A SIMPLE APPROACH HAS MADE FUNNY CAR CHAOS AN OVERWHELMING SUCCESS
Chris Graves isn’t one to beat around the bush. He knows he’s uncovered a winning formula, and he’s not going to deviate from it or allow others to spoil a good thing.
“I tell these guys, ‘This is not a drag race, you’re putting on a show. Your dragstrip is not a dragstrip, it’s an entertainment facility,’ ” Graves said. “You’ve got to have the right mentality about doing all this stuff. It’s a whole lot more than just a drag race.”
What “it” is, is Funny Car Chaos, a run-whatcha-brung flopper circuit whose fourth season begins March 26-27 at the Texas Motorplex. There are 61 cars entered at this point, prompting Graves to create four separate fields of competition. More about the races within a race -- the A and B eliminators (and C and D at the Motorplex) -- in a bit.
Funny Car Chaos rules are minimal. In a nutshell: the car must pass tech inspection; the driver must have a Funny Car license; the car must have a Funny Car body.
The rest is a choice left to each team.
Any engine combination is kosher; any fuel; any power adder. That means nitromethane-fueled cars square off against alcohol-fueled powerplants. Ditto for body style: ’57 Chevy Bel Air bodies face off against late model Dodge Chargers, or ’70s Trans Ams, Corvettes and Monzas, or ’80s Plymouth Arrows, and on and on.
As for the show, the series “highly encourage(s) the safe and responsible practice of long, smoky burnouts, dry hops, staging duels, back-up girl demonstrations, qualifying-round call out 'grudge' races, interactions with the crowd, etc.”
Funny Car Chaos was spawned in September 2017. After he put on a show called Match Race Madness at the now-shuttered North Star Dragway in Denton, Texas, Graves decided to put on an open Funny Car race at the same venue.
“I was booking in some nitro stuff, some Funny Car stuff, and we were getting close to spending 25-30 grand on getting good cars,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I can get more cars if I have a $25,000 purse and any FC can come run for it.”
And that’s what he did. Two dozen cars showed up, and Mark Sanders of Maple Valley, Wash., won the event for the cars that competed in the A Field.
Given his immediate success, Graves upped the ante in 2018 with four races. In 2019, he doubled the itinerary to eight. Last year, even with the COVID pandemic ruining racing across much of the country, Funny Car Chaos still presented eight shows. That’s the same number in place for 2021, though Graves could have scheduled several more events.
“We could have 20 races a year if we wanted to. I turn down tracks all the time, from East Coast to West Coast to Canada,” Graves said. “I can’t stretch these guys out any more than they are; eight, or 10 at most. We’re not going to go to Washington or Maine or Florida, or Bakersfield because my guys are from the Midwest. Will we do an exhibition race under the Funny Car Chaos brand there for cars that’re in that area? Absolutely -- but they will not be part of the championship point series.
“Most of these guys are from the Midwest, from Houston to Iowa. Travel is expensive, hotels are expensive, maintenance is expensive. I have no desire to run 20 races a year. That’s half the reason NHRA is so behind the ball. They’ve got way too many races, it’s too much racing in one weekend, it’s costing way too much to do it before they even start the car.”
All the teams participate in three qualifying sessions to produce an eliminator called A and B fields. The quickest eight face off in the A field, and nine-16 go head-to-head in B. The competition in A is open, no-limitation competition.
In the secondary field, a limit of two-tenths of a second quicker than the No. 9 qualifier’s best time becomes the barrier; i.e., a car can’t run quicker than that time, all in an attempt to prevent sandbagging. Example: a 4.40-second qualifying time by the No. 9 driver generates a 4.20 barrier. Going under that established number in eliminations hands the win to the other driver.
“The A field is obviously for the big boys. You wanna run Top Alcohol, you want to drive an 18-wheeler, you want to burn nitro, that’s your class,” Groves said. “If you want a big-block Chevy that you cool down and put oil and fuel in it, that’s your B car.”
Interestingly, all drivers earn points that are applied toward the championship, no matter their qualifying position or field. The winner of the B field earns the same number of points as the A winner, which allows a driver with a slower car to have just as much of a shot at the seasonal crown as the quickest car. That’s how three drivers utilizing big-block Chevrolet engines finished in the top five in the 2020 points chase.
