Street rod autocross pushes vintage metal to its lateral limits

Cameron Aubernon

During the first weekend of August, thousands of street rod and muscle car enthusiasts flock to Louisville, Kentucky for the annual National Street Rod Association (NSRA) Street Rod Nationals. The group just celebrated its 53rd anniversary, as well as its 28th year holding court in the hometown of Muhammad Ali. As many as 12,000 custom vehicles—from prewar coupes to modern machines now eligible to appear after a 30-year-wait—pass through the gates of the Kentucky Exposition Center to celebrate four days of V8-powered excitement.

Most of the rods spend that time parked under the sun and humidity of late summer in Louisville. Contrary to its name, which sounds like a drag race or some other motorsports contest, Street Rod Nationals in the Bluegrass State is the biggest show ‘n’ shine on the NSRA calendar—a 10-event tour around the United States, in 2022. For most, rows upon rows of custom rides are all they need for a good time.

Three NSRA events, though, offer something for those who desire to see what their street rods can actually do. This year, the Mid-America Street Rod Nationals, Street Rod Nationals East, and the Louisville gathering invited anyone (even those whose rides are otherwise too young to take part in the main event) to test their cars’ abilities in NSRA Autocross.

I spent a few days with autocross organizers Gateway Mustang to see what it took to organize an event for some of the most unlikely canyon-carvers and meet a few of the participants who brought their classics to conquer the cones. We gathered in the hot parking lot, just past Gate 6 of the expo center.

“When we come do an event, we assess the area that we’re working in and what we have to work with,” said Gateway Classic Mustang representative Tim Shook. “First, we figure out where we’re going to start and finish from. From there, we lay out the course, depending on the type of event that we’re at.”

Most autocross events are designed with nimble pro-touring terrors in mind, and not large, heavy classics with wide turning radius. Gateway realizes this limitation, and puts together custom courses well-suited for V8-powered beasts. The autocross course also encourages lower speeds, allowing spectators to go on ride-alongs in Gateway’s fleet of Mustangs.

2022 NSRA Street Rod Nationals autocross
A pair of modern Mustangs chill near the starting line. Cameron Aubernon

According to Shook, the overall goal of an autocross course is to attract the Nationals’ attendees, momentarily pulling them away from the big show for a bit of fun around the cones (which can be especially exhilarating to those who’ve never autocrossed before). One of the vehicles involved in testing the course is a red 1929 Ford Tudor owned by Lyle Hartsock of Virginia. The man drives his old Ford every day, and took part in the 2022 NSRA Street Rod Nationals East in York, Pennsylvania earlier this summer

Far from stock, the ride has a few secrets hidden under the vintage metal.

“It’s running an original Mustang II suspension out of a junkyard,” said Hartsock. “It has a Maverick rear end. We designed our own four-link for the back. It’s got Jeep shocks on it and a Ford 302 motor out of a ‘68 Mustang.” How well does such a ride do on a street-rod designed course?

See for yourself:

Of course, the ‘29 Ford is still plenty nimble thanks to its smaller wheelbase. What about something bigger and heavier, in line with plenty of street rods parked in the expansive show grounds? For that answer I turned to Hagerty member Kevin Webb. He built a 1939 Chevrolet Master Deluxe over 23 years ago with C4 Corvette pieces, only to sell it shortly thereafter. Three years ago, he found the heavy Chevy and bought it back from the owner at the same price he sold it.

“I got into autocross a little bit because I had an NA Miata,” said Webb. “And I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a Corvette. It’s a tuned-port. It’s a six-speed. It’s perfect for autocross. I put new seats in it, along with new harnesses, tires, and wheels. And I upgraded the brakes. I’m just beating up on an 80-year-old car having the time of my life.”

2022 NSRA Street Rod Nationals autocross
Webb’s 1939 Chevrolet Master Deluxe cools off after running a handful of laps at the NSRA Autocross. Cameron Aubernon

I confirmed from the passenger seat that the 80-year-old car can move. Rather than film it, though, I left my iPhone and Olympus camera in my bag, opting to just enjoy the ride. Webb suggests autocross to anyone with a street rod or muscle car. He said that the discipline improves their skills for when the street throws something unexpected their way and they don’t run the risk of damaging their cherished vehicle in the open lot.

It’s not just big cars and prewar machines among the NSRA Autocross roster. As with the modern-day showroom floor, trucks are growing in popularity, and rigs of all ages take to the circuit. One such example was Joe Gregory’s 1986 Chevrolet C10, which made its autocross debut at the big Nationals.

“It’s a 1986 C10. Just got it finished up,” said Gregory, who started competing with a ’63 Corvette but built the C10 to autocross because the sport’s truck classes are growing by the day. “It’s actually the first event out. It took about two and a half years to build, between other projects.”

2022 NSRA Street Rod Nationals autocross
Gregory’s 1986 Chevrolet C10 pops the hood to vent more heat into the air after some hot laps. Cameron Aubernon

Moving the beast is a GM LS7 V8 linked to a Tremec six-speed manual, which sends tons of power to the rear. It rides on independent front and rear suspension.

It’s easy to think of Eighties machines as being too modern to be classics, especially at among old school street rods and customs. Yet they are, according to every state’s DMV as well and the NSRA, whose cut-off for 2022 participants is the 1992 model year. Thus, the 1988 Pontiac Trans Am GTA driven by Valerie and Tom Pichette of Phoenix, Arizona rolled into the expo center, this year.

2022 NSRA Street Rod Nationals autocross
Valerie and Tom Pichette’s 1988 Pontiac Trans Am GTA waits in the rain for the NSRA Autocross to open. Cameron Aubernon

“We found it at a dealership,” said Valerie. “It was a one-owner car, but they ended up trading it in on a Corvette.”

Originally a hardtop with a 350 cubic-inch small block and an automatic, the Pichettes transformed the GTA into a T-topped terror motivated by a 418 cubic-inch GM LS3 V8 and connected to the Moser 12-bolt rear via a Tremec T56 Magnum. The duo are regulars on the autocross circuit, including those put on by Gateway for the NSRA.

Spectating at this autocross can be just as fun as driving. Witnessing a classic custom street rod dash through cones like a ball carrier at the nearby Cardinal Stadium is an inspiring sight to behold. Mixing the vintage rides with an unconventional sport makes for a an awesome afternoon. Such events are key to preserving the hobby of street rodding and inspiring others to take their builds to a new level.

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