After capturing the NMCA Nostalgia Pro Street crown in 2008, Hoosier native Jim Widener was ready to tackle bigger and greater challenges, and with a keen interest in the exciting and competitive racing taking place in the American Drag Racing League, he knew where he wanted to be. And just a handful of months later, that opportunity would present itself.
During the ADRL Gateway Drags in St. Louis in August of the following year, Widener’s good friend and engine builder Tony Bischoff of BES Racing Engines was completing a qualifying pass in his familiar Xtreme 10.5 Mercury Cougar when he suddenly found himself upside down in the shutdown area and his Jerry Haas-built machine heavily damaged and his racing future uncertain. Following a couple of previous crashes and rebuilds in the Cougar, the veteran Bischoff made the tough decision to hang up his helmet and focus on engine building. Enter Jim Widener.
Rather than write the wrecked Cougar off, Widener and Bischoff agreed to team up and go racing, and Widener purchased the car in virtually the same condition that it left St. Louis. “I bought it as a wreck and took it back to Haas and them repair it. They had to clip the front end off and we had to replace the roof section of the body. Other than replacing the clip, it was mostly cosmetic damage, though,” Widener told us. “I was looking to do something bigger, and Tony and I had been friends for a long time. I actually worked for him for a short stint about 20 years ago. He was at the point that he still wanted to race, but he wanted out of the driver’s seat. So we struck a deal and I bought the car from him and get it repaired and he was going to supply the motor and transmission for it.”
DRAGZINE recently shared a first look at the massive 866 cubic inch, nitrous-fed HEMI powerplant courtesy of BES as it took its first steps on the engine dyno, cranking out a stout 1,783 horsepower – sans any nitrous oxide – with some left on the table. “We actually didn’t pull it as high as we could have. If you look at the dyno sheet, it was still making power when we quit pulling it,” said Widener. Last week, the repaired Cougar was picked up from Jerry Haas’ shop in Missouri and the engine was promptly dropped between the frame rails and hauled off to the body shop to have the nose and other odds and ends finished in order to complete the resurrection.
While Widener and Bischoff have their sights on the ADRL’s incredibly tough Xtreme 10.5 class, they certainly don’t plan to abandon their muscle car roots in the NMCA. “We’re going to run some Extreme 10.5 and NMCA Pro Street and probably some local stuff around the midwest, as well. We missed the first NMCA race of the season, so we won’t run the full schedule this year. Between the ADRL and the NMCA we’re probably just going to hit the races that are a little closer to home, since we’re really out of the points race in both series.”
Last season, Outlaw 10.5 veteran Dan Millen blasted onto the ADRL scene with his screw-blown Mustang and changed the face of the class overnight with dominating performances including a crushing 3.78 that left many current and would-be racers, including Widener, scratching their collective heads. “We know we’ve got to be able to run in the 3.80’s to even have a chance to keep up with Millen. I mean we’re pretty sure we can run some 3.90’s fairly easily, but it’s going to be hard to run much faster than that with a nitrous car. On the NMCA side, I don’t think we’ll have any problem being competitive with [Chris] Rini and some of those other guys.”
With the feasibility of the nitrous combination in Extreme 10.5 in dire straights against the supercharged and turbocharged cars, Widener and Bischoff, like many others, contemplated trying their hand at the Pro Nitrous division, but ultimately opted to remain where they were most familiar, partly due to class guidelines.
“We definitely gave it thought, but the problem at the time was that the car doesn’t have a floater in it, and according to the Pro Nitrous rules, you’ve got to have a floater rear end housing. We would’ve had to redo the brakes and all kinds of other things in the rear and it just wasn’t really in the budget right now. That’s definitely something that might happen in the future, though, just because we’d be on a more level playing field. We’re not going to keep going to races just to get our butts handed to us; Tony and I are just to competitive for that. Everything that Tony has ever built has run at the top of the pack.”
Although the re-dubt of the Cougar is presently penciled in as “whenever it’s done,” testing is expected to begin sometime in mid to late April and while the competition debut is still to be determined, the pair hope to be out prior to but certainly by the time the ADRL returns to the Memphis International Raceway in late May. With an angine from his shop resting under the hood of a car he knows quite well, Bischoff will serve as crew chief on the effort. “My biggest goal has always been to run Pro Stock in the NHRA, just because I’m one of those guys that likes to win it on the tree and run bumper-to-bumper at the finish line. And the ADRL has that factor, too.”