John Spuffard

John Spuffard has a long record of achievement in British drag racing. He drove in the Fuel Funny Car class from 1984 to 2015 with only a few years off during this period,  which makes him the longest-standing Funny Car pilot in our history.

His early involvement saw him go to the Chelsea Cruises and in 1979, aged 21, he ran a 1972 Mustang Grandee in the Modified class. He helped Paul Manders with his Time & Motion Funny Car and decided he wanted one of his own. In 1984 he bought the Vega-bodied Komodo Dragon from Ollie Burn and named it Showdown.

When bought, the car had no running gear or rear axle. John had a 392-iron block and bought an axle from Ronnie Picardo. He took it down to Dennis Priddle’s workshop and Priddle mounted it in the chassis for him. He remembers going out for a beer with Priddle who gave him some guidance. One tip which he always followed was to have a good breakfast and then not eat for the rest of the day. Dennis said, ‘Drink fluids but don’t eat in case of something unfortunate happening.’ He also bought parts from Graham Hawes and also from Reg Hazleton, who lived and worked fairly close to him. 

Around 1985 John was involved with Trevor Young. Trevor’s dragster was sold to Dennis Sheridan with the iron block and  the Funny Car Donovan was installed. Further improvements in 1986 came from the ex-Nobby Hills Houndog Dodge Challenger body which had been burnt in Sweden and the first event out with this was in Zandvoort, Holland.

Later that year back at Santa Pod, the engine kicked a rod out and burnt the car down. After such a big fire early on in his career John wasn’t sure whether he wanted to get back in a Funny Car. He recalls he burnt his eyeballs but in his typical laid-back style he says it sounds worse than it was.

John was given the chance to drive the Cannonball car which he did at two events and everything was sold to Roy Webb in Norwich (son Julian runs the Spiderman jet car)  apart from the starter motor. John says that was probably the biggest mistake of his life,  keeping that starter motor – from that he built another car.

John then teamed up with Andy Craddock who had the ex-Gene Snow Frontline Funny Car. They then bought Ed McCulloch’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Funny Car. On the debut burnout at the 1987 World Finals in the Pro Drag field, Drag Racing News reported that the burnout ended with colossal flames from the headers. Andy said ‘a breather came off, smashing into the mag and the motor retarded itself, hence the flames; nothing too serious.’ In eliminations the blower exploded in a shower of sparks and plexiglass with John jumping out of the beast like a scalded cat.

Without the aid of sponsors, Publicity & Promotional Support Ltd, Turners Transport, KU Oils, Murdochs Welding Services, the car would still be in the workshop, but the team regrouped and moved on to the ex-Ed McCulloch Oldsmobile Firenza. 

At the Main Event 1988, the car appeared with new front wheels and tyres, beadlocks for the rears, a new ‘whale-tail’ spoiler and a Waterman ‘red’ fuel pump. Armed with information gleaned from Sid Waterman himself, John set the car up on rich, coming off the line sideways when he couldn’t hook up, with a single 8.24sec/169mph shot.

The team worked hard all year to gain a consistent base point where they were not causing major engine damage. They put on a very good show at the Cannonball where the car sounded its healthiest for a long time. As a result of nearly running the fuel dry on Saturday’s practice pass, they were unable to make any runs on the Sunday but appeared on Monday with a new, extra-large fuel tank which was welded together in their workshop overnight. This culminated in a run of 6.54/228 at the September World Finals.

However at the Fireworks meeting that year, the blower lifted the instant John cracked the throttle with a sheet of flame enveloping the car  for a split second in the night air. The blower bag did its job but his new 14/71 blower was split like a melon, probably caused by a snapped intake valve. The best this car ran was a 6.36/228 at the World Finals in 1989 but the engine was destroyed at the top end. John and Andy then called it a day as they couldn’t financially sustain it.

In those early days, John and other drivers who were ‘suited and booted’ used also to act as the ‘fire-diver’ – someone geared up to go in should the need arise. When five or six cars were running, the last driver due to race would go to the top end for the first race and the first car would stay for the rest of the class. 

