Dedication, Consistency, And Luck Mark The NMRA’s Spring Break Shootout
Anyone who has paid attention to small-tire, heads-up racing over the last two decades has surely noticed the NMRA and its dedicated Ford fanatic racers; they make up a contingent of people who travel all over the eastern half of the USA to compete against one another. I’ve been covering the NMRA in some form or fashion for 17 of those 21 years, and one thing in particular sticks out to me: the level of dedication it takes to want to travel thousands of miles just for a few seconds of racing down the dragstrip; in some classes, the racers are guaranteed approximately 18 seconds of race time unless they win in the first round. Constant occurrences are lots of time spent in the pits fixing broken racecars, grilling to keep the crew fed, or simply brainstorming to figure out the next step to gain that last little bit of elapsed time over the competition.
I’ve seen many racers try it for a year or two and give up because it’s too difficult or expensive, but for many it becomes a lifestyle, and that’s what keeps them coming back. The level of competition from racers who are willing to travel all over the country is much more challenging than you might find at your local Saturday night race, because nobody is going to take on the expense of traveling—which for most is often in the thousands of dollars—if they think they’re going to be a first-round duck. But along with that that competition comes friendship and camaraderie, with racers often lending those they compete against their spare parts and pieces in an attempt to get everyone to the next round.
The NMRA made several changes to its competition categories over the offseason, doing away with one heads-up class (Coyote Modified) and bringing on another one (Modified Street), while wrestling with rules adjustments in others to help ensure parity between engine and transmission combinations. Another reason for making some of these adjustments was to open up a couple of the classes to allow competitors who don’t normally run with the NMRA to fit into the classes like Street Outlaw (X275 crossover) and Modified Street (Ultra Street crossover). The old adage of “if you build it, they will come” is the thought process here, and although the Florida event did not see huge participation in these intended classes, I’m confident that once the events get closer to the Northeast and Midwest where a lot of these racers reside, attendance will improve.
That said, the racing action at the Spring Break Shootout this past weekend was outstanding, with the cream of the crop rising to the top as eliminations concluded under the bright Florida sun on Sunday afternoon.
Michael Ciborowski and Sondra Leslie battled all weekend in the Limited Street class to see who would take home the prize on race day. It wasn’t easy for either competitor, and in the end, Ciborowski came out on top.
“The car fought us from the time out of the trailer ’til final qualifying shot on Saturday. I was trying the M/T Street S/S tires and the car just wouldn’t work on them. Went back to the Pro and added the 100 pounds, and that’s when we could start putting more power in it. They hit everyone with different pulley sizes on the blower cars over the winter so we are still figuring it out. Had to make a few chassis adjustments also but we got it working again,” says Ciborowski.
Sondra Leslie was also battling all weekend. As this year marks the first time she and crew chief Ken Bjonnes are in the same city during racing season, they spent all winter refining the car to maximize its performance for the first race. They were prepared for the event—and she made some killer passes during qualifying—but Sondra was concerned the car would power-wheelie like it did on a couple of occasions last season, so they had the tune configured to prevent that from happening while she continues to get used to the car’s performance on the track.
“Now that I am more comfortable in the car, we are going to start adjusting the suspension so it leaves better,” she says. Also, the team has a new torque converter on the way and plans to change the supercharger pulley for the next event, to take advantage of a weight break.
The final round was decided by the slim margin of just four ten-thousandths of a second (.0004-second), or 1.16 inches at 155-plus miles per hour. For comparison, it takes 12 hundredths (.12-second) to blink your eye. That’s how close these two experienced competitors were at the finish line. Ciborowski had a .111 reaction time and 8.841 elapsed time, while Sondra was one ten-thousandth slower on the tree with an 8.844 ET.
“We won the race and set the ET record at 8.79 [during qualifying]. It was quite the mood swing in the pits for the weekend to say the least! That final was epic!” says Ciborowski.
One interesting tidbit I picked up while wandering around was that R&S Automotive Specialists’ Bridget Palazzolo has moved into the role of engine tuner. She recently attended SCT’s tuning school and is working along with Rob Shoemaker of Palm Beach Dyno to hone her skills on the laptop.
This weekend, she was working as crew chief/tuner for R&S customer David Harvey, who qualified second in the Cobra Jet Showdown with a strong .022 reaction time. I’ve known Bridget for some time, and during our conversation about her tuning on the car her face lit up when I asked if she was having fun doing it. It’s refreshing to see new faces getting involved in the sport. She did credit Shoemaker and her husband, Street Outlaw winner Vinny Palazzolo, for guiding her along and helping her to hone her skills.
