When we first spied Gary's Challenger at the '02 Mopar Nationals, we knew it deserved to be photographed. When Gary returned the tech sheet with the information about his car, he attached the entire story about how the car came to be, and here it is, in Gary's words:
To be perfectly honest, for most of my life, I wasn't a Mopar fan. In 1986, I was forced to sell my SS 396 Chevelle to pay for college tuition. I vowed to buy another musclecar as soon as I graduated from college in 1990. When that time finally arrived, musclecars were financially out of reach for me. In 1997, I started looking for another car. My wife, Nicole, liked GTOs, and I was stuck on Chevelles-we couldn't agree on one. I started getting frustrated because I was finding only overpriced junk, and to be honest, they all started to look the same to me. I remember stopping at a drug store, picking up a copy of a Mopar magazine We hope it was Mopar Muscle], and thinking how different a Mopar would be and how much I would have to learn about the other camp.
On the way home from work one day, I spotted a '70 Charger parked beside a house, and I stopped to check it out. The owner, Jack Irons, came out to talk and informed me that he was the second owner of the car, and unfortunately for me, it wasn't for sale. I quickly became good friends with Jack Sr. and his son, accompanying them to the '98 Mopar Nationals, and I was hooked for life. I don't know if it was the High-Impact colors, the distinct sound of a Mopar through Flowmaster mufflers, or breaking all the plates and cups in Jack's motorhome while doing bunny-hops on Brice Road that hooked me, but that's ancient history now.
So, the hunt was on when we returned from the Nats. I answered an ad in the local paper about a '73 Challenger Rallye that was said to be a solid southern car with a 440 engine, a 727 tranny, and an 8 3⁄4 rearend. The asking price was $5,000. I was so excited about the car that I went to see it during my lunch break and told the guy's wife I wanted the car. It was 100-percent rust free and had a steel-crank 440. The following day, I completed the deal for $4,200, and the fun began.
I actually had a plan for the car before I bought it: I wanted to keep it on the road as much as possible and do the work during the winter. My goal was to run low 12s on pump gas. Although I didn't like the Ford Citron Green color, the paint was presentable, so that would be the last thing addressed.
During winter 1999, I disassembled the engine and sent the block, crank, heads, and rods to Vince Impastato at Impastato Racing Engines in Chesterfield Township, Michigan. I've known Vince for 20 years, and he is the only person I trust to do my machine work. The 906 heads were mildly ported and received new Ferrea 2.14/1.81 valves. The block was punched .030 over, and the crank was cut .010/.010. The rods were Magnafluxed, reconditioned, and shot-peened. Vince also installed the new Ross flat-top pistons onto the rods. When all machine work was done, it came home for me to assemble.
Since I was new to the Mopar thing, I decided to copy a proven buildup, so I followed the Hughes Engines Stage One 440 as a template. I used a Hughes HE3844 hydraulic cam, a Performer RPM intake, a Race Demon 750 carb, and Hooker headers. Tom George of Southfield, Michigan, initially rebuilt the 727 transmission, and I used a loose 11-inch torque converter. I also replaced the 2.76-geared, one-legger rear with a 4.10 Sure Grip I got from Jack Irons. The following summer, I drove the car 4 1⁄2 hours to Columbus so I could be part of the 2000 Mopar Nationals. I followed Jack and his big-flamed Travco Motor home. The 4 1⁄2-hour drive with the engine turning 3,500 rpm was not the hard part. The pounding headache I got from the two-chamber Flowmaster mufflers coupled with the 3-inch exhaust system that stopped at the axle was the killer. I even raced the car that weekend and then drove it home. The car ran a best quarter-mile time of 12.19 seconds at 114 mph. It did everything I wanted it to and then some.
The following winter I made a few changes to the car. Since I was getting close to the 11-second mark, I decided to add a six-point rollcage. While I was working on the inside of the car, I also restored the interior. The car already had a perfect black dash, so I ordered a black headliner, carpeting, several cans of SEM black interior paint, and JAZ racing bucket seats. In exchange for some work on his house, I had Jack Irons build the rollbar from scratch, and while he was at it, he tied the frame together and fabricated a driveshaft loop. I did the rest of the interior myself and added a fiberglass hood.