That title fell, as did the inaugural crown in 2019, to Ken Singleton of Chickasha, Okla. A four-time national champion as an alcohol drag-boat racer, Singleton always harbored dreams of racing a Funny Car, but assumed he wouldn’t have the way or means to see that dream to fruition.
Singleton’s crew chief in boat competition from 1999-2003 was Ronnie Stidham, whose brother Jackie retired from drag racing in 2007 after lassoing five NHRA Div. 4 Top Alcohol Funny Car titles. In ’13, Singleton bought Jackie’s Funny Car roller to set the stage for racing a car for the first time in his life. He put an altered body on the chassis, and he and Bob Raber fielded an outlaw altered from 2014-17.
That’s the time Graves launched Funny Car Chaos, and Singleton decided to go that route to satisfy his lifelong dream.
“Nobody on my crew was wanting to do that. They were like, ‘Why do you want to screw this up?’ ” he said. “I’d always wanted to run a Funny Car, and there was a Funny Car body sitting in my barn that would fit” the chassis.
The inaugural season of Funny Car Chaos, Singleton attended three of the four races, and won them all: Mo-Kan Dragway in Asbury, Mo.; Amarillo (Texas) Dragway; and North Star. In 2019 -- a season that produced six winners in eight races -- Singleton scored a win at North Star and copped the first Funny Car Chaos championship. In 2020, he won twice at San Antonio, as well as Kearney, Neb., and Amarillo, to defend his crown in the “High Risk” entry.
Singleton runs a Brand Anderson TA-1 engine with a screw blower on VP Fuels’ M5 alcohol. He says it’s “very similar” to what propels many, if not most, outlaw Pro Modified cars. It’s a combo that has allowed him to beat plenty of nitro-fueled cars, including the famed “Blue Max” piloted by Ronny Young.
So in a short stretch of 2½ seasons, Graves has proved that his format works for himself, his racers and the fans. What was it that convinced him Funny Car Chaos would work so successfully, so quickly?
The Midwest, he said, is chock full of Funny Cars that had very limited options for places to race -- until Chaos was born.
“The whole point to Funny Car Chaos is a grassroots approach where it’s a more budget-friendly option. A guy can build his Funny Car the way he wants to build his Funny Car, not the way the rulebook says he has to build his Funny Car,” Graves said. “That’s why we have a wide range of engine combinations, body styles and budget levels, and with the A-B fields, you can be a big-block Chevy guy running 4.40s and absolutely win the Chaos championship.”
Graves helps ensure Chaos is financially viable for his competitors. An entry fee of just $100 covers admission for a driver and four crewmen, and the payout is distributed more evenly. Instead of offering $15,000 to win and a chump-change $500 for a first-round loss, for example, Graves’ A-field payout is $5,000 to win and $1,500 for a first-round exit.
Those numbers helped make it worth the teams’ time and money to pursue, and they undoubtedly helped produce more than enough cars from the first event of the four-race 2018 campaign.
Then there’s Graves’ choice of venues. The 2021 opener at the Texas Motorplex is, by far, the most high-caliber track Chaos will have visited, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Graves is perfectly happy promoting shows in smaller markets at mom-and-pop dragstrips, and in giving the fans something of a throwback look with cars that have names, not sponsor logos. Among the entrants are cars such as Man O’ War, Bad Company, Dragon Slayer, Brutus, Detroit Tiger, Bucket List, Shazam, and Passin’ Gas.
“We cater to the small racetracks. These small racetracks need these shows. We go to racetracks where you don’t see nitro cars, ever. Amarillo, Odessa -- there ain’t no nitro cars running at those tracks unless it’s us,” Graves said. “We stand alone as kind of their ‘national event’ every year. Those are the racetracks we aim to race at.
“I have no intention of competing at multiple NHRA national-event facilities, that’s not what our platform’s going to cater to. But going to the small tracks for the grassroots racers and giving these track owners a big event like this to get their big annual boost, yeah. We’ve got to keep these little grassroots boys alive or we’re all screwed, y’know?”
Not only is a smaller facility good for business, it’s part of what levels the playing field given the wide range of cars that race Chaos events.
“A lot of the racetracks we run on are kind of hometown little tracks, not national-event tracks,” said Singleton, a 54-year-old pipeline welder. “An alcohol car, in my opinion, works better on those tracks than the Motorplex. At Ennis, a fuel car can use that track, and there’s no way you can make an alcohol car run with a nitro car. But at other tracks, we’re pretty much on an even playing field. They can’t apply all that power, but we can.”
