Choo Choo Mama Nitro Funny Car – Shawn Van Horn

By Al Heisley - Photos By Sherm Porter

To get started, in addition to driving the Choo Choo Mama Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car Shawn’s a mechanic in the local vineyards of Paso Robles, California.

“Yes, that’s correct. You did your homework. The company I work for is Justin Vineyards which is owned by Stewart Resnick. Who also owns Fiji Water, Wonderful Nurseries, Wonderful Pistachios and Almonds. It’s a pretty good little company.”

Are you the owner and driver of the NFC?

“Well, I drive it. We’re kind of partnered up with the actual owner, Jim Reed. If you followed the boat drags in the 70’s and 80’s he was world champion in ’83, and then he partnered up with Jim Glenn, of the Shady Glenn Funny Car fame, in another hydro boat.”

“Jim was sponsored by Brendella in ’85 when he fell out of the flat Hydro and lost his leg.”

Really?

“Yeah, it was the same race in Phoenix when Eddie Hill fell out of his for the last time and said he’s done with boats.”

Tell me about your Dad’s start in racing.

“Oh, my dad, he’s, he was racing in the 70’s and 80’s, the early 80’s, until he and my mom divorced. After that, he built me a junior dragster. It was the year they came out. I think it was, like, ’92.”

“I ran that junior car a little bit until I got married at 19. Because I was really starting my own life as an adult, we kind of took a racing break for a few years. Then, Rick Rogers, the driver of Charlie O’Neill’s Fighting Irish Nitro Funny Car, asked me to come back and help them out.”

“He kind of pulled back me in to help work on that car in 2014.”

“And, that same year Jim Reed bought a fuel altered from John Dunn back east.”

“I just happen to be at the right place at the right time. I was going to crew on the altered with another guy driving. But, that deal kind of fell apart. So, Jim asked me if I wanted to drive it. And I said yes.”

“Anyway, I made a racing career change with that altered.”

“I put five laps on Jim’s BBC Nova straight axle Gasser and we were done. Next, the altered came out and we went to the test ‘n tune before the 2015 March Meet. That’s where I licensed.”

“So, yeah, it was a big jump going from 10.60’s in the Gasser to I think I ran a 6.80, oh yeah, a 6.80 on my fifth pass.”

“And not quite as straight as the Gasser either.”

“The fuel altered we ran was a transformer-style, the body was attached to the same chassis that’s under the Funny Car now. So, it is a full wheelbase. It’s a ’98 McKinney car.”

“The transformer fuel altered deal, I didn’t really see a whole lot of future with that. So, Jim and I decided to get a funny car body. We ran the fuel altered for a year and a half. And, then we bought the NFC body and I hung it on the chassis here in my shop. We decided to race at the 2016 Hot Rod Reunion; that was our date to have the funny car finished.

Let’s see what’s next. Now, you’re driving the Funny Car. Do you like driving it even though there’s so much difference between it and the altered? Do you like driving it better than the altered?

“No, no, I really miss the altered.”

Do you?

“Yeah.”

The time and expense, and effort to change everything over, you miss the altered!

“There was a reason we switched. It was because it was a transformer-style fuel altered.”

Hm, hmm.

“That way we could race the March Meet in the 6.0 fuel altered class. Then, we could race the Nightfires in Boise. And, that’s in a week and one-half. And that’s it. They’re the only two races for the altered. Unless you get booked in for a match race. We thought that we only wanted to run the Reunion with the funny car. But after some thought, we decided to switch it over to the funny car.”

“Yeah, except for the hanging the body on it, we just had to buy a smaller blower and a different fuel pump. And, then the big learning curve.”

I bet.

“Yeah, we went from having more than enough fuel and air, to not enough.”

“If there would have been some more racing, we would’ve stayed with the altered. The altered was fun. You would leave with the front wheels up for about 300 feet, and it would settle down. And, then at about 1,000 feet, because it has that big wing on the back, they’d pick back up, the front wheels would pick back up, so if you weren’t pointing straight, that thing was going across the track. It was unpredictable and just kind of fun. Every lap was something different.”

“The funny car, especially with the body we have, it’s an old body, it’s heavy. So, the front end, it has manners. That’s what I say. You know, what’s the difference between a funny car and the altered is, the Funny Car has manners. It’s more predictable, it’s still moving around going down that track, but it’s not nearly as unpredictable.”

