It’s a dream of many people to head to the United States – the fatherland of all things cool with cars – to compete in one of the many drag-and-drive events on offer throughout the year. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived that dream, having jumped across the pond for Hot Rod Drag Week several times now, and this year I was keen to take part in Rocky Mountain Race Week 2.0, which was to begin at Thunder Valley Raceway Park in Noble, Oklahoma on 4 September.
First published in the December 2022 issue of Street Machine
However, the cost of international car freight is just ridiculous at the moment, so I figured I’d have a crack at jetting into the US and finding a roller there to build in just 10 days to tackle the event. It was a huge task, but what the hell – life is dull on the couch and I’m always up for a challenge, especially if it’s to do bucket-list stuff.
Years of racing in the States meant my mate Tyson Munro and I already had somewhere to build the car, with Dale and Marsha Wilkens at The Car Shop in Independence, Kansas happy for us ‘Mexicans’ to turn their world upside down.
Dale is a diehard racer with one of the quickest fuel altereds in the States, running mid-threes at near 210mph over the eighth-mile. Among other toys, he had a 1980 Malibu roller that he found on Facebook Marketplace, which had been sitting in a shed for a few years. At some stage, the previous owner had run a small-block, and it had a rollcage, nine-inch rear and some other good bits. So our goal was to build it into something cool that would make the event fun – and with essentially all components sourced from Marketplace!
Before we’d made the journey, we’d bought a blown small-block that was a bit of a mystery bag. It had been in a Camaro that had changed hands a couple of times and the seller really didn’t know much about it. It had a steel crank and rods, some Dart heads, crank support, and a complete 6/71 set-up with injector hat and fuel system. Yep, that sounds like us.
We hit the ground in the States with just two weeks to make it all happen, minus the four days we intended to spend at No Prep Kings in Boise (SM, Nov ’22), so things were going to be tight.
A leakdown test showed that the mill was pretty good, so on day one we stripped it down to a short motor. The water passages were full of rust and scale from sitting, but the bearings looked pretty mint. It had ARP studs throughout, four-bolt mains and a small-block crank with a big-block snout – a must when building any half-serious blown small-block Chevy.
The two biggest failures that tend to occur on drag-and-drive events are the valvetrain and transmission, so we banged in a new set of Isky Red-Zone lifters that Dale miraculously sourced, and even though the block had been fitted with an O-ring and copper head gaskets, we swapped in MLS items instead.
While Tyson and I banged away on the motor (which also needed a different oil pan and pick-up, a water pump and an alternator mounted on it), Dale stripped the Enderle hat, refreshed the barrel valve and leaked it down.
We had pre-ordered a new converter and had found a good Powerglide with an aftermarket case on one of the drag racing pages. A second-hand Gear Vendors overdrive was sent to Rick in California to rebuild and was returned to us in record time.
It didn’t take long to have the motor and trans sitting in the car, and a pair of boost-referenced Holley carbs from Marketplace (for the road legs) had been sent out to a renowned performance shop to be kitted and wet-flowed, so they were going to be close to spot-on after some minor mixture adjustments.
The suspension in the car was good, but the 4.56:1 gears in the nine-inch were not going to work for us. We found a couple of nine-inch centre sections for sale nearby with 3.7 and 3.9 gears, and did a deal that included them being delivered. Unfortunately, we noticed a persistent oil leak on the ground, and the new Moser centre had a hairline casting crack. We reached out to the seller, who, much to our amazement, made good with another centre and delivered it.
It was challenging doing the build in a very small country town, even with the support of Dale and his troops at crisis points. Independence had an auto store comparable to Repco, but everything else needed to be overnighted, so we made a daily shopping list of all the missing components like AN fittings and hoses, a set of headers, an alternator and tyres.
Luckily, they had a great exhaust shop in town and we ordered a set of Hooker stainless mufflers from Summit, while McDow Muffler & Brake did a really nice job of the twin three-inch system to the diff in half a day.
