Rise of the Sunbird: An Unexpected Drag Racing Champion

By Scott Lear
Mar 26, 2018 | $2000 Challenge, Chevrolet, Pontiac | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2015 issue | Never miss an article

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Story by Scott R. Lear • Photos by Anthony Neste, Tom Suddard, and David S. Wallens

A derelict, decades-old hatchback sits forlorn on the lawn. The car’s only company is some surplus vinyl siding and the clover growing around its deflated tires, neither of which can relate to its once-proud history. A fading dash decal states that this machine was once a contender, a participant in SCCA autocross competition in York, Pennsylvania. A roll bar and racing seats are proof that somebody felt like a hero in this car, but those times are past. Now it’s just a shell: no engine, no transmission, no green flag waiting to drop.

This 1980 Sunbird doesn’t even have a marque to call its own anymore, as GM shuttered the Pontiac division in 2010. When the owner finally got around to attempting a sale, he misspelled the brand, offering a “Pontaic” Sunbird on Craigslist. This small oversight planted the seeds of resurrection for this seemingly doomed machine.

“I often do Craigslist searches for oddball cars that I think I can make a few bucks on,” explains Andrew Nelson, a longtime competitor at Grassroots Motorsports $2000 Challenge events. “On that day my search was for ‘roll bar’ and ‘roll cage,’ and this one popped up.”

The Sunbird piqued Andrew’s interest because it’s from the GM family of H-body cars, which are aerodynamic enough to be well suited to land-speed competition, one of Andrew’s many automotive obsessions. The misspelling of Pontiac meant that the ad was likely getting minimal traffic, making it a potential steal.

Andrew flagged the sale and moved on, keeping an eye on the price. By the time the owner finally listed the car properly as a Pontiac Sunbird, the price had dropped considerably. “I called immediately,” remembers Andrew. “He needed the money right away. I showed up first with cash and scored it first.” Once the $300 changed hands, this seemingly doomed phoenix was granted an unlikely new life.

In the Hands of a Renaissance Man

Andrew Nelson’s auto-tinkering credentials are widely renowned among his fellow $2000 Challenge competitors. He’s been the undisputed king of the quarter-mile at our events since his 2004 debut in a plain black Chevy Nova. He blew the the doors off everyone at the drag strip with a pass in the 10-second bracket. He’s run in the 10s every subsequent year he’s returned, save 2005 when a missing gear relegated him to the 11s.

He builds immensely powerful small-block Chevy engines at his home in Pennsylvania, applying sound engineering and simple DIY techniques to craft work-of-art headers and other go-fast bits. He’s dedicated to extracting maximum performance at minimum expense. Anything he needs to make the build work, he fabricates, often with the help of his sons, Cameron and Calvin, and his wife, Paula. He is a master of turning scrap metal and junk spares into elegant, operational components.

Andrew had never autocrossed before the $2004 Challenge, but ever since that first taste he’s learned how to make his cars quick around the cones as well. Best of all, he loves to push himself by building new creations. Many racers spend years bringing a single car up to speed, but Andrew campaigned everything from the stock-looking Nova and a Datsun Z-car to a hotrod Beetle, an MG, and a tiny Fiat. All of them boasted supercar straight-line performance with one of his signature small-block Chevy engines.

“With both boys in college, there’s a hit on our finances,” notes Andrew. “But the desire to teach new things to the boys is great, and the Challenge is a perfect format to gauge your ability and performance on a level playing field–that being the budget limitation.”

The $2000 Challenge limits entrants’ budgets to no more than $2000–well, technically it’s a dollar amount equal to the year of competition. For last fall’s Grassroots Motorsports $2014 Challenge powered by eBay Motors, driven by General Tire, and sponsored by CRC Industries and Eastwood, the budget cap was $2014. Andrew spent only $1977.23 of it.

He’s already seeing this philosophy bear fruit, as his sons are applying a decade of Challenge build experiences to their higher education. “A lot of the things they’ve learned in the shop are helping them to excel in college. They learned trigonometry, algebra and some calculus while barn-building these cars, and they’ve applied it directly to their degrees.”

With the Pontiac in his collection, Andrew took stock of its condition. The Sunbird was just a rolling shell, but it had only 40,653 miles on the clock. Its body was in great shape, too, with just a single rust spot the size of a quarter.

Most H-body cars left the factory with either an inline-four or a V6 engine. The V8 eventually became an option, but Andrew says the upgrade wasn’t done correctly. Somewhere along the line, this car had received mounts for a V8 conversion–a popular swap back in the day.

