Prev Article Next Article

Not A Nova—Joe Garcia’s beautiful Buick Apollo

Posted By: Evan J. Smith
Not A Nova—Joe Garcia’s beautiful Buick Apollo
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by John Moore and the FSC staff
Throughout his life, Joe Garcia has always somehow ended up with a Buick in his garage. After owning several, his current 1974 Buick Apollo GSX has taken him for quite the ride and he’s enjoying both the thrill of racing it as well as the peace of mind of the build being fairly maintenance-free.
Garcia grew up in the Chicago area and, right out of high school, he purchased a 1970 Buick Gran Sport from an auction. “I saw a Pontiac GTO that I wanted but it had some engine issues and my friend who went with me told me to pass on it. I kept looking and found the GS,” recalled the man, now 69 years old and happily retired, of the car that started his lifelong serial Buick ownership.
At the time, Indiana’s US 30 Drag Strip was alive and well, and Garcia frequented the facility to attend regular bracket races. After blowing the Buick’s engine, he replaced it with a big-block Chevrolet powerplant and continued until he married his wife, Cindy, in 1980 and started raising a family while working in the police force as a technician on the bomb squad.
He had other cars over the years, but nothing he deemed worthy of taking to the track. In the early 1990s, the Garcias relocated to Downers Grove, Illinois, and he met a neighbor who helped rekindle his affinity for adrenaline-filled pursuits.
“A guy down the street heard I was a gearhead. He had a [Buick] Grand National and took me to the track with him. We drove there with the air conditioning on and it ran 11-second quarter-miles…” Garcia reminisced. “…It was the most amazing car I had ever seen.” He admits he didn’t know much about the G-body platform then, but that trip inspired him to purchase his own in 1994.
Garcia owned and raced his beloved Grand National for roughly 17 years in both bracket and index categories. The car also inspired him to join the Chicagoland Buick Club in the early 2000s, and he’s been serving as the Race Director of the club’s BOP (Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac) Race Series for more than two decades.
He loved racing his Grand National more than he loved driving it on the street, and only accumulated 28,000 miles throughout the time he had it. “People were giving me a hard time for running low-11s with it and not having a roll cage or safety equipment, so I decided to build a car instead,” noted Garcia, whose first inclination was to purchase a big-block-powered 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle.
Fate intervened to put him back on track to owning another Buick in 2011, however, as Garcia sound found himself with the opportunity to purchase a 1974 Buick Apollo GSX from another member of his club, Tom Rix. “He raced the car in IHRA Top Stock and it was a national event winner and a record holder,” Garcia stated proudly of his car’s history. “Tom was a perfectionist and the car was absolutely immaculate.”
Given that the Apollo, a compact car manufactured only for a brief stint of three years in the early 1970s on the GM X platform, was General Motors’ Buick counterpart to the Chevrolet Nova, one of Garcia’s friends nicknamed the new purchase the “Confused Nova” and Garcia goodheartedly accepted the joke.
Garcia was so pleased with his purchase, though, that he has made no major updates or modifications in the dozen years that he’s owned it other than removing the stickers and lettering from Rix’s racing days; it remains in nearly 100 percent the same configuration as Rix originally raced it. “It came turn-key and I haven’t changed anything because that’s how well it was built,” he affirmed.
Under the hood sits a 462-cubic-inch Buick 455 V8 engine from renowned Buick engine master, Mike Phillips of Automotive Machine and Performance, that’s been filled with a stock Buick crankshaft, TA Performance Sportsman connecting rods, and Diamond pistons. “Mike built every engine for Tom Rix, and when I cracked cylinder number five and had to sleeve and rebuild it in 2020-2021, that was the last refresh he did before he retired,” noted Garcia of the honor he received. The engine is also equipped with stage II Buick heads, PAC valve springs, and TA rocker arms.
Although Garcia’s Grand National featured a turbocharged combination, he’s chosen to keep his racy red Apollo in its original, naturally aspirated and carbureted configuration. A single four-barrel Quick Fuel 950-cfm carb sits on top of an aluminum Holley SPX intake manifold and the engine is bracketed by a set of custom-made headers from a fabricator of Rix’s choosing.
FireCore Performance Products spark plug wires, an MSD ignition system, an electronic water pump, and a MagnaFuel fuel pressure regulator round out the form-over-function engine bay’s accouterments.
The engine is backed by a potent and reliable three-speed Turbo 400 transmission from Trans-Pro Racing Transmissions, a shop owned by a fellow Chicagoland Buick Club member, Mike Zaffino. “He’s one of the nicest guys in the world,” said Garcia. The transmission itself had been lightened significantly, as Rix was meticulous about reducing weight as much as possible, and fitted with an 8-inch ATI converter and CSR carbon fiber trans shield.
As Rix had raced in NHRA Stock-type categories, he left the Apollo’s suspension in its stock form and Garcia saw no need to make any changes there, either. The only upgrades Rix had made included a set of double-adjustable AFCO coilovers in the front, and Calvert Racing’s rear mono leaf springs with famed CalTrac traction bars to transform the vintage Buick’s handling from shoddy to solid.
