For the past fifteen years, I have dedicated my life to the sport of drag racing as a photographer, race reporter, and participant. My wife and I spend every weekend from mid-January to early December at a drag race somewhere across this great country. In addition to serving as President of the Southwest Heritage Racing Association, which is the largest and most rapidly-growing independent drag racing series in the Southwest, I also find the task of hosting large, single events very intriguing. After five years of success organizing and promoting the annual Pro Mod vs Fuel Altered Showdown each summer in Texas, I decided to challenge myself on an even bigger event.
Funny Cars are without question the most entertaining vehicles to ever take the starting line at a drag strip. For decades, they have entertained spectators with their ill handling unpredictability and aggressive style. When funny car lays down a full track burnout, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. That’s what drag racing is all about. We needed to bring Funny Cars back to the main stage in the Southwest, and make it big. The challenge was clear, host a Funny Car race that appeals to both the racers and the spectators like nothing we’ve seen since the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Since that time, smaller eight car shows and two- or four-car match races were all fans and racers had. It was time for a legitimate, mass appealing, large, well-paying and Funny Car event. Thus, Funny Car Chaos was born.
Knowing the amount of Funny Cars not only in the mid-west but across the country, I was sure we could certainly attract sixteen cars to make the tow to North Star Dragway in Denton, Texas if we didn’t require them to fit a certain rules profile and we paid them decent money for their efforts. When I announced Funny Car Chaos in December 2016, I had no money or sponsors, just a date, a track owner who gave me a chance. Over the next six months, I spent tireless hours hunting sponsorships, and after lots of time on a calculator, I knew I had to get the payout announced to make these racers know this was for real. A group of local teams had confirmed interest, and after the announcement of a $25,000 payout, we subsequently attracted the attention of several out of town teams. My title sponsor and biggest supporter, Randy Ranew and the Red Line Shirt Club, played a huge role in getting me to this point.
Holy cow! Now I’ve got 25 cars pre-entered into this race and was only planning on qualifying 16. Back to the calculator, let’s figure out a way to let all these teams who are willing to dedicate their time and money have a chance at a first round and be part of the show. The format was finalized with an elite eight top qualifiers making up the ‘A’ field and remaining nine through twenty four qualifiers slotted into the ‘B’ field of sixteen, qualifying twenty four cars total. With the format and payout set, 25 teams pre-entered and sponsorship commitments higher than I’ve ever raised before, it was time to promote, promote, promote. Could term “Funny Car” be enough to attract people to the event? Who doesn’t love a Funny Car, right?
Fast forward to the week of the race, and my cell phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I literally carried battery packs in my pocket to keep my phone from dying. Teams started arriving on Tuesday. What? You only see things like that at the U.S. Nationals or the March Meet. A dreary forecast for Thursday and Friday had me nervous, as we had test sessions, pre-parties, and lots of action scheduled. Thankfully, we were blessed with a dry Thursday night, and the pre-party went off better than expected. The local restaurant had to quit taking food orders at one point because the kitchen was so backed up. After talking with the owner, more alcohol sales were recorded through the register since the opening of the venue in 2013.
We were off and running at 6:00 am Friday morning, and I was starting to feel the anxiety. After all the hype, I had better deliver the goods with the next two days of drag racing. A steady drizzle hung over North Star Dragway until just before noon,then the track staff took charge to dry the quickest eighth mile in Texas for a 2:00 test session for Funny Cars.
With 22 tech cards turned in at the drivers meeting, all the racers knew they were “in the show”, however, three of the pre-entered teams were unable to make it. We had it all at Funny Car Chaos: nitro cars, alcohol cars, new body styles and old body styles, heck, we even had a ‘topless’ Funny Car. Several teams took advantage of the open rule book and made changes to their engine combinations, choosing to bolt on bigger fuel pumps, more powerful magnetos, etc. It was like Funny Cars on steroids!
With such a wide assortment of cars, some who run regularly and some relative novices, I knew we’d face some losses as parts failure took its toll. Testing went well, Mark Sanders ripped off a stout 3.72 elapsed time, which proved the track was ready to hold whatever these cars wanted to throw at. At 8 p.m., we fired the first pair of floppers to officially kick off Funny Car Chaos qualifying. This was the roughest, longest, most challenging session of twelve pairs of cars I’d experienced in my life. Midway through the session, the most iconic Funny Car to ever call Texas home, the “Blue Max”, came to the line with driver Ronny Young lined up against Marc White in the “Crop Duster” from Illinois. At that moment, I quit breathing for several seconds.
At first, it was with disbelief that I was hosting a drag race that included “Blue Max” which is, in my opinion, the most badass Funny Car to ever see the face of the Earth. But after a 3.82 at 192 mph pass from Young, I heard a series of throttle whacks at the top end that was far from normal, followed by the ambulance lights coming to life as the safety crew rolling onto the track.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get as an event promoter when something scary happens to one of your racers, one of your friends. I had no choice but to get down to the top end and see what had happened. Upon arrival, the first thing I saw was Ronny Young standing in the sand trap with a look of disgust on his face. Thankfully, Young was completely uninjured, but the famed flopper suffered race-ending damage, possibly with a bent frame. Young went into the sand trap after a late chute deployment kept the car from making the final turn off. I shook his hand and expressed my relief that he was alive and well, so thankful for that opportunity. After repairing the net system, we were back in action.
