April 1, 2007

Reaching Driving age in war-torn England in the mid- to late-'50s and wanting to go fast taught me much about hopping up cars with little to no cash. But my performance aspirations and financial situation were by no means unique-they were not then and are not now, as almost any performance-minded teenager or 20-something will tell you.

Looking back on my early race days, I seem to recall that 75 percent of the go-faster stuff on my car was either made in the garden shed or adapted from stuff scrounged from the wrecking yard. At one time or another, I have made my own cams, shocks, suspensions systems, headers, intakes, fuel injection, and so on. I have also built several flow benches and a dyno or two. This all used up time rather than money. It also taught me to be resourceful and that if you want something bad enough, you will put in the effort.

This 5.0 was acquired as a near pile of rust-free junk for $1,500. After a lot of work and about $3,000, it looked like what you see here, ran low 13s, and turned respectable lap times on VIR's road course.

To this day, this race-car business had a grip on me. Spending time at University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) with the Motorsports students, I realized many of them were in a similar situation-that is, plenty of enthusiasm but little or no money. I have long suspected that if I catered to broke but enthusi-astic beginners, down the road they would become affluent and capable enthusiasts capable of buying top-of-the-line equipment and building outstanding cars.

To test many low-cost mods and engine builds, I was already working on two other 5.0 Mustangs-one with Mustang enthusiast Jason Peck and one with Mervyn Bonnet, my crew chief whenever I race in any of the southern Caribbean islands. But these cars had already moved well along from stock. What I really needed was a "start from near scratch" deal, and the guy who got the ball rolling here was Rick Sparks at Comp Cams. During one of my conversations with Rick on some cam-related subject, I mentioned that for a lot of the tests I needed to do, a stock, older 5.0 was needed. Well, it turns out Rick thinks a near-stock 5.0 would be good to do some testing with some Comp Cams products and that maybe we could do some tests for them. A few days later, the go-ahead comes in and-presto-we're out looking for a Mustang.

Jason Peck found the No. 2 car, a premium clean '93 LX hatchback in near stock condition, for $6,000. Buying on eBay and scrutinizing the ads for sale items in MM&FF resulted in a fast car at an economical cost. The engine was in good shape, and after servicing and a basic tune, it delivered 220 rwhp.

For most folks, the hunt for a good, value-for-money Mustang would probably start with an on-line search. That's as good a way as any, but my partner in crime on this project-the guy who will, for all practical purposes, oversee the rolling chassis and transmission-is Dale Sciranko, the boss at Custom Performance in Concord. Dale is always on the lookout for good-value 5.0s, as that is what Custom Performance specializes in. Not only do they work on top-dollar cars, but they also sell used cars. I told Dale a few weeks earlier about the possibility of this project taking off and asked if he could look for a suitable car.

In the interest of keeping costs to a minimum, we needed a Stang that was mechanically sound with reasonable paint and a tacky-or worse-interior. Why go for such a requirement? Simple, a car with a poor-to-lousy interior is hard to sell even if the rest of the car is nearly perfect. We planned on gutting the car to axe weight, so buying one with a good interior was a waste of time and money. Another important aspect that needs to be considered is that the cheapest way to buy speed equipment is "used and already on the car." With all the hopped-up 5.0s in the world, buying one with some of the essential goodies already on it should not be a problem.

Here's our low-buck Stang from Grenada. As you see it here, it has a stock bottom end, a Comp cam, a set of RHS heads, a Victor Jr. intake with a 650-cfm BG carb, and a 175-horse nitrous kit. This combination has delivered a best of 10.27 seconds under ideal conditions. A significant amount of this performance is due to the car's low weight in stripped-down condition.

In the space of three weeks, Dale found us a peach-at least from the outside. For the princely sum of $2,800, the car was a no-frills '88 five-speed Mustang that had some speed goodies on it. This car was without A/C, which made it cheaper still, as did the fact it had manual windows. Both these factors were assets for what was to become a race-only car.

Starting from the interior (or what was left of it), we had a car that looked like it had lacked any kind of cosmetic TLC. The seats were worse for wear and had some chemical stains, mostly on the passenger seat and back seat. The passenger seat was about to break away from the floor. Many of the interior panels were missing, as was part of the shifter console. The carpet was in a bad state with oil and grease stains that appeared to be from carrying dirty parts on the floor.

That was the bad news as far as the interior went. The good news was that it was equipped with a basic rollcage that would have cost us at least $300. This suggested the car had seen track action in its time. A look under the hood revealed some engine mods.

The go-fast department of the Grenada car does not show anything out of the ordinary other than it was all cheap. It's never been on a dyno (there is not one in Grenada), but from the quarter-mile performance figures, it would seem to be making right around 525 hp.

