No. 19: Ed McCulloch
In 1969, Top Fuel racer Ed McCulloch switched to Funny Cars and won his first time out, and he would continue to win for the next 24 years. During his career as a driver, McCulloch, who currently tunes Don Prudhomme's two Funny Cars that are driven by Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr., won 22 of 49 final rounds -- 18 in Funny car from 1971 to 1991 and four in Top Fuel between 1992 and 1993.
McCulloch, who spent his formative years in Oregon, picked up his "Ace" nickname early in his career when he outran the self-proclaimed "King" of the Northwest, Jerry Ruth. But unlike Ruth, McCulloch began racing all over the country, relishing the constant racing that was available with the new Funny Car class.
McCulloch won the first time he ever raced at the U.S. Nationals in 1971. Before the end of the season, he acquired backing from model-kit maker Revell, and during the next six years with the company, he made the name RRRRevellution famous.
In 1972, sans partner Art Whipple, McCulloch won the U.S. Nationals, Winternationals, Bakersfield March Meet, Gatornationals, Springnationals, and posted a runner-up finish at the Summernationals against Don Schumacher. During that and the following year, McCulloch raced extensively. His more than 100 dates were only matched by two other racers; Jim Liberman and Tommy Ivo.
"I would drive all night and get to the next track just in time to unload the car and race," said McCulloch, who narrowly missed becoming the first racer to win three straight titles at the U.S. Nationals by losing to Prudhomme in 1973. "I loved it.
"I wish we had 30 national events a year," he said 11 years ago when there were only 20 events on the NHRA schedule. "I'm sure I'm the only racer who would like that, but I wish we could race every week."
Today, with 24 events on the NHRA schedule and 16 of them back to back, McCulloch's wish is close to becoming true.
McCulloch began driving in Top Fuel in 1964 and in Funny Car, in 1969, by default. McCulloch, who at the beginning of his career had said that it was the mechanical part of the sport that he enjoyed the most, built a Chevy-powered Top Fuel dragster with his brother, Dan, in 1964. Ed, who had the driving experience, was to make test runs in the car before turning it over to Dan. Their second time out at Woodburn Dragstrip, the dragster ran well; it ran so well that on one pass McCulloch didn't want to lift on the top end despite just touching the strip with the front tires, which caused him to lose his directional stability. McCulloch hit the cinder block at the finish line that supported the photocell, ripped the front axle off the car, and went end over end. That was it for McCulloch; he was through driving.
The next year, with partner Jim Albrich, who also didn't want to drive, they used a hired driver from Southern California. That turned out to be too expensive, so McCulloch got back behind the butterfly steering wheel.
"Once I started driving again, I got the feel, and I had to do it," McCulloch said.
On June 13, 1965, they defeated Pete Robinson at Woodburn for the number one spot on the Drag News Mr. Eliminator list, and they defended the prestigious ranking several times before Robinson won it back a year later.
In 1969, at a booked-in event at Woodburn, McCulloch was again just planning to make test passes with Art Whipple's new big-block Chevy-powered Camaro Funny Car before turning the car over for Whipple to drive, but McCulloch qualified No. 1, won the event, and Whipple never drove.
In preparation for 1970, Whipple sold his Funny Car, McCulloch sold his dragster, and they teamed up to build the first of two Whipple and McCulloch Funny Cars. That first car was a killer for the two unknowns, setting the national records at 7.19 and 211 mph and running two-tenths quicker than the California teams at Orange County Int'l Raceway. Unfortunately for the team, that car and their trailer burned to the ground on the way to the U.S. Nationals in 1970, but Whipple and McCulloch rebuilt for 1971, made it to Indianapolis intact, and McCulloch won his first NHRA national event at the biggest race of the year to kick off a 30-year Professional drag racing career.
The advantage McCulloch enjoyed in the early 1970s, in which he won five of seven finals between 1971 and 1973, dissipated throughout the rest of the decade. For six long years, McCulloch traveled the country trying to get back in an NHRA winner's circle, and he came close. He was runner-up against Dave Condit at the 1974 World Finals; runner-up and winner in Bakersfield in 1973 and 1974, respectively; three-time runner-up in 1976 against Prudhomme; and runner-up at the 1978 Summernationals against Denny Savage.
After sitting out the 1979 season due to a lack of success in the previous years, McCulloch returned for one year strictly as a fly-in driver of the Super Shops Funny Car.
"I thought if you work at something as hard as I had racing in the 1970s, you ought to be successful," McCulloch recalled of his decision to quit after the 1978 season. "Things got tough, and I'd had enough, but once I was gone for awhile, I realized that drag racing was still what I wanted to do."
