In This Era of “Buy and Race” the Faint Light of Creative Engineering Still Flickers in Competition Eliminator

February 21st, 2011

Text by Pete Ward

Photos by Randy Fish

Michigander Steve Ambrose and his guys have certainly left their mark on Competition Eliminator, winning nine NHRA National Events including Indy and capturing three division championships. They’re currently marching toward their fourth. (Hope we didn’t jinx you, Steve!)  The J/AA six-cylinder Ford-powered ‘23 T roadster, which has chalked up these wins, is powered by cubic ingenuity not cubic dollars.

Steve reflects with some degree of bemusement on some of his competitors, or as he refers to them, Professional Sportsman:

“They buy a Haas car, a couple turnkey pro-built Chevy engines and Liberty transmissions, stuff everything in the back of a semi, and go racing.  You’re looking at a $300,000 investment. It just doesn’t make business sense”

When interviewed, he’d much rather talk about the people involved with his racer, rather than the race car itself.  We’ll attempt to do both.

Steve’s roadster began life in 1992. Its 125-inch chassis was welded up by Ken Bowers of Advanced Chassis, who’s also performed updates as needed. Ken and his wife Judi‘s relationship with Steve goes far beyond builder and customer.

Steve spent 32 years employed as a fabricator for Ford, so you’re sure as heck not going to find anything by GM used for motivation. And being a long-time Comp racer, nothing as mundane as a V-8 will do. His choice, a cast iron block 1998 Ford straight-six measuring 305 ci, one of very few such engines in competition. Bob bemoans the fact that this long stroke combination (3.75 stroke, 4.155 bore) makes for a very fragile engine. A shorter stroke, higher revving combination would be sweeter, but factoring in car weight, class requirements, etc. this is their best choice.

Since this is such a rare piece, all the parts are pretty much one-off.

The crank, created by hand on a lathe by John Kaminski, is more a labor of love.  Aluminum rods are MGP, pistons CP.  Steve’s friend Charlie fabricated the wet sump oil pan; the pump comes from Peterson.

Steve approached Alan Johnson in 1997 to whip up some heads for the Ford.  He’d been running welded Ford SVO parts, but they were even more fragile than the block, requiring constant repair. Alan obliged, making fewer than a dozen. Steve has three. Cylinder head wizard Dave Vizner takes over where Alan leaves off.  The cam and lifters are sourced from Competition, pushrods are Trend units, valve springs by PAC, and T&D provides the rocker arms. All the trick stuff is concealed by a Moroso valve cover.

Vizner is also involved, along with Sherman Slyghe, with intake manifold design and build. Kinsler provides the fuel injection and fuel pump.

Ron Bohn fabricated the front cover and gear drive. One of Ron’s associates says, “He’s so crafty, he could build aluminum wings for a fly.”

Mark Linebarrier, a fellow Comp racer, threw in with Steve to fabricate the headers. He’s also the go-to guy for many NASCAR types in search of quality header design/build. Steve relies on a Mallory ignition system, wires are Moroso, and the whole thing is plumbed by Earls.

All of the machine work is performed by Chuck Noonan of Performance Machine. Half jokingly, Steve admits to using Chuck up pretty good through the years. “We’re always beating on this door, using him and his machines for one project or another.” The assembly is done in Steve’s shop, behind his home.

The choice of transmission is a three-speed automatic by Pro Trans, which is loved on by Steve and associates. It features a Coan torque converter, and the shifter is by Precision Products. He’d rather be shifting manually, but the 150-pound weight break given to automatics fits better into this combination’s performance equation. Advanced Chassis also provided the rearend housing, which is stuffed with Mark Williams gears and Strange axles. The 4-link rear suspension is sprung by AFCO. Strange supplies shocks for the front strut suspension. Wheels and tires front and rear are Weld/Goodyear.

Performance figures for 1,525-pound flyer (minimum for class) are: Best 60 Foot 1.05, Elapsed Time 7.61, Speed 170 Miles per Hour.

The roadster gets hauled to the races in a 24-foot Gold Rush trailer purchased in 1983 and towed behind the Ford van Steve uses for daily transportation.

We’ve covered all the nuts ‘n bolts, now for the information Steve was truly interested in talking about, all of the people involved.

He’s especially proud of those who comprise his team, although “family” would be a more accurate term. Steve met his partner, Bob Huettman, in 1967 while attending Henry Ford Community College. Bob was racing a ’64 Ford Falcon, and Steve gave an assist. They didn’t officially link up until 1978. A third partner, Ray Argenta, who had been involved since the ‘70s, passed away three years ago. In all of the info/tech sheets Steve fills out, Ray is still mentioned. Reminiscing on his involvement, Steve says, “Ray was like Radar O’Reilly on the MASH TV show. While Bob and I were thrashing on the car, he’d be scouring the pits and picking up all kinds of useful information. When he died, his wife had him cremated. She brought over a container with some of his ashes to the shop. She figured since he spent more time with us and the race car than with her, he should be here.  He’s sitting above my workbench.”

In addition to Bob, there’s Russ Williams, at 74 the elder of the group; Steve’s neighbor Al Grahm; and John Nagy, in his 50s is the kid of the bunch. The average age of all involved climbs into the high 60s. Steve’s quick to mention that Russ was the Stock Eliminator Champion at the 1960 NHRA Nationals, held in Detroit.

“We’re a low-buck team, nobody gets paid. We share expenses on the road, motels, food and all that. Just like the old days, when I check into a motel, I get a room for two and all of us pile in. We always travel with cots and air mattresses. The old guys get the beds. I usually sleep under the sink. It’s quite a circus in the morning, with getting everybody showered and out the door. Recently we competed in a points race at Cordova, Illinois. We left late and couldn’t find a motel, so we pulled into a rest stop. We all got as comfortable as we could, and slept for a couple hours. The bugs, heat and trucks didn’t faze us a bit.”

Varsity Ford of Ann Arbor has been the longtime sponsor. The dealership’s owner, Lou Stanford, was a high school buddy of Bob Huettman’s. All those years ago, Lou promised to help Bob with his racing once he made it in business, and he’s held true to his word.

Steve sums it all up: “I couldn’t do this without the help of all my friends.

How much longer can we do this? As long as we’re still having fun.”

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