There was evidence that a nitrous kit had at one time been installed and subsequently removed. Dale had already spotted this and checked out the engine for possible nitrous overload problems. Since it came up with a clean bill of health here, he went ahead and bought it. Also installed was an aftermarket intake system along with an MSD distributor and MSD 6AL box. If we bought those new, that would be about $480 out of our pocket. So far, things were looking good, but there was more. The engine was equipped with a set of underdrive pulleys. On the exit side of things, we found the cats had been removed and a set of long-tube headers installed. These then fed into a pair of Flowmasters. This accounted for the throaty and somewhat mean sound emitted from the rearend of this machine. Even without the nitrous, the rest of the goodies should help output by a measurable amount.

Mods had also been done to the chassis and suspension. The trans sported a clutch quadrant, while an aftermarket shifter and the clutch-pedal feel indicated that something like a Ford Racing Performance Parts pressure-plate clutch assembly had been previously installed. A set of BBK lowering springs was installed along with a set of unidentifiable aftermarket shocks (that were now worn out). This car also had a set of frame connectors welded in place. At the rear was a set of drag radials. Now let's give this some thought. If we had to buy all the still-usable aftermarket stuff already on this car, it would set us back at least $2,500 at Jeg's prices.

As you can see, our Custom Performance-sourced Comp Cams project 5.0 looked pretty good on the outside. The interior was another story altogether, and this was a major factor in picking it up for only $2,800.

The car looked like a cost-effective starting point for our project. The only question before laying out the required $2,800 was to see how it ran. The engine fired up right away, but the idle was rough. Although we later found it to be stock, it sounded like it had a relatively big cam. The clutch felt good, and once the revs came up, the engine seemed a little stronger than I remember a stock unit being. All the gears shifted OK, and although the brakes worked, they needed some attention. As for steering and suspension, the car tracked straight, but the shocks were 90 percent shot. Even so, this less-than-perfect machine still proved surprisingly fun to drive, but that is why we like these 5.0s. The key issue here is not that we are going drag racing, road racing, and doing auto-tests, but that we are going to have fun.

Making A StartBefore going one inch further with this project, I need to dial you in as to how test results and the subsequent conclusions are arrived and delivered. First, whenever practical and applicable, you will get the results from whatever car happened be the test vehicle at the time for the parts in question. If this involves chassis dyno testing, then it will be, or has been done, on a Dynojet chassis dyno as those results are very repeatable. Secondly, I have a comprehensive computer model of a Mustang that can deliver estimated dragstrip times to within as little as a couple of thousandths of a second. So, for times when we could not make it to the strip or the mods were tested on a car other than our Comp Cams special, that's what you will get.

Next, this is a project car, and we want readers out there to know that, so some graphics labeling it as such were needed. Obviously, as a private individual, you won't need to do this to your car unless you are fortunate enough to have a sponsor to cover such costs. Our Comp Cams car needed to stand out at the track so folks who may want to ask questions and even give us ideas as to where we should take this project can easily identify us.

To make that happen, I called Ricky Gonzalez the boss at Lucky 13 Graphics in Mooresville, North Carolina, and explained that we needed a graphics sponsor so track spectators could identify our car. Once Ricky saw where we were going with this, he agreed to support our efforts, and a few days later we were over at his shop. I must admit I knew little of the process of producing graphics. It was a fascinating process to watch unfold. It really is like a computer-generated prefabricated paint job.

Our project car came with some speed parts on it. This shot shows the MSD distributor cap and box plus a filter kit, though it was hardly of the "cold-air" variety.

Track Time-At Last!The car had been cleaned up and was looking pretty respectable, but mechanically it was untouched from the day we got it. While the graphics deal was going on, I made some calls to the good guys at Mooresville Dragway to see if we could get in some test and photo time before official Thursday night test and tune. Mooresville has a reputation for having a racer-friendly management and Jody Leazer, one of the tracks owners, made it all happen in less time than it takes to snap your fingers.

As for testing, the planned starting point was to run the car as received, but repeated rain storms cancelled three track sessions in a row. I could see a copy deadline going down the drain along with all the rain water, so the decision was made to go through a service and tune-up and forego what was to be our original "as received" baseline. Our student crew consisted of Nathan Bornitz, Dusty Kennett, and ex-student John Fichtner. Nate took care of the service and tune that consisted of an oil/filter change (Castrol GTX) and new, slightly cooler Autolite plugs (we planned on running a Zex nitrous kit early in the proceedings). Along with this, the plug leads were checked and a vacuum leak that was affecting the idle fixed. Also, the battery cables were in poor shape, so they were replaced and some rear brake binding fixed. Since all cars need to be serviced, we are not going to count the cost of lubricants and other consumables in our total expenditure. All that's going on the tally sheet here is the cost of some battery cables from AutoZone. The Zex nitrous kit also went on at this time. I was not there to shoot the install, but Nate later said that it was all straightforward if the instructions were read first. About this time we saw the weather break for us, and we made it to the track.

