A Funny Car is a funny place to find a woman.
But Carol Henson of Alexandria and Carol (Bunny) Burkett of Sterling, Va., have been racing them for years.
"Being a girl in this class is just great," said Burkett. "Fans still don't believe women race these cars, especially at the small Southern tracks. They just flock to the tracks to see." Which accounts for the fact that she gets more invitations to race than she can accept.
"People come to stare and stare, just to see if you're a girl," said Henson. "Well, I get pretty dirty racing, so when I get out of my car, they know I was driving."
What the fans come to stare at is the women strapping on what amounts to a slingshot of a car. The car bodies are light plastic or, in some cases, ordinary sedans, hiding a supercharged engine.
The women drive Class BB class funnies, which burn alcohol and flash down the drag strip at a neck-snapping 200 miles an hour. The only things quicker are the nitro-powered AA cars and the all-out fuel dragsters, which consist of nothing more than a high-powered engine bolted onto a pair of skinny rails.
Nationally, there are no more than about half a dozen female funny car racers. There are more women in slower classes of drag racing, but few who have succeeded like Henson and Burkett.
Henson's fun began 10 years ago when she was 22. She got tired of watching her then husband drag racing, so she took her own Corvette to a strip. "I won a trophy my first time out and have been racing ever since, the last three years in Funny Cars."
Her present husband, Dennis Whitestone, encouraged her and does the mechanical work on her car with the aid of Woody Hatten. With their help, Henson became the first woman to race in the BB Funny Cars and the first to break seven seconds for the quarter-mile. Her fastest top speed is 199.8 miles per hour.
As Henson points out, "There is no quick jump from novice to pro" in this sport. Her record in the slower stock and super-stock classes, then the Funny, earned her a chance to qualify for the Eastern pro tour. "Men have to prove they can handle the speed, and so did I," she says putting to rest any thoughts of antifemininism.
She qualified and now races regularly with a group that travels from strip to strip, much like tennis players, putting on high-speed, lose-and-you re-out meets. After a fifth-place finish in the 1975 point standings, she placed second last year. Many experts rate her second only to national champion Shirley (Cha Cha) Muldowney today.
Burkett, who is 30, admires her. "I hope to do as well as she one day. I've been in a Funny Car two years and learn something new everytime I race it," says Burkett.
Her career began with her husband, Oliver, taking her as a spectator to drag races. Then he helped her get on the track by building a basic stock racer. In 1971, Henson, Burkett and six other women drivers packaged their own show and for three years toured the strips racing against each other and men drivers.
"Those earlier years in stock cars helped me get used to increasing speed," says Henson, "but that was about all. I had to learn an entirely different technique for Funny Cars," a point with which Burkett fully agrees.
Her present machine is a Chevrolet with a Chevrolet engine that, she admits, is not fully competitive with the popular Chryslers. "It has to be tuned to the limit just to stay even with Chryslers which may be less powerful," she says. A new aluminum engine has been ordered and the saving in weight may help make up the handicap.
The car was built around Henson.The only concession to her sex was to use buttons rather than levers, which require "a lot of pull," to shift gears. "It really requires more finesse than strength to drive because the front end is so light when you go down the strip," she feels.
The Ford Mustang body of Burkett's car covers a Chrysler engine maintained by mechanic Bill Barrett, the "brains" of the team that includes husband Oliver as crew chief."We don't tune it to the ultimate to save it," she explains. "We don't have the money for an aluminum block. I figure the 250 pounds our car is over the minimum weight limit costs me three-tenths of a second every race. I'll have to overcome that by improving my driving."
Both women are mothers and both work to help support what is still a hobby. Henson is a waitress at an Alexandria restaurant and Burkett an office manager in Arlington. Both enjoy some commercial sponsorship but not enough to allow them to race fulltime. Henson, the daughter of a naval officer, has "Go Navy" lettered on her car to help recruiting but receives no payment for it.
"We've spent $53,000 on parts and other pieces the three years I've raced the Funny Car," Henson says. "Our average annual income is about $20,000 but that doesn't make it a profitable operation because other costs eat that up. I could run every week, lose out in the first or second round, and make a profit. But, that wouldn't being doing what I set out to do and that is to win."
Racing mostly on the tough pro circuit, Henson went to the line 45 times last season. She plans to reduce that schedule this year although she now gets a guarantee just for "staging" (appearing at the start) her car. "We worked our butts off to run that hard," she said. "It's a seven- to eight-hour-a-day job."
Burkett figures there is now about $35,000 invested in her car. "We were able to open its own bank account for the first time last year," she adds. Frankly promotion-minded, Burkett accepts as many personal appearance dates as she and her husband can manage between the 40-50 race meets and match races they book for themselves. At $100 a day for appearances and $600 for a match race, Burkett must pass up many meets although she is aware these events are where reputations are built.
Burkett has an extensive wardrobe of bright jump suits to wear when not encased in her 30-pound racing suit. There was a time when hot pants and micromini-skirts were her standard equipment, says Burkett. But the cheescake days, she says are long past.