Shootout Butcosk 2 9 2024 385
Austin Prock aboard a John Force Racing Funny Car at Bradenton (Fla.) Motorsports Park. (Matt Butcosk photo)

Ride-Hopping From Dragsters To Funny Cars

Austin Prock was thrust into the NHRA Funny Car class in mid-January when three-time champion Robert Hight unexpectedly announced he needed to step aside to address an undisclosed medical issue.

Prock wasn’t overwhelmed. The 28-year-old rising Top Fuel star already had a license to compete in Funny Car and had worked on Funny Car teams with John Force Racing. He knew what to do — and proved resoundingly that he could handle the assignment by banking the class’s $250,000 top prize during the preseason PRO Superstar Shootout.

Prock is far from being the first to change nitro categories. In fact, he’s not the only one to make the switch this year.

Buddy Hull, for personal and business reasons, has hooked up with Jim Dunn Racing, a longtime Funny Car operation. Hull says a Funny Car is far more fascinating, and familiar, to him than a Top Fuel dragster but that his stint as a Top Fuel team owner and driver “was where opportunity was at the time, so I took it. Heck, I may get a phone call in five years and someone says, ‘Hey, come drive my Top Fuel car and I’ll write you a paycheck.’ Well, then I’m going. But if I’m in control, I’ll probably forever and always be in a Funny Car. I feel like I belong in a Funny Car. My body, my frame, fits better in a Funny Car.”

Moreover, Hull said the Dunns “are great business owners. … They’re great at it, the rotation of sponsors that they have, all of it. I can learn from that. They can learn from me. It’s a good match. They handle areas that I don’t want to handle. I handle areas they don’t want to handle. I bring sponsorship to the table. I bring a fair amount of media to the table that drivers in the past haven’t had.”

Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals
Blake Alexander, shown last season, has found success in dragsters and Funny Cars. (NHRA photo)

Hull claims the arrangement “allows me to race more and have more time to run my businesses. So it just works better.”

Blake Alexander, the 18th and most recent driver to win in both nitro classes, said a Funny Car is “just something I enjoy driving, and I think it’s a lot more challenging. They’re a lot harder to drive. In every run down the track, something different happens in the car. As soon as you think you have the Funny Car figured out, it’ll do something different to get your attention. In the Top Fuel car, you really focus on smashing the gas and leaving, and then it goes straight down the track.”

From early indications, Prock might soon become the 19th driver to join the Top Fuel-Funny Car Victory Club, once the NHRA season starts with the Gatornationals at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway.

But not everybody has made the transition as easily as Prock. Even some of the biggest names in the sport have found it’s more complicated.

Shawn Langdon, who has won championships in Jr. Dragster, Super Comp and Top Fuel, had a rougher go than anticipated during his two-year hitch in Funny Car. After qualifying for the Countdown for nine consecutive years, Langdon switched from a dragster to a Funny Car in 2018 and made it 10 straight playoff appearances.

He struggled but finally got the hang of it in 2019, earning his first Funny Car trophy at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. Langdon was happy to return to Top Fuel in 2020 but, while he won that year’s U.S. Nationals, he hasn’t been back to victory lane since.

“I enjoyed my two-year stint in Funny Car,” Langdon told National Dragster. “They’re a bear to drive, and it’s been a big learning curve for me. There were times I struggled with it and times where I felt very comfortable and felt like I was getting the hang of it at the end and had some success. Coming back to Top Fuel has been a big change. It’s everything I learned over the last two years and trying to reprogram my brain.

“Your procedures – warmup, burnout, staging – are all the same, but the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that after you hit the gas, between 100 and 200 feet, the Top Fuel dragsters accelerate so much harder. It can get you mentally behind really quickly,” he explained.

Brandon Welch has never gotten any real traction in the Top Fuel ranks so far after a less-than-spectacular Funny Car stint.

Alex Laughlin is another multi-class racer who didn’t find the switch easy. The accomplished Pro Stock driver competed in seven Top Fuel events in 2021 with a 2-7 eliminations record and was 0-9 in 2022. And he was winless in 21 Funny Car events in 2023.

Todd Bs
J.R. Todd, shown at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, won the 2018 NHRA Funny Car title. (NHRA photo)

J.R. Todd thrashed, too, in his transition from a Top Fuel dragster but won the 2018 Funny Car championship and is a perennial threat for another.

Jack Beckman, the 2012 NHRA Funny Car champ, mastered both classes but never won in Top Fuel.

Through the years, 18 racers have competed in both nitro categories, and 19 have qualified No. 1 in both.

Even fewer have led the standings in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. 

The first of only six to do that were Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme, both in 1991 as they transitioned from Funny Car to Top Fuel, and the most recent was Top Fuel-to-Funny Car convert Todd, in 2018. The only others were Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Gary Scelzi and Del Worsham. Bernstein, Scelzi and Worsham so far are the only ones to record series championships in both nitro categories.

Ron Capps, the 75-time Funny Car winner, started in Top Fuel, where he recorded his career-first victory. Cruz Pedregon drove a dragster in a part-time (12-race) 1991 agenda to kick off his career. Pedregon has made his mark as a two-time Funny Car champion with 39 victories that rank him sixth on the list of class winners.

Terry Haddock has made progress in Funny Car after crew chief Johnny West leaned on him to park his Top Fuel car and focus on one class.

And John Smith concentrates on Funny Cars these days after racing in Top Fuel alongside wife Rhonda Hartman-Smith. They were the first of four married couples to compete in the NHRA pro ranks at the same time. (The others are Matt and Angie Smith; and Tommy Johnson Jr. and Melanie Troxel; with Tony Stewart and Leah Pruett joining that list this year.)

Johnson Jr., a winner in both categories, explained the difference in handling between the longer-wheel-based Top Fuel dragster and the full-bodied Funny Car.

“Funny Cars are all over the place. Dragsters are very subtle,” requiring “really very subtle, very small movements, very finesse movements,” he said. “The Funny Car, you better pull the wheel. You better make a movement with the wheel or it’ll just laugh at you. It will not make a change. It will ignore what you told it. You have to make an aggressive move to make it change direction. It will not change direction unless you force it to change direction, and you got to do that with an aggressive move.

“It’s a little easier in the Top Fuel car,” Johnson continued, “just because the driver’s vision is so much better. Funny Car’s vision is restrictive. The dragsters are a little bit easier. You don’t have the body. You don’t have the windshield. You don’t have the restricted vision,” he said.

He likened the driver’s vision in a Top Fuel dragster to “sitting and looking out your picture window,” as if the view from a dragster cockpit is like “sitting on the front bumper of the Funny Car.” 

In a dragster, Johnson Jr said, “You’re just like, ‘Wow – look at that! I can see everything!’ The Funny Car, you can’t see anything.”

Greg Stanfield, Mark Osborne and Steve Johns excelled in both Pro Stock Truck and Pro Stock, and Antron Brown has three championships and 58 victories in Top Fuel after a successful Pro Stock Motorcycle career. And Chad Green and four-time champion Matt Hagan have powered into the elite clique in Funny Car after mastering Pro Modified.