Della Woods: Female Funny Car Pioneer

July 1, 2016

Brother and sister team Bernie and Della Woods built this first nitro Funny Car, a Logghe chassied, Dodge Charger bodied car they called “Bernella’s Funny Honey”. 

Story by Jim Hill

Talented female race drivers are now commonly seen in all forms of motorsports. Once an almost all-male domain, motor racing has come to accept and embrace the contributions that ladies in helmets have made. It wasn’t always that easy. Girls like Della Woods came up through the ranks at a time when they were not only shunned, but banned from the driver’s seat.

Racers can be a superstitious lot, and one of the unfounded, superstitious phobias claimed that “women in the pits is bad luck”. (Huh?) Another revolved around the bad luck created by eating peanuts and dropping the shells in the pits. Also, race cars were bad luck if painted any shade of green! (Really, I’m not making this up!)

Girls were prohibited from driving race cars because of nothing more than the harshest form of sex bias. It just wasn’t done, and track operators nearly always sided with those who thought women were best suited for making sandwiches and sitting quietly in the stands. In the switched-on 21st Century, such thinking has become archaic and laughable.

In drag racing a handful of luminary female drivers grabbed the brass ring and became barrier-breakers. Among those were Ohio’s grand dame of supercharged Gassers, Barbara Hamilton. Next came Schenectady, New York’s fiery Shirley Muldowney, and from Lake Orion, Michigan, Della Woods.

Della and her brother, Bernie Woods, were born in Detroit but grew up on a farm outside Pontiac, Michigan. Repairing and maintaining farm machinery fostered Bernie’s mechanical interests, but it was horsepower and speed that sparked their collective curiosity. From an early age, both were fascinated by the sport of drag racing. Growing up close to racing-obsessed Detroit explains much of that interest. Some of their earliest memories were of local Detroit pop radio station CKLW blasting “Sunday! Sunday! At Detroit Dragway!” radio spots. (The powerful AM rock radio station CKLA was actually in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, based studios, across the Detroit River, but it was powerful enough to reach across Ontario and the U.S.)

When both were in their late teens Bernie built a ’63 Dodge Polara powered by a 426 Max Wedge. A 426 wedge in a lightweight Dodge sedan was a very potent combination, but not without the need for preparation and tuning guidance. Bernie’s curious nature led him to seek and find help in maximizing the potential of the Dodge and its 450+ hp, 426 engine. Della went with her brother to nearby Motor City Dragway, north of Detroit, near Mt. Clemens, Michigan.

On a whim, she jumped in and made a 12-second, 120 mph run in the Super Stocker. Della was immediately enamored with the sensation of speed. She began by running a couple all-female “Powder Puff” races. Her ability quickly exceeded the powder puff format and she soon moved into the regular eliminators. There competed against the all-male fields, winning a few while gaining the respect of fellow drivers.

Della Woods was one of drag racing’s earliest female drivers to climb into a nitro Funny Car. Her courage and skill opened the door for many other female drivers. Here Della poses proudly with her plaque after being inducted into the 2015 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame, last October, in Henderson, NC.

Bernie’s next effort was with a ’65 Dodge Hemi 426 Super Stocker. It had a famous pedigree in being the famous “Lawman” Dodge owned and driver by Detroit attorney Al Eckstrand. Della made many runs in that car, but both the drag racing siblings wanted more.

Bernie wanted to build a car that was faster… a lot faster. He spent the long Michigan winter converting the Dodge Polara into a homebuilt Funny Car. Its all-steel body and less than pro-quality components were of course, a handicap. The car was heavy and not as quick as competitors, but with Della driving and Bernie tuning, they began to accumulate an impressive amount of hands-on knowledge. They named the car “Bernella”, the combination of “Bernie” and “Della”. Although not the quickest and fastest car in the field, they were competitive with Bernie’s tuning and Della’s on-the-Tree driving.

Della’s early success did not come without issues. She had easily qualified for her Funny Car license. Della’s qualifying runs were witnessed and signed by legends Don Garlits, Roger Lindamood and fuel altered driver Don Kohler. From out of the blue, NHRA issued a letter that suspended her license. There was no stated reason, nor any questionable “incidents”. The only possible reason was her gender. After several more attempts and additional endorsements from other qualified, licensed drivers the association reinstated her competition license.

It was painfully obvious that sanctioning officials looked unfavorably upon a female driver competing against men, and maybe beating them! Those sexist fears likely had less to do with gender prejudice than concern for a tidal wave of bad publicity should a woman or spectators be killed at an event. After considerable pressure, NHRA, AHRA and IHRA finally, unanimously declared that when properly trained and equipped, the girls were equally capable as drivers in any drag racing category, including Funny Car and Top Fuel.

