At 14 years old, Phil Burkart Jr. drove his race on a drag strip at Cicero, N.Y.’s ESTA dragstrip. Now a professional racer and owner of Burkart Automotive, we took an opportunity to sit down with Phil to find out more about life inside and outside the Top Alcohol Funny Car.
You drove on the drag strip at 14! How did this all start?
My father had raced since the early 60s. He was doing it every day with his own cars and with others cars he was working on. He started Burkart Automotive in 1967. It started out as an engine building and machine shop that sold racing accessories and built race engines. And I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Between sweeping floors and doing the menial tasks, at age 12 I put my first engine together. I had done some motocross racing and I had started riding a mini-bike at four – everything came much earlier to me than to most because of my father’s influence.
How did that first race go?
It was a rear engine dragster. We didn’t start off running as fast as we ended up running that year – a 9.70 quarter-mile at 140mph. Over the course of half a year, I got faster. I had a throttle stop which allowed only a portion of the throttle, then half a throttle, then three-quarters of a throttle – I worked up to it as the year went on. My father had a plan for me. Every single year ever since I’ve raced something.
When did you go pro?
I got my license in 1998. I was semi-pro for the 8 years before that. I learned a lot of my skills driving in the Alcohol ranks from 1991 to 1998. And then once I got the license and started driving Nitro funny cars in 1998 until 2014.
How competitive was being a pro?
In the pro ranks nowadays, if you’re not bringing sponsorship to a team chances are you’re not getting the driving job. A lot of the on-and-off throughout the years is either because the team ran out of money through a lost sponsorship, or another driver with sponsorship money came along – it’s been kind of a rollercoaster. There were quite a few years where I drove full-time, had a good team with good sponsorship, did really well and did the full NHRA tour across the country.
When you ran Nitro Funny Cars what was your best result?
I had four national championship wins in Nitro Funny Car between 1999 and 2006.
Explain the difference between regionals and nationals.
In the top Alcohol Funny Car categories we’re able to run for two different championships. We run for a regional championship but points from the region count towards a national championship too. You’d take five races from the regional, and five races from the national and combine your best ten and that’s your national points. You might never run in the same races as other national contenders, but we all got a national ranking and competed against each other for points.
How did you get connected with the Follow a Dream/Permatex team?
I got a phone call out of the blue. Jay Blake is the owner of the car. It took some convincing – I have so much on my shoulders with my family and business – I had to talk it over with them all to make sure we could make it work.
How are things going this season in the 2016 Lucas Oil East Region series?
This year was good. It’s my first year back in Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks since ’98. And while the car is similar looking to Nitro, it’s a completely different driving style and procedure. When we went to Gainesville for the first race it suddenly came to me that it had been 18 years. It took me a few runs to get my feet under me, but it came back to me. We’re number 2 in the region and top 10 nationally right now. The regional point chase is done now so we just missed out on the win. We lead it the whole year, except for the final race at Atco, N.J.
How fast are you going – what’s a good time?
You can be traveling more than 260 mph across the line. For a quarter-mile time, 5.48 is the best we ran this year – that’s also a team best over the past few years. We accomplished a lot this year.
How important is the driver in a top Alcohol Funny Car?
The style of the driver works into the tune-up of the car. You can’t drop a different driver into the car. Then there’s reaction-time off the line of course and in the top alcohol cars there’s a three-speed transmission – so hitting the shift points at exactly the right time is critical and it’s also important to shut the car off at the right time to extend the life expectancy of the engine. An extra half-second running lean past the finish line could blow the engine!
What do you like to do when you’re not north of 250mph on the drag strip?
I have so much going on with family and business. When I was pro racing, my father was here to hold down the business. Now that responsibility is on me 100 percent. It’s taken a few years to get to a place where I’m ready. My family is into it, too. My 14 year-old daughter Santina runs in the junior drag races running with 13 to 18 year olds. She runs the eighth mile in 7.9 seconds. My seven year old is chomping at the bit too! She rides her own four-wheeler right now but can’t wait to get in a car.
What kind of company is Burkart Automotive today?
We still do all the classic and race engine rebuilding, machine work, accessory sales and installation. We do classic car restorations over the winter and we’re also known for heavy-duty diesel work. On top of that we offer standard auto repairs and maintenance too.
What’s the story on the car in the showroom?
It’s a Class B-altered drag car that my father raced from 1969 to 1973. He was successful with it locally and it helped get the word out when he started the business and helped put Burkart Automotive on the map. When he passed away I felt compelled to build a recreation of the car in his memory.
What’s your favorite type of work to do?
I love doing the engine machine work. There’s only one other shop in the Utica area that does it. It’s what I’ve done since 15 years old. We tend to see the older engines. If you have a high performance, antique, classic, or collectible car, truck or tractor then chances are you need us. We have a good reputation for anything from classic and antique car engine rebuilds to high performance race engines – and of course we do drag car engine work and restoration work too.
What’s on the cards for next year at the drag strip?
With a full season of experience, next year should be promising – no reason that we can’t take the regional championship and compete for a win nationally given what we as a team have learned.
Photos: Chris Penree
Words: Matt Wilson