Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by Kevin DiOssi
While growing up in Georgia, Brent Wheeler and his father, Andrew Wheeler, would climb into one of his father’s many Mopars, drive to the circle track and watch some racing. The sights, the sounds, the scents and the speeds of the cars were captivating, and certainly enough to compel Wheeler to fantasize about fast cars while he was driving his Dodge pickup truck to and from high school.
Through the years, Wheeler began going to watch drag racing, and he fell in love with classic cars that had been turned into race cars, especially those from the 1960s.
They had so much character, he thought.
Wheeler went on to purchase one, a 1966 Coronet, and has been contentedly cruising in NMCA ATI Nostalgia Super Stock ever since. Most recently, he finished second in points in 2017 and sixth in points in 2018, and he has his sights set on a top-three finish in 2019.
“First and foremost, Brent is a true gentleman in our sport, and he treats everyone so nicely,” Doug Duell, friend of Wheeler and five-time ATI Nostalgia Super Stock champion, said. “He’s also a championship-caliber driver who is always coming up with ideas to help himself and his car be even more competitive. The wheels are always turning in his head, and I love sharing ideas with him, whether it’s at 12 p.m. or 12 a.m. He wants a championship, and honestly, I know that he’s going to earn it one day, even though we’re racing in a very difficult category.”
Read on for more about Wheeler, who is married to Jessica, and has five children, Payton, Preslie, Parker, Isabelle and Allison. They live in Watkinsville, Georgia, where Wheeler works as a network engineer.
How did it happen that you learned how to rebuild an engine when you were just 18 years old?
My dad has a black 1974 Charger, and when I was 18, I put together an engine for it. It was a 383 cubic-inch Mopar Wedge engine that my dad had in another car, and I took it apart, inspected it, learned what to do and what not to do and put it all back together with new bearings and a bigger camshaft. I put it back into the car, and my dad watched over me while I did it. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed it because I like learning how to make things work.
Did you get to drive the car after that?
I did. We went to Atlanta Dragway and I was learning how to drive it and how to bracket-race it in the Sportsman class. We went as often as we could. The car was running 14-flat, and it quickly progressed from there. As I got more and more comfortable, we would go faster and we were eventually running in the 12s. We had been running a very small carburetor in the beginning, but then we moved to a bigger carburetor to give the engine a little more fuel and to go faster. We had also changed from stock heads to heads with larger valves and minor pocket porting, which we did ourselves, and those changes are what took us to the next level. I was nervous and anxious at first. There was an awful lot to learn, especially about reaction times and how to be consistent, but it was definitely worth it and it was definitely fun, and I think my dad was pleased with what we had accomplished.
Was it from there that you purchased your own car?
Yes. I wanted my dad to be able to race, so I started looking for a different car. I knew that I wanted whatever I bought to be a 1960s Chrysler product, and I was able to find one listed for sale in a little newspaper called the Atlanta Advertiser. It was a 1966 Coronet, and it was in 1996. The seller was located in middle Georgia, and dad and I drove two hours to look at it. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I wanted it. There was just something about it with its big, rectangular shape. It had such a different bodyline than other cars, and it didn’t have any rust on it. We could see where the body had been fixed, but that was OK, because it was 30 years old at that point and to be expected. It had a full factory interior with vinyl bucket seats, and it had a 440 cubic-inch engine under the hood with a 727 transmission. I loved it
Did you drive it as-is for a while, or did you dive right into modifications?
I brought it home and drove it on the street for a while, and then in around 1998, I took the engine apart because I wanted to turn it into a street-strip car. It had been rebuilt at some point during its life, and it had two different kinds of connecting rods, and the rest was basically stock. At that point, I used Mopar Performance and Mopar Direct Connection books to learn how to build a new engine that would help the car run 11.90s. We had to get another set of rods and pistons, and we changed the camshaft. We bought a set of iron Mopar 452 heads that had been race-prepped with larger valves and porting, and we bought a new converter and changed the rear gear to a 4.30. We stayed with the 727 transmission.
