazemore|
|2002||John Force||Tony Pedregon|
|2003||Tony Pedregon||Whit Bazemore|
|2004||John Force||Del Worsham|
|2005||Gary Scelzi||Ron Capps|
|2006||John Force||Robert Hight|
|2007||Tony Pedregon||Robert Hight|
|2008||Cruz Pedregon||Tim Wilkerson|
|2009||Robert Hight||Ashley Force Hood|
|2010||John Force||Matt Hagan|
|2011||Matt Hagan||Jack Beckman|
|2012||Jack Beckman||Ron Capps|
|2013||John Force||Matt Hagan|
|2014||Matt Hagan||John Force|
|2015||Del Worsham||Jack Beckman|
|2016||Ron Capps||Tommy Johnson jr.|
|2017||Robert Hight||Ron Capps|
|2018||J.R. Todd||Robert Hight|
|2019||Robert Hight||Jack Beckman|
|2020||Matt Hagan||Tommy Johnson jr.|
- Jake Johnston came within two win lights of being a two-time Funny Car champion, losing the final round of the World Finals back to back in 1971 and 1972. As you can see above, Johnston, in Gene's Snow's charger, was leading Castronovo in the 1971 title bash before the rear end broke.
- Same deal: Ed McCulloch, who won Indy six times but never a championship, could have been Funny Car's first champion in 1970 but lost in the final round of the Finals to Gene Snow.
- Shirl Greer's histrionics to win the 1974 championship will never be forgotten, but people forget that it was Paul Smith and not Prudhomme who finished second behind him.
- Numbers snychronicity: After Prudhomme won four straight championships (1975-78), Beadle won the next three in a row (1979-81), and then Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler won two in a row (1982-83), then Oswald won once (1984) before the cycle appeared to start all over again with Kenny Bernstein winning four straight (1985-88), but then Bruce Larson broke the circle with a lone title in 1989.
- The fabled "Mongoose," Tom McEwen didn't win many races, but he finished second behind "the Snake" in 1978.
- Two years after winning the championship, Mark Oswald finished second behind Kenny Bernstein three straight years.
- Billy Meyer was a three-time championship runner-up but never a world champion.
- Veteran car owner Roland Leong's drivers won a ton of national events but never got him the gold ring. Rick Johnson (1985) and Jim White (1991) both finished second.
- Funny Car is the only Pro class without a female world champ, but Ashley Force Hood came close in 2009, losing to teammate Robert Hight, who got his first of three there.
The following drivers have won in both Top Fuel and Funny Car (Listed in order of completed accomplishment): Don Prudhomme (1973), Mark Oswald (1983), Gene Snow (1985), Frank Hawley (1990), Kenny Bernstein (1991), Tom McEwen (1991), Ed McCulloch (1992), Mike Dunn (1993), Scott Kalitta (1993), Jim Head (1996), Ron Capps (1997), Tommy Johnson Jr. (1999), Gary Scelzi (2003), Melanie Troxel (2008), Del Worsham (2011), J.R. Todd (2017), and Shawn Langdon (2019).
As you can see, for a remarkable span of 10 years, “the Snake,” who got his first Funny Car win at the 1973 U.S. Nationals after five previous Top Fuel wins, was the only driver to have won in both classes until Mark Oswald at the 1983 Montreal event after a pair of Top Fuel wins the previous year.
Who could be next? Well, Tim Wilkerson now owns a Top Fueler. Austin Prock conceivably could drive a JFR Funny Car to a win. Or John Force could drive one of his dragsters? Mike Salinas would probably drive a Funny Car. I know Leah Pruett would. The mind reels.