With the launch of the new SPRC club, John was member number six and also spent some years on the new SPRC committee as a professional driver representative.

Images not in year order

The late Roger Gorringe captures this dramatic moment when, on this occasion, it all goes wrong for ‘Spuff’ on the SPR startline

The successful partnership with Bob Jarrett started in 1990 and, at the 1991 Cannonball, ‘Spuff’ as he became known, showed his true potential reaching the final with a two-way ET score of 6.07 and 6.04. With 15 funny cars in attendance, he ran a 6.05/219 in the final and won the event. The crew at this time were Bill Sherratt, Bob Staunton, Tony Pearson, Dave Bryant, Paul Gibson and Lee Brown. Paul and Lee would become Spuff’s right hand men servicing the car regularly between events at their workshop close to the Pod, helping to build trailers as well as maintaining equipment. Bob Jarrett had been resident in California since 1987, which proved extremely helpful in taking parts back and forth.

At the Main Event 1992 John ran his quickest-ever ET, 5.86 at 237mph in the ‘silver’ Showtime, ex-Tom Hoover car. John said at the time that it didn’t really feel that quick as it ran so effortlessly. He now had the confidence to concentrate on the race instead of what the car might do. This was the last transmission car that John drove. 

A new Pontiac Trans Am-bodied car was bought from US driver Tom Hoover, who had made many appearances at Santa Pod. At the Cannonball in 1992 Tom drove the new car and John drove the old ‘87 Trans Am. John says, ‘When we went direct drive it took quite a while to get used to. With a transmission car, if it felt like it was nosing over you get out of it as engine damage is likely to follow. With direct drive, at the point of the clutch coming in, it momentarily has a similar effect in that it lugs the motor down. I would think, is it nosing over or is it going? It took a long time before I would let it go as I’d had a lot of fires and one thing or another happen.  Bob was always saying I should have kept it in and everything would be fine, it’s just the clutch coming in. You keep it in and it will go – and it did! Once I’d got my head around it, the car started to perform a lot better – it felt really good as well!’

In a one-shot qualifier because of bad weather, John ran 5.841 at an early-shut-off 204.45mph. Matched against Harlan Thompson, who had run a 5.727/240 qualifier, John won the event after Harlan got crossed up and nearly took the tree out. John was labelled ‘Hometown Hero’ in Fire Up magazine. Brian Taylor’s Crazy Horses book describes John at this time as the UK’s leading Funny Car driver.

In 1993 a Pontiac Trans Am body was bought. At the Summer Nationals, John experienced one of the worst finish line incidents seen in a long time. He ran a career best of 5.62 but the motor exploded ‘big time’ and threw a rod out, puncturing a rear tyre. It also blew the right side of body out. In the melee, the tin work crushed his finger and he found that every time he tried to pull the brake he’d got no grip. His finger was broken which he only realised when the fire crew arrived and Alex Brachtvogel came over to shake his hand after the run. At the Main Event 1994, there was an anxious moment when Bob Jarrett went to lift the body after the burnout and part of the body caught the throttle linkage and bowled Bob 10 feet down the track.

The record setting began in 1995 when, at the Summer Nationals, the Mac Tools Trans Am ran Europe’s quickest-ever Funny Car pass at 5.46/242mph, with header flames visible all the way down the track, and backed up with a 5.52/260. In August John took it down to 5.43. In 1997 a new car was bought from Don Skuza, a McKinney chassis with a Dodge Avenger body. Bob described it as a show car after it came out of the paint shop. It never lived up to the team’s expectations. Later that year they bought a second car from Tom Hoover and Bill Sherratt, a Dodge Avenger.

At one stage the Jarrett/Spuffard partnership had the only Funny Car out there keeping the class alive.

There was a suggestion that John went over to Top Fuel owing to the success of the ETFA, but Top Fuel didn’t appeal to him and they held their ground.

