Hollywood Goes to the Darkside

By Hot Rod Jimmy – with Sherm Porter

Kris Krabill, the vaunted 2016 champion in NFC cars, has made the move back into Nostalgia funny car racing. He is doing it with a lot of help from his new friends; Smokey’s Darkside Funny car.

You may remember this car from the Central Coast of California running a couple of years ago with Mendy Fry as the driver. It was always a solid performer, and many times went rounds with the best of them.

Starting this year, Mendy moved over to handle the driver chores for Walt Steven’s Hi-Speed Motorsports nostalgia top fuel car. She won her first race with the car at the March Meet.

The hunt was on for a new driver for the Darkside car. They looked at drivers Devery Howard and Cory Lee.

The experience that Smokey has in motorsports is very storied, as well as legendary. Smokey hauled in the mainsails and let his entry go through a re-evaluation and refitting. Rich Howell came on board as a sponsor and crew member. The Arias Hemi Engine was one of the first things to ride into the sunset. Smokey did not let it go lightly; he had worked hard with the engine. Nick Arias Jr. had been one of the reasons that he had tried the engine. It was not for lack of power—the Arias hemi made tons of it. It was reliability and consistency that had him go with Alan Johnson power.

For the whole new day, they were going a different way. Things were falling into place and this car was going to now have the funding to make the show more often, than not. How was it they said it in the movie The Right Stuff? “What makes your bird fly? It’s funding…no bucks—no Buck Rogers.” Like so many cars and crews, they dream of going faster. In the end, they are restricted by what they can do to get the car to run with the money they have. Nostalgia Nitro is one of the biggest examples of this. So many things depend on what the car has for equipment. Many cars have just what it takes to make a pass, hoping against hope they don’t shed too many parts and can go a couple of rounds. The chassis is a Sherm Gunn Chassis, and a very famous one at that. This Chassis was bought some time ago by Don Nelson of California Hustler fame. Since Don is using a newer Victory Chassis, it was decided that Smokey would run the Sherm Gunn chassis and see what he could do with it. Smokey has reworked it and made it more effective than it ever had been before. Sherm Gunn won the 1984 World Finals at Pomona with this chassis. While this was a big show win, the cars back then were world class if they turned a 5.7.

Okay, so you’re asking how did Hollywood Kris Krabill become involved with all of this? How did he get his fingers wrapped around the butterfly steering wheel of the Darkside Funny Car?

The March Meet ended on Monday with Ryan Hodgson taking the final round over Kris Krabill in the brand new Bucky Austin – Mike O’Brian car. This was after a postponement of the final round from a rain/hail shortened race on Sunday.

Krabill caught fire when something in the gear drive let go. The fire was very intense and showed no signs of being knocked down by the onboard fire suppression system. As the car rolled to a stop, the great Fomosa safety crew was right on it. They got Kris safely out of the car, then knocked the fire down at once. The fire had been extremely hot and the car was very close to being totaled.

Rumors started floating around that, for one reason or another, the fire system had not worked. I asked Ryan Hodgson about it and he said that he had got out of his car and ran back. He said the fire system had worked. Then he thought about it. He said, “No come to think of it, I don’t think it did.” In the ensuing days, it seems tempers got the better of people. Nobody knows why the system did not work. The good part is that nobody got hurt or harmed.

Bucky fired Kris as the driver of the car saying that it was an agreed decision and that he wanted to go a different direction with his car. Kris and everyone on the Northwest Hitter car had been a successful combination for a long, long time. Kris moved over to running in the Big Show A Dragster—and took his Dayton Superior Sponsorship with him. He has been doing very well with the car.

Rich Howell was the go-between with Smokey and Kris. Kris loves running funny cars and was in hopes he could find a ride. Rich knew just the place. It seems the Central Coast of California is liking the Krabill family. Mike Peck, Kris’s father in law, is the newest driver of Don Nelson’s California Hustler Firebird.

So now a team has been formed with a driver who knows how to get it done, an owner/crew chief who knows every trick in the book, and a friend in Rich Howell that knows great racing when he sees it. Sponsors have come aboard because of these people. Kris is the raining NFC Champion so the car at the California Hot Rod Reunion carried the legendary number one as Kris’s number.

