DI CLASSIC: The Triumph of Bunny Burkett
Drag racing icon Carol “Bunny” Burkett passed away Saturday, April 4, unexpectedly but peacefully in her sleep, according to a post on her Facebook page. The 1986 IHRA Alcohol Funny Car world champion helped pave the way for women in drag racing, a role she cherished.
“I know a lot of people do think of it and it is no secret that I have acquired the title of the Second Lady of Drag Racing and the First Lady of Funny Car, but Shirley [Muldowney] made the path and it was pretty narrow,” Burkett said in a 2016 Racer.com feature. “All I did was help widen it.”
Family, friends and fans started posting tributes to Burkett across social media after news of her passing spread online Saturday night. She was remembered as much for her warm, kind personality as she was for her drag racing milestones, smoky burnouts and thrilling match races.
In the following feature from DI #96, veteran writer Van Abernethy profiled Burkett as she was gearing up for her 50th Anniversary tour. Then 70 years old, Burkett wasn’t even considering retiring.Motivators in life come from all sorts of circumstances and for drag racing legend Carol “Bunny” Burkett, her biggest inspiration came from gritty determination to simply experience a better future than the life of poverty she was born into.
The dynamo drag racer most people now know simply as “Bunny” was born Carolyn Ruth Hartman on May 29, 1945, in Franklin, West Virginia. Her father upon returning home from World War II didn’t want the responsibility of raising a child, so when Bunny was just 18 months old he took off to Ohio and married another woman, leaving Bunny and her mother to fend for themselves in some of the poorest of circumstances the hills of West Virginia had to offer. Bunny’s mom eventually met and married another man who already had two girls of his own.
Bunny’s earliest childhood memories include a drafty wooden house in the middle of a remote field. Eventually, her family moved to town but even then it was hardly a life of ease. They lived in a poor section known as “Dirty Run,” where at least Bunny got to experience the luxuries of electricity and indoor plumbing for the first time in her young life.
About 13 years old then, Bunny recalls lying outside on the dirt bank, watching jetliners trace their paths across the sky. “One day I’m going to ride on one of those,” she told herself. The chance of achieving any other life seemed far-fetched on the surface, except within the confines of her vivid imagination.
The uncertain times were about to get even shakier for Bunny and her family, though. The mill where her stepfather worked abruptly closed down, leaving him jobless. Sick of living in poverty, tired of the hardships and struggles, Bunny’s family made the bold decision to leave and not look back. “My mother and step-father loaded me and my sisters onto a flat-bed truck and with what few possessions we had we left West Virginia, not even knowing where we were going to live,” she says.
They wound up in the northern Virginia town of Chantilly, where they felt extremely fortunate to be able to move into a boarding house adjacent to a rock quarry. Bunny’s stepfather even got hired on at the quarry, and though the new-found roof over their heads definitely provided shelter in a time of personal storm, peaceful and quiet it was not.
In addition to the earth-shattering sounds of busting rocks going on right outside their windows at the quarry, the boarding house also was home to roughly 15 men who were working on the construction of Washington’s Dulles International Airport about 10 miles away. Before school it was Bunny’s job to get up early and cook breakfast for the workers before they went off to their jobs at the airport, then prepare supper for them when she got back home.
It certainly wasn’t an easy life for a teenage girl, even after a dashing young man named Murium Oliver Burkett entered the picture. “My mother adored him and affectionately called him ‘Ollie;’ everyone else knew him as ‘Mo’,” she remembers with a smile. Mo Burkett was among the youngest airport construction workers who lived at the boarding house and he was also falling head over heels in love.
Mo struck a chord with Bunny’s mom and somehow talked her into letting Bunny go out with him on a date. It was, in fact, their first date that changed the course of history forever. “Mo took me to Old Dominion Dragway in Manassas, Virginia, and that’s how all this got started,” Bunny laughs. “Mo had a very fast ‘55 Mercury and he was going down those back roads at a hundred-and-twenty miles an hour—he scared me to death before we even got there!”
Arriving at Old Dominion, Mo backed the Merc up to the fence, where he and Bunny sat together on the trunk and watched one pair after another go down the track. “I told Mo I wanted to give this drag racing thing a try for myself,” she recalls. Puzzled at this proclamation, Mo laughingly replied, “Girls can’t drive!” Those words are now famously part of Bunny’s racing history, but at the time Mo did have a point, at least as far as it applied to his future world championship-winning wife to be. “I was 15 years old, straight out the hills of West Virginia, and, in fact, couldn’t drive, mainly because we walked every place we went.”
