First Time Winners Dominate The NMRA’s Spring Break Shootout

The NMRA’s competitors had an amazing 2016 season; I’ve been anxious all winter to see what the racers would bring to the table for 2017. The world’s finest Ford racers assembled in Bradenton, Florida this past weekend for what appeared to be the NMRA’s largest-ever turnout for the Spring Break Shootout, at least as far as I can recall. The pits were full from end to end, the car show was massive, the racing action was hot and heavy, and a number of the series’ racers made their way into the winner’s circle for the first time.

I’ve been covering the NMRA since 2002 and have been to the vast majority of the series’ events since then. The names may change, the cars may be different year in and year out, but there’s one consistent theme – it’s always a good time with some of the finest people I know.

To observe them in their element as they inspect the vehicle’s data, make changes, and apply those changes to the car is fascinating. Some of these folks are able to recognize the tiniest data point anomaly, then – which is sometimes more amazing to me – determine how the slightest change in weight placement, or ignition timing, or fuel mapping, will improve the vehicle’s on-track performance. As I walked the pits during the course of the weekend, I was taken aback by just how impressive the whole scenario is. It truly must be experienced to be understood.

But I digress – this article is not about me. It’s about the racers who pour every last penny into their racing programs in an attempt to be quicker and faster and more consistent than the next guy. With that in mind, let’s get on with the show.

John Kauderer has been racing his Cobra Jet Mustang in the Coyote Modified class for some time now; with the help of the fine folks at JPC Racing, he finally found his way to a win this weekend. Last year, Kauderer stood the car up on the bumper with a monster wheelstand at the Maple Grove race and damaged the engine upon returning to earth. A new engine from MMR found its way between the framerails, and the team got back to work, culminating in a satisfying performance in Florida.

“Three years is a long time to get to the winner’s circle, but we made it and we will be back!” says Kauderer.

“It was like a dream come true. I have had some success at the local MOM’S Series in the Buffalo area, but this is a different league altogether. I had a lot of problems getting the car to run the way I needed to be successful in NMRA – that all changed after I hooked up with Justin’s Performance Center. They dialed the car in pretty quickly. We were running great in Bowling Green [in 2016]; the car set a record but driver error cost me the race. In Florida, Eric Holliday, Crew Chief and tuner of the AEM had the car absolutely on point. We set another record and took the win!”

Haley James covered her car in an all-new look for 2017; it’s eye-catching and makes for great photography. Unfortunately it didn’t result in improved performance, as she was out early on Sunday with an undiagnosed engine issue.

Brian Devilbiss struggled all weekend long to keep the nose of his Grabber Blue GT500 on the ground. This was his wildest ride of the weekend; the car stood all the way up and drifted out to the right, and when it came back down in the marbles near the wall, the car shot across into the left lane. It was only through a masterful driving job by both racers– and a lot of luck – that Devilbiss didn’t push his opponent into the wall.

He recovered, though, and on Sunday was like a machine. Devilbiss was double-entered into both the Modular Xtreme and Terminator Vs. GT500 classes, and dominated in both. With the Evolution Performance team twisting the knobs and ace tuner Patrick Barnhill tapping the laptop keys, Devilbiss took home the win in both classes.

Terminator Vs. GT500 action – Jeff Smith in the far lane, and VMP Performance’s Rick Kaknes in the near lane.

Another player in Street Outlaw is Floridian Eric Leeper, who goes against the grain with his immaculate 1966 Mustang. Leeper, who uses a turbocharged Modular powerplant for motivation in the AC Carcraft-built chassis, has been slowly sneaking up on its performance. Just prior to this event, he installed a new Pro Torque torque converter, and spent the weekend dialing in the engine calibration to take advantage of the new performance. Leeper qualified fifth with a 4.49 blast on what he called a soft tuneup.

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see this guy in NMRA competition again. While the car may appear familiar – it’s Adam Arndt’s Renegade chassis – the drivetrain belongs to one Brian Mitchell, owner of multiple Renegade championships and without a doubt one of the most distinguished driving resumes in the small-tire racing game. Mitchell hung up his driving shoes a while back, claiming burnout after racing in nearly every NMRA race ever. But the bug never truly lets go of a racer, and after Mitchell decided to resume his program, he purchased one of his old chassis back to have it revamped for competition. It wasn’t finished in time, and when Arndt got the call from his National Guard unit to deploy across the pond and take him out of NMRA competition for the year, a match was made between the two friends. Arndt installed the driveline for Mitchell, and he was back in the game in Florida.

