Bunny Burkett - A Classy Lady

By Jim Luikens

Next season will be Carolyn “Bunny” Burkett’s 40th year in organized drag racing. She never envisioned having a drag racing career while growing up in West Virginia. Then she met Mo Burkett, a roomer at a boarding house that her mother operated, and her whole life changed. This is the story of 1986 IHRA Pro Funny Car World Champion Bunny Burkett and her 39-year odyssey in drag racing.

Bunny was born Carolyn Ruth Hartman in 1945. After her father left when she was 2, her mother and stepfather moved the family to Chantilly, Virginia when she was 13. There her mother ran a boarding house for the workers that were building the new Dulles Airport.

One of her mom’s boarders was Mo Burkett. He started dating Bunny when she was 15 and their early dates were spent driving on the partially built runways of Dulles. There he taught her to drive fast, including bootlegger turns, in his 1955 Mercury, an ex-revenuer’s model that was capable of hitting 145 miles-per-hour. The speed made quite an impression on young Carolyn.

One of their first dates also involved the drag races at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Virginia. Bunny thought that drag racing was one of the most exciting things that she had ever seen and vowed on the spot to be a part of them some day. Needless to say, Mo was less convinced that drag racing was a part of their future since Bunny didn’t even have her driver’s license yet.

Mo and Carolyn eventually married when she turned 16 years of age. A year later she had their first child, a girl, at age 17. One Thursday when she was 19 they purchased a 1964 Mustang. Just 24 hours later she was competing in the car at Old Dominion and, actually won her first race. Proudly grasping her first trophy she knew then that her life’s calling had been identified.

During this period of her life she supported her hobby as a self-taught payroll clerk. Her three-day a week schedule earned her $85.00 doing the books for a friend’s tree service company and left her with long weekends where she was free to race. She was a regular competitor at famous East Coast tracks like Budds Creek and Aquasco. During one period she won 22 of 23 races with her only loss coming from a self-inflicted red light.

The Mustang also served as daily transportation for the Burkett family. When it was rear ended by a drunk driver it burned to the ground. Sadly, the Burkett’s had no insurance to cover such a loss. What they did have by then was a second child, another girl. Bunny had carefully planned the pregnancy so that their daughter was born in the off-season so as to not interfere with her racing.

Surveying her options, she took a job briefly as a hostess in the former Playboy Club in Baltimore to earn the money to buy a new car. She saw the Playboy club as a classy way to earn quick money. After working the better part of a year there she had saved enough money to pay cash - $3895 - for a new 390-powered Mustang. When she bought the Mustang her bunny career was over and her drag racing career resumed but not before she had earned the Bunny moniker that she carries to this day.

Since Bunny is someone that gets bored if she doesn’t continually improve her performance she was always chasing speed with the Mustang. The 390 was replaced with a larger 427 cid Ford engine and the single carb gave way to dual carbs. Soon she was running 10 flats at 140 miles-per-hour.

Impressed by her performance Tom “Smoker” Smith invited her to join his all-female Miss Universe of Drag Racing circuit. The Miss Universe program was basically a match race with a dial-in format. At least eight female drivers, plus a back-up, participated in each event. All featured long hair and wore miniskirts and boots when they were not in the car.

Looking to improve again Bunny sold her Mustang and bought a 1973 Ford Pinto that was configured as a Jr. Pro/Stocker. She raced this car often and had her first accident when she crashed at Roxboro, North Carolina. The parachutes wrapped around the wheelie bars and triggered an eight-barrel roll crash. Her only question for the first rescuer to reach the car was, “did I win?” “Ya lady you did” was the reply from the astonished track official.

The Burketts repaired the Pinto and went on to race it three more years. Despite being a cantankerous ride Bunny was able to coax 9.30s at 160 miles-per-hour out of it. When she heard that her old buddy Tom Smith was looking for alcohol-burning funny cars for the match races that he was promoting Bunny traded Drake Viscome her complete Pinto for a Mustang II Funny Car rolling chassis.

The Mustang II funny car started a string of alcohol racers for Bunny that continues until this day. A 1981 and then a 1984 Corvette, both pink, followed in succession. Meanwhile, Bunny had also continued to advance in the business world and was by now the Vice-President of an office supply firm with seven retail stores.

In 1986 the team made the decision to go all-out in racing. A local speed shop owner became involved and the team ordered a brand new Dave Uyehara car and Brad Anderson engine. When Bunny won the IHRA event at Darlington the team got caught up in the IHRA points chase. Bunny had a very successful season and went on to become the first IHRA female Funny Car World Champion.

The team was nearly as successful on the NHRA tour in 1986 as Bunny won the Keystone Nationals as well as the NHRA Division II season title. She finished a strong 4th in NHRA national points to go along with her IHRA championship and her Keystone National Event win is still the only Alcohol Funny Car win ever by a female driver.

After a split with her partner in 1988 Bunny and her team spent most of the next decade match racing with only an occasional foray into national event competition. An incident on Labor Day in 1995 nearly brought, not only her career, but also her life to an end. Bunny was racing Carl Ruth at Beaver Springs Dragway in Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania when Carl crossed over into her lane at over 200 mph. He hit her in the rear end and sent her car careening over 100 feet into the woods.

Bunny, who had to be resuscitated three times on the way to the hospital, spent over a week in intensive care. Her arms, legs, and portions of her vertebrae were broken. A year and a half later, however, she was racing again. Her first racetrack appearance was at Budds Creek where she match raced Damian Moore in Junior Dragsters. “I was never supposed to drive a Funny Car again," says Bunny. "But they never said I couldn't drive a Junior Dragster."

After she started walking again Bunny worked by booking funny cars for Nick Boninfante. She took her empty truck and trailer to the track and sold souvenirs from it to raise money for another race car. Although Mo was reluctant to see her race again he eventually relented. In the spring of 1997 she was released to drive after she successfully passed a blindfold test to prove that she still knew her way around a driver’s compartment. A 228 mile-per-hour pass showed that she could still find the finish line as well.

Since then the team has been grateful for every passing year and their ability to continue to compete. They have had to overcome many obstacles in recent years, both on and off the track, and their dedication has never wavered.

Having come this far Bunny is determined to complete her 40th season next year. What happens after that is yet to be decided but Bunny is convinced that she will still be out there in some form, either as a driver or car owner. Bunny has had to overcome many obstacles in her life and she has always done it with class and grace. There is no doubt that future chapters will be written in the same style.