They tested the car with some success in September; it looked good and hooked up good. At the Hot Rod Reunion, it seemed to be a good match. The car ran in the 5.80s. For a lack of parts, though, they had to park it for the last round of qualifications. They had qualified for the ultra quick field at the patch with a 5.81. They sat on the bump spot for some time, then got bumped with a 5.80.

This must be considered a great outing though. The car ran well. The lack of parts was getting everyone. That old nitro parts warping demon was living on the big end of the track and snatching aluminum alloy parts and eating them like candy. A lot of people were shedding parts right and left. One car made three of the fastest runs in the field and oiled down the track every single time. They went home un-qualified, as did Smokey and the crew.

A new day has dawned here, though. A new killer car situation is becoming known. Kris Krabill is back—Smokey is back. The March Meet is the promise of a new day and a new chance. Ask me…I think the Darkside is golden.

We sat down and had a talk with Smokey about the changes and what is going on with the Darkside.

NHRM: Let’s get some of your history down first. Where did the name ‘Smokey’ come from?

SMOKEY: The Smokey nickname came from a friend of my dad’s when I was 6 months old…I am not sure why.

NHRM: Everyone has their start. What was that first spark that got you interested in drag racing to begin with? What got you to go to the track for that very first time?

SMOKEY: I use to go to Lions Drag Strip in the late 50’s and early 60’s. I raced a quarter midget alongside the drag strip. Most nights we would finish our races before the final round at the drag strip and we would sneak over and watch the finals. I ran my 56′ Chevy there a few times in the early 60’s.

NHRM: What is your history in racing that brings you to this point in time?

SMOKEY: I started in quarter midgets in 1957. We went to the Quarter Midget Nationals in Phoenix, Arizona in 1957. I went to look at the trophies on display and picked out the one I was going to win, with my mind made up. I was leading the race by a full lap when I was black flagged for dropping oil with only 1 lap to go. On the long ride home, I asked my dad if I could start building my own motors, which he agreed to. So, at 11 years old, I started building my own race motors. At 13 years old, I was supplying motors to 5 other drivers who all held track records at different tracks. In 1964, my dad bought a sprint car from Don Blair and we went sprint car racing at Ascot Park in Gardena. In 1966, I was unhappy with the car we had so I decided to build my own car. It was finished for the ’67 season, so after gradually sorting it out, we began to win races in May. We were leading the points at the end of the year and the group decided to hold one last race, and another (unnamed) driver spun us out and cost us the championship, and we finished 2nd. In 1967, I also went to the Indy 500 for the first time and served as a mechanic for Wally Dallenback and Chuck Stevenson. In ’70 I went to work for Parnelli Jones on Indy cars and stayed with them for 3 years. They won Indy in ’70, ’71, and National Championship in ’70, ’71, and ’72. I left to start my own fabrication business. I built midgets, sprint cars, and off-road cars. My cars have won Baja 500, 1000, and many other off-road races, and 40 plus sprint and midget races.

NHRM: I have been told you are akin to a legendary Nitro Wizard? So don’t be shy, tell us all about you.

SMOKEY: I just listen to what the engine tells me it wants. Nitro is heat and pressure sensitive, and you can control some of this by how you apply heat (engine temperature and fuel mixture) and pressure (clutch loading, compression, and gearing).

NHRM: How did the Darkside car come together in the first place?

SMOKEY: I have always worked on engines and chassis since my youth. A friend asked me if I would help them with their funny car and I foolishly said yes. After a while, I decided I needed to do my own car. I waited about a year trying to put something together. I went together with Rick Rogers who had a 392 Chrysler and we went to the March Meet to test. We managed to come out of the box with a 5.78.

NHRM: Where does the name Darkside come from?

SMOKEY: The name “Darkside” was suggested by our clutch man’s wife. It seemed to fit my personality.

NHRM: Last year you had Arias power. This year has been a year of rebuilding. You have changed a lot of things. You have gone away from the Arias motor, and have changed to an Alan Johnson based engine. Can you address the change?

