Al Accipiter is no traditionalist. He’s far from it. In many ways he might be called an abstract artist when looking at his ’55 Chevrolet. Sure, you can tell it’s a classic upon first glance, but that’s about as far as the literal interpretation can go. Once you look deeper, under the paint on the canvas, you’ll discover you’re not looking at a classic Shoebox at all. You’re looking at what once was a full-fledged stock car, which was also used in the film Days of Thunder.
When producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson teamed up with director Tony Scott to begin filming the movie along with Tom Cruise, many people in the NASCAR racing community were hoping for a hit. In some ways they got it, but what ended up as NASCAR’s gain became a huge loss for Paramount Pictures. In fact, according to published reports, the movie did so poorly that it, in part, contributed to Paramount cancelling the four remaining movies of a five-movie deal with Bruckheimer, Simpson and Scott, who just five years earlier teamed with Cruise to film and produce Top Gun.
While some were convinced they would be watching ‘Top Gun on Wheels” when the film debuted in July 1990, what they got was a mix of southern culture, racing clichés, and a few good scenes, but that was okay with the folks at NASCAR and also the fans who paid to see the likes of Dale Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, and Darrell Waltrip race on Sundays – the sport they loved was finally recognized by people who otherwise could care less about “race’n and rubb’n.”
It was also around this time that Accipiter, a recent transplant from the Northeast to North Carolina, began his transition from drag racer to circle track racer.
“I always loved racing, no matter what kind,” Accipiter said. “When I moved here I ended up being exposed to a lot more stock car racing, and from that I got the bug,” he laughed.
Like a lot of people, Accipiter saw Days of Thunder as a chance for NASCAR to go mainstream. Little did he know he’d one day be driving a car from the movie.
“It began life as a Buick,” Accipiter says. “At some point it was wrecked (in the movie), and it ended up at Rick Hendrick’s place. I had an itching to do something different and after working on a few very low-budget Cup teams, I needed something else,” he said. Eventually, he got it.
In order to bring the sport to life on the big-screen, the Hollywood gang would need a lot of cars, and they found them rather easily. Most of the cars used in filming were retired Winston Cup or Busch Grand National cars, which had either been wrecked in an actual race or were no longer deemed useful. Once procured, most of these “movie cars” ended up at Hendrick Motorsports’ shop outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Hendrick, who served as Technical Advisor for the film, and his company would help maintain the stable before, during, and after filming. There were a lot of cars used in the filming and many, as one would expect, were wrecked.
The journey for Accipiter’s unconventional Shoebox actually began long before the movie was filmed. The chassis was built at Stavola Brothers Racing and campaigned by Bobby Allison carrying the number 12 and Miller High Life livery before Allison had his career-ending accident at Pocono Raceway in June 1988.
When NASCAR announced the creation of the now defunct Sportsman Series in the late 1990s, Accipiter began looking for a car to field in the new series. He found it at Hendrick’s place. “I knew they were selling a lot of the old movie cars over there, so I went on over and for no reason I can remember, bought the Western Auto car used in the movie,” he laughed.
The car, of course, had been wrecked, but the damage to the front clip wasn’t enough to keep new life from being breathed into it. It took awhile, but Accipiter eventually straightened the car out, hung Oldsmobile sheetmetal on it and then procured a former 358-inch “Cup” mill from Veteran NASCAR engine builder, Noah Brown. That same engine powers the car today and stands as a testament to Brown’s abilities. It has never been disassembled in the 20-years of racing and cruising. “The only thing I’ve done is swap the intake and carb, change oil, and adjust the valves – other than that, the engine is exactly as it was when he built it for the race car all those years ago,” Accipiter said.
The car never performed that well in the Sportsman series. It struggled in qualifying due to the amount of time it took to get the engine up to a maximum operating rpm. “By the time we got it cranked up, the qualifying lap was just about over,” Accipiter said. ‘The engine would eat, but it needed long green flag runs in order for it to really shine,” he added. In competition, the car did manage to finish as high as 11th place three times. A year or so later, the series was cancelled and the car once again was retired.
“I always knew I wanted to do something else with it. I’ve always been a Chevy guy and in particular a Tri-Five fan,” Accipiter said. The final plan for this former NASCAR champion’s ride came in a not-so intentional way – a theme, which runs through its history. Accipiter explains, “I had a friend who had this old ’55 out at his shop. It was pretty much stripped as it was. The body actually was pretty rough,” he said.
The body was so rough Accipiter, who runs a paint, body, and fabrication shop, ended up having to fabricate most of the body to fit the racing chassis. “Most of it is handmade. It has original doors, but the front fenders had to be sectioned into about seven pieces in order for them to fit the rake of the frame. I had to all but make the rocker panels and rear quarter-panels, too. The doorframes, windshield, and the roof are about the only things I didn’t have to mess with,” Accipiter said. “I kinda like fabrication,” he joked. You can tell he does.
Looking at the car it’s easy to spot the quirky things done to the body, but also tell they were done with the utmost of care and precision. “I built the car to have fun with. I wanted something different and that’s what I got. There was no master plan when I started, and it took years to finish. I’d play with it when I finished up customers work in the shop and eventually it became what it is today. I estimate it took me about seven years to build it,” Accipiter recalled.
For a time, the build of this car ran parallel to another ’55 project Accipiter has been working on. That car however, is still a few years from completion, but as both cars were being built, he discovered that working on two ’55 projects could lead to confusion as to which part went on what car. Thus he began labeling parts for each in the following manner: “55 R” for the racing chassis and “55 T” for touring. The system worked so well he ended up adorning the doors of this car with the “55 R” decal, not that he could mistake this car for a ’55 touring car.
While driving a former stock car on the street doesn’t offer any of the creature comforts of a purpose-built touring car, Accipiter is fine with it. “It wasn’t built to have an air-conditioner or radio, so why ruin it?” Accipiter said. He does admit it has power windows, but only because window cranks wouldn’t fit in a useable location due to the placement of the chassis’ rollcage and doorbars.
It is also licensed and insured to drive on the street, which he does with regularity, but Accipiter really gets his kicks road racing it at Carolina Motorsports Park’s 2.27-mile road course. “This car was meant to race. It would be terrible not to do so. I love racing it. I can use it there and get the fun out of it. What’s the use having a car if you can’t enjoy it.”
When racing the car, Accipiter removes the Tremec five-speed used for daily driving and bolts a race-ready Jerico four-speed in its place. The original Ford 9-inch is still under the car, which houses a Detroit Locker with 3.89 gears. The suspension still holds true to its roots with a NASCAR road course setup under it, helping the 3,500-pound beast handle the corners. Accipiter will admit he isn’t the king of the road course and doesn’t intend to be. “It’s about fun. This car is fun and I’m having fun driving it. For me that is what this is all about. I drive it to the track, I drive it to car shows, and I drive it just to drive it,” Accipiter concluded.