After a devastating crash two years ago at the Route 66 Nationals in Chicago, where he slammed hard into the wall but escaped uninjured, Alcohol Funny Car veteran Kevin Newburgh is finally making his way back into competition.
For Newburgh, a working man from a small town in the heart of the Midwest, the prototypical "little guy," you don't just come back overnight. It cost him half a year's salary to rebuild.
"It really cleaned me out," says Newburgh, a 43-year-old mechanic at Pillar's Repair in his hometown of Rock Falls, Ill. "I do this all out of my pocket, and it can be pretty rough sometimes. I had to get a new body and have the chassis front-halved."
On that fateful run, Newburgh crossed the centerline, corrected, and the next thing he knew, he was into the wall and the body was flying off the car.
"I got out of the groove but thought I had it all straightened out," he says. "I clipped a cone and cranked the wheel hard, and the car just took off like a bullet, shot across the track in the opposite direction, and smacked the wall sideways. The body was ruined and the chassis really got bent up."
Newburgh entered a couple of races last season and will complete his return with a few outings late this year with a drastically different combination: a Lencodrive.
"I've been kicking the idea around for a while now," he says. "I was a little hesitant about making the initial investment, but for what I'm trying to do and the way I have to race, it should be advantageous."
When there's no clutch, there's a lot less between-round maintenance and a huge portion of the consumable-parts budget is gone, too. It also requires fewer personnel.
"I don't have a lot of help, so it should make a big difference for a team like mine," says Newburgh, who races with his ex-father-in-law, Jerry Heckler (for whom the car, "The Heckler," is named). "We're still friends, and he really helps out a lot, both financially and at the racetrack."
Newburgh also will be assisted by two-time Division 3 Top Alcohol Funny Car champion Chris Foster and Foster's crew chief, Will Hanna, who has both tuning and driving experience with the automatic-transmission/torque converter setup. Their roles have been reversed for much of this season; Newburgh often is part of the huge all-volunteer crew on Foster's car.
"Going to the races to help Chris is about as enjoyable as racing my own car," says Newburgh, who handles the bottom-end work on Foster's car. "I love the competition side of racing, and I like just being around everybody. For me, racing is more than driving the car."
Newburgh ran for years on the UDRA circuit, with IHRA until they discontinued Alcohol Funny Car and a lot of other categories, and, for the last several years, in NHRA competition.
"I like running NHRA races," says the former UDRA Rookie of the Year. "Everybody's got the same complaints they've always had – the payouts are horrible – but I still love racing. What I'm really looking forward to is just getting this car back out there, getting it running right, and using a couple of races here toward the end of the season to get a decent tune-up for next year. Hopefully, next year I can do a full schedule."