Everyone’s heard the old joke about what it takes to earn a million dollars in racing; the punch line is you start with two million. While that may be true in many ways, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice hot rod without a good return on your outlay. A real world example can be found with Buster D’Amato and his 1965 Nova SS from South Boston, Virginia. With just a $300 initial investment, Buster got national recognition by winning the first-ever, four-wide drag race during the Pinks All Out event at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway.
“The fallout has been pretty amazing,” Buster said about the aftermath. “On the ride home the following Sunday morning, we had all sorts of people pulling up next to us hollering, waving, and honking their horns. All we had was just a small sign on the side of our trailer, but people still knew who we were.
“Later,” he continued, “I heard from all sorts of people I hadn’t talked to in years, from phone calls, Facebook and people just dropping by here where I live. Even the local tracks have been paying my expenses for me to come in and match race—which has been especially nice!”
While winning $12,000 in prizes at a nationally televised event in front of 32,000 people is a lot of payback, Buster had already gotten a lot of returns to begin with. It all started with trading some sweat equity back when he was a just young buck scratching hard for a living.
“I was working on a ‘66 Super Sport for a customer up in Long Island when I learned he had this ‘65 Nova in his backyard,” said Buster, who is a second-generation body man. “I asked what he was going to do with it, and he surprised me by saying I could have it if I’d knock something off the bill. I took $300 off and the car was mine.”
Deals like that for an original Super Sport are usually unheard of these days, but you have to give Buster credit—that was over 31 years ago! Most people don’t hold onto their cars that long. The floors were rotted out, and you can only imagine what the rest of the car looked like. But it still had tons of potential. Like any twenty-something kid would have done, Buster cut the wheelwells out, threw some big tires under the car, and went racing at his local drag strip, which provided years of serious fun.
As time and money allowed, Buster increased his investment in the car, but it eventually got to a point that many hot rodders face. Should this be a racecar or a street car? The Nova had gotten a lot quicker than what the original suspension and stock drum brakes would safely allow, so a decision had to be made. Buster began looking into what his options were in the late-’80s after moving to Virginia from Long Island. The car still had the original console, dash, radio, gauges, and all of the hard to find exterior trim. So, with the thought that less is sometimes more, a compromise was made. Buster decided to just blend some aftermarket pieces into what he already had and make it a true street/strip car, rather than go overboard in either one direction or the other.
Of course, timing has a lot to do with things as well. Buster spent plenty of hours looking, comparing notes with folks, and asking a lot of questions. When a sudden hailstorm brought a lot of new business into the shop, he suddenly had the funds to do what he wanted.
Virginia Speed in Skipwith ably installed an A-arm kit from Chris Alston’s Chassisworks, which allowed for better front suspension geometry while still retaining the stock engine location. The front and rear clips were then tied together with a 12-point certified roll cage, while a 9-inch rear and ladder bar suspension were hung on the back end. Moser axles mounted with Cragar wheels help plant the 31x10.5W Mickey Thompson’s on the ground. Buster thought about putting wheelie bars on his ride, but didn’t want to cut the bumper and take away from the street look. Spending his money wisely on the right components left him with a car that usually left the line flat and level anyway, which made that decision much easier.
After having run a naturally aspirated 434 for years with no trouble, Buster had an easy time making a decision on who to look to for an engine. Merkel Racing Engines of Hauppauge, New York, got the call to build another bullet, which in this case turned out to be a 406 small-block/nitrous combination. Billet Fabrications CNC’d an oil pan that supplies the bottom end and Ross 14.0:1 pistons with 7 quarts of Driven Racing Oil. The short-block is topped by a set of used 18° heads that came off one of Bobby Labonte’s race cars just before the introduction of the SB2. The matching NASCAR intake is topped by a Nitrous Pro Series Dominator carb that mixes high-test with a single 175-hp shot of nitrous on occasion. With a set of Kook’s custom headers, this combination is good for 720 hp and about 690 lb-ft of torque on the engine dyno.
Backing that up is a built Powerglide with a 5,000 stall converter. Buster shifts the tranny at 7,200 rpm and flies through the traps at about 7,400, which is just within the engine’s powerband. Best figures to date have shown an 8.58 at 150-plus in the quarter, with a 5.51 at 133 in the eighth. Although Buster admits his combination is set up more for quarter-mile racing, he has been known to loiter around some local eighth miles tracks with a 5.99 best on horsepower alone.
Buster could have certainly spent some extra dollars in the horsepower department, but his experience had shown that spreading money around evenly in other areas can win just as many races. At the Pinks event, for instance, Buster won the best 2-out-of-3 final round rather easily after his opponent’s car couldn’t continue after overheating. Going with a big Be Cool four core aluminum radiator and 19-inch electric fan paid big dividends not only at Pinks, but at other events as well where hot lapping the cars in the later rounds is often the norm. Of course, running cool has also meant the car was able to spend more time on the street as well.
By simply hanging on to what he had, beginning with the end in mind, shopping wisely for new and used parts, and utilizing a professional chassis shop and engine builder for things he could not do himself, Buster minimized having to pay twice for things and got what he wanted. The end result left him with a great looking machine that retains the soul of a production car, with aftermarket hardware that provides reliable performance, safety and consistency.
When it’s all said and done, the right parts in all the right places can save some bucks—and that’s what sets this apart.