From dragsters to doorslammers, sportsman categories to professional, Alex Laughlin has buckled into what is arguably a more diverse lineup of vehicles than any other drag racer in his 34 years. But the Texas native shocked fans – and himself – when he announced his move into the NHRA Funny Car category for 2023. In doing so, Laughlin added yet one more class to what is already a history-making motorsports resume.
Laughlin grew up racing go-karts and Legends cars in his youth (and still dabbles in competitive karting in his spare time today), but found his true calling on the dragstrip behind the wheel of a Super Comp dragster. Over the years, Laughlin has wheeled a vast array of other vehicles, but says he’s always had an affinity for dragsters. In addition to his 8.90-index dragster and a Top Dragster entry, he campaigned a Top Alcohol Dragster for several events in 2017. “I’ve always thought dragsters are cool. As a kid, that’s what I was drawn to and wanted to watch.”
Admittedly, Laughlin’s family did help get him going early in his sportsman career, but the family funding fell short when he decided to move up into the Pro Stock and nitro ranks, where it takes anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 to race on a given weekend. “In the pro ranks, it’s a whole other level of expenses, and we don’t have enough to be able to run these types of cars,” explained Laughlin, who is often on the receiving end of criticism about where his funding comes from. “If we had the money, I wouldn’t have been sitting on the sidelines and only running partial seasons in the past.”
Contrary to what the haters believe, Laughlin’s success is a direct result of his skill, both as a driver and as a marketer – he’s never once run a race without a sponsor logo splashed across the side of his entry. He understands the business side of racing, and spends a tremendous amount of time working on the commercial elements of his program, such as sourcing sponsors, managing relationships, producing great promotional content, engaging with fans, and delivering results both on and off the track.
It’s Laughlin’s ability to excel in these areas that keeps the cash flowing from outside sources. “Ashley Sanford once said, ‘it’s not about your net worth, it’s about your ability to network,’” added the enterprising young driver who has scored lucrative deals with big-name brands such as Chevron’s Havoline, Hot Wheels, Powerbuilt Tools, and others over the years.
Thanks to his ability to network, Laughlin found himself racing in NHRA Pro Stock and Pro Modified as well as in the cutthroat Radial vs the World category, among others. Ultimately, he returned to his dragster roots as he made his NHRA Top Fuel debut in 2021. Laughlin only ran a few events each season, though, as he struggled to stretch his tight budget as far as possible.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have sponsor support and funding the last several years, but I felt like my resources were starting to dry up,” shared Laughlin, who had been trying to leverage his connections but candidly confessed he felt like he was getting towards the end of a dead-end road. “Around October of 2022, I was honestly on the edge of throwing in the towel because I didn’t know how I could continue unless some giant opportunity just fell into my lap.”
Meanwhile, Laughlin had also been racing in a handful of “Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings” events and did quite well in that area, too. “I enjoyed every minute of being at those races. It’s more of a grassroots vibe, which I really appreciate, since that’s how I grew up racing,” he noted. “I had all my eggs in the No Prep Kings basket and had even placed an order for a new Larry Jeffers chassis – that’s how committed I was.”
However, just a few weeks after feeling like his NHRA driving days were doomed, in California at the famed Auto Club Raceway at Pomona and on the final day of the final race of the 2022 drag racing season, destiny intervened.
Jim Dunn Racing’s Team Manager, Jon Dunn, invited Laughlin to swing by their pit area to say hello. Laughlin had conversed with several other fuel car teams in the past, but often found their invitations to drive were tied to him supplying three or four million dollars of his own funding, so he wasn’t expecting much from the meeting.
“He was pretty direct and we didn’t talk longer than two or three minutes before he asked if I would be interested in driving his Funny Car in 2023,” laughed Laughlin, who immediately countered and asked if Dunn would consider a dragster instead. The request was denied, of course, and Laughlin took a few weeks to think things over and discuss the opportunity with his family. “Jon said they already had the funding they needed to run, so anything additional I could bring would just help them run better… this was my dream opportunity, just with a different vehicle than I had imagined.”
And so, Laughlin agreed to add a Funny Car to the incredibly diverse list of cars that he’s driven, and the formal announcement was made at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Show in Indianapolis, Indiana, in December of 2022.
“This Funny Car stuff, it’s a completely different animal. I was at home one night after PRI thinking about the decision and reflecting on the fact that I don’t know anything about it,” he laughingly admitted. “So, I got a Cruz Pedregon diecast out of my collection and took the body off his car to look at it and see where the seat was, where my feet would go… this is literally how ignorant I was on the vehicle itself.”
Laughlin spent the next month researching and learning as much as possible about his new “office.” In January of 2023, he headed out to Bakersfield, California, where he sat in a Funny Car for the very first time and ran down the track to obtain his NHRA competition license for the category.
