Interview by Mary Lendzion and photos by Steve Baur
Having grown up on a farm in Illinois, Nick McGrath tinkered with tractors a time or two before turning his focus to cars.
His first one was a 1984 Buick Riviera that he drove to and from high school but wasn’t allowed to park in his parents’ garage, and his second one was a 1992 Mustang that he drove when he got out of high school and was allowed to park in his parents’ garage.
It had a 302 cubic-inch 5.0L engine and an automatic transmission, and it was the reason McGrath went on to master modifications.
It was also the reason McGrath went on to street-race and ultimately open Straightline Performance in New Lenox, Illinois, in 2004. With his reputation in the race industry on the rise, he got more and more work and moved to a larger location in Joliet, Illinois in 2013. That’s where NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street driver David Hutnick’s Camaro was built, and McGrath and his shop’s fabricator, Kevin Stevens, were part of the crew that supported Hutnick as he hustled to championships in 2014 and 2015.
When Hutnick decided to step away from NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street for the 2017 season, McGrath decided to step in, and debuted a striking silver 1987 Mustang in that category as well as in Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series’ Holley EFI Real Street. He was immediately impressive as he ran as quick and fast as 4.71 and 153 mph on his way to a second place finish in points in both categories.
He went into the 2018 season on a mission to move up, and while he has already accomplished a lot with a runner-up finish at the third race of the season, the 17th Annual NMCA Quick Fuel Technology Bluegrass Nationals in May at Beech Bend Raceway in Kentucky, he’s just getting started.
Read on for more about the very motivated McGrath, who is set to marry Kara Ripper when the race season ends this year.
STRAIGHTLINE PERFORMANCE SEEMS TO HAVE A SOLID REPUTATION.
When I opened the shop in 2004, I offered basic installs and small modifications, and by the time I moved to our current 12,000 square-foot building about four years ago, I was offering a lot more. In fact, we have a room for the chassis dyno, a room for chassis work, a full bay for supercharger, header and other installs, an office and a waiting room. After the business progressed to modifications for computer-controlled cars that needed tuning, we started picking up the computer tuning of cars while still working on carbureted cars. I have four employees, including Kevin Stevens, who’s my crew chief and David Hutnick’s crew chief as well as our shop fabricator, and John Gaura, who’s the lead mechanic and does all of the installs.
WHAT KINDS OF CARS AND COMBINATIONS DO YOU SPECIALIZE IN?
Eighty percent of my business involves the GM LS or LSX platform, and the remaining twenty percent involves Mustangs, Challengers, Hellcats and other cars. I dyno about 300 cars each year, and I currently have about 45 cars in the shop. We’re only a mile and a half from Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois, and it’s common for us to have someone come in and ask us to take their street car and turn it into a strip car. In fact, we recently took a customer’s 2010 daily-driven Camaro and turned it into a 25.3 drag car.
WE’RE GLAD YOU DECIDED TO RACE WITH THE NMCA.
When Kevin Stevens and I would go to the NMCA races to help Dave Hutnick, we would meet more and more people, like Xtreme Street racers Bill Trovato and Scotty Guiler, and it was just really nice to be around all of them and talk to all of them. When David Hutnick decided that he wanted to step back from Xtreme Street and prepare for a different class, I saw it as an opportunity to take my Mustang to Xtreme Street because at that point, I wouldn’t be competing against a customer.
WHAT WAS INVOLVED WITH MAKING YOUR MUSTANG RACE-READY?
The car had just been sitting here, so when we decided to go Xtreme Street racing, we had to cut the front end, modify the bars and build the front support, and Kevin Stevens did all of the suspension and set up the front struts, set the ride height and updated the cage to 25.2. The car has Afco shocks and struts, and we chose to go with a 400 cubic-inch LSX engine by Randy Crowley of Precision Engine Rebuilders, who also builds our customers’ engines. It has a Cam Motion cam and a CID intake and we went with a 76mm Precision turbo, wastegates and blowoff valves. We run a Turbo 400 by RPM Transmissions, which does our customers’ transmissions, and we use Big Stuff 3 for engine management. To be successful at something, you have to surround yourself with talented people, and that’s what we have done.
WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE AN LSX ENGINE FOR YOUR MUSTANG?
There were actually many reasons for that. In addition to being very familiar with LSX engines, turbos and EFI, and knowing we could put something together that would work very well, we wanted to run combinations comparable to what our customers run. Also, using an LSX engine allowed us to run in the Xtreme Street class as well as the Holley EFI Real Street class.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO GO FROM BEING A CREW MEMBER IN THE NMCA TO BEING A DRIVER IN THE NMCA?
It was very exciting to begin racing in the series and to be part of the Xtreme Street class, but because we went from working with a nitrous combination on David Hutnick’s car to a turbo combination on my car, there was a bit of learning curve and it was very stressful at times. We picked away at it and thankfully, we have learned a lot and applied that to our program to figure out things that we needed to figure out, especially with the suspension and the power management. We were very pleased that by the end of last year, we had some runner-up finishes and I won at the final race of the year in Indiana.
IT’S QUITE COMMENDABLE TO HAVE EARNED THAT WIN AND THE SUBSEQUENT SECOND PLACE FINISH IN EDELBROCK XTREME STREET POINTS DESPITE BEING A NEW COMPETITOR IN THE CATEGORY.
It felt like everything had finally come together, and there was such a sense of accomplishment. We should have let that soak in for a while, but as soon as we got home from the PRI show and the NMCA awards ceremony in December, we started working on the combination. Randy Crowley of Precision Engine Rebuilders freshened our engine, and we ran the engine on our engine dyno here. We changed the rear-end from an 8.8 Ford rear-end to a 9-inch rear-end, and we changed gears in the rear-end and in the Turbo 400 transmission. We wanted to improve on adjustability with the rear-end and be able to make adjustments to the control arms. We didn’t have the full range of adjustments in suspension last year, and we felt we were lacking because of it. We had to add 200 pounds of weight per the class rules, and we’re in the process of making sure our balance is in the right spot.
EQUALLY IMPRESSIVE WAS YOUR SECOND PLACE FINISH IN CHEVROLET PERFORMANCE CHALLENGE SERIES HOLLEY EFI REAL STREET POINTS.
With the same rules for Xtreme Street and Real Street and the fact that everything was a 100 percent crossover, we were basically able to double-enter at the races. We had a runner-up in Real Street at the Holley LS Fest and a runner-up in Real Street at the NMCA in Indiana last year, and we were happy with that. While some Xtreme Street racers also compete in Real Street, we were also racing against racers we didn’t know, and the competition was really strong. There are some very talented racers in that class.
HOW DOES CAMPAIGNING YOUR OWN RACE CAR AFFECT YOUR CUSTOMER BASE?
It shows that we’re a hands-on shop, and customers can follow our progress and see how we’re doing, and when we do well, it means a lot, because they’re trusting us with their cars that they spend their hard-earned money on. We’re fortunate to have a loyal customer base.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE YOUR SIGHTS SET ON?
I want to have a good strategy and be successful, so I’m going to do the best that I can. My eye is on earning a championship, especially after finishing in second place in points last year. That’s the ultimate goal. I think I have a good car and a good combination, thanks to the many people who help me, and those are the tools I need to win.
(Interview from the August 2018 issue of Fastest Street Car)