Tony Pearson, Gary Page and Bill Sherratt were all given a drive of the second car and match racing became the order of the day, often with Alan Jackson who had now stepped up from the Alcohol Funny Car ranks. One of the cars was sold to Dave Bryant and Gordon Smith, whom they helped get set up as a valued addition to the class. At the 1997 Cannonball the Showtime/DJB Precision Engineering Pontiac Trans Am won against Gary Page with a 5.64/263, John’s third Cannonball win.

At the Easter Thunderball in 2000 a new format was introduced, the Pro Fuel Shootout, matching Top Fuel with a 0.4sec handicap start against Funny Cars in Cannonball style. John enjoyed this as it kept the Funny Cars out there. Showtime, described in Brian Taylor’s Crazy Horses book as the quickest car in three years, ran a 5.58 and won the event.

At the Super Series One Mayday event at Shakespeare County Raceway in 2000, John ran a best of three ‘Duel Of Fuel’ match race with his rivals the Shockwave team and one run is best described by Chris Dossett:

‘Both cars performed storming burnouts and the appreciative crowd applauded. The air was full of nitro fumes as both cars moved to pre-stage and then, with both fuel pumps running, into stage. But something was wrong. The lights on the tree were flashing in a most peculiar manner. Both cars sat there on the point of launching for what seemed about a week and a half but was probably only a few seconds. The tension was unbearable, and then the signal to shut off came. Suddenly it seemed strangely quiet. When you’re used to seeing the cars disappear into the distance with an earth-shaking roar it seems really weird to see them suddenly sitting on the line in complete silence.

So what was the problem? Well, obviously it was that common old Drag Racing complaint that we all know only too well: an aeroplane had landed in the shut-off area!

The second race was already ours as John powered away from the start line and he was nearly half a second ahead by the eighth at well over 200 mph. You could tell this was going to be a great run and it was. John crossed the line in 5.51 seconds, a new track record for the strip and within six hundredths of a second away from the European record.’

At the Main Event that year with the help of sponsorship from Snap-On Tools, John recorded the quickest-ever quarter-mile run by a Funny Car in Europe at 5.39/221 in an early-shut-off run, and in 2001 they took the Pro Fuel Shootout trophy for the second year running. That year also saw a new UK Funny Car Championship with the first round in May at Shakespeare County Raceway. On a 5.564 pass he recorded the fastest Funny Car speed in Europe, 281mph, beating an absolute speed record for the track previously set by Andy Carter.

It was the 20th anniversary of the Cannonball that year. Team member Bill Sherratt had won the inaugural event and Spuff had won three times. John ran 5.33/259, backed up in the final with a 5.36/257, to set the European Funny Car record. Showtime was now the quickest Funny Car outside the USA and had won the Cannonball again, which also served as a win for the second round of the Championship. It was one of the most successful meetings in the team’s history and a fitting testament to Bob’s and John’s 10-year partnership. The points taken at the third and final round at Shakespeare County Raceway gave John the Championship title.

A new Avenger body was installed for the first round of the now entitled 2002 MSA Nitro Funny Car Championship in May at Shakespeare County Raceway. At the end of one run the crew found that the body panel which sits above the front of the motor had been blown off and was hanging to one side. A large piece of the carbon-fibre body had departed from above the left-hand wheel arch. It seemed that the body had lifted and slammed down again. Paul and Chris loaded the Avenger body onto Ronnie Picardo’s trailer and set off back to Northamptonshire to swap it for the Pontiac body resting in the workshop. This effort was rewarded with a 5.486/254 mph run setting a new track record during eliminations. In the final the car launched hard but went straight into violent tyre shake. Nevertheless valuable Championship points were won.

At the second round of the Championship at the Main Event, much time had gone into repairing the damage to the Avenger body sustained at Shakespeare County. There was substantial engine damage in qualifying and an easy bye run into the final with Gordon Smith which John won. He crossed the line in 5.38 seconds at a whopping 286mph for a new personal-best speed.  Showtime was now the fastest Funny Car outside the USA as well as the quickest. Less spectacular wins at the next two rounds meant the Championship was theirs for a second year.

