Summer, 1999: I’d managed to get the Impala into the 14s, barely, with a screamin’ 406-cubic-inch small-block under the hood, but I knew the car would do much better with more traction. Meanwhile, my desire to tell the car’s story coincided with a job move into the maelstrom of dot-com madness.
I’d enjoyed writing manuals for transit buses, but a lifer job in an office full of well-adjusted, wholesome coworkers wasn’t really right for me. Once I figured out that HR goons at wild-eyed dot-com boom startups in San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch would kill puppies with pinking shears if that’s what it took to find tech writers to document their no-chance-in-ever-being-profitable software, I was able to more than double my salary overnight. Thanks, dead-broke-by-2002 investors! Even better, I’d gone from being the weirdo of the office, the one whose everyday conversations caused a lot of nervous laughs and edging away in the break room, to fitting right in. Above is a photo of my new cubicle in a hip SoMa building, the San Francisco office of mighty, global, founded-18-months-back Sux-M-Owt.com (name changed because the mysterious corporation that bought their assets would have Yakuza thugs break my kneecaps if I used the real one). Sux-M-Owt.com had offices in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Guangzhou, New York, and probably Nunavit, and their frenzy to steal all “the good employees” away from the competition (i.e., all the other doomed dot-coms) meant that our office full of code geeks and marketing pukes had all manner of employee-spoiling perks the likes of which The Man will never permit again. For example, the “break room” was something like an upscale convenience store with huge sliding-glass-door refrigerators full of every high-end snack and drink that Webvan could deliver, and if your optimum work efficiency depended on a steady supply of organic, squeezed-under-a-full-moon citron juice from the Holy Land, why, they’d get it for you. When the clock hit 12:01 PM, my boss would mix a round of margaritas for all of us in the MemoCranker™ 3.0 Development Team, using the blender that lived in the middle of her desk. Naturally, the MemoCranker™ folks did a lot of “team-building” at the foosball table.
My cube-mate was a pink-haired web designer who taught welding at an Oakland artists’ collective at night (later, after we all got laid off and plunged back into the torment of The Man’s harsh salt mines, she joined the Metal Maidens and won the Junkyard Mega Wars “Great Race”). It had only been a half-decade since I’d been a starving tropical-fish delivery driver, and now I found myself getting paid big bucks to work with genius freaks who cranked Renaldo and the Loaf at their desks and would gladly drop a boring discussion of the latest MemoCranker™ memory leak in order to debate over the merits of Bulgakov‘s work. This environment made me even more resolved to do something with the project that had consumed so much of my creative energy over the previous decade.
I really wanted to write the Impala’s story and sell it to a car magazine that could tolerate artsy gibberish, or maybe an art magazine that could tolerate grease-stained gearheadery, but first I decided to warm up with The Next Big Thing, according to late-1990s wisdom: a website about the car. It took about an hour for a couple of my coworkers to teach me sufficient HTML, after which I scanned a bunch of my Impala photos and got to work writing up the site on my ancient Centris 650 Mac.
It was all no-frills, hand-coded HTML with minimal formatting, made to load quickly for users on dial-up modems. I kept the “Anti-Restoring a 1965 Impala” site on my ISP’s 10MB of free web-hosting space; the tiny images were made so small as much for storage reasons as for download speed. For those of you who’d like to see the earlier version of the Impala Hell Project story, I’ve reconstituted it on MurileeMartin.com. In 1999— before Google made internet searches easy— it was tough to get your personal site noticed, but eventually I started getting emails from readers who’d found my story and enjoyed it. I wasn’t getting paid, but I was writing about cars!
While I refused to use the cheezy-ass marquee or blink tags in my site (and let’s not get into the even more horrible MIDI sound files that were so popular, circa 1999), I did add a cheezy-ass animated GIF. Hey, it was the 90s!
I felt that I’d be moving on to the next project soon, but there was still some unfinished business with the Impala: I needed to get it to run a 13-second quarter-mile. The engine had more than enough power, but there was no way to get the open differential in the car’s 3.31 12-bolt rear to put any power to the ground; launching at more than quarter-throttle simply blew away the right tire, I couldn’t get past about half throttle anywhere in first gear, and the first-second shift resulted in another space-saver-spare-on-ice-style, zero-grip nightmare. Clearly, I had to throw some money at the differential problem. I debated the pros and cons of finding a decent factory Positraction unit, but limited-slip differentials still allow a certain amount of right-tire spin. I’d already made the car fairly uncivilized with its cammed-up engine, so I decided to put a locker in the 12-bolt.
I settled on the Powertrax locker. I can’t recall how much I paid for it in ’99, but Summit sells the 12-bolt Lock-Right for $348.81 nowadays. It was a fairly simple installation (the Powertrax unit replaces the entire spider gear assembly, so you don’t have to futz with ring and pinion backlash adjustment), but it involved a lot of super-stinky 90-weight saturation. The difference between the one-legger and the locker was impressive as hell; the 406 still made so much power that launching was tricky (now instead of spinning one tire, it would spin both tires and get sideways), but I could pretty much stand on the gas once the car got rolling. It clicked and clanked when I drove around corners, and I dreaded the coming of the rainy season, but so what? Time to return to the dragstrip!
Even with 92-octane pump gas, I had to add octane booster to avoid pinging. I suspect that my compression-ratio calculations may have been off; I’d been shooting for 9.9:1, but the big power and tendency to detonate seemed to indicate that I’d gone higher. Here’s my convenient octane-boost bottle storage location.
Back at Test-N-Tune Day at Sacramento Raceway Park, I removed the spare tire, jack, and tools from the trunk, and handed the camera to my ’51 Chevy daily-driving friend, Anthony. If I managed a 13-second run, I wanted it documented.
Watching all the 13- and 14-second Mustangs and Chevelles making their passes, I suddenly realized that my trusty old daily driver might be able to keep up with the hairier muscle cars. A good feeling.
I’d decided I wasn’t going to give a damn about reaction times, because this was all about the car. All I cared about was launching the Impala as hard as it could manage, avoiding any guardrail-bashing, and keeping the revs below the 400-destroying 5,500 RPM limit.
Here we go! The car didn’t hook up very well, but it was orders of magnitude stickier than my last quarter-mile attempt. My ET? 13.983 seconds. Yes!
Getting into 13-second territory on my first try was somewhat anticlimactic, but the car still had plenty of power that wasn’t making it to the asphalt. How about 13.5 seconds? Hell, how about 12 seconds?
I tried and tried, using every trick I could think of to keep wheelspin to a minimum, but I couldn’t get the thing to really dig in at launch. I did, however, manage to do a bit better than 13.983…
A real-world 13.67-second quarter-mile run out of a four-door full-size Chevy with a low-buck small-block engine, which I think is pretty respectable.
That’s me on the right. 13.677 seconds at 100.735 MPH, and pay no mind to the Slow Loris-grade reaction time; this is about the car, not my (lack of) driving skills. I was about to see if I could talk some other racer with Chevy-bolt-pattern wheels into loaning me a pair of slicks for just one pass when a couple of angry Sacto Raceway tech guys stopped me on the return road. “Helmets are required for anything quicker than 14 seconds!” one shouted. “You don’t have a helmet! You’re outta here!” And that was the end of my Test-N-Tune Day fun. Next up: Agonizing reappraisal, serious photo session.