It only took a few days to get the small-block up and running, but from the outset it struggled to stay cool. I have never had any success with aftermarket fans on any of my cars, and pre-empted this by bringing a brand-new set of Falcon EA fans over in our luggage.
These seemed to do the trick, and with a brand-new four-inch driveshaft with joints and slip yolk overnighted to the shop for just $700 (less than half the price of back home), we were almost ready for a test drive. We ditched the tiny trans cooler the car had for a bigger Derale item with a fan, and fitted new Teflon lines.
Although the wiring in the car was pretty immaculate, it had been set up just for the track, and we quickly discovered that not only were there no headlights or blinkers, but the factory wiring loom had been removed and it all needed wiring from scratch. While Tyson removed the 7AL from the car and wired in the Gear Vendors unit, trans fan, water/meth pump and Innovate twin-channel wideband, Aaron (aka Ron Jon), one of The Car Shop techs, stayed back after work and wired the blinkers, horn and headlights.
Day six was test-drive day, but the moment we dropped the car off the rack (that’s Yank-speak for hoist), we noticed a big problem: this thing was on its guts. Not to be deterred, Tyson headed for the highway on the car’s first test drive, only to be halted when the front passenger tyre grabbed the guard lip 100m down the road and pulled the guard in.
A quick call to a parts supplier had a new set of springs coming in overnight, while Dale set about repairing the front fibreglass splitter while we dropped the front end out of the car that night.
While all this was going on, we were sweating our arses off, with temps in the high 30s/low 40s and high humidity since we got there. Luckily, we’d been keeping our fluids up, although Tyson was proving to be a real disappointment as a beer assistant.
After a lot of grunting and swearing, the springs got fitted and we spent a day plumbing up the alcohol system to the new front header tank, as well as fabricating a new fuel shut-off bracket and cable, and fitting alternator number two, as the first, one-wire piece of shit died after about 10 minutes.
We also had to fabricate a throttle bracket that could be used for both the carbs and the injector hat, as well as a bunch of other plumbing and tidy-up stuff.
We were ready for another test drive. While the small-block seemed happy idling and with a quick blip of the throttle, once out on the highway it got near 3000rpm in second gear, with the air-fuel ratio (AFR) reading in the bottom nines – super-rich. It was now Thursday afternoon, and we were leaving Sunday morning.
The carb company was very apologetic; they had made such a meal of jetting the carbs and promised to overnight new air bleeds and jets to save the day. We took the carbs off and fitted the hat, and after ripping it up and down the main street half a dozen times, were looking to get it somewhere a little safer to let it eat with the race tyres on.
We took the car out to the local airport, and within a couple of hits, we had the small-block on song. Even with the blower backed down to 36 per cent overdriven, it belted out 22psi of boost. The plugs were mint, with a nice timing strap and a little bit of colour on the top of the plug – done deal.
From here, we thought it would be smooth sailing. We just had to head back to the shop, fit the carbs, test drive and pack the car, order a bit of Mexican and sink a couple of coldies.
Then the new parts arrived for the carbs – and they were all wrong. Even with the secondaries fully closed, the AFR was between 9.2 and 10.0 on cruise – horrible.
At 11pm on Saturday night, we called it quits. We didn’t have any other carby parts, but we figured we’d probably bump into someone at the event who might, or if we could make the drive from Noble, Oklahoma to Ennis, Texas after the first day’s racing, there was a Summit close by.
We finally made it to Thunder Valley Raceway Park for Day One of Rocky Mountain Race Week 2.0, but struggled at the track. On the first pass, the Malibu had a snort through the injector at half-track and went 11.5@75mph. We added fuel before we went lean, even though it looked rich on the plugs.
On the next pass, it did the same thing at the 100-foot mark, so we went lean and it did the same thing yet again. It was 10pm by now, and it became clear there was an ignition problem now that the car was under full load. We had to pull some boost out, as the MSD 6-BTM we had fitted just couldn’t light the mix, even after closing the plug gap down to 13thou.
