As they say, variety is the spice of life, and small-tire drag racing…well, it’s not so spicy. Ford’s Mustang and Chevrolet’s Camaro and Corvette are the dominant makes and models in the arena, often comprising the entire field at radial-tire and 10.5-inch tire meets. And so when a classic Ford Thunderbird, of all things, arrives on the scene, it’s worth making note.
Pennsylvania racer Don Murray is, out of sheer necessity, a do-it-yourself kind of racer; he’s also not one to go with the grain. And so in 2020, he will debut one of the coolest cars the Outlaw 10.5 category has ever seen: a real, steel 1957 T-Bird.
Murray grew up bracket racing and later went small-tire racing, which morphed into competing in Outlaw 10.5. There, he raced a 1964 Ford Fairlane, but as the caliber of cars improved, his partially mild-steel machine couldn’t keep up. He knew in order to do so he’d need to rebuild it a third time, and of the opinion that it was simply too nice to cut it up yet again, he instead opted to sell it. He then began on a 1967 Mustang to replace the Fairlane, but when his father (and crew chief) passed away, he took a break to soul-search.
But his soul wasn’t the only thing he was looking for. While perusing classified ads, Don discovered a ’57 Thunderbird rolling chassis located on the West coast. A Pro Modified-style car with a 25.5 chrome-moly chassis under it, it was an excellent starting point for his 10.5W and radial-tire initiative.
“The Thunderbird was my dad’s favorite car, so I sold everything, bought this car, transported it out from the West coast, and rebuilt it. So it’s kind of in honor of my dad.”
A supercharged car at the time, it was factory pink in color with a white top. Murray updated the chassis to 25.2 in his own shop, built the engine, plumbed the hot and cold side of the turbocharger system, and repainted the car.
A jack of all trades, Murray does all of his own work purely out of financial necessity.
“I do all of my own chassis work, I do the paint work, the engine, electrical work, I do everything. I have to, because I don’t have the money other guys have,” Murray says. “So it might take me a little bit longer, but I take great pride in my work, and I still want to have the best of everything, I just have to buy it all used for the most part.”
The car is, as purists of the Outlaw 10.5 category will appreciate, entirely steel, save for the bumpers, hood, dashboard, and the top (which was fiberglass from the factory). The factory window trim is still in place, as is the factory glass port window.
“I like the fact that it’s all steel. There’s not many companies building ’57 Thunderbird parts; there’s a fiberglass front end for a ’55 out there, so I’d have to modify the car, but I like the look of the ’57. I just like being different. My cars have always been different — I’ve never been one to follow and get a Mustang or a Corvette or a Camaro…it’s the older cars that I like.”
The wheelbase has been stretched 3-inches, but the front end remains factory in length (but is now a liftoff-style nose). Murray covered the car in PPG Pepper Grey metallic paint. A fabricated full-floater rear end housing with Strange Engineering axles rides on Menscer shocks out back. Strange brakes are on all four corners.
The engine is a 521 cubic-inch, all-billet Brand Anderson Hemi with Brad8 cylinder heads. Twin 94mm Precision Pro Mod billet turbos on alcohol provide the boost. A FuelTech FT500 ECU will serve as the brains of the operation.
Murray’s primary focus will be the Outlaw 10.5 points series at Cecil County, while he’ll also hit some of the 10.5 national series events and select drag radial races, as well. Noting that the money and popularity is in radial racing these days, he intends to debut the car on radials to get a feel for the combination and gather data so that he can jump back and forth between tires and venues.
“I’m an Outlaw 10.5 guy at heart, but I wouldn’t mind getting involved in the radial stuff,” he says.
For Murray, it’s not the finished product, but the pride he takes in utilizing his own two hands to assemble it that means the most, noting, “not having the resources that most of the other guys have but being able to compete at this level makes me super proud. Before, I was happy to make a race…just to qualify was huge to me. But now, with this car, I’m coming out to win. I’m not going to be happy just qualifying.”