Graves said, “We have some really, really fast tracks and some mediocre, marginal, 50-year-old dragstrips like Amarillo Dragway or Mo-Kan or Odessa. Those are all old racetracks, they’re bumpy, and they may not have all tire rotators and gizmo crap that you see at a national event.
“You can bring as much power as you want to the starting line, but you’ve got to make it hook across all the tracks we go to, and that again caters to the lower-powered cars at some events. You’ve got to go A to B, and I’ve seen plenty of double-pump, big mag, gorilla-looking cars come to these races and struggle because five or six thousand horsepower ain’t going to work at some of these tracks.”
The dearth of high-traction, nitro-friendly tracks also helps the less-powerful cars remain competitive on a budget. Graves is determined to make sure that remains the case, as it’s one of the underpinnings of the circuit’s success -- its appeal to the blue-collar racer.
“These are not professional drag racers, they’re firefighters and diesel mechanics and they go to work,” he said. “They take off days of employment on Thursday to get to the track and race Friday and Saturday, then go home on Sunday, and they’re at work on Monday morning.
“A lot of these guys literally keep their cars in their personal house garage. They don’t have shops. They’re storing trailers at storage facilities. These guys are as grassroots as you can get. We’ve got a guy who tows his car on an open trailer. The whole point is they can build a car to their budget, then run it as soft or hard as they want it so they don’t tear stuff up and still be competitive with the format.”
Chaos “is affordable for fans and racers,” Singleton said. “Chris don’t have a lot of overhead, it’s mostly him and his wife, Tera. That guy’s a salesman. You talk about a promoter, that’s Chris Graves.”
Funny Car Chaos isn’t Chris and Tera Graves’ lone involvement in drag racing. They also run the Outlaw Fuel Altered Association, and several Chaos competitors swap their Funny Car body for an altered’s to race those events. They’re promoting the ninth annual Pro Mod vs. Altered Showdown at the end of June in Ferris, Texas, and a new event, Nitro Chaos, at Eddyville (Iowa) Raceway Park on July 30-31.
Not only that, they race front-engine dragsters when they have the chance. Tera drives a dragster for Darrell Walden, and Graves and his father campaign their own car. Tera has also piloted a nostalgia nitro Funny Car several times, and she won the last Drag Racing Online Nostalgia Nitro Challenge race at Tulsa, Okla., in 2017.
“She’s a hell of a driver,” said Dale Pulde, who wheeled the famed “War Eagle” entry to three IHRA championships.
The Graveses have helped accelerate growth with a blend of past and present, using social media such as Facebook to help spread the word as well as employing a very old-school approach.
“We do a lot of grassroots, door to door stuff,” he said. “We send hundreds of flyers to each track and hang them up on gas station windows. Social media is king on marketing, as everybody knows, but … we’ll hang banners all over town and put flyers up and send stacks of coupons to big factories in town.
“There’s no reason why old school don’t work. It’s pretty simple stuff, you’ve just got to do it. Most people don’t do it because they’re too lazy. You’ve just got to do it, man. You’ve got to put the effort forward.”
And as Funny Car Chaos has taken off, it has caught the attention of sponsors such as Best of Texas barbecue sauce, Red Line Shirt Club and Spell Painting Services to help keep the action going.
“Fifty-five cars participated last year, which brings the total since Funny Car Chaos started to well over 70. We’ll have almost 100 by the time we get done with this (Motorplex) race in March because we’ve got about 13-14 coming that’ve never raced with us before,” Chris Graves said. “It’s kinda crazy, my phone rings all day long, people wanting to come, get involved, or just to say ‘thank you.’ ”
2021 FUNNY CAR CHAOS SCHEDULE
March 26-27 - Texas Motorplex, Ennis, Texas
April 23-24 - Amarillo (Texas) Dragway
May 14-15 - Penwell Knights Raceway, Odessa, Texas
June 4-5 - Eddyville Raceway Park, Oskaloosa, Iowa
June 11-12 - Kearney (Neb.) Raceway Park
July 9-10 - Kansas International, Wichita, Kan.
Sept. 3-4 - Mo-Kan Dragway, Asbury, Mo.
Oct. 1-2 - Alamo City Motorplex, San Antonio, Texas
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