Former NHRA national-event-winning Funny Car driver Al Hofmann, a longtime fan favorite despite his take-no-prisoners exterior who gave John Force his most serious championship challenges in the mid-1990s, died March 20 of a heart attack at his home in Eustis, Fla. He was 60.
Hofmann, who won 15 times in 32 final-round appearances, was a regular in the NHRA top 10 from 1991, when he finished seventh, through 1996, highlighted by a five-win 1995 campaign in which he finished second in the standings to Force. He finished third in 1992 and 1994 and fourth in 1993 and 1996.
Hofmann suffered a major crash at the 1997 Gatornationals that sidelined him for much of the season, but he returned near season's end and won in Dallas and ultimately finished 13th in the standings. He returned to the top 10 in 1998 with a ninth-place finish and scored his last tour victory in Memphis that year. He finished 13th in 1999 and 2000. His last final-round appearance was at the 2001 event in Bristol, and he finished the year 16th. He competed in just three races in 2002.
In addition to his national event victories, Hofmann won the Winston Invitational in 1991 and 1993 and the Budweiser Shootout in 1992, 1994, and 1995.
Hofmann was the second Funny Car driver to exceed 300 mph. He recorded a run of 301.10 mph Feb, 19, 1994, in Phoenix to become the 13th member – and only one of two Funny Car drivers – of the Slick 50 300-mph Club.
Hofmann, who was born and raised on the East Coast, began to race seriously with a modified '55 Chevy in 1968. Said Hofmann in a 2007 interview, “Like a lot of other guys, I did some street racing at first but soon realized that it was too dangerous. So I took my car to a sanctioned race at the local track and won the C/Gas class my first time out. That got me hooked right away.”
Al Hofmann's Blower Drive Service machines were tough during the mid-1990s, routinely giving world champ John Force great challenges.
Hofmann first gained national prominence with his often entertaining and sometimes flammable China Syndrome Vega.
Hofmann's 1997 season was derailed when he suffered serious injuries in a fire and crash that occurred as he crossed the finish line as the winner of the 1997 Gatornationals. He was sidelined until late that season.
There weren't many cars that Hofmann couldn't manhandle to his will.
Hofmann's '55 Chevy soon gained the nickname Hang ‘em High because of its bumper-scraping wheelstands; it was followed by a big-block '57 Chevy that he labeled Rat Poison.
He then teamed with a friend who had a '67 Camaro from Baldwin Chevrolet. Said Hofmann, “We ran a Booth-Arons-built 417-cid engine and ran in the B/MP and C/Gas classes during the mid-1970s. It ran in the 9.30s and was pretty competitive.”
After driving the series of doorslammers, it appeared that Hofmann was heading for a career in Pro Stock, but his desire to go even faster made him aim higher. “I decided that I wanted to go Funny Car racing,” said Hofmann, "so I sold my construction business in 1978 and bought out the entire Radici & Wise Funny Car operation.”
With the purchase, Hofmann was ready to go with his Plueger chassis, Vega body, and 484-cid Keith Black engine. The only thing he lacked was Funny Car racing experience. Said Hofmann, “When I got home, I didn't even know how to start it. I had to have a friend of mine with an alcohol car help me do that. So I went out to California and spent three months with Sid Waterman, and it was the best thing I could have done at the time. He wanted me to be a hands-on racer, not just a driver. So he had me take the engine apart and put it together about 10 times. He felt it would help my driving if I had a better mechanical understanding of the car.”
After he earned his Funny Car license, Hofmann began match racing on the East Coast and made a couple of trips to Australia, where he raced for three months each time. “Those trips were a good thing for me,” said Hofmann. “Not only did I win a couple of championships, but I got the chance to meet the people from Blower Drive Service from Whittier, Calif. They thought I had some potential and backed it up with $100,000 in sponsorship funding. That may not seem like a lot, but it certainly was for a small, independent company. That allowed me to hire Tom Anderson as a crew chief, one of the best moves I ever made. It was impossible for me to do both the driving and tuning by myself, and Tom had a lot more experience anyway. We ended up winning a lot of races together.”
Hofmann won his first two national events in 1991, in Dallas and Pomona (second event), then three in 1992. He acquired major sponsorship backing from Western Auto in 1994, which set the stage for his dream season of 1995. On top of the five national event victories, he won the Winston Invitational and Budweiser Shootout in Indy and scored runner-up finishes in Denver and Topeka (second event). Of his rivalry with Force, Hofmann said, “That was a fun time. We played it up for all it was worth.”
In July 1996, Anderson left the team, and the Western Auto sponsorship ended that year, too. Hofmann appeared to have regrouped when he won the 1997 Gatornationals with the backing of Pontiac and rookie crew chief "Jimbo" Ermalovich, but a fiery crash in the shutdown area left Hofmann with a broken arm. The accident stripped him of his newly regained momentum, but he did finish the year with a victory in Dallas.
Hofmann ran with the support of GM Performance Parts through the end of the decade and was hired to drive Jim Dunn's Mooneyes car for the 2001 season. Said Hofmann, “Jim and I got along great that year, and I still love him today. We never had a disagreement between us, but there were a lot of distractions, and we failed to qualify nine times.” Hofmann left the team after the 2002 Gainesville race and never competed again.
After Hofmann stopped drag racing, he began an auto-restoration business and worked on Corvettes and a variety of street rods. Said Hofmann in 2007, “I sold the business last year and am effectively retired at this point. I bought a motorhome and took a trip all over the country with my wife, Susie, who is Johnny West's sister and a former worker on the NHRA Safety Safari team. We're just two old racers, riding around together and having a good time. We stopped in California and enjoyed visiting with Jim Dunn and the people at BDS.”
Services for Hoffman will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday March 25 at Jeremiah's/McGregors 501 N. Highland Ave (old 441) Mt. Dora, FL. In lieu of flowers the family has asked for donations to DRAW.
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