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From Diecast to Drag Strip, Tony Karamitsos Creates Toy Cars and Races Life-Size Speed Machines

Posted By: Evan J. Smith
Play Time

From diecast to drag strip, Tony Karamitsos creates toy cars and races life-size speed machines

Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi
 
For many children, diecast cars spark an interest in automotive culture that never ends. For Tony Karamitsos, his interest in the diecasts themselves inspired a life filled with all sorts of cars — big and small — as the man created a career that centered around his passion and also enabled him to pursue a hobby racing in the full-size versions of his designs.
 
Always interested in die-cast cars, it was Karamitsos’s father, Nick, who inspired his love of hot rods. “My dad loved vintage convertibles and was big into restorations. He lost his hand in an accident, so I wound up helping him in the garage all the time… He passed away a year ago from cancer,” said Karamitsos as he choked up thinking about his hero’s legacy.


 
The family relocated to a different area in Indiana when Karamitsos was in high school, and there he took up auto shop to help fill the void of having left his friends behind. “Our teacher was Mr. Hofer. He was into drag racing and let me work on tearing down the 900-horsepower, naturally aspirated big-block engine in his dragster,” the man recalled of his mentor who showed him the performance side of the industry, and who ultimately became a lifelong friend and a big influence in his life as well.
 
After graduating high school, Nick gifted his son with a 1969 Chevrolet Impala that the two worked on together; Karamitsos went on to obtain his degree in business from Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. Upon graduation, a friend of his in Mishawaka, Indiana, told him that he knew of a toy manufacturer looking for a guy to design die-cast models.
 
“I found out it was for Johnny Lightning, a brand well-known for its accurate replicas of authentic vehicles, and ultimately landed the job,” Karamitsos shared with a true passion for the career he has enjoyed for over 20 years.
 
Now, the 46-year-old gearhead spends his days working as the Die-Cast & Slot Car Brand Manager and Designer for Johnny Lightning, Auto World, American Muscle, and Racing Champions where he is instrumental in turning real-life rides into small-scale replicas.
 
Perhaps the coolest part of his job is the fact that he was able to make his car into a die-cast replica that was then made available to the public — something he often does for big-name drivers, including many of the stars from Discovery’s Street Outlaws series. Additionally, racers who are interested in having their car reproduced can do so by commissioning a custom 1/64-scale run of 2,500 pieces.
 
Karamitsos’ nights and weekends, however, are dedicated to drag racing the full-size versions of the collectibles he creates while in the office. “I’ve always been into heads-up drag racing and love the True Street class,” he stated. “I’ve done Hot Rod Drag Week a couple of times with my good friend Sam Colallilo whom I’ve known since childhood, and did well, but that’s more about survival and not necessarily winning.”
 
The Indiana native also participated in segments of the Hot Rod Power Tour and raced on Detroit’s historic Woodward Avenue during Roadkill Nights. In the latter, he was pleasantly surprised to have made it through to the Quick 8 portion of the 2021 event.
 
The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro that he races is his second, as the first he owned was totaled in a freak accident.
 
“I had been driving on the highway when a center cap fell off, so I pulled over to retrieve it,” Karamitsos detailed of the fateful day when he nearly lost his life. “Another driver had a heart attack, died, and plowed into my car on the side of the road — he just barely missed me. I was banged up but survived.”
 
The scary incident occurred in the mid-1990s, and Karamitsos stripped down his wrecked 1969 Camaro to salvage everything he possibly could. He bought his current 1969 Z/28 model — the original’s replacement — not long after. “It was in complete pieces. Just a roof, no quarter panels or fenders or anything… a gutted, failed restoration that had been hacked up,” he laughed.
 
Using the skills that he learned while working alongside his father, Karamitsos began restoring his second Camaro. Over the years, it’s gone through many different stages and has had multiple engine combinations. At first, a naturally aspirated, 383-cube small-block powered the iconic Chevy but was replaced with a 327ci engine not long after, then followed by another 383ci. “I ran nitrous for a while, but, in 2014 I decided to build a turbo car and convert it to run on E85,” detailed the driver.
 
Karamitsos eventually got the Camaro down into the mid-8-second zone and finally, the low-eights. “I’ve changed stuff every year: the motor, combinations, chassis, added a Gear Vendors overdrive — whatever I can,” he outlined of all the work and devotion he’s poured into the drag-and-drive street car.
 
The work wasn’t done singlehandedly, however, as Karamitsos’s sons, Nick, Alex, and Christian, along with his wife, Jenny, and close friends all helped him assemble it at home over the years.
 
In its current form, Richard Scott III at R&R Fabwerks handled the Camaro’s 25.3 SFI-certified chassis work. “It’s a lot for a street car,” confessed Karamitsos, who was only planning to do a 7.50-certified cage at first but decided to add a few more bars and go for the 6.50-cert instead since his goal is to eventually run quarter-mile elapsed times in the 7.40-second range or quicker. “It still has stock floor pans. You can’t even tell it’s a 25.3. Rich did a phenomenal job.”
 
