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NASA American Iron Racing - National Treasures
A Tightening Economy Is Not Keeping NASA Racers Away From Their National Championship-Expect A Stellar Year At Mid-Ohio
Horse Sense: If you want to learn more about American Iron racing, click here to see our analysis of the class, NASA Challenge, and American Horse Play.
This month, Mustang racing action centers on the National Auto Sport Association's National Championship event in Mid-Ohio. Drawing Mustang drivers-and a few brand-C pilots-from across the nation, NASA's Nationals determine the big cheese in the exciting American Iron and over-the-top American Iron Extreme racing, along with the entry-level Camaro-Mustang Challenge and many other NASA classes.
This year, the racing is coming to a fine point. With stabilized rules, the third-annual NASA National Championships, presented by Toyo Tires, comfortably settled at Mid-Ohio, and the major competitors experienced in handling these production-based race cars were expecting an exciting season finale. The depth of talent and hardware in American Iron has been growing, and the number of drivers who could win the American Iron crown is larger than ever.
This growth has even proven recession-proof, at least for now. While West Coast racers are understandably reviewing their plans to spend at least $2,000 towing a Mustang across two thirds of the U.S., just about everyone east of the Rockies is planning on hitting the National event, even if it means skipping a regional race or two. The Nationals are where it's at.
Those who are new to American Iron or AI Extreme are in for a treat. American Iron is populated by Mustangs, with the rules calling for a spec Toyo tire, 9.5:1 pounds per horsepower, and-new this year-18-inch wheels from the previous 17-inch standard. Any brake that will fit inside an 18-inch wheel may be used, along with extensive chassis and suspension modifications. Gutted of street equipment, fitted with the usual safety gear, and weighed with the driver, these cars can range from approximately 2,900 pounds and 305 hp to perhaps 3,500 pounds and 365 hp, so the racing is fast, close, and often a mix of handling and torquey power.
By reasonably limiting engine output, costs are somewhat contained, so American Iron is by far the most populous Mustang class and a great place for the dedicated amateur. On the other hand, American Iron Extreme does away with the power-to-weight requirement, resulting in truly hairy-chested beasts.
Naturally the racers gravitate to increased power. For a while, there was loose talk of 1,000hp Extreme cars, but they haven't come to pass because that sort of power is nearly impossible to hook to the track using the DOT-legal Hoosier spec tire. Also, there is a transmission price limit that keeps the mega-power stuff safely bottled up on notepads.
That's not to say there aren't some mind-warping power levels headed to Mid-Ohio. More than one racer mumbled about "over 800 hp," which is positively nuclear for a road racer, especially when not on slicks.
Likewise, some of the fastest AIX runners have gone lightweight, so a competitive Extreme machine is often hovering at the 2,700-pound minimum weight and packing in excess of 600 hp. This, we assure you, is more than just good fun: It's well into serious territory, where the dedicated power and speed monks live their religion. It is, however, capital sport to watch.
Below is a review of American Iron and Extreme hopefuls. Despite a lethargic economy and the high cost of travel, the racers are eager to match up again to see who brought the most to Mid-Ohio on September 11-14. If you can be there to cheer them on, we recommend it.
Reigning Mid-West region champion David Algozine had a great 2007 until he got to the Nationals. Then nothing went right, with the harmonic balancer coming loose and tearing up the front cover of his 331 V-8. Renting a car for the championship race didn't make things any better when the engine in the rent-a-racer blew up. "I had one of those would've, could've, should've years," says David.
For 2008, David is working on his luck by paying attention to maintenance on his ex-Bondurant racer. "I've changed the rear shocks and springs, hubs and things, and some safety items such as a fire system, but nothing major," David reports. "It's still taking a lot of money and time."
The ex-Bondurant car was well-built to begin with, which David credits with getting him out and racing earlier than he otherwise would. However, it's the trackside assistance of Maximum Motorsports that he credits with noticeably stepping up his program two years ago. Until then, he was wandering through the chassis setup, but because Maximum will set up any of its customers' chassis at the Nationals, David was able to benefit from some expert chassis tuning. He says it made all the difference.
This is especially important with the IRS fitted to his Cobra; David thinks there are only three IRS cars in all of American Iron or Extreme, and Maximum just happens to be an IRS booster. Interestingly, David isn't sure if the IRS is an advantage or not. It's the only race car he has owned, but he says he seems to have an advantage in long sweeping turns or on bumpy tracks, and he thinks it's not particularly helpful in getting the power down early on corner exits. The bottom line is that he's had good success with it since it was dialed in-and "maybe I can run with the big dogs at the Nationals." Let's hope.