“I only took a few days to get the small-block up and running, but from the outset it struggled to stay cool”
We changed to carbs, arrived back at the motel at midnight, waited 30 minutes for Tyson to stop flirting with the young receptionist, and bunked down for the night.
The next day we hit the road at 7am, frantically scouring Marketplace and the wider internet for blower pulleys we could buy on our leisurely four-hour drive to Ennis, Texas for Day Two’s racing.
Aside from the carb jetting being junk, the car drove mint; the Sparco seats were comfortable, the rear end was quiet, and our last-minute wheel alignment meant the Malibu rolled down the highway like a gas-guzzling dream.
However, it wasn’t long until alarm bells started going off. The catch can breather started getting real smoky, and a 20-minute drive used almost half of our 30-litre fuel tank with the Gear Vendors on and at just 3000rpm.
The trip to Ennis quickly became a gas station tour, and we added an extra 20-litre jerry can behind the seats. We had cut a slot in the centre of the front spoiler to feed the radiator some extra air, but had been watching the temperature gauge slowly rise from 180 to 190 to 200, and at 205 the fuel pressure gauge showed zero.
We rolled to a stop, and after dumping our 20-litre in, the car had a flat battery. Some other Race Weekers stopped and lent us a jump pack, and we made it to the famous Buc-ee’s Gas Station in Texas, which looked to be the biggest servo on the planet.
“Drag-and-drive events are just brutal. A five-cent washer can bring even the best-prepared team to its knees”
We quickly discovered our new alternator had already shat itself, and our spare had given up the day before. We tried the old one, and it got us a few miles down the road before packing it in. Fellow Aussie Race Weeker Nick SW picked a new one up for us for the bargain price of $700, and it looked to be the same as the other made-in-China junkers we had bought for $160 each.
We battled on, but the car gave up the ghost not long down the road. We bought a bigger battery and earth cables, which seemed to help, and after a 14-hour drive, we finally rolled into Ennis at 9pm. Throughout the day we had watched the oil pressure slowly drop from 55psi cold on start-up to just 25psi on cruise.
The fumes from the breather were like steam pouring through the firewall. We’d really hate to think how much we spent on fuel, but we were averaging not much better than three-and-a-half miles to the gallon.
The battery was toast – the Falcon fans had sucked all the life out of it – so we hitched a ride to Auto Zone for a new battery, six litres of oil and a litre of Lucas while Tyson made the switch to methanol.
It was 9.45pm by the time we fired it up, and even with the new oil, the oil pressure was just 25psi, even with a decent rev. The oil we dumped was full of fuel, and it had diluted the oil throughout the drive, hurting the bearings.
There was no quick fix; we could have rolled down to the startline and taken any time in order to stay in the event, but then we would have had to find some way of pulling the engine from the car and fitting new bearings for the next road leg, which was a lazy 500km.
So we were out. Race Week promoter Matt Frost was a total legend, organising for his brother Brian to drive us back to Noble to get our truck.
We returned later that day, and when we fired the car up to put it on the trailer, it only had 10psi of oil pressure. After watching the Day Three’s racing in Tulsa, we headed back to The Car Shop and yanked the motor. Luckily, a hone, a set of rings, an oil pump and new bearings are all it will take to fix it – the crank looked okay.
Pulling a DNF leaves you with an empty feeling, especially after such a massive thrash to build the car thanks to faultless support from Tyson along with Dale and his Car Shop crew.
Drag-and-drive events are just brutal. A five-cent washer can bring even the best-prepared team to its knees at any moment, to say nothing of contending with extreme weather conditions, potholes, long days, dodging wildlife, mechanical breakages and 100 other things that can go wrong on a daily basis.
The pity is that only a couple of small things bit us on the arse this time around. Even so, we headed back home with great memories; we had a bunch of laughs, met some awesome people and checked out a new drag-and-drive event. Living the dream!