First PassesWe arrived at the Mooresville track with a shade over 225 rwhp on the motor and some 65 more with the nitrous in action (jetted with 75hp jets). If everything had been perfect, I would have expected about 20 more than that, but it was OK considering the high mileage. After a weigh in, we found this 225 (or so) horsepower had to propel 3,140 pounds of car plus a 200-pound driver down the strip.

A set of underdrive pulleys also helped out on the power side, as did the lack of A/C.

Getting to the track early meant that both Nate and Dusty could get in a fair number of passes. Nate made the first of these, and a couple of major go-slow issues became apparent even on the initial run. First, three-year-old drag radials will not hook up like three-week-old ones. Secondly, the limited-slip diff was not limiting slip, as one rear wheel made smoke like a Navy destroyer putting down a smoke screen. The best either Nate or Dusty could do for the 60-foot and eighth-mile times was a mite under 2.2 and 9.3 seconds, respectively, with a terminal speed best of 76.8 mph. Run-to-run, the wheelspin issue made for inconsistent e.t.'s. Hitting the nitrous usually resulted in a slower time because the tires would now break loose even in Second gear. Running the best numbers through our computer program showed that the 9.3-second and 76.8-mph eighth-mile related to a 14.51 at 94.7 mph.

It was not clear just how much each of the two traction problems was contributing toward slowing the car. The diff had to be fixed regard-less so that the car would perform on road courses, so with a $50 repair kit from the local Ford dealer, Nate rebuilt the rearend.

At the next Mooresville session, things looked better. The diff fix made its mark by dropping the 60-foot time by a tenth-and-a-half and the e.t. by about two-and-a-half tenths. The first few passes were made in the heat of the day, and we had some 60-foot times just under 2.1 seconds and some eighth-mile runs at a few thousandths over the 9.1 mark. When things cooled off we made some more runs, but it seemed there was nothing that would induce this machine to run a sub-2-second 60-foot and sub-9-second e.t. At the end of the day, the best we could do was a 2.043 and a 9.044. The speed nudged up slightly to 77.2 mph. For the quarter-mile, this equated to 14.13 at 96.7 mph. Not bad for a cash layout of just $2,862.

Even though traction was a big problem, it was deemed worthwhile by all concerned to make a run using the nitrous. For the record, the big traction problem turned into a major traction problem, even with the Zex's 75hp jets installed. The plan was to use the nitrous only in Second and Third gears. E.t.'s were all over the shop, though. The nitrous system's torque punch was often enough to blow the tires off this car in Second gear. Most runs were actually slower than those without the nitrous, but one run did sort of hook up and netted an 8.77 at 81.9 mph. For the quarter-mile, this equated to 13.57 at 100.7 mph. A typical street cost of the Zex nitrous system was about $530, putting the car up to just a shade under $3,400. But, remember, we only used a 75-horse shot, and traction was a real issue. I was in a similar situation with my 5.0 about four years ago.

With about 270 rwhp, the car was on BFGoodrich Comp TAs, running around the 13.65 mark at 100 mph. The 60-foot times were right on 2.00 seconds but never under. Here, Dale from Custom Performance stepped in and loaned me a brand-new set of BFG Drag Radials. This was worth an instant one-and-a-half tenths off the 60-foot time and three-and-a-half off the quarter-mile time. Applying that to our Comp Cams project car would have put our times conservatively at 8.8 at 78.4 mph for the eighth and 13.91 at 98.0 in the quarter. All this would have been for $3,107 and certainly a little more to come with fine-tuning.

With just the 75-horse shot added to the equation, we would have been able to use the nitrous pretty much right out of the gate. The computer simulations indicated this would have resulted in an 8.45 at 84 mph and a 13.2 at 103.5 for the quarter-mile. To achieve this would have set us back $3,640. Figures like this have to prompt the question as to whether or not we can get this car into the 12s for under $4,000.

At this point, we have a respectable-looking, quick-running car. Also, we have reached this point without any really serious mechanical work. Next month, we will look at an alternative route to a 13.2-second quarter. We'll achieve it without the nitrous yet still hold the total vehicle budget under $4,000. This will include how to rebuild an engine for less than $300. When that's all rolling, then we will hit the nitrous once again-12s here we come.