Let me tell you something. The biggest thing I've learned [by being involved with sport compact drag racing] is that innovation is hard to come by. Nobody ever tries anything new. They don't look to see what F1, CART, or rally racers are doing-this includes the physical act of racing, right down to safety. For a front-wheel drag racer, we have to do the exact opposite of what a rear-wheel-drive racer would do. Before I started to build Steph's [Papadakis] race car, I went around and talked to everyone from Roger Lamb to Mark Williams, anyone I could think of when it came to standard rear-wheel-drive builders. The majority of what they told me to do was, in fact, the opposite of what we should be doing. From suspension setup to spring rates and performance-it's all a pain in the ass. Many times I've sat there and just wanted to say "screw it" and go with a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) platform. For a front-wheel-drive (FWD), parts are just not readily available. The main problem I'm dealing with is the transmission-whatever's out there just isn't worth a damn. But, the FWD market is always evolving. There's a lot more people getting involved. Essentially, it's gone corporate and the game has gotten more expensive. It's not just a hobby anymore.
The advantage of going FWD is more of a challenge to me than anything. When I talk to most of the kids out there, they already know that a RWD can go fast. What they want to see is how fast a FWD can go. For most of the people who own FWD cars, they see RWDs as old-school. Everything that's being manufactured and used in competition-like Honda, Toyota, GM, Chrysler, or Ford-they're all FWD and it doesn't help that they don't have an interest in wanting to do anything RWD. A FWD is obviously slower from the get-go and it costs more money to make them fast, but it's what's driving the market. When I talked with Chrysler about working with a RWD car, they told me, "Why would we care to do anything RWD when we have Pro RWD cars running already? What difference would one more make?" All they really care about is FWD performance, and they're proving it by sponsoring my car and the other FWD race cars that are being campaigned (by Darrel Cox and Mike Crawford). It's a market that I have to stick with. When the car runs well, it's fun and rewarding. But right now, when everything's breaking, it's hard to stick with it. There are a lot of days when I like FWD and a lot of days when I like RWD. However, if I only stuck with RWD, I would not have any of the respect or support from the people I'm getting it from now. I helped to build one of the first FWD tube-chassis race cars to break the 9- and 8-second barriers, first 150, 160, 170, and 180 mph-which are a lot of firsts. If it wasn't for that, I'd be writing for the magazines again.
When Chrysler first came to me, which was at last International Auto Salon [in April 2002], I debuted the latest version of the Focus in the Meguiar's booth. Kevin Miller from Mopar came over and asked, "What will it take to get you into a Neon next year?" I jokingly replied that it would take "a lot of money." My initial thought was Who cares about a Neon anyway? Then he told us about the new SRT-4 and how much power it could make, along with its marketing plan. That's when things started to get interesting. Ironically, I was supposed to campaign a Cavalier this year, but after talking with Kevin in greater detail and not being able to come up with a solid plan with GM, I went with the Neon.
From the first day we received the Neon body to the first day of last year's SEMA, we had only five weeks to complete and debut the car. It normally takes 10 to 11 months to finish a car, but with such a big time constraint, we went in and modified a lot of parts off the Focus. We saved five days' worth of work by reusing the Focus-which doesn't seem like a whole lot of time, but those five 18- to 20-hour days were an eternity. We kept most of the chassis and the suspension, but everything else is new-the carbon, tin work, tubs, body, wheelbase, front end, wing, and wheelie bars-they're all new. When people say it's just the same as the Focus, it's not. Very few parts from the original chassis remain. To save as much weight as possible, most of the nuts we used are aluminum and the bolts are titanium. We used very little steel with the exception of the chrome-moly cage because the NHRA mandates that. Wherever possible, we used whatever material we can to save weight.
The big dilemma with building and getting the car down the track has to do with the NHRA and its regulations concerning our Mopar A4 engine block, which is a four-cylinder engine that's used in the midget racing cars. We called and gave them the part number, since it's something you can order from the Mopar catalog. It's not an engine that I had built just for me. I asked, "Will it be legal?" They said, "Sure, go ahead and use it. It will be totally legal."
During the construction of the car, we spent about $40K on engine development and engine parts-basically everything it takes to build an engine. Well, whendebuted the car at SEMA, all the other racers and manufacturers started to complain that it was an unfair engine to use. GM, who puts a lot of money into its Ecotech program, also has a lot of pull with the NHRA, who then basically came back to me [to get the NHRA to] outlaw the engine. For the next three months, the NHRA couldn't give us an exact ruling of whether or not it would be legal, and just up until two months ago, we had to switch over to the stock SRT-4 engine. And just within days of our switching over to the SRT engine, we received a press release from the NHRA stating that push-rod engines are not allowed in our class, as well as any manufacturer who offers an aftermarket OEM engine is not legal. What's ironic about that is the only manufacturer who offers an aftermarket block is Mopar. Without the NHRA directly saying "You cannot run a Mopar engine," they said it. The only thing that's made this whole ordeal somewhat easy is Darrel Cox's experience with the Neon engine. If it wasn't for Darrel, we'd definitely be scrambling to get things done. But look at Christian Rado's car-it uses a Toyota Tundra truck engine. It's not like that's the same engine that comes with [the Celica]. You can argue that the rules are favoring other racers or manufacturers. Ultimately, I think the SRT-4 engine will be better because anyone who winds up buying an SRT-4 and sees us driving down the track and doing well can say, "We have the same engine." Any parts we use on the race car can be purchased through the Mopar catalog. If you really want to say that these parts will be track-tested and -proven, they will be that for sure.
