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Drag Racing Privateer - Sportsman’s Struggle

Luke Munnell
Apr 28, 2011
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Our story begins on a chilly fall weekend, at Bakersfield, CA’s Famoso Raceway (read: the middle of nowhere), lending moral support to my roommate, Robbie Perez, who was shaking down a stock-block, turbo B20-powered Rat Wad Civic coupe he’d built for sister mag Project Car. We had the unpleasant circumstance of showing up on the one weekend of the year preceding NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing’s series Finals at Pomona, CA. As far as we could see rolling in alongside 600 or so dead-serious Top Fuel, Pro Stock, and otherwise domestic hot-rod professionals, we were the only knuckleheads with an import in tow. Don’t even think of borrowing tools from that crowd:

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"Sure, what do you need?"

"A half-inch ratchet and some metric sockets."

"Metric? What are you racing?"

"See that Honda over there? That’s us."

"Huh. Sorry, wish I could help . . ."

The situation only got worse as we worked our way through the lanes for our first pass. There were other imports in attendance, most breaking axles at the line or blowing up and coating the strip with oil, holding up the show for competition dragsters that would run nearly twice as fast while shutting down mid track. To nearly all in attendance, we were a scrawny, rag-tag bunch of kids. Even the announcer echoed the popular sentiment with a disgusted tone:

"And in the right lane, another Honda, about to break an axle." We needed help.

And then we got some. Into staging lanes rolled the flat white, wide-fendered, slick-clad, front-mounted-turbo-powered, parachute-braked embodiment of what we wanted our foes to forever associate with the term "import tuning": Jason Park’s FCS Fab/Park’s Racing Engines Outlaw Street FWD-class Integra, dubbed Ghostrider. Conversations halted and eyes stared as it cranked to life and rumbled its way to the burnout box, its built LS/VTEC struggling to manage high compression, forced induction, lumpy Web cams, and a flood of E85. Overpowering the comparative silence of muffled imports before it, the DC2 roared to life with the din of its domestic rivals, all 1,100 horses instantly erupting its 25-inch Toyo slicks. The announcer was at a loss for words.

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"Be careful," he nervously chuckled to Jason, who guided driver Chris Cook through the staging lights. "It’s sticky down there."

"Good," Jason grinned back.

Spectators squirmed for a better view as the DC2 pegged its anti-lag system at the second staging light, its custom Borg Warner S372 turbo screaming an amalgamation of F-14 fighter jet and C-4 detonation as its fender-exit exhaust shot fireballs to match. For 9.8 seconds, it owned the eyes and envy of everyone in attendance, not counting the hearts it stole at the line. The announcer screamed the E.T. and traps and cursed in disbelief. The critics said nothing. Score one for the imports.


Back at the pits I learned more. Ghostrider is owned and was largely built by Jason "Parker" Park. It’s an ’00 Integra GSR, and has been in race trim in one form or another for nearly a decade. After a few years in storage, it’s made its long-awaited re-appearance for the second half of the 2010 season and has gone as fast as a 9.30 @ 166 mph at Import Faceoff in the hot Las Vegas desert. More importantly, I learned that Parker and Chris are DIY enthusiasts like most of us. No Renegade rig, multi-car enclosed trailer, six-figure budget, or comped entrance fees. No sponsors, even—just a couple of import gearheads who live for speed. Our conversation paused as the Rat Wad limped back to the pits with a blown motor suffered during its second pass. Once the friendly trash talking by Parker and Co. died down he turned to me and confessed, "I’ve been there; that sucks. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to us."

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And then, at the top of what data-logging would later show might’ve been the team’s first eight-second pass, in the same lane and nearly at the same spot of the track where the Rat Wad had thrown a rod, the DC2 threw three, splitting its built B18 block in half and engulfing the engine bay in flames. "F*ck! was all Chris could say, grinning from ear to ear when we caught up with him back at the pits. That would have been an eight!" He hadn’t even looked at the data yet. Despite the misfortune, the mood was light. That’s racing, shrugged Parker, after Robbie’s return jeering had subsided. Our conversation was again interrupted, this time on a more serious note when a pristine Pro Mod Mustang dragger lost traction at about 180 mph and totaled itself into a wall. We all walked over to survey the damage. For a long while no one spoke. "What are you going to do now?" I asked Parker as we walked back to the pits, partly to break the nervous silence. "Rebuild it," he replied. "BOTI finals are in two weeks. We’re going to get that eight." And then, with a nod back at the track, "At least we still have the car."

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The next day I got a text from Parker with directions, saying, "Stop by tonight. We’re getting started." A quick drive into the Valley and I found myself in his house and two-car garage, next to the Integra in pieces. Despite the unfortunate circumstance that brought them all together, Parker, Chris, Robbie, and friends Adrian Guerrero and Jeremy Tsuneishi (yes, Scott’s cousin) were in high spirits. Most of the DC2’s engine lay on the ground in the car’s competition-mandated catch pan/splitter (an FCS creation). Only the block, crank, and one surviving rod were on the stand above it as Parker and Chris took turns whacking it with hammers and pry bars. "We need to crack the block to get the sleeves out to examine them," Parker explained. "Wanna take a turn?"