Two pairs later, the dreadful, full-track oil down showed it’s ugly face. So, the staff was back at it, with mops and dry sweep and starter David Strickland manning the scrubber machine. After an hour of delay removing the “Blue Max” from the sand trap and repairing the catch net, another hour of oil clean up ensued, flat lining the momentum we had built to this point. By this time, I already had cars in the lanes ready for their second qualifying pass, but still had six cars left to run in the first qualifying session. Schedule? Throw that out the window. After discussions with the remaining drivers and teams ready for their second shot, we agreed to run as long as the track stayed safe. Thankfully, the evening dew we commonly get never materialized, and those die-hard fans stuck around for one of the most impressive Funny Car runs I’ve ever witnessed.
John Hale lit up his Guy Tipton-tuned “One Bad Texan” to kick off the second qualifying session with a burnout that literally kept the rear tires blazing to the mile per hour cone at the eighth mile. The crowd went wild! Hale finally came to a stop well past the scoreboards, then backed up and brought it to the line. The green light dropped and Hale blasted off the starting line like a rocket, flames dancing from the pipes. The scoreboards lit up with a 3.77 at 194 mph to qualify number two. Wow, what an epic pass! Hale qualified behind Mark Sanders’ 3.68 at 205 mph which led the sheets with one more session remaining on Saturday afternoon.
With Friday a thing of the past, the task at hand was to rebound with a stellar effort on Saturday and that goal was met with flying colors. Plenty of sunshine, temperatures in the high 80s, the front gate flowing with cars and the parking lot filling up, things were looking good. I always try to make sure the events I host provide continuous and flowing entertainment. An arsenal of between round action filled the pits past the normal parking area and almost to the first turn off at the top end of the track. We crammed 125+ trailers in the facility made up of match racers and exhibition machines like K.C. Jones, who was pulling double duty driving both the “Crazy Train” wheelstander and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” jet dragster. Howard Farris was in the house determined to break the 3.53 track record with the “War Wagon” AA/Fuel Altered. John Robinson had his turbo diesel powered dragster on hand among many others. Capping off the show, the Dirty South Gasser series brought back the old school vibe with more than thirty five participants lined up for the Beat The Heat World Finals held on Saturday.
All remaining Funny Cars had a solid spot in the field, so I expected maybe just a few to come up for the final qualifying session. To my amazement, almost every car found a spot in the lanes and were eager to take the track as the stands were literally filled to capacity and spectators were four and five deep on the fence past the scoreboards. Let’s fire ‘em up!
The final qualifier went off with just one oil delay, and it was now time to compose a ladder. With the assistance of my loyal announcer David Rattan, we put together the field and made copies, then I hopped on the scooter to deliver a ladder to each team. The original plan was to host a pre-race parade of cars, but to make up time, I hesitantly scrapped that part of the show, preferring to make up lost ground on my timeline and have this event completed at a reasonable hour. As a promoter, photographer, spectator, whatever, nothing gets under my skin worse than racing at one or two in the morning in front of empty bleachers on a subpar racing surface. So with the parade scrapped, the call went out for the first round of Funny Cars to head to the lanes, it was time to pair them up and let them ride.
Announcing is a crucial part of hosting any form of entertainment, but especially drag racing. Thankfully, I’ve got a dedicated team behind me including David Rattan in the announcer booth and my long time staging lane director Justin Haas, who also handles the lanes for the SHRA nostalgia series. With this team combined with the hard working staff at North Star Dragway, we were ready to go as Justin sent the first pair to the water box.
The first round saw several upsets, especially in the ‘A’ eliminator as John Hale and Marc White suffered first round losses after qualifying in the top half. Watching from between the lanes on the starting line, directly behind the starter, let me tell you, the nitro fumes were thick and plentiful during the ‘A’ field. A lifelong nitro junkie, it just didn’t get any better than that! ‘B’ field contestants held their own with some great side-by-side racing as we cut the fields in half and teams returned to the pit area for servicing. K.C. Jones did his thing in the wheelie car and jet dragster, the Dirty South Gassers kept the front wheels up on their exhibition runs and rounds were underway in the Beat The Heat program. We had the ball rolling now.
Being the “guy in charge” means you are the one who deals with all the random stuff that happens. I’ve seen more than my fair share of unexpected issues, but thankfully only a few incidents were reported over the weekend. One young spectator whacked his head open on the bleachers running unsupervised between the frame work of the bleachers. An adult spectator took a rolled up t-shirt to the eye from a race team shooting t-shirts into the crowd with an air cannon, bad aim I guess. Those issues were easy to resolve. A few years ago at an event I promoted called “Match Race Madness” we had breaker boxes overloaded and on fire, the water well ran dry and we had to use cases of bottled water in the burnout box, we even lost power to one side of the track lighting system, so a couple bumps and bruises were easy to manage.