Naturally, the engineer in him was already conjuring solutions to bring this Sunbird back to life with the kind of performance that would leave even a new Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat in its dust at the drag strip.

Deadline Dash

Andrew is a great self-motivator, but he’s also really good at multitasking–or maybe just good at falling in love with lots of different kinds of go-fast events. Between drag racing, land-speed record competition and the $2000 Challenge, he’s got a number of build projects to juggle. Not surprisingly, the car that gets the most attention is the one whose event is next on the calendar.

“In the past we’ve come [to the Challenge] somewhat well sorted, but this year’s event was completely out of our comfort zone,” laughs Andrew. It turns out the Hot Rod magazine Drag Weeks in Oklahoma were about a month before the $2000 Challenge, and Andrew was campaigning his Studebaker at the straight-line event. Rain delayed everything by a day, and when the Drag Weeks banquet concluded on Saturday night, Andrew’s wife looked at him and said, “I wanna go home.”

He could tell from the look in her eye that a long night’s drive lay ahead, but at 9:30 the next night they were 1240 miles from Oklahoma and in their own driveway. “We unpacked, hit the sack, and six hours later, we were working on the Sunbird,” Andrew says, “energized to see our Challenge brethren. We worked at a ferocious pace to get the car done.”

A Chevy Monza tail and taillights replaced the Sunbird units, and a parking lot detail effort by Tony Sestito revitalized the exterior. Andrew rarely spends money on something he can make for himself: Take the hood pins fabricated out of $1.81 worth of Grade 2 bolts, or the aspirin bottle turned into a shift light. Drill bits and saw blades, he notes, do not count toward the budget. Many of the bits and pieces needed for the build were already in Andrew’s collection of spare parts cars and previous GRM projects.

“The day before we left for the Challenge, we turned the key and it fired up. We called it a night. The next morning, I drove it out of the garage and onto the trailer, then we threw the rest of the parts in and drove to Florida,” says Andrew. “We finished assembly in the hotel parking lot with the help of a number of other participants, and on Friday we hit the track.”

Work In Progress

The $2014 Challenge again kicked off with an autocross, and Andrew thought the car did well considering it was on 14-year-old front tires and didn’t have an anti-roll bar. It managed a 35.421-second run around the cones, a midpack result that was a ways off the top time of 31.468.

The Sunbird showed well for the concours judges, earning 21.25 points out of a possible 25, tying for third in that category. “I was pleased with how it ran, all things considered, but we knew drags would be our strong suit,” he notes.

On his first pass, Andrew launched the V8 Sunbird in his usual manner, but it shuddered through first gear, bogging the engine. He shifted to second, only to feel it pull the revs down again. “It immediately came to my mind and my heart that I just lost the tranny,” recalls Andrew, “specifically the torque converter.” Spirits dampened, he pulled into the pits. “I told Paula, ‘I think we’re in a bind.’ The first pass was an 11.4 [seconds] at 121 [mph]. That was just a shakedown.”

They went through the car, adjusted the throttle, and attempted a second pass. “The engine just sounded sour trying to pull up through first. I could feel it pull the engine down in second. It went through at 11.6 at 118.”

Folks immediately noticed that Andrew’s times were off and that he was heading in the wrong direction. When a fellow racer asked if he was out of the race, Andrew replied, “Nope, I haven’t driven over the crankshaft yet.”

“I told Paula, ‘We’re hurt,’” says Andrew. “She asked what we were going to do. We broke the torque converter, and I said, ‘The only thing that’ll fix that is more torque!’ That’s why we brought nitrous.”

The evening drags had become nighttime drags, and the Nelsons hastily installed the 125-shot nitrous oxide kit–budgeted at $60 for just such an emergency–by flashlight in the pits.

Andrew rolled the Sunbird back to the strip, and with the competition in its waning moments, he noticed that the burnout box hadn’t been prepped. But he was anxious to run. Rather than stop and ask for water to be applied to the box, he just went for it. “I couldn’t get up on the tires during the burnout, and when I left the line it was dancing all over the track. I finally grabbed traction and hit nitrous at the top end, but ran an 11.8 at 124.” The trap speed was up, but the time was another two-tenths slower.

Now doubly frustrated, Andrew pulled the Sunbird back into the round-robin lane for an immediate redo, only to find the car overheating. They hadn’t installed a radiator fan, and now rising coolant temperatures meant he was going to have to sit and think for a few minutes.

Fellow Challengers–including those who would have gained the most from Andrew’s failure–stopped by to see if they could help in any way, and the positive energy got to Andrew in a big way. “It was a very special Challenge for all the right reasons,” he muses. “The magic of the event was back. You could feel the sense of community.”

