Al Hofmann, last of the 'tough guy' racers, dies at 60

Updated: March 20, 2008, 11:49 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

Al Hofmann, the belligerent archrival of the NHRA's Funny Car king, John Force, died suddenly on Thursday of a massive heart attack at his Eustis, Fla., home at age 60.

Hofmann won a total of 15 NHRA national events, but his lasting claim to fame will be his unforgettable head-to-head dustups with Force, whom the 14-time POWERade champion once called "the toughest SOB I've ever raced against."

[+] EnlargeAl Hofmann
Ken Levine/Getty ImagesAl Hofmann, posing at the Winternationals at Pomona Raceway in 1992, won 15 career NHRA races and finished in the top 10 in points seven times.

Hofmann grew up on the East Coast and like many drag racers of his generation, began his career in homebuilt hot rods and secondhand race cars. In 1979, he purchased a used Chevy Vega fuel coupe from another racer who had built a newer machine. Hofmann immediately took the car to his friend Sid Waterman, another up-and-coming drag racer at the time who would eventually establish a successful high performance fuel pump company.

Waterman remembers, "Al didn't know the first thing about running that car. When he first got into it, he started looking for the ignition key to start it. I told him he needed to completely disassemble the car and learn what every piece on it was. And he did it."

With his wife at the time, Helen, Hofmann promoted a string of nitro Funny Cars and gained the reputation of a scowling, ill-tempered roughneck who could find a way to muscle any race car down any racetrack. He seemed to relish the image and when Force ascended to the highest ranks of the category, Hofmann never missed an opportunity to remind the popular superstar he was gunning for him.

In 1997 at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., Hofmann suffered a near-fatal accident at the top end of Gainesville Raceway when seconds after defeating Mark Oswald in the final round, Hofmann's engine exploded, sending the Funny Car into the guardrail at close to 300 mph. Hofmann sustained a compound fracture of the right arm, broken ribs, and second degree burns. He was airlifted to Gainesville Medical Center for treatment while his team received the winner's trophy in his absence. It was the first and only time in NHRA history that an event winner failed to appear at the postrace winner's circle ceremonies.

Hofmann retired from racing in 2002 and with his second wife, Susie, operated a classic and custom car restoration shop back in his home state of Florida. In an interview last year, Hofmann admitted he missed the excitement of his tumultuous racing career but that "I'm glad I walked away when I did. When all that money came into the sport, a lot of the fun went out."

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.