Later that year, I decided to do a cam swap and experiment with different intake manifolds and a different carburetor. I wound up running the Hughes Engines HEV4550 solid cam and a Weiand Xcelerator intake. The car was now running consistent 12-teens, and I felt something was holding it back. In July 2000, I managed to win the trophy class while racing at the Mopars Versus The World drag race at Ubly Dragway in Ubly, Michigan. I had to win eight rounds of eliminations to do it. It was my first and only time going beyond the third round.
In October 2000, I called Dynamic Converters and ordered a 9.5-inch torque converter to replace the 11-inch unit I was using. The first time out with this combo was the last time for the season. The car ran an 11.95 e.t. at 114 mph with a lot of tire spin. I put the car away that year a very happy person.
The following winter, I helped a friend, Todd Groebel, build a 340 motor for his Dart. He really wanted to buy my Race Demon 750, so I sold it to him. I also sold my Weiand Xcelerator intake to another friend because I thought my car would respond better to an M-1 intake and a bigger carburetor. The carburetor I chose was an 825 Race Demon. By that time, the Flowmaster mufflers were also wearing my nerves thin, so I changed to Dynomax Utraflows. Also, a fellow board member at Moparts.com made a fresh-air system for my hoodscoop. This combination ran a best 11.47 e.t. at 116.5 mph through the exhaust at the Norwalk Chrysler Classic in September 2001. I tried to get the car to respond by adding a little race gas, but it didn't like it at all. That actually made my day-my car doesn't like expensive fuel!
During winter 2002, it was time to focus on the body and paint. Paintwork is one thing I've never experimented with and had no plans to at that time. I hired friends Bill Wilson and Josh Felberg to handle the job. I wanted to paint the Challenger Amber Fire-the color used on Dakota pickups. Josh talked me into painting it '01 Prowler Orange. Good friends Russ Aderholdt and John Pipken helped me tear the car apart. They did all the body and paint prep work in my garage during their spare time. The car was shot at Strip-It in Roseville, Michigan, in March 2002. I bought a set of Rallye door stripes from Josh's Muscle Car parts, and Jack Irons Jr. helped me install them in my garage. In a world of $10,000 paint jobs, I was looking at $4,000 from start to finish, materials included. And, it was good enough to score Third Place in the E-Body Dodge Modified class at the '02 Mopar Nationals.
While the car was apart for the body prep and paint, I felt this was an opportune time to pull the engine apart and inspect it. With around 10,000 miles-about 100 quarter-mile passes included-I figured I would just install a set of rings and bearings. Well, I found a set of brand-new H-Beam rods for a price I couldn't pass up, so I bought them. At that time, Edelbrock had released their new aluminum cylinder heads, and I bought a set of those as well and dropped them off at Impastato Racing Engines for some porting work. Vince also polished the crank and honed the block.
Then, I needed to pick a new camshaft. Dwayne Porter of Porter Racing Heads in Vermont suggested a Comp Cams 294XX grind which spec'd out at .585 inch lift and .262 degrees duration at .050. After assembling the engine at home, I loaded it into my truck and took it to Todd Fisher Performance in Lapeer, Michigan, to break it in on his engine stand. I couldn't believe the mild manners of the thing.
The body was put back together by May 1, 2002, and I had the engine and transmission back in shortly thereafter. Good friend Steve Rimay helped me rewire the engine compartment and install and run the lines for the new manual-brake master cylinder. On June 5, I took the car for its first ride with the new paint job. I've been very fortunate with this car; I've managed to keep it on the road every summer.
My goal has always been to keep it a practical street car that can run well on pump gas, can idle in heavy traffic without puking coolant, and has an exhaust tone that doesn't draw too much attention. I now run a full 3-inch exhaust system on the car, and the sound is mellow. I can pull into the gas station, fill up with premium, grab a soda, throw in my favorite CD, and head out for a cruise. I even drive it into work on occasion. Yeah, the license plate gets some chuckles from my coworkers.
Oh, did I forget to mention I am a police officer?With the car finally completed, my first time at the track was at the Milan Chrysler Classic. The car ran an 11.33 e.t. at 118 mph right off the trailer. Eventually, I hope to run a 10-second quarter-mile. When I do, I'll toss someone the keys to my truck and trailer and drive the car home with the e.t. on the window.
One person I must thank is my wife, Nicole, for her endless patience. Half of her money is tied up in this project, and although she always knows where I am when I'm not in the house, we both know the "honey-do" list would be a lot shorter if the car weren't around.