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NASA National Championship Races - Gone West
NASA's National Championship Races Were Held In Utah Last Year And Headed Back This Year
Regular readers know we have a nearly rotten soft spot for American Iron racing. It's road racing, it's stuffed to bursting with Mustangs, and the action is big-bore all the way. There's American Iron that's accessible to us regular Joes, and a fire-breathing unlimited American Iron Extreme class for Joes with a serious speed bent.
Last fall we finally made it to Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, where the National Auto Sport Association was holding it's national championship races, including the AI and AIX contests. It was a great event at a fabulous facility with two fitting champions crowned: Ross Murray in AI and Chris Griswold in AIX.
Of course, getting those champions decided involved the usual drama. Everyone was a long way from home and learning a new track, previous champions stood around with broken parts and no way of getting spares to the track, and last-lap crashes figured largely in the outcomes. Even the weather offered a spot of light rain toward the end of the combined AI/AIX race-but not enough to affect the outcome as it turned out.
On the positive side there was no carping among the racers, the over 3,000-foot-long front straight let power-mad AIX cars stretch out to 200 mph, and no one got hurt, although there was some more-than-casual wallet-crushing against the Miller barriers. A civilized contest, in other words.
NASA is returning its national championships to Miller this year on September 16-19. If you're a West Coast fan, this is the year to catch the action, as the NASA nationals are migrating back to Mid-Ohio in 2011. Miller is always a bit of trek to reach but a great place to spectate. You won't find a nicer facility, there are no crowds, easy parking, walk-up access to the race cars and drivers along with good sightlines to all the on-track daring-do. There's an impressively stocked museum inside the race paddock, linens, and real food at the trackside restaurant, and plenty of affordable accommodations nearby. See you there!
What a gorgeous car Dean Martin brought to Miller with serious intent of winning the American Iron championship. But racing can be an incredibly cruel sport, especially when you consider these two photos were taken about four hours apart. The wreckage resulted from Dean's last-lap, last-corner crash while leading the AI race after Patrick Lindsey retired. Dean is the major-domo shop manager at Rehagen Racing and an accomplished semi-pro driver. With a good Midwest AI season behind him, he brought this new car to Miller for the big race. Mechanically one of several Rehagen Racing AI Mustangs, it's a clone of Rusty Ferguson's car, for example, and stuffed full of Ford Racing parts. The artfully decorated S197 is powered by a stroker Three-Valve displacing 5.0 liters and weighs in the mid 3,500-pound range. All the best gear, such as big 14-inch brakes, are found throughout. Unfortunately Dean got no rest in the AI championship race, as he was chasing Pat Lindsey in the beginning and under huge pressure from Ross Murray at the end. Dean is a racer, however, so look for him in the Midwest region again this year.
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Ross Murray is one of the best drivers we've ever seen, and he drove an intelligent, mature race to win the '09 American Iron championship. A pro fabricator and driving coach, the transplanted Kiwi approached his '09 AI season casually, running a modestly equipped S197 that was far outpaced by those taking the title seriously, but in his hands, it was a likely podium finisher. Sure enough, Ross was third at the start, lost a few spots in the inevitable first-turn fracas, but ran them all down to spend the majority of the race in third. A late-race full-course caution allowed his over-heating brakes to cool, and he got second place on the restart. Concentrating hard on the final lap, he reeled in Dean Martin in first place, who made a rare mistake over-driving into the gravel, then a tank-slapper, and ultimately the wall. Ross says he'll definitely return with "a lot more car next year." He'll have to overcome his penchant for procrastination (he admits he likely wouldn't have made it to the nationals if Paul Brown hadn't come by his shop and towed his car to Miller) and find the time to work on his race car. "It's tough from a standpoint that it's way down on the priority list. You work to enjoy life, but you can't go race because that clashes with the way I make money. ... There are four weekends a month and I work for three race teams. That's been frustrating." Ross will no doubt upgrade his brakes (they're customer take-off parts) and look for more front-end grip with his own A-arm suspension, along with different gear ratios. We don't expect he'll change his stone-stock Ford Racing 347SR carbureted engine. It's been bulletproof, and FR's customer service is excellent, he says. In fact, his only change to it was to bolt on a dual-plane to build torque and kill horsepower. At Miller, it was rated at 340 hp and 349 lb-ft of torque to match his light-for-an-S197's 3,230 pounds. Ross is a real championship threat. He's got the brains and experience to build an excellent car, plus he's a deadly smooth driver and canny racer, so don't be surprised if he decides to repeat as AI champion in 2010.
