Why it took 12 years for the L88 to emerge as the dominant force at the Pure Stock Drags is anybody's guess. In years past, Dan Jensen and Bob Boden, the race's founders and organizers, would survey the state of things and speculate about what kind of car could beat the 440 Six-Pack Mopars, Stage 1 Buicks, and big-block Camaros and Novas that had a lock on the top ranks. They concluded that it would take an L88, probably with an automatic transmission. Plenty of Corvettes participated in the unique drag race and ran competitively, but not L88s, and not at the top of the food chain.
Then in 2003, Wayne Nelson, a newcomer from Minnesota, showed up with an L88-spec Corvette and ran the first sub-12-second e.t. ever at the Pure Stock Drags-11.99 at 119.05. It would be Wayne's only showing as he moved on to F.A.S.T. (Factory Appearing Stock Tires) racing where less strict rules allow more modifications, but his point was made and the movement was on.
Next up in the spotlight was high-flying Jimmy Johnston, a super-sharp driver from Ontario, Canada, who could have had a professional drag racer's career. Jimmy was top finisher in his '69 Nova SS 396, but after years of contending, finally decided it lacked the cubes to go to the top. He sold the Nova and showed up in 2004 with an L88-spec Corvette, but oil-supply problems stopped his debut before it even got started.
A year later, on his second qualifying run, Jimmy recorded an 11.75 at 121.72, the quickest pass in Pure Stock Drags history. He was untouchable and easily the meet's top gun. This year, the L88 express picked up steam. Jimmy was back, and seemed like a logical choice to repeat as top gun.
Terry and Julie Pennington were back too. Last year, Julie was running a sharp L88 built by Terry-always a force to be reckoned with, which made it even more of a mystery why their L88 was a good half-second off the leader's pace. Was there some good reason, or was the car simply slower than Jimmy's?
One more L88, a new, wild card driven by Jim Mattison, another experienced racer, would challenge the quarter-mile as well.
So there's your setup. Gnarly old crocodiles have been hunting in these waters for years, and one of the gnarliest just raised the bar for the rest of the field. Toss in a nonperforming rookie and an iffy new guy, and your pre-game is complete. Can't you just feel the upset coming?
The early air on Friday was good, and what wind there was, was blowing right down the track. Out early, taking advantage of the favorable atmosphere was Julie Pennington. After a couple shakedown passes came an 11.79. Jimmy Johnston's 11.75 record run barely had time to tremble before Julie followed it up with a record-breaking 11.63. Lightning had struck. Julie, now the number one qualifier, was done for the day. Nobody else could touch her.
Hey, wait a minute. Was this the same L88 that struggled to run 12.30s last year? Why the sudden dramatic turnaround? Terry had deliberately detuned the car by backing 8 degrees of timing out of the engine and running the optional sidepipes.
"It was going to be her first taste of racing," Terry said, "and I wanted her to learn how to launch it. At 26-28 degrees, it has no power off the line. So now I figured she's ready to handle the rest of the power."
This year, the fangs were reinstalled. Timing was set at 36 degrees. But the biggest improvement came from ditching the optional sidepipes in favor of a 2.5-inch system with Ultra-Flo mufflers. Factory exhaust manifolds are mandatory. L88s have been known to have extreme reactions to changes in the exhaust system. Often, the change is for the worse. This time it was for the better. As Friday's qualifying continued, Jimmy also bested his e.t. from last year with an 11.72...in the neighborhood but still a ways behind.
Qualifying e.t.'s are important, but many a fast qualifier has been spanked by a slightly slower veteran in the real world of quarter-mile competition, a fact not lost on Terry. "I think with some practice she'll be fine," Terry said of his star pupil, "but the problem is we don't have a lot of time for practice. I'm almost bald and today I almost pulled out the rest of my hair. She says I need patience. Tomorrow she's going against the number two qualifier-Jimmy-and he's been doing this a lot longer than she has." The Pure Stock Drags can be a tough neighborhood.