Having won the AI championship two years running, Jay Andrew is zeroing in on his third in 2008. Put flatly, "The goal is to go for three at the Nationals.
"In the last two years, I've focused on the regional championship and the Nationals. I'm still going to attend a lot of regional races, but I'm focusing more on the Nationals this year. I'm also driving an RX8 with a Koni Challenge Team, which is more of a pro series. I'm learning a lot about car setup and how those types of teams are set up.
"Also, this year, I have a brake business selling Hawk brake pads, so I'm traveling to three regions of NASA to provide brake support and tech classes." That will likely translate to even more track time for Andrew.
He promises no major improvements to his four-eyed Fox or its Paul's Automotive Engineering 331ci engine. "The motor puts out more power than I'd like. We have detuned it, plus I have 120 pounds of lead in the car. The car is well balanced-it's about 51.5 percent on the front and 48.5 percent on the back. I can put the lead where I need it, and I've lightened the front by putting the battery to the back. I also run a full tank of fuel.
"The car was well set up coming off of last year. I'm trying to keep the engine cooler with oil coolers and upgrading the brakes. I'm also looking at a pro Brembo racing system with racing calipers and floating rotors." If the kit works out, Andrews says he'll offer it as a high-end kit to other AI racers who are building more sophisticated cars.
Like many of the front-running Mustangs, Andrew runs Maximum Motorsports' suspension gear. "It's all Maximum stuff all the way. The company has such good products at a reasonable price, and the tech support seems to be really good."
With his proven combination and two wins, Andrew is a good bet to take his third AI championship. Still, the competition has been close every year, so it's far from guaranteed.
As Agent 47 builds its NASA involvement, Andy Bowman has been one of the company's most loyal customers. Based near Agent 47's headquarters in Southern California, Andy worked his way through full American Iron seasons for three years.
Andy's black SN-95 Cobra is a fixture at West Coast AI contests, and while the IRS car and his relative lack of experience caused the usual mid-year malaise, the combination has gelled recently.
"This year, I'm driving solely for Agent 47 as a test and race driver. Corey Webber and I have briefly discussed the national event. If he needs me to race at the Nationals, I most likely will. My car is fully prepared with the Agent 47 SLA suspension systems, 'cage and chassis setup, and it has been winning races and breaking track records. The car is working so well now-it's almost too easy.
If we're lucky enough to see Andy at the Nationals, he will be a newly confident racer stepping up to nationwide competition.
"We're certainly going," said last year's AI runner-up Robin Burnett when asked if he would return to Mid-Ohio this fall. The perpetual front-runner in the Ohio-Indiana region enjoys home-track advantage at the Nationals and has been adding new tracks to his bag of experience this year. Why? After winning the NASA regional championship back-to-back, "this year is all about having fun." Thus, he's forgoing the regional championship and traveling to Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen, and Road America for some variety instead.
Robin still wants to climb one step higher on the Nationals podium this year. He'll be using the same '05 GT with a Steeda suspension. He has been a Steeda man since he raced American Sedan in the SCCA. "We try to run as a flagship Steeda car, so there's nothing too outrageous, nothing too fabricated. It's just a catalog car that anyone could build." The stiff S197 chassis helps here, as the rigid new chassis requires the least race prep to be competitive.
This year, however, the prep will include tightening the front sway-bar end links. Last year, one unthreaded while Robin lead the championship race, quickly moving him to second before a merciful finish under a yellow flag.
Finally, Robin may need to freshen his Three-Valve engine. Normally it dynos at 355 hp in the almost 3,400-pound car, but lately it's been posting 340 hp. Robin runs 15 pounds of lead ballast and extra fuel, so he can remove some weight or dive underhood to regain the power.
Last year's Southeast AI regional champion Chris DeSalvo had a good run at the '07 Nationals. "It went well. I finished 5th after starting 23rd. We're shooting for the top three this year."
Don't get him wrong: Chris would love to win all the marbles. "Sure, I'd love to win it all, but getting on the podium is more realistic."