Looking like a bat out of hell, Cory Webber's black SN-95 warhorse takes the sinister prize every time. Starting as an AI car but immediately re-classified to AIX when it made too much power in previous years, it was re-engined for 2009 with a more affordable AI small-block. The Agent 47 machine-Corey is the principle at Agent 47-still retains its sharp-handling three-link rear suspension, A-arm front end, and all the tricks in the Agent 47 catalog, so it's a potent AI ride for sure. As for Corey, he was enjoying the '09 nationals because he wasn't there to prove anything. "I'm just trying to enjoy it this year. Last year I was focused on winning the race and it was mentally tiring; I was all worked up." In fact, Corey has been enjoying the whole year, racing against his own sponsored driver, Ryan Walton, in regional SoCal AI events. Corey came in Second in the Miller championship after getting skunked badly at the start, fighting his way through the pack to arrive at a back-and-forth battle with Matt White. Corey says his tune was not what it should have been at Miller, specifically the 3.55 gears, which proved far too tall. "That was too high. It wouldn't even go into Fifth gear.... the guys were pulling me on the straights." Expect more fun racing from Corey in 2010 as he mainly concentrates on his Agent 47 business (it's become a big player in the AI chassis scene), along with his rapid-prototyping shop that caters to industrial customers.
Matt White could be NASA's American Iron grassroots poster boy. A construction manager by trade and racer for fun, Matt started with drag racing, then slaloms, and finally moved up to road racing four years ago. He bought his car, an '00 GT, new and "made the last four payments in one swoop, gutted it, and took a Sawzall to it. I saw others build 22-year-old cars, so I wanted as clean a slate as I could. Turned out it's been a reliable platform," says the Texan. Wanting a torquey engine, Matt started with a $200 Mark VIII block and put big Two-Valve heads from Fox Lake on top. Now four years old and revved to 6,800 rpm all the time, the modular is still hanging in there, backed by a T-56 six-speed from an '03 Cobra, a full Maximum Motorsports suspension, and stopped by Brembo brakes. Unsponsored and running for fun, Matt keeps his costs as low as possible, sleeping in the trailer at the track, and aiming to keep his Texas-to-Utah trip costs to $2,000. "I was wondering whether or not to come to this race, but I'm really glad I did," Matt said. We believe him. Finishing second and sixth in preliminary heats, Matt had a crazy start to the main event, falling to ninth or tenth at the start, then working his way back up to sixth, then fifth, fourth-and when leader Dean Moon crashed out, third. Not bad for a guy racing just for fun against the best in the country. "It's the best, hardest racing I've done in my life," he enthused after a great battle with Corey Webber, who finished Second.
Rusty Ferguson, currently a technician at Rehagen Racing, has had a slightly unusual career path in American Iron racing. Introduced to the sport by Robin Burnett, the Camaro Mustang Challenge was Rusty's logical starting point for the first two years, but then he moved to an AIX Mustang for 2008. Now that's a large step, but apparently it suited Rusty as he won the Great Lakes region championship. For 2009, Rusty ran his S197 in American Iron as part of the extended Rehagen Racing camp, finishing an excellent Fourth Place at Miller in the process. Rusty struggled with the car setup at Miller, arriving with the wrong chassis tune and wrong gearing, losing time getting it sorted out. This meant starting from way back on the grid, which he parlayed into that impressive fourth. Rusty's car sports a 5.0-liter Three-Valve benefitting from a Saleen stroker kit and stopped by 14-inch front brakes. Rusty says this relatively heavy and powerful combination-it weighs 3,524 pounds and shows 371 rwhp-is not the hot setup at Miller, where the corners are mainly medium or higher speed and momentum is king. The lighter Fox cars would be closer to the ideal, he figures. Still, all the Foxes in the race finished well behind Rusty. Like all cars that go through the Rehagen shop, Rusty's is a cleanly turned-out machine.
David Algozine's year had been "wreckers or checkers" until he got to Miller for the nationals. Another Midwest NASA racer, David was used to mixing it up with Matt Erickson and others; at the nationals it was mainly more of the same. But instead of wrecking or taking the checkered flag, David posted a solid Fifth-Place finish; part of the first through eighth Mustang parade at Miller. David's SN-95 runs a conventional 331ci small-block and TKO 600 trans, but employs a Cobra IRS rear suspension. David says the IRS is a mixed bag-on the bumpier Midwest tracks, he figures it is a true advantage, especially on faster corners where it lends stability and allows getting on the power earlier, but on slower corners, it doesn't rotate as well as the stick-axle cars. Miller, he says, is a glass-smooth track, so he figured the IRS wasn't much help there. A masonry repair contractor in the Chicago area, David says the economy has been fairly up and down, and he's spent more then he should on racing, but he has "an understanding wife." Sounds like he has it made.
