You never know with nitro: A look back at seven great Funny Car upset wins
Nitro drag racing is such a fickle sport, one where the slightest tuning miscalculation can send a potential race winner to the trailer for the rest of the day. And even if the tune-up is spot-on and the driver does everything correctly, the strain of 12,000 hp can snap a brand-new part or the racetrack might throw an unexpected curve.
Hey, stuff happens, right? And nowhere does weird stuff happen than in nitro Funny Car, where the combination of high horsepower and a short wheelbase can derail a favorite’s run to the winner’s circle. So when I sat down to do a companion piece to the five biggest Top Fuel upset victories, I had a lot to choose from, and the Insider Nation certainly weighed in, too, with all kinds of suggestions, and this ended up being a Top Seven list.
CRAIG EPPERLY, 1981 COLUMBUS
Although team owner Don Tate had been around the sport for years, racing in Fuel Altered and Funny Car with the Trillo Bros., Epperly was a literal 24-year-old babe in the woods. Tate had split with the Trillos after brother Jim crashed their Funny Car in 1980 but paired his young Southern California shoe with respected crew chief “Famous Amos” Satterlee.
Epperly had never even won a round when the team pulled into National Trail Raceway for the Springnationals – just his third national event start – and the team was coming off a DNQ at the Gatornationals, but he upset veterans Tripp Shumake, Tom Anderson, and John Collins in the first three rounds on a long Sunday that was beset by rain, with the second, semifinal, and final rounds held under the lights.
It was after 1 a.m. Monday morning when Epperly pulled into the beams for the final round, where he understandably was given virtually no chance to beat his opponent, reigning world champ Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max, the low qualifier at 6.05. Beadle had stitched together a pair of 6.15s in the second round and the semi’s, and Epperly’s best run was a 6.27, but Epperly left slightly on Beadle, .497 to .504, then held on for a narrow 6.210 to 6.214 victory as jaws dropped all across the starting line.
Epperly finished the season a respectable sixth, but the team broke up at season’s end for unknown reasons. Epperly continued to wheel nitro Funny Cars, driving for Joe Pisano, Anthony Almada (the A Team Daytona), and the H.B. Gold team of Billy McCahill and Gene Beaver.
According to stats master Bob Frey, Epperly’s Pro career comprised just 20 races between 1981 and 1987, and he DNQ’d at six of them. In his 14 starts, he won just six rounds, four of them on that crazy day in Columbus.
JIM HEAD, 1984 INDY
Drag racing’s self-proclaimed “mad scientist” made the surprising move from Top Fuel to Funny Car in 1984 after four partial seasons in Top Fuel. Ironically, one of his best days in Top Fuel also came in Indy, in his first race in 1980, when he reached the semifinals in the 32-car field from the No. 27 qualifying spot, having taken down hitters Bobby Hilton, David Pace, and Gary Beck before losing to Jeb Allen. After three DNQs in five starts in 1981, just one round-win and two DNQs in seven starts in 1982, and two DNQs and just one round-win in 1983, Head had had enough of Top Fuel.
It didn’t take him long to see it was the right move, reaching the final round of the Cajun Nationals in just his second start (losing there to Billy Meyer). Success seemed a bit fleeting as he won just one round over the next four events before reaching the semifinals in Brainerd, just before the U.S. Nationals.
He qualified just 14th in Indy and beat fellow Top Fuel transplant Jody Smart in round one before stunning the high-dollar, beer-sponsored cars of Ed McCulloch (Miller), Tom McEwen (Coors), and, in the final, Kenny Bernstein (Budweiser).
Mark Oswald had been the low qualifier at 5.69, and while the hitters were in the 5.70s and .80s on race day, Head won with passes of 5.97, 5.92, 5.93, and, in the final against tire-smoking Bernstein, a 5.96, leading me to become the creator of one of the most regrettable, pun-driven headlines in NHRA National Dragster history: “Head’s 5.90 hops leave beer cars flat.” (Truly one of those “Here, hold my beer” moments as I word-smithed that one into oblivion.)
