1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 17: Crash Diet, Frying Tires at the Dragstrip
After dropping the hopped-up 406 small-block I’d built from scratch in place of the worn-out 350 I’d swapped in 1990, I was geared up to take the car to the dragstrip and see if I could better the high-16-second ETs I’d managed in Atlanta; an important part of this process involved stripping a lot of unnecessary weight out of the car. At the same time (early 1999) I was reevaluating the Impala Hell Project’s role in my life, and thinking about how I might best realize my original vision for the car which had gone from art project to daily driver.
I decided the Pontiac Rally wheels, which I’d installed in order to clear the disc brakes I’d installed in 1992, weren’t really in keeping with the car’s hooptie/official vehicle/street-racer American car-archetype trinity, so I gave them to a neighbor who was restoring his ’72 Firebird. In their place, I got some 15×8 factory steel wheels from a junked Caprice cop car and added mid-70s Chevy van dog-dish hubcaps. I painted the dog-dishes flat black with primer-gray centers, and they looked mean.
The rear wheelwells had no problem fitting 275s, so that’s what I got.
Around this time, I was getting a little bored with my lifer job writing manuals for transit buses. It wasn’t long before I solved the job-boredom problem by crossing the Bay over to Multimedia Gulch, diving right into the frenzied maelstrom of the Dot-Com Boom (more on that in the next episode), but what I really wanted to do was write some sort of article about the Impala Hell Project and sell it to a magazine. Art magazine, car magazine, I wasn’t quite sure which, but somebody would be interested in the story, I felt. That meant that I needed some photographs showing the car in each of its three archetypal guises.
So, for the “drive-by-shooting hooptie” part, I shanghaied my sister and her boyfriend into donning ski masks and brandishing a deuce-deuce pistol for my photo session.
Hmmm… not really what I had in mind. Putting the Three Archetypes photo-shoot project on hold, I decided that the car would need to lose a few hundred pounds for its new engine’s dragstrip debut.
First to go was the heavy steel heater/blower unit. Since I was no longer depending on the Impala as a daily driver by this time, luxuries such as climate control seemed frivolous.
Likewise, who needs carpeting or a glovebox?
The truck tiedowns I’d installed for my move to Atlanta back in ’95 didn’t weigh much, but every ounce counts. The bike rack on the trunk lid also had to go.
The galvanized-plumbing-pipe-based trunklid bike rack ended up getting repurposed as the carrying handle of the 91-pound Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox eight years later.
Interior trim, door panels, inner fenders, speakers, climate-control parts, and so on. If the car didn’t need it to run, stay legal, or keep the rain out, I removed it. I sold the very nice rear seat for a C-note to a guy restoring his ’66 Impala, making my car a sporty two-seater.
This experience served me well 9 years later, when I helped gut a Volvo 244 for race duty.
With a completely uninsulated interior, a high-compression engine with lumpy cam, and two-chamber Flowmasters, the interior of the car became markedly less luxurious. I never did weigh the car (the dragstrip scale was on the fritz), but I’m guessing I cut 300 pounds from the original 3,595-pound curb weight. That’s pretty close to second-gen Camaro weight, and about the same as a late-60 V8 Chevelle (or ’12 Camry).
As I went to job interviews at excessively exuberant San Francisco dot-coms (coming close to joining Mike Bumbeck at the gradual-downward-spiral-doomed Ask Jeeves), I thought about all the thousands of hours I’d put into goofy car projects. Thousands of hours I might have put into other creative projects, writing in particular; were those hours justified, long-term? I’d need to do something with the Impala story, use it to get myself some paid writing work that wasn’t instructions for bus mechanics or junk-mail copy.
It was still bugging the shit out of me that Bay Area hipsters and artist types— the majority of my friends since I’d been in my early 20s— still thought that an “art car” was supposed to be a sneer at the very concept of the automobile, reclaiming the car for the forces of peace and love rather than incorporating the canvas itself into the painting; these folks were drawn to the Burning Man milieu. The flip side of this attitude, found among my artistic-minded friends who’d drifted into the Yunnie (Young Urban Nihilist) embrace of Survival Research Laboratories and the like, involved flooring the irony gas pedal and driving apocalyptic creations straight into a really cool self-immolation. I needed to wrap up the concept of my not-particularly-ambitious art car project and package it in a way that would make the piece accessible to non-car-geek readers and, ideally, get my foot in the door of a more satisfying writing gig. For that, I’d need a complete set of high-quality photographs of the car in its final, drag-race-ready guise, so I loaded up the AE-1 with some high-buck Fujichrome Velvia and took the Impala to a parking lot with a neutral background.