“Suppose you teach me,” she answered to Mo, who eagerly agreed. So, evening after evening the two kids would sneak off to Dulles—still under construction—where the runways made an excellent place for Bunny to drive an automobile for the first time.
When she turned 16 Mo asked Bunny to marry him. She considered the request as carefully as any 16-year-old girl could by flipping a coin just to be sure. True story; Bunny said “yes” and they were married within a few months. “He took me straight to the bank after we got married and borrowed the money to buy me a brand-new 1964.5 Ford Mustang that was sitting on the showroom floor,” she smiles. “Best I can remember it cost something like $2,495 and the payments were way less than $100 per month. We stuffed two big slicks into the trunk and carried them to the drag strip with us. It probably slowed the car down, but we had big tires,” she laughs.
The newlyweds’ first daughter was born the following year and their second daughter arrived when Bunny was still 18 years old. They were enjoying raising a family at the drag strip each weekend, but life would soon take an unexpected turn for Mo and Bunny. One day as Mo was pulling into the driveway of the boarding house after work, a drunk driver crashed into him and their beloved Mustang caught fire and burned to the ground while Bunny stood in the yard and watched in disbelief. Thankfully, Mo wasn’t injured, but the Mustang was a complete loss.
“In the latter part of 1966 I was very pregnant with our second daughter, so I couldn’t have driven anyway, but I missed having the Mustang a lot,” she says. Since she lacked down payment money to replace the Mustang, in 1967 she briefly took a hostess job at the Playboy Bunny Club in Baltimore, Maryland, to raise enough capital to replace the car. Though the hostess job was extremely short-lived, almost nobody called her “Carol” or “Carolyn” from that day forward. “That’s how the nickname ‘Bunny’ was born, and it’s what people have called me ever since.”
Bunny’s second Mustang was another showroom floor piece, a 1967 model that cost $3,700 and was quickly transformed into her first full-fledged race car. That’s when things got serious.
Bunny raced at Old Dominion on Friday nights, either Capital or Maryland International Raceway on Saturdays and 75-80 Dragway (also in Maryland) on Sundays. After tallying the cost, she realized she needed a part-time job to clear $85 per week in order to fund gas, a night in a motel, a couple hot dogs for her, Mo and the kids, and entry fee for all three events each weekend. She took a job at Southern Office Supply in 1968, a job she kept for the next 20 years. “I remember it very well,” she says. “I worked three days a week, very long hours, just so I could clear 85 bucks to go racing each weekend.”
Back in those days a very short list of female drag racers was on the East Coast, mainly comprised of Bunny Burkett and Carol Henson, but things would soon change. “Before long we had all these girls who were driving their husband’s cars and so we formed this all-girl racing circuit called the Miss America of Drag Racing. There were about six or eight of us and we wore tall boots, short shirts and had very long hair,” Bunny says.
The all-girl circuit traveled as far north as Maine and routinely held events in Maryland, Tennessee and Alabama. The series dissolved after a few years and was briefly reinvented under the moniker “Miss Universe of Drag Racing” before completely disbanding.
Unlike so many of her peers of the day, Bunny says she got along well with the boys and rarely encountered sexist or chauvinistic attitudes at the track. “I don’t know if it was because I had this atmosphere of being a married mother of two girls, or if it was because I established the reputation of having this attitude of being like, ‘Okay, fine, it’s a man’s world; I’m just happy to get to play in your playpen,’ but whatever the reason I didn’t experience a lot of bad attitudes, even back in the 1960s,” she says. In fact, Bunny ended up being something of a nurturing figure to a lot of people. “I used to give the guys Midol for their headaches; only they didn’t know they were taking Midol,” she laughs.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Bunny had become a die-hard racer with six seasons behind the wheel of her ‘67 Mustang, racing the car in classes that ranged from B-Stock Automatic, Super Stock, Super Gas and eventually Modified. She sold the car in 1972 in order to have a brand-new 1973 Pro Stock Pinto built. “That was a cool little car, but it was the most ill-handling thing ever!” She once put the car on its lid at Roxboro Dragway in North Carolina when the parachute got wrapped around the wheelie bars. The car tumbled a few times and eventually came to a stop upside down in a ditch. “Did I win?” she asked, when they opened her door to see if she was alright. “Yeah, lady, you won!” they told her.