John visited the States and worked with Tom Hoover at several events and was introduced to many people, including John Force, which started a new tie-up. Bob Jarrett maintained a very good relationship with Force and Robert Hight owing to his expertise in Jaguars, and this really helped them progress with their race programme. John recalls a conversation with Force at the Winternationals: Force was looking for cash to go to the Awards Presentation and said he was doing some good deals right now.

Having won the first round of the 2003 Nitro Funny Car Championship at Shakey, the team headed to round two at the Main Event. John edged out Gordon Smith in the quickest side-by-side pass outside the States. Spuff ran 5.555 to Smith’s 5.650. John then had a single to the final and re-asserted his authority on the class with a 5.288/266 flyer. In the final Showtime ran another strong pass, slowing slightly at the top end as the blower belt snapped. John’s 5.410 at 265.59 mph was not quite enough to back up the 5.288, but the speed backed up the earlier 266.57mph for the speed record.

With the Avenger body getting increasingly beaten up, a new carbon-fibre Mustang body, more aerodynamically efficient with the benefit of wind tunnel development, was acquired from John Force Racing. It debuted at the Allstar Nationals in August at Shakespeare County Raceway for round three of the Championship.

The first qualifier saw a good run from the outset which the numbers on the boards confirmed. 5.383sec was a new track record. A terminal speed of 271.08 was a nice accompaniment and, on another run, 272.73mph fell within the required margin to set a new UK and European record.

Entering the final round of the Championship at the European Finals in September, the Showtime team sat on top of the points table but were taking nothing for granted. In the final with Gordon Smith, at about 300ft, with a bang and a flash of flame, the blower burst panel sailed high into the air. Air got beneath the body which had lifted at the front. John recalls that he tried to grab it back down but it rose higher and higher, pivoting around the hinge at the rear of the chassis until it flipped right over the back in a perfect arc, detaching itself as it came down on its roof. The parachutes came out and John did a fantastic job in keeping the car straight as the rear of the car bounced off the ground. The body slid across the track and came to rest against the barrier on the opposite side of the track. Meanwhile Gordon had continued down the strip but encountered problems of his own, crossing the centre line on to John’s side of the track and earning himself a disqualification. John coasted over the finish line to take the win. For the third year straight John Spuffard was the Funny Car king.

2004 was not the best year for the team, although they did end up runner-up in the Championship which would not run again for several years. 2005 could be considered a testing period and after an absence of 10 years, Showtime was invited to appear at the NitrOlympX at Hockenheim in Germany for the night show. It was the first Funny Car to appear at the track following Tony Boden’s tragic fatal accident. The team were put under strict instructions not to drop any oil. Event operator Rico Anthes had team shirts for the track crew labelled ‘Funny Car Clean Up Team.’ Showtime’s appearance there went down well and proved that Funny Cars were safe. In 2006 they were invited back to be part of the drag racing demonstration before the F1 Grand Prix. These trips were a thank you for all the guys and girls on the Showtime team who, like all crew, give up their time for nothing. It was nice to be able to give them a bit of a holiday.

Showtime made many appearances over the years promoting drag racing at local and national shows, including Autosport-International. John was also extremely helpful to Santa Pod Raceway in various ways. With his workshop so close he was often called upon to fix machinery and equipment.

John also found time to investigate titanium products, not just for his own car but for use in drag racing generally, and started a company named Titanium Racing Products. The company began developing high-strength cylinder heads, superchargers, manifolds, header and motor plate studs, used here and in the USA. New sponsors coming aboard included Balzers, a specialist coating company, Torco Oil, Impact Racing, King Bearings, Racing Communications, Ringers, Ferrara and Nimbus Motorsport.

The Funny Car class was now relegated to exhibition match races and the Showtime team had problems laying their newfound power down on the track. However they did manage a personal best of 5.281sec at the 2006 European Finals. The incrementals were outstanding but loss of traction at the top end kept the speed down.

John’s last ‘Showtime’ Funny Car from 2015 before being sold to Kevin Chapman

At the Easter Thunderball the following year, Spuff broke through the 300mph barrier, the first Funny Car outside the USA to achieve this. From the moment the light turned green it looked like a run to be remembered and when the scoreboards lit up, Santa Pod erupted: 5.1159sec/305.98mph. What a send off it was for this car which had just been sold.