Letting It Fly
The Pure Stock Drags has a racing format all its own. Run your best time on Friday or Saturday morning, then on Saturday afternoon you're paired against the car running closest to your times in a best-two-out-of-three, heads-up shootout. It's a simple formula that guarantees you the most competitive race possible. This clash of the titans promised to be that.
Round One. Showtime. Jimmy, one of the Pure Stock Drags' burnout kings, burned his Polyglas GTs into a near-molten state, then rolled into the staging beams. Julie, sticking with her game plan, did a dry burnout and pulled forward. The lights ticked down and they were off. The two moved as if one car. Reaction times were nearly identical: 0.13 for Jimmy; 0.11 for Julie. As they cleared the Christmas tree and moved toward midtrack, they were dead even. The 60-foot times were also virtually identical: 1.90 for Jimmy; 1.88 for Julie. It was a spectacular sight and sound to watch this pair catapulting forward with 1,000-plus combined horsepower. At the traps, Julie flashed by first, just a tenth ahead of Jimmy: 11.68 at 120.75 versus 11.79 at 120.36.
Round Two. One more like before and Julie could wrap this one up. Jimmy exploded off the line with a spectacular 0.086 reaction time and left Julie in the dust. She redlighted and casually sauntered down the track. Jimmy poured it on and speed-shifted his way to his best e.t. of the weekend: an 11.69 at 121.72. That evened it up at one apiece. That run just might have beat Julie's Round One pass. If he could run one more just like that or even quicker, he just might pull off a huge win.
Round Three. It was all coming down to the wire. It's the final winner-take-all run of the Pure Stock Drags, and nobody was leaving the stands. You would guess that after Julie's Round Two redlight, she's probably going to be conservative on the launch, so Jimmy had the momentum here.
Jimmy had his engine idled up to 1,800 rpm to get a consistent load for the clutch. In the near lane, that was the same rpm Julie was powerbraking to. The lights come down and at the last yellow, they pulled the trigger. Sure enough, Julie started late, but Jimmy redlighted! Julie doesn't want the handout. Instead she puts the spurs to the L88 and lets it fly. It all comes together on this run as Julie rockets through the big end, setting one more record with a red hot 11.54 at 120.75.
"I knew I had to cut a good light because the car was a tenth faster," Jimmy said afterwards. "She redlighted the time before, so I knew she would be timid on pushing the tree. My redlight didn't really matter anyway because it lost traction in second gear, and I just about hit the wall. All is good. I'll get her next year."
Meanwhile, there was still one last objective. When the Corvette coasted to a stop back in the pits, Terry and a team of mechanics popped the hood and began disassembling the engine. All weekend Terry was getting wind of comments that his car was a cheat. He intended to put a stop to that. Out came the radiator and off came the intake and heads. Out came the cam.
Standing by with micrometers in hand was Scott Tiemann, Pure Stock Drags chief tech inspector. Scott had also been getting an earful from other racers who found the L88's e.t.'s very suspect. He measured everything in sight and went so far as to cc the heads. All checked out. Exhaust manifolds were untouched, Thermactor bosses and all. Not the first grinder mark in the heads or intake. Compression was within spec. Terry didn't even gasket match the ports. Scott took the cam home and checked it against a N.O.S. L88 cam. It was completely legit. Looks like the Brand-Xers just had a bad case of L88 envy. It happens.
The Clash of the Titans was now complete. And who would be a more unlikely prospect for conquering the fastest field ever at the Pure Stock Drags than a rookie girl? Never underestimate the power of a long shot, especially when it's powered by an L88.
More Info: Pure Stock Drags '07
Pure Stock Musclecar Drag Race
September 14-15, 2007
2589 N. Wyman Rd.
Stanton, Michigan 48858-9428
Pure Stock Musclecar Drag Race
P. O. Box 341
Tecumseh, MI 49286-0341
Evenings: Dan Jensen (517) 647-2474
Days: Bob Boden (517) 423-8133
Comfort Inn (Host hotel)
Alma, Michigan (989) 463-4400
Days Inn, (989) 463-6131
Super 8, (989) 427-8888