Her Pro Stock career was short-lived though, as the desire to go faster was constantly nagging at her. Besides that, there was this rivalry raging with Henson, who had already made the move to Alcohol Funny Car. “It wasn’t a bitter rivalry by any means, but let’s just say we weren’t really good friends,” Bunny admits. The dueling drag racing females actually had a lot in common though. Both were Virginia residents, both attractive blondes and both had emerged from the glamorous ranks of the Miss Universe of Drag Racing circuit. “We were always trying to outdo each other, sort of a ‘Big Carol’ versus ‘Little Carol’ kind of thing,” Bunny remembers with another laugh.
With Henson already making the move to Funny Car and doing quite well at it, all eyes were on Bunny when she took the same path. “Drake Viscome had this Ford dealership up north and he had this 1976 Mustang Funny Car that was absolutely immaculate,” she says. The Mustang was among the nicest cars ever built in the 1970s, but competitive and fun to drive it was not. “It represented his car dealership nicely, but it was more of a show piece that I don’t believe was ever intended to race competitively.” Besides that, the seat would swallow up Bunny each time she hit the throttle. “All I saw was my eye sockets down in my helmet and blue sky!”
Her crew made some adjustments so Bunny would stay in the seat, but the car refused to go straight despite any amount of coercing. Bunny says she would launch, let off and coast down the track. This went on for awhile and her team began growing impatient. Meanwhile, “the other Carol” was doing quite well in her Funny Car and rumors began swirling that Bunny couldn’t cut it behind the wheel of a flopper. “There was no doubt in my mind that I could drive a Funny Car, but I also knew there was something bad wrong with this one,” she remembers telling her crew.
It just so happened there was a racer in the area who’d been making some hits in a Nitro Funny Car and Bunny persuaded her team to let this guy make some passes in her car and then gauge his reaction of how it drove. Well, his initial reaction was that of loud swearing after they picked him up in the shutdown area after his first hit. “To put it nicely, he said, ‘Ain’t nobody can drive that blankity-blank car!'” laughs Bunny. He did point out some things that helped, though, and Bunny ended up having the car front halved, but at the end of the day it was still quite heavy and not terribly competitive.
“The man who tested my car probably saved me because I don’t know that I would have went much further in my career, because at some point I would have been filled with self-doubt and asking myself if it really was me that was the problem,” she admits. Even though the car wasn’t winning races, it did put Bunny in front of a lot of people and her fame continued to spread. “I did a lot of shows and appearances with that car, and that’s the second part of being a race car driver.”
Shortly after the dawn of the 1980s, Bunny sold the Mustang-bodied car and debuted a beautiful new ‘82 Corvette Funny Car. The Vette was compact and light and fit Bunny perfectly. Few people realized it at the time, but between the ill-handling Pinto Pro Stocker and the show-quality (yet equally ill-conceived ’76 Mustang flopper) Bunny had become a very good driver. The swoopy new Vette showed well, as did all her cars, but this one went straight and was instantly competitive. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, has it been this easy all along?'”
Shortly thereafter, Bunny’s match-race stardom exploded and she was now a sensation not only in the states, but also in Canada. In outlaw-like fashion she routinely smuggled souvenirs across the border inside her hauler and would sell out every time. “We once even sold the shirts off the crew’s backs!” she laughs.
After a few seasons Bunny replaced the ‘82 Vette with a brand-new car that featured the next-generation 1984 Corvette body style. “I only ran that ‘84 Corvette for a single season, but in those days I was doing around 50 events per year, so that’s like five-years worth of racing these days!”
In 1985 Bunny teamed up with Bill Matheis and they contracted Dave Uyehara to build a state-of-the-art 1986 Chrysler Laser Funny Car for the upcoming season. During the winter, Mo and Bunny made several flights to Uyehara’s California-based race car shop. “We actually stuffed race car parts into suitcases and flew them to California on commercial jetliners. This was before they weighed your suitcases!”
After taking delivery of her brand-new Uyehara-built ride, Bunny towed it to Darlington, South Carolina, for the season-opening IHRA Winter Nationals. Her intention was mainly to unveil the car at a press conference and bring some exposure to the newly formed team. When she rolled into Darlington the new car had exactly two runs on it. When she left it was after hoisting the trophy in the winner’s circle!
Bunny continued to follow the IHRA circuit that year, won a bunch of rounds and ending up clinching the 1986 IHRA Alcohol Funny Car world championship. That same year she finished fourth in points in NHRA competition, highlighted by a win at the Keystone Nationals at Pennsylvania’s Maple Grove Raceway. Strangely enough, the Chinese zodiac sign for 1986 was the rabbit. “It really was the Year of the Bunny!” she declares.
