ell, if Jeff Burk has it right, IHRA’s World Finals event at Steve Earwood’s Rockingham Dragway will be the last time any of us see nitro Funny Car conducted on the quarter mile at a Hot Rod Association (HRA) national event. When Scott Kalitta was killed at Englishtown, NJ, this past July, NHRA acted quickly to trim the championship distance in both Funny Car and Top Fuel to 1,000 feet at the next race, the Mile-High Nationals, after the fatal crash. One would think that IHRA would follow suit with something, given the enormity of that call.
And they did eventually, but in typical IHRA fashion, they did it in their own sweet way. The October 17-19 IHRA World Finals event will not only be the last HRA event on the quarter, but the last Funny Car national event for quarter-mile Funny Cars, period. As far as Norwalk goes, “the floppers” have been given a seat on “ole Sparky” (the electric chair in Florida.) While I have some doubts, I don’t think you’ll see quarter-mile Funny Car racing anywhere in 2009, although maybe longtime match-race carnivals like those at the New family’s Firebird Raceway in Idaho or Scott Gardner’s venerable World Series show in Cordova, Ill., might inspire a switch from a grand distance to a quarter… I’d bet against it, there’s just not enough of these races or money to change livery.
So late Sunday afternoon, October 19, when John Lawson got a bye for the IHRA World Finals event title, the drag racing world completed its change of clothes. I don’t know if I would say that the “fat lady” got up to the mike and sang in this case, but she certainly cut a loud fart.
With the exception of the R.J. Reynolds/Winston years, the IHRA Funny Car show had a unique personality. The organization put out the “Open” shingle on April 16-18, 1971, at Rockingham with veteran Texas Funny Car driver Charlie Therwanger, a racer who had had a few good years with late car owner Mike Burkhart, defeating “Butch” Maas in Roland Leong’s “Hawaiian” in the final.
The debut season for IHRA “floppers” consisted of just five races that year with Don Schumacher winning two, and Therwanger, Gary Dyer with Mr. Norm’s Challenger
and Richard Tharp in Harry Schmidt’s “Blue Max” Mustang collecting the remainder of the titles. As can be guessed, this quintet consisted of the very best cars in the class.
The Dyer and Tharp wins gave IHRA immediate distinction in both good and bad ways. The good was truly remarkable. In an unprecedented performance, Dyer set low e.t. (6.70) for both Funny Car and Top Fuel at the Bristol IHRA All-American Nationals, and Tharp went that one better when his final-round winning time over Kelly Chadwick, produced low e.t., top speed (6.88, 210.77) for the entire meet. The best Top Fuel effort was a 6.97, 208.33 by Billy Campbell in Jack Hart’s “Golddigger.” All in all, not bad efforts for a short season.
The only bad thing in this five-race jaunt was it didn’t say much for the level of competition in Top Fuel. A Funny Car outrunning a fuel dragster was unheard of in those days.
Obviously I’m not going to go year-by-year with this shrail, but IHRA right up and through the Winston years had quality Funny Car shows. In 1972, Tharp pushed the “Blue Max” to a generally accepted first 6.30 with a 6.37 final-round win over Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega to win the Dallas IHRA Longhorn Nationals, and in 1974 IHRA ran its Southern Nationals at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the eighth-mile, an event that by all intent was unprecedented. That season also marked the first time IHRA crowned a Funny Car World Champion, Ron Colson in the “Chi-Town Hustler,” despite having two full seasons in ’72 and ’73. Sorta weird.
In 1976, R.J. Reynolds/Winton cigarettes began its sponsorship of the IHRA tour, and throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s the IHRA events almost mirrored those of NHRA in quality and even in size to a degree. About the only difference between the pair in that regard was that IHRA president Larry Carrier didn’t like the military services advertising at their races, so Don Prudhomme (Army) and Tom McEwen (Navy) didn’t participate with IHRA until the mid-1980s.