1996 Chevy Impala Feature - Thinking Big

An Impy with big juice for the straight and big brakes for the curves

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I met Tom Frederico at the Impala SS Nationals this past year because the word had gotten around about the solid sway bars his company B-Body Performance was making. During the autocross competition, a Buick Roadmaster wagon had put quite the smack down on most of the sedans in its class using just these sway bars in an otherwise bone-stock wagon. It wasn't until the following day at Pocono Raceway that I actually met Tom. Having raced at Pocono several times myself, I couldn't wrap my head around scooting a 4,500-pound Impala with an automatic transmission through the tight turns on the infield at Pocono. After a whole day of racing, I still wasn't sure I had it, but after listening to one of Tom's many stories, it finally started to seep in. Apparently when he was 18 and working several jobs, he bought himself a very rare, turbocharged Porsche 944S. Ever since then he has been working to achieve the same level of refinement and inspired handling on the new love of his life--a black '96 Impala.

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The engine bay is adorned with a cast of powdercoated pieces and Mallory Billet Aluminum plates along with Coolflex hoses and a Team SS pipe intake. The Clear Image Auto Quad-1 headers and Mezeire electric water pump are more than just show, however, helping to free up a few extra horsepower from the freshened stock motor. Though, Tom says a forged 383 may be on the horizon.

Having first come in contact with the voluptuous Impys in 1994 as a police officer in Georgia, Tom grew to love his patrol car. However, it wasn't until 2000 when he moved back to San Diego, California, to be with his family that he finally was able to purchase an Impy of his own. Since then, he has dedicated himself to the hobby as President and Founder of the SoCalSS club and as proprietor of several Impala-related businesses, such as B-body Performance, ImpalaSScarpet.com, and ImpalaSSbrakes.com. While juggling a handful of businesses, Tom also manages to work a day job driving a semi for a concrete company, or as he jokingly refers to his title in PC terms as a "Geological Material Relocation Engineer."

It was readily apparent how motivated and ambitious he was, and it did not seem out of character for him to wear so many hats. During the photo shoot, he spent most of the time taking business calls over his cell phone. Later on, as I began asking him about the car, he started telling me about how so few companies made sway bars for Impalas. And a bar that felt good and tight at Pocono Raceway was excessively stiff on an autocross course. So began a long arduous period of research and development.

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Darth Vader would be proud to ride in this blacked-out Impy. B-Body Performance springs provide a 1.25-inch drop and increased neutrality to the handling along with the thicker, solid sway bars. As President of SoCalSS, Tom frequents many Impala events, as well as Button Willow and Willow Springs open-track days.

Somewhere around that time, Tom became friends with the members of a local BMW club that set-up an autocross course every two months. Testing was conducted on the autocross course and local roads on three different Impalas with both slicks and stock tires to devise a suspension equally at home in all arenas. Thanks in no small part to George Bates and the guys at Express Tire, who donated their time in helping to swap out the parts, Tom was finally able firm up the right combo. Several months, a few broken sway bars, and more money than Tom wants to think about have been invested in the 1 3/8-inch solid front and several thicknesses of rear sway bars, including the 1 5/16-inch used at Pocono, he designed. But, the end result is something clearly tangible and rewarding for the driver, not to mention Tom, who had a big grin on his face watching that wagon on the autocross course.

The same painstaking effort was put into coming up with a good set of springs that would work both on the track and the street, as most customers also use their Impys as a daily driver. In which case, it was decided that a progressive-rate spring was the way to go, and the 364- to 628-pound front and the 120- to 222-pound rear spring rates seemed to be the perfect balance of handling and ride quality. QA1 shocks, Global West rear lower control arms and Moog upper control arm bushings were the final pieces Tom needed to tie up his own suspension along with a set of sticky-icky Kuhmo 710s. Since tire size is always limited with 18-inch wheels, the stock 17s were widened in the rear to 10.5 inches in order to fit 315/35R17 tires out back.

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All American Paint and Body put 31 days worth of work into the flawless paint. There are two coats of PPG Black and three coats of Clear with meticulous wet sanding in between each layer of Clear.

