When the memories of a lifetime sometimes slip away, an unexpected familiar sight can suddenly shake them loose. It could be a forgotten song, an old picture—or maybe even an old Chevy Gasser. That's what happened when Gary Conte and his friends brought this Tri-Five back to what it used to be. It's a touchstone to where they used to be.
"I wanted to build a nostalgic looking '55 with some serious power for the street and then maybe take it drag racing occasionally," Conte said with a laugh when asked about his initial plans with the car. "Boy, did that get turned around!"
With the help of friends Rob Walters and Steve Maialetti, Conte spent three winters putting together a car that, well . . . wasn't exactly all that it was built up to be. Even so, the 210 he wound up with had potential—and some apparent drag racing heritage as well.
"I bought the car in June of 2000 from a guy with the old familiar story of having bought it from a widow that had it in an old barn," Conte continued. "He seemed kind of shady, but he thought it was an old race car, so I bought it anyway. It turned out that he had hidden the rust in the frame with a quick paint job and there was a lot of plastic in the body rot, but the car did seem to have been raced at one time. It had an old school threepiece fiberglass front end, a Grumpy box [hood scoop], an oil-burning 327 and an old steel box four-speed. The only thing that remains today is the Grumpy box."
In deciding how to go about rebuilding the Tri-Five, Gary and his friends decided that safety and control were more important than a 100 percent vintage look, especially since the car was going to see track duty. With that in mind, they stuck with a stock front suspension with AutoFab tubular control arms in lieu of the vintage looking dropped front axle. The rear ladder bar suspension is anchored by a Moser center section with 4.86:1 gears, a spool and afermarket axles. Damping duties are handled capably by a set of QA1 shocks up front with adjustable Konis on the rear. Wilwood disc brakes on the front and 11-inch drums on the rear help slow this big Chevy down. Weld ProStars are wrapped in Mickey Thompson ET Drags for superior traction. With that, the car was ready to go.
"In 2004, I started getting more serious about the drag racing because it was way more fun than just sitting at a car show," Conte said about his decision to go racing full time. "I was racing over Labor Day with a 502 crate engine and a M22 four speed. It was a long, hot day, but somehow I kept winning. Afer six rounds of eliminations, it was 11 o'clock at night. My clutch was fried and it was shooting sparks out. Beaver Springs is a neat old nostalgia track and there I was sitting on the starting line waiting for the tree to come down with the other guy. Most of the people had gone at that point and I remember thinking that, just for a split second, I felt like I was in American Grafti. I wound up winning my first race and we still had to drive three hours to get back home, but days later you still couldn't wipe that smile of my face."
Afer finding it was difcult to keep his foot out of it, Conte took the car of the street in '05 and turned it into a full-time racer. He would soon switch to a G-Force manual transmission and eventually got the car down into the low 11-second range. In late 2007, he hurt the crank and then went to a Scott Shafirof 540 short-block. Being a little short of money, he took the heads of the 502 and opened them up from 112 to 119cc. That, along with a Merlin X intake topped with a single Quick Fuel 1250 carb, got him down into the mid 10-second e.t. range. The following year, with more money, he bought the right Dart Pro1 heads for the engine and that put it in the 9s. He had already devised a unique slider for the tilt one-piece front end so he could open it by himself, but a set of fiberglass doors and a trunk lid helped the car go on a much needed diet in 2010. With the car at a fairly svelte 3,320 lbs (with driver) race-ready, Conte recorded his best time ever in late 2011 with a 9.25 at 142-plus mph in the quarter.
With wheels up launches and the sound of Conte rowing through the gears, all the car needed was a bright appearance to make this vintage package complete. With a spray gun in hand, Conte went to work to repaint the car at home.
"When I stripped the body down to the bare metal, I found that everybody had just kept spraying over the old surface when they wanted to change colors," he said. "It wound up having 16 diferent layers of paint with six diferent colors. It even had metal flake blue from the 1970s. I put all the paint that came of the car into a bag and found it weighed 10 lbs!
"People ask me all the time why I didn't just paint it flat black," he continued. "I think that Two-Lane Blacktop and American Grafti are great movies and I have all the collectibles, but I think there's already a ton of flat-black '55s. When I was a kid, this older guy was dating my cousin and had an orange '55 that I thought was the coolest thing. I still do."
While Conte's old Chevy brings back a lot of memories, the backside of this story is that it creates a lot, too. Even if the car's not perfect, the bonding that was created with his aforementioned friends—and his wife Trudy—is something that won't easily shake apart.