Meet the ScAries

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Story by Jane Soliman • photos by Anthony Neste

“With two weeks left before the $2012 Challenge, I was seriously second-guessing my decision not to go, but had nothing new to bring,” this year’s overall winner, Pat Culkin, admits. He was going to take the year off, in fact.

After making five Challenges in a row, though, missing this one started to become irksome, he recalls. Fortunately, the turbo Dodge Aries he had brought the previous years was still in one piece and running. Sometimes, that’s just half the battle.

The History of It All

Pat had originally purchased the car for parts. He saw an ad for a turbocharged 1988 four-door Dodge Aries K and became intrigued. Turns out it was a base model that the seller was converting to turbo power, but there was a problem: a blown freeze plug. Pat offered $300, thinking he could always use it for its drivetrain parts and scrap the rest.

To Pat’s surprise, after hammering in a new freeze plug and adding coolant, the Aries ran just fine. He still felt that he just had a parts car on his hands.

Then he blew the engine in his primary car, a turbo Dodge Shadow that has made appearances at past $20XX Challenge events. The Shelby Dodge Auto Club national convention was around the corner, and Pat figured it would be quicker to continue the build on the Aries rather than redo the Shadow. In less than a month, the Aries was ready to race thanks to the local Shelby Dodge Auto Club guys.

The team fixed a plethora of problems with the car, added an intercooler and a nitrous oxide system, then set off for the convention—still in the original faded blue paint, looking for all the world like an ancient airport taxi.

“It was ugly, but for some reason it was cool,” Pat claims. It ended up doing quite well at the SDAC, winning the bracket race and Special Interest Car show class, autocrossing in the top 10, getting fourth in Top Gun class, and earning the eighth qualifier spot in the Quick 8 class. Pat came to terms with the Aries’s excellence: “At that point, it was no longer a parts car, but my next GRM project.”

The convention gave Pat and his team some direction with this one.

Mods, Fabs and More Mods

Pat is no stranger to building turbocharged, front-drive Dodges. Fortunately, they respond well to parts-bin engineering and low-buck tech tricks. In the three months between the SDAC convention and the $2010 Challenge, he completely stripped down and rebuilt the car, fit the forged rods and floating-pin pistons from a Turbo II engine inside a Turbo I block. Then he ported the head himself to increase flow, and also improved the flow of a factory Chrysler turbo exhaust manifold by grinding down the imperfections, smoothing corners, and some old-fashioned port-matching. The body was stripped down to remove non-essential parts, painted red, and given a ’69 Dodge Super Bee theme. It was no slouch either, running down the drag strip in 11.62 seconds to place fourth overall in that year’s Challenge. (That E.T., by the way, bests just about every production street car ever sold.)

Back to the Drawing Board

For the next year’s Challenge appearance, the team went through the car again. The most obvious change was the visual package, this time nodding to the factory-backed, championship winning Dodge Stratus that David Donohue ran during the 1997 Super Touring series. In addition to the graphics, there were handmade flares and side skirts—all fabricated with sheet metal lifted from an old filing cabinet, a front airdam fabricated from flashing, and it was all topped off with a $75 rear wing from eBay Motors.

As fast as the car already was, Pat knew that the car also needed more power in order to meet his performance targets.

“Cooling the hot intake charge and being able to flow a high volume of air with little to no pressure drop is very important to making power,” he explains. Instead of buying an aftermarket upsized intercooler, he made his own the low-buck way by welding together three stock intercooler cores. He also made the end tanks using scrap aluminum sourced from a wrecked truck. Pat designed his intercooler on paper, made templates out of cardboard, test-fit everything, and then cut, hammered and welded to spec. Additionally, Pat fabricated a large-plenum upper intake manifold by using a section of 4-inch aluminum tubing that had been part of a wrecked GMC pickup’s driveshaft, adding an endcap and hand-forming a section to mount the throttle body, then mating it to a Chrysler Turbo II lower manifold. Getting more air into the combustion chambers is good, but Pat continued the work he’d started on the exhaust side by making a larger turbo exhaust downpipe with a divorced wastegate dump pipe.

The suspension received modified spring perches to mount a combination of cut-down front and rear springs concentrically on the front struts for a big bump in front rate. The rear received a homemade anti-roll bar and modified Panhard rod arrangement. He added a five-point roll bar and aluminum seat to the interior.

“It was a completely different car at that point,” Pat boasts. Despite the rain, it placed third in the concours and eighth in the autocross. The team placed sixth overall. “Not having the drags hurt us,” Pat recalls, as that portion of the event was rained out that year. “One month after the Challenge, without changing a thing, I ran an 11.01 at 125 mph at a local drag event in Challenge trim.”