Unfortunately, staying with the 17s meant upgrading to a more road-course friendly set of brakes would be difficult. After doing quite a bit of research, Tom found out that MovIt brakes were the only calipers with sufficient dust shields requiring little-to-no maintenance after track days. Since the German manufacturer had no U.S. supplier, he received his set directly from Germany and has since started a new business as a distributor for other Impala owners (ImpalaSSbrakes.com). The largest set of brakes he could cram into the stock 17s was 13.78-inch rotors with a MovIt monoblock four-piston 44mm caliper up front, and in the rear, a monoblock four-piston 42mm caliper grabs the 13.25-inch rotor. The real advantage over the stock-size rotors, however, is in the 1.34-inch thickness that can dissipate heat much more effectively. MovIt rotors also use cast holes instead of cross drilling for increased strength.

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The stock 17-inch wheels were painted black and widened in the rear to 10.5 inches to accommodate a larger set of Kuhmos. Normally, Tom runs the 710 full slicks on dry track days, however, a flat caused him to switch to the 700s prior to the photo shoot. MovIt four-piston calipers and big-vented rotors helped Tom out-brake and out-handle the lighter and more powerful competition.

As Tom proved in his performance at Pocono, being the fastest guy around the road course doesn't mean you have the most horsepower. Currently Tom runs a freshened stock motor with only a few bolt-ons to motivate his Impy. However, on open-track days, Tom reaches into his 30-pound reservoir of nitrous for a healthy 75-100hp shot when he sees an opening on the straightaway. The custom concealed NOS kit uses the Holley/NOS 58mm throttle body with built-in spray bars to fog the giggly gas. Bryan Herter of PCMforless.com, whom Tom has known for 10 years, tweaked the tuning for the nitrous and heavy track use. Bryan was another upstart in the Impala circles when Tom began, along with Dan Ferrara of Clear Image Automotive. By no coincidence, Tom also sports Clear Image Auto Quad-1 long-tube headers, which are connected to an ATR exhaust system that have been cut and re-bent for increased driveshaft clearance.

Prolonged high-speed, high-rpm driving has taken quite a toll on Tom's driveline. He has managed to eat up three or four driveshafts in the past few years, however, the JE Reel 3.5-inch aluminum unit he currently uses has proven reliable, possibly because it is balanced at 10,000 rpm. On one of the mishaps the U-joint snapped during a testdrive after fixing the rear in preparation for the first Impala Nats in Tulsa, Oklahoma (two years ago), which subsequently tore the rearend of the tranny apart. A quick used stock replacement was found, so he didn't have to miss out on the festivities. Unfortunately, Third gear went in the first few minutes of racing, which was cause for a trip to Marvin Imm at The Trans Shop in El Monte, California. The transmission experts at TransGo recommended the local shop, which Tom also commissioned for a rearend rebuild as well. The 8.5-inch 10-bolt was solidified with an Eaton posi, GM 4.11 gears, and Moser stock replacement axles. A relatively tight 2,100-stall converter from Precision Industries was used for more instantaneous throttle inputs on the road course with far superior torque multiplication over stock.

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The 75- to 100-shot of nitrous is supplemented by two 15-pound bottles reserved for the straightaways of a few choice road courses and stretches of highways.

Unlike most road-race-dedicated cars, which have inevitably traded paint with another vehicle or done some landscaping of the track grounds, the most striking feature of Tom's Impala is the paint. Thirty-one days, two layers of PPG Black, and three layers of Clear with wet sanding in between (each layer) have left not one hint of orange peel. Thanks to AAA insurance company and the couple of jabronies who forgot to dilute the wheel cleaner at a car wash, Tom didn't even have to pay one cent for the paint job at All American Paint and Body. Various parts of the engine bay were also powdercoated either black or red by RW Little to match the stunning paint. The final touch was re-carpeting the interior with the famous double-thick ImpalaSScarpet.com carpet.

Although Tom's Impala is almost entirely black--from the body and interior to the wheels--his personality is definitely not without color. In fact, when he was in the Air Force, a drill instructor responded to one of his many stories by saying, "either you are lying through your teeth or you are one colorful individual." Throughout my conversations with Tom I have come to realize that most likely it was the latter, as he is the type of person that seems to have lived a thousand lifetimes within a short period of time. The pursuit of refinement to which he seeks in his Impala is one and the same as what he seeks in life. The Impala then becomes both a metaphor for his life and the vehicle he believes will take him there.

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