Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters both gulp $30-a-gallon nitromethane, both breathe fire, and both reach 260mph in two and half seconds and 300 in less than four seconds. But they're completely different beasts, of course, from the way they accelerate to their engine position to their vehicle weight to how they're driven.
“A Funny Car you have to manhandle more,” says Tony Schumacher, a one-time Alcohol Funny Car racer and the most accomplished Top Fuel driver of all time, with a record 59 NHRA event titles and six championships, including the last five in a row. “It's absolutely critical to keep a Funny Car in the center of the racetrack, and they can get out of the groove a lot easier because they're shorter.
But a Top Fuel car requires so much more finesse. It's more of a fine-tuned machine. You cannot move the steering wheel without un-aligning the bottom and top framerails, so it's really easy to upset the balance of the car. Every little move you make basically starts a chainof events.”
Dragsters have a much longer wheelbase – 300 inches, compared to 125 inches for a Funny Car – weigh less and, as hard as Funny Cars move, accelerate even faster.
“To me, the biggest difference between Funny Cars and dragsters is the unpredictability of a Funny Car,” says Capps, who has more wins this year than anyone in the category, is the third-winningest active driver, and is one of the few to have known success in both disciplines. “In a dragster, you almost know – it's practically guaranteed – that when you hit the gas, the car's going to go straight – at least for a while. A Funny Car might go instantly left, might go right, might even happen to go perfectly straight. And, of course, there's the view, that big engine in front of you and that limited visibility only heighten the anxiety. Whenever someone who's never sat in a Funny Car gets in there, they always think we're crazy to drive them because you can't see anything out of them. But any driver who used to race a dragster and now drives a Funny Car never switches back to Top Fuel. There's nothing like a Funny Car. Nothing.”
But no matter how fast a Funny Car is, a dragster is even faster. Funny Cars reach 265mph by the eighth-mile mark and just short of 310mph at the finish line. Dragsters are going 280 at the eighth-mile and approach 320 in the traps. They're so fast that you almost don't dare steer them.
“Jerking the wheel to keep it in the groove like you do in a Funny Car starts a dragster doing weird, scary stuff,” Schumacher says. “Guys who come from Funny Cars to Top Fuel always turn it sideways on their first few runs – the cars just react too quickly for what they're used to. Dragsters like a lot of quick, small movements on the steering wheel – not big ones. They won't take a lot of steering input. That just unloads the chassis and puts too much weight on one rear tire, and that's not what these cars were ever meant to do. Capps got in my car one time in testing, and you could read the name on both sides of it from the starting line. ‘You're never getting me back in that thing,' he said.”
“I drove it one time at Topeka the week after Tony had set the ET. and speed records, just to keep my Top Fuel license current,” Capps says. “I already knew how guys oversteer dragsters when they've been in Funny Cars for a long time, so I held the wheel with just two fingers so I wouldn't make any big moves, but the car was all over the place anyway. I'm used to the clutch coming in and just parking you in the seat at a certain point, but a dragster does it in half the distance. It feels exactly the way Gary Scelzi told me it would: like the whole rear end housing is trying to drive itself right up your butt and through the rest of the car.”
Top Fuelers may be faster, but they don't dive for the wall unexpectedly at any point on the track like Funny Cars do when a cylinder goes out. So which one's harder to drive?
“I can't imagine anything being harder than a Funny Car,” Capps says. “No matter how long you've been driving one, it still scares the crap out of you every time you do it. You never have that thing under control. It can dart around at any point on the track. Way down there, way after you think everything's OK and you're just going for the parachute lever, it will make a violent move toward the wall or the center line. You can have both hands on the wheel with it turned as far to one side as it will go, your wrists crossed, and it still won't come back until you lift.”
“I wouldn't say a Funny Car's any harder,” Schumacher concludes. “Funny Car guys all say that they're harder to drive, but I don't know. A dragster may not be quite as difficult to get to the other end, but it's harder to drive one well. Nothing's ever moved as hard as a Top Fuel dragster, and nothing ever will.”
This article originally appeared in the October issue of RACER magazine as part of our Nitro Special section on the NHRA Full Throttle Series. To purchase an issue, click here.