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1972 Chevrolet Chevelle - Beast of Burden

From Daily Driver to Wheels-Up Strip Car, With a Hint of Nostalgia

John Nelson Mar 1, 2007

Step By Step

For fun, we would cruise down the boulevard, passing other racers, yelling out 'donkey' to get them to race," remembers Al Valvo. Donkey? "That's what we yelled to get someone to race us," Al elaborates. "Don-KEY!" Make it sound like "hee-haw" and you've got it about right. It's the parlance of a bygone era, when gas was cheap and full of lead and there was always a race to be had on the streets of Southern California. Those days are no more, but Al's 10-second '72 Chevelle is ample evidence that his racing regimen is stronger than ever.

If the Valvo name sounds familiar, you've been paying attention. Al's older brother Frank recently finished off a sweet '69 Camaro, created for high-speed corner carving ("Front and Center," Nov. '06). And back in the day, Frank was the impetus behind the brothers' racing adventures. He picked up a stock '57 Chevy (283 and Powerglide, natch), and the car was quickly transformed into a stealthy street weapon. It had all the good stuff for 1965: a 0.060-over 327 running 13:1 compression, Jan's pistons, a 990B Sig Erson cam, Webber carbs, and a Borg Warner four-speed.

Frank and Al don't recall losing on the streets but once, to a big-block-armed '57. Frank did most of the driving and Al most of the wrenching, learning by experience and through his job at Bozzani Shell in Sun Valley. Jim Callan, who cruised the Valley in his '63 Impala, also did a chunk of the work. Eventually, the '57 churned out a 12.20-second run, touching 114 mph, at the now-defunct San Fernando Raceway. On the other hand, the American Graffiti days were just about done. Frank and Jim were soon serving Uncle Sam in Vietnam, and Al was working on B52s and F4 Phantoms in Thailand.

Home between his second and third tours, circa 1972, Al needed a set of wheels and was feeling a bit envious of the '70 LS6 Chevelle parked in a neighbor's driveway. Frank decided that a trip to the Chevy dealer was in order, and off the two went. "I wanted an SS 454," Al recalls. But Frank scouted out a Mojave Gold Malibu with a two-barrel-fed 350 under the hood. "What you want and what you need," Al begins. "Well, all I could afford was my Mojave Gold Chevelle." The car was a trooper, rolling up 150,000 daily driven miles over the next eight years or so.

Sometime around 1980, Al was somewhat surprised to learn of the presence of a dragstrip in Palmdale. "I didn't know," he recalls. "They were closing all of them." No matter-Al took his Chevelle out to Los Angeles County Raceway. "I wanted to see how fast it would go," Al remembers, and he did, to the tune of 17 seconds flat at 82 mph. An Edelbrock manifold and AFB carb got Al ino the low 15s, so he commissioned a B&M-blown 350 and installed a 3.50:1 posi rear. "My best run with this combo was 13.20 at 102 mph," Al tells us. "I also drove it every day, and as long as I kept my foot out of it I got 15 miles to the gallon."

At this point, Al had a decision to make: "Do I keep it a 13-second car, or cross the line and go faster?" Knowing he couldn't have it both ways, he crossed the line and got serious. "I decided to go faster and put the 'cage in," Al tells us. "I was free to go." And go he does, yanking the wheels up as a prelude to high-10-second e.t.'s and 120-mph trap speeds. "The laws of the street have changed," Al observes. "I'd rather go fast on the track." That much has changed, but a hot car is a hot car, and we can almost hear the challenge: Don-KEY!