Head went on to become a proven winner with two more Funny Car wins and three scores in his return to Top Fuel (including 1997 in Indy) before turning over the driving to a number of drivers and most recently has found a hot hand tuning for Blake Alexander.
SHERM GUNN, 1984 FINALS
Sherm Gunn, who had established a solid reputation as a chassis builder, had campaigned both alcohol and nitro Funny Cars since 1975 (preceded by years in gassers and an alky-burning altered) but primarily ran on the West Coast, where he was a staple at match races in Irwindale and at Orange County Int'l Raceway.
His national event nitro Funny Car successes to that point in a four-year career consisted of just a pair of round-wins, yet he beat four of the era’s best — Kenny Bernstein (on a holeshot), Don Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, and, in the final, Mark Oswald.
Gunn certainly looked to be, well, outgunned in the final as Oswald had shoed the Candies & Hughes/Old Milwaukee Firebird to a pair of 5.70s (and a class-history-best 261.62-mph shot) in the opening rounds; Gunn’s best was a 5.91 to defeat Meyer in the semifinals.
Gunn left slightly on Oswald, whose mount blew a head gasket in a brief blaze of fire before it hit the 100-foot mark. Gunn fired off his best run of the meet, a 5.87, to make it official.
K.C. SPURLOCK, 1990 POMONA
"Though the surprise winner of the first race of any decade automatically earns 'Upset of the Decade' honors by default, it’s unlikely that any of the 200 or so Funny Car champions at the remaining NHRA national events of the ‘90s will be a darker horse than K.C. Spurlock.” So wrote future Funny Car racer Todd Veney in our 1990 Winternationals Funny Car coverage, and he couldn’t have been more right.
Spurlock, who had competed in Alcohol Funny Car the previous season, earned his nitro license just nine days before the Winternationals and had just two runs under his safety belts on his new and still unlettered Ron Swearingen-tuned Ford Probe. In fact, Pomona fans probably still remembered Spurlock’s car-destroying trip into the sand trap at the previous year’s Winternationals in his second outing in his alky Funny Car. His first outing, the SuperNationals in Houston the previous fall, ended up with him overdriving the car, smashing into the guardwall, and barrel-rolling the car.
Despite those woes, Spurlock was nothing if not confident. Sporting Oakley Blades sunglasses and a rhinestone-studded jean jacket with his (reportedly self-appointed) nickname, "Hollywood,” on the back, the son of well-connected concert promoter C.K. Spurlock oozed swagger.
Although he qualified just 16th with a 5.577 in Pomona, nearly three tenths behind polesitter John Force’s 5.28, he stupefyingly stepped up to a 5.32 in round one and beat Force, who dropped a cylinder. A second-round 5.37 dispatched R.C. Sherman and put Spurlock into a semifinal match with 1989 world champ Bruce Larson, who had won both the ’89 Winternationals and World Finals in Pomona, and advanced on a 5.39 to 5.54 decision.
The old guard of Funny car was well represented in the final round in the stern visage of Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, who surely would put his flashy phenom in his place, right? Wrong. McCulloch’s Miller Olds smoked the tires at the green, and Spurlock bolted to victory in a rookie achievement that many related to Gary Beck's stunning 1972 U.S. Nationals Top Fuel win in his Professional debut.
JEFF AREND, 1996 READING
Jeff Arend licensed in late 1984 and ran sporadically in both 1995 and 1996 and had just 15 events under the body of a Funny Car when he showed up at Maple Grove Raceway. He didn’t have a ride but, like any good driver, he had his equipment with him.
He stopped by to see mentor Paul Smith, whose drag racing school Funny Car he had previously run, to see if he could lend a hand working on the car. Well, turns out that Smith was nursing a sore ankle from a trailer misstep and wasn’t up to driving, so he handed the figurative keys to Arend.
