If there was one car that stood out on South Island drag strips this season, it would have to be the Alsop brothers’ Willys coupe
“What the..?” is a common enough reaction. This car doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations of what an Altered should look like, or what a Willys coupe looks like for that matter. Exactly what the doctor ordered then. In a sport where everything is screaming, “Look at me!” something that screams even louder.
It was a then unknown drag racer from South Carolina that sparked off the Willys drag racing resurgence in a class called Top Sportsman, a fast dial your own bracket that was full of interesting machinery including dragsters, Altereds and Doorslammers. Intense media attention was focused on the class while everyone waited to see who would break the six-second, 200mph barrier in a doorslammer.
Scotty Cannon, successfully racing a rear-engined dragster, was getting none of that attention and wanted it, so he picked on a body shape that stood out from all the slippery late-model stuff and shoebox Chevs the class was famous for, a little red Willys coupe with a Top Fueller-style wing out behind it. The ploy worked, magazines fell over themselves to photograph the thing and Cannon, acutely aware of the value of being in the media spotlight, courted controversy at every step.
One of the ways he did this was to modify that classic Willys shape. His next Willys had a chopped top, was wider and lower and featured a wing on the back that resembled an implement shed. But the next one is what got the pundits jumping about. In a class full of chopped, diced, sliced, wedged, stretched and generally mutated body shells, this thing stood out like a hooker in church.
Christchurch-based Nigel and Johnny Alsop loved the shape, and after getting out of their quick small block Chev-pushed RX-7 that was built to the old Street Machine class, they decided to purchase one to base their new car on. While it was underway the decision had to be made as to where to run it. The body was not really in tune with the Top Doorslammer rules, so Nigel decided the Altered class was best suited to their needs. “There was a cost appeal with the Altered chassis, no front/rear suspension components were required, no full door car chassis was required. With the lack of suspension, swing arms and all that extra tubing came the bonus of getting a lightweight vehicle. I liked the idea of doing something a little different from the traditional T-Altered body style, our theory was: build a chromoly lightweight chassis, use an aluminium lightweight Mark Williams rear end, lightweight Weld wheels, etcetera, just save as much weight as possible during the build process to compensate for having a full body on an Altered chassis. Theoretically, with a super-lightweight chassis, even with a heavier than normal body a strong small block should still be able to power it to some competitive times.”
The choice of chassis builders wasn’t too difficult, either. Murray Buckingham has an impeccable drag racing pedigree and lives in the Mainland, but he got the nod for another reason. “Ron Collett had recently got an Altered chassis built by Buck Engineering,” explains Nigel. “And if Buck was good enough for Ron it said a lot!”
Using a Competition Engineering steering box, front spindles and some pre-bent roll cage tubing, Buck stitched together a traditional centre steer Altered frame, then mounted and modified the Vanishing Point Race Cars-built plastic Willys body to it. There are 115 inches between the Hoosier-shod Weld wheels, and the flamed little red coupe goes straight and launches hard.
Ron Collett built the wheelie bar that stops the coupe from tipping over backwards. It’s attached to a modular, super-strong, ultra-light Mark Williams nine-inch based third member, which in turn is joined to the TCI-based TH400 by a solid Mark Williams coupler. Auto Trans has taken over the maintenance and modifications to the reverse pattern not-so-slushy ’box, something that was left over from Johnny’s Mazda.
The plan of this team was clear: do it once, do it right, build it strong and make it light. It’s that same rationale that sees the use of the killer small block Chev. Dick Powell, another southern man with impeccable drag racing credentials, built the 388-cube motorvator, once again using only the best components.
One of the weaker links in a supercharged small block Chev is the crank snout. Once racers welded on a big block one, but nowadays specialist crankshaft builders can make ’em the way racers want ’em, and all sorts of girdles and supports are available to make those issues a thing of the past. Dick used a Callies crank and an RCD support in a Dart block, while JE pistons swing off the ends of Oliver six-inch rods to make sure the short block will not cause any reliability problems.
