Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by Fastest Street Car Staff
As a multi-time NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street champion who had been competing in the category since its creation, it was somewhat surprising when Tony Orts walked away from it several years ago.
He wanted to focus on family and work, but when nitrous purges and neck and neck racing called him back, he returned to the captivating category in 2018. He was immediately competitive in his famous 1968 Firebird and finished sixth in points.
Then this year, he earned semifinal finishes at the 17th Annual NMCA Muscle Car Mayhem in March at Bradenton Motorsports Park in Florida and the 11th Annual Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals presented by Mahle in April at Atlanta Dragway, had the lead in points for a spell and finished sixth in points again after an on-track incident at the final race of the season, the 18th Annual NMCA World Street Finals presented by Chevrolet Performance in September at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indiana.
Fastest Street Car caught up with Orts, a Matco Tools dealer who lives in Oswego, Illinois, with his wife, Debi, and has a son, Zack. He told us that when he’s not behind the wheel of his 1968 Firebird, which has run 4.60s in the eighth-mile, he’s behind the wheel of an airplane or boat that his wife doesn’t want him to hop up.
WHAT COMPELLED YOU TO TAKE A SEVEN-YEAR BREAK FROM COMPETING IN NMCA EDELBROCK XTREME STREET BEFORE RETURNING IN 2018?
It really was a little bit of everything. My son, Zack, was going to Caterpillar School in Peoria, Illinois, and I was trying to run my tool business and traveling a lot for that. On top of that, I just got a little burned out on all the work involved in racing, and I just got to the point where I thought I should focus on some other things in life for a while. My wife and I started traveling and we went on a lot of cool trips, some with our parents.
WAS IT IN THAT TIME THAT YOU EARNED YOUR PILOT’S LICENSE?
Yes. When my son got out of college, and I still wasn’t racing, I went and earned a pilot’s license. It was something I had always wanted to do but didn’t have the time. I took flying lessons at DuPage Airport in Illinois. You have to do ground school, a written exam and a flying exam in a four-seat Cessna. I hadn’t taken an exam in thirty years and I had to prove something to someone on those tests. Even the flight instructor whom I had to fly with said I looked nervous. But, I did it, and now I can go rent a plane and go flying.
IS FLYING A PLANE AS EXCITING AS DRIVING A RACE CAR?
Yes, flying a plane is pretty much as exciting as driving a race car, but with the plane, you get a lot more seat time and it’s less expensive, because at the end of the day, I turn the keys to the plane over, regardless of what the oil pressure is, and I walk away. I can’t do that with a race car, especially if it has low oil pressure. Flying is definitely a mental challenge. You’re always thinking, which I like.
YOU ALSO GAVE LOCAL 8.60 INDEX RACING A GO DURING YOUR BREAK FROM NMCA EDELBROCK XTREME STREET. WHAT COMBINATION DID YOU USE FOR THAT?
I raced 8.60 index from 2012 to 2015, in my Firebird, with one of my old Xtreme Street engines from 2002. It’s one of those engines you could run all day and all you had to do was change the oil. It was a 400 cubic-inch small-block Chevy, and I used very little nitrous for the 8.60 index, which I ran on Saturday or Sunday at Great Lakes Dragaway in Wisconsin, and at Byron Dragway in Illinois. I was very competitive, and I won a points chase. It was something we could do locally, without spending a lot of money. But, the heads-up racing in NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street is more exciting to me.
WE’RE GLAD YOU CAME BACK TO NMCA EDELBROCK XTREME STREET IN 2018. WHAT SERVED AS INSPIRATION TO RETURN?
Honestly, I got talked into it by my crew chief, Rocket Ron Bochenek. He had a towing business and had retired from his job, and he told me that he had extra time on his hands and could help me do everything I would need to do. He kept hounding me. He didn’t offer to pay for it, mind you. He just offered to help me with it. My engine-builder, Randy Crowley from Precision Engine Rebuilders, was the other instigator. Between those two, and going to the NMCA/NMRA Super Bowl event at Route 66 Raceway in Illinois in 2017 to watch and help my buddy, Nitrous Pro Street racer John Trobiani, it didn’t really take all that much arm-twisting. The seed had already been planted.
WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN PREPARING YOUR CAR FOR THE RETURN TO NMCA EDELBROCK XTREME STREET IN 2018?
I had to uncover the car and roll it out of the corner. I gutted the original 1968 interior, which had been cut up so much through the years and was so ugly, and I installed a new dash and door panels. That saved me a little weight. I also rewired the car, which took some time. It could have been faster if I had let Rocket Ron help with the rewiring, but he’s not allowed to touch wires. He can do any welding I need done, but he can’t touch the wires. He would cause a fire. I have no doubt about that, and I tell him that, and he knows that.
I WAS PREPARED TO SAY YOUR SECRET IS SAFE WITH ME, BUT ROCKET RON OBVIOUSLY KNOWS HOW YOU FEEL. WHAT COMBINATION DID YOU GO WITH?
We went with a new 440 cubic-inch small-block Chevy on an aluminum block, and it was built by Randy Crowley of Precision Engine Rebuilders, of course. We used All Pro heads and an All Pro intake, and the best of the five carburetors I had lying around. The carburetor is ugly as sin, but it has four holes and it feeds fuel. It made the most horsepower on the dyno out of all of them. We went with a single-stage fogger nitrous system and backed the new engine with a Turbo 400 transmission by Dave Klaput of Proformance Racing Transmissions, and we swapped the slicks with drag radials to follow the new rules for Edelbrock Xtreme Street.
