FREAK OF NATURE
The Case of the Wild and Crazy Nitro Chevy
FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, THE LATE JIM BUCHER SET THE NHRA TOP FUEL RECORD AT 6.07 SECONDS (AT 231.31 MPH). TWO YEARS LATER, BUCHER WON THE NHRA SUMMERNATIONALS IN HIS TOP FUEL DRAGSTER.
No big deal, you say? Yes, it was. Jim accomplished these feats with a big-block Chevy. Keep in mind that in 1975, there were precious few national events in comparison to today's hectic schedule. Competition was fierce, and winning one was big news. In addition to Bucher, Larry Dixon Sr. in the Howard Cams "Rat" was having success with the Chevy rat motor in T/F. Dixon actually eclipsed the 6-second barrier with several passes in the 5.90 range. For the most part, though, Hemis ruled the nitro categories.
Fast forward to today. Chuck Exton, owner and builder of our feature car, is successfully campaigning a Nostalgia Funny Car powered by a big-block Chevy, and he's been doing it for several seasons. Even more confounding is the fact that Chuck uses a block out of an old, medium-duty Chevy truck as the basis for his fuel motor. Essentially, he fills the 10.2-inch-tall deck truck block with concrete.
The main caps are stock, and, for a while, Chuck even used the stock truck crank during early development. Everything on the engine is regularly inspected after two passes. On 85% pop, the stock crank would start to develop stress cracks. As a result, Chuck and crew would swap out the crank every eight passes. Today, the team has upgraded to a billet crank, but there is still a ton of low-buck hardware inside the rat motor. For example, the oil pump is a stockstyle, high-volume Melling. The rods are off-the-shelf aluminum jobs from Venolia. Ditto with the pistons. However, they're custom forgings with a compression ratio of less than 6:1.
Upstairs, the Dart
360 heads used in the combination are likely more than 30 years old— and they're still ticking.
The heads are obviously maintained religiously and provided with regular upgrades (for example, the intake valves are titanium). Given the Nostalgia rules, the rat motor runs an itsybitsy 6-71 blower. This one is from Mooneyham, while the bird-catcher is from Enderle Fuel Injection. The fuel pump is a Nostalgia rulescompliant 21 gpm Enderle.
The fuel pump is critical. As the story goes, the biggest limiting factor in the Nostalgia fuel ranks is the pump. In contrast, a typical NHRA pro fuel car will be equipped with a pump that produces 110–120 gpm. That small pump, along with the little blower mandated by the rules, is what keeps these things relatively safe and affordable.
But we digress ... back to the engine. All the machining is handled in house by
Chuck and his crew. Chuck owns and operates Exton Automotive Machine in Canadensis, Pennsylvania. It's essentially a full-service, one-man machine shop. The cam is a custom grind from Bullet, and the headers are from S&W Race Cars.
Backing the nitro BBC is a three-disc, 10-inchdiameter East/West clutch setup. Chuck works an air-shifted two-speed
Lenco. Out back, the fuel coupe still incorporates a good,old-fashioned, 9inch Ford rearend.
You might be surprised by how quick and reliable a shoestringbudget big-block Chevy can be on nitro, especially when it’s properly machined, something Bucher and Dixon Sr. understood almost five decades ago.
S&W also handled all of the upgrades on the chassis. It began as a vintage Hal Canode Race Cars-built piece originally designed to run on alcohol. Rolling stock consists of Weld Racing wheels (bead locks on the back) wrapped with Goodyear slicks and front runners. Throughout the years, the body morphed from a mid-'80s Dodge Daytona F/C shell to what you see here. Yes, it's had its fair share of dings, dents and encounters with the wall. It's also been modified more than once; so often, in fact, the team is now calling it an '80 "Mustang."
We all know that parts alone won't win races— the right people do.
From the top, the team is spearheaded by team owner/team machinist/ driver Chuck Exton. Chuck has more than 30 years of experience machining engine parts and driving race cars. Decades ago, he began as a bracket racer with his street car. He progressed to front-engine dragsters and eventually ended up deep inside the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks.
In between, Chuck worked on Terry Haddock's Funny
Car and Rit Pustari's Top Fuel operation. At Pustari's, he was charged with working on the cylinder heads. He has crewed on several other teams as well, including work on Paul Smith's many cars.
Jimmy Gifford is the crew chief and engine tuner. He started out with Chuck at the machine shop and was charged with cleaning and blasting parts in the machine shop dirty room. Eventually, Jimmy joined Chuck on the Haddock F/C team. Today, along with crewing for Chuck, Jimmy has his own successful alcohol-altered operation.
Roy Niemann also started out in the dirty room at Chuck's machine shop. After a short tenure with the small teams shadowing Chuck, Roy joined him on the Paul Smith operation. Here, his role grew from parts washer to cylinder head or clutch mechanic (depending on the team). Today, Roy is the go-to clutch man on Chuck's funny car. He also handles PR and toils with data-logging.
Longtime pal Glenn Reish drives the transport truck and works as the assistant engine builder. Jason Herring is the team's jack-of-all-trades. He can help with pretty much anything and is also (along with Sam Castimore) the chief cook.
Casey Pirro, Greg Reish and Austin
Herring are longtime friends, and they're also Chuck's customers. Each brings his own level of expertise to the team. Their duties range from wiping tires to cleaning parts to completely stripping the car after a match race.
Finally, the team makes use of Gary “Skippy” Kennedy's expertise as a long- distance team consultant. As most know, Gary is a well-respected fuel car tuner with credentials that go back to Jerry Toliver's WWF-sponsored operation, Tim Wilkerson and other nitro stalwarts.
What's in store for this nitro-guzzling freak of nature? More of the same.
The team is out to run additional match races this year. Expect performances to improve even more. You might be surprised by how quick and reliable a shoestring-budget big-block Chevy can be on nitro, especially when it's properly machined—something Bucher and Dixon Sr. understood almost five decades ago.
Chuck is more than happy to display the rather unsophisticated bottom end of his nitro Chevy. The magic lies in the machining and maintenance, not the high-dollar parts.
It’s the real steel deal—not an HD aluminum block camouflaged in Chevy Orange. These casting numbers tell the tale.
Roy Niemann, Jason Herring, Chuck Exton, Jimmy Gifford, Glenn Reish, Austin Herring. Not pictured: Joel Hilfigure, painter/sponsor, and Casey Pirro
S&W Race Cars has performed serious upgrades to the vintage Hal Canode chassis.