What kind of results did you see at the track?
It ran in the 11s the first time we took it to the track, and we were running Sportsman and Pro classes at Atlanta Dragway and Silver Dollar Raceway, which is also in Georgia. We also were running at various Mopar races, and I could definitely feel the difference in the car. Eventually, we replaced the Mopar 452 heads with Indy cylinder heads, and that helped us jump to 10.98, and I started running NSCA and NMCA bracket classes, and then NMCA Nostalgia Muscle Car, even though I wanted to run NMCA Nostalgia Super Stock, because my intake and carburetor were not legal for Nostalgia Super Stock. I really liked the move from bracket to Nostalgia Muscle Car. I turned my 440 into a 499 cubic-inch engine by changing the bore size, and we had to do some grinding to clear the stroker crank. When I was ordering parts for that, I went ahead and ordered an intake from Indy, and I had two Edelbrock carburetors. That’s when I entered Nostalgia Super Stock. I think it was 2012. The best I’ve finished in points so far was second place, and that was in 2017.
Have you changed the combination much through the years?
Actually, I hadn’t changed it until after a connecting rod broke and my engine blew up at the NMCA race at Beech Bend Raceway in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in May of 2018. It happened in the first round of qualifying. Thankfully, I run a belly pan under the car and it contained 90 percent of the oil that came out of the block on the starting line. My father was there with his car, a 1967 Coronet station wagon. He wasn’t going to run any more races for the year after that, so after my engine let go, he let me finish qualifying in his car, and I got to race that weekend. In addition to the main Nostalgia Super Stock race that weekend, the Dave Duell Classic was happening, and I was able to runner-up in that. That was the first time I had ever driven that car, but I had done most of the work to it when we were putting it together for my dad. The car was running 11.25, and I actually stayed in it until the final race of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indiana, and I was back in my car for that.
How badly damaged was the engine?
It was a complete throwaway. We had to start all over and we built a 540 cubic-inch Mopar Wedge engine on an aluminum block by Indy with 440-1 aluminum heads by Indy. We literally could only re-use the intake, carburetors, distributors and headers, but that goes with the territory. The engine had done really well through the years. It had done its job and I wasn’t mad at all. We debuted the new engine at the final race of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indiana, and on the test day on Thursday, it was a little slower than what I had hoped it would be, but we made some adjustments and it responded well and I ended up running the 9.75 index, which I was pleased about because I wanted to run the 9.50 or 9.75 index. I qualified number one out of 61 cars, and I made it to the runner-up in Nostalgia Super Stock as well as in the Fuelab Nostalgia Super Stock All-Stars race that was happening that weekend, too. The car launched much more differently with the new engine. It was much more violent because it had a lot more torque, and that was fine with me.
What are your thoughts on the very competitive ATI Nostalgia Super Stock category?
It is so competitive, and I had an idea that it was when I was watching it, but I found out just how competitive it was when I actually started running in it. It’s amazing how good the drivers are when it comes to reaction time and running on their index, which are so important in this class where we’re not allowed to have transbrakes, two-steps, air shifters or electric shifters.
We saw an online forum post from ATI Nostalgia Super Stock driver Doug Duell who said “Brent works hard at being a good racer.”
I do a lot of reading, research and practicing, and I spend a lot of time on the practice tree and bracket racing in an attempt to be as sharp as I can be. Hopefully it’s paying off.
Your car and combination are working so well that it’s hard to imagine it, but are you making any changes over winter?
I definitely don’t intend to. I intend to just be as prepared as I can be for the NMCA season opener in March at Bradenton Motorsports Park in Florida. I really want to finish in the top three in points, and maybe someday, I’ll have a chance at the championship in this very competitive category. I couldn’t do any of this without my father. He is where it all started for me. I am very grateful for that. I also need to say thank you to Bill Boomhower for all of his help, knowledge and advice through the years. I certainly could not accomplish the things I have in racing without the help.
(Interview from the January 2019 issue of Fastest Street Car)