No. 10: Dale Armstrong
Dale Armstrong won 12 NHRA national events with a series of alcohol-burning dragsters, altereds, and Funny Cars during the 1970s, but the 1975 Winston Pro Comp champ and former national Funny Car record holder is perhaps best know for his mechanical prowess.
As crew chief for Kenny Bernstein, Armstrong was the architect behind four NHRA Winston Funny Car championships in the 1980s and drag racing's barrier-breaking 300-mph run in 1992. Four years later, Armstrong made history again when Bernstein won the Top Fuel championship, becoming the first and only driver to win Winston titles in Top Fuel and Funny Car.
As one of the sport's great innovators, Armstrong was the first Funny Car crew chief to use wind-tunnel testing and data recorders. He also is credited with the development of the lockup-style clutch, dual-source fuel-delivery system, and dynamometer testing for nitromethane-burning racing engines.
Armstrong's storied career began long before he joined Bernstein's Budweiser King team in 1982. His first serious racing effort came 20 years earlier when he was living in Canada. Armstrong, born in Holden, Alta., campaigned a Chevrolet Z-11 in the B/Factory Experimental class. The aluminum front-ended machine, the quickest of its kind in NHRA's Northwest Division, ran consistent 11-second e.t.s at 115 mph.
A few years later, Armstrong moved to Southern California and began running a Chevy II in local bracket competition. Armstrong, seeking more of a challenge, converted his Chevy II into a Funny Car, which he called The Canuck. Powered by a blown small-block Chevy, the car made its debut in the winter of 1966. After a blower explosion lifted the car's roof, Armstrong continued to run it as a roadster and was surprisingly successful. The car was one of the first Chevy-powered vehicles to dip into the eight-second zone, and it eventually ran a best of 8.89.
In 1969, Armstrong campaigned a Super Stock Camaro in SS/C trim. Equipped with the popular 375-horsepower 396-cid Chevy, the car ran a best of 11.19, just missing the existing class record of 11.16 that Bill Jenkins set.
Following rides with the Travelin' Javelin and Tom Strum's Swapper Funny Cars, Armstrong jumped into the Injected Funny Car circuit that was gaining popularity on the West Coast and was instantly competitive with his '73 Barracuda. But it wasn't until the advent of Pro Comp in 1974 that his career took off.
Teaming with longtime friend Ken Veney, Armstrong made the most of his new opportunity and won the season-opening Winternationals with Veney's A/Fuel Dragster by defeating none other than Veney in the final. Armstrong also won the U.S. Nationals in 1974 with Jim Foust's AA/Altered, and in 1975, he was Pro Comp's dominant force.
Armstrong, driving Foust's Alcoholic BB/Funny Car, outdueled Veney for the 1975 Winston Pro Comp title, winning the U.S. Nationals and World Finals. Along the way, Armstrong became the first to break the 6.7-, 6.6-, and 6.5-second barriers.
Armstrong won eight more national events in his last three years in Pro Comp, including the U.S. Nationals in 1977, before joining the Funny Car ranks in 1980. Though he never reached the winner's circle, Armstrong's short stint in Funny Car produced three final-round finishes and an NHRA national record. In his final Funny Car appearance, at the 1981 World Finals, Armstrong wheeled Mike Kase's Speed Racer Dodge Omni to a national record 5.891. Ironically, it was Bernstein's 5.90 mark that Armstrong broke.
Armstrong and Bernstein joined forces the following year, and in 1984, things seemed to take a qualitative leap for the better for Bernstein, who until then had won only four NHRA national events. It was in late 1983 that Armstrong took a new Ford Tempo body, put it into the Lockheed/Marietta wind tunnel in Georgia, and came up with some modifications that led to the first 260-mph Funny Car run. At the 1984 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Bernstein ran a 5.80 at an all-time-best 260.11 mph in the final to beat John Collins. Bernstein went on to finish third that year, but his Budweiser King Tempo was clearly ahead of its time.
In 1985, Bernstein's Armstrong-tuned Tempo was virtually unbeatable. In a season comparable only to Don Prudhomme's 1976 championship effort, Bernstein racked up six national event wins, reaching the final at nine of 12 races. He also set the national record twice.