Helping gain such a realistic result is a series of detail improvements to Chris' '04 racer. A body-in-white car originally built by Rehagen Racing for Grand Am, its pro-level equipment and workmanship makes Chris proud. He was quite happy to buy the car when Rehagen replaced it as part of its normal maintenance schedule. It employs a Sean Hyland Four-Valve modular, bored to 5.0 liters. He says the engine makes 400 hp easily, but it's detuned to 340 hp to match the chassis's weight. He also reports the engine is "peaky as can be. There's no power below 4,200, but from 4,200 to 6,800, everything is all out."
Last year at the Nationals, Chris was learning the Mid-Ohio track and ran 3.55 gears. These proved too tall, and this year he's switched to 3.90s, which have made a "massive difference. They should pick up a half second per lap."
Underneath, the Cobra sports a Maximum Motorsports K-member and shocks; the rest is all Steeda. Rehagen is still contracted for the between-race maintenance and setup duties during the off-season; the rest of the time the car stays with Chris in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Chris sees the AI championship shifting into more of a driver's championship. He figures 25 cars in the race are prepped to within 95 percent of what the rules allow, so the deciding factor is getting to be more driver ability than killer hardware.
So, while Chris has already suffered an engine failure this year, he's rebuilt the powerplant and is getting plenty of track time. Along with some tweaks to the chassis, that seat time and last year's knowledge of Mid-Ohio are what he's using in his bid for the AI podium.
American Iron is amateur racing, but there are working automotive pros, too. Beau Dunnivant typifies the breed: He's a real grassroots car guy who runs a race shop, Blue Oval Classics, in Kingsport, Tennessee. Racing since 2003 and NASA's AI Mid-Atlantic regional champion the last three years-he was undefeated last year in a total of 17 races-Beau has been working through a series of five cracked blocks and other mechanical issues in his Maximum Motorsports-suspended Fox.
Last year at the Nationals, a broken transmission put him out of the main race. "I was probably going to be in the top six," Beau said, adding that he's rebuilt his 306 pushrod engine around a new Boss block, worked on his brakes, and looked for reliability.
Beau is also looking to avoid any car-mangling crashes. He-and barely his car-survived a nasty crash-and-flip accident in May 2007. The wreck illustrates how, although he won a total of 25 races last year, the season wasn't an unqualified success. With his winning experience, two track records, native talent, and more reliability from his upgraded equipment, Beau should be in the top group this September.
American Iron is populated by future world champions and regular guys having a good time. Chicago-area resident Matt Erikson belongs in the latter category. He races for fun and a release from his plumbing business. He's a family guy and wants to keep it that way.
Even though he finished Third in last year's AI championship race, Matt doesn't have big plans for his driving development or hardware. He's going back for another shot at the Nationals title, but he has no illusions. "I know the competition will be a lot harder-it's going to be tough. I don't think I'll have much difference in the equipment."
Like many we talked to this year, Matt says he's looking forward to the National Championship, and while he'll run enough to qualify for the season-ender, he's not starting the season looking to win his region and the Nationals effort. "This year will be more of the same: qualify for the Nationals. I'm not really concentrating on the regional championship-I'll go when I can go."
Then again, Matt has new equipment that doesn't require much updating. His '05 Mustang was built from a body-in-white by Mid-Coast Performance in St. Louis and sports a 351W pushrod engine and Tremec 600 transmission. "There's nothing special about the suspension-it's close to stock, and there are aftermarket coilovers and original spindles. The S197s don't need much in AI. Getting the weight down is the trick to match the Fox cars. Mine is at 3,150 pounds without me in it; the others are at 2,800."
Like others in AI who had their cars built by pros, Matt went that route because he didn't have the time to build one himself, nor does he consider himself mechanically inclined. "I had the car built by the guys at Mid Coast Performance near St. Louis, and an engine guy did the motor. It was expensive, but I couldn't build it and no one had done one. It was a learning experience for the builder and the owner, but it's worked out."
Last year Mark Luna was set to quit racing. His daughter had just been born and his McDonald's restaurant, as always, wanted his time. Then Mark lost the Nationals.
Normally, losing isn't an inducement to continue: Almost everybody loses the national championship, after all. It's just that Mark had come so close-setting a lap record, winning his qualifying race, sitting on the pole, and lapping with eventual winner Jay Andrew. It was going to be epic, but when Mark's crankcase breather pushed out of the back of his 331-inch engine, he was black-flagged for leaking oil and lost the race.