The cylinder heads are currently a pair of Iron Eagle Dart castings filled with Comp Cams and Manley components. An aluminium pair could be on the wish list. Similarly, the smallish hi-helix 8-71, currently overdriven at only 11.3 per cent, is another area where the team could make changes.
“I’m really impressed with how well it runs, still running on a relatively tame combination with just the cast iron heads, not a massive blower and only 11 per cent overdrive,” Nigel claims.
Of course, the fuel system is the key to going fast in any supercharged vehicle, and this Kinsler-based Enderle setup is doing the business. Mallory supplies the spark to kick the combustion process off; Buck built the two-inch headers that dump the residue. Engine management is down to “Johnny’s foot and the size of his balls on the day,” says Nigel, laughing, and I don’t think they’d do it any other way.
With a best elapsed time of 7.11 at better than 190mph, the Willys has already exceeded expectations, but the guys still have room for improvement. Stuck in the middle of BB/Altered, they could add or remove weight for a class change, and there is still plenty of scope for engine modification.
Nigel, a graphic/web designer, is confined to a wheelchair and lives and breathes drag racing. The Bedford van that was modified to take him to school ended up with a B&M low blow super sucker on a 355 Chev that made runs in the high 12s, while Johnny the joiner has gone round and round in an RX-2 before building the aforementioned RX-7, a machine that got into the high eights on gasoline and carburettors.
As in any car project, half the enjoyment is in the building, and lots of grins can be had while racing. “There are no funny stories in particular,” says Nigel, “just many days and nights while building the car and then while getting the car ready with mates, having a drink or two, talking bullshit, and having a laugh.” Which is what we should be getting out of racing, isn’t it?
There are a few southern drag racing legends who have had input and labour into the building of this radical departure from the norm, one of the country’s standout drag race machines that performs as well as it looks different from its competition. In a sport that prides itself on its diversity, this wild Willys is quickly clawing its way to the top of the heap.
Check out www.alsopracing.co.nz for more info on this car.
What A Willy
Back in the early ’60s, before drag racing became all corporate sponsors and factory involvement, there were only two sorts of race cars: those that ran fuel and those that ran gas.
While rails and roadsters were generally stripped to the barest essentials, there wasn’t much the guys in the gasoline-burning coupes and sedans could do about it. Lightweight components just didn’t exist, so the trend was to grab the lightest car you could.
That is how cheap, basic and small Austin A40s, Anglias and Willys coupes came to be popular choices for race cars. And being longer and wider, the Willys became the most popular choice of all.
Then along came the cam wars, in which the cam grinders of the day picked their personal champion, supplied them with a camshaft (which they may or may not have even used) and then touted their racer’s superior performance through the periodicals of the day.
