20 Seasons Ago, NHRA Funny Car History Was Made Twice At Same Event


Major speed barriers in motorsports are always considered special if for no other reason than they build to an almost mythical level before finally being eclipsed.  The events are always memorable and most fans remember those record-breaking hurdles more than almost any other history making event.  However, when you combine two monumental barriers being broken within 24 hours at the same race in the same category, well, that event becomes colossal and infamous for ages to come.  And therefore, Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler would forever be etched in the history books together (source: Yahoo! Sports).

Chuck Etchells – First 4-second car (1993)

That’s what happened in the early fall of 1993 at Heartland Park Topeka (HPT) at the NHRA Sears Craftsman Nationals near the capital of Kansas.

Record-breaking track

The HPT facility was fairly new, having opened only four years prior (1989) and included a road course, clay oval, off-road course and the drag strip.  Barrier-busting had happened at Topeka early on with the 1989 NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Gary Ormsby driving his dragster and breaking the 4.9 second elapsed time (ET) plus 295 mph speed records (source: Competition Plus).  The Californian would sadly pass away the following year due to intestinal cancer – the track honored him by naming the main entrance Gary Ormsby Drive.  Some say Ormsby’s record-breaking runs (tuned by an up-and-coming crew chief Lee Beard) at Topeka put the track on the map … or maybe there was more in store.

1992 saw the 300 mph record eclipsed for the first time ever by a dragster when Kenny Bernstein’s Top Fueler broke through the barrier with a 301.70 at the Gatornationals.  Bernstein had been a Funny Car champion from ’85 to ’88 before moving over to Top Fuel.  Leading up to 1993 in the Funny Car ranks was the beginning of John Force’s dominance in the class.  Force had won his first championship in 1990.

In 1993, the defending Funny Car champion was a then 29 year old Cruz Pedregon who drove the McDonald’s Firebird owned by Larry Minor.  Still, Force was establishing himself as the car to beat and to reinforce that thought, Force grabbed the national ET record in March with a 5.04 mark.  In May at Englishtown, Force shaved his ET record down to 5.01.  Most thought the sub-5 second mark would fall soon, but the history making event would have to wait for six more months.

In 1993, John Force was the car to beat but as fate would have it, he wouldn’t break the biggest speed barriers.

Force would continue his winning ways – he won seven of the first 10 events in 1993 – and by the time the series hit Topeka, the championship had been already decided with John gaining his third title in four years.  So the better teams were left with little to run for except meet wins and records.  Again, the ET record was what everyone was eyeing with the speed record still a bit out of reach.

Great conditions

Great track and weather conditions (highs were only in the 60s) would entice the drivers and crews to go for it.  One of the quicker cars was Chuck Etchells, who had won in August at Brainerd and oddly had lost his crew chief to a brain  aneurysm earlier in the year – he replaced him with Tim Richards.  Other than John and Cruz, Funny Car winners that year to date included Al Hofmann, Gordie Bonin and Tom Hoover.  Another driver, Jim Epler, had a small team but he had shown some signs of big speed with track records at Denver and Indianapolis earlier in the season.  No one thought the 300 mph barrier would be broken though.

Yet, Epler put up a huge number in early qualifying with a 299 mph pass.  Ironically, a 4-second club was formed at Topeka instead with Castrol – John Force’s sponsor – putting up $25,000 for the first driver to break the barrier.  However, in qualifying, mechanical issues would spoil any effort by Force to get the money and the record.  Etchells came up shortly afterwards and was going for broke during Saturday qualifying, finally prevailing with a blazingly quick 4.98 in his Kendall Dodge.

Less than a day later during first round eliminations, although temperatures would warm some that day, Epler broke the 300 barrier with a 300.4 mph speed to win with his Rug Doctor Oldsmobile.  As luck would have it, Epler would beat Hofmann in the second round but grenaded his engine in the process, almost burning his car down to the ground.  Etchells would go on to win the meet, defeating Force in the finals.

An incredible weekend was over and a dizzying array of records had been blown away.  In Top Fuel, Cory McClenathan snagged the world record ET during eliminations and then he would lose to Scott Kalitta who had a record-setting 308.64 mph final round to win the meet.

However, the magical day at HPT belonged to Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler.  Forever entwined in history, 20 seasons ago, Etchells and Epler knocked off what will probably be the last of the big barrier records.

Additional source: The Fast Lane : The History of NHRA Drag Racing

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