Last month, nitro racing veterans Richard Hartman and Tim Wilkerson accomplished something no other man or woman ever had before on the 1/4-mile: a 4-second, 300 mph run by a fuel altered, clocked during the Funny Car Chaos season opener at Ennis, Texas. Man and machine combined, it was arguably the most performance-capable such vehicle to ever roll to the starting line, utilizing a modern fuel-burning engine and driveline package in the hands of two of the sport’s best minds.
The numbers are certainly material, but at the same time, they aren’t — fans love these short wheelbase cars, and to watch and feel this one shake the ground, burst their ear drums, and hike the front wheels at half-track on its 1,320-foot march (not 1,000), they would have roared with delight whether it went quicker than 5.00 and over 300 or not. Their Summit Racing Equipment-backed car looks fast sitting still, and while the sport has traditionally always referred to a nitro-burning, open wheel, front-engined car as an “altered,” it’s really a Funny Car with the wings of a Top Fuel Dragster, and a barely-identifiable representation of an early model body draped over the cockpit — a point which brings me to my question….
To preface, this is an entirely hypothetical conversation, but could Hartman’s and Wilkerson’s creation (and the “War Wagon”, which also went over 300 mph) serve as a viable alternative, a hybrid of the Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car, in the future?
We certainly choose to keep a positive mindset about the state of big-show nitro racing, but the harsh reality is that the number of active big-show cars in the United States in either category has been dwindling since, well…ever, and the trend suggests that may continue. Some events are a car or two short of a full field, and that’s cause for concern if you’re the NHRA. If or when the car counts were to reach a number such that 8-car fields become a possibility, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the NHRA to contemplate combining the two classes into one. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea now, as one class rather than two would go a long way to increasing payouts (a single class of competition, it should be noted, is why NASCAR, IndyCar, et al, can pay out more, among other factor$). And that’s where the altered — the perfect blend of two very different cars — comes in.
Think about it…
For Top Fuel racers, the altered is, in some ways, safer. Yes, the engine is out in front rather than behind, but the largely sealed cockpit and canopy system employed by the Don Schumacher teams could rectify much of that issue. However, a 125-inch wheelbase Funny Car chassis eliminates the concern of a car bowing up at speed, breaking, and striking an immovable trackside object or entering the spectator areas. And while dragsters will always be cool, I think most would agree that altered is on a different level.
For Funny Car racers, there’s immense cost savings. A state-of-the-art Funny Car body is expensive….we’ve heard $30,000, we’ve heard $70,000 — split the difference, and you’re talking 50-large for a shell that is one bad tune-up, one wayward intake or exhaust valve, away from being shredded into a million pieces. Even with a minor engine failure, you’re splitting the body open and faced with an expensive repair bill to patch it back together. As such, teams always need at least one spare, if not two, and that’s a lot of dough. The primary downside to this concept for the Funny Car racers would be figuring out how to integrate and retain sponsors like Dodge, Chevrolet, and Toyota, on a racecar that doesn’t even have faux headlights or grille.
Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Car have raced side-by-side before (with a staggered start), and while there’s a 2-3 tenth of a second disparity between them, it’s plausible they could again if it came to that point. But, that doesn’t solve the safety, the cost savings, or the car count elements. A single open-wheeled racecar — one that looks like a zany Hot Wheels creation, hikes the front end, wanders around the racetrack, and poses a unique challenge to a driver — does, though.
What are your thoughts: could a Funny Car/dragster mashup be viable? Would you miss the traditional floppers and diggers, or does a winged altered meet and exceed your threshold of “cool”?