Representing the true open-trailer and tote-handle toolbox racer was Bryan MacMillan of Benica, California. Using plenty of Steeda chassis equipment under his Fox coupe but retaining the basic MacPherson-strut front end, the electrical contractor put his journeyman racing skills-and plain old being there at the finish-to rise to Sixth in the national race, a fine showing considering the semi-pros and hardware lined up against him. The Fox is 302-powered with a Tremec TKO 600 gearbox and Torsen T2 rear axle behind it. The brakes are a PBR/Wilwood combination, and the rear axle benefits from a three-link. Bryan has figured regularly in West Coast American Iron racing, racking up a consistent top-five finishing record.
Mason City, Iowa's Ryan Winchester capped his first year in American Iron by trekking to Miller for the nationals and finishing a respectable Seventh in the big race. One of the Rehagen Racing crowd, Ryan's S197 is quite similar to Rusty Ferguson's Mustang, also running in the Rehagen Racing camp. In fact, their engines are clones-5.0-liter Three-Valve strokers using a Saleen stroker kit-but Ryan's yellow speedster shifts a Tremec TKO 600 gearbox instead of Rusty's T-56. The similar powertrains mean the weight must be similar as well. In Ryan's case, that means 361 rwhp and 3,430 pounds; torque is 346 lb-ft. That's just 10 hp and not quite 100 pounds less than Rusty's numbers, so theoretically Ryan's car was likely better suited to a momentum track such as Miller. In the real world, that's within the larger variables of driveability, and above all, chassis setup. Ryan's car wears Koni struts and Hypercoil springs and the same Brembo brakes as Rusty's, although Ryan has no power assist while Rusty runs a GT500 booster. Ryan runs both Steeda and Cobra wheels. Before AI Ryan ran NASA's HPDE (open-tracking) and a YZ125 in motocross competition. In fact, his Mustang's path to AI follows the NASA script, starting out as a street car, moving to open-track status, and finally past the point of no return to AI racer in 2006. Expect to see Ryan in East Coast and Midwest AI races as he builds experience while searching for his first win.
Robin Burnett had an impressive 26 NASA "win" stickers on his car at Miller, but adding a 27th proved a fleeting dream when he over-revved his Steeda-sponsored S197's transplanted 347 crate engine early in the nationals weekend. The high rpm was not a missed downshift, but simply over-gearing on Miller's long straight; typical of over-revving, valvetrain carnage ensued with a broken roller in one of the lifters along with a mangled camshaft. Getting parts and making repairs kept Robin out of action until the big race on Sunday, not to mention he had to run a non-optimal replacement camshaft. He had hoped for something around fifth place, but starting last and stuck in the back of the race traffic, he found himself closer to the back then mid-pack and finished Eleventh. As he put it afterward, "I wasn't concerned about denting the car for a ninth rather than an eleventh place." Wise words from one of NASA's craftier Midwest racers who enjoys traveling to run at NASA's more premier Midwest events. For this season, Robin is looking to build a '10 Mustang for a class outside of AI, and possibly putting an '11 Coyote engine in his AI car. We'll see, but chances are good Robin will be back at Miller this coming September with a lot more than fifth place on his mind. We must say Robin has done a good job of demonstrating NASA's AI philosophy of gaining excellent results from bolt-on parts. His 347 is an FRPP crate engine, and the chassis is a Steeda-enhanced catalog car with a strut front end. As Robin says, "You don't have to do much to the S197 for American Iron." Also typical of S197 AI racers, Robin's car weighs a hefty 3,524 pounds and is officially rated at an equally large 371 rwhp and 356 lb ft of torque.
Horse Sense: For hugely fun, safe racing, we can't think of a better way to go for a Mustang enthusiast than a rebuilt Fox Mustang in American Iron. Just curb your natural instinct to build power; concentrate on a lightweight, sharp handling chassis, and you'll have a ball. Get a couple of friends together, share the bills and seat time, and you'll actually get racing. It's worlds better than anything on the street.
The Next Nationals
NASA's upcoming Nationals are set for September 16-19, 2010, at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, just southwest of Salt Lake City, so plan on SLC if coming by airline. Assuming you're as low-brow as us, simple accommodations about three miles up the road in humble middle-American Tooele (say "Two-el-ah") save time and are fine for a pizza-and-beer experience. Salt Lake City is more like a 40-minute drive if steak is more your thing.
Democratically located a long way from anywhere, Miller Motorsports Park is new and exceptionally upscale in its elbow room and contemporary facilities. Spectating is good-all the action is visible from the main viewing areas, and there are a couple of trackside spots where you can get close to the cars for a more personal look or snap a pic. But as a major amateur event, the cars and people are fully accessible in the paddock and garages, so it's a great place to immerse yourself in road racing. And don't forget the Nationals encompass many other classes, many of which offer competitive racing.