The 360° circle-the-car set of photographs I shot that day in June of 1999 became the template for my photographs of street-parked cars in Alameda nearly 10 years later.
The layers of vendor-sample primer paint applied during my Mad Max In Georgia era had faded to exactly the texture and color blend I’d had in mind when I started the Impala Hell Project.
In the nine years since I’d bought the car, it had never been washed, nor had it ever spent a night in a garage. If greasy handprints, blobs of Form-A-Gasket, spilled Schlitz, or seagull poop happened to get on the car, I painted over it. Like the coating that builds up on a good cast-iron frying pan, the patina on my Impala had taken nearly a decade to achieve. Rat-rodders, take note: it takes dedication to apply the years of neglect and abuse needed to get this look.
Because I still wanted to lock tools and a jack in the trunk, I left the cross-country-move-security padlock hasp installed. The extra ounces might slow the car down 0.00004 seconds in the quarter-mile, but I was willing to make that sacrifice to keep my toolbox in my possession. Note the Stanford sticker in the back window; a friend in grad school there applied it on my car in order to, in her words, “Lower the property values of the place and make my tuition cheaper.”
Even though the process ate up expensive film, I bracketed the hell out of these shots; you’re only seeing about a quarter of them in the gallery. I wanted the art directors at Car Craft, or maybe RE/SEARCH, to have their choice of images. Look, the three-year-old window numbers from the car’s last Georgia dragstrip trip are still visible!
I had to remove one of the Fiat X1/9 hood scoops I’d installed in 1993 in order to clear my dryer-duct-hose cold-air-induction system.
My plan was to saw off the underhood portion of that scoop to make it clear the ducts.
But at this point, the monoscoop look worked fine.
They say California cars don’t rust, but give a GM car a sufficient number of California rainy winters and eventually the water that gets past the leaky rear-window seal and pools in the trunk will make this happen. Air-cooled VWs have the same problem, only the water leaks past every seal and the process happens three times as quickly.
OK, enough of this artsy gibberish. Let’s go racing! The 406 was making frightening amounts of power; after putting 1,500 low-stress break-in miles on it during months of work commuting, I was finally able to really get on the gas. It became clear that traction was going to be the limiting factor at the dragstrip, with the 3.31-geared open differential sending all the power to the tire with the least traction. The Powerglide-optimized gear ratio was acceptable, and the good ol’ GM 12-bolt could handle the power without breaking, but I was getting absurd amounts of wheelspin under acceleration. It was so bad that the car would spin the right tire forever when shifting into second gear, unless I backed off the throttle. Sometimes it would get rubber going into third, which didn’t bode well for my dragstrip ETs. I’d thought that I could keep the project below two grand by omitting a limited-slip or locker differential (I’d had this crazy idea that the car’s weight coupled with fat tires and a rear swaybar would keep the wheelspin under control), but it looked like I’d be investing another few hundred bucks in the near future.
I’d heard that the dragstrip tech inspectors at Sears Point were real ball-busters, so I decided to make Sacramento Raceway Park the site of the new engine’s drag racing debut. Since the Sacto dragstrip was just under 100 miles from my Alameda home, I got a AAA roadside-service policy that covered four 100-mile tows per year; I figured I might need a tow home if I blew the fragile TH350 transmission at the strip (I’d already fried one $45 Half-Price-Day junkyard-special transmission doing parking-lot burnouts).
The Test-N-Tune crowd didn’t pay much attention to the Impala, except for a few approving nods at its evil-sounding cammy idle. Time to line up!
I’d learned from my freeway-onramp adventures with the new engine that I’d need an extremely delicate touch on the throttle to avoid a humiliating sit-&-spin one-legger non-launch my first time out. I contemplated strategies as I waited my turn.
Perhaps a super-gnarly burnout will help make that all-important right tire gooey enough to grab some pavement when the light goes green!
Well, probably not. But it’s still fun.
My plan was to baby the car off the line, then mash the pedal once it got rolling.
Here we go! The driver of the Fox Mustang next to me must have been slow on the draw, because the Impala jumped ahead even at quarter-throttle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any grip whatsoever off the line— it felt like I was driving on ice— and the first-to-second shift was a tirespin disaster.
Still, it felt great hearing that glorious engine roar. The result: 15.479 seconds. That was a full second-and-a-half better than my best ET with the old engine, but the lack of traction was costing me plenty.
After nearly a dozen passes, I finally cracked the 14-second barrier… barely.
Back home, I decided to toss the two-grand budget out the window and fix the differential problem before returning to the quarter-mile. I’d also try to sell the Impala’s story. Next up: My first website, return to the dragstrip.
Writer d'Elegance Brougham Landau.
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