In 1990, which doesn’t seem like that long ago until you break out your mental calculator and do the math, former Funny Car driver and current crew chief to the stars Johnny West rode out one of the most horrifying crashes in drag racing history. And he lived to talk about it.
West, an underdog competing in his low-budget “Banzai” entry, had captured everyone’s attention as the upset story of the NHRA Summer Nationals on that hot, summer day, taking down No. 1 qualifier K.C. Spurlock, heavy-hitter Mark Oswald, and a tire-smoking Tom Hoover in the semifinals to advance into the final round, where he’d face fellow budgeteer racer Chuck Etchells. Neither driver had ever won a professional title at an NHRA national event, making this pairing a story in and of itself.
The Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, now headed into its 47th year, is one of the drag racing’s most historic facilities, and it remains as one of the quickest, fastest, and safest racing surfaces in the sport. But it’s had more than its share of sheer misfortune – incidents that could’ve happened anywhere – and that final round in 1990 ranks as one of those.
Just beyond sixty feet, fluid under the rear slicks of West’s Banzai flopper causes it to take a hard right turn into the guardrail with an impact so severe that it knocked the Chandler, Ariz. native unconscious. What transpired was a scene of horror, as the battered Funny Car continued down the right lane, picking up speed the further it went. By the time West reached the vantage point of the top end cameras, it became clear that this was a runaway situation. In a scene that’s graced virtually every “And They Walked Away” and other crash-filled highlight video since, West’s entry struck the guardrail at the end of the racing surface, catapulting the chassis into the trees in a fiery impact. Despite the sudden an ferocious head-on hit, West escaped with only minor injuries. Soon after this incident, West took his talents from inside the drivers seat to out in front of a race car, becoming one of the sport’s most well-respected and tenured crew chiefs.