800-hp AMC Pacer: How to Build a Burnout Car


800-hp AMC Pacer: How to Build a Burnout Car


“There was this LS Fest event at Texas Motor Speedway a few years ago, and there was this kid with an S10 pickup in the burnout contest,” recalls Brian Hensley of Tulsa, Oklahoma. “The S10 had a peg leg rear end, while he was sliding it around, the inside tire gave out. It was really dramatic – it blew the whole bedside off of the truck, and stuff went flying everywhere. I kept seeing clips of it all over social media the week after the event, and I wanted exposure like that for my company. Suddenly a light bulb turned on in my head.”

As the owner and operator of Poppy’s Patina, a line of clearcoat products for protecting patina finishes, Hensley is no stranger to the car show scene. “We do 15 to 20 events a year as a vendor,” he tells us. “Doing that many shows, you tend to get what we call a ‘hot rod hangover.’ Everything just kind of blends together. So we started to look into some of the competitive events. But you normally don’t find a lot of patina stuff around race tracks, so I knew we had to be strategic about how we approached it.”

Although Hensley had never built a burnout car before – or even competed in a burnout contest – he did have a good sense of the design fundamentals. “I knew it had to be stupid,” he says with a laugh. “It needed to be something that stopped people in their tracks, whether they loved it or they hated it.”

The team’s hunt for a build candidate began in the summer of 2022, and they soon found a seller on Facebook Marketplace who had a complete 1976 AMC Pacer project for sale, along with a donor car. “I immediately knew that was the one,” he says. “And the fact that it came with a parts car was a major bonus.” As the team began working on the project in earnest in early 2023, Hensley also sought out some advice from a veteran of the sport.

“Knowing nothing about how to build a burnout car, I decided to reach out to my friend Derek Bieri with Vice Grip Garage,” he says. “He was doing burnout competitions all over the place, and he was having a ton of success with it. So I just started picking his brain for information about how to approach a project like this.” Hensley says that one of the most important insights that Bieri shared with him is that, when it comes to burnout cars, it’s all about finding sweet spot for wheel speed.

“Going into it, I assumed that we were going to need 4.11 gears to make it easy to get the tires lit up, but that’s actually not what you want. The key to a successful burnout car is wheel speed; we want the car to live in that mid-range torque. So we actually ended up with a 2.70 ratio in the car.

The team had also initially planned to just throw some boost at a stock 4.8-liter junkyard LS V8, but as they got deeper into the build, they changed tack.

“The thought was that we’d a cheap motor, strap a turbo to it and run it until it breaks, then get another one,” he says. “But as we were building the rest of the car and investing all this money into it, we realized that we didn’t want to rely on a junkyard motor to perform when we needed it to.” Hensley sent the LS out for a refresh, which included new pistons and forged connecting rods, along with a BTR Stage 2 turbo camshaft, a Holley Hi Ram intake, and some other go-fast goodies. Paired up with a VS Racing 7875 turbo running 15 pounds of boost, the combination is good for about 800 horsepower. A Holley Terminator X Max EFI system manages the proceedings.

“We’ve always used Holley systems with our LS swaps,” he explains. “They’re easy to work with and easy to tune. I also really liked that the Terminator X Max allowed us to kind of futureproof the project – if we ever decide to go to an overdrive transmission, this will allow us to control it. Cooling was also a big concern for us, and we wanted to run E85. The ability for the wideband O2 sensor to automatically make adjustments for the quality of the stuff coming out of the pump made that much simpler.”

The LS is backed by a billet TH400 three-speed automatic gearbox from Harmon Performance that’s been outfitted with a reverse valve body and a trans brake, which in turn sends the grunt to the pavement through a Ford 9-inch rear end from Quick Performance. While the Pacer’s front suspension has been left more or less the same as it was when it left AMC’s factory, the rear suspension has been upgraded with traction bar system from CalTracs to keep wheel hop to a minimum.

The interior of the Pacer is all business. “We stripped everything out and sprayed it with Poppy’s Patina truck bed liner,” Hensley says. “Then we installed a full cage that we built for it, along with a pair of RaceQuip seats and six-point harnesses.”

The exterior, meanwhile, is a bit of a different story. “We wanted it to grab your attention even though the bodywork is totally stock,” Hensley says. “So there’s this gold theme going on with the wheels and the engine, and we gave it those Pit Boss graphics. It actually has nothing to do with casinos, though – we were just thinking about good names for a car that you’d run in a burnout pit, and Pit Boss stuck. And our graphics guy did such a good job with the decals that we just decided to lean into it.”

The car made its debut at LS Fest East 2023, where it made plenty of noise and tire smoke in the burnout competition. Although Hensley had initially planned to be the man behind the wheel, he wisely chose to ride shotgun and get some expert tutelage instead.

“Derek has a lot of experience doing burnout contests, so I reached out for some advice from him. I was kind of nervous about it, to be honest – LS Fest is a huge stage for someone who has never competed in a burnout contest running an untested car. So I asked Derek if he would drive the car, and he was happy to do so. It was great; he explained what he was doing throughout the entire run. It was a priceless learning experience for me.”

Hensley has driven the Pacer in five other burnout contests in the time since, and he’s already got some events on the calendar for 2024.

“The Australians take a much more structured approach to burnout contests, and I’ve noticed that some folks over here in the States are starting to adopt that,” he says. “Cleetus McFarland runs his burnout pit that way, so we’re going to be taking the car to the Freedom Factory for an event later this year to give that a shot.” He’s been eyeing drag-and-drive events, too. “It’s super easy to drive on the highway with that mellow gearset, so we’re also looking to do the Sick 66

It seems clear that roasting tires will remain the primary focus for the Pacer for the foreseeable future, though. “These days I can’t wait to get out there in the pit. But we don’t just go in there and just ride the rev limiter like a lot of folks do. There’s a sweet spot. We’ve got two minutes out there, so we don’t want to go through the tires in 45 seconds. But we also don’t want to leave the pit with tread on the tires – we want sparks flying around from bare steel hitting the pavement and shredded tires everywhere. That’s the show.”


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