When Russell Mills unveiled his Pro Alcohol 'Funster' for the first time, it's fair to say the response was mixed. This hybrid of a dragster, funny car and altered was looked on with scorn by some, questioning why Mills would build such a freak.
But for most it became a favourite, something different in a sea of plastic fantastics and rails.
Even the most aggressive of critics would have to agree that since its debut in 2015, the Funster has gone on to prove itself time and time again as a well built and finely handling machine.
Mills has always gone about his acceleration differently to the rest. His first experiences in motorsport were in boat racing, first involving water skis and then moving to drag boats, where he raced alongside the likes of Stan Sainty, the Madill family and Dave Newby, Wayne's father. From 1977 to 1987 Mills played in this dangerous world, at one time having the fastest propellor driven boat in the southern hemisphere (only Ken Warby's world record setting jet boat was faster at the time for the outright title).
“I had the odd fire, I had to jump out another time, that was such a dangerous sport back then before boats had capsules and that sort of thing,” he said. “We only did it on a small scale here in Australia but we still had one guy who was killed. I went to an event in the USA for a look once and a guy was killed there too – it's just so dangerous.
“I won a lot and I was just an average wage owner. In those days you could go out and win a week's pay in prizemoney. But it was a hard sport to organise because of the timing of the runs, the water levels, the current, all of these things needed to be right and I was getting out of that when the family started.”
Family life saw Mills calm his need for speed for several years, until he was drawn to check out Sydney Dragway. With daughter Holly (above) in tow, Mills liked what he saw. But it turned out Holly liked it more.
“She saw these tiny dragsters and asked what they were – Junior Dragster were how we got started again in drag racing,” he said. “It was great watching Holly race and she is a great help with my car now.”
Together the family raced Junior Dragsters for five seasons, until Holly reached the 17 year old age limit. Now at a loose end, Russell thought about seeing if he liked drag racing on a solid surface as much as a liquid one.
“I went over to the USA to do the Frank Hawley Super Comp School and I enjoyed that, so I went on to their Top Alcohol class as well. I was actually on the same course as Antron Brown.
“I was so glad I did the school because it was nothing like the boat. Boats you need to be fairly gentle, but with a car you can be more aggressive.”
With the thought of supercharged drag racing in the back of his mind, Mills took in a nostalgia meeting while in the USA, where he saw a Ford Crown Victoria Funny Car owned by Jack Harris, a well known name in nostalgia nitro racing.
“I told them I would be interested if they ever wanted to sell it. Later they changed the rules for nostalgia racing over there where you need a body relevant to early funny car racing, from 1963 onwards. They were originally going to just rebody the car but in the end he sold me the whole lot.”
The Crown Victoria had a decent history in the States, having match raced at the hands of Carl Ruth against Tom 'The Mongoose' McEwen's 57 Chev funny car. At the time both cars ran 'big show' style nitro motors and toured the country. Mills did not know where he was likely to end up with the car, thinking Supercharged Outlaws initially.
“Being from a motor background I just wanted to go quicker all the time. I ran AA/FC in Comp and then I went into Top Alcohol a couple of times, where I even won an event. I might have got a bit lucky but you still get to take the trophy home.”
Top Alcohol (since renamed to Pro Alcohol) took Mills' fancy and he began to think about building a car to suit the weight breaks.
“I talked with (chassis builder) Richard Botica, who did some work on the Crown Victoria and helped a little bit with the team generally. I looked at the rules and the weight break favoured an altered, the funny cars had the power advantage and the dragsters had the driveability.
“Richard knew of a similar car (to the Funster) that went okay in the States. It's all a weight and balance thing. You can see how even guys like Gary Phillips will top qualify and then lose first round, because consistency is hard at a high level in the funny cars. Mine is a little bit easier in the driving and I'm not the best driver so I need all the advantages I can get in that area!”
Though he almost reconsidered the car at the last moment, the Funster came into existence. The chassis is basically funny car from the rear to the front of the engine, where it tapers down into the front half of a Top Fuel dragster.
“It even has a couple of Hadman and McKinney parts on it,” Mills noted.
Botica wanted to go for a shorter chassis but after speaking with creators of similar cars in the USA, the pair decided to keep it a little longer. At over 150 inches in wheelbase the car runs on the Pro Alcohol Dragster ruleset and handily comes in right on weight. Speaking of weight, the car was engineered so weight could be moved around to make for the best handling on race day.
Many people could help you with a starting point for a dragster or a funny car, but with Mills' creation being so unique they had to make some educated guesses and hope for the best.
“It actually performed very well straight off,” he said. “We've fixed a few things along the way. It had a front wheel shimmy like a lot of the funny cars do so we put a steering dampener on it.
“As we gave it more and more power it was bending the wheelie bar which was acting like a spring and lifting the rear tyres off the ground, so we updated that to good effect.
“We have put on smaller wings, we had too much downforce on it when it started. And I put rub blocks on the bottom of the chassis because it bounces in the braking area sometimes, but all of these things are just what you learn with time and running on the car.”
Mills' theories got him in the hunt for the championship this season. The team has now reached the point where they have refined the car to be very consistent.
“Now that we have got it consistent we can afford to stand on it a little more. These motors have plenty left in them, you just need to learn how to apply it,” he said.
“For me this is a hobby. I am 66 in a few months, no spring chicken, so I get my work done and then I can devote time to the race car.”
This article originally appeared in issue 31 of Drag News Magazine. Subscribe for 12 issues delivered to your door - your support is an important part of continuing to bring Australian drag racing stories into the spotlight.