That car is FANTASTIC!
Story by Gary Horstkorta
At first glance, it looks like a nearly finished 1934 Ford hotrod: solid wheels, Ford hubcaps, fenderless body, lowered front end and suicide doors. However, moving closer you see four-wheel disc brakes, control rods, anti-roll bars, a digital dash and a full roll cage.
This is not a regular hotrod, but something much more–perhaps a real wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Like many of us, Craig Watts is a true motorhead, and he’s equally obsessed with two- and four-wheeled machines. In his younger years, he raced motorcycles, winning an armful of trophies in motocross competition. He still rides off-road today and has covered the entire length of the Baja California Peninsula and back on a motorcycle.
His professional automotive career, though, began with a torch. Craig worked as an expert welder for several subcontractors to a U.S. government research facility in Northern California.
In the early 1990s, an acquaintance suggested that Craig contact a local hotrod shop to see if they could use his welding skills. That tip led to Craig working part-time for Dominator Street Rods, a well-respected builder of hotrods, custom cars, sprint cars, mud trucks and just about anything requiring fabrication.
Two or three days a week, Craig helped Dominator with a wide variety of projects. All the while, he got an education in suspension and chassis design, fabrication, paint and much more. The shop also offered trackside support for its sprint car customers, so he learned about track setup and maintenance, too. (Fast-forward 23 years, and Craig is still moonlighting at Dominator. The gig supplements his full-time job as a county fireman.)
About four years into his part-time job, Craig began to build his first car: a 1934 Ford three-window coupe that he planned to use primarily as a show car. The three-year project started at Dominator and then moved to his home garage, where it was completed.
In 2004 “Rides,” a popular reality TV show about hotrod builders, taped a few episodes at Dominator Street Rods. By that time, Craig had developed a reputation for doing quality work. Later he received a phone call from the program’s producer about a new show called “Overhaulin’.” Did Craig want to join the show as a fabricator? Craig said yes, and over the next five years he worked with Chip Foose and his crew on 21 episodes.
During this same period, Craig also accepted an offer to become part of a professional Baja off-road truck team. For the past 14 years, he’s driven the team’s support truck down the length of the peninsula–and added to his knowledge base of what it takes to build and maintain a competition vehicle.
The job at Dominator had Craig attending many hotrod shows, but it wasn’t until about four years ago that he went to a Goodguys Rod & Custom Association event and saw his first autocross. Craig was intrigued but didn’t have a suitable car. The solution was to build one.
He knew that he wanted a good, strong driveline and a classic hotrod look. He visited a local salvage yard in search of an appropriate driveline and asked about Chevy LS engines.
The clerk’s response was simple: “Which one?”
Craig was handed a three-page list of the yard’s available LS engines.
“I contacted an engineer friend who worked for General Motors as a troubleshooter,” Craig says. “After reviewing the list, he recommended I get the Pontiac L76.” The L76 is related to the popular LS2 and also features 6.0 liters of displacement.
Now Craig needed a body. Staying with what he knew, he found a ’34 Ford steel body in Canada via eBay. When the body arrived, though, it wasn’t as nice as the seller claimed. Still, Craig deemed it usable and got to work, laying the drivetrain and body on a frame table so he could piece together the tube-frame chassis. He set out to combine elements found in classic hotrods and sprint cars.
Craig fabricated most of the car himself. In addition to the tube chassis, he also built the exhaust headers, twin I-beam front axle, control arms, anti-roll bars, fuel tank, hood, trunk, firewall, floor, three-link rear suspension and cantilever front suspension.
Craig still had a big hand in many of the components he didn’t make from scratch. For the exterior, he customized a 1937 truck grille. Inside, he narrowed, reshaped and reupholstered two junked Honda Accord seats. He also remapped the engine ECU and even installed the a/c system that came with the salvage yard drivetrain.
Some outside suppliers contributed, too: Craig installed Bilstein shock absorbers, Wilwood disc brakes, a Speedway Engineering quick-change rear end, and a Stack digital dash. He added a handmade brass radiator, too.
The entire chassis was powder-coated black, while the body was left unpainted. By early 2015, after two and a half years of nights and weekends, Craig had essentially completed the car.
Craig debuted his hotrod that March at the Goodguys Spring Nationals, winning his class in the event’s autocross. He followed that with two more class victories. By the end of the season, he had enough points to take a Goodguys class championship.
Craig’s autocrossing wasn’t limited to the hotrod-centric events hosted by Goodguys, as he also ran with the SCCA and the American Auto-X Series. A hotrod at a sports car event? “Whenever I would arrive with the car, I received some strange looks,” Craig explains. “But once I showed people what was under the hood and the rest of the car, all agreed this was a serious competition car.”
Late last year, Craig finally decided to paint his creation. Even though he saw it as a sophisticated competition car, he also wanted to drive it on a regular basis without worrying about every nick and blemish. He opted to leave the hood and trunk lid unpainted, but did spray the body a sort of light olive drab using spray cans. Based on the color, he christened the car the Sewer Pickle.
The Sewer Pickle has been on track, too, serving as the pace car at vintage race events hosted by the Classic Sports Racing Group. Craig’s friend George Williams recently retired from that position, handing it over late last year.
“I was surprised when George asked me if I wanted the pace car position but excited just the same, since it would give me another opportunity to drive my car on different race tracks,” Craig recalls. Before Craig’s first event leading the pack, George passed on some advice: “Whatever you do, don’t spin out!”
Besides his pace car duties, Craig has kept the Sewer Pickle busy this year with a full slate of autocross events, including those part of the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational. He says that the full format–road rally, autocross, track day and speed-stop time trial–works well with his car.
What’s next for the Sewer Pickle? We’ll have to wait and see where else this multitalented hotrod shows up.
This article is from an old issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Get all the latest how-tos and stories for just $20 a year. Subscribe now.
That car is FANTASTIC!
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