Funny Car Records No Laughing Matter

Other than bragging rights and headlines, being the fastest nitro-burning dragster in the world doesn't count for much in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Winston drag racing championships.

Quickness is the important element. It doesn't matter how fast you run if you don't get to the finish line first.

Nevertheless, when John Force and his Castrol funny car twice bettered the record of top fuel dragsters for speed generated in a quarter-mile from a standing start, it raised eyebrows throughout the sport of speed. The talkative former truck driver from Yorba Linda first ran 323.35 mph at Englishtown, N.J., then came back for the final round to run 323.89--faster than any top fuel dragster had ever run.

How could a full-bodied funny car that was 225 pounds heavier, less than half as long (126 inch wheelbase to 300 inches), with no huge rear wing to create downforce, and much more difficult to handle, create more speed than a streamlined top fuel projectile?

"Look at John's car from the front, you can see how sleek it is, it cuts through the air with a minimum of drag," said Dale Armstrong, who masterminded Kenny Bernstein to the first 300 mph run in drag racing history. "It has less drag than a top fueler. Things stick out all over a top fuel car. But you'll never see a funny car go quicker than a top fueler, and that's what counts. The weight differential makes the difference."

The rewards go to the quickest: elapsed time in drag racing parlance. A look at the elapsed-time records proves the point. Had Force been running side by side with Joe Amato, whose 323.50 mph run the same day at Englishtown is the fastest for top fuel, Amato would have been an easy winner. His elapsed time was 4.578 seconds to 4.845 for Force.

The difference comes in the first eighth-mile. With its big rear wing, a top fuel car puts more power to the ground, gaining more traction and getting it off the line much faster. In the second eighth-mile, Force's funny car is gathering momentum and sweeps across the finish line with more speed, but not enough to catch the top fueler.

"At the 1,000-foot mark, it just took off," Force said. "It was like I was leaving the starting line again."

However, top speed is immaterial. If you can get there quick enough, 250 mph is fast enough. A few years ago, when speeds were nearing 300, the NHRA eliminated bonus points for top speed, but not for elapsed time.

"Yeah, I know going 323 wasn't going to get us any points, but it was something all the funny car guys can be proud of," Force said. "Amato called funny cars 'queens of the sport,' so I guess I'm Queen for a Day. I guess funny cars aren't as funny now.

"Austin Coil, he's the guy I listen to, told me before the second 323 to 'hang on for the ride of your life.' Well, he was right. And now he's telling me and that he and Bernie [Fedderly] and John Medlen are going to give me a car that will run 325.

"I wonder what Amato will think about that? If conditions are right, maybe we'll go for it at Topeka [Oct. 1-4] or the Winston Finals at Pomona [Nov. 12-15]. Wouldn't that be something for the home folks."

Coil has been Force's chief tuner for the last 15 years. Fedderly and Medlen are crew chiefs for cars driven by Force and teammate Tony Pedregon.

INDY RACING LEAGUE

As far as Billy Boat is concerned, Texas Motor Speedway owes him and car owner A.J. Foyt one, and he hopes to collect Saturday night when the IRL runs the True Value 500 on a reconfigured track.

"The whole team [has] a feeling of vengeance," Boat said. "We probably think we have a little bit of something to prove. We feel we won that race last year, we crossed the finish line first, and they gave us second."

Boat took the checkered flag last year and he and Foyt were celebrating in victory circle when Arie Luyendyk appeared, claiming he was the winner. Foyt was so incensed that he knocked (or pushed) the Indy 500 winner down.

Luyendyk was right, however, as U.S. Auto Club officials overturned the result and declared the Dutchman the winner. The goof also led to USAC being dropped by the IRL as a sanctioning body, a chore the IRL took on for itself.

A larger matter of concern is how the track will stand up after having been rebuilt since the Winston Cup race there April 5. Track owner Bruton Smith had more than 200 workers for 14- to 18-hour shifts over 35 days to finish repaving the 1.5-mile oval and install 3.5 miles of drainage piping to eliminate any further seepage problems.

IRL driver Greg Ray tested the surface on its completion and said, "This track is baby-butt smooth."

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After the Indianapolis 500, Foyt claimed that Boat's pole-winning car had been sabotaged the night before the race, although he said that the damage was repaired before the race and had no effect on the car's performance. Boat, after leading the first 12 laps, finished 23rd.

"We didn't really care to talk about it," Foyt said. "You can't do anything about it now. There's just a lot of jealous people out there, and you just don't want to believe that kind of thing happens."

Crew members allegedly discovered a gluelike substance had been poured over parts of the motor and ruined the car's fuel injection system. However, Foyt never reported it to the Indy Racing League.

"I don't know what to make of the thing," said Leo Mehl, Speedway vice president and IRL executive director. "The place is kind of a fortress, so I'm not really sure how that happened."

CART CHAMP CARS

After running six of its last seven races on ovals, the PPG Cup championship series switches to street racing this week with the ITT Automotive Detroit Grand Prix on another reconfigured course at Belle Isle. Of the final 12 events, 10 will be on road courses.

Defending champion Alex Zanardi, already in the points lead, is expected to hold an advantage as he finished fourth or better in last season's final six road course races.

Four turns in the tight Belle Isle circuit have been eliminated to offer more passing opportunities and higher speeds.

MOTORCYCLES

In an attempt to revive interest in flat-track motorcycle racing, former national champion Gene Romero is promoting a series for West Coast riders. The second event will take place Saturday night on Perris Auto Speedway's half-mile dirt oval. Other events are planned for Bakersfield Speedway.

"We'll have some vintage racing too, for fans who remember when flat track was a hot item around here," Romero said. "Our main events will be for 600cc machines and 883 Harley Davidsons. We think Perris will offer the same style racing we used to see at Ascot."

NOSTALGIA TIME

Gilmore Stadium and the Lions Drag Strip are two of Southern California's legendary racing venues, and both will be remembered this weekend with nostalgic tributes.

The Gilmore Heritage Auto Show will take place Saturday and Sunday at the Farmers Market, near where midget racers once roared at Gilmore Stadium. All race cars built before 1960 are welcomed. Details: Bob Lichty, (800) 965-6050.

A Tribute to Lions Drag Strip will be part of the Consumer Automotive Trade Show today, Saturday and Sunday at Carson Community Center. Cars from the Lions era, which raced at 223rd Street and Alameda from 1955 to 1972, will be on display. Details: Christine Hanson, (818) 903-1445.

LAST LAPS

More than 175 drivers and motorcycle racers will converge on Ensenada this weekend for the 29th Tecate SCORE Baja 500 desert race. As usual, Ivan Stewart, racing's Iron Man, will celebrate his birthday by trying to win another Trophy-Truck title. Stewart, who turned 53 Thursday, has won nine overall titles and 15 class events in the 500. The race will consist of one 460-mile loop through the rugged Baja California peninsula with a start and finish Saturday in Ensenada.

Hometown San Diego jet skiers Jeff Jacobs and Victor Sheldon will be among the favorites when the International Jet Sports Boating Assn. holds its Big Red Jet Sports Tour event Saturday and Sunday at Silver Strand State Beach on Coronado Island. Jacobs, of El Cajon, is a seven-time world champion in the pro ski class, and Sheldon, of Vista, has won the first three pro ski races of the season.

Redondo's Bill Auberlen, who drove a BMW to the GTS-3 sports car championship last year, has been rewarded with a seat in a McLaren F1 GTR-BMW for the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend. It will be his first trip to Le Mans.

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