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Divine Intervention Powering Burkart Jr. At Firebird?

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 23 2013

Phil Burkart Jr. may be taking his final ride this weekend in Arizona.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

YORKVILLE, N.Y. – Phil Burkart Jr. is well-aware his 2013 NHRA Funny Car schedule could end this weekend at Firebird International Raceway, throttled by a lack of sponsorship. Even if that’s the case, Burkart will savor a two-race stint made possible by car-owner/chassis builder Steve Plueger…and perhaps Phil Sr.

Cold-turkey, Burkart qualified 16th for the season-opening 53rd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway last weekend. Burkart was eliminated in a Round 1 pairing against No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force, who went on to record her first Winternationals victory and the second of a career destined for stardom.

Phil Jr., meanwhile, returned to snowy Central New York and his daily routine at Burkart Automotive, 114 Oriskany Boulevard, before heading out west again for this weekend’s 29th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals in Chandler.

“The eerie part of it is I got the call to do this (two-race deal) a day after my father’s wake,” said Burkart, referring to Phillip E. Burkart Sr. “My father died on Jan. 24 and the day after is when Steve called me to drive the car. Some Divine Intervention there; it’s a little bit eerie. I don’t know what I believe in, but if anybody in their afterlife can have the power to make things happen for us…I mean, if I didn’t believe in Divine Intervention before I certainly do now.”

Phil Sr. was a lifelong NHRA member who campaigned Altereds and front-engine dragsters in the Northeast during the 1960s and 1970s. Drag racing was a logical way to promote Burkart Automotive Inc., the business Phil Sr. founded in 1967 and sold to his son last year. “Pops” Burkart was only beginning to enjoy his retirement at age 69.

“He went in for ‘routine’ heart surgery, to repair an aneurysm they had been monitoring for a couple of years,” Phil Jr. said. “He was released after that operation and four days later was rushed back in for a related condition of the heart, and lost consciousness and never woke up.” Phil Sr. died at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica surrounded by family and friends.

“Never thought he’d go down that way,” Phil Jr. said. “In fact, the day before the surgery he was at my house cross-country skiing. That’s the kind of shape he was in.”

Plueger’s phone call to come out to Pomona for the 2013 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series opener certainly qualified as a godsend for Phil Jr. A four-time NHRA Funny Car national event winner, his most recent appearance on tour was with car-owner Paul Smith in 2010 at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa.

Generally regarded as drag racing’s most respected Funny Car chassis builder, Plueger offered Phil Jr. the use of Plueger Racing Inc.’s Chevy Impala-bodied hot rod – albeit without the benefit of testing. Phil Jr.’s first run on Thursday, Feb. 14, produced a 1,000-foot pass in 4.280-seconds at 286.50 mph – good for 11th on what would become the 16-car qualifying ladder.

“The biggest surprise was how much I was comfortable behind the wheel,” said Phil Jr., who made the finals lineup at 4.640-seconds and 287.96 mph after four qualifying runs. “There wasn’t any nervousness or butterflies or anything even after that lapse of not being in the car. It was good to be back in a race car, and it’s a pretty tough deal these days just to qualify. There’s a pretty good class of cars out there right now, so I would say it was a successful weekend for the small, limited-budget team they are.”

Based in Southern California, Plueger is considered the dean of Funny Car chassis-builders as well as the innovator of numerous high-performance components. Plueger’s traditionally underfinanced, underdog role dates to 1976, when he agreed to crew chief for a fledgling John “Brut” Force, who reportedly begged Plueger to turn “his junk” into a respectable Funny Car.

Ironically, Phil Jr. replaced Force – now a 15-time world champion – after he suffered extensive foot and leg injuries in a fiery crash during the Texas FallNationals at Texas Motorplex in Ennis in September 2007. A hospitalized Force recruited Burkart to drive his Castrol-sponsored Ford Mustang at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Raceway at Pomona to close-out the season.

Phil Jr. has scored national event victories at Las Vegas; Morrison, Colo., near Denver; Columbus, Ohio and Maple Grove. Burkart spent parts of the 2012 season driving a Nostalgia nitro Funny Car in match races in the Northeast for longtime family friend Nick Boninfante. In the summer of 2011, Phil Jr. spent his Sunday nights _ and did a little creative marketing for the family business _ as a rookie Modified stock car driver at the Utica-Rome Speedway dirt track.

Phil Sr. easily was his son’s biggest fan. “I think he always wanted me to (continue drag racing),” said Phil Jr., 44. “But in this day and age of the way things happen, they need to happen with sponsorship. I got to the point where I wasn’t chasing sponsors. I was concentrating on my business and my family life (fiancée and two daughters) and not chasing sponsors, and that’s why it’s so ironic that the call (from Plueger) comes in this time (of mourning).”

Burkart Automotive forged its reputation during the heyday of the Mohawk Valley’s “Muscle Car Era” in the late 1960s to mid-1970s. Today, Burkart Automotive is a complete repair and hot rod shop employing four people. “Business is good and we’re pursuing more,” Phil Jr. said. “We also do a lot of car and truck accessories, so it’s always busy in one fashion or another.”

Burkart stood 11th in the provisional order after the opening two rounds of qualifying Friday at Firebird International with a pass of 4.358-seconds at 278.75 mph. Johnny Gray _ who is honoring his late father, John R. Gray, this season _ is the Funny Car leader at 4.034-seconds/313.80 mph. Reigning world champion Antron Brown is No. 1 in Top Fuel (3.765-seconds/314.83 mph) while former world champion Mike Edwards (6.498-seconds/213.13 mph) leads Pro Stock.

Two rounds of qualifying Saturday will determine the fields for Sunday’s final eliminations. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise 90 minutes of qualifying coverage at 1 a.m. (EST) on Sunday, and three hours and 30 minutes of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. (EST) on Sunday.

Given the budget-strapped histories of himself and Plueger, Burkart is realistic about extending their deal beyond this weekend. “That’s it for the time being. But you never know,” Phil Jr. said. “It’s all dictated by budget, on what Steve comes up with and what I can come up with. I’d like to do some more racing but we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 23 2013
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  • Anthony says:

    My condolences to Phil, and happy for him as well (with regard to his ride.) Great to see him back on the track. Now that I think of it, it’s nice to see both of the former CSK drivers back on the track (referring to Del’s return to the seat.)