From the Ashes

By the time the engine cooled, the evening Florida air had covered everything in dew. Andrew gave the Pontiac a healthy burnout to maximize his grip in the deteriorating conditions.

“I came off the line and the car was dancing again for the first eighth of a mile. At the 800-foot mark I could feel the engine pull down with some traction, so I hit the nitrous and did a 10.776 at over 130 mph,” Andrew beams. “That thing nailed it on the top end. With the nitrous we gained 29 mph on the last half of the track.”

Once again, Andrew won the drag racing portion of a $2000 Challenge with a time that puts most supercars to shame. And he did it in a car that one year earlier had been languishing in a yard with no engine and no apparent future. The Sunbird finished third overall at the $2014 Challenge.

Andrew’s already got plans for the $2015 Challenge, as well as the $2016 and $2017 events. Don’t worry about him getting bored, as each year he intends to bring a different car. The Sunbird may return, however, and he’s already mulling over the possibilities for more speed. “When we pull the tranny, I’ll look at the engine and make the decision,” he says. “I have set it up so it could come back and be very fast–the foundation’s there. I’m $15 away from making that car really fast. If it returns, it’ll be the 2018 timeframe.”

It’s difficult to see that far into the future with a man who searches Craigslist every day for potential new projects. Whatever Andrew Nelson has up his sleeve with each additional year and dollar, the Grassroots Motorsports $2000 Challenge and the community surrounding the event will be richer, happier and undoubtedly quicker for it.

Small But Mighty

“Sheet metal is just something to hold stickers. That makes it easy to pick a car: small, light and cheap. You can use any platform, it’s nothing more than a glove for the drivetrain, seat and steering wheel,” explains Andrew Nelson.

Although he jumps from one car to another, Andrew is ever faithful to the small-block Chevy V8. He’s been using the same basic components from a handful of engines on each of his $2000 Challenge cars, swapping heads and accessories as needed. “That’s the beauty of the small-block Chevy,” he explains. “Their head gasket is the same from 1955 to the end of its life cycle, with the exception of the LT1. That engine’s been in production for 60 years, and parts availability on anything with that kind of production life is tremendous.”

Fabricating his own equal-length headers allows Andrew to maximize horsepower within the confines of any given engine bay. He plans ahead, giving himself ample room to work on the engine once it’s in the car. “In order to fit the ‘Headers by Nelson’ header into the [Sunbird], the master cylinder was relocated and turned at a 30-degree angle,” he continues. “Additionally, the steering was offset with three U-joints to open up the volume needed for the headers. The tubes are positioned to allow easier access to the spark plugs, which is especially [important] as I have only 65-percent function in my right hand due to a construction injury.”

Packaging the V8 in the Sunbird’s available space required extra finesse at the base of the block. “The oil pan required nearly 10 hours of modifications to accommodate the windage tray and large sump and to clear the steering and crossmember,” he says. “The pan is open, 7.25 inches deep, and holds 8 quarts of oil.”

The engine makes up the bulk of this Sunbird’s budget, with a $350 block, $350 heads, and an assortment of lesser-value accessories. Andrew figures this particular creation was worth about 410 horsepower, and that’s before they threw on the $60 nitrous oxide setup, which he guesses was worth an extra 100 ponies. “Using a small-block Chevy is not just a good horsepower decision, it’s a great budget decision,” he says with a grin.

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View comments on the GRM forums
A 401 CJ
A 401 CJ Dork
3/26/18 1:28 p.m.

GM took a page from Collin Chapman’s playbook on those and added lightness.  It doesn’t even take much of a motor to make them quick.  I had the Chevy equivalent back in ‘85 as a high schooler.  Even with just the torquey 305 it was quick for the day.  Too quick in fact.  I totaled mine before I even had my license.  I got in big trouble for that: sneaking cars out at night.  I’d been doing it since about age 14 and never got caught until I wrecked.

TheV8Kid HalfDork
3/26/18 6:43 p.m.

We've been getting a lot of love this week. Still one of my favorites. I can't deny it, I like it more with the turbo LS, even though it has yet to beat the small block.

te72 New Reader
3/26/18 10:17 p.m.

Man, that intro had me eyeballing my former Supra, now just a shell in need of some TLC, sitting in my back yard... There's literally no point in me trying to fix it up, I have a perfectly good Supra of the same generation sleeping happily in the garage. Still... your words managed to tug at the guilt a little. Thanks a lot Scott! =P

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