5.0 Mustang & Super FordsNews & Views
Racer Mike Murillo Of Texas Jam Racing
Not One To Spectate, He Satisfies His Competitive Itch A Quarter-Mile At A Time
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A competitive nature is a funny thing. The desire to compete, and more precisely to win, takes many forms and seeks unpredictable outlets. Take Mike Murillo, for instance. Among the Ford drag-racing crowd, Mike is known for being a tough competitor. His 5.0 race cars have won five Street Outlaw championships since 1994, and they have usually been at the leading edge of whatever was happening in that class. He drives cross-country just to race a quarter-mile at a time, and he can usually be found working on the car in the pits late into the night.
His competitive nature, however, nearly sent his life down a different path. Before discovering the joy of cutting the perfect 60-foot time, Mike's life revolved around football, and lots of it.
Mike is originally from Ohio, one of its smaller "one-light" towns. "I was real big into football," he says. "That was my all-year-round sport." Mike played a mean middle linebacker and inhabited that rarefied world known only to popular high school athletes. "When I was a sophomore in high school I was being scouted by junior colleges," he says.
His family was supportive. Mike had an uncle in San Antonio who sent him newspaper clippings about the local powerhouse football schools. His uncle told him, "If you're serious about football, you can't stay where you're at. You've got to come to Texas and play Texas football!"
The popular saying "Everything's bigger in Texas" has become a worn-out cliche, but if it's still true about anything it would be Texans' passion for football. In small towns, Friday-night high school football is part social event, part gladiatorial ritual. Sellouts at high school games are common. On Saturdays in the fall, a Texan's status as Longhorn fan or Aggie fan means more than whether someone is a Republican or Democrat. On Sundays, worshippers spin tires leaving the church parking lot so as not to miss the kick-off of the Cowboys game.
"To tell you how serious I was about it, I dropped everything I was doing," Mike recalls. "Left my family, my parents, my friends, my girlfriends. I was on a plane within a week." Mike, who had just turned 16, moved in with his uncle and reported for duty at the local high school.
Unfortunately, the fresh-faced Mike immediately found himself under the tutelage of a coach who could have provided the inspiration for any number of late-night movies about demented, hard-driving football coaches. "These guys were like prison guards," Mike says. He was used to tough coaches, but not irrational, brutal, and deceptive ones.
He ended up quitting two games into the season and never played another down. "That's probably one of the only big regrets that I have--not trying to stick it out," he says. It was a hard life lesson, but one Mike took to heart. No one can accuse him of not sticking out his racing dreams.
On a more positive note, most of Mike's family followed him down to Texas, and they made San Antonio their new home. But football, for him, was dead. He has no interest in sitting in grandstands or watching it on TV. "It's tough for me to go and spectate, because I never have been a spectator," he says.
Obviously, Mike found a new outlet for his competitive urges--cars. He says he was "lost" until he discovered the satisfaction of racing. Still, like a freshman walk-on, Mike had to start at the bottom. His first hot rod was a '77 Pontiac Trans Am. He loved tinkering with it--as much as he was able to. "I didn't know anything. I thought souping up a car was putting air shocks on it," he says.
He learned in fits and starts, plugging headers into stock 2-inch exhaust, driving around town on slicks. He got the fever bad. "All my income was going to Super Shops," he says.
Mike was out in his Trans Am looking for street action right as the injected 5.0 Mustangs were hitting the streets. Everything about the injected 5.0 was new. Speed parts and hop-up strategies for the fuel injection were in their infancy, and small modifications went a long way. "I'll never forget," Mike says, "the new 5.0s were out--and they were badass." Mike rode along one night in a friend's new 5.0, which was promptly beaten in a street race by a car-length by a similar Mustang. The magic bullet for the winning car? "Special-edition gears," Mike recalls, laughing. "3.27s!"
It was around this time Mike's life took another turn toward its present course. "I was getting spanked by these Mustangs left and right, and figured if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." He was still young, recently married, and working for short pay at a financial-services firm, but he was a Mustang man. Mike's first Mustang was a blue '89 GT convertible, which he managed to buy despite having no money. He swore oaths to his wife that he would not modify it. Within a couple days he had installed a K&N filter and a shifter. He burned up four drills home-porting the intake and throttle body. He eventually got the car down to 13.25-second quarter-miles.
His second Mustang is the red, white, and blue "star car" you can see at the track today, although then it was just a used, black 5.0 LX. After buying it he swore another mighty oath to his wife that he would not modify her new LX coupe, but by the time he got home he had already hatched a plan to swap the modified engine from the convertible into the black car. He followed through. It ran 13.0 immediately.
Thus encouraged, he dreamed big. In 1991 he decided he had to have a Vortech supercharger. "Nobody in town had even seen one, let alone had one on their car," Mike says. "Behind my ex-wife's back--and all these things are telling you why I have an ex-wife--I went to our bank and inquired on a signature loan." He qualified for just enough, and became one of Vortech's first Texas customers.
By then Mike was working at Chief Auto Parts and doing custom and repair work on the side with friend Jeff Patkowski. The two named their operation JaM Automotive, and worked out of Jeff's house. They handled the supercharger installation themselves. After recovering from the heart attack brought on by the first-generation Vortech's gear whine, Mike took the car to the track.
After taking out a $4,500 loan, and infuriating his wife, the Mustang improved to only 12.60s. "I thought I was going to cry," he says. Perseverance won out, though, and after a couple weeks of tuning he got it down to the mid-11s. In October 1992 he was running 10.98 and was the king of the San Antonio.
