If you think about the phrase, “A needle in a haystack,” it probably brings the mental image of something hard to find. Delve in a little deeper, and you’ll realize it means finding something unique among a lot of other very similar-looking, but ordinary things. In this case, “finding an almost original car at a drag race” is very similar to the proverbial needle in the haystack. Discovering a vintage car that hasn’t been cut up, welded, and completely altered running down a drag strip is unusual, no matter where you look. Our crew managed to do just that when we were out at the 2010 NMCA season opener in Bradenton, Florida, where we found Kevin McDonough and his 1966 Bel Air.
To be honest, we were blown away when we saw that car. The thing that set McDonough and his Chevy apart from the rest was that he runs it down the dragstrip, drives it every weekend, and has managed to keep the stock appearance. These days, cars that look like they did 40-50 years ago when they came off the showroom floor are getting increasingly few and far between, so when we saw this one going down the track we had to find it in the pits and get the rest of the story.
Finding the Bel Air
McDonough has owned many different musclecars in his life, and the last one he let slip away from him left a hole the size of the Grand Canyon, right smack dab in the middle of his heart. He sold his ’66 Biscayne big block right around the time the NMCA introduced the Nostalgia Super Stock class, which held a strong appeal for McDonough. While he wanted to race, he wanted the right car to do it with, so the long search began. It took him 6 years to track down a car that he wanted, but we agree that it was worth the wait.
McDonough bought this car in 2008, from Bo and Karen Sowers, owners of American Classic Auto Restorations. The car had been through three different owners before the Sowers took possession, but it wasn’t just another car rolling through their shop. It was Bo’s personal car and he had kept this Bel Air in pristine condition as a showpiece for the business. McDonough managed to convince the Sowers to part with it, then painstakingly obtained every title transfer, the sales slip from the original buyer, a photo of each owner with the car, and even the spare factory keys that had never been used.
McDonough purchased the car as a completely stock and original ’66 Chevy Bel Air with the generally-unloved 283 small block V8 under the hood. The car had the inevitable forty year wear and tear of a daily driver, but nothing some minor repairs couldn’t fix. After forking out $9800 for the car and $1200 for shipping, he had the Bel Air sitting in his driveway, and a smile on his face. But that was just the beginning…
Upgrading the Bel Air
Even in the beautiful condition that the car was in, McDonough had some aspects of the car he wanted to change. After 6 years of watching the races from the grandstands, he knew there were certain things that needed to be upgraded before he hit the lanes. While he wasn’t ready to run, he did the next best thing. His brother was racing at Super Chevy, and Kevin entered his new ride into the car show in order to get a parking spot up close. He did not expect to win anything, because all that was done to the car was new wheels and tires. To his amazement, he received second place in the Big Chevy class, which happened to be the most-populated class at the show.
After the unexpected honors at the Super Chevy show, it was finally time for the modifications. McDonough wanted to keep the car as stock as possible, but still be able to run it down the dragstrip quickly, safely, and consistently. He ripped out the engine, transmission, and rear end to make room for bigger, heavy duty stuff. Moving up to a 12 bolt rear end was a “no brainer”, and upgrading the transmission to a built Turbo 400 was just as obvious, but the engine was a little more difficult.
The original stock ten bolt rear end that came with the car was not strong enough and way too old to handle the power that he was planning on running, so it needed to go. McDonough took the car up to Rollins Automotive in Gainseville, Florida where his friend had a 12 bolt stashed away. While this rear end was new to Kevin, it has been around for a while, and it showed it. The 12 bolt was an original ‘70s rear end that had been laying outside of Rollins Automotive, so it was a little rusty, dirty, and weather-beaten. They blasted the housing and gutted everything inside, replacing the internals with parts that could handle racing conditions. They installed a set of Moser axles and 4.10 gears that would be more than enough for his application.
Initially an ATI turbo 400 transmission with a trans brake was installed, but the brake was removed before the first race to meet NMCA Nostalgia Super Stock rules. “The car was too heavy to run a trans brake anyway, so we just took it out,” Kevin explained.
Since going quicker than 11.50 in the quarter mile would necessitate a roll bar to meet NHRA safety rules, and McDonough was opposed to tearing up the interior of the original-looking car, they needed to build an engine that would let him run on a 12-flat index. To accomplish that goal, he chose a mildly-built 454 that was bored .060 over, with a handful of aftermarket parts including an Eagle crank and rods, COMP Cams camshaft and valve train components, and Edelbrock heads, intake, and water pump. To be able to run pump gas in place of expensive race fuel, McDonough kept the compression at 10.5:1. To keep with the factory-like appearance of the rest of the car, the block was painted orange so it would resemble the 427 cubic inch engine that was offered as an option.
Unlike most of McDonough’s competition in NSS, he drives his car to and from the track, and runs the same way he drove it on the street, with mufflers, on 93 octane and street radials. Kevin works five days a week and every other Saturday, so making races is somewhat complicated, but with a rare day off arranged for Friday, McDonough was all set for the Bradenton season opener – or so he thought.
McDonough did a few things to get the car ready and he was off on the 100 mile trip to Bradenton. As the car was going through tech inspection, his friend mentioned to him that it would be great if a real street-driven car won the Nostalgia Super Stock class. In testing a few weeks earlier, the Bel Air had gone 11.63, so in order to slow it down a bit to the magic twelve-oh, he lowered his shift point from 5600 to 5100 RPM and put some weight into the car by leaving the spare and jack packed securely in the trunk, and filling the gas tank to capacity.
In time trials, McDonough ran an opening 12.07, so in the pits the tire and jack came out for a little fine tuning. With the extra weight removed he went back out for his second timed run, figuring on a 12.02, but the car picked up a full tenth, running 11.97. Jack and spare back in, and the final pass was a 12.05, good enough for 8th overall in qualifying. Per McDonough, “Qualifying doesn’t matter so I wasn’t extremely worried about it.”
In the first round he was matched up with a car that he had been admiring for many years, a ’63 Plymouth. On the start he pulled a .011 light and beat his opponent with a 12.05, tapping the brakes twice. McDonough was feeling very confident after that run, until he discovered that he was paired up against the reigning champion Doug Duell in round 2. When the light dropped Kevin took off with a .015 light and beat Duell, which sent his confidence through the roof.
In the third round McDonough was paired up against one of his buddies who drove a ’69 Dart. After seeing a few of McDonough’s fast lights, his friend tried cutting a quick time and it was too quick – The Dart red lighted which would send McDonough and his Bel Air into the finals against a ’66 Fairlane. Unfortunately, mother nature played the cruel joke on McDonough by raining out the end of eliminations on Sunday. With the NSS final round rescheduled to Monday, McDonough called his boss and said, “I am in the finals I will not be in,” receiving the okay to stick around and finish what he’d started.
“I was doing good all weekend until the final round,” said McDonough. When he pulled up to the water box to do his burnout, he positioned the rear tires too far forward and wasn’t in enough water. When he hit the throttle the car immediately started moving forward, which meant that he did not heat up the tires as much as he needed. When the tree went green, McDonough hit the gas and his tires slipped costing him the victory, but he was happy with runner up.
Having a car with the ability to be competitive on the dragstrip while keeping the stock look and a lot of stock parts is very rare these days. On that same note, having a driver who is passionate and driven is also very important. Behind a great driver/car combination like McDonough and the Bel Air are more people that often aren’t seen, and McDonough wanted to add, “Special thanks to my beautiful wife Abby, my brother Rick, Murray’s Speed & Custom of Miami, and Rollins Automotive of Gainesville. Without the support and help from these people none of this would have been possible.”