At the NHRA’s season opening Gatornationals in Florida in March, Laughlin made his official Funny Car debut and qualified thirteenth in the sixteen-car field with his 4.012 at 297.75 mph blast down the 1,000-foot racing surface. Although he didn’t get the win in round one of eliminations, he did improve, and made his first 3-second pass in a Funny Car, having gone 3.993 at 320.51 mph.
The following race, the NHRA Arizona Nationals, proved problematic for the rookie as Laughlin faced some unexpected issues. True to form, though, he laughed it off and used each incident as an opportunity to learn and to gain valuable seat time so that he can continue to improve his performance.
“It’s been great to experience all the different nuances within the car,” noted Laughlin, whose ride started to haze its tires near the 700-foot mark in Arizona and took the driver on a tense tour of the track. “The tire started spinning, and I could feel it underneath me…everyone says you have to drive these [Funny Cars] more, and they can take a lot more than you think, so don’t lift. But, I felt it washing underneath me and my brain was processing in fractions of a second that feel like an eternity.”
Facing the left-side retaining wall and thinking he was about to wreck a Funny Car for the first time, Laughlin didn’t expect the wild ride to be recoverable…but it was. “It got sideways just enough that it caught enough drag from between the side of the car and the rear wing that it straightened out to where I could get the parachutes out and salvage the run,” he explained. “It takes stuff like that to happen, though, so you know where the boundary is and how to push right up to it – that’s a lesson I learned from my karting days.”
Easily eclipsing speeds of over 300 mph in less than four seconds doesn’t give a driver much time to acclimate at all, and that’s an aspect of fuel car racing that Laughlin loves. “That speed, that power — it’s not something you ever get used to. Your body doesn’t know how to process it. It always feels new, there’s always that adrenaline rush of feeling like walking on the edge of a cliff,” he stated of how things can go right for a long time but the threat of the unexpected keeps it exciting.
Even something as seemingly simple as gauging when to let off the gas becomes a monumental task at the extreme rate of speed a Funny Car or Top Fuel Dragster can blast through the trap. “At 300-plus mph and climbing exponentially, it’s hard to anticipate it. By the time you see the finish and your brain signals the muscles in your leg to move off the pedal and remove your foot, you could be 200 or 300 feet past. So, instead of going 330 mph, now you’re going 350 mph,” Laughlin added of his experience.
Considering the math: a Funny Car or Top Fuel driver roughly spends only one second per lap at such extreme speeds. In a 20-race season, if they made four qualifying passes and went to every final round at every race, they will have spent just two minutes and 40 seconds at top speed over the course of the entire year. Over a 20-year career, that translates to 53 minutes and 20 seconds – literally less than one hour spent “practicing” at full tilt.
Laughlin scored his first round win in Funny Car at the Winternationals in Pomona, California, coming from behind in a wild affair in the opening stanza after opponent J.R. Todd’s car exploded just before the finish line. His weekend ended in the following round at the hands of Bob Tasca III, but by simply getting to that quarterfinal round, Laughlin officially notched a round win in all three four-wheeled NHRA professional categories.
While Laughlin still has a lot of learning left to do ahead of him, he’s encouraged by the tremendous support he receives from his friends, his family, his sponsors, and his fans. “Ten years ago, I would’ve told you there’s no chance I’d ever even sit in a Pro Stock or Pro Mod car,” recalled the fiercely competitive driver who has since campaigned both, as well as his NPK, RVW, and fuel car entries. “The one thing I wanted to do before I died was just to let the clutch out on a Pro Stock car one time.”
With his transition into Funny Car, Laughlin joins Bruce Larson as the only other driver in NHRA history to compete in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. He also hopes to license on a Pro Stock Motorcycle at some point, in order to check off all four pro categories. And while other drivers, such as Jeg Coughlin Sr. and Jr., Troy Coughlin, Jr., David Rampy, and others have entered as many, if not more NHRA categories in total, the professional level at which Laughlin has raced, both within and outside the NHRA, puts him in a category all his own.
“I don’t think I’ll run any No Prep Kings events this year unless they swing through my local area and I’m off that weekend,” continued the man of how a cameo may be possible. “I also bought a fully-built 2004 Subaru STi rally car and did a race back in December of 2022 which was really cool, so I’ll dabble a little.”
Thanks to the Dunn family’s trust in him, and the tremendously generous opportunity they’ve presented, Laughlin will focus on continuing his career in the NHRA Funny Car ranks for 2023 and dedicating his time to fulfilling his obligations to his team. “I’m so grateful to them for letting me drive. I’ve been really lucky to do what I’ve done,” Laughlin added. “Now, the amount of stuff I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished… it’s above and beyond my wildest dreams.”