Return of the Funny Car Nationals

By Jim Luikens

Dale Creasy, Jr.
The annual Funny Car Nationals were one of the most popular events at Martin US 131 Dragway during the '70s and '80s. The multiplication of NHRA and IHRA national events as well as the ever-rising costs of campaigning a flopper eventually led to the demise of the event during the '90s. This is the story of the 2005 Bar's Leaks US Funny Car Nationals, where for one night (two actually) it was yesterday once more.
Dale Creasy Jr. US 131 Dragway's Funny Car Nationals was just one of dozens of similar self-proclaimed events when it started in the mid-'70s. Despite a blizzard of similar named events from coast to coast, the one at Martin really took hold. Perhaps it was the track's location, deep in the heart of Michigan, where the fans loved their full-bodied race cars as opposed to the wire wheel (dragsters) cars that were a favorite on the west coast at the time. Or maybe it was the management's willingness to book the top names and cars of the day. Whatever it was, the event grew and grew until only the Popular Hot Rodding Meet, also held at US 131, outshone it on Martin's yearly calendar.

After a popular two decade run the Funny Car Nationals faded from existence at Martin, and elsewhere, because face of racing changed. What didn't change however, was the midwestern fans love of funny cars. When the newly refurbished Martin drag strip, now called the US 131 Motorsports Park, looked at how they might expand their annual racing calendar a nirvana moment occurred. Let's bring back the Funny Car Nationals! We'll start small, provide great fan value and build the event from year to year the (new) track management decided.

Jody Gucwa
With the working plan in place the first obstacle reared its head. What to choose for a date? Unlike the mid 70s, when the NHRA only had eight national events, there were now 23 national events on the NHRA calendar and 12 on the IHRA calendar, which made finding an open date more challenging. Eventually, July 23 was selected because the IHRA was off that weekend and the NHRA was far away, on their west coast swing. The first-year plan was to have two nitro funny cars, an open eight car alcohol funny car eliminator that required qualifying and enough nostalgia cars, nostalgia fuel dragsters and jet funny cars to make even Broadway Bob swoon. If the fans responded there would be more nitro cars the second year.

The appointed day dawned overcast and humid but the fans turned out anyway, and in record numbers to boot. Track management, racers and fans alike were thrilled to see the old girl (the track) looking good and bristling with excitement. There was a buzz and an electricity in the air that can't be manufactured and everyone could hardly wait for the main event to begin, feeling that they were about to experience something very special.

Fran Peplar
Promptly at 7:00 the first pair of Supercharged Thunder racers came to life. For those of you who might not have had a chance to experience this exhibition group first hand, let me tell you that they are something special. All of the racers in the series have supercharged nostalgia race cars, matching uniforms and coordinated autograph cards. The series comes prepared to put on a show with a burnout contest, t-shirt launcher, free t-shirts, free frisbees and even free checkered flags for the little ones. Just as the last of the of Supercharged Thunder cars were finishing their session the sky opened up with some thunder of its own and it began to rain.

It wasn't a hard rain, just enough to dampen the track and suspend racing. The day-long excitement and expectation would have to be put on hold for a bit. After about 20 minutes the sky began to clear in the west and shortly thereafter it stopped raining. Track drying efforts began immediately and the fans amused themselves by talking to the drivers and collecting autographs. It also started to get dark and as quick as the sun came out it started to set. Finally at 9:45, nearly three hours after the originally scheduled start, the cars were called back to the staging lanes. Racing was going to resume at 10:00 and the event was going to be salvaged after all.

Bob Mermys
The staging lanes and the stands filled equally quickly and the buzz returned. What couldn't be seen however was the much larger rain storm that was arriving under the cover of darkness. All of the cars had literally just made it to the lanes when the skies opened up. This time it was no light rain and this time there would be no drying of the track. This time it was hopeless. All that was left was to choose a rain date and call it a night. Because of the aforementioned now-packed racing schedule September 17, nearly two months later, was announced as the make-up date and the huge crowd filed out to wait for another racing day.

How many fans would return two months later was a big question. After all, September is a lot different than July, School is back in session and you have to consider the pull of high school and college football, which are formidable foes for anyone. But US 131's management needn't have worried. The few people who couldn't make it back were replaced with new fans unable to attend the first time around and the track was packed once more.

This time the weather cooperated and the racing was great. Dale Creasy, Jr. defeated John Lawson, driving Dale Creasy, Sr's. Camaro in the Fuel Funny Car match race and Mike Comella overcame Jody Gucwa (pronounced goose-wa), in the Alcohol Funny car eliminator. The 10 Supercharged Thunder nostalgia cars, eight nostalgia front-engined Top Fuel Dragsters and three jet funny cars made sure that everyone had something to cheer about.

Despite a two-month setback the Michigan fans showed that they not only remembered the good ole days, but that they were ready for them to return. Next year's Bar's Leaks US Funny Car Nationals will be bigger and better. You should plan to be there.