The team have ‘named’ all their cars. In keeping with this tradition the new car from John Force Racing was unveiled at The Main Event and referred to as the ‘Eric’ car, in memory of the late Eric Medlen, whose 2005 Syntech body clothed the 2006 chassis which Robert Hight had driven. Sadly, owing to inclement weather, the team did not get any track time. However at the European Finals they re-set the ‘official’ ET record books with a 5.139/278 run.

In 2008 Showtime launched another volley at the class, with a 5.091sec run at the Pro Fuel shootout. The Funny Car class was now enjoying a growth spurt with a 5-car field appearing at The Main Event. At the National Finals later that year they set the ‘official’ backed-up speed record at 301.99 mph. It has now been a long time since the UK Fuel Funny Car record books had a name other than Spuff’s on their pages. 

At the Easter Thunderball 2009, John once again won the Pro-Fuel Shootout, becoming the first driver in either Top Fuel or Funny Car to win it three times. Showtime was tipped to become the first Funny Car in the 4’s, a goal which the team had long been chasing. At The Main Event Showtime brought the house down with a 5.0501sec/309mph run and now stands as Europe’s quickest and fastest Funny Car in perpetuity as the class has since conformed to the 1000ft racing distance. John won the elimination at the European Finals that year as well.

2010 found Showtime struggling with conditions at the Easter Thunderball with tyre shake that was said to have rattled the tower, but then taking top speed at The Main Event at 296mph before running low ET of the weekend at Hockenheim’s NitrOlympX at 5.127sec. 2011 was another year for the team to re-group and re-stock.

At the Pro Fuel Shootout in 2012 the team brought out a new car featuring a state-of-the-art chassis and a Mustang body from John Force Racing never previously raced. They also had a setback blower, designed to equalise air pressure across the length of the supercharger and thus into the cylinders. However the car didn’t make it out of the pits after suffering engine damage during a warm-up and The Main Event didn’t go according to plan either. John took the win at the European Finals by a track boundary default when opponent Leif Helander scraped the headers on the wall.

Keith Bartlett announced in the programme and during the meeting that there would be a European Fuel Funny Car Championship in 2013, provisionally with three rounds at Santa Pod and one at Hockenheim, with a major sponsor and TV coverage.

2013’s Easter event, now renamed the Festival of Power, came with an all-new, full-length Breedon Fibretex racing surface at Santa Pod and the first round of the European Nitro Funny Car Challenge. The freezing conditions prevented contestants making representative passes. Spuff was runner-up at the second round at The Main Event to Leif Helander who also won the next round at the NitrOlympX. The end of 2013 and the whole of 2014 saw another rest period for Showtime.

The team entered The Main Event 2015 without much enthusiasm for the new 1000ft finish line  placed on Funny Car racing. Showtime stamped on Kevin Kent’s previous European best for the distance with a 4.403/282, backed up with a 4.4186, for number one qualifier and event runner-up. Spuff was also number one qualifier and runner-up at the European Finals. Back in 2012 John had said, ‘I will continue until the adrenalin no longer flows, at which point it’s time to quit,’ and now was the time.

The whole operation was sold to Kevin Chapman. Spuff even made sure the starter motor was included this time so that he would not be tempted back. He helped Kevin for a couple of years and saw him through winning the Championship. More often than not these days, Spuff will be found in Kevin Kent’s pit coaching him into finding out what upsets the other drivers.

John readily acknowledges that he has had some of the best crew guys around him and without them he could not have achieved what he has throughout his career. His partner Jo is also truly valued by John for the trust she has given him at every race.

John’s history in the sport has been filled with thrills and spills and his calm attitude towards all the highs and lows has given us a masterclass in resilience and determination. It is for his long standing as a driver in the Funny Car class, his continued record-setting performances and his event and championship wins that John Spuffard is inducted into Membership of the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Profile by Lesley Wright,
with thanks to Chris Dossett for his help in collating material