Media outlets used the zodiac irony to headline stories while Bunny Burkett’s fame and fan base exploded. The team of Burkett and Matheis ended after just a single, highly successful season, however, after Bunny’s crew chief, Bill Barrett, suffered health problems and wasn’t able to travel to the extent he once did.
The seasons that followed were largely self-funded and Bunny returned to her match-racing roots. She had become a celebrity of the sport without even realizing it. By 1991 she was ready for a new look, so she reinvented her Funny Car operation with a slick, new ‘91 Dodge Daytona body to attach to her still sturdy and competitive Uyehara chassis. Reminiscent of her Darlington victory in 1986, Bunny debuted the car at the 1991 IHRA Winter Nationals and again found the winner’s circle!
In 1995 Bunny was ready to change her car’s appearance yet again, so she switched to the brand-new Dodge Avenger. Then disaster struck. While racing at Beaver Springs Dragway in Pennsylvania, Bunny’s career and life nearly ended after a high-speed crash while match racing Carl Ruth. The two cars touched at around the 1,000-foot mark when Ruth’s Crown Victoria hooked Bunny’s wheelie bars and immediately turned her Avenger sideways. Her car exited the track, hitting rocks, plowing through a field and eventually going through the woods where it cut down every tree it came in contact with. Longtime crew chief Gary “Bear” Pritchett was among the first of her crew to arrive. “He asked me if I was okay,” Bunny says. “I just opened my eyes and blood came gushing out of my helmet.”
It took 25 minutes for rescuers to get Bunny free from the wreckage. She suffered head trauma, broken legs and arms and a broken back. “I died three times that day; once on the stretcher and twice more in the helicopter on the way to the trauma center, but they were able to bring me back each time,” she says.
Bunny lay in a comma for three weeks. News of her crash leaked out and soon the hospital’s switchboard was jammed. And then came the flowers. The trauma center simply couldn’t contain them all, so they started sending the overflow to area hospitals and nursing homes.
“When I finally woke up and saw all the flowers I somehow thought I was at my own funeral,” she remembers. Her recovery wasn’t pretty and after nearly a year she still wasn’t walking. That’s when Mo had an idea. “He came to me one day and said, ‘I guess the only thing that’s gonna’ get you out of that wheelchair is another Funny Car, so let’s build you one!'”
“That was all I needed to hear,” Bunny says. Almost in miraculous fashion, Bunny summoned the inner strength to finish her recovery. Many onlookers were surprised she still had the will to race, but for Bunny the desire never waned. She even made her one-and-only-run in 1996 behind the wheel of a little girl’s Junior Dragster. “I wanted to be able to say that I’ve gone down the track every year since 1965!”
With her recovery complete (or at least as good as it was going to get), Bunny debuted a brand new Dodge Avenger at Virginia Motorsports Park during the 1997 NHRA Pennzoil Nationals. On her very first pass in the new car she clicked off a 6.43 ET and upon exiting the car she dropped to her knees and said a prayer. “Strangest thing happened at that very moment, it started to rain, just a little shower directly over me. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but suddenly there was this sprinkle of rain directly on me. That crash did something to me and I’m sure it’s not uncommon when something like that happens to someone. For me, I don’t put one foot in front of the other without saying, ‘Good morning, God, thank you for letting me be here.'”
Since returning in 1997, Bunny has been burning up the match racing circuit, still enters the occasional national event and has attended every Funny Car Nationals event at Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro, Virginia, for the last 42 years. She’s developed an otherworldly following as a result. “I’ve had three generations of fans come see me and tell me their parents brought them to see me race many years ago, and now they’re bringing their son or daughter. It’s just overwhelming.”
For Bunny, it’s been an amazing journey. At a time when a 50-year career should be winding down, all Bunny wants to do is add more cars. She’s now got a pair of Dodge Avengers as well as a nostalgia Corvette flopper and a 1975 Mustang Funny Car.
Amazingly, Bunny Burkett will turn 70 years old this year. She’s ready to race and the tracks are completely geared up for her 50th anniversary tour. “Retiring is just not in my vocabulary,” she laughs. And regardless of what the Chinese zodiac dials up in the way of a trend, to her legions of fans it will always be the “Year of the Bunny.”
This story appeared in DRAG ILLUSTRATED Issue No. 96. in February of 2015.