Geoff Stunkard
January 1, 2013
Photos By: Evan J. Smith

"Don Fezell runs 8.95 -- first 8-second Stocker in NHRA History."

Noted photographer Dave Kommel (www.autoimagery.com) put that message up on Facebook one Friday morning during the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at ZMax Raceway outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, reporting on a milestone occurrence from the first round of qualifying.

Fezell, a grocery store owner from Dubois, Pennsylvania, had been creeping up on this day for a couple of years in his stick-equipped '08 Cobra Jet Mustang, a FR500CJ drag package car now classified into the AA/S class. Indeed, Fezell already held the CC/S record, which he nailed at 9.37/144 back in 2010 at the Division 1 points meet at Englishtown. A little less weight, a winter refreshening, and some tuning pushed the car into the history books.

"The weekend before in testing, we ran 9.08, 9.10, 9.11, and it was hot there," says Don. "This was the first round of qualifying, and I knew the weather was good. Our goal for this year was to get into the 8s by summer -- I did not think it would happen this early. But the weather was just right, the car launched straight, I drove well, and the rest is now history. I knew it was a good run, it pulled so hard through each gear, and I knew the speed was up because the rpm was 7,400 in the lights. It's normally about 7,200. The result was a 153.88 mph pass in 8.95 seconds -- the fastest and quickest NHRA Stocker run ever."

Actually, the notoriety of Don's car being the first Stocker in the 8s is not really unexpected, as this particular Cobra Jet has been one of the fastest in the nation the past couple of seasons. What many people do not realize is that Don and his wife Mary Lee also have one of the most important collections of vintage factory racecars ever assembled.

Among the cars are the first 427 Z11 Impala built (Bill Jenkins and Dave Strickler), the first 426 Hemi racecar delivered to the public (Bud Faubel's Honker), an original '64 A/FX 427-inch Comet, and four of the '68 Cobra Jet Mustangs that made history 40 years before his '08 was delivered.

Bonner was never one to stand still, and the Cobra Jet he received was soon being radically modified.

When he ordered the new car, which was one of just 50 produced for the '08 model year, he made sure it had the same serial numbers as his Phil Bonner example.

"When I talked to dealer Jackie Jones, he told me his list of buyers was full but I got my name on it, two off the bump. He was going to get 10 of them. Two of his guys fell out, and my serial number became #45, so I told Jackie I really wanted #46, which he had assigned to another buyer at that point. He called that gentleman, who graciously allowed us to swap them before the cars were delivered in January. Those cars went from Ford to Roush for the driveline installs, and Ford then delivered it to my shop in Pennsylvania."

Perhaps most importantly, Don is not just some guy who had made money to play "go fast." Many of the vintage cars in his collection were primarily restored by Randy Delisio, or were a hands-on effort in his own shop, done by himself and mechanic Paul Swartzlander. He has also been racing on and off since the '60s, when he worked as a grocery manager, not as a store owner. Indeed, he helped write the book on fast door cars on a sportsman level.

Back in 1966, he bought a new L79 327/350hp Chevy II. Unfortunately, that A/S "deuce" put him against the likes of Grumpy Jenkins and all those new Street Hemis that year. Undaunted, he and his brother swapped out the small-block for a monster L88-code Corvette race engine, which moved the car into A/Modified Production. Ironically, on the narrow 7-inch tires of that age, that beast was over a second slower than today's stock-class Cobra Jet he drives! Still, he found the Nova in derelict condition a few years ago and restored it as well.

'68 Daddy Warbucks Mustang

Phil Bonner of Atlanta was one of the most visible racers of the '60s for Ford, noted for his nitro-burning Falcons and long-nosed Mustangs that played a role in the earliest days of "match bash" Funny Car racing. Back then, he called his cars Daddy Warbucks after a character in the long-running Annie comic strip.

In 1968, Bonner was selected by Ford as one of the drivers to campaign a new Super Stock package car, which was based on a 428 Mustang prototype that Bob Tasca's mechanics had assembled as a warranty rebuild in late 1967. With Super Stock being hot and heavy in those days before Pro Stock, a limited number of CJs, just the 50 needed for legality, were built. Prefixed with the serial numerals 135 0XX on those 50 cars, collectors refer to them as 135 cars to denote them being part of the 50 created.

Bonner, however, was never one to stand still, and the Cobra Jet he received was soon being radically modified as well. After the winter "legal" meets, a 427 SOHC engine was installed, numerous measures to reduce weight were initiated, and Bonner turned his sights on the heads-up AHRA Ultra Stock circuit.

Like all old racecars, technology would supersede what once was new, and Bonner sold the car at the dawn of the Pro Stock era. It would be raced until the early '70s when somebody blew up the 'cammer engine, and then the car sat in a garage for a couple of decades. That aforementioned friend of Don's, restorer Randy Delesio of New York, took what remained of the carcass and spent a year and a half rebuilding it.

Delisio is a noted expert for his work on factory race cars, and he went the extra mile to ensure the restoration was as accurate as possible. The body was repainted Wimbledon White and then masked and covered in the proper areas with Bonner's trademark Mack Truck Blue, just as had been done back in the day. Gold lettering was also applied.

