The "Pepsi Challenger," a 250 mph Piece of History
By Bill Stephens
I’m a HUGE drag racing fan. It all started when I was a kid growing up in the heyday of Detroit Horsepower, the 1960’s. I consumed whatever I could get my hands on, usually in print, that had anything to do with drag racing, the NHRA, the exciting and incendiary Muscle Car culture which was sweeping the country during that decade — you name it.
As a young man, I worked at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H., helping to inspect and classify the weekly entries which descended on NED, one of several dragstrips offering weekly racing programs back then, by the hundreds. Over the years since, my television career has led to me serving as Associate Producer of “NHRA Today” on the now defunct Nashville Network and for 11 years, I was a pit reporter for ESPN’s coverage of NHRA drag racing, with occasional appearances on other drag racing-related programs on several networks.
I must have sputtered and stumbled a few seconds before finally exclaiming an emphatic, “Yes!”
The “Pepsi Challenger” is a genuine piece of NHRA history and its significance in the annals of Funny Car drag racing is immense. In 1982, amongst a virtual “Murderer’s Row” of Funny Car legends such as Kenny “The Budweiser King” Bernstein, Raymond “The Blue Max” Beadle, and Frank “The Chi-Town Hustler” Hawley, Prudhomme set two towering performance milestones in his 1982 Pontiac Trans Am-bodied racecar at two separate events.
In May of that year, in Baton Rouge, La., he became the first Funny Car driver in NHRA history to eclipse the 250 mph mark. Then, in September in Indianapolis at the NHRA’s biggest event, the U.S. Nationals, Prudhomme ran an elapsed time of 5.637-seconds — at that time the quickest F/C pass in history and a full 2/10 of a second quicker than the existing national record. That may not seem like a sizable chunk of time but in drag racing, national records are usually bettered by thousands or hundredths of a second, rarely by tenths of a second!
To this day, it’s considered by the drag racing community in general to be the greatest Funny Car pass in NHRA history.
Vintage drag racing cars are becoming an emerging hot spot in the collector car marketplace. No better example of that is the car which recorded the top sale at the recently completed Mecum Auction in January in Kissimmee, Fla. A 1963 Shelby Cobra “Dragonsnake”, one of a handful of Cobras built specifically for drag racing, brought a whopping $850,000 when it sold on a Saturday afternoon before a packed house at the Osceola Convention Center. Coincidentally, this particular Dragonsnake was campaigned by another NHRA Funny Car great, Bruce Larson, who made this the winningest Cobra ever built by Carroll Shelby with championships in both the NHRA and AHRA. Bruce later moved to the nitro Funny Car class and won the 1989 NHRA world championship aboard his “USA 1” Chevy Camaro.
The ”Pepsi Challenger” looks remarkable today as you can see by the accompanying photographs and you can be sure it will be the absolute centerpiece of anyone’s vintage drag racing collection. In fact, the same engine which powered Snake to the history-making 250 mph speed in Baton Rouge is still bolted into the tubular steel chassis. How high the bidding will go is anyone’s guess but you can bet it will be well into six figures.
And for an incurable drag racing fan like me, I don’t think you can even put a price on this phenomenal piece of high-performance history.
Hope you’ll be watching when Velocity brings you four days of live coverage of Dana Mecum’s Original Spring Classic from Indy, May 16-19.