We first encountered Phil Silardi and his portly-looking Impala at last summer's Super Chevy Show at Martin, Michigan. Among the comparatively svelte Beretta and old Monza sportsman racers, Silardi's silver '71 Chevy looked a little out of place...kind of like a walrus hanging out with a bunch of penguins.
After a few minutes, the Impala finally made its way to the starting line, where it promptly lifted the front tires and stopped the timers in just over 9 seconds. And turned more than a few curious heads, including ours.
Now, before you cynics cry out "nitrous," hold your tongues. Phil and his Woodhaven, Michigan-based Impala made the run without squeeze. In fact, the car's best run to date is a 9.58 at more than 140 mph, and Phil swears there wasn't so much as a molecule of laughing gas in the combustion chambers.
We were impressed with the performance and good looks of Silardi's car at Martin, so we gave him one of our Editor's Choice awards. We also asked him to tell us more about his "dare to be different" approach to race car selection.
"We bought the car in 1992. At first we bought it because of the drivetrain-we didn't plan to drag race it," Silardi says. "I had no real racing experience, either. When we got the car home, I thought the transmission was shot, because it wouldn't go up the driveway. Turns out, it was a reverse manual valve body and I was trying to go up the driveway in third gear."
On his first outing at the track, Silardi tells us, he laid down a blistering, hour-long burnout and delivered a 15-second e.t. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Silardi and the Impala were willing partners.
"It had a 468 in it, but it was mostly a street car. Over the winter, we put a cage in it, along with a 9-inch rearend and 4.56 gears," Silardi explained. "After the first year, we freshened up the motor and got into the 12s."
With more experience and a new 468 square-port motor, on juice this time, the stock-chassis Impala was running 11 flat.
"My friend Doug Cunningham suggested we should back-half the car," he says. "So Doug, my dad, and I did it in Doug's one-car garage. We couldn't even shut the garage door all the way, because the Impala was too long."
A 2-inch by 3-inch boxed frame was constructed, incorporating an S&W back-half kit. With the stiffer chassis, 32-inch-wide Mickey Thompson slicks, and some continuing underhood upgrades, the Impala finally cracked the 10- and 9-second barriers.
With the brick wall-shaped Chevy going truly fast, Silardi and his "advisors" decided to complete the chassis work and added a Chassis Engineering front chassis, which includes Chassis Engineering shocks and springs, Wilwood rack-and-pinion steering, and Wilwood disc brakes.
Silardi and Cunningham also bent a funny car-style cage. The interior was re-done with an emphasis on competition. Aluminum covers the floors and comprises the dash, which is chock-full of Auto Meter gauges. The big Monster tach is mounted to the A-pillar rollcage tube. But it's not all business inside; tasteful black vinyl and carpeting was placed throughout.
"We have always wanted a clean-looking car," Silardi says. "It's the only '71 Impala you'll see in the staging lanes, so we want it to look good."
Indeed, it does. Still wearing a black vinyl roof, the remainder of the car was sprayed by Pat Ballard with a '94 GMC silver basecoat/ clearcoat from PPG. To trim the heavy Chevy's curb weight, Bob Miotke made fiberglass versions of the trunk lid and front bumper along with the custom cowl hood. With Silardi behind the wheel, the car tips the scales at better than 3,400 pounds.
Obviously, a lot of grunt is necessary to launch this brick. During our photo session, the motivation of the moment was a 1970-vintage big-block that displaced 477ci. Silardi and Rich Moon assembled the engine, which includes a 4-inch stroker, cross-drilled and nitrided steel crank. Forged TRW pistons give the engine a 14.6:1 compression ratio.
Between the crank and pistons, a Crane solid roller cam bumps against custom pushrods and Crane roller rockers. The rockers actuate a set of 2.3-inch Manley valves within a pair of Dart 320 aluminum heads. Ross Smith handled the porting chores on the square-port castings, which are topped by a Dart single-plane intake manifold, which has been ported, too.
A single Holley Dominator mixes air and fuel for the engine, while an MSD 7 AL-3 and billet distributor send out the sparks. All the Impala has for an exhaust system is a set of Gary Cook-built custom headers whose tubes meet in Flowmaster 4.5-inch collectors.
Silardi directs the power of the big-block with a Hurst Quarter Stick shifter that sits atop a prepped Turbo 400. It features an ATI 5,500-stall converter that helps channel power back to the sturdy 4.86-geared 9-inch rear axle.
We mentioned this was the car's combination during our photo shoot, because Silardi and crew will have likely installed a 540-cube, tunnel-rammed Rat in the Impala's ample engine compartment by the time you read this.
"That should get us in the eights," Silardi says. "Still without nitrous."
We'll be back at Martin to see if Silardi and his "Fat Rat" racing crew can do it. Regardless, the performance of this Impala proves that sometimes size really doesn't matter.