In 2016, John Urist spent the first half of the racing season finishing up his car, built by Behind Bars Race Cars to be state-of-the-art amongst the Street Outlaw crowd. He then spent the second half of the season battling new car bugs before putting down a strong 4.55 pass at the No Mercy race at the end of the season. Then, over the winter, he revamped the engine combination with an all-new 358 cubic-inch billet bullet using the latest and greatest Coyote engine parts. In Florida, Urist finally had the opportunity to start throwing some real power at the car and immediately found that the suspension needed to be tuned up. Here, Hank Hill (L) and Mike King (R) plot the suspension out in the trailer. Urist put down a solid 4.60 to win in the first round over Hannah Sanders, but fell to Manny Buginga in round two.

I never, ever, ever thought I’d see an automatic transmission installed in Mike Washington’s Coyote-powered Factory Stocker. Washington has long been a proponent of manual-transmission racecars and has been racing in Factory Stock with a stick combination forever. But over the last several years, parts breakage has haunted his program; every time he thought the clutch was dialed in on the radial tire, he’d go testing, make a few passes, and break something again. After the cycle ran its course a few times, he got tired of not being able to build any consistency into his race program, and made the switch to the slushbox.

After taking off the better part of a decade from small-tire racing, former class champion Manny Buginga has stepped right back into the thick of the Street Outlaw wars with support from a team full of knowledgeable people. He hired Rich and Nick Bruder to oversee the program; working hand in hand with longtime crew chief Pat Speer, the gang has Buginga on top of the world in terms of performance. After qualifying was complete, he stood above the field, carding an insane 4.33 at nearly 178 mph in the eighth-mile with the turbocharged 400 cubic-inch powerplant in his New Edge Mustang. Despite holding half-a-tenth in the bag over the competition, he spun the tires in the final round to go down to Charlie Cooper…

…Who himself is no slouch behind the wheel. Cooper is also well aware of the impact a solid team can have on performance, and to that end has hired Jason Lee of PTP Racing to ensure his success. Not only did he hire Lee to tune the car, the chassis also belonged to Lee at one point, and the engine is out of John Urist’s old red notchback. The engine has been freshened by Mike Curcio at MCRP, and Cooper is confident in its abilities to keep him at the front of the pack during the 2017 season.

“With the help of my whole crew, including Boots and Ben, we were able to win the race. She’s workin’ right now!” he says.

Cooper, who qualified in the second spot just behind Buginga, seemed destined to meet up with the Buginga clan in the final round of Street Outlaw. After slicing through his half of the Street Outlaw field, Cooper strapped a holeshot on Buginga in the final round and never looked back, earning his first win in the series’ penultimate class in the process.

The car show was full of Ford iron of all types, which took up all of the available space and then some.

“It’s getting hot in here, so take off….”.. kidding, I’m KIDDING. Vinny Palazzolo was behind the wheel of Benny Ortiz’s immaculate GT500 Mustang this weekend, doing tuning duties and continuing to help Benny sort out the car and eventually make his own way into the seat. They thought the car had torched a headgasket, so the heads came off and a new set of gaskets were installed into the engine. Despite the effort, Palazzolo went down to newcomer Leroy Nabors Jr. in the second round of competition.

Although Nabors is a newcomer, he jumped into the game and is right on pace with his GGTG-sponsored Mustang. See, this is the same race-winning Mustang formerly owned by Charles Hull, which was a frontrunner last season as part of the KBX Performance team, and Nabors, Jr. couldn’t have found a more capable car to purchase. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, as he went to the semifinals before losing to Buginga.

Domenic DiDonato has been working to get his turbocharged Mustang into the winner’s circle in the Renegade class and has had a number of setbacks over the years. He has been in the winner’s circle before in the NMRA’s GT500 shootout, but this is his first opportunity to take home the big prize in the heads-up class.

DiDonato simply doesn’t have the same race experience level of some of the NMRA’s other competitors, and that’s where his team comes into play. His crew chief, Chuck Wrzesniewski (along with DiDonato the two halves of C&D Autotech), worked hand-in-hand with engine builder L&M Engines and tuners Craig and Daniel Pachar of Triangle Speed Shop to develop a race program designed to catapult DiDonato to the front of the field.

Over the winter, DiDonato and Wrzesniewski went through the car to prepare it for this season; they sent out transmission to be redone, checked the torque converter, and freshened the bottom end of the engine for the new season, but didn’t make any major changes to the combination. They didn’t touch the suspension at all, and when they got to Florida, the car wouldn’t go down the track at all. It spun the tires four times in testing and qualifying, then in the second round of qualifying, it backfired and he didn’t get a clean pass off. It came down to his final qualifying attempt, and even then he could only muster up a 9.40, nearly two full seconds off the top qualifier’s performance. They rescaled the car on Saturday night, and come Sunday it went straight and true all day long, with wins over longtime racers Valerie Clements and Bart Tobener on his way to the final round. DiDonato did his job behind the wheel, earning a holeshot final-round victory over Frank Varela, one of the NMRA’s stalwart racers and the class record holder.