Justin Jordan had quite the rough start to his weekend, breaking a secondary chain on his MBRP-backed twin-turbo Mustang. Luckily he was able to convince his engine builder—Tyler Eichhorn of MPR Race Engines—to load up and make the trip north from Boynton Beach with a car full of parts to fix it. During eliminations, Jordan was the man to beat, and proved it on Sunday with a win over Paul Albino’s turbocharged Lightning pickup.
The NMRA always draws a massive group of cars for its car show in Bradenton, and ropes off an entire section of the Pro pit area to fill it up with show cars. I walked through the whole group, and stopped at the lone BMW on the show field—which just so happens to have a Ford Coyote engine swapped between its framerails. I would have liked to see a big centrifugal supercharger underhood, but I guess you have to start somewhere. I wonder if the turn signals work.
One of the stories of the weekend was Dom DiDonato’s attempts to keep his Mustang out of the sky. Despite installing three oil pans and a new K-member later—among other parts—he managed to go all the way to the Street Outlaw finals with the help of crew chief Chuck Wrzesniewski and tuner Craig Pachar keeping the car on the straight and narrow when it mattered.
There, he finally came up on the short end of the stick, losing to the Vince Palazzolo-driven yellow Shelby owned by Benny Ortiz and tuned by Nicky Notch. Palazzolo’s car was completely revamped over the winter, including the eye-catching fresh yellow pigment laid upon its flanks. The Shelby was extremely consistent during eliminations, running 4.448, 4.450, and 4.473 on the way to the winner’s circle.
I caught up with Tony Hobson early on Friday to talk about his move up to the Street Outlaw class, and he explained that he wanted to be able to race in more events than just the six the NMRA holds each year. By moving into Street Outlaw trim—which for him was basically a turbo and weight change—Hobson can go run X275 when he’s not racing NMRA. Fun fact: Hobson is a chassis builder at Larry Jeffers Race Cars in Missouri, one of the most successful Pro Mod chassis shops in the world.
Many-time NMRA champion Charlie Booze, Jr. hasn’t been out with Big Red since 2016, but as he told me on Friday, “they laid the rules at my feet.” It didn’t help, though, when his crankshaft started to nip at a connecting rod bearing. He had to swap in the spare engine, barely making make the third round of qualifying. He made it into the field with an 8.11, good enough for third, but his weekend came to an end in dramatic fashion in the second round against eventual winner Brad Schehr. I was in the stands watching his crew frantically scramble around the car; it turns out he was in the car, knew the coil wire wasn’t hooked up, but ran out of time to get the hood off and the wire snapped snapped back onto the coil before the starter timed him out.
How cool is this thing? Bill Lee, Jr. was ripping it up in the Ford Muscle class, dominating the competition in his Fairmont cop car machine. A final round appearance against John Butsko turned into a win for Lee after four rounds of competition. Wheelstands… police lights… dog dish hubcaps… this car is a winner across the board!
Over the last year or so, John Urist has made the move away from his familiar MoTec engine management system to a new computer from Bosch Motorsport, which he says is the most advanced system of its type in the world. So advanced that he’s using traditional port injectors in conjunction with Xtreme-DI’s direct-injection system, tuned by Uwe Ostmann of X-DI.
“After meeting Uwe from Extreme-DI, we decided to push the envelope and modernize our entire racing program. Between using the current body-style S550 Mustang and the most advanced engine management and fuel system on the planet, we think we have a one-of-a-kind program,” says Urist.
Urist explains that the system uses the same type of configuration as a dealer-stock Mustang, and is something nobody has tried in the heads-up racing world at this level before. It’s taken Ostmann most of the last year to iron out the bugs, but the team is confident that they are on the brink of massive performance improvements and consistency. I’m extremely curious to see how this setup shakes out for the team, but one thing I can’t deny is that Urist is always willing to try something new—and out of the box—to see if he can gain a performance advantage over the competition.
Joe Guertin went for a couple of wild rides—and landings—through the course of the weekend. His Florida-based coupe was all redone for competition in the Renegade class, and after a winter of hard work and struggle to get the car completed (I saw all of your Facebook posts, Joe!) he and crew chief Chet Caminita rode their performance to a final-round loss to juggernaut Haley James.
To her credit, Haley and the rest of the B Team also revamped their entire car over the winter after stepping up from the now-defunct Coyote Modified class into Renegade. Her dad/crew chief Dwayne James spec’d out an all-new engine combination to go with the turbocharger and they were rewarded with a 4.82 (eighth-mile) ET in the final round to eliminate Guertin from the show.
All in all, it was a great weekend full of fun, sun, and intense competition at Bradenton Motorsport Park. With 135 True Street entries, close finishes, sunburn, and tons of great Ford-powered action, it’s clear that those traveling superstars of the NMRA have something good going on.
Enjoy the photo gallery!