Racing Spirit: Turning an AMC Spirit into a $2000 Challenge Car

By Scott Lear
Jun 4, 2019 | $2000 Challenge, AMC | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Story by Scott R. Lear - Photography by Tony Neste, David S. Wallens, Scott R. Lear, Tom Suddard, and Ed Higginbottom


Michael Crawford and Dallas James have been friends since the turn of the millennium, when they attended high school together in North Carolina. Both had a love for cars and a freshly minted driver’s license.

It should surprise precisely no one that when Dallas first let Michael take a spin in his 1966 Ford Mustang, the drive promptly turned into a street race against another student’s Toyota Supra. “I got my ass kicked in the Mustang,” Michael laughs. “I’ve been making fun of Dallas’s love of Fords ever since, 20-plus years later.”

Michael and Dallas also shared a penchant for low-buck modifications, and the Grassroots Motorsports $2000 Challenge was perpetually on their that-would-be-fun list. The end of school and the beginning of adulthood have a way of redistributing priorities, though, and when Dallas got married and moved to South Carolina, the two fell somewhat out of touch.

Still, Dallas was eyeing GRM’s budget-build racing event as early as 2005. He even bought a project car to enter in the competition: his grandfather’s 1980 AMC Spirit. But while delivering pizzas to make some extra money, Dallas drove it into a parking berm, breaking the crank with the crossmember. The Spirit was totaled. Dallas parted it out, but the rest wasn’t even worth towing to the salvage yard given the poor value of scrap metal at the time.

The AMC's rear wing is hard to miss. The source? a local drag racer who simply wanted it gone. The streamers were added for safety. 

Michael, meanwhile, had become a social worker specializing in crisis intervention and mental health. He, too, still hoped to compete in the Challenge, but each car he wanted to enter–first a Chevy S10 and then a Neon ACR–evolved past the mandated event budget and became his daily driver instead. By 2015, with a kid of his own and plenty to keep him busy, Michael was not actively looking for a Challenge build.

Back in South Carolina, Dallas’s life had taken a downward turn. He was running at redline, working desperately to provide for three children and keep his failing marriage afloat. In the process, he’d lost contact with just about everyone he once knew. Not Michael, though.

Dallas showed back up in North Carolina with nothing and not a dime to his name,” Michael recalls. Divorce was imminent for Dallas, and the legal situation regarding custody of his kids had him in the roughest of spots.

Michael’s desire to help his friend is familiar to anybody with empathy, but his training as a social worker helped him diagnose the red flags regarding his buddy’s overall state of well-being. He knew his friend needed a quick course correction.

Around here we don’t give a handout,” Michael explains, “we give a hand up.” The only nonessential physical object Dallas could claim as his own was the wrecked remains of his AMC Spirit. Michael bought the car for $200 and a cigarette to help get Dallas back on his feet. Then he realized that Dallas would need something to keep his mind off the divorce and custody battle, so he insisted that they turn the old lift-back into a GRM $2000 Challenge project.

Taking Stock

The wrecked Spirit husk had turned into a debris bin of sorts. “It had no engine, no transmission. It was full of miscellaneous metal and stuff,” says Michael. “I didn’t even know if it had seats, it was so crammed.”

A more detailed inspection revealed that the crossmember was inverted, the subframe was torn, and all the spot welds had busted loose in the crash. “It was kind of a roller,” he continues. “It rolled out under backhoe power. We used that damn backhoe a lot during the build.”

Shortly before the $2016 Challenge, experienced Challenger John Welsh stopped by on his journey to the event to check out the fledgling AMC project and have some barbecue with the guys. “He really got us on the right path for the build,” Michael says, “or we would not have ended up where we did. I tend to be very black and white, rule-oriented and regimented, and he explained that the Challenge is a party where a race breaks out: ‘Show up and see if it runs. Don’t cheat, lie or steal, and don’t try to ruin anybody’s weekend when it blows up.’ I can get behind that.

