When the name’s Bob Elliott and the Northern Force are mentioned in the same sentence, you know that a great story is likely to follow. Those two names combined created one of the greatest Funny Car racing careers in the history of Canadian drag racing. Thought by Todd Veney, a staff writer for National Dragster, to be one of only three known drag racing competitors in the world to have driven all three types of Funny Car in his career, Bob Elliott and his Northern Force left a lasting impression throughout Canada and the Mid-Eastern United States. To his credit over the 13 year span that he drove Northern Force branded Funny Cars, from 1980-1993, are several distinct accomplishments.
From 1986-1990 he did double duty behind the wheel of noted tuner John Rossitter’s potent Alcohol Funny Car and in his own Northern Force Jet Funny Car. In 1989, driving John Rossitter’s Alcohol Funny Car, he became the first, and thus far only, Canadian to set a National Hot Rod Association speed record in the Alcohol Funny Car division, setting that mark at a late season event hosted in Bradenton, Florida. He covered the quarter-mile racing distance at more than 233 miles per hour that day, running in a lane that the majority of his competitors couldn’t navigate due to a large bump at half-track where the racing surface transitioned from concrete to asphalt. That was the highlight of a three year span that saw Elliott and Rossitter dominate the NHRA regulars at national and divisional events, often setting top speed of the meet and qualifying in the top five positions.
During that same time frame, Elliott was running approximately 30 events per year in his Jet Funny Car where he became a pioneer of change in that exhibition division. Constantly pushing the performance envelope, he was often included in the quickest and fastest side-by-side runs in the history of the class and held more than 50 track records across the United States and Canada. With his background in heads-up racing Elliott brought a level of professionalism to the class and was a catalyst for the implementation of pro-tree starts for the whole of the category. From the time he entered into competition in 1986 until he last competed in the division in 1991, driving for the Dustman Brothers of Malvern, Ohio, the class performance standards were lowered from 6.6 second, 250 mile per hour quarter-mile runs to mid 5.7 second, 290 mile per hour performances, with Elliott and his Northern Force leading that charge. 17 years later, Elliott still ranks amongst the top 20 in all time performances in that class and is considered to be one of the top four drivers in the history of that racing division alongside names like Roger Gustin, Dick Rosberg and Al Hanna.
In 1992, Elliott and long-time tuner John Rossitter decided to ascend to the pinnacle of Funny Car racing, putting plans into motion that would see them field Canada’s lone Fuel Funny Car program at the time. With two national events in Canada on the schedule, one in NHRA competition hosted just outside of Montreal, Quebec and another under International Hot Rod Association sanctioning at the legendary Dragway Park in Cayuga, Ontario, the 1993 debut seemed like a perfect scenario for this dynamic duo. Unfortunately for the team, threats of a ban on leaded racing fuels from the Ministry of the Environment spooked the NHRA enough that it pulled its event from the schedule, and a cost cutting measure by the IHRA saw the removal of the Fuel Funny Car class from its events altogether. Now, with more than $150,000 invested into a brand new race car, the team decided to make a go of it running NHRA events in the United States. This lead to Elliott becoming the first Canadian to qualify at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana in Fuel Funny Car competition in eight previous seasons. That also served as the team’s last event, with budgetary concerns forcing them to the sidelines permanently. Although it was a short-lived journey it did fulfill the dream for Elliott, who since first watching a funny car go down the track some 25 years earlier, had dreamed of driving one on the biggest stage drag racing has to offer.
Elliott began driving funny cars in 1980 behind the wheel of a Trans Am bodied Alcohol Funny Car. His impetus to get behind the wheel of a “flopper”, as they are commonly referred to, was the likes of legendary drivers such as “Jungle” Jim Libermann and Al Segrini. For the next three seasons, Elliott and his partners Bill and Vince Vanni blazed a path on the local scene, taking that first car to its performance limits, only to purchase the 1981 NHRA national record holding and NHRA championship winning Alcohol Funny Car of legendary tuner Ken Veney. This car, combined with the driving abilities of Elliott, led the team to numerous prestigious victories at NHRA divisional events and propelled them into first place in the NHRA national point’s standings during 1982 and 1983, ranking them #1 against the best competitors from across North America. Their four year run was noted as one that significantly raised the stature of Alcohol Funny Car racing across central and eastern Canada. From being one of the first teams in North America to utilize a semi-tractor and trailer combination as a marketing tool, to 1/8th mile burnouts and matching crew uniforms, their professionalism and showmanship was unmatched at the time in the Alcohol Funny Car ranks.
Elliott’s off-track persona and reputation were as well-known as his driving skills on the track. From 1984-1986 he served as the track announcer and coordinated with track owner’s John and Sharon Fletcher, 2013 inductees to the Hall of Fame, as part of the event operations team at Dragway Park in Cayuga, Ontario. His colourful analysis of the racing events and impromptu contests and information sessions to keep the fans entertained during down-times were revered at the facility. At the conclusion of the 1984 season, ‘Dizzy’ Dean Murray presented him with an award on behalf of Molson Breweries recognizing his outstanding public relations talent. Elliott’s time spent in the announcer’s booth led to his inclusion as the colour commentator as part of the GM Motorsports Hour’s foray into drag racing programming in the early 90′s where he worked with noted NASCAR radio personality Dave Moody. He was also asked on several occasions to participate in charity events for organizations such as Scouts Canada, The Lions Club, Kiwanis and the Drag Racing Association of Women (DRAW). In the late 1970′s Elliott co-founded and served as the President of the Sportsman Racers Association of Ontario and Western New York. As the President of this group, his mandate was to keep the best interests of the sportsman racers in mind while negotiating with local tracks and sanctioning bodies. Throughout his entire career, Elliott was an outspoken proponent of organized racing events and authored several editorials in regional newspapers that were aimed at promoting the positive side of racing at sanctioned facilities.
Elliott’s most recent involvement in the sport has shown his true rank among Canadian drag racing’s best. Although linked to tragedy, his most recent contributions may well have been the most significant of his off-track career to this point. After the untimely death of Jet Dragster pilot and close friend, Jack Dustman, in a high speed racing accident at Grand Bend Motorplex in 2001, Elliott was asked to be a special advisor to the Ontario Coroner’s Office and the Ontario Provincial Police’s investigation team assigned to the crash. In his role he was given the duty of housing the wreckage and analyzing both it and the television footage from the event closely so that he could present his findings in an official statement to the Ontario Coroner’s Office. One year later, in 2002, he was asked to provide his insights into a crash at Toronto Motorsports Park where the driver of a Jet Dragster lost his arm in a top-end accident. In 2006, he was once again called into action when 18 year old Kendall Hebert perished in a top-end crash at more than 300 miles per hour in her Jet Dragster while testing at Toronto Motorsports Park in Cayuga, Ontario. In this case, he was asked by the Ontario Provincial Police to provide his insight as the resident expert on these types of racing vehicles and was given the task of analyzing witness statements and video footage of the accident.
It’s been nearly 45 years since Bob Elliott made his first pass down a quarter mile drag strip at St. Thomas Dragway in Sparta, ON in 1964. Throughout those years he has cemented his name in history as one of the premier Funny Car drivers in Canada and still remains as the greatest Canadian Jet Funny Car pilot of all-time. His prowess behind the wheel will see him forever recognized as one of the premier drivers in the history of Canadian drag racing and his recent contributions towards improving the safety of the sport will undoubtedly allow him to leave his mark on history as well, albeit in a more subtle way than he did as a flamboyant personality during his driving career.
Image via Canadian Drag Racer