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We talked and I learned that Parker spent his early years forming Park’s Racing Engines and putting in work for import drag racing’s most iconic machines. He saved what little coin he made and in 2004 bought the Integra from a customer who couldn’t keep up with the project. He finished its build and drove it to Sport FWD semi-finals in the NHRA Summit Sport Compact series’ Vegas event later that year, as well as a Street Comp class win at Battle of the Imports’ final-round competition in Fontana. Its 10.80 pass ranked it Top 16 in the nation, with the number-one spot belonging to Courtney Green running 10.30s—a time Parker and the DC2 had their sights set on, but never accomplished. "It was actually shot for Import Tuner the following year," he explained, motioning to the cover feature framed on the wall in his garage, "right before it went into storage." He went on to create the Sportsman Alley drag racing venue for NHRA’s Sony Xplod Sport Compact Series, before the organization foreclosed on import drag altogether. He moved onto BOTI to serve as Op/Tech director, but times were tough. Hours were many and pay was little. He started FCSFab.com to cater to the burgeoning street scene and earn some spare cash, but just never had time to get out and compete himself. That was until a few years later when he and longtime friend Chris Cook talked racing over a few beers. "Chris built a badass turbo motor and was looking for a car. The DC2 was still in perfect shape," he explained. "Literally the next day we got started putting it back together."

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Once the old engine had been thoroughly destructed and the garage cleaned, the damage was assessed. It was surmised that either rod bolt or bearing failure led to the engine’s demise, but miraculously the cylinder head remained unscathed, as did Chris’s $8K straight-cut dogbox that he repeatedly made clear he couldn’t afford to replace. I asked Parker when the car would be moved to his shop to have its new powerplant assembled and dropped in, and a new splitter fabbed up. "This is it," he laughed. "Park’s Racing Engines and FCS Fab. This is where it all happens."

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I rejoined Parker and Chris about a week later back at the garage, just as Chris bolted the crank into his new, freshly machined block and Parker took to assembling the pistons and rods. Clearances were verified, bearings installed, and everything went together like clockwork. It was a Friday night, and Battle of the Imports was scheduled to go down two days later. The plan was to have the car together that night and hit Do It Dyno in Long Beach, CA, for tuning a couple hours the next day. Things were looking promising . . . until it came to the head studs. One of them wouldn’t seat completely, most likely the result of the block’s threads having been stripped from an incorrect head gasket replacement during its stock life. The garage fell silent.

"What do you want to do?" asked Parker.

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"F*ck it," said Chris, with one of the suspect studs nearly tightened down completely. "Let’s go for it. "

A quarter of a turn later, it happened—Pop!

All he could do was smile in desperation. "F*ck."

By the time I returned the next night, the block had been fitted with helicoils in each of its head stud galleysan emergency bailout courtesy of RS Machine in Downey, CA. Parker and Chris were joined by Adrian and Jeremy, each with a task to do. The crew’s jovial attitude had morphed into stress-laced priority; no joking, only focus. There was a slight sigh of relief once the trans had been bolted up, just before the new powerplant would be reinstalled in the DC2 bay. It lasted about 5 minutes—just enough for everyone to burn a square and throw back a beer. They were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel but knew more work remained. I left about an hour after I’d arrived, just as Adrian finished assembling new fuel lines and Parker got started on the splitter. "Get some sleep," I said to Chris, who looked like he needed it. "I got an hour or so this morning before work," he shrugged off. "We’re gonna get this thing together, shake it down on the street in front of the house and call it a night. I’ll take another nap before we get up for the track. I’ll be good to go."

I returned to the garage after about four hours of sleep, questioning the logic behind what I was doing and feeling like shit. Chris hadn’t even slept. Ghostrider was loaded into a borrowed enclosed trailer, the shop was cleaner than I’d ever seen it, and he sat in his chair at the welding table, having a smoke. I could see the gears turning. "Hector will be here with the ice soon," he said. "Jason’s inside getting ready. We gotta get out of here as soon as possible."

The drive up was more light-hearted; Parker and Co. regained enough of their affable attitude to make faces at us as we shot their tow vehicle and rig. After a quick stop for gas at one of the three service stations in SoCal that offer E85, we were rolling in to Auto Club Speedway at Fontana. Parker, Chris, Jeremy, and Adrian sprang into action setting up the pit and prepping the car as they had so many times before. The DC2’s liquid-to-air intercooler was filled with ice water, its day-old plugs were replaced, and Parker took one last look over the data gathered on the street the night before. It was go time.