David Donohue, now with a Le Mans class win as well as an overall first-place finish at Daytona to his credit, knows about Pat’s homage to the old Super Touring days: “I just wish the Super Touring car could get off the line like the K-car! I had 10 poles, but only five wins. Those races really were won in the first turn. Unfortunately for me, I sucked at the standing starts and was often almost last in Turn 1. I was so bad at it that Lou Patane, then director of motorsports for Chrysler, sent Dominic Dobson and me to Frank Hawley’s drag racing school. I can’t believe what they’ve done with no appreciable budget.”

We Were on a Break

“At that point, I had decided a break from building Challenge cars was in order,” Pat recalls. “After all the effort, I wanted to enjoy the ScAries and race the hell out of it and not worry about saving anything for the $2012 Challenge.”

All year, Pat ran the car locally and did well with it—with only minor tuning along the way. At the 2012 SDAC National Convention, the Aries won its car show class as well as the Spirit of the SDAC and Top Gun awards. It also came in second in the autocross and was the fourth qualifier in the Quick 8.

“Since the ScAries was essentially unchanged from [the] $2011 [Challenge] other than minor tweaking and adjustments, I started to think about bringing it back [to the Grassroots Motorsports $2012 Challenge],” Pat says. “It was still running strong and looked good despite being pounded on for the year prior.” After a few emails with the magazine staff, he recalls, he was packing up and heading back to Florida.

Dramatic Magnetism

Pat and his team looked like major contenders at the 2012 event with a win in the concours and second place at the autocross. But then things got sticky: During their first launch at the drags, an axle broke, leaving the stub stuck inside the transaxle.

Team External Combustion, the group most likely to benefit from the Aries’s misfortunes, came to the rescue. After all, who doesn’t bring a 10-pound magnet to the track? The Jeep team came prepared. Pat was able to yank out the axle stub with the magnet, replace the offending axle, and get back in the game. Even with what turned out to be a damaged transaxle, he then posted an 11.694-second quarter-mile time at nearly 120 mph.

“Overall, I’m very proud of the car, how it’s performed and how well it’s held up,” Pat says. “Barry Miles, Scott Drega, Dave Skrab and Bill Cuttitta all played huge roles in building the car. It was very much a team effort.”

And that team was nicely rewarded. Even though they have been regular attendees since our first Challenge back in 1999 and have always brought a strong contender, this was the first time they earned the overall win.

And Now

Since the $2012 Challenge, Pat has repaired the transmission and lowered his ET of 11.01 seconds—so close to breaking into the 10s. Then he finally got his reward: At the Cecil County Dragway drags in Rising Sun, Maryland, Pat posted a 10.96 at 124.74. Congratulations, Pat.

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View comments on the GRM forums
Pat HalfDork
12/13/17 11:47 a.m.

Cool!  Thanks for re-sharing.


wheels777 SuperDork
12/13/17 4:19 p.m.

The last paragraph is a familiar saga.  Calvin ran 11.01, drove home...went to Cecil....ran a 10.  Too funny!

Appleseed MegaDork
12/13/17 6:37 p.m.

Anywhere else, people would either freak or call it BS. Here, we treat it as normal. wink

MotorsportsGordon New Reader
12/13/17 6:46 p.m.

I honestly could have seen something similar looking like that running in imsa gtu back in the day

TheV8Kid HalfDork
2/16/18 12:01 p.m.

Still one of my favorite challenge cars of all time!

Robbie PowerDork
2/16/18 12:49 p.m.
TheV8Kid said:

Still one of my favorite challenge cars of all time!

So when should we look for your fwd 4cyl challenge car? cheeky

TheV8Kid HalfDork
2/16/18 1:55 p.m.
Robbie said:
TheV8Kid said:

Still one of my favorite challenge cars of all time!

So when should we look for your fwd 4cyl challenge car? cheeky

It would be a rear wheel drive Fiero style setup, if I ever did one. Maybe someday. I would probably go with a Cobalt drivetrain though.

8valve Reader
2/16/18 2:06 p.m.

I have a pic of the Scaries up on my wall.  So good. 

Right next to a pic of the boosted XJ. 

Vigo UltimaDork
2/16/18 9:00 p.m.

If i'm remembering correctly Pat squeaked a 10-second pass on that car with stock cast pistons. Coming from anyone else but Pat it would strain credibility. 

Pat HalfDork
2/16/18 10:00 p.m.
Vigo said:

If i'm remembering correctly Pat squeaked a 10-second pass on that car with stock cast pistons. Coming from anyone else but Pat it would strain credibility. 

Nice of you to say, Adam.  Yes, non common block, cast 2.2 crank, cast Mahle pistons, t2 rods. Best pass was 10.96 @ 124.xx. Best mph was just under 126.  

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