Long established veteran handler Annie Whiteley kicked off her 13th season of Top Alcohol Funny Car competition with a semifinal finish at the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series’ Western Region opener. “Not bad,” she assessed. “Things got a little stressful at times, changing the ignition to something we’ve never run before, but, all in all, I’d say it turned out all right.”

Frustrated by an erratic MSD command module that single-handedly cost the J&A Service/YNot Racing team three races last year, crew chief Mike Strasburg made the switch to a FuelTech setup for 2024. “From inside the car, the motor just sounds different now,” Whiteley said. “The idle is deeper. Throatier. We’re up there for the first test run and I look out the window at Jeff [Strasburg], like, ‘This thing sounds like a mud truck – you sure it’s OK?’ “

After a couple of test runs – one too soft and one a little too hard – the team got down to business Friday when qualifying officially got under way. Strasburg split the difference, and the car charged to the 1,000-foot mark, where, as planned, Whiteley clicked it off, coasting to a 5.71. On her second and final attempt, the “Shattered Glass” Camaro produced a fine 5.47 at 263.82 mph, good for No. 2 behind rookie Maddi Gordon, who went low with a 5.43 in her first start since taking over for her dad, outgoing world champion Doug Gordon.

Saturday afternoon in the first round of eliminations, Whiteley summarily dispatched the decent 5.60/262 of second-generation driver Will Martin, son of former nitro Funny Car racer John A. Martin, with a quicker and faster 5.46/265. In the semi’s, she narrowly lost to eventual winner Brian Hough, 5.47/265 to a right-there 5.48/267, just missing what would have been an all-female final round opposite Ms. Gordon.

Still, it was a decent start to the season and confirmation that the potentially perilous switch to an altogether different ignition system will pay dividends down the road. “That old command module cost us too many runs,” Whiteley said. “We didn’t even qualify at [the West Regional finale at] Vegas last year because of it. Nine cars, and who’s the one car that doesn’t qualify? Us. We kept sending it to them and they kept sending it back, saying, ‘It’s fine – run it.’ “

That won’t be the only major change to Whiteley’s machine for the season ahead. “We’re gonna try that thing Hough uses [the recently legalized two-step],” Whiteley said. “We’ve been struggling with this clutch-pedal extension and I’ve been struggling to cut a light for 12 years now. If I don’t roll in deep, I can’t get a light. I can tell you one thing, though: this car will still have a clutch pedal, no matter what. I’ll quit before I run a car without one.”