It can be said that Al “Big Smoke” Turner is the father of Funny Cars as it was way back in in 1965 when the factory backed A/FX altered wheelbase hot rods of the day were tearing up the dragstrips from coast to coast. At that time Al had a vision and an idea to develop what we basically know today as a Funny Car. Based upon what was out there and racing he, along with others developed a safer, more technologically advanced form of race car that we now know today as a Funny Car.
Al was born in 1932 in Chicago, Illinois and in 1939 his family moved to Detroit where the young dyslexic Al attended St. Gregory’s school until dropping out in the eighth grade. Undaunted, He builds his first car for street racing out of a 39 ford 2 door with a souped up engine complete with Offy heads, Wieand 3 carb intake, headers, and a ¾ race cam. He outfitted that combination with 26 tooth Lincoln gears in the transmission and just like that Al had one of the hottest cars on the street for the time period. Not too bad for and eighth grade dropout.
During this period of time from 1947 – 1953 All attends Southfield Trade School and then enters in to the military for a stint in the Korean Conflict. While serving his country he works for and receives his GED. Upon his return from the military, Al attends the Detroit Engineering Institute before eventually being hired by the Ford Motor Car Company as a research technician.
In 1955, the drag racing bug bit Al and soon he had built a lightweight supercharged Chevy powered gas dragster that he and his driver “Little Billy” Robbins campaigned. After a year of Billy driving, Al stepped in to the cockpit and was able to garner top eliminator at different tracks such as Detroit Drag way, Motor City Drag way, Ubly, Central Michigan, Onandaga, and Grand Bend, Ontario. In 1964, Al built his second dragster which was powered by the standard racing engine of the day, a 671 blown Chevy small block.
In 1965, Al is hired by the Lincoln Mercury division of Ford for their Drag Racing program that was headed up by Fran Hernandez. Part of his contract was that it specified “No Racing”. It was at this time that the Dodge and Plymouth camps had developed the altered wheelbase A/FX car. These cars were a handful to drive with their engines of up to 1,000 hp and burning nitro-methane. While these cars started out with 500 hp, the competition had become so intense that the engine output grew to the 1,000 hp mark.
Since many of these cars were being raced at tracks that offered little in safety accommodations for both fans and drivers, Al and Fran Hernandez set out to design, engineer, and field the next step vehicle in the evolution of the funny car. It was in February 1966 at the AHRA Winter nationals that “Dyno Don” Nicholson and “Fast Eddie” Schartman debuted a pair of space frame “Fliptop” bodied Mercury Comets that were built MMSHoF inductees, Detroit’s own Logghe Brothers. While they were not immediately successful until mid-1966 it became very clear that this type of Funny Car was the way to go for the future of this class and history certainly shows that to be true as by mid-1966 these original “Floppers” were winning at every event they raced at. This same basic design of tube chassis and flip up body with a blown Nitro-Methane powered engine is still the standard today, although the engineering has and design has grown by leaps and bounds as well as the top speeds. Al Turner passed away in the fall of 2021.
In 1969, with the endorsement of newly hired Ford President, “Bunky” Knudsen, Al, along with famed designer Larry Shinoda head to Ford of Australia to bring the Ford racing program back up to speed in order to compete with General Motors. Turner stayed with Ford in a variety of roles until 1983 when He was summoned by Chrysler Corporation “Special Projects” where he worked on the Viper and other projects until his retirement in 1996. Turner is still innovating in his mid-eighties in developing a lightweight, high-efficiency, zero-emissions engine with estimated fuel economy to be up to 100 miles per gallon. Not bad for a guy who fought dyslexia, dropped out of school in the eighth grade and is a self-taught mechanic. Al Turner would make a fine edition to the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame.