WE ALL need a good arsekicking kicking every once in a while, and I guess this year’s Hot Rod Drag Week was my turn to cop ONE.
Going into the event I was confident, as my POR440 VG Valiant’s performance had until that point been almost faultless across two continents.
Whatever inspired me to pull a near-faultless car apart in the weeks leading up to this year’s event is beyond me. Well, that’s not entirely true; at the back of my mind was that gnawing desire to go quicker and bust the car into the eights, and I felt I really needed to pull it down as it had done a lot of work and was due for a serious heath check.
In two years it had never even had the plugs changed, as every time I pulled a couple they looked as good as the day they were fitted. The only thing it ever got was a new squirt of Castrol Edge oil.
At the end of 2017 left the car in the States, eventually sending it to Holzman Race Cars in Wichita, Kansas to have a few small jobs done. The main item on the to-do list was to replace the small log exhaust manifolds that I knew were choking the motor and stopping it from making more power. The car’s PB of firstname.lastname@example.org and its weight indicated it was making 980hp at the flywheel, but as much as we tried we just couldn’t crack an eight on the stock-bottom-end 5.3-litre LS.
A local Sydney Valiant enthusiast approached me about doing a similar LS conversion in his Valiant, so I sold him the motor and the trans from POR440, which meant needed to reload another motor.
After a quick thrash on the interweb and a couple of calls to Lil John’s Motorsport and I had all the bits I needed to slam another 5.3 in the car, but this time with a pair of AFR 220 heads that offered better clamping pressure for when I wanted to up the boost towards the high-20s.
The other significant change was ditching the 3.0:1 rear-end ratio for a 3.9, to allow the car to launch much harder. I also picked up a second-hand Gear Vendors overdrive that I sent to Rick Johnson to check out. That would allow me to keep it nice on the street and gave me the option of having the legs to run over 160mph on a little tyre.
In the weeks leading up to Drag Week, the new motor, the spare trans I purchased last year and the Gear Vendors all got shoehorned into the Valiant at The Car Shop in Independence, Kansas, and plans were made to lug it to Haltech in Kentucky to turn out some big numbers just a few days before Drag Week. All sounds good, right?
The boys at the Car Shop, who have always helped us Aussies out, did a bunch of work filling in the gaps on the car, and Dan Nissen, last year’s Spirit of Drag Week winner, arrived with ‘Dorothy’, our super-cool 1969, factory big-block D200 Dodge tow vehicle, all the way from Havre, Montana, so we could get on the road.
After a 14-hour tow across to Lexington, Kentucky the guys at Haltech had us loaded up on the dyno and ready to make some steam in no time. We were tuning remotely, so while I drove the car on the dyno in Kentucky, Mitch Smith tuned from the couch back in Sydney.
There appeared to be something drastically wrong with the timing. It became clear the reluctor wheel the crank had moved some on for reason, and would not pick up a signal for TDC where it should be. This took a huge amount of time to resolve, and we started adding a few degrees of timing. Every time we did the motor ran better and better, but ultimately how much timing it had was unknown. But we ended up with 580rwhp on 6psi and pump gas – a perfect street tune.
The next morning we loaded it with E85 and struggled with a recurring miss that ended up being a faulty coil, before exhausting the spring pressure on the wastegates with 850rwhp on 16psi. So not the 1000-plus horses we were after, but the car as running well, we were out of time to find stronger springs or add CO2, and had a day to do two days’ worth of driving to Atlanta for NHRA tech.
The day before Drag Week was hotter than hell in Atlanta, and the traffic was like nothing you have ever seen. We waited all day for the track to try and cool off and we went out and blew the tyres off it twice.
Suddenly it’s Drag Week proper, and on the first pass we left on 8psi at 3800rpm with a lean spot at 2800rpm, making it murder to try and get up on boost. Sure enough, we blew the tyres off, pedalled it and drove out the back door for a 9.8@148mph.
The serpentine belt was shredded, and after thrashing to get it changed, and with talk of a thunderstorm hitting just after midday, we decided to hit the road out of Atlanta. Our goal of an eight-second average went straight out the window, but aside from startline issues the car had run well, with the promise of better times to come.
On the road to the next track – Darlington Dragway in South Carolina – the promise of rain eventuated, with a thundering downpour for endless miles. We were lucky enough to have a/c and Windex, though the wipers had a hissy fit and baulked at the challenge.
Darlington was a killer track, and we left on the same boost and clicked off a 1.4-second 60-foot – one of our best – and the car was on a mission until it shut off at three-quarter track and rolled through to a 9.72@122mph.
The Haltech datalogger later revealed that the engine protection had been activated by low oil pressure of 30psi, more than likely from the oil being pulled away from the dipstick. We added another 800ml and queued for what seemed like an eternity in the blistering heat and humidity. With 400 cars entered, you really need to be on your a A-game, get a good pass in, sit in the stands for a few hours to watch some racing, then hit the road. That plan was crumbling though, as we were down the end of a very long line at 2pm.
On our next pass the track had gone off, and we blew the tyres off and the engine shut off again at three-quarter track – the belt let go, the voltage dropped and the ECU shut off. We couldn’t win!
Being able to race a zMAX Dragway at Concord, North Carolina was a huge tick off my bucket list. Where else in the world do you get the chance to run on a four-lane drag strip with a massive NASCAR arena just behind? Boy oh boy, do these guys know how to build a drag strip, with seating that looked to hold 100,000 people.
Overnight we had tried once again to fix our belt issue, but straight-edge rulers, laser lights and the naked eye had been unable to shed any light on the misalignment issue. Out of necessity, we spaced the alternator forward, as it was the only bracket that wasn’t GM- or machine-manufactured.
We wound the boost back a few pounds and immediately regretted it on the startline, as the car left like a wet blanket. The engine struggled to get up on boost, but once it got in the zone it was sure to at least get us into the mid-nines and help us maintain a mid-ninesecond average for the week, despite not being able to get a single clean pass so far.
But like clockwork, the engine shut off at three-quarter track as another belt turned into a pile of spaghetti, and we rolled through for a bottom 10-second pass.
With no obvious fix available, and after a delayed start in the morning due to heavy fog, we were faced with a massive line in the staging lanes and no promise that the next pass would be any different, so we decided to head on to Bristol, Tennessee, where we hoped a night of troubleshooting would come up with a solution.
The drive through the mountains to Bristol was spectacular, and with the odd shower it was refreshing to be out of the baking heat. Although Google Maps promised only five hours of driving, it was another eight-hour haul. After discussing our situation in a local bar, we decided to be in the first few cars down the track in the morning, in case we needed a second pass.
Sure enough, fellow Aussie Ben Neal and I were the first racers out at Bristol Dragway on Day Four. The car didn’t set any records leaving the line, and at three-quarter track I heard a noise under the bonnet that sounded like a belt letting go. The engine was still running, so I didn’t lift until I saw a splash of coolant run out the edge of the bonnet.
I shut the car off, figuring it was just a head gasket. We pushed it back to the pits and got the commentators to round up a set of gaskets. With my trusty co-pilot and spannerman, Nigel Williams, we had the head off in about 25 minutes, only to reveal the extent of the damage – a massive hole blown out the side of the head where the cylinder had gone lean. To make matters worse, it had torched the deck of the block, which would have stopped us from using another head and resealing it. We were done. Our first DNF. Fark.
The gravity of our situation began to sink in: we were on the other side of the world, a day’s drive from Dorothy, with a busted car and no local contacts. Fortunately commentators David Freiburger and Brian Lohnes got on the microphone and called out to the crowd, and a local mobile mechanic came to our rescue, picked the car up, stored it in his shop and we paid him to deliver it to the docks a week later – after the series of hurricanes that were ravaging that part of the country subsided.
Luckily the Street Machine boys found a spot in the back of their luxury van and gave us a trip back to Atlanta with the Esky at the ready to drown our sorrows.
Day Five at Atlanta was our most enjoyable day. After seven years Drag Week adventures, of the crowds were the smallest I had ever seen due the unseasonably humid weather, with temperatures on average 10 degrees hotter and constant 95 per cent humidity. It was great to finally sit in the stands and actually watch some racing, with the Aussie contingent picking up three trophies between them.
By the time this goes to print, POR440 should be almost home, and it’s going to be good to get the engine out and fix the reluctor wheel issue so I know exactly how much timing the motor had got. We’ll weld the head up and check out why we lost one injector.
Taking on a USA racing adventure cannot be done without help, and I want to thank Haltech for their phenomenal back-up service, Dale and Marsha from The Car Shop, Dale Heiler and Nigel Williams for their help in the USA, Rick Castrol Johnson Edge. from Gear s Vendors, and the team from casrol Edge.