The Budweiser King team continued its dominance in 1986, winning five times and reaching the final eight times in 14 races. Bernstein's Tempo also qualified No. 1 eight times and set low e.t. 10 times. At the U.S. Nationals, Bernstein qualified No. 1 with a 5.50 at 271.41 mph, the first 270-mph Funny Car run. He again made history a month later at the Chief Nationals in Dallas, where he qualified No. 1 with a 5.425, the first 5.4-second Funny Car run. Armstrong's tuning expertise also was instrumental in Budweiser teammate Darrell Gwynn's national record 5.261, 278.55 in Top Fuel.
Armstrong and Bernstein continued their histrionics in 1987. Driving his controversial Buick LeSabre-bodied Budweiser King, Bernstein won his third straight Winston title and equaled Don Prudhomme's record for wins in a season with seven. At the Winston All-stars race, Bernstein's Buick recorded the first 5.3-second Funny Car run, a 5.39.
Though the Buick body was the most visible edge the Budweiser King team had in 1987, it wasn't the only one. In the areas of fuel delivery and utilization of the two-stage lockup clutch, Armstrong genuinely had the rest of the competition covered.
"It was a combination of things Dale had going at the time," said Bernstein. "The Buick LeSabre body was a big help, especially on the tracks that weren't outstanding. That, and Dale's horsepower, really got us off to a flying start."
Armstrong led Bernstein to his record-tying fourth consecutive Winston Funny Car title in 1988, equaling Prudhomme's mark of four straight from 1975 to 1978. Though Bernstein didn't dominate, his Armstrong-tuned Buick Reatta won three times in six finals, qualified No. 1 five times, and set low e.t. six times. It also was the second Funny Car to run quicker than 5.3 seconds with a 5.295 at the Winston Finals in Pomona.
After a third-place finish in 1989, Armstrong and Bernstein moved to Top Fuel in 1990 and a year later tied the class record for victories in a season with six. But perhaps their greatest achievement came in 1992 when they fired drag racing's proverbial shot heard 'round the world.
Using an advanced cylinder head and magneto combination, developed with Wes Cerny, Armstrong tuned Bernstein's Budweiser King dragster to the sport's first 300-mph run with a 4.823 at 301.70 mph during qualifying for the Motorcraft Gatornationals in Gainesville. Bernstein's historic run also was the quickest in history.
"Being the crew chief on the first car to run 300 means more to me than any national event win or any Winston championship," said Armstrong. "There isn't any question at all. People will forget what years we won the Winston championship, but they'll never forget when the first 300 was run and who did it."
In 1994, Armstrong felled the 310-mph barrier at the season-ending Winston Select Finals in Pomona, where Bernstein ran 311.85 and 314.46. Two years later, in another display of speed, Bernstein ran 318.96 mph at the Chief Auto Parts Nationals in Dallas en route to becoming the only driver to win Winston championships in Top Fuel and Funny Car.
After nearly 16 seasons, five Winston championships, 48 national event victories, and countless performance records, Armstrong and Bernstein parted company in 1997, ending drag racing's longest running relationship between a driver and a crew chief.
Armstrong joined Don Prudhomme's Miller Lite Top Fuel team at end of the 1997 season, and in 1999, he added to his legacy when Larry Dixon piloted Prudhomme's dragster to the sport's first 4.4-second run, a 4.486, at the Matco Tools SuperNationals in Houston.
Armstrong returned to Funny Car racing in 2000, joining Jerry Toliver's World Wrestling Federation team, which last year led the Winston points race as late as August before ultimately finishing third.
Armstrong has been named to the Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team 10 times, and in 1997, he and Bernstein were recipients of the magazine's lifetime achievement award: the Ollie. Armstrong also is a member of the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Comments from the panel
"He'd make the list on his own driving accomplishments in the Pro Comp era, but Kenny Bernstein's budget gave him the resources to dominate Funny Car and expand the performance envelope with his clutch and fuel system innovations." - Rick Voegelin
"He did for crew chiefs what free-agent pioneer Curt Flood did for professional sports by becoming the first high-dollar mechanic, establishing the pay scale standards for the Austin Coils and Bernie Fedderlys of today." - John Jodauga
"Few have driven in the Sportsman and Pro ranks with such dominating success. Even fewer have wrenched others to such accomplishments." - Don Gillespie
"Continuously a contender at the highest levels of drag racing since the mid-1960s. Self-made. Arguably created more significant innovations than anyone (including Garlits)." - Dave Wallace Jr.
"Single handedly changed the face of racing for mechanics and crew chiefs." - Dave McClelland