Such actions cemented two Willys coupes deep into the sports psyche: the Stone, Woods and Cook candy blue car; and ‘Big’ John Mazmanian’s candy red machine. Then along came the funny car, and Willys coupes faded into the history books and street rodding. Until 25 years later¦
1941 Willys Coupe – Specifications
Engine: 388ci (6358cc) small block Chev, Dart ‘Little M’ block, block o-ringed and using copper head gaskets, JE Pistons, Oliver rods, 4340 forged, Perma-tough heat treated Callies Racemaster crank, RCD Engineering crank support, RCD Engineering gear drive/timing cover with fuel pump extension, Milodon Pro Competition full sump, Melling high-flow race oil pump, System One reusable oil filter, ARP fasteners, Taylor Motorsports engine diaper, Dart ‘Iron Eagle’ cylinder heads, 230cc port volume, 2.08-inch intake valves, 1.60-inch exhaust valves, Jesel shaft rockers, Manley valve springs, titanium retainers, Comp Cams custom roller camshaft, Comp Cams rev kit, HPC coated rocker covers, The Blower Shop comp manifold with large ports, The Blower Shop 8/71 Hi Helix, 3.90-inch billet snout, 8mm 1440 belt, 59-tooth bottom pulley, 53-tooth top pulley, 11.3 per cent overdrive — 25lb boost, RCS Engineering blower belt guard, complete Kinsler fuel injection system, eight hat nozzles plus eight port nozzles, Kinsler barrel valve with nitro metering valve, main bypass, high-speed bypass, secondary bypass, pump relief check valve, and port nozzle feed, aluminium fuel tank, Mallory Super Mag IV, Dunn Services offset mag drive, PSI rev limiter (9000rpm), Mallory coil, Mallory leads, HPC coated two-inch zoomies
Driveline: Race Ready TH400 from TCI Transmissions, reverse pattern manual valve body with trans-brake, converter originally from A1 Converters but since tweaked and modified to suit by Kevin and Tim at Auto Trans — 5000rpm stall, deep aluminium pan, trans cooler mounted behind the driver seat, TCI Transmissions trans shield, SFI rated/ hardened flywheel, Mark Williams Modular nine-inch floater rear end, heavy duty 3.812-inch bore aluminium case, 40-spline steel milled spool, Richmond 3.89:1 gears, Mark Williams solid shaft/coupler
Brakes: Lightened discs with Mark Williams callipers
Wheels/tyres: 15×15 and 15×3.5-inch Weld Racing Aluma Star 2.0 rims, 24.0/4.5-15 and 32.5/16.5-15 Hoosier tyres
Exterior: Pro Mod style 1941 Willys coupe body imported from Vanishing Point Racing Cars
Chassis: 115-inch (2920mm) wheelbase, full chromoly Altered chassis by Buck Engineering, Chassis Engineering chromoly spindle mounts, steering box, pre-bent six-point roll cage, single wheelie bar built by Ron Collett, custom-made aluminium breather catch tank, Sparco onboard fire extinguisher system
Interior: Aluminium sheet metal fabricated seat, Taylor Motorsports seat padding with fire resistant Nomex, Chassis Engineering steering wheel, anodised hand grips, B&M Pro Ratchet, Auto Meter gauges
Performance: 7.11 at 190mph (306kph)
Nigel and John Alsop – Owner Details
Driver name: Johnny Alsop
Age: Nigel 36, Johnny 32
Occupation: Nigel: graphic design, website design and development. Johnny: Joiner
Previously owned cars: CF2 Bedford van with 355 Chev and B&M low blower, RX-2 circuit car, Mazda RX-7 ‘Street Machine’
Dream car: (Nigel) “To be honest, the look and the performance of the Willys has turned out better than even I dreamed. At the time we started building the car the national record for the class was 7.46, so that was the ultimate goal/dream, I never imagined she’d have a 7.11, 7.13, and 7.19 under her belt before the end of our second season.”
Build time: Just over two years
Length of ownership: As above
The Alsops thank: “A big thank you to our sponsors: Grant Silvester and his team at Silvester V8 Performance, Alsop Joinery, Unique Designs — www.uniquedesigns.co.nz, South Island Wholesale, Forward Planning, Circle Track Engineering, Performance Hose Centre, Thornz Trees and Landscapes, Demon Energy Drink, Dirty Dog Eyewear. “A huge thank you to our crew: Kade, Franky, Shane, Sy, Sam, Matt, and their wives and families (that includes Suzy, Hanna, and Daniel ” Johnny’s family) for the weekends the boys are away racing, or around home getting the car ready for racing. Also a special thank you to mum and dad for their help behind the scenes, catering on race days and when the car is being worked on, and for helping take Nigel around the country with the car. Dick Powell for the initial engine build, but also all his time, advice, and help with maintenance, etc. The same goes for Buck since building the chassis. There have been many, many other friends and acquaintances who have helped along the way to get this awesome-looking Willys coupe to where it is now. Thank you.”
Words: Trevor Tynan Photos: Dan Wakelin