Della Wood’s’ ’68 Dodge Charger provided a backdrop for the go-go boots and fashionably stylish mini-skirt sported by Miss Woods. Della’s brother Bernie’s capable wrenching kept the small-budget race team going in its early days. Della was a favorite with fans, especially the ladies, and she always took steps to sign autographs and interact with the spectators.

Meanwhile, with their sanctioning battle won, it was time to focus on making the “Bernella” team more competitive. In 1968 Della and Bernie built a new ’68 Dodge Charger bodied Funny Car with a blown, 426 Hemi engine. The new car carried a new name as well, and the “Funny Honey” began taking match race bookings throughout the Midwest and on the east coast. The fans wanted to see how the girl driver ran against other headliner Funny Cars. Maybe it was just out of curiosity or perhaps the guys really wanted to see Della fail. Regardless of the motive, track operators were eager to book the new Funny Car for a “Battle of The Sexes” and their match race bookings took off.

The new ’68 Charger was slick and professional, with a current Logghe chassis and all the right pieces. Running big numbers wasn’t possible however.  The Funny Honey team raced mainly out of pocket. Spare parts were expensive and even minor engine damage could be catastrophic to an under-funded, nitro Funny Car team. Big power and headliner speeds were just a twist of Bernie’s wrenches away, but so were big expenses for engine damages. They maintained their conservative, don’t-hurt-it, tune-up combination, and relied on Della’s driving to provide an edge.

In 1972 Bernie got married, and family considerations caused him to exit the Funny Honey show. Della carried on, and became associated with De Nichols, a GM engineer and owner of local precision machine shop, N&S Automotive. Nichols became Della’s crew chief, tuner and more. The long trips on the road led to a romance and in 1976 they married. The family team continued successfully for several more years, until the costs of running a nitro Funny Car forced their retirement in 1989.

In 1996 they once again felt the itch, and staged a comeback. Della and Dee first bought the “Fighting Irish”, a Gen2 Pontiac Trans-Am formerly raced by Tim Beebe and Dick Rosberg. They stepped up again by purchasing Chuck Etchell’s Funny Car, the first FC to officially break the 300 mph barrier for Funnies. Their on-again racing career was short-lived however. It ended when the reality of the obscene costs of today’s fuel racing without major sponsorship again forced them into retirement.

During her career Della Woods not only broke through drag racing’s “glass ceiling”, she also blew away several speed barriers for female FC drivers. She was the first woman to go over 220, 230 and then 240 mph. In 1984 she won the Olympics of Drag Racing, an historic and prestigious event at Great Lakes Dragway.

The obscenely high costs of running a national caliber Funny Car forced Della to pursue mainly a match race program at the end of her career. This Dodge Omni was her last race car.

Della has also paid her dues in racing generated injuries. Racing legend Smokey Yunick called this “sheet time”, meaning the time spent recovering in a hospital bed following a racing accident.

1986 saw Della’s first real exposure to “sheet time”. Racing at Phoenix’s Firebird Raceway Della had a major engine explosion and a big fire that was followed by a bad crash. As the flames grew the car’s body was instantly engulfed and flaming bits flew high. When the track’s emergency first responders reached her Della was alive but seriously injured. Her multi-layered firesuit did its crucial job and protected her from the inferno, save for a few minor burns. Her other injuries were not so minor. Della spent several weeks recovering from a concussion, broken ribs, a bruised kidney and contusions resulting from the incident. The recuperation from the incident was lengthy, and painful, but Della persevered.

Accidents and injuries are a part of racing. Della Woods always accepted that risk as an unfortunate downside to the sport of going very fast. Throughout her career that never hampered her desire to drive and race again. Within a few months she was ready to go again. This is not at all a personal death-wish, but the desire to prove one’s worth in facing a challenge, and triumphing over the fear generated by a major crash and resulting injuries.

In 1999 Della Woods was justly honored for her lifetime racing career with a well-deserved and timely induction into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame. This now proudly places her in the same company as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield. Della’s accomplishments included listing her as “Drag Racing Driver”, without the asterisk denoting “Female driver”. Being judged by her talents and accomplishments rather than her gender was always a goal for Della.

Now 75, Della has seen and done so much in her lifetime. One of her greatest triumphs is in being a healthy survivor of breast cancer. Della Woods is a Michigander from start to finish. Della continues to live in the Lake Orion, Michigan area, near Pontiac.

The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame is proud to include Funny Car pioneer and talented, successful driver Della Woods as a member of the 2015 class of inductees.