SMOKEY: When Rick and I separated, I needed an engine. I had known Nick Arias for over 40 years and we decided to use his Chevy Hemi, as he felt it had never been given a chance. The engine hadn’t been improved for 30 years because they had built later versions which we weren’t allowed to run in NHRA. We made a lot of changes and managed to win a race and set low ET with a 5.72/252 mph. With Nick’s passing, our progress was greatly slowed. And knowing that if we continued to improve the engine (the only one running in NFC), the rules committee would eventually push us out. So, we changed to the same Chrysler that everyone else is running.

SMOKEY: Kris Krabill became available when he and Bucky parted. I had watched Kris win races by the way he manipulated the car and knew he would be an asset to our team. Rich Howell suggested he might be available to drive and I agreed we should get together.

NHRM: You have made crew changes as well. Who is on your crew and what do they do?

SMOKEY: We haven’t changed crew members much. Some members have had other commitments to meet and we have filled their vacancy. Our crew consists of: Vince Zorn, Scott and Nolan Sykes, Jeff Priest, Carlos Ramirez, Richard Rea, JR Duty, Blake Wallis, Ron and Kenny Steinberger, Steve Guichard, Sherm Porter, our cooks are my wife Barbara and Julie, Vince’s wife.

NHRM: Without a doubt, you are stepping it up to light the win light on a more consistent basis. New driver, different engine combo. What are all the things you need to address to make this car rattle the universe?

SMOKEY: The biggest change this year is that more people have come on board to help us financially. Without our sponsors, none of this would be possible. I would like to thank them at this time: Rich Howell, John Braun, Pioneer Automotive, Justice Bros., Lansco Engineering, Titan Speed, Knucklehead Graphics, Steve Guichard, CC Curtis, Westside Automotive, Jeffs Autoworks, Gene Barre Construction, Bill Miller, Airgas, Arias Racing Components, SCI Construction, JB Dewar, Howell Drilling, Colorcraft Printing and Sherm Porter Public Relations.

At the March Meet, this car is going to be a threat to a lot of other car’s way of life. While they just missed the field on the bump to run at the CHRR, I’ve a feeling that such will not be the case with both new driver and car. When I talked to Kris on the starting line, he was nice and relaxed and said he felt quite at home with the Darkside crew.

NHRM: Kris, while we here at NHRM know of you and about you, can you give us a background on where you come from, came up from, and how you got to this point in your fabled career?

KRIS: I started bracket racing at the age of 15 at LACR raceway with a ’70 Nova SS. It was a car that my father and I built in the garage. The day I turned 16, I was getting my license in a Super Comp dragster and raced SCEDA (Southern California Econo Drag Racing Association) and local Division 7 bracket races for the next couple of years. A lot of great racers came from SCEDA; Jack Beckman being one of them. When I turned 18, I lost my father to cancer and was not able to continue racing because of money. During that time, I had met Gary Turner; the face of GT Bicycles and longtime racer/car owner. I worked as a tire wiper for GT’s Top Alcohol dragster team for about 4 years and decided to go to college and get a business degree. After college, about a year later, I got a call from Gary saying he was looking at building a Nostalgia Funny Car. The class was just getting going and I think at the time after we built the car in 2005, there were only 6 cars. I was lucky to drive for Gary (he has been like a father to me) for 7 years until I had a chance to move to Seattle for a job promotion and drive for Bucky. It was hard to leave Gary as we had won a lot of races and he had done so much for me, but it was a great way to further my career and still be able to drive a top-notch funny car. In 2012, I started driving for Austin and O’Brien and wheeled the car until early 2017. A lot of different paths to get where I am at and a lot of hard work along with being associated with the right people. You must dedicate your life to it to succeed. That is what I have done!

NHRM: Kris, we were so glad to hear you were not hurt in the fire at the March Meet. You have gone on from there to drive A/Dragster on the Big Show circuit. Can you address all the changes that happened?