“John was moral support,” Michael continues. “He kept reminding us that it’s supposed to be fun, not a mad-level X Prepared car. Build something fun and cool that has a life. Make stories and memories for people. By God, we embraced that.”

Step one was to fix the Spirit’s major issues, and at the top of that list was the busted engine crossmember. Neither Dallas nor Michael had much welding experience, but the help they needed was just a shout away on the GRM online forums in the guise of Steve Stafford.

Steve has been autocrossing since he was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, just down the street from GRMheadquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida. That’s also when he got involved in SCCA road racing, and after graduation he went to work for Swift Engineering, where he spent time honing the factory IndyCar platforms in the wind tunnel. After working on Le Mans efforts for a stint at Saleen, he joined the Toyota Racing Development team, where he’s contributed to the NASCAR, IMSA and NHRA programs for more than a decade and a half. He’s also been helping GRM with our own projects, including a recent appearance on our weekly live show.

How did Steve meet Michael? “I contacted him about some wiring harness stuff he was discarding,” he recalls. In a forum post, Michael had announced that he was giving away a 33-gallon trash can full of wire. His only condition: Return the trash can when you’re done.

When Steve showed up to claim the wiring for his Spitfire project, he fell into the Spirit’s orbit. “Once the build started, they were looking for someone to help sort out an engine crossmember and help get it welded up,” Steve explains. “That started the ball rolling, and the discussion of building a cage came next. From there it was a short jump to being fully engaged.”

Bad Idea Motorsports was born.

“Years later,” Michael reveals, laughing, “I still haven’t seen my trash can. But Steve built one hell of a cage, so I figure we’re even.”


Down to Business

Dallas was given the reins as project lead. “Every idea he had,” says Michael, “Steve and I did our best to make it happen.”

This endeavor was mostly new ground for Dallas, who describes it as “the first build I was a part of.” He had worked on some Chevelles with his dad and Model A Fords with his grandfather, but he’d never set hands on a race car. He found the task engrossing. “I liked planning and putting ideas together, fabricating the parts after the plan, being the architect and then the engineer–making it work,” says Dallas.

Most of the early labor focused on making the Spirit solid again, and with Steve’s guidance, Michael and Dallas became more comfortable with welding and fabrication. They fixed the broken bits and ultimately seam-welded the entire chassis. The Spirit had plenty of holes to fill, and Dallas, who had landed a good job as a plumber, was quick to realize that the various old water heaters he was regularly replacing were an easy source of large metal panels. If the local dump was paying attention, they’d have noticed a quick decline in the number of dead water heaters making their way intact to the scrap heap.

With the cage in place and the various repairs complete, the Spirit had never been stronger. More important, Michael and Dallas had developed some formidable design and fabrication skills, so they grew more bold in the jobs they were willing to tackle. The pace and intricacy of the build increased. “Boy, did it snowball,” Dallas remarks.

To motivate their creation, Michael found a 1987 Lincoln Town Car–including a fuel-injected Ford 5.0 under the hood and a column-shifted automatic transmission–for $410. The team recouped $10 for the Lincoln’s crossmember and $50 for the rear axle, then scrapped the remainder for $89. That left them with $261 worth of running V8 and transmission.

Based on the Spirit’s performance at the $2017 Challenge, Michael guesses the setup is good for 200 wheel horsepower and torque. He blames the headers. “We re-bent ’em, cut ’em. They were like three-quarter-inch primaries at some places,” he says. “I was the guy who went, ‘Ah hell, I can make ’em fit,’ and they got the exhaust outside the car.”

Once the drivetrain was mounted, the circle track seats were bolted in place, and the basic systems seemed to be in order, the team had to address grip. Michael called up Hoosier Tire South: “I asked what they had for scrubs in large by huge by 15.”