Before I knew it, we were into the finals; where did the time go? I felt as if we just held first round an hour ago, but it was now 11:30 p.m. and final round cars were in the lanes. Mark Sanders and Keith Jackson would square off in the ‘A’ feature while Andy Mears and Jordan Ballew were up in the ‘B’ field final. Wait, don’t forget to notify all the photographers and videographers of the fireworks show set for the conclusion of the final round. We had wired a system down the side of the track in both lanes, set to go boom as the ‘A’ field final round went through the finish line. Fireworks ready, media members notified, track clear, let’s crown some winners!
The ‘B’ field was up first with Mears and Ballew coming to life. Mears in a 1957 Chevy entry branded “Dragon Slayer” from Lubbock, Texas and Ballew rocking the 1969 Chevy Nova “Ballew Thunder” tuned by his father Russell. Both personal friends of mine, both great race teams, this one was going to be fun. The ambers dropped and they were off. Side-by-side they charged to the finish line, where Mears’ 4.76 at 144 mph narrowly defeated a 4.77 at 145 mph from Ballew in the closest drag race of the event (.021 margin of victory). Yes! A great side-by-side final round is always what you want to see.
The big boys were up next. Keith Jackson was a funny car racer I grew up watching as a kid on family vacations to Bandimere Speedway for the NHRA Mile High Nationals, his hometown race in his time running NHRA Funny Car. The disbelief that this man was now racing in an event I was hosting in Texas was shocking enough, but to think he might win the event was simply thrilling. Mark Sanders was the last team to pre-enter, notifying me just the week before that they had planned on attending. Sanders had shown no mercy thus far: top qualifier, low elapsed time, top speed, but a thrash in the pits had ensued when the rods decided to exit the block on the “Mr. Explosive” 1970 Ford Mustang entry. Son and crew chief Jake Sanders led the team into battle with a new bullet between the frame rails as both cars pulled into the waterbox. Crew members hung the starters on the front snout of their blown nitro powerplants and gave the nod, we’re ready, crank em’ up.
Nitro fumes pumped from the pipes high into the sky as the bodies dropped and burnouts were underway. This race was a toss-up. Sanders had been quicker, but the newly installed engine always causes a bit of uncertainty. On the line, crew chiefs made their final adjustments and sent their drivers into the beams. That wicked sound when fuel cars put it on the high side (engage the second fuel pump) will straighten the hair on a nitro junkie’s arms, mine for sure. A flash of amber and the green lights were on as Jackson took a slight starting line advantage. They looked, from my vantage point, glued together at half-track, and I could see Jackson drifting towards the guardrail while Sanders also had his hands full keeping his hot rod in the groove. Both were out of the throttle right before the finish line as Sanders’ win light came on with a 4.12 at 141 mph to Jackson’s close 4.25 at 154 mph, both surprisingly off pace, but with the win going to Sanders and company as the team celebrated on the starting line after their thrash to make the call for the finals paid off.
The fireworks went off- well, most of them did- as the fans started making their way towards the exit and preparation for the winners circle festivities began. Typically I’m the guy lining up the cars in the winner’s circle area, making sure every person in the group is visible to the camera lens, but this time I was the guy handing out the cash, jumbo size check, and custom-designed trophy. For racers to come up and tell you this is the most fun they’ve had in years means a lot. Thankfully, I got that from a lot of the participants and sharing the winners circle photo with these teams was a special feeling I’ll never forget. Everyone was going home safe, the racing was very exciting, the stands were packed, and that’s a wrap, Funny Car Chaos was in the books.
I’d like to personally thank North Star Dragway owner Gene Nicodemus for believing in my vision and giving me the opportunity to make reality of this crazy idea. Secondly, my wife Tera, who was the only person who kept my sanity in this process and poured hours of help into making it happen. Finally, the sponsors and racers, without their involvement no drag race was possible and it is with their support that brought this event together. Thank you all.
A weekend filled with unknowns, triple checking of every piece of the puzzle, answering countless questions, making sure everyone was in place, ensuring your racers and spectators were having fun, it was all worth every second. From back up girls to header flames, the Funny Car teams put on a spectacular show, and my sincere thanks goes out to each team who trusted me in this effort. Not a single driver expressed any issue with the event, and to my surprise, every single team made sure to tell me before they headed home, “I’ll be at the next one!”
I guess that leaves me no choice. Let’s do it again! A few months prior to the inaugural Funny Car Chaos, I had already reached out to a few tracks in hopes of securing a second date for 2018, set for some time in the spring, while keeping a permanent home at North Star Dragway for a fall race. Amarillo Dragway is where I’ve chosen to take Funny Car Chaos 2 and we’re gearing up for a bigger and better edition of this flip top frenzy at one of the most historic drag racing facilities in the country. So look forward to more folks, as we charge ahead full throttle into next year where we will again pack the pits with Funny Cars, it will be, Funny Car Chaos!
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