Mark couldn't leave on that note. Racing was too much fun, and the chance to battle with Andrew too much of a draw. So he has gone through his Fox Mustang and continued to work with Maximum Motorsports to improve his suspension, reinforcing the rear suspension pickup points, changing the rear wing and splitter, and detailing the Stop Tech brakes, which he says were already a strongpoint.
He has also ditched the 331 in favor of a 302. The 331 made too much power for his lightweight chassis, and dumbing the stroker down with lazy timing and a rich fuel mixture only washed the cylinder walls, ruined the rings, and pushed the breather out from all the blow-by. With obvious talent and a hunger to win, Mark is one to watch.
New to Nationals race watchers this year is Ryan Walton, a West Coast driver who's worked his way up from open-tracking to full sponsorship from Agent 47 in American Iron.
Ryan is a racer's racer, saying he "started in HPDE with the Cobra Club-the old guys. Those lapping days got me out of drag racing. Then I ran with NASA in HPDE open tracking, got tired of point byes, and decided to go AI so I could race."
He's so dedicated to running door-to-door that Ryan also drives a friend's Honda CRX in other NASA competitions, citing the crowded fields and never-ending sparring as excellent race schooling. He's not alone in running a second car: Many others we interviewed cited circle track or other NASA class racing in their current activities.
"The Mustang is hands-down the most fun track car to drive, but racing with the Honda is great. There are so many clusters of cars going around the track nose to tail, and they bump each other down the straightaway. In AI, you just can't do it."
Underscoring Ryan's lonely AI drives this year, at press time he'd won four races in a row in SoCal AI events. These came after a learning year in 2006, but when Ryan switched to an Agent 47 SLA front end last winter, it came at a cumulation of car improvements and his increasing driving skills, hence the win streak this year.
A Toyota technician, Ryan built his Fox and its 331 pushrod engine. He continues to do all of the work on it, save for chassis work done by Agent 47's maestro, Bill Osborne. It's a good deal for Agent 47 and Ryan, as the workload is well distributed, and his hard-charging style keeps Agent 47 up front.
Ryan's plan is to run all West Coast AI races and win his regional championship. Then it's off to the Nationals where he'll be a rookie. After crewing for Ernesto Rocco last year, Ryan can say he's seen Mid-Ohio, but as he noted, "For Jay Andrews, it's just another race."
If Ryan's determination, skill, and demonstrated West Coast speed-he set lap records during his win streak-can overcome his Nationals inexperience, he will be interesting to watch.
Normally Corey Webber can be found behind the wheel of his number 47 AIX Mustang, but this year he says if he makes it to the Nationals, he'll likely be driving an American Iron car. It might be the same car or he might build a new one.
Last year, Corey took the West Coat AIX championship and Second in the Nationals when Ernesto Rocco fell out at the end of his battle with Chris Griswold. It was an "interesting race," Corey says. "We came with 650 at the crank and it wasn't enough power. Chris had raw power; Ernesto had handling. They were duking it out in front of me, beating on it. I thought for sure they were going to take themselves out. We were all battling for a while." At the end, Ernesto fell out with damage, Chris won, and Corey was Second. Exciting stuff, and he was right there.
Especially given the fun Corey's had, moving from AIX to AI is retrograde to the normal flow, but he has excellent reasons for stepping into the limited-power class. For one, his AIX engine, a howling 600-plus-hp beast, expired at the end of last season, so there's the considerable expense of rebuilding the mill. Corey is also the guiding principle at Agent 47, a business fast making inroads to the NASA scene, where American Iron is considered the more driver-oriented contest and AIX depends more heavily on racing lubricant-cash. Put the two together and it makes sense for Corey to fit a milder small-block to his car and jump into the larger AI pool.
It would be a full circle for the Agent 47 chassis, which was originally built for AI, but from the get-go it had so much engine Agent 47 decided to go AIX racing instead.
It also makes sense for Corey to stay in the paddock and put his effort into Ryan Walton and Andy Bowman. Both are sponsored by Agent 47. Ryan especially seems dedicated to racing to the top of the AI podium.
The inside guess is Corey won't be able to stay away-always a safe bet with racers-so give him better than even chances of showing at Mid-Ohio. If he doesn't, Ryan, Andy, and a contingency program will represent Agent 47 at the Nationals
You'll find the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, off of Interstate 71, or at www.midohio.com. NASA's National Championship weekend is September 11-14, 2008, and will feature many door-to-door classes of road racing. Free tent camping is allowed and showers are provided, so don't let the motel budget kill a good idea. General admission pricing is $20 to $25.