Prudhomme and Raymond Beadle were dominating flopper racing, winning every Winston title since 1975, but at Indy in 1980, McCulloch ended his seven-year losing streak with his third win at the Big Go when he defeated Tom Ridings on a holeshot. The win proved to be a tease for McCulloch, whose lack of sponsorship forced the 1973 Car Craft Driver of the Year into an agonizing second absence from the sport during the next three years.
Said McCulloch of the years 1981 through 1983, "I really missed it. Sponsors were hard to come by, and my performance had been off for a while. It was getting harder and harder to run quick, and I just got burned out."
By 1984, Larry Minor had just completed a very successful year fielding Top Fuel cars for Gary Beck and himself. He expanded his team with a Funny Car and tapped McCulloch to drive it. McCulloch's dry spell ended immediately; not another year would go by until his retirement as a driver after the 1993 season that he wouldn't appear in at least one national event final round.
Driving Minor's Miller Beer-backed Funny Cars from 1984 to 1991 and tuned by Bernie Fedderly and Dan Olson, McCulloch compiled a final-round record of 12 wins and 17 runner-ups. In 1988, he won the U.S. Nationals and was named Car Craft Driver of the Year a second time.
In 1990, McCulloch won five times in nine final rounds and finished second to John Force, who won his first Winston championship that season. It was the second time that McCulloch finished a significant second to Force; McCulloch was in the other lane at the 1987 Le Grandnational when Force won his first NHRA national event. The 1990 season marked the sixth straight year that McCulloch finished in the Winston top 10, something he would also accomplish in 1991, his last year driving a Funny Car.
In 1992, McCulloch drove Minor's McDonald's-backed Top Fuel dragster, and his first Top Fuel win was his sixth and last U.S. Nationals title. He would win two more times that year in four finals to finish fifth in the Winston top 10.
In 1993, McCulloch won his 22nd and last NHRA national event at the Slick 50 Nationals in Houston, and he followed with a runner-up finish at the Gatornationals to finish eighth in the points standings. At the Chief Nationals, McCulloch became the 12th member of the Slick 50 300-MPH Club after posting a 301.70-mph run.
Also in 1993, McCulloch showed just how talented a driver he was when he competed in the one-off Fast Masters Championship, a road race for drivers 50 years and older featuring Jaguar XJ220s racing on and around the oval track at Indianapolis Raceway Park. McCulloch, 51 at the time, won his preliminary race in the series against a field that included Bobby Allison, Gary Bettenhausen, Bob Aikin, Dick Trickle, Fred Lorenzen, Troy Ruttman, Jerry Grant, Jim McElreath, and Dick Greer.
When McCulloch stopped driving after the 1993 season, he took what he called a "vacation" in 1994, and after the second event in the 1995 season, Dick LaHaie, who was tuning Scott Kalitta in one of Connie Kalitta's two Top Fuel dragsters, asked McCulloch to be the test driver for Scott's and Connie's cars. During the 1995 season, McCulloch took over tuning duties for Connie's car after Dave Settles' departure, and in 1996, he tuned the No. 21 driver on the Top 50 list to two runner-ups.
From 1998 until two races before the end of the 1999 season, McCulloch tuned Connie's nephew, Doug, to two wins in seven final rounds, but at the last race of the 1999 season, McCulloch took over tuning duties for Capps and has since tuned him to two wins in 10 final rounds. Prudhomme added the second Funny Car to his team in 2001, with Johnson as the driver, and "the Ace" has propelled Johnson to one win this year in two final rounds.
For his accomplishments, McCulloch was inducted into the Int'l Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2000.
Yet, despite being so competitive for so many years, there is one thing that eluded McCulloch during his driving career and would like to accomplish as a tuner; a Winston championship.
"The one thing I have to live with, despite having won Indy six times, is that I've never won a Winston championship," McCulloch said. "I still hope I can do it as a crew chief. That would be just as satisfying." - Bruce Dillashaw
Comments from the panel
"The old 'Ace' was a driver with nitro in his veins and the soul of a street fighter. The new 'Ace' is a bit more mellow (on the surface at least), but he's lost none of his fighting spirit as a crew chief." -- Rick Voegelin
"Ed "The Ace" McCulloch is one of those rare drag racing individuals who can and has done it all, from driving, tuning, managing and test work. He excelled in the seats of front-engine Top Fuelers, graduated to Funny Cars and returned to rear-engined Top Fuelers, all with ease. His tuning and crew chief duties are among the most highly sought after in the sport, and he continues to make his mark on contemporary racing." -- Jim Hill