Mike had also found his calling, thanks to his experiences with the black 5.0. He started Texas Jam Racing [(210) 599-4545; www.texasjamracing.com], working out of his garage until being shut down by the city. He opened his first real shop in 1993. "I was so scared," he recalls. "Back then the rent was $345. Now I would give my left #@! for that $345 rent! I was scared to death. 'Oh my God, how am I going to do this?'"
Mike attended his first 5.0 event in 1993, the Fun Ford Weekend in Dallas. He immediately zeroed in on the Outlaw class. He noticed the cars on the track were running mid-10s. By that time his Mustang had already run 10.33 at 138 mph with a 100-shot of nitrous. He figured he could compete.
In his first 5.0 event as a racer, the '94 Fun Ford in Houston, Mike won the Outlaw class and runnered-up in True Street. Afterward, he got his first sponsorship help from CarTech. He started working with machinist Pete Kotzur, a relationship that lasts to this day. For his second event, at Bristol, Mike borrowed a trailer, rented a U-Haul hitch, and loaded up the family four-cylinder Taurus station wagon. Several blown tires and white-knuckle moments later he was in Bristol, where he won, making it two in a row. "I was in hog heaven," he says.
In 1994 Mike won six out of nine events he attended, set a national record, and won the championship. He was off and running, with it all working as he'd planned. He followed his '94 champion-ship with another in 1995. That year he won the first Spring Break Shootout and the Outlaw class at the same event. Business at the shop picked up considerably.
Along the way, Mike earned a reputation as a practical joker. He and Chip Havemann, a close friend who also races under the Texas Jam banner, keep each other fired-up and loose at the races. "It's easy to keep a great person-ality when you're winning," Mike says. "I just hope I've been the same whether I'm winning or losing, because the fans really appreciate that." Mike quickly acknowledges that sometimes he's not in the mood to joke around when things become intense.
But there's a price to be paid for that racing lifestyle. The long trips around the country, the late-night thrash to fix what's broken, trying to run a business at the same time--it all tends to wear people down, especially once the newness wears off.
Some of that fun wore off in 1996. "We just all-out had a terrible year," Mike recalls. He won only one race. "We won the championship, but it wasn't a good year, as far as all the money we spent." Burnout set in, and Mike took most of 1997 off. After catching his breath, he returned to competition in 1998 with a new paint job on the Outlaw car, and winning four events and the champion-ship. He earned the FFW Outlaw title again in 1999.
Still, running his shop and racing have become all-consuming. Outside hobbies have become a thing of the past. "I don't golf, I don't fish, I don't go out bar-hopping," he says. Indeed, he and fiancee Laurie lived in an apartment in the shop for a year. Only recently have they bought a house. "I'm so fortunate to have a fiancee that loves it almost as much as I do," he says. There are also two wonderful daughters from his first marriage who get his attention, and Laurie has a child on the way.
Mike needed all that hard-won experience to prepare him for the 2000 racing season. This year started out as a repeat of the '96 season, but without the high finishes and with extra ridicule thrown in. "We've had a terrible year," he said before the season-ending Fun Ford Weekend in Dallas. It started before the first burnout of the year, thanks to the pressure of big expectations. "They [the enthusiast magazines] picked me to win. I hate that!" He's happy being an underdog for a change.
"At the end of 1999, we had gone from Vortech to ProCharger and set the world record--ran an 8.14 at 173 mph," Mike explains. "We thought we were set. At the beginning of the year we just couldn't duplicate it." He switched from an A4 block to an R302 block and from regular gaskets to copper gaskets and new heads. But this year he could manage only 8.40s, eating thrust bearings all along the way. He decided to switch to turbocharging to find the extra power and to lower his parts cost. By midyear, "We made 1,713 hp on the dyno at 29 pounds of boost," he says. "The most I've been able to run is 24 pounds of boost." Other baffling problems cropped up. The car had bad tire shake in Kentucky. Mike made it past the first round only once.
"Every time you switch over to a new combination you're going to have bugs to work out," Mike says. And he knows anyone involved in a competitive sport is going to go through down times. That doesn't make it any easier to take, however. Once-respectful characters crack wise that maybe he should drop down to Renegade class. "All it does is give me more drive," he says. "The only thing I can keep telling myself is--the experience that I've had this year, I've learned something from it. When you get this low, with this many problems, you've got no choice but either (a) to quit, or (b) learn something from it. I'll never take winning for granted again. Ever."
What a difference a race makes. Mike felt confident they could turn things around heading into the Fun Ford Weekend at Dallas. He turned it around all right, running a 7.96 at 179.82 mph, while capturing low-qualifier honors, setting low e.t., high mph, and a new world record. "We finally got a car that's consistent," he says. "It was the best thing that could have happened." There's even better news in the offing. With a new baby on the way, Mike's got that proud-papa look about him. In a lot of ways, for Mike it's starting to feel like 1994 again. The competitive juices are still flowing--as lots of people are going to discover in 2001.
Horse Sense: For a little perspective, we checked out some of the specs on Mike Murillos dominant Outlaw combination back in 1995. His then-black 89 coupe was outfitted with a 0.060-over Boss 302 block, World Products Windsor heads, a Downs Ford box upper intake, and a ported GT-40 lower. Pumped up with 15 pounds of R-Trim Vortech, this combo was good for 9.70 at 139.12 at Super Ford magazines annual 5.0 Shootout. That shows just how far Outlaw has come in the last six years.