Herding Cones

In preparing this Grand Sport to compete in the growing niche of street-car racing, Brian Thomson elected to go with a naturally aspirated engine—a 442-cid LS7 with 740 horsepower.

October 31, 2013

Also from Issue 86

  • 1965 Restomod
  • Interview: Cindy Molnar
  • Buyer’s Guide: Best Bang for Buck
  • Tonawanda Engine Plant
  • 1990 Retromod
  • Monterey Reunion
  • 1970 Coupe
  • History: Zora Arkus-Duntov
  • acing: Baltimore and Austin
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Border collies and similar breeds have herding in their blood. When they don’t get to act on that instinct regularly, they get antsy. Take them to the park and they may try to round up the children on the playground—an act that doesn’t generally sit well with today’s helicopter parents. That’s why many owners take their dogs to farms to let them herd sheep or cattle. It provides the release they need to remain well-adjusted.

It’s the same with late-model Corvettes. These cars were designed to perform more than workday commutes and the occasional Saturday-evening ice-cream run, so owners are turning to high-performance track days and amateur competitions to give their Corvettes the mechanical equivalent of an afternoon on the farm herding sheep.

Engine builder Brian Thomson is no stranger to the racetrack. In nearly 30 years as a professional racing-engine builder, he has participated in drag racing and off-road racing, while his shop, Thomson Automotive, near Detroit, has also built engines for scores of circle-track and road-racing customers, as well as competitors of just about every form of motorsports under the checkered flag. The modified 2012 Grand Sport coupe on these pages represents his first foray into the increasingly popular niche of competition centered on high-performance street cars, where the dogs are really allowed to run.

The OPTIMA Batteries Ultimate Street Car Invitational is the Indy 500 of these events. Held each fall in Pahrump, Nevada, it’s an automotive decathlon of sorts, pitting the owners of a wide array of hardware against one another in a series of measured competitions, including autocross, road course, road rally, braking and acceleration. Sheer horsepower isn’t the most important factor determining a winner, as the road-course and autocross events require entries to have a competent chassis and the driver to be as good going around cones as they are going down the drag strip. Though generous modifications are allowed, the cars must be road-registered, roll on DOT-approved non-competition tires (with tread ratings above 200) and be raced by a non-professional driver.

In late 2012, Thomson’s Grand Sport scored its first big win, capturing first place at the Norwalk, Ohio qualifying event for the OPTIMA Invitational. With GM engineer and experienced hot shoe Dave Mikels at the wheel, the car trounced a field filled with fifth- and sixth-generation Corvettes, hopped-up Gen-5 Camaros and a slew of Pro-Touring-style muscle cars, which featured contemporary suspension and powertrain technology stuffed under their vintage bodies.

“You don’t have to be the fastest or quickest in every category, but you’ve got to be competitive in them all and outstanding in a few,” said Thomson. “That means you really have to focus on the all-around performance and balance of the car, because there are basically no rules when it comes to the powertrain or suspension. As long as it’s not a real race car or a kit car with a license plate, you can run just about anything.”

Reigning champion Mark Stielow, who also won in 2011, can testify to that, capturing his back-to-back titles in first-generation Camaros and proving a May-December marriage of classic style and modern technology can be devastatingly effective. He is another GM engineer and one of the pioneers of the Pro-Touring movement.