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How many car guys do you know that started with performance cars at a young age, compared to car guys who initiated their obsession well into adulthood? We'd be willing to guess that virtually all of the enthusiasts you know, whether drag racers, car show guys, or autocrossers, were bitten by the bug as a teenager or even before. These are the guys and girls who purchased cars with lawn-mowing money and built their first engines in their teens. That's part of what makes Domenic DiDonato's story so unique — he was well into adulthood and into this millennium before he ever purchased his first performance car, a 2008 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, brand-new off the dealer lot.
"I always loved cars growing up, but I grew up working at UPS. I started at UPS, working in their office. From there, I became a plumber. I just got into cars recently," says DiDonato.
Without the funding, it was difficult for DiDonato to procure the type of car that caught his eye until his plumbing business was stable and profitable.
"In 2007, I bought my first GT500, had the car tuned up, and I went to Myrtle Beach for Mustang Week for the first time with it. Part of that weekend was where you went on a dragstrip. I took my '08 GT500, which I still own, on the dragstrip. First pass down, blew the clutch. I've been hooked ever since," says DiDonato.
You'd think blowing the car up on the first pass would be a deterrent rather than providing more appeal, but DiDonato just needed the right situation for the hook to set itself. He started attending more races with the car and performing more modifications to it to make it quicker. Then, in 2012, he bought another GT500 — a black one — to race and help keep the '08 in good shape. But he struggled to be consistent with the manual transmission in the black car, and the racing gods smiled upon him.
"Another guy had this red one to sell, and it was already built. I was like, 'Man, for that price, I could still sell my other one, my black one, and I could race this car.' I bought that car, and it was an 8-second car. It had a Kenne Bell supercharger on it, and I started racing that in Mod Muscle at NMRA. Then I evolved into Renegade; before I started doing Renegade, I changed the car from the supercharger to a turbo," he says.
Then, like so many others, he struggled. Without the background to understand what the car wanted and needed in different racing situations, he was at the mercy of those he was working with, which can be challenging, especially when you don't know the right questions to ask. He had made one wise decision by forging an alliance with noted engine designer and builder Michael Rauscher at L&M Engines in Pennsylvania. L&M's success with the Ford Modular and Coyote engine platforms is well-documented, and DiDonato credits L&M with building reliable powerplants that take whatever he throws at them.
"I met Craig and Daniel from Triangle Speed Shop. From there, that's when my program just took off. Mike from L&M Engines introduced me to them. We started with the Renegade class. He told me all along there would be no way that this car, with this motor and this setup, would ever run in the heavy hitters class. With that being said, we didn't give up," says DiDonato.
Along with the turbocharger installation, DiDonato had the car set up to use the new-at-the-time Holley Dominator engine management system, which he says was one of the best modifications made to the car over time.
"I was one of the first ones out there, I guess, using the Holley system. The Holley system saved the car from blowing up the motor. They were using that information in the class at Holley; I went to the class, and I've seen the datalog of what they had, and that was my car. That's how I got introduced to Holley," he says.
Shortly after that, he had the car redone again by Ron Rhodes at Rhodes Custom Auto and put a bigger turbo on it, and then spent two years working with the Triangle Speed team to get the car where he thought it could be — a lot more competitive in X275/NMRA Street Outlaw. In 2020, his second year competing in Street Outlaw, he captured the class championship. The GT500 is currently the fastest turbo car in the class, showing that hard work prevails when combined with talented people and quality parts backing up the program.
Every time he goes out with the car, it's still a challenge, as he's the main mechanic on it these days. But his competitiveness drives him to strive for the top of the heap across all disciplines. In fact, he was a competitive baseball player until just a few years ago.
"Not having the years of experience has put me behind a lot, but basically, it has just put my wallet in jeopardy is where that comes into play, so I rely on Craig a lot. I'm mostly all self-taught. Having a mechanical background as a plumber, I think that definitely helps. I've just been learning a lot of stuff. Craig helps all the time. Always walks me through stuff, but it's hands-on learning by myself and maintaining the car. This last year or so, I race-tracked basically by myself with my dad, who's not a car guy either," he says.
The Rhodes Custom Auto roll cage combines with Racecraft Inc. rear suspension — the car retains the factory three-link configuration, which DiDonato says can be challenging at times — along with Menscer rear shocks and Santhuff spindle-mount front shocks to control chassis motion on the radial tire. The car rolls on Weld wheels and Mickey Thompson ET Street Radial Pro tires for X275 and NMRA Street Outlaw competition.
Chris Hiel at L&M Engines in Hatboro, PA, worked with Dom to assemble the 5.8-liter engine for his GT500. It’s based around a billet crankshaft from Bryant Racing, Oliver connecting rods, and Diamond pistons. A set of ported stock GT500 cylinder heads sits on top, along with the stock GT500 intake manifold that has been adapted to work with the turbo system. A TH400 transmission from Dave Klaput at Performance Racing Transmissions works hand-in-hand with a ProTorque converter to push him to those class-leading trap speeds. Of course, the aforementioned Holley EFI Dominator engine management system is manipulated by Pachar and DiDonato to deliver the tuneup.
Family tragedy also drives him to compete. His son, Domenic Jr., passed away two years ago at just 23 years of age.
"He just graduated from college in Philadelphia, bought his first home, he paid off all his own student loans, and the first night in his house, he stood in his house by himself. I was literally on my way to Sweet 16 for the first time ever. I get frantic text messages as the plane is landing that he passed. They found him in the house. I turned around and went home," says DiDonato.
"He had a rare heart condition called cardiomyopathy. You hear these kids play sports, and they just drop dead. It went undetectable all his life. It's one of those things. My wife and I just try to get through every day by saying God wanted him somewhere else. We can't explain why this kid went through all these years of college, to die right after all that hard work. It just doesn't make any sense. Last year was the first year racing after he passed, and winning the [Street Outlaw] championship was so emotional. It was a hard win because it went down to almost the last race in Bowling Green," says DiDonato.
He says racing is his stress reliever, and after experiencing such unexpected heartache, we can see why.
"It keeps me going. I enjoy it, and I get excited. Yeah. That's what drives me," he sums up.