Under the fiberglass cowl hood sits a small-block Chevy engine that was built by Ultra Tech Racing Engines owner Norm Beerhorst. Based on a Dart Machinery Little M block, the 400ci small-block Chevy is filled with a Crower forged crankshaft; top-of-the-line 6-inch Callies Ultra Enforcer connecting rods; custom Diamond pistons with ceramic tops and coated skirts; a custom-ground, Crane solid-roller cam designed for street use with a special core; and Trend pushrods.
 
Karamitsos paid close attention to the cylinder heads, too, and chose to have his 23-degree All Pro heads fully CNC-machined before adding ISKY valve springs, T&D shaft-mount rockers, and Crower lifters. Those heads are paired with a fully-ported, raised runner Dart intake with an Edelbrock elbow and matching throttle body. That high-flow induction receives plenty of compressed air courtesy of a single 98mm Precision turbocharger that was also plumbed by R&R Fabwerks. The turbo system also includes a Precision water-to-air intercooler, 66mm Precision wastegate, and ProCharger blow-off valve.
 
Next, his good friend Dave Reppert from Nitrous Dave's Racing Electronics wired the engine to be controlled via a Holley Dominator EFI system, and a matching Holley touchscreen dash was added in the cabin to keep an eye on the vitals. “The Holley even controls the Gear Vendors, which automatically engages the overdrive,” Karamitsos added. Fed via the primary Aeromotive Eliminator and secondary Aeromotive Pro Series pumps, Wilson fuel rails deliver enough E85 to support 1,700 rear-wheel horsepower via a set of billet Atomizer fuel injectors.
 
Given that the Camaro does double duty both on the street and on the strip, Karamitsos was careful in selecting a transmission that would work anywhere. “I’m running a three-speed Turbo 400 by Rodney Massengale at RPM Transmissions with a Gear Vendors overdrive, PTC bolt-together Pro Mod torque converter, and aluminum driveshaft,” he detailed of the drivetrain.
 
Under the back end of the Camaro, the original leaf spring suspension configuration is still intact, but upgraded with Calvert Racing split-mono-leaf springs; CalTrac traction bars; a TRZ anti-roll bar; Santhuff double-adjustable shocks; a Moser M9 rearend with gun-drilled 40-spline axles and aluminum center section; plus Aerospace Components brakes. Conversely, the front features TRZ control arms with double-adjustable AFCO coilover shocks and Wilwood brakes
 
All four of the Camaro’s corners wear Weld V Series wheels wrapped in Mickey Thompson rubber, but the rear of the car had been mini-tubbed to accommodate the double-beadlocked, 15x12-inch rollers with 275 drag radials.
 
“It still has a stock interior, and the seats and factory center console are from my original ’69 Camaro that was wrecked,” the owner proudly clarified. His second Camaro is also still equipped with factory inner wheel wells, and radiator core support, and, when the parachute is removed, he can access the chassis-mounted hitch to pull a trailer. “I also modified my back seat to be able to put it back in.”
 
Weighing in at 3,690 pounds (including driver), the heavy, mostly-steel street car still sees plenty of time on the road. And, with more than 1,700-rear wheel horsepower available on demand, the Camaro can perform when Karamitsos mashes the gas pedal.
 
With so much streetable power at his disposal, Karamitsos has spent the better half of a decade running his 1969 Camaro Z/28 at NMCA events in the True Street category and has earned a few accolades for his efforts.
 
“One year in Joliet [Illinois], I couldn’t finish because of a mechanical issue so I went back the following year and would have won, but my average was quicker than 8.50 and that’s all my cage was certified for,” shared Karamitsos, who since improved both his chassis and his elapsed times.
 
In May of 2021, he brought his beautiful blue Camaro to World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis, Missouri, for the 16th Annual NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street-Legal Drag Racing Presented by HPJ Performance. There, Karamitsos found vindication when his NMCA TorqStorm Superchargers True Street 8.245-second average held up to the tech inspector’s eye – but he was dismayed to have finished as the runner-up instead of as the winner.
 
Karamitsos came back out in 2022 with a vengeance and was determined to pick up the overall honors for the category. Back in St. Louis for the 17th Annual NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street-Legal Drag Racing Presented by FuelLab, Karamitsos ran a huge new personal best of 7.93 at 177 mph during testing, only made one competition run of 8.559 seconds before disaster struck.
 
“We nipped a piston and hurt the motor,” he admitted of the undesirable performance. Focused on his goals and his mission, Karamitsos hurried home to start hustling through the repair process. “Norm, my original engine builder, was out of town so Jim Mikel at Performance Technology Inc. helped me get the engine fixed up quickly. He was instrumental in getting the engine back to the level it needed to be with his precise attention to detail.”
 
