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American Pie – home cooking at its best

Meet the team (left to right) Crew Chief Mark, Paul, Ritchie and Dan

Like the epic song of the same name, this is a tale that involves a Chevy, good ol' boys and alcohol (methanol, actually), but there the similarity between Don McLean's American Pie and Paul Bambrick's American Pie ends.  The former is a very personal tribute to Buddy Holly and his music, the latter, a very personal tribute to '60s drag racing and those glorious, front-engined "diggers" that were a key part of the Golden Age of drag racing.

In a move of which Buddy and producer, Norman Petty, would undoubtedly have approved, though, graphic designer, Paul Bambrick, has gone against the grain by morphing his rear-engined, Chevy-powered junior dragster into a front-engined nostalgia rail.  Now racers looking to run big numbers will no doubt disapprove of such a decision, but then they’d be missing the point. 

Paul made all of the body moulds himself - including that neat 'chute recess - a lovely job

Paul and his band of merry men, including crew chief, Mark England, rodder, Dan Boone, and ever-enthusiastic helper, Ritchie Cannon, are involved in drag racing for the simple reason they enjoy the spirit of the sport as much as the racing itself.  Also, with no big sponsors to please, they can do pretty much as they like.  This is decidedly low-key, grass-roots racing – and all the more refreshing for it. 

Paul takes up the story: “My first dragster was rear-engined, and we ran it in the Wild Bunch series about six years ago with some success,” he says.  “When the new chassis rules came into force, the car was instantly obsolete, but we’d had a lot of fun, and eventually ran 9.4 E/Ts with our bored-out 283 Chevy.  We were pretty pleased with our progress, and inspired by this, we decided to build a new car.  Both Dan and I are of the opinion that  you can’t beat those early slingshot designs, created by the likes of Kent Fuller and Tom Hanna, and as nostalgia drag racing really seems to be gathering momentum on both sides of the Atlantic, we decided to put our collective heads together and build a front-engined Junior Fueler.”

Careful attention to detail has produced a dragster of beautiful proportions  

In fact, the dragster chassis was entrusted to local fabricator, Kevin Cerasale, of RCCS in Watford, and is something of a first for the experienced door-slammer constructor.  It was decided that the car would have a brand new, Chrome-Moly cage and a CDS front-end – “to help put a bit more weight into the front half of the car,” says Paul – and although elements of a Mark Williams chassis design are incorporated, the crucially important roll cage was modified to get the driver lower in the car, just as in the old days. Using a self-constructed jig, Paul and Kevin managed to retain the safety cell, but with a much better shape than the current “tall” designs seen in nostalgia Top Fuel in the US.  Thus equipped, the chassis is tagged to SFI 2.2, and can run as low as 7.50 sec, giving the team plenty of scope for performance improvement. 

Huge axle dominates cockpit.  This is a 'legs over' driving position

Key new components that will help them realise the car’s potential include a Mark Williams rear axle with matching spool (4.56 gears) and halfshafts, modified to accept Jaguar disc brakes and callipers.  Era-correct, ARE five-spoke wheels shod with hard-compound Hoosier slicks complete the picture at the back of the digger, while up front, there’s a modern tube axle with modified spindles to accept early style wire wheels.

In fact, the only major parts that have been retained and reused are the motor and transmission.  In the case of the former, it’s a 283 cu in Chevy with the cylinders overbored to 4-inch diameter in order to produce a displacement of 302 cu in.  The specification includes VRP rods and Venolia pistons, Brodix alloy heads, a lovely old Hilborn mechanical fuel injection system and Scintilla magneto.  Running on a diet of methanol, the motor is reckoned to make a realistic 450hp.  Power is fed through a two-speed ‘Glide transmission equipped with a trans-brake.  Paul reports that the high-revving, peaky nature of the engine in its current specification does not entirely suit the ‘Glide’s gearing, and possible solutions involving either more cubic inches or a three-speed transmission are being explored to provide sharper performance off the line.

'60s style Hilborn injection adds further nostalgic appeal

As for the distinctive bodywork, Paul used a high-tech combination of materials (cardboard and filler) to get the basic proportions right.  “I shaped cardboard, taped it to the rails and then went over it with bucket-loads of filler,” he explains.  “I used this to make a plug to get the shape, and then we refined it to make the moulds.”  As might be imagined, this was a very time-consuming task, and we had to ask Paul why he didn’t get the bodywork produced in metal.  The answer is that he couldn’t find anyone who could roll metal into a taper, and thus elected to follow the longer, though no doubt more satisfying route of creating the bodywork himself.  The resulting straight, ripple-free panels are a testament to his skill and patience – a great job. 

Paul not only fabricated the bodywork from scratch but also prepared and painted it. He then added the custom airbrushed lettering

You also have to admire Paul’s ability with a spray can, as the car has been painted using nothing but aerosols.  He masked up and applied the distinctive stars and stripes design, and topped it off with neat, airbrushed “American Pie” lettering, no doubt using all of his graphic arts skills.  Being fully immersed in 1960s American car culture, Dan was able to advise Paul on how to get the car looking just right – down to sign writing various names on the car.  “The only thing a 1960s car wouldn’t have had is that set of gauges.  Otherwise, it’s pretty much spot-on,” adds Dan.

By completing much of the work himself and using an existing drivetrain, Paul has been able to keep the build costs for his dragster low – under £11,000, by all accounts – but you can bet your life he’ll be having just as much fun behind the wheel as a driver with a car costing 10 times as much.

Instrumentation may not be era perfect but is good insurance for the motor

So what about the team’s performance on track?  At the time of our visit, (the Nostalgia Nationals at SCR), all was not well with the newly finished car, as fuel pump gremlins during the weekend meant Paul couldn’t put down a clean run.  With no way of testing beforehand, it was something of a wasted weekend, but then, more often than not, that’s what drag racing is all about – hours, days, weeks spent tinkering, all for the opportunity of several seconds of on-track glory.  Who on earth would want to do that?

The answer, quite simply, is those with hot rodding (and quite probably, Buddy Holly’s music) in their souls – like Paul, Dan, Mark and Ritchie. 

Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk

Signwriting of famous old speed shop names adds further nostalgic appeal

Paul is hoping to spends a lot more time in the hot seat next season

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