Ronnie Swearingen, a highly respected tuner for countless top nitro Funny Car and Top Fuel teams, passed away Oct. 10 in Hemet, Calif. He was 63.

“He was a crew chief for (Top Fuel driver) Lori Johns, Tommy Johnson Jr., Freddie Neely, Al Segrini, Phil Castronovo and Billy Meyer, and he and Whit Bazemore go way, way back,” said Dennis Swearingen, Ronnie’s cousin, and fellow drag racer. “There is a long list of drivers, I could go on and on. He was one of those guys who got a lot of drivers their very first NHRA win.”

Dennis, who now works on Krista Baldwin’s Top Fuel Dragster, said Ronnie just had a way with cars.

“I just think he just understood the car,” Dennis said. “It was funny because he couldn’t always explain why he was doing something he just knew that’s what needed to be done. It was kind of strange. He had a knack or a feeling. He knew this is what we have to do and by golly it would work.  He wasn’t an Austin Coil, but there were a lot of similarities there.”

In 1990, Ronnie turned heads when he tuned nitro Funny Car driver KC Spurlock to the 1990 Winternationals victory in Spurlock’s Funny Car debut. Spurlock beat John Force, R.C. Sherman, Bruce Larson and in the finals, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch.

He tuned Spurlock in the 1990s to multiple event wins, set NHRA national records there and tuned top fuel dragsters for Vandergriff Racing as well as a stint in European drag racing. 

Ronnie got out of tuning NHRA’s Big Show cars – dragsters and Funny Cars – and moved on to a new chapter.

“He started tuning alcohol dragsters at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School,” Dennis said. “He helped a ton of people in the alcohol ranks, me included. Then, he got into the Nostalgia Funny Cars. He grew up around those type of Funny Cars and that was just such a natural fit.”

Swearingen was the crew chief on Dan Horan’s Patriot Mustang nitro Funny Car that won the 2014 NHRA Heritage Series championship. The team won three events in the championship season, racing to eight final rounds in 11 events since joining the team in 2010.

In December of 2014, Don Nelson, owner of the California Hustler 1977 Pontiac Firebird nitro Funny Car, hired Ronnie to be the crew chief of his Nostalgia Funny Car.

Veteran nitro Funny Car driver Jeff Arend drove the California Hustler in 2018 and 2019 with Ronnie tuning.

“Ronnie was a really good person,” Arend said. “If you knew Ronnie, Ronnie had his own way of doing things. He was very talented. When I got the call to drive the California Hustler car the first time, I went there to test with it, I didn’t really Ronnie all that well. I had seen him before, but the truck and trailer and the organization of the car was second to none. I was blown away with how nice everything was and that was a tribute to Ronnie. That car also ran well, and we won a few races. I think we were No. 1 qualifier like three or four races in a row. He was a super good guy.

“Back in the day he worked with a bunch of good crew chiefs and when he was with Spurlock everything was going good. He was making good money and the car was running well and we used to call him Rolex Ronnie back then because he had this big ol’ Rolex on his wrist. I’m glad I got to work with him because he was a cool guy.”

Hawley also had memories to share about Ronnie.

“It’s kind of funny,” Hawley said. “Ronnie was our first employee that we had. When we started the school back in 1985, we didn’t have any buildings, we didn’t have any cars. We had nothing. Before we had anything, we had Ronnie. We had him cutting the grass at our house and our cars were the cleanest they ever were because we had him wax the cars because we had nothing else for him to do.

“He stayed with us for us for several years and he was with us off and on for probably a 20-year period he worked for us in some capacity.”

Hawley was with Ronnie on two world-changing events – the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster Jan. 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Ronnie and I were together the day of the Challenger explosion because we were at the race track running classes,” Hawley said. “We took a break and climbed on top of the tower, the old tower at Gainesville (Fla.) to watch the shuttle go off. You could actually see it (the launch) from Gainesville Raceway. We watched it break up and we didn’t know what was going on and we sat and listened to it.

“Then 9/11, we were running cars again and Ronnie came out of the office, and he said the news is on and somebody flew a plan into a building in New York so we spent 9/11 together and it makes me remember how much time I spent with Ronnie over the years. Ronnie was a good person and he helped me. When we had problems, he was there. He stuck with us when things weren’t going all that well. Ronnie was a unique individual and a sharp kid. He was everywhere in our industry one time or another.”