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Chasing the dream of going fast in a racecar can take many forms. Racers have near-endless choices, from competing in local bracket races to stepping onto the national stage and investing time and buckets of money to chase big performances and big payouts against the best of the best in a chosen discipline. Florida's John McDonough has chosen the latter option; he has teamed up with lifelong friend Chris Bryant to field this gorgeous 2003 Mustang in X275, one of the toughest — if not the toughest — classes in small-tire drag racing.
McDonough's story starts like many others; he got hooked on cars at a young age, and as his budget and capabilities have grown, so has his competitive fire. He and partner Chris Bryant have had several fast cars over the years and still own a No Time car that has been back-burnered for now to focus on the X275 car. But this is their first-ever turbo car, their first-ever Ford, and their first-ever fuel-injected car.
"I had G-bodies, I had a Monte Carlo for a lot of years, but at the time, I also had a big '85 square-body Chevrolet with 16 by 16-inch wheels and one-ton running gear. I liked it all, I liked hot rods, but I've always been a Chevrolet guy. This car here, when we purchased it in 2019, it's the first Ford I've ever worked on," he says.
Purchasing a car with the right pieces to run in X275 was not a decision made lightly; the team doesn't have a monster budget or a ton of sponsors. McDonough goes to work every day and turns wrenches as part-owner of a small automotive repair shop in Panama City, one that specializes in Mercedes and BMW repair. But his time off to go racing comes at the expense of the business.
"I honestly have always wanted to run in X275. We have a very, very small budget, and we were never able to run with the well-funded teams. We had the opportunity to purchase this car, and we'd never had this type of equipment. We've always had hand-me-downs, used engines that we've had for nitrous and stuff. You know how that goes, tearing things up," he says.
If you recognize the car, that's because it's been around the X275 scene for quite a while. First piloted by Terry Elam, the Mike Duffy-built chassis was subsequently purchased by Sean Lyon and updated by Tim Lyons and the team at Lyons Custom Motorsports before McDonough and Bryant had the opportunity to get their hands on it. Teaming up to buy the car meant a radical departure from everything they'd ever done with respect to drag racing.
"We figured we'd work through it and try and figure it out ourselves. Then if it didn't work out for the first couple of races, we were going to seek some help. But we tuned the car, I had some guidance from Mark Biddle [of Panhandle Performance] and Ryan Witte [of Holley EFI]. Carlton Thompson has helped me, given me some guidance on some things. It's really a shocker because I've never, ever tuned a turbo car — on methanol, mind you. I tune it, drive it, and we assemble our engines and freshen our transmissions up. We try to do everything ourselves just because of our budget, and the Holley is the most user-friendly system. It’s been a huge help to us," says McDonough.
To tune the car, he uses a Holley Dominator EFI engine management system coupled with Holley smart coils and an NLR Systems AMS2000 boost controller for the bulk of the heavy lifting, and they've already been into the 4.20s with minimal testing.
He credits his lack of knowledge for his success, as there were no preconceived opinions about what he should be doing with the tuning software. He was able to apply the knowledge he already had about getting a nitrous-injected car to run the short track quickly to the tuneup for the turbo car and believes that has helped the team get up to speed quickly.
"I'd never even fooled with that stuff before. I just treated it as an engine instead of knowing all the things for a turbo car, 'You can only run it like this, this is what you have to do.' We came in with an open mind, and we weren't set in certain ways, in a rut or anything. If it didn't work, we'd try different things. Like, 'If it has boost and it doesn't go faster, give it fuel. If that doesn't go faster, give it timing.' Running a nitrous car, you understand how to make a car go faster, being that you're handicapped in general. We wanted to jump into this field, and we just had a really good opportunity to have top-of-the-line components that we've never ever had before," he shares.
Given his lack of experience tuning turbo cars in general, he tried not to get bogged down with interpreting data looking for specific figures. Instead, he tries to look at the overall picture of what the data shows.
Mark Biddle at Panhandle Performance machined the engine parts, and the 365 cubic-inch small-block Ford engine is designed around a Dart Iron Eagle block, Callies billet crankshaft, GRP aluminum connecting rods, and Ross pistons. Biddle spec'd the 55mm custom Comp roller camshaft, which pushes on a set of Manton pushrods to actuate the Jesel lifters and shaft rockers. The engine also features Panhandle-ported Edelbrock 15-degree Victor cylinder heads, which significantly depart from what most of the class runs. It's fed boost from a class-legal, billet-wheel, 88mm turbo from Jose Zayas at Forced Inductions and a custom Marcella Manifolds sheet-metal manifold with billet runners provides a bit of bling and a lot of performance on top.
He says the automotive repair training he's received over the years from those high-end manufacturers provided the background he needed to think outside the box when tuning the racecar. Combining this with his on-the-job training working the suspension under the team's assortment of race cars has helped the team develop a knowledge base for what works on different track surfaces and in different conditions. They've had a leaf-spring Nova, a G-body with a triangulated four-link (like the current Mustang), and the No Time Mustang to learn from over the years. Making those chassis work with the all-in-right-now nitrous combinations has helped him understand how to improve the turbo car's performance at the beginning of the run.
"You've got to use the same principles that you learned to run a nitrous car; for a nitrous car to run fast, you have to stick the 330 because you have nothing on the other end. So, if you can do that with a turbo car, it just makes the car so much faster. Ultimately you have to get to 660 feet as fast as possible, and you can't be lazy down low and expect to beat these guys," he says.
Other critical items to help that process include the two-speed Turbo 400 transmission from Mark Micke at M&M Transmissions and the ProTorque EVO 2 bolt-together torque converter. The car rolls on the class-spec Mickey Thompson ET Street Radial Pro 275/60-15 rear tires, and a set of MAC FAB beadlocked Sanders rear wheels are paired with Weld Racing spindle-mount Vitesse front wheels and 26-inch M/T front runner tires.
The Mustang has a custom K-member up front paired with Santhuff spindle-mount struts. Out back, Menscer Motorsports canister-style shocks work with the Lyons Custom Motorsports 9-inch fabricated floater-style rear, filled with Mark Williams 40-spline axles and a Strange Ultra Case/3.89:1 Pro Gear chunk. Mark Williams carbon fiber brakes are also onboard.
With these components and the longtime assistance of teammates/car co-owners Chris and Jolene Bryant and Mike Chaney, John McDonough is knocking on the door of the 4-teens in X275 with his turbo Mustang.
"I could not do this without Mike and Chris. Where we are now, this is leaps and bounds from where we were," he sums up.