What kind of times have you run with the Funny Car?

“We just ran a 6.18. That’s the fastest we’ve gone so far.

Okay. And, of course, there’s a hell of a lot more in it.

“So far, I haven’t made a full pass, because we have a new crew chief, Chris Nance.”

Oh, okay.

And, he won’t let me. He kind of stopped us from what we were doing and saved us from ourselves.”

“And, he’s keeping us safe at 60-foot, then when it’s safe at 300-foot, then it’s safe at half track. Right now, we’re at 1,000 foot. And, he’s comfortable at that. So, we’ll be doing some full pulls real soon.”

Good. He’s got the experience, he’s got a lot of experience.

“Yeah. And, he’s a real good buffer between Jim and I. Chris explains exactly what he wants to do, too, Jim, and why he wants to do it. Jim’s very comfortable with Chris. Chris has given us a lot of confidence this year, that we can go out and just not murder the car.”

Good. Now, are you still going to run the altered?

“No. We sold the body. But, then I hung the Funny Car, I can hang another altered.”

Sure.

“If some opportunities come up for the altered, then yeah. If they can get another couple of races; if we can hook up with some match racing.”

“We’re a low budget team. But, we are willing to travel, and our crew is all volunteer. They’re willing to sleep in the trailer to go racing. So, if we could do something that was ten hours or so; I mean, if they had a Vegas race, we’d be there.

“Sacramento’s been good to us, and Bakersfield has been really good to us.”

“But, there’s just not a whole lot else, without going to Boise, or up to Seattle, and Spokane.”

Yes. How about Woodburn?

“Woodburn? I don’t know. We might do that if someone called us.”

“But, that’s probably a 12-hour drive for me.”

Is it?

“We’ll go to Boise when the car will run 5.80’s at Bakersfield.”

“But, there’s no point in going and playing in their sandbox if we’re just going to be sitting on the bench.”

“We have good parts, we have a good car. We have just as good of stuff as they have, we just don’t have the right combination yet.”

Well, I think Chris will be able to help you a lot there.

Tell me a little bit about yourself personally, and a little bit about Jim Reed, personally. What you know, and what you can say, and what you want to say.

“Yeah, I live in Paso Robles, California. I’m an equipment mechanic in the vineyard business, or in the vineyard industry. This is a family deal with us. My wife is my back-up girl. We’ve got a little boy, Bode, he’s two.”

“My dad is kind of our primary sponsor, he’s the A&W franchise in our area and he’s the guy in the trailer, making sure that everybody has all the stuff they need at the track.”

“My little brother does the clutch.”

“My childhood best friend works on the right side of the motor. My brother’s best friend is the bottom-end diver.”

“It’s all one happy family here.”

“Jake, he does the left side of the motor, and his dad is our chef. And, we have the best food of any nostalgia race team. That I can guarantee.”

“Perfect. During the day we have deep fryers and a grill, so anything A&W has, we have. And, then at night, we have BBQ; anything from ribs to tri-tip steaks, it’s quite nice.”

Now, what are the names of the people on your crew? Could you read those off, and what they do?

“Yeah. Let’s see, so my dad, Craig Van Horn, he is the car chief?

“Chris O’Dell”

“There’s an apostrophe in that O’Dell.”

“He is the right side.”

Jacob Zalusky, he’s the left side.

Shane Milinich.

He’s the diver.

Nick Van Horn is the clutch. Nick also is the guy that I trust to go over the car before I drive it down the track. It’s his eye that’s over it. He always straps me in. Even when I drove the Fighting Irish, he strapped me in. He pulls me up to the lights. He’s kind of my familiarity ticket on the track.”

What’s your wife’s first name?

“Krista.”

“And, Bode? He’s got to be the motivator, right?”

“Yeah, Bode, B-o-d-e, like the skier.”

“And, then there’s Norm, Norm Haggard, and he’s fuel and oil.”

“Alright, Norm H-a-g-g-a-r-d?”

“And George Bosy. He’s at the shop working almost every night and he’s the guy that sells T-shirts out of the trailer at the races. George is a big help to us all.

“And then, of course, Chris Nance.”