Previous champ Courtney Green checked in a clean-looking white Civic hatch completely devoid of sponsor logos, Sportsman turbo and All-Motor class competitors from Jerry Built brought out their infamous street race machines, Do It Dyno owner Carlos "Bubba" Ocegueda and his newly turboed CRX made their late-season debut, RS Machine’s Anthony "Baby Boy" DiNallo set up his 9.0-second Civic hatch toward the very far end of the pits where no one could see his business, and all the old-school, off-beat, and street-car competitors that made any BOTI event came out in force. It was the organization’s 20th anniversary eventquite an accomplishment, but in true form no one brought pomp or circumstance. They came to race. Chris and Parker were even given a few minutes to joke around with their old friend Frank Choi, Battle of the Imports founder. It was a good vibe; the reward for having put in the wrench time to make it happen.

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Ghostrider’s first Qualifying pass was another story. While we waited to run, a familiar bad omen reappeared when Skunk2’s "Driver B" broke an axle in his Civic coupe at the line. Even more so than Famoso, Fontana is known for its grip. The DC2’s burnout was good; a little drama was encountered while staging when an opponent in the other lane sat on one light too long, but the real problem happened when the green light dropped and Ghostrider didn’t move. The culprit: a right-side axle had somehow slipped out of the differential just enough for the attached half of its splines to shear off under the torque of launching. The crew thrashed back at the pits, a replacement axle was installed and the problem had passed without too much cause for alarm, other than leaving only one remaining pass to make the cut for competition.

Downtime between runs was about an hour and a half—a long time to wait when you’re eager to prove yourself, but Parker and Chris passed the time with some friendly heckling of their opponents and lending helping hands where they could. The crew reconvened when the call was made for the second round of Qualifying; the checklist was gone over again, and everyone verified that nothing further was needed. It was go time. Again.

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Chris idled the car to staging lanes, occasionally throttling it a bit to "feel it out", as the rest of us watched from the truck. The car re-assured us in the box with a strong, smokey burnout. Whatever tension had loomed over the crew was gone as they focused on getting the run. Adrian and Jeremy opened the DC2’s doors as Chris backed up to the line and Parker guided him and Ghostrider into the "groove"—facing completely straight down the centermost part of the lane—and through the first staging light. His opponent matched the performance in the left lane and both cars crept forward to their second staging light, laying into their anti-lag. I became so caught up in the drama that I nearly forgot the reason I was there, and that I had a camera around my neck. A month had gone by since I first saw this car and met its crew, and at that moment none of us wanted anything more than to see Chris cut a fast light and power down the strip to that elusive eight-second pass. I managed to click off just one frame as the green light dropped and the car sped out of range. I had to see the rest with my own eyes.

The DC2 gradually veered to the left under full throttle, pulling Chris out of the groove. The left slick struggled to find traction on the uncoated center portion of the track, while the right gripped—hard—redirecting Chris and Ghostrider toward the wall. For an instant, it looked as if he was going to save it. He’d been racing for years; surely he’d gotten out of worse situations. But not this time. There was no recovering from this one.

I booked it on foot; we all did. When we caught up to the car, it had come to rest alongside the right wall, facing backward, just shy of the traps. Its hatch and parachute had jettisoned mid track from impact with the wall and lay in pieces in front of the grandstands. It took a hard hit in the left rear quarter-panel. It was done. An ambulance arrived and Chris, grasping his chest, was loaded on for a look-over, as an Auto Club hooker chained up the car and towed it back to the pits like any other day at the office. No one said anything, except to speculate what had happened. I thought the car attracted a crowd when it rolled in and the crew set up shop; it was nothing compared to those who came in silence for one last look at the aftermath, not unlike a funeral procession paying final respects to a dear friend. Where most would have visually been bummed, Parker didn’t let it show. One look at the car was enough for him to begin planning what would be needed to get back out on track. A half hour passed until Chris rejoined the group. A bolt from the DC2’s window netting had jammed into his side upon impact, bruising his rib, but possibly his ego was hit hardest. He’d been put in an unwinnable situation, yet seemed disappointed not to have come out on top. I suspect that’s just how he is.

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To sullen moods further, rain began to fall almost as soon as the track had been cleaned. The event couldn’t progress past Qualifying, so it was decided that payouts and honors would be based on competitors’ fastest runs. Like he had all those years ago, Courtney Green led the pack with a 9.3-second pass he blasted early on. Parker walked over to congratulate him when the two met half way, Courtney en route to offer encouragement and a helping hand to Parker and Chris should they need anything. After some BSing and more friendly jabs, I made my final shot of the day Courtney’s ran-soaked hatch loaded onto his trailer, and we parted ways for the drive home; I headed south while the rest of the caravan drove off into the could-covered sunset.

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A few days later I received a text from Parker. It was a picture of a stripped, bone-stock, silver DC2 chassis loaded onto his trailer. "Stop by tonight," he said. "We’re getting started."

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Sources

FCS Fab / Park’s Racing Engines
818.582.7113
http://www.fcsfab.com
Battle of the Imports (BOTI)
http://www.battleoftheimports.com
By Luke Munnell
164 Articles

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