DID YOU HAVE TIME TO TEST THE NEW COMBINATION BEFORE YOU RETURNED TO NMCA COMPETITION AT THE SEASON-OPENING RACE IN MARCH OF 2018 AT BRADENTON MOTORSPORTS PARK IN FLORIDA?
We did an engine dyno at Randy Crowley’s shop, but we didn’t do a chassis dyno or any testing. We found that the class was still very competitive, which was good, because I like competition, and we found that there were some racers we didn’t know. I finished in sixth place in 2018, which I wasn’t happy with. I had good stuff. I just wanted to improve on it when the 2018 race season was over without making major changes. I gave the engine to Randy Crowley to be freshened, and he found a few more horsepower on the dyno, but I don’t want to say how. We also put Menscer shocks on the car.
YOU TOLD FANS IN EARLY 2019 THAT YOU WERE GOING TO GIVE IT EVERYTHING YOU HAD TO WIN ROUNDS. WHAT DID THAT INVOLVE?
Testing, testing and more testing. We got way more aggressive with the tuning, and we were trying different ideas. Some worked and some didn’t. It was a team effort. Everyone collaborated. Everyone said ‘Try this,’ or ‘Try that,’ and everyone said ‘Hell, yes. That worked,’ or ‘Hell, no. That didn’t work.’ I was willing to try anything. There was a lot of commitment, even when we spent hours testing and trying something and didn’t see immediate results.
YOUR APPROACH MUST HAVE BEEN WORKING, AS YOU WERE LEADING EDELBROCK XTREME STREET POINTS LEADING UP TO THE 14TH ANNUAL NITTO NMRA/NMCA SUPER BOWL OF STREET LEGAL DRAG RACING IN JULY AT ROUTE 66 RACEWAY IN ILLINOIS. YOU RAN INTO TROUBLE AFTER THAT. WHAT HAPPENED?
I had been doing well, but then things took a turn at that race in Illinois. We blew the tires off in the first round of eliminations and lost. We didn’t have the car adjusted to the track, and we overpowered the track. Things really went in the other direction at that point, and it was the wrong direction. We lost in the first round of eliminations at the NMCA race at Summit Motorsports Park the following month.
UNFORTUNATELY, YOUR CHANCES OF TURNING THINGS AROUND ON THIS YEAR’S NMCA TOUR ENDED AT THE 18TH ANNUAL NMCA WORLD STREET FINALS PRESENTED BY CHEVROLET PERFORMANCE IN SEPTEMBER AT LUCAS OIL RACEWAY WHEN YOUR CAR WENT INTO ONE OF THE WILDEST WHEELIES WE HAD EVER SEEN IT GO INTO. WHAT HAPPENED?
In testing on Friday at the race, I was trying to be aggressive with the chassis and tune-up, and when I went to make a pass, the front of the car went up quicker and higher than it ever had. That was okay until I saw that it was turning left, and I knew I was in trouble. The car had gone up so high that it pivoted on the push-bar mount, and I had to just let off of the gas, let it fall and hope it didn’t come down on the wall. It happened so fast that all I had time to do was say ‘Oh, crap.’ The left front corner went into the wall first, and everything in the front left corner got all bent up, as did the frame, the left door and the quarter-panel. That was a hard hit. The car then went across the track and hit the right wall with the right fender because at that point, I had no brakes and no steering. This happened at the 330-foot mark. I was able to kick the door open and get out on my own. My wife ran down to where I was. She was worried.
WE HATED TO SEE THAT HAPPEN TO THE CAR YOU HAVE HAD FOR SO LONG, BUT WE WERE RELIEVED THAT YOU WERE NOT SERIOUSLY HURT. WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION UPON RETURNING TO THE PIT AREA?
First and foremost, I was upset that I wasn’t going to be able to race that weekend. I didn’t have a chance at the championship by then, but I certainly had a chance to have a strong finish in points before that happened. We went ahead and put the car in the trailer, and I sat down and watched my crew chief, Rocket Ron, race his car in Open Comp. I didn’t look at the car until I got home on Monday
WHAT WAS THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE?
When I pulled the car out of the trailer, I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is going to cost me some money.’ Everything from the windshield forward needs to be repaired. The car was all steel except for the fiberglass front bumper and aftermarket hood. The from-the-factory 1968 subframe was still in it. The suspension is all bent and broken. Rocket Ron and I will be making the repairs with replacement suspension components from TRZ Motorsports and new fiberglass front bumper and hood by VFN. Thankfully, the engine was not hurt.
DO YOU FORESEE IT TAKING A FAIR AMOUNT OF TIME, OR WILL WE SEE YOU AT THE TRACK SOON?
I’m viewing it like I view a blown engine. I want to fix it and get back to the track. It won’t be an all-winter repair. In fact, we’re trying to get to an Ultra Street race that’s happening in late fall. Luckily, I have a lot of help from Rocket Ron, John Trobiani, Precision Racing Engines, TRZ Motorsports, VFN and Commercial Tire.
(Interview in the December 2019 issue of Fastest Street Car)