He came away with a bulk order of used F40 Asphalt Short Track tires. These turned out to be a bit wild, with very soft sidewalls and tons of slip angle despite a decent overall grip level. “The tires really fit the look of the car, but they were not up to the competitive needs,” notes Steve, who thinks a dedicated autocross radial could have bumped performance even higher.

The trio hadn’t started on the aesthetic improvements yet, but the Spirit started, ran, turned and stopped, so they opted to run it in a local autocross as a shakedown. The first lesson they learned: Those super-wide tires were going to need some super-wide fender flares. The corner workers were pelted with rocks and debris since the slicks stuck out past the Spirit’s cut fenders.

Lesson two: The Lincoln transmission and the clutch hydraulics, which Michael hobbled together from $50 worth of old AMC Eagle parts and internet references, were going to be a problem. The fluid was boiling every few runs, and the transmission wasn’t so much shift-at-will as it was pick-a-gear-and-hope-it-stays. Still, the car posted times, so they brought it back to the shop for one last round of sorting and beautification.

“In the last couple of months I built the flares, brushed everything under the hood, the entire interior,” says Michael. “We finished the fire suppression and the cage padding and the belt install the Monday night before we left for the Challenge.”

The car’s rather striking paint job was the result of a cold call from one of Michael’s car-guy buddies who also happened to work at an AutoZone down the road. “They all know me as the guy who specialized in ‘what the hell is that,’” jokes Michael. “He got some mistint bass boat paint and called me to say ‘Hey, you want some weird paint?’”

The exaggerated fiberglass flares and early ’80s AMC lines provided a perfect canvas for the mysterious orange, which the team applied on Michael’s gravel driveway in the shade of bamboo trees. With the project complete, Dallas was surprised how well it came together: “All the time we spent to put it together–detailing, fit and finish–it all came together way better than we expected.

“When we painted the interior and the engine bay, it hid a whole lot of ugly,” Dallas continues. “It really turned out like an upscale dirt track car or a weekend drag racer.” As a final touch, fellow Challenger Seth Lemke applied graphics in the parking lot at the event.


Spirits Soar

Amid the fun and turmoil of a Challenge build, Dallas found plenty of reasons to grin. He won custody of his three children, landed steady work, and reconnected with his family and old friends while making some new ones in the process.

“The day the divorce was finalized and he got his kids,” Michael remembers, “I was perfectly happy to set the car on fire and call it money well spent. Dallas is one of my best friends. He ain’t blood but he might as well be. I’m grateful that we were able to help him through this part of his life.”

AMC Machines in Action

The American Motors Corporation debuted the Spirit for 1979 as a replacement for the Gremlin, although the new car still used the old platform. Both the Sedan and the Liftback models had two side doors, but the Sedan’s roofline extended farther, ended in a sharp angle, and featured opening glass that arguably has not aged as well stylistically.

Engine options ranged from a VW-sourced, 2-liter inline-four to the GM Iron Duke four-banger up through several inline-sixes (3.8 to 4.6 liters). Only the 1979 Spirit AMX had the 5-liter V8. After 1983, the aging platform was retired in favor of the Renault-sourced Encore hatchback and the sportier Renault Fuego.

The Spirit enjoyed a brief but interesting motorsports career. In 1979, BFGoodrich sponsored a pair of 5-liter V8 Spirit AMXs that Team Highball ran in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring; they were the only American entries. The cars also competed in IMSA events, also under the Team Highball banner. In 1981, a Spirit AMX Turbo Liftback led the entire 1981 IndyCar field as the official pace car.

With their happy ending already written, Bad Idea Motorsports’s actual Challenge experience was simply sprinkles on the sundae. They hauled down to Gainesville, Florida, for the $2017 Challenge with a mindset of being satisfied with any result better than dead last. “Our wildest dream was top third,” Michael says. Imagine their surprise when they found themselves in genuine top-10 contention.