EVERYONE WHO'S EVER WON
|Cruz Pedregon, Matt Hagan||36|
|Tim Wilkerson, Tommy Johnson Jr., Whit Bazemore||20|
|Ed McCulloch, Mark Oswald||18|
|Chuck Etchells, Raymond Beadle||13|
|Billy Meyer, Courtney Force, Gary Scelzi||12|
|J.R. Todd, Mike Dunn, Mike Neff||10|
|Bob Tasca III, Gary Densham||8|
|Bruce Larson, Frank Hawley, Johnny Gray||7|
|Dale Pulde, Eric Medlen||6|
|Al Segrini, Alexis DeJoria, Don Schumacher, Jerry Toliver, Tom Hoover||5|
|Ashley Force Hood, Frank Pedregon, Gene Snow, Jeff Arend, Jim Epler, Jim White, Phil Burkart, Tom McEwen||4|
|Jim Head, Leroy Goldstein, Mike Ashley||3|
|Bob Pickett, Bruce Sarver, Dale Emery, Danny Ongais, Dean Skuza, Gary Burgin, Jim Dunn, John Lombardo, K.C. Spurlock, Leonard Hughes, Randy Anderson, Ron Colson, Shawn Langdon, Tim Grose, Tripp Shumake||2|
|Bob Bode, Bob Gilbertson, Butch Maas, Clare Sanders, Craig Epperly, Dave Beebe, Dave Condit, Denny Savage, Doug Thorley, Ed Schartman, Frank Hall, Gary Clapshaw, Jim Liberman, John Collins, Johnny White, Kenji Okazaki, Larry Arnold, Larry Fullerton, Larry Reyes, Melanie Troxel, Pat Foster, Phil Castronovo, Rick Johnson, Sam Miller, Scott Kalitta, Sherm Gunn, Shirl Greer, Tom Grove, Tony Bartone||1|
- Interesting to note that of the 92 different winners, 29 — almost a third — only won one event. This seems particularly true if your name is Larry (Arnold, Fullerton, Reyes).
- Still hard to believe that "Jungle Jim" only has one win; then again, match races were more his "thang" than national events.
- Of the two-time winners, it generally was a case of striking while the iron was hot, with most winning their pair within a year and not a guy going eons between his two wins. Danny Ongais (1969), Randy Anderson (1997), and Shawn Langdon (2019) collected both of their wins in the same year. Leonard Hughes (1970 and 1971), Dale Emery (1973 and 1974), Bob Pickett (1977 and 1978), Tripp Shumake (1981 and 1982), Tim Grose (1985 and 1986), Dean Skuza (1997 and 1998), and Bruce Sarver (2000 and 2001) did theirs in two. John Lombardo (1983 to 1985) and Ron Colson (1978 to 1980) took three years, and Gary Burgin spread his over four seasons (1976 to 1979). The biggest gap belongs to Jim Dunn, who followed his historic rear-engined Funny car win at the 1972 Supernationals with a second and final win nine years later at the 1981 World Finals.
- As dominant as Frank Hawley and Austin Coil seemed during the Chi-Town Hustler's two-year reign in 1982 and 1983, it might seem surprising that they only won seven events, but there were only a total of 24 races those two seasons combined, so about one in three. That sounds better. Hawley beat Al Segrini for three of those wins and Tom Anderson for two others, with lone wins over Tim Grose and Dale Pulde rounding out his final-round wins.
- The late, great "240 Gordie" Bonin went 12 years between wins No. 6 and No. 7 — from the 1981 Gatornationals to the 1993 Springnationals. Bonin will always be remembered (by me, anyway) for his weird odd-year Gatornationas winning streak (1977, '79, '81).
- Looks like the Top 10 winners list will remain the Top 10 for some time. Kenny Bernstein is currently 10th with 30 wins, and No. 11 is a three-way tie between Tim Wilkerson, Mike Neff, and Whit Bazemore at 20 wins, and Wilk is the only active driver there, then you have to go all the way down J.R. Todd (10 wins) for the next active driver on the list.
OK, that's all I've got. It's been fun(ny)!
With Epping being No. 900, and assuming at least 20 events every season, Funny Car race No. 1,000 will take place sometime in 2025. Top Fuel, now sitting on race 918, will get to 1,000 in the 2024 season, so we'll talk again then.
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
Hundreds of more articles like this can be found in the DRAGSTER INSIDER COLUMN ARCHIVE