Drag racing is like a drug. In fact, it’s probably worse, depending on your level of involvement. The deeper you get into it, the more it costs, the less time you spend driving your car and the more time you spend preparing it. But once you’re infected with the disease, there’s not a lot of hope for you. There’s no patch you can stick on, or rehab courses you can attend.
So what do you do when you realise that for all your hard work, long nights and busted knuckles, you’re only getting the car out to a handful of events each year? Ryan Sheldon’s answer was to build one seriously cool drag-styled street car, so on any given weekend he could hop in and head off into the sunset… or something similar but slightly less gay-sounding.
The idea to build a tough street car all began back when Ryan was crewing for Mark Thomas around seven years ago, but what really kicked the whole dream into life was Ryan’s dad, Des, who stumbled upon a 4.25-inch Eagle crank.
“He declared we, as in me, should build a 500 cube-plus street car,” says Ryan of his starting point. And with that simple purchase, the ball was soon rolling.
An Impala wasn’t the first plan, but after buying a supposedly complete roller Pontiac Catalina, only to find out it was just a pile of parts that needed assembly, progress was slow. That was until Wellington-based drag racing contact Andrew Killis decided to step his own project up a notch, and better still, he was a fan of the Catalina too.
Andrew owned the ’66 Impala, and had fellow well-known drag racer David Green back-half it and construct a roll cage for the car to run in Wild Bunch (the earlier version of Top Door Slammer). As happens in a build like this, the competition gets quicker while you’re working in the shed and the goalposts move. With this scenario playing out, Andrew knew he had to step up to a full tube chassis car or never be competitive, so he put the Impala up for grabs, ‘as is’.
It wasn’t a quick move getting the car up to Auckland closer to Ryan, as on the way a fibreglass mould was taken of the complete body for Andrew’s new car (still to be completed, before you start wondering where it is).
While making progress on the Impala Ryan soon became tied up with Morice McMillan’s funny car. With Ryan owning the engine, and Morice the car itself, it wasn’t long before the Impala took a back seat. It wasn’t until last year, when Morice bought a new motor himself, that Ryan re-focused his attention on the big pro-street machine. Once the funny car engine had been sold, the bank balance was topped up and new motivation was found to
get it completed.
Knowing almost everyone in the drag racing scene, Ryan soon turned to Tony Marsh from Marsh Motorsport to machine the Dart Big M Block for his precious crank, Mahle pistons and Eagle rods. Once sorted, Top Alcohol driver John Neilan assembled it with Ryan’s assistance. John’s expertise has extended to much of the car’s build, and Ryan is very appreciative of both his knowledge shared and time donated to the project.
The engine build includes 360-degree RHS heads featuring 2.3inch and 1.9-inch valves along with Crower rocker gear, so there’s huge potential to make a bunch of power. At one stage a supercharger was discussed, and even made it to the engine bay, but that idea soon made way for the twin-carb tunnel ram set-up now fitted.
With fuel provided by a Magnafuel electric pump via fire hose-size lines and regulated by a BG regulator mixed with spark from a combination of MSD and ICE components, it’s an impressive combination.
Fellow drag racer Craig Williams wired the setup, while fellow drivers Nigel Dixon and Mike Reid were also instrumental in the driveline side of the build. Turning what was once set to be a dedicated drag car back into a street car is no small task, but with contacts like Ryan’s it soon started coming together. The fact that he had access to many leftover and unwanted parts from his drag racing mates also helped.
“The rear shocks have been 204 miles an hour in Blobby’s [Mark Thomas'] ute,” he says, as an indication of what’s in it. While the shocks may be second-hand the four-link set-up built by Dave Green certainly is not, nor are the Wilwood brakes fitted to the 9-inch diff, which Dave also built.
Up front stock Impala discs have been used to slow the skinny 15×5.5-inch Weld Racing Prostar wheels. Skinny certainly isn’t a word you’d use to describe the rear wheel and tyre combination though. Measuring in at 33×22.5×15 inches, the Hoosiers are the largest-treaded tyre available on the market! The faux beadlocks, which simply clip on, are a love it or hate it touch, but the super-tough low stance is loved by all.