Mopar is definitely our bread-and-butter in terms of finance. We're not really whining about money. People think we have millions of dollars to spend, but I still live at home with my parents. Everyone's going to talk and think what they want to think, but Mopar is our title sponsor. We're not looking for any other additional sponsors right now because Mopar has helped out a lot. We do have other people who are doing a lot for us, like Pro-Lite, who handle our machine work. Anything and everything we need machined, they do. Obviously, the majority of the stickers you see on the car will represent people who've helped us out along the way, but Mopar and Dodge are our primary sponsors. We're not going to do anything to take away from what they've done for us.
It's hard to say what kind of numbers I'll be putting down. Steph would have run a 7 already if he had a transmission that worked consistently. But as the rest of us would say, we've had nothing but transmission problems. If things work the way we want them to, we should be able to run a low 8 at about 185 to 189-ish mph. As long as I can hit a 7-second pass, to see that number would be great. We'll try to run as consistent as possible and run low 8s. Right now, without getting down the track, it's too early to tell. All we can do is try our best and stay consistent. Consistency wins races, not just one or two good runs.
As far as rivalry amongst my peers is concerned, there really isn't any. We all help each other out. I've helped out these guys when they've needed it. It's not me versus Christian or Christian versus Steph. Rather it's Honda versus Dodge, GM, or Toyota. We have to be more business-like about it. When we're on the track, we're there to promote our sponsors, and they want us to win no matter what. Things have to be kept secret. I know as things progress, it's going to become more professional. Helping everyone won't be as common as it used to be. Like I said before, it's not just a hobby anymore, it's a profession.
Fast FactsOwner Shaun Carlson/Nuformz RacingHometown Corona, CaliforniaRide '03 Dodge Neon SRT-4Daily Grind Owner of Nuformz Racing
Under The Hood JE pistons, ported and polished cylinder head by Darrel Cox Racing, Ferrea titanium valves, Crane titanium retainers and adjustable cam sprockets, custom MLS Cometric/Darrel Cox Racing head gasket, GRP aluminum connecting rods, Barnes Systems four-stage dry sump system, K&N oil filter, MSD HVC-2 coil, Turbostart 16v battery, Fluidyne radiator, Meziere water pump with Nuformz water pump block-off system, Waterman mechanical fuel pump, MoTeC M48 Pro engine management system by Sakata Motorsports, RC Engineering 720cc injectors (x8), JAZ SFI pro-stock fuel cell, custom Nuformz 321-stainless exhaust manifold, GReddy T88-34D turbocharger with 22cm turbine housing, custom Fortin four-speed transmission, Tilton carbon three-disc clutch and high-torque starter, custom ProLite 7075 T6 aluminum flywheel, ProDrive gun-drilled axles
Stiff Stuff Double-adjustable Lamb struts, titanium rear control arms, custom Nuformz chrome-moly with 934 CV hubs, 65-inch custom Nuformz chrome-moly and carbon-fiber traction bars
Rollers 15x8 (front) and 15x4 (rear) Weld Aluma Star wheels; 30x9x15 (front) and 25x4x15 (rear) Goodyear slicks
Outside Carbon-fiber, vacuum-bagged honeycomb-modified SRT-4 body by Big Josh Composites, carbon-fiber front end, custom Lexan windows by 5-Star, carbon-fiber vacuum-bagged doors and wing, Deist parachute, paint by California Custom Paint
Inside MoTeC ADL dash logger, Sparco carbon Touring seat and steering wheel, Fire Safe fire system
Props B.J. Birtwell and everyone at Mopar/Daimler Chrysler; Robert Miller, my crew chief; Brian Sakata and everyone at Sakata Motorsports; Warren Myers and John Wheelis of ProLite Engineering; Pauly Rivera of Movement Race Cars for all of his brilliant design and fabrication; Jesse Nevarez from California Customs; Dave Fisher of ProDrive; Harold Hanneman of Hanneman Fiberglass; Josh Solis of Big Josh Composites; Darrel Cox; Robert Wilson of Modern Image; everyone at Mag Masters; Carl Robinson of Weld Wheels; Dan Mariscal at Inland Powder Coating; Kirby at G&J Aircraft; Abe Rodriguez; my parents, Jerry and Sharon Carlson for believing in me; and last, but not least, my girlfriend, Apollonia , for sticking by my side through tough times. To all of my fans who came out and supported me when I needed it the most-thank you! I would have never made it without any of you!