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Wheels Up
Jim Callan, a lifelong friend who now serves as Al's crew chief, inspired him to build a 400-based powerplant. Working with Vellios Automotive Machine Shop of Lawndale, California, the build started with a four-bolt-main 400 bored 0.030 over. Combined with a 3.75-inch stroke, displacement comes in at 406ci. The rotating assembly consists of a Scat forged crank, Childs & Albert forged rods, and J&E forged pistons (13.5:1 compression). Vellios then ported a set of World Products Sportsman heads, installing bigger 2.08/1.60-inch valves and milling the chambers to 61 cc. The cam is an Isky solid-roller, plenty lumpy at 0.670 inch lift, along with 282 degrees duration at 0.050 and ground with a 106-degree LSA. The balance of the valvetrain is also by Isky. Inhalation is via a Holley 850-cfm carb sitting atop a Brodix high-velocity manifold; combustion is induced by an MSD Digital 6 box, Blaster SS coil, and Pro Billet distributor; and exhalation happens through Hooker Super Comp headers and a Magnaflow stainless steel exhaust. The power makes for the pavement through a '72 Turbo 400 beefed up by and fitted with a 2.46:1 First gear by C&O Transmission of Hawthorne, California. It spins an 8-inch, 5,500-stall Continental Converter 8-inch torque converter and sports a TCI transbrake. The rear diff is a Mark Williams 9-inch with 4.88:1 Richmond gears and a spool, while the driveshaft is a stock Chevelle piece upgraded with 1350 yokes.

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In short, the working space of Al Valvo's Chevelle is all business. The custom vinyl dash panel was designed by Al and fabricated by his friend Jim Coutchure, who also created the custom door panels. A full complement of Auto Meter Ultra-Lite gauges fills the dash, and a Painless Wiring switch panel completes the one-off information center. The carpet and headliner are stock pieces-the seats decidedly nonstock Jaz racing buckets. A Deist safety net and five-point harnesses keep the pilot strapped in. The steering wheel is a Corvette piece of indeterminate vintage.

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Sticky Stuff
This Chevelle's running gear is all about putting the power to the pavement. Weld Pro Star wheels, 15x3.5 front runners and 15x10s out back, are wrapped in Mickey Thompson rubber, specifically 265s up front and meaty 28x11.5 slicks at the business end. The brakes are less exciting but do the job: stock '72 Chevelle power front discs and master cylinder, along with Lincoln rear drums.


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"Why spend the money on mini-tubs when I can do this?" asked Jim. Al didn't want to tub the Chevelle he's owned since new, but he needed space for more rubber. Jim literally heated and reformed the '72's wheelwells. They're squared to fit 11.5 inches to the ground, creating enough room for a set of massive Mickeys. Jim's fabrication talents are evident throughout Al's 10-second creation, most noticeably in the 12-point rollcage with snubber bars. The front suspension is stock '72 Chevelle, sans sway bar and with KYB shocks. For the rear, Acton, California's Chassis FAB created a set of custom upper and lower control arms. They're teamed with a set of 454-car coil springs and KYB shocks; again, the swaybar is history. The right side of the car also sports an Air Lift 1000 airbag. Steering is via a stock GM manual box connected to another Coutchure creation, namely a custom solid steel steering bar with U-joint. Fighting weight comes in at 3,380 pounds.

Solid Gold
Subjected to more than a decade of daily driving and double that on the track, Al's '72 Chevelle has stood up well. The SS grille was added around 1985; the Harwood 4-inch cowl fiberglass hood came later, as did the two-stage DuPont Mojave Gold paint, which was laid on by Los Angeles' Wilton Body Shop. As is the norm in this case, the battery has been relocated to the trunk, where it sets alongside a Jaz 8-gallon fuel cell. Notice anything else? Al's son Denny, who has a Chevelle of his own, suggested that they shave the rear reflectors from the '72's flanks.

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A Real Donkey?
Al estimates that the 406 small-block propelling his Chevelle puts out around 650 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque. On the other hand, the car's performance is for real: 1.45-second 60-foots, and the quarter happens in 10.98 seconds at 120 mph...for now. Although Al has always prided himself on running a small-block, he's finally "conceded to the big boys," and dropped in a 468ci big-block. We don't have numbers yet, but Al's fired his new mill, and likes what he hears. "It sounds like we've got a real donkey here," he reports. Which is a good thing, we're sure. CHP


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