The SOHC engine mounts were replaced with the proper 428FE design, and a date-coded 428 CJ engine was properly built, detailed, and placed into the framerails. The restoration's appearance was how the car would have looked in the early months of '68, and even Mr. Bonner made a lap or two with the restoration since it was completed.

2008 Mustang Cobra Jet

The '08 FR500CJ was a purveyor of where Stock Eliminator racing was heading. Announced at SEMA that year, the return of a Ford factory drag car would mark not just the 40th anniversary of the breed, but would have the added twist of forced induction to best represent the current technology.

The first true race package drag car by the company since 1968, under the hood was a 5.4L supercharged engine (NHRA rated at just 425hp, wink, wink...) with a Tremec manual transmission (an automatic was optional), and a drag race suspension. NHRA-legal to 10.00 second e.t.s as built (and capable of running that quickly once scienced-out), the car crossed the scales at approximately 3,300 lbs and, with that 425hp rating, met the standard for then-new AA/S class for the lightest and highest hp Stockers. The finishing touch was a Cobra Jet graphics kit that, once Fezell had lettered it, would begin another whole string of Daddy Warbucks history.

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The '08 CJs were not as refined as the current models, so lots of work needed to be done to make them competitive racers. Don dove in and partnered with Bob Hallstrom and got the guys from JDM Engineering in Freehold, New Jersey, involved. The car was prepped in the way that only a modern Stocker can be, with a recurving of the fuel map in the supercharged environment, extensive driveline and car blueprinting (including clutch, transmission and suspension), and an exact attention to the things that will allow it to run fast. Don admitted the learning curve was frustrating.

In the spring in 2009, it ran in the 11s almost immediately, though it also began to eat tranny parts by the fourth pass. Racer and suspension guru John Calvert, who won the 2008 NHRA Winternationals in an '08 CJ, helped Don get the part numbers to replace everything behind the bellhousing. Barry Desalve of Tri County Performance was a huge help also.

Since then, he had been the number one qualifier in two-thirds of the national events he has entered, and there are eight "Wally" trophies on the shelf for class wins. Though a national event crown has eluded him, he went five rounds at Indy last year. Things changed this year as NHRA began making adjustments to keep everyone competitive as both Chevrolet and Dodge began releasing more package cars.

JDM's Jim D'Amore II gave some of the secrets up on a posting he made to the modularfords.com blog after the 8-second run. Rules changes for 2012 allowed the team to go to the aluminum replacement block, which was among several changes that began taking some of the weight out of the '08 package (as of this writing, it is still almost 100 pounds too heavy for AA). The TVS 2300 blower uses the stock upper pulley and a Cobra Jet 10- percent-overdrive balancer. What is underneath that is the real buildup -- things like a custom NHRA-legal JDM cam and spring package, custom Kook's headers, and an Aeromotive fuel system are all installed on a blueprinted JDM engine.

The trans is by G-Force Racing Transmissions with a McLeod clutch, four gears shifted by hand, just as Don has done since his L88 Nova days. Traction has been aided by a well-designed selection of springs and shocks and a set of wheelie bars. With the increase in speed, there was one more touch for the new season-a parachute. The 8.95 may just be the tip of the iceberg, as the car is still not clocking optimal 60-foot times and may get an even steeper diet.

Lots of people have a real passion for their cars; most only get a chance to own one at a time, and still fewer have a heritage that goes back to the formative days of the sport. These days, Don and Mary Lee still display their historic vehicles at nostalgia events, at places like Carlisle and the York US30 Reunion, when time permits. With an 8-second late-model making headlines in NHRA racing for them, these truly are their golden years.


1968 & 2008 Compared
1968 428 Cobra Jet Mustang 2008 5.4L Cobra Jet Mustang
Chassis builder: Ford Chassis builder: Ford
Wheelbase: 108 inches Wheelbase: 106 inches
Engine: CJ 428 FE-block Engine: 5.4L (330-cid) supercharged
Induction: Sidewinder intake, 735-cfm Holley 4BBL Induction: Blower intake, Aeromotive fuel injection
Camshaft: Comp flat-tappet Camshaft: JDM, NHRA-legal for Stock Eliminator
Headers: Jardines Headers: Kook’s
Transmission: Toploader four-speed Transmission: G-Force four-speed
Differential: 9-inch 4.56 Detroit Locker Differential: 9-inch Ford 4.30 Strange Engineering
Weight: 3,460 Weight: 3,370
Original owner: Phil Bonner Original owner: Don Fezell,
Wheels: Cragar front, American Racing rear Wheels: Bogart
Tires: Firestone 7.75x15 front, Goodyear 10.50x15 Blue Streaks rear Tires: M/T, rear slicks are legal, 29.5x9
Paint: Factory Wimbleton White, Mack Truck Blue highlights Paint: Wimbleton White, graphic by C.W. Graphics
Seats: Factory Mustang Seats: Lightweight Mustang, NHRA-approved
Gauges: Stewart Warner Gauges: Ford Racing
Best ET/MPH: 9.19 / 140 (match race trim, SOHC engine) Best ET/MPH: 8.95 / 153 (NHRA Stock Eliminator legal)