“It was a hell of an accomplishment, and a shock at the same time. Frank told me he’s never lost on a holeshot before,” says DiDonato.

“At the last race I was in, I shallow-staged and got beat on a holeshot so I went in a little bit deeper than normal. The top bulb was flickering as the tree came down, and it worked.”

It’s all about the big dogs of the NMRA. I can’t walk by a dog without snapping a photo, and these furfaces were all too happy to pose for my camera. Well, maybe not the last guy, but..

Longtime Mustang drag racing fans will remember this guy. I’ve been a fan of Jimmy LaRocca since the old-school Pro 5.0 days where he campaigned his ultra-clean ’86 with a variety of engine and powertrain combinations, then went on to race in Renegade before ultimately bowing out of racing several years back. He’s working as crew chief for Renegade racer Tommy Annunziata these days. I walked over to say hello and was tongue-tied; those of you who know me personally know that doesn’t happen – ever – but in LaRocca’s presence I felt like it was 1995 again and I was standing at the Ford Motorsport Nationals at Maple Grove. Even today I still have magazines from back then with his car in them; this guy is one of the faces of Mustang racing who worked tirelessly to make it what it is today. He says all of the same tricks from back in the day still apply to a supercharged car – manage the belt slip, make sure the engine calibration is correct, and hang on. Annunziata went down to class winner John Kauderer in the semifinals in a battle of 2014 Cobra Jet Mustangs.

In the days leading up to the event, Turbo Coyote Shootout racer Justin Jordan spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 straight hours finishing up the assembly on his MBRP-sponsored Mustang. The car, which had been in the chassis shop for a winter upgrade, proceeded to knock down 7-second passes all weekend long. Jordan went to the semifinal round before losing to eventual class winner Sai Li when the track couldn’t hold the power.

Coyote Stock has gone to the next level – top runners Drew Lyons (shown here) and Darin Hendricks have both installed 25.5-spec cages into their cars, despite the CS class running right at the 10-second barrier. In fact, both cages were done by Pro Tree Race Cars in Indiana.

Lyons told me he did it simply to give himself some room to grow with his racing program for the future. An added benefit is the ease of chassis tuning. Lyons mentioned that last season, when he was making shock adjustments, the car simply didn’t want to respond. With the new chassis, he says he can make minute adjustments and see immediate changes on the track based on those adjustments.

Speaking of Hendricks, he set the Coyote Stock world on its ear during qualifying when he knocked down an insane 10.07 blast. Coyote Stock is knock knock knockin’ on the 9-second door, which some racers feel will be the beginning of the end of the class. I don’t agree, as the cost of admission is still inexpensive enough that it’s within reach of most racers’ budgets. The final round of Coyote Stock fittingly came down to Lyons and Hendricks, with 2015 class champion Lyons taking out reigning champion Hendricks by a .049-second margin of victory.

Mid-9-second passes from a four-cylinder, independent-rear-suspension, near full-weight Mustang? UPR Products’ Bill Putnam says “yes please”. Putnam was rolling in this turbocharged screamer all weekend long, putting it into the winner’s circle in the EcoBoost Shootout class with an insane 9.51 over Lexi Fruggiero’s 10.29.

Dan Ryntz became yet another first-timer to enter the winner’s circle; his weekend wasn’t without its challenges, though.

“We had a strange rpm limiter coming in at the end of the track that we were trying to figure out. The transbrake button locked me out in the third round of qualifying, so I ended up leaving before the tree activated, with no timeslip, which kind of rattled me before the first round of eliminations,” says Ryntz.

“Then, there was a misunderstanding at the line in the first round against Sondra Leslie. I thought she broke on the burnout. The guy motioned for me to go in, so I did. She backed up and did another burnout, but I was already staged and up on the limiter. TJ Bailey [the NMRA’s Official Starter] came running out with his arms waving at me. I’m just glad I wasn’t jinxed and able to refocus.”

But that wasn’t it – then he had to race against the class champion, James Meredith, in the final round. Ryntz, whose passes through all four rounds of eliminations didn’t vary more than .028-seconds, had his driving prowess tuned up both on the track and at the tree, and strapped a massive holeshot onto Meredith at the starting line to take his first Factory Stock win.

He had only one thing to say. “Redemption. He knocked me out of the last 4 races, but I finally got him.”

The 2017 Spring Break Shootout seemed to be about redemption for many.