There are countless ways to get your kicks drag racing, from dedicated racecars to your average street car that makes an occasional appearance at the track. New Jersey native Mark Sussino’s 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix, known as “The Champagne Express,” was built so it could live in the space between those two extremes. Mark’s Pontiac is optimized for one thing: to have fun at the track.
The automotive and racing worlds have been a big part of Mark’s life. His father was a mechanic and his mother would take him to Englishtown to watch the racing every summer. The mixture of those two things pushed Mark directly toward turning wrenches and racing his own creations.
G-body cars have been a favorite of Mark’s for a long time; his very first build was based around the platform, so he’s stuck to it ever since.
“I had a 1983 Pontiac Grand Prix from 1992 until 2003, but it wasn’t anywhere near the level this car is right now. I actually purchased that car from my aunt and made it a cool driver and daily-drove it until around 1999. It was starting to rust pretty bad from being a Jersey car all its life, so I found this one on eBay and swapped the whole drivetrain over. Taking it to this level is just a product of owning the car for such a long time. I’ve just been refining it and making changes along the way…sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse, but it’s always a learning experience,” Mark explains.
Mark built The Champagne Express to be what he wanted: a car he can just enjoy and tinker with. Most of the time you’ll find Mark piloting his Pontiac at true street-type events, and the car has completed Drag Week an impressive six times. For Mark, it’s all about having a car that fits what he wants to do.
“I have no problem being called a career test and tuner because I just want to have fun with it. The car has run 8.98 at 150 mph with a 1.24 60-foot with me foot-braking the car. The car is not perfect for anything…it’s a gigantic compromise. It drives great on the street and runs decent on the track, but is optimized for neither. It weighs 3,660 pounds with me in it, so it’s no lightweight, and I’ve taken out everything I’m comfortable taking out,” Mark says.
Mark’s goal is to eventually push The Champagne Express deeper into the 8-second zone with some healthy 8.60-8.70 runs. To make that happen, he relies on a 421 cubic-inch engine built by Pro Motion engines. The pump gas mill is based around a Dart Little M block that has a Callies Dragon Slayer crank, Callies Ultra connecting rods, and custom JE pistons for a rotating assembly. A pair of Track 1 cylinder heads from Brodix work with Jesel rocker arms, Crower lifters, Isky valve springs and a COMP solid roller camshaft.
To crank up the power of the Pontiac, Mark added an Edelbrock Super Victor intake and Pro Systems 1050 dominator carburetor. A healthy dose of nitrous is supplied by an Induction Solutions X275 direct port system. Right now, Mark is just spraying a 350 shot of giggle juice into the engine, and that’s supplemented by C16 race gas that’s fed through a separate fuel cell. Controlling the nitrous is an NPC2006 nitrous controller. All of that nitrous power is fed through a Hughes Performance TH350 transmission and torque converter on its way to the Quick Performance 9-inch rearend.
JT Raceshop in Minnesota has done all of the chassis work for Mark to make sure the car is safe. The suspension consists of parts from TRZ, Menscer, Spohn, and Trick Chassis. Inside the car, you’ll find an MSD Grid system providing ignition, along with a Racepak Sportsman system recording data while Mark reads the car’s vitals through a Racepak IQ3S dash.
According to Mark, none of this project would have been possible without the help of one man: Charlie Parinello. Parinello was an old friend of Mark’s father who helped push Mark along in his racing endeavors.
“Charlie knew I was into racing, so I was helping him with his Nova. Once, I had no garage so he offered for me to keep my car in his garage. Well, we became close friends and he was actually my co-pilot on my first Drag Week in 2010. He pushed me to really make the car what it has become. He passed in 2017 and I miss him dearly. He really is what made the car progress to what it is today.”
Mark has built some great friendships over the course of The Champagne Express project. Without the help of these friends and family members, Mark’s Pontiac wouldn’t be the killer street machine you see.
“I need to thank my wife, Emily, who puts up with this crap and actually encourages it…most of the time. I also need to thank Larry from Pro Motion, Steve Johnson from Induction Solutions, John Tell from JT Raceshop, and Pete Nichols from Hughes. Another important person is Greg Hurlbutt from Hyperaktive — he’s been my co-pilot for the last three Drag Week,s and without him the car wouldn’t be as successful as it’s been. He’s a good friend and a great co-pilot. Finally, I also want to thank David Freiburger for creating Drag Week. I have made so many lifelong friends from doing it,” Mark says.
In a world filled with people who will debate what a street car is all day long, Mark Sussino just blasts down the road listening to his Pontiac roar. He doesn’t have time to worry about what other people think of The Champagne Express, he’s too busy having fun driving it.