“And, then Jim Reed, he’s our owner.”

“Jim; Jim and Karen Reed.”

“R-e-e-d. Gotcha. Alright, what other cars have you driven?”

“I drove the Fighting Irish at the Drag Fest this year because Rick had some neck issues. And, that’s it. So, just the Choo Choo and The Fighting Irish.”

What goals does the team have?

“Yeah, this year I qualified for the March Meets. And, next year to win it.”

That’s great. Now, you’re going to the Reunion, right?

“Yeah, we are.”

Is that your next race?

“We’ve got the Governor’s Cup in Sacramento.”

“But, I think that’s just a little two hit match race with Bill Windham.”

Bill’s a great guy and one tough competitor.

“Yeah, yeah. He is. And, I can’t say anything bad about any of these guys in this sport.”

“Yeah. Even Bucky as he kicks all our asses. That’s the only thing I can say bad about him, is…

He’s got quite a program this year.

“He’s a hell-of-a-tuner, and he’s a hell-of-a-driver, himself.”

“Yep, and they just, they put more laps on it than anybody else, and he’s an Austin.”

“You know, there’s just an unfair advantage being an Austin.”

Yeah, that’s true. Between him and Walt, they’ve got more experience than anybody out there. Yeah, and Pat, too. Throw him into the mix.”

“Yeah, exactly. The grandson Drew. That’s the grandson that’s running A-Fuel?”

“He’s coming up in the Funny Cars next year, and that’s going to be a whole ‘nother one that’s going to kick our ass.”

“Yeah, they got their engine approved.”

“Yeah. I’m excited about that. I don’t see how a different engine can be that big of an advantage.”

Do they have the new engine approved?

“The Ford FE that Walt built in the ’90’s, to run alcohol with.”

“Yeah. So, it’s a Ford FE bore spacing, and then hemi-style head.”

“It’s the same motor they’re running with A-Fuel.”

Alright. And they’re building it themselves, right?

“Uh, huh.”

Okay.

“Yep.”

Wow. That’s something’.

“Yeah, it really is. But, you know, it’s not an advantage. It’s a 500 cubic inch max, and that’s it! A motor is still a motor.

A motor is a motor. Yeah.

“Smokey, Smokey proved that!”

“Smokey beat us all with the Arias a couple years ago at Saturday Night Nitro.”

I know, I saw that. I was there.

“So, it doesn’t matter. A motor’s a motor. It’s the pump and the blower, that’s going to make the difference. And, the brain.”

Hm, hmm. Yeah. Okay.

“So, anyway, back to the people involved in our team. Jim Reed, he’s a draftsman, in Paso Robles. He’s sitting on the city council right now as an elected city councilman.”

“He retired from drag boats in ’84.”

“I think he had one or two world championships in alcohol flats, with Jim Schubert tuning. And, then he, of course, got hurt and raised a family. And, then, kind of got drug back into it with Rick, as well. Yeah, I don’t know all you want to know about him.”

Well, that’s enough. I just wanted to get the basics.

“Okay.”

Tell me about the car.

“OK, it’s a ’98 McKinney.”

“’77 Trans Am body.”

“It’s a TF-X, 500 cubic inch TF-X, AJ heads. It’s got that SSI pocket that new hot shit SSI blower.”

Yeah.

“F4 deep pocket.”

Okay, what kind of crank is in it?

“Bryant.”

“Carrillo Rods.”

“Venolia pistons.”

Okay. Who’s your basic valve train?

“Stage 5, Rockers, AGA Redstands, Bullet Cam, we have two speeds. We’ve got a 4:60, a 4:10 rear, a Strange top loader.”

Okay. And, what kind of tires are on them?

“Mickey Thompson’s.”

All the way around?

“Oh, no, the fronts are M&H’s.”

Alright, and I’ve got the crew, and I’ve got the car. What do you do for a hauler? Anything special?

“I’ve got a 34-foot pusher motorhome and a 30-foot box trailer.”

“A Duncan, we’re not a big rig by any means. A small fish in a big pond out there.”

That’s okay. You know there’s a lot of people who wish they were doing what you’re doing.

Oh, yes. I’m tremendously lucky there.

Thanks, Shawn. I’ll be in touch soon.

“OK, Al, thanks for getting us out there.”

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