Arend qualified in the No. 10 spot, then beat Dean Skuza Al Hofmann and longtime friend Del Worsham in a close semifinal battle.
Arend’s final-round opponent was Tony Pedregon, who was in his rookie year in the class and driving John Force’s “R&D car,” but had already won the Southern Nationals earlier that year and would eventually finish second behind Force in the championship race.
Much to everyone’s shock, not only did Arend leave on Pedregon but also outran him, 5.18 to 5.20, for a surprising first win.
BOB GILBERTSON, 2000 HOUSTON
A decade after Spurlock stunned the Pomona crowd, Bob Gilbertson was a likewise huge upset winner in Houston, but for hardly the same reason. “Gilby” had a lot of experience, having made his debut in Englishtown in 1990 and running a handful of races that year and in 1991 before sitting out until the 1999 season.
The popular independent ran 16 races in 1999 but DNQ’d at half of them. he didn’t win a round until the U.S. Nationals, where he ambushed both Ron Capps and Tony Pedregon before falling in the semifinals to Jim Epler. He won only one more round that year, avenging his Indy loss to Epler in Memphis.
The 2000 season didn’t start much brighter. He qualified his Paul Smith-tuned Firebird 15th in Pomona and 16th in Phoenix, Gainesville, and Las Vegas, and was first-round fodder each time, so when he qualified No. 16 in Houston, there weren’t a lot of people planning a victory celebration for him.
Yet low qualifier John Force smoked the tires against him in round one, and Jim Epler red-lighted against him in round two. Gilbertson and Capps locked up in a pedalfest in the semi’s that ended when Capps’ Don Prudhomme-owned U.S. Tobacco Camaro veered across the centerline.
That victory pitted Gilbertown against points leader Jerry Toliver and his WWF-sponsored “The Rock” Camaro in the final. Toliver had qualified No. 2 behind Force and was solidly in the fours while Gilbertson’s best was a 5.02. Inexplicably, Toliver red-lighted, handing Gilbertson his only national event win.
Crazily enough, Gilbertson had his career-best qualifying effort, No. 6, at the fall Houston race and went to the semi's, beating Toliver and Capps (again!) before losing to Force, and finished an amazing year with another semi at the Finals.
Gilbertson also reached the final in Denver and the fall Las Vegas race the following year (losing to Force and Capps, respectively, the latter on a red-light), then red-lighted to Whit Bazemore in the 2005 Gatornationals final and lost to Capps (finally) in the final of the 2006 Houston, where history almost repeated itself.
BOB BODE, 2010 BRAINERD
Although he’d been racing Funny Cars since 2001, success had been hard to find for Bode. In his rookie year, he qualified at just two of nine events he attended, and by the time he entered the Brainerd event in 2010, he’d competed in 94 events yet had just eight round-wins to his credit.
But Bode, a former national-championship boat racer, enjoyed his finest day on dry land when he powered his Arbee.com/Alard Machine Products Impala to the Funny Car winner's circle, upsetting heavily favored Jack Beckman in the final when Beckman's machine lost traction just off the starting line.
Bode reached the final, the first of his career, on a trio of victories over past national event winners with a series of mid-4-teen passes: former world champ Cruz Pedregon, Bob Tasca III, and Tim Wilkerson. The win against Tasca was a nailbiter, scoring on a holeshot victory by just .002-second.
Bode never made it back to another final round before turning over the wheel to his son, Bobby — pictured above with his dad and mom, Alice, in that Brainerd winner's circle — who almost duplicated his dad’s victory last month in Houston (wearing his dad’s old helmet), reaching the final round and seemingly on his way to upsetting Matt Hagan before a huge engine explosion ripped the body off the car.
So there you have it, a magnificent seven of Funny Car upsets. There are probably more that I missed, and, as always, I’d be thrilled to hear from anyone who might want to weigh in with others. Thanks, as always, for reading.
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
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