Karamitsos and his group, which includes his son, Nick, along with tuners Dave Reppert and Sam Colalillo, were able to make one test hit before heading up to US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan, for the Arrington Performance NMRA/NMCA Power Festival Presented by TorqStorm Superchargers in July. Usually, Tony Maez also participates with the rest of the group, but he wasn’t able to attend. Fortunately, Karamitsos’ friend Bryant Goldstone stepped in to lend a hand.
 
Karamitsos added exhaust gas temperature sensors and a few other items during the downtime before the Michigan race, and the late-night thrash sessions were worth it when Karamitsos finally got the win he had worked so hard to achieve; in the combined NMRA/NMCA TorqStorm Superchargers True Street field of 69 cars, he took the overall win with a three-run average of 8.353seconds.
 
“I’ve been doing this for a few years now and have been so close many times… finally winning it was awesome, especially considering how hot the conditions were. We were focused on making clean A-to-B passes without spinning the tires” said the happy man. 
 
The team had another reason to celebrate that weekend, though, as Karamitsos’s son, Nick, was also on the property shaking down his Fourth-Gen Chevrolet Camaro. With turbocharged LS power, the 1,100-horsepower machine carried the young man in his father’s footsteps and continued his namesake’s legacy.
 
For Karamitsos, the wins are important, but racing his 1969 Camaro Z/28 with his family and close friends while honoring his late father’s memory is even more special; in 2021, he won a cancer awareness race at US41 Dragstrip in honor of the man. In his spare time, he also organizes weekly cruises, shows, and meets for the enthusiasts in his area to help foster the local car community. The satisfaction that he gets from being with his loved ones and having a blast racing the full-size versions of the minuscule models he helps design every day is truly something to be grateful for. 




 


The Details
Owner/Driver
Owner: Tony Karamitsos    
Driver: Tony Karamitsos
Hometown: Mishawaka, Indiana
Occupation: Diecast Brand Manager / Designer
Class: NMCA Torqstorm Superchargers True Street
Crew: Nicholas Karamitsos, Alex Karamitsos, Christian Karamitsos, Sam Colalillo, Dave Reppert, Tony Maez, Jason Fernwalt
Car Year/Make/Model: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

Powertrain 
Engine: Small-block Chevy
Engine builder: Norm / UltraTech Racing Engines & Jim / Performance Tech
Displacement: 400 cubic inches
Block: DART Little M
Bore: 4.125 inches
Stroke: 3.75 inches
Crank: Crower Forged
Rods: Callies 6-inch Ultra Enforcer with MP3.5 bolt option
Pistons: Custom Diamond Pistons w/ ceramic tops and coated skirts
Heads: All Pro 23 Degree Raised Runner Full CNC w/ Isky valvesprings, 2.150-inch Intake valves, and 1.60-inch exhaust valves, and Cometic MLS head gaskets
Valvetrain: T&D shaft-mount rockers, Crower lifters, and Trend pushrods
Cam type: Crane Cams custom solid-roller with custom core
Carburetor or EFI system: Fully ported Dart raised-runner intake, Wilson fuel rails, Edlebrock throttle body, Billet Atomizer fuel injectors, Holley Dominator ECU, and Holley Dash, Aeromotive Eliminator (Primary) fuel pump, and Aeromotive ProSeries Fuel Pump (Secondary), and Aeromotive fuel pressure regulator
Power-adder: Precision Turbo 98mm, Precision air-to-water intercooler, and 66mm Precision wastegate, and ProCharger blow-off valve
Fuel brand and type: Pump E85 
Headers and exhaust: Custom-built by R&R Fabwerks
Transmission:  Turbo 400 w/ Gear Vendors overdrive
Transmission Builder: Rodney Massengale at RPM Transmissions
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: PTC bolt-together Pro Mod torque converter
Rearend: Moser M9 w/ Gun-drilled, 40-spline axles, aluminum center section, and 5/8-inch studs

Chassis 
Body and/or chassis builder: Rich Scott from R&R Fabwerks and Tony Karamitsos
Suspension (Front): TRZ Control Arms w/ AFCO double-adjustable coilover shocks
Suspension (Rear):  CalTracs, CalTracs Split Mono-Leaf Springs, TRZ anti-roll bar, and Santhuff double-adjustable shocks 
Brakes (Front): Wilwood
Brakes (Rear): Aerospace Components
Wheels (front): Weld V Series 15x3.5-inch
Wheels (Rear):  Weld V Series 2.0 double-beadlock 15x12-inch
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson Drag Radial 275/60-15
Aftermarket body modifications: Cowl-induction hood
Safety equipment: 25.3-spec chassis
Vehicle weight: 3,690 pounds with driver
Quickest ET: 7.93 seconds (Quicker ET coming soon)
Best 60-foot: 1.22 seconds
Fastest mph: 177
Sponsors: Round2, TMAEZ Inc, Competition Components, Nitrous Dave’s Racing Electronics, RPM Transmissions, Goldstone Automotive




 

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