First, their 40.634-second run in the Challenge’s autocross portion was mid-pack in a field with a 35.605-second FTD. Next, in the event’s quarter-mile drag competition, their 14.812-second pass was solid considering the Spirit’s moderate horsepower figures and 1.5-plus-ton curb weight. About that number on the scale, Michael notes that there’s a lot of cast iron under the hood with the engine and transmission–and a 14-point cage, too.

Despite the Spirit’s modest power, it could really dig into the pavement. “On track, the car had grip beyond most anything I have driven in competition,” Steve explains. “The limits were definitely beyond my abilities.” Fortunately, the Challenge keeps a group of veteran autocrossers on hand that teams can tap to pilot their cars.

“Knowing that the pro drivers at the Challenge are superior to me in their driving abilities made me wonder what, if anything, would fail as they approached the car’s limits,” Steve recalls. “Luckily, the car survived the dynamic events with only minor issues.”

Then came the Challenge’s final phase: concours judging. The Spirit’s fit, finish and overall vibrant visual quality earned it a strong finish in this portion of the event. The trio of solid autocross, drag and concours results was enough to land Bad Idea Motorsports in ninth overall at its event debut.

“If we were going to do this build again,” says Steve, “I would put more effort into getting the car to the track sooner and more often to sort out the issues that we ran into at the Challenge. They were not huge issues, but fixing them or having time to tune the car better would have produced better dynamic results.”

At the conclusion of the event, Michael handed the Spirit’s keys to his friend Dallas. “I gave it to him: ‘Merry Christmas, here’s a race car that’s ready to go,’” he says. The car is unlikely to return to the Challenge, as Dallas’s planned fix for the iffy gearbox is to swap in a 5.3-liter Chevy LS V8 and 4L80-E transmission with MicroSquirt control. He’s been racing the car locally in C Prepared and hopes to run it in hill-climbs. But Michael’s dad was bit by the Challenge bug after spectating in 2017. “There’s another Bad Idea Motorsports car coming,” says Michael, “just not this year.”

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View comments on the GRM forums
stafford1500 GRM+ Memberand Dork
6/4/19 1:56 p.m.

That thing was a ton of fun.

And it photographs well.

Dusterbd13-michael MegaDork
6/4/19 2:10 p.m.

Yes it does! Had a blast with this one!

Hoondavan Reader
6/4/19 3:13 p.m.

This is one of my favorite GRM articles. I wish I was somehow in a position to buy this thing when it was for sale over the winter/spring.

Patrick MegaDork
6/4/19 6:35 p.m.

Looking forward to an article about the two datsuns from that challenge that had their pictures taken together?

also amc is awesome and i’m proud to call michael a friend.

Dusterbd13-michael MegaDork
6/4/19 7:03 p.m.

Thanks Patrick.  Probably THE build im most proud of, that i had the least part in.

GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/4/19 7:05 p.m.

An even awesomer paint job was in the works for this before time ran out, I'll refrain from posting mockup pics in case Mike wants to save it for later wink

Dusterbd13-michael MegaDork
6/4/19 7:06 p.m.

In reply to GameboyRMH :

Go for it!

GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/4/19 7:23 p.m.

Once you're sure...

A slightly modified version of the livery used when the AMXes ran at the Nurburgring:

wawazat HalfDork
6/4/19 7:56 p.m.

I got to see this in the steel in the Detroit area earlier this year.  It’s very cool and makes great noise up close!

Robbie GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
6/5/19 9:05 a.m.
wawazat said:

I got to see this in the steel in the Detroit area earlier this year.  It’s very cool and makes great noise up close!

Anyone in Michigan should come up to Oscoda this weekend, test and tune Friday Saturday Sunday, and we will be testing and tuning this beast!

The car is awesome and we are confident a little development time will bring it into top contention.

Robbie GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
6/6/19 9:36 a.m.

Someone paid $24k for an AMX. Last line of that article "We rated the car on-site as being in #2 (a little bit less than excellent) condition, but good luck finding a better one."

HA! We happen to HAVE a better one.

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