Big Dreamers Ready To Take On The Big Boys
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Drag racing kindred spirits Phil Burkart Jr. and Robert Schwab have reunited this weekend in Pomona, Calif., the 2017 launching pad for a Funny Car dream spanning the globe from Central New York to Adelaide, South Australia.
The latter is home to Schwab, who along with wife/team manager Lisa, has hired Yorkville, N.Y., resident Burkart to drive the team’s Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car for six of the scheduled 24 national events on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
Armed with a don’t-break-any-parts budget and eager to attract marketing partners, the Schwab Funny Car unloaded Thursday at Auto Club Raceway at Fairplex Drive in anticipation of staging against juggernauts Don Schumacher Racing and John Force Racing during the season-opening 57th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals. Weather permitting, two rounds of professional qualifying in Funny Car, Top Fuel and Pro Stock are scheduled for Friday afternoon.
“We’re a new team with big dreams. This is a bit of a David-and-Goliath team because we’re going up against these mega-buck teams, but in drag racing you can still do that,” Schwab said during a phone interview with RacinToday.com. Schwab was at a rest stop near Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Wednesday, dutifully driving the truck hauling his car and its single nitromethane-powered V8 engine from the team’s shop in Salt Lake City to Southern California.
“That’s what I love about this,” said Schwab, 50, a self-described Caterpillar diesel mechanic and the race car’s tuner. “If I can go out and compete with these guys with one engine, it adds a whole different aspect of the tuning. I can’t afford to beat this thing up; I
can’t afford another engine. I work fulltime on the car and drive the truck and maintain the car and the computer work that goes along with it. But I still think we can compete. When two cars are on the line, we’re even. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got or the size of your rig.”
Burkart returns to the former Don Schumacher Racing Dodge he first drove during the Countdown to the Championship event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October.
“At this point we’re figuring out how to compete at this level, so selecting a veteran driver like Phil really helps us tune the car,” Schwab said. “Phil’s a good guy. He’s very steady and methodical in the driver’s seat so that removes many of the variables we deal with run-after-run. It’s exciting to have somebody that good in the car. I’m a driver myself but it’s such a pleasure to have a professional in the car.”
Burkart is a four-time nitro Funny Car national event winner in nine final-round appearances, having scored victories at Las Vegas, Morrison, Colo., near Denver, Columbus, Ohio and Maple Grove in Reading, Pa. Phil Jr. truly was born into the sport, as his late father 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 “Pops” Burkart founded in 1967 and sold to his son in 2012. Burkart Automotive forged its performance reputation during the heyday of the Mohawk Valley’s “Muscle Car Era.” Today, Burkart Automotive is a complete repair and hot rod shop operating on busy Oriskany Boulevard in Yorkville.
Phil Jr. clearly has bought into his car-owners’ NHRA vision. “I’m honored Robert and Lisa trust me with their car. I think we’re working in a direction to have a good, competitive car,” said Burkart, 48. “I still think I’m 28…really don’t feel much different. But I know these things take a lot of energy and money to run. We’re working on it at a slow pace because Rob’s working on a lower budget. He’s got to go forward cautiously, so we don’t hurt a lot of parts. So our plan is to make a couple half-track runs Friday and if all goes well, we’ll go a couple of full runs on Saturday and try to get in the show.”
Burkart’s resume includes seat-time with John Force Racing and Worsham Racing, where he made his professional debut. Schwab’s current plan is to enter Burkart in additional races in Phoenix, Las Vegas 1, Topeka, Kan., Epping, N.H., and Englishtown, N.J., with additional sponsorship from Burkart Automotive.
“It’s certainly fun to be back out there racing again, knowing we have at least a partial schedule of events to run,” Burkart said. “Rob’s a really good guy trying to make a go of it and he has good equipment. We all got along really well in Vegas, which we kind of treated like a test session, and we were all encouraged by the results. I think we can really make a go of it in Pomona and the other races we have planned.”
Unlike Phil Jr.’s homegrown story, Schwab’s personal journey from Australia is best documented via Rand McNally. “I came to America in 1987 because I wanted to race a Nitro Funny Car,” Schwab said. “Here’s my story. My first race I went to was the 1988 Winternationals _ but I had no money. I went to that race and sat outside the track and listened to the cars because I couldn’t afford a ticket. I was 21-years-old and now, 29 years later, we’re going to the Winternationals with a competitive race car.”
For the record, Team Schwab entered its first NHRA national event in 2004, followed by six attempts in 2005 _ all which ended as DNQs. “That’s when I stopped racing and went overseas,” Schwab said. “I’m a diesel mechanic working on Caterpillar equipment. I can afford this now after my wife and I spent the last 10 years working in Indonesia. I managed an engineering company in a remote jungle location supporting a large American mine.
“lt’s taken my wife and I two years to put this together. Vegas last year was sort of like dipping our toe into the water, and it felt good. You’ve got to have good chemistry on a team and with Phil _ I don’t want a driver with an ego on my team, someone who wasn’t a down-to-earth driver. We had good chemistry and good momentum and it’s a good mix.”
While Schwab is the tuner, he does have NHRA veteran Terry Manzer on-hand as mentor. “Terry watches over my shoulder,” Schwab said. “He’s a great guy and another one who is down-to-earth and well-respected in the sport. He’s a pleasure to have around.”
Schwab’s flat-black Dodge will compete at Pomona with the team’s website, schwabbfunnycar.com, adorning its side as well as Burkart Automotive. “It’s all a budget thing,” Schwab said. “I’ve got to qualify for these races like the guys in the 1970s did to get to the next race. That’s the fun of it.”
Burkart said the team is offering packages for “a very entry-level” type of sponsorship. “We’ll talk to anybody, be it a business or an individual,” said Burkart, who plans to supplement his nitro schedule by wheeling a Top Alcohol Funny Car owned by Jay Blake of Cape Cod, Mass., over a 14-race schedule starting at Gainesville, Fla., in March.
Meanwhile, Burkart will be attempting to qualify for the 16-car ladder at the prestigious Winternationals for the first time since 2014. The event, he said, officially marks the end of his cabin fever.
“Everybody is fresh off the layoff and most of the guys, including ourselves, have acquired new parts over the winter and put stuff together and spent more time in the detail of the cars,” Burkart said. “We’re anxious to go out and prove what we have. Pulling into Pomona, everyone is No. 1 in points. There’s a lot of excitement because you’re in the birthplace of drag racing in Southern California, and a lot of history comes from that area and racetrack.
“Personally, I guess, who would have thought…let’s backpedal 25 years to when I was a kid in Upstate New York just working on my own Top Alcohol car. Who would have thought it would have taken to me where it has and have the success and experiences I’ve had because of drag racing? All of that _ from driving for some of the best teams in the country and doing things outside of drag racing that people don’t know I‘ve done. I once did a tour in Iraq visiting soldiers because I was a race car driver.
“Who would have thought drag racing would take me to the other side of the world?”
Fittingly, that’s the same question being asked and answered in Pomona by Rob and Lisa Schwab.