KRIS: Coming off a championship year with Austin and O’Brien, we headed into the March Meet early this year. During the final round, I had a huge fire and pretty much melted the car to the ground. After the race, I was fired from the team by Bucky and was told he was going a different direction. During our championship season, I had brought on a major sponsorship from Dayton Superior. Late last year, I was told that Dayton Superior wanted to step up their sponsorship for 2017 and I had brought that money to Austin and O’Brien for the season. After I was let go, it was tough because I had to go to the CEO and let him know I was fired from the team after we had just won the championship.  Like any changes in life, you pick yourself up and move on. Dayton and I agreed we wanted to get on a bigger stage with the Lucas Oil series and that is how I got into the A Fuel car. Dayton liked the idea of the TV coverage and options for hospitality.

NHRM: In talking to other drivers in NFC, there is a large amount of respect for you as a driver… a monster amount of respect, in fact. I am told you are one of the best leavers in the business. Is this a natural talent, or a talent you had to work hard at to have?

KRIS: My grassroots are bracket racing and in those classes, you must cut good lights. I have never been that guy to get on a practice tree. So much of being a great leaver is mental and that is what I focus on. Of course, there has to be some natural ability too.

NHRM: Being that great driver has led you behind the butterflies of the Darkside car now. What path did you take to get into this humble ride?

KRIS: I have known Rich Howell for some time—we used to ride Harleys and hang out in Orange County. After my departure from Austin and O’Brien, he said he was interested in doing something together and told me that Smokey and he were working on a program. Smokey called me and we talked at length. He told me he would not race unless we could get some parts gathered and do it right. I have always been a funny car guy and I am up for challenges and that is why I said yes to driving the car.

NHRM: We know you are one of the most killer drivers on the face of the earth. With that said, what else are you bringing to this nitro dance with the Darkside?

KRIS: I feel I can bring a lot. I have over 1,000 runs in these cars and know what it takes to get a car down a tricky track. I also have a good understanding of what makes these cars go fast. Right now, I am working on product sponsors and anything I can to help further our program.

NHRM: Is Dayton Superior coming along for the ride on the Darkside?

KRIS: Dayton is happy with the big show stuff—so, at this time, no. But you never know what can happen.

NHRM: In moving to the Darkside car at the 2017 NHRA Hot Rod Reunion, and since you are not going to be hauling the mail for points or a championship, are you going to turn loose the badger and set your hair on fire and just see what the car will do. Or try and be just cool and above it all?

KRIS: I have nothing to prove in the class. I have won two championships and won all the big races multiple times. Both Smokey and Rich are smart guys, so I feel we can get off the ground running. It might take a few laps to get the tune-up with the 426, but I think we can be competitive.

NHRM: Last year, you owned most of the season. That semifinal round pass at the March Meet was the things legends are made of. I saw it from the top end—one of the best passes I have ever seen in a funny car. How does a perfect run like that feel to you?

KRIS: There are a lot of things a driver can do wrong on a pass. Drag racing is the only sport where you have seconds to do everything right. These cars will rattle the tires a little when it is hauling ass because of the wheel speed. On that run, the car left hard and started rattling but I was able to drive through it. Another key ingredient is shifting the car at the right RPM so the pump speed and pressure is up. Lastly, it has to run hard on the top end and not burn up or drop cylinders. That run had great air and I was able to do everything right in the car.

NHRM: Do you think that the Darkside car can match up and run an endless string of 5.50s like you are used to?

KRIS: You will have to talk to Smokey and Rich on that one. ☺ If we get the combination right and I drive it right, anything is possible.

NHRM: You have a new child. How are you enjoying being a father? Is this your first time at being a father? And now to what everyone wants to know, have you got her a fire suit yet?

KRIS: My beautiful wife and myself have an 11 month-year-old daughter, Kinslee Paige Krabill. She is our first child and she is our world. She just starting walking yesterday and every day she is doing something new. I will support her in anything she wants to do. Of course, I will nudge her to race. ☺

NHRM: What is it like to see your first child walk for the first time?

KRIS: It is crazy. Every day she is doing like 10 more [new] things. It just overwhelms me.

NHRM: There will be conflicts between your Big show schedule and the Nostalgia schedule. How will all of this be handled?

KRIS: I really don’t see a lot of conflicts this year. We will have to see if Dayton wants to continue for next year and at that point, I will work through any conflicts.

The Darkside is going to light up the central coast of California. We are just hoping Sherm gets some good shots of it.

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