We first saw Gary Gardella's red drag Civic at the 2000 edition of the NOPI Nationals in Hotlanta, Ga. The car was about 70 percent complete but caught our attention because of its attention to detail, its apparel-oriented sponsor (Ecko Unlimited) and its East Coast roots.
The car had all the right tricks: Type R power, a nicely sized turbo, a sparse, race-ready interior and the little things we look for; stuff like the proper AN fittings, weld quality, clean wiring and the use of the correct parts (race-proven components). Another giveaway is slick size--the bigger the tire, the more serious the racecar. This car had potential. "
In our brief stop at the booth, we said we liked it and when it ran a number, we'd catch up with it. This proved difficult because Gardella and company were always on the move, off to the races and continuously dropping those e.t.s. We caught up with the car and driver late in the 2001 season--at the curtain call of one of the most prolific rookie seasons ever in the Quick/Hot Rod Class.
Gardella lived the charmed life in 2001, and nowhere was this more evident than in his Cinderella (or is that Cinder-Gardella) antics at the IDRC Apex Integration East Coast Nats at Maple Grove. The Civic was eating axles like they were french fries and in his three qualifying attempts, Gardella only got through the traps once, and even that pass was a drama--a damaged driveline had him crawling through the beams in 19.90 seconds at 48 mph.
He was on the outside looking in, an alternate, until No. 2 qualifier Sean Glazar had fuel system problems and Gary made the show. He changed to a kinder set of slicks and took his alternate qualifying position all the way to victory lane, running a 10.36 in the finals for his first-ever win. Gardella also took the winner's purse money at the IDRC ACT Spring Nats at Atco, a Battle of the Imports event also at Atco and the IDRC Long Horn Nats in San Antonio.
Success is impressive, but so was the speed of Gardella's Civic. The Jersey-bred Civic came out of the hole running 11.9 at 139 but steadily improved with a best of 9.16 at 154 mph by the E-Town NIRA event on October 13, 2001. When you look at a FWD racecar, the first place you look is under the hood.
Gardella runs a turbocharged B18C. The engine was built by John Brown Racing and the Turbo People assisted on turbo selection. The Type R powerplant was stuffed with the usual suspects: JE Pistons and Crower connecting rods. The already "upgraded" Type R head was fortified with Ferrea valves and valve springs to sustain high-rpm operation. Pressurization is provided by a Turbonetics 60-1 series turbo mounted on a custom DC Sports header. Job Spetter Jr. tickled the keys of his laptop and tuned the engine to a razor's edge with an Accel DFI engine management system.
Putting the power down is a Honda five-speed gearbox outfitted with a Prodrive differential and an expensive, but effective, Tilton carbon/carbon clutch. Footwork consists of Ground Control coil-overs and DC Sports anti-roll bars.
Stopping power is provided by Wilwood brakes. Kasper Fabrication & Machine of Cream Ridge, N.J. helped Gardella dial in the 60 foots by tweaking the suspension to maximize adhesion. The traction patch consists of 26x10x15 Goodyear gumballs mounted on Weld Racing aluminum.
Like all racecars, Gardella's Civic is evolving. From its home base at County Line Auto Body, the wrenches were turning at warp speed in the off-season. County Line is one of the car's major sponsors as well as Gardella's meal ticket, as he's the shop manager when he's not gear crashing down the 1320.
For 2002, the Ecko Function Civic will see some big changes to the suspension and the engine will be converted to alcohol with plans to run NHRA Hot Rod and IDRC Pro FWD in 2002. The lessons learned in 2002 may well be applied to a chassis car in 2003. But before looking too far forward, we thought we'd chat with Gary about his rookie run.
Turbo: What was the goal during the '01 season?
Gardella: Nothing--go out and go 10s and hopefully go 9s. We're young. My crew chief John Perry is 23 and Jason Smith, a technician, is like 21. We surpassed our goal and now every time we bring the car to the track, we have a new goal. Actually, right now I'd hate to say I don't even have a long-term goal. I'm still confused on what's going on right now. It'll be nice to hit the 8s in 2002.
Turbo: Even though you started with a combo that was tested and proven, it was still starting from scratch?
Gardella: The guys who helped out the most were circle track guys who knew nothing about drag racing--just local hillbillies around our way. It's the truth, man, I ain't gonna lie to you. It's just racing; racing is racing, I don't care what kind of race car you have, just as long you know what's going on with the car, can make improvements and are willing to work your butt off, you'll get there. We all work full time and come home from 8 -2 a.m. every night. We don't sleep; only time we sleep is on the plane.
Turbo: Was there any one thing you discovered this season which really brought your performance to the next level?
Gardella: Really, tuner Job Spetter Jr. at Turbo People helped advance the car. Right now, he's only 24 and to those of you reading this, I'll tell you what. If you're not getting your car tuned by him, you're crazy. This kid is the best.
Turbo: Before you went to him, what was the problem you were having?
Gardella: We didn't know enough. We still don't know enough. We're still learning every time we take this car out. Job Jr. helped us with basic drag racing ideas. At one point, we weren't making clean runs because of ignition gremlins; coil, rotor, cap--all that stuff. We finally fixed it and then blew the tranny, but if we get out there and make a clean pass tomorrow, I don't care what the elevation is, the car will e.t. big time.
Turbo: You're changing up the suspension and converting to alcohol, any other big changes to the car. Turbo, intercooler etc?
Gardella: The biggest change we made this off season is the Accel DFI. Our tuner thought it would be the best thing for us to do, since he's very familiar with the Accel. We're not running any intercooler because of the methanol. Also we're going to use a dry sump oil system so we can get all that extra oil off of the crank.