Hours upon hours have gone into getting the car to look this good, a challenge not helped by the fact that it came with no front guards or bonnet. Another drag racing associate, Adam Prestney, took care of sorting out these components in fibreglass, before the car was sprayed in its blue hue by Jonsey’s Garage in Hamilton.
The interior was nothing but a jungle-gym of roll cage tubing when Ryan first got the car, not that you’d ever know it now. All the interior work is his own doing, apart from the trimming of the custom centre console, which was taken care of by Jason Loose at Cut Loose Upholstery.
“The seats are the cheapest ones I could find,” Ryan says. The rest of the interior certainly was not budget though and consists of a Dakota Digital dash, Holden steering column and B&M shifter. That shifter is connected to a seriously tough TH400 trans built by Chuck ‘the only man for the job’ Mann. It’s got a 4000rpm stall converter and is full of Chuck’s tricks and knowledge, so should outlast the rest of the car.
Assuming of course that Ryan drives it as a street car and doesn’t ever get tempted to put it down the quarter mile. It’s not that the trans wouldn’t handle the car’s estimated 800hp, but we know it’s likely that power figure would quickly double.
With the car now just in the final stages of becoming road legal it shouldn’t be long before he’s driving the tyres off it. Hopefully not literally, as buying tyres that size would be a serious threat to the wallet.
Then again, when you consider just how long those tyres will last compared to drag slicks, maybe it’s a small price to pay for the huge amount of fun Ryan and friends are about to have.
1966 Chevrolet Impala – Specifications
Engine: 540ci (8.8-litre) big block Chev, Dart Big M block, Mahle 4.5-inch pistons, Eagle 4.25-inch crank, Eagle rods, Donovan gear drive, ARP fasteners, Herbert cam, Lunatai roller lifters, RHS 360 aluminium heads, Comp Cams springs, Comp Cams valves, Crower Roller Rockers, Titanium retainers, 2.3-inch intake valves, 1.9-inch exhaust valves, tunnel ram, twin 1150cfm Holley Dominator carbs, BG regulator, Magnafuel electric pump, MSD Digital 7 ignition, MSD crank trigger, ICE coil, Taylor leads, two-inch headers, three-inch exhaust, aluminium radiator, 25 row trans cooler
Driveline: TH400, 4000rpm stall converter, Ford 9-inch diff, strong-backed, Strange 35-spline axles, Strange nodular head, 4.56:1 gears, Detroit locker
Suspension: Custom 4-link rear, Spax shocks, custom springs
Brakes: Stock Impala disc front, Wilwood rear callipers
Wheels/ tyres: 15×5.5 and 15×15-inch Weld Prostar rims, Mickey Thompson front tyres, 33×22.5×15 Hoosier rear tyres
Exterior: Custom rear wing, fibreglass front panels, Ford blue paint
Chassis: Rear halved, full cage
Interior: Aftermarket seats, B&M shifter, Holden steering column, Dakota digital dash, custom retrim
Ryan Sheldon – Owner Profile
Occupation: Furnace Operator
Previously owned cars: ’77 Camaro, ’56 Cadillac, Top Alcohol Funny Car (with Morice), ’59 Chev doorslammer, ’65 Pontiac Catalina
Dream car: You’re looking at it
Why the Impala?: Got sick of having a Group One car that you only take out six or seven times a year
Build time: Six years
Length of ownership: Six years
Ryan thanks: John Neilan, Craig Williams, Mike Reid, Adam Prestney, Nigel and Jody Dixon, Andrew Killis, Sam Salle, Darrell Bone at Chuck’s, Jonsey’s Garage Hamilton, Robert Tynan, Brendan Halpin at Rad Rides, Morice McMillin, Darryl Hoon, Paul and Olivia Lambarth, and most importantly Dad
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Adam Croy
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