Looker And A Runner: Todd Zeller’s Incredible Turbo’ed Top Dragster

This stunning new Top Dragster is a collaborative effort between Michigan drag racers John Parkes and Todd Zeller that demonstrates the high-level trend to create flowing paint schemes on race cars, extending beyond the body panels to virtually every part and piece on the car — even places you can’t see without disassembly.

Parkes and Zeller often join together on projects with their respective businesses. Todd Zeller owns Todd’s Extreme Paint and is known for racecar paintwork throughout the U.S. John Parkes is the president of Chrome-Worx Performance, which not only retails hardcore components for racing but also builds turn-key race cars of the top echelon.

The pair works together on many customers’ projects, but they have excelled with the new 255-inch wheelbase Miller dragster owned by Zeller, which will compete in Top Dragster and stand out wherever it competes. Not only is the dragster trick in appearance, but the turbocharged/electronic fuel injection 540-inch big-block Chevy and new Miller chassis design will be recognized for its engineering prowess, as well.

Zeller’s intention is for the dragster to be a “runner” as well as a “looker.” The powertrain combination consists of a 540 cubic-inch big-block Chevy designed and built by Steve Morris Racing Engines.

One of the first questions we had to ask Zeller when poring over the new dragster was precisely how much tape he used to mask the lines over, well, almost the entire car.

“I never really thought about that, so I went back to look,” Zeller responds laughing. “My books show two cases of masking products plus 10-rolls of a special fine line tape which calculates out to about 15,000-linear feet. With that being over 2.8-miles of masking products, I really need to buy stock in 3M.”

“We dismantle many components, prep, and paint, and then return the parts back to companies like Holley Performance, K&R, and Digital Delay for screen printing of their traditional logos,” Zeller explains. “It’s time-consuming, but I think the final results are worth the effort.”

Zeller notes that though requests for extreme paint designs continue to grow, he creates many themes which are flowing but retain some simplicity. Popular schemes incorporate the effort of continuing the lines of a car through aluminum panels, bodied-car door jambs as well as through components like valve covers, transmission cases, and more.

The critical word also used by John Parkes is details. “Our turn-key construction results in our company building about ten cars per year,” Parkes explains. ‘We could pump out 20-30 cars per year if we were pumping out rollers. These are really all about the high-end turnkey pieces, so they take a lot of time.”

When you look at the intricate work on Zeller’s dragster, you can understand the time investment Parkes describes. Components such as the Holley EFI control panel, the delay box, and the switch panel have meticulous color applied yet still retain the product logos. Many elements are returned to the original manufacturers after painting to have original logos reapplied. That specific effort amazes people when they look at the finished vehicle.

You need to be very cautious with such components like the Holley ECU touch screen. We actually worked with Holley staff to make sure we did not affect the critical outer edges of the screen where the touch sensors are. There are complexities to these paint jobs that many do not realize. – Todd Zeller

As one of the standout builders of huge horsepower turbocharged powerplants, Morris convinced Zeller to veer away from the legions of Procharger-equipped combinations in Top Dragster competition. Instead, he supplied a Bullseye Power 98mm turbocharger setup running at 22-pounds of boost. This engine’s high torque characteristics will make use of a tall 3:70 gear ratio in the 9-inch Ford rear end outfitted exclusively with Mark Williams Enterprises components.

“We tried to make this car an example of what we like to call OEM quality,“ Parkes mentions. “All peripherals like the wiring and plumbing have the factory fit and finish."

The 540 uses Dart Machinery block and heads. The rotating assembly components include a Callies Performance Products Magnum Crankshaft, Oliver connecting rods, and Diamond pistons. Valvetrain consists of Crower cam, pushrods, and steel rockers while Holley Performance and electronic fuel injection is incorporated onto a Holley intake with Billet Atomizer injectors.

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“Many heads-up turbo racers use a torque converter dump with a Turbo 400 transmission. That relieves pressures in the torque converter and allows the turbocharger to spool up quickly on the starting line,” Zeller describes. “We wanted to use that same application with this dragster, but obviously with a shorty Powerglide. Abruzzi Racing Transmission designed a ‘glide and torque converter combo with an internal and external dump system that will let us quickly build turbo rpm when we’re staging the car.”

"It’s lots of fun to hear people say 'oh wow, oh wow,' when some of the panels are removed," Zeller adds. "They see the work put into the fuel tank, inner body panels, cockpit panels, and engine parts."

A custom-designed Miller swing arm suspension incorporates the anti-roll bar directly with the shock function. Zeller describes, “So you have two arms coming off the rear end that push up and the two anti-roll arms push down on the shocks; it’s unique.”

A couple of unique features in the car include a front-mounted fuel tank and a carbon fiber floor pan that lines the car forward of the driver compartment to remove air turbulence under the car. Mickey Thompson slicks and dragster front tires are riding on custom paint-matched Weld Racing Delta Wheels..

One of the trendy descriptions for the colorful paint schemes is to “spill the paint.” Zeller is not a fan of the term. He notes some of the learning curves he has put into this level of paint applications over the years have been the result of lots of work and experimenting.

“We use different prep, sealers, paint, and clearcoats at different points on a car. Door slammers get different clearcoats to prevent scuffing on the interior and door jamb areas. On dragster body panels, we use a very different epoxy and clearcoat to avoid cracking as the panels are exposed to vibration,” Zeller continues. “Even all of the small engine components can use different products, so the work lasts a long time.”

“This car consists of eight different primary colors. Many people have thought there were more colors on the car than that," Zeller tellsus. "It is an accomplishment if you can give that appearance of more colors than are actually used.”

We spoke in great detail about the fine line between an outrageous paint job such as on this dragster and what we joked as “too much.” Working out the ideas with an artist’s rendering is a critical step for Zeller. This process is not only for the customer’s sake but also to walk that line between eye-grabbing and too much.

Even when he is working out a new paint scheme, Zeller adds another step by drawing out his design directly on the full-size car, as well. “There is even a difference in a flowing design where things can appear differently between a rendering and actual size,” Zeller adds, “Reexamining details during different steps of painting means everything.”

There may not be much room for this kind of paint job to outdo itself. The future may hold new colors and layout designs, but the paintwork flowing through every piece and part may have hit a pinnacle.

About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
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