Out back, a 12-bolt Moser rearend with matching Moser axles was installed. “Tom [Rix] even lightened the spool, polished the rearend, installed a lighter-than-aluminum Dynotech metal matrix composite driveshaft,” Garcia elaborated. At each corner, Rix outfitted the non-Nova with a set of Wilwood disc brakes to improve its stopping performance. “His goal was to lose as little power as possible from the engine to the rear tires.”
A 10-point roll cage fabricated by Marv Marksberry keeps the Apollo’s occupants safe from potential harm and a complete interior keeps everyone comfortable. The Buick’s original back seat is still in place, but the two front buckets have been replaced with a set from a Chevrolet Vega. Factory carpet and lots of other original odds and ends, save for an upgraded steering wheel, keep the showpiece looking period-correct as well.
Red paint covered the stock steel body panels around the same time that Rix had the cage installed, and Garcia took special care to pamper the eye-catching ride and keep it polished to perfection. Similarly, the chrome brightwork was buffed to a fine shine, but a contrasting fiberglass hood is secured with Dzus fasteners to add an updated, racy finishing touch.
“It’s kind of Plain Jane,” joked Garcia. “Until you start it up, it could maybe be a 12-second car, but then it’s… Wow! It sounds phenomenal.” Although he generally competes with the car on a high 9-second index, Garcia ran as quick as 9.44 seconds in the quarter mile in the past.
Despite its unintimidating outward appearance, Garcia’s Apollo certainly gets its fair share of attention for its unique yet familiar appearance. “Very often, people ask if it’s Tom Rix’s car. He was so well known and a lot of the older folks recognize it,” he proclaimed. 
Additionally, the Apollo often turns heads due to the wild wheel stands it so often produces. On small slick tires, either 9-inch Hoosiers for NMCA use or 10.5W Mickey Thompsons for Buick Club races, Garcia often finds himself staring sky-high and hunting the heavens for the car’s namesake shortly after launching.
“Even though I’d prefer it didn’t do them and I’ve tried to tame it a little, Tom was an entertainer and a crowd pleaser and would put this thing on the bumper whenever he raced it,” laughed the driver who often sees the Buick easily hike its wheels two or three feet in the air as it sits on its Alston wheelie bars and perfectly poses for pictures.
Garcia spent many seasons racing with the Chicagoland Buick Club with their series at Byron Dragway in Illinois and Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Dragaway. In 2022, he secured the Chicagoland series’ 2022 season championship; an impressive achievement in its own right. “Buicks are a dying breed and our car count has dwindled, so we’ve recently opened up to Oldsmobile and Pontiac, too, and have seen great attendance,” he said excitedly. The Club’s six-race series focuses on three at each participating track.
“I’ve also raced a few times at Route 66 Raceway [in Joliet, Illinois] with the NMCA. My fiberglass hood prevented me from doing Stock or Super Stock, and I wanted to try to run Nostalgia Muscle Car, but I had a two-step which wasn’t permitted, so I switched to Open Comp instead,” added Garcia, a lifelong bracket and index racer. The change worked out quite well for him, interestingly enough, as NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp runs on a .500 pro tree which happens to be Garcia’s preferred starting style.
When he does race with the NMCA, Garcia spends the weekends pitted with his friends. From hanging out in their motorhomes to avoid the summer sun to cooking out and eating, for him, the importance isn’t on winning, it’s on having fun with his friends.
In 2023, the fourth race of the Red Line Oil NMCA Muscle Car Nationals season took place at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan, and Garcia was on the property to attend the NMRA/NMCA Power Festival with his beautiful Buick.
In qualifying, his 0.023-second reaction time placed him seventeenth overall in the large field of forty-seven entries and he had run 10.077 at 115.86 mph on the pass. 
By the time eliminations began, Garcia was ready to get down to business and he did so in the first round with a 10.109 at 118.02 mph on his 9.94-second dial to take the win as Scott Pennington in the opposing lane ran 11.420 at 121.98 mph on his 11.27-second dial.
Round two saw yet another win for Garcia, this time with a quicker 9.913 at 122.98 mph trip over Todd Early. Garcia repeated the performance in round three, once again getting the win with a 9.933-second pass coupled with an impressive 0.008-second reaction time as he took down multi-time champion Susan Roush-McClenaghan.
Garcia was on a roll at this point, but someone shuffling on the starting line during his staging procedure for round four caused a bit of a distraction and his unexpectedly slow 0.262-second reaction time as a result cost him the race; Garcia went out to Doug Winters but ran his quickest pass of the weekend, a 9.897 at 134.01 mph trip. “It’s OK, this is a hobby for me — it’s not my life. And I still had a good time,” said the good sportsman.
Wanting to keep his car running as strong as possible for as long as possible, Garcia specifically detunes it a touch and intentionally runs slower than it's capable of. “When you’re bracket racing, there’s not a whole lot of difference between 9.40s and 9.70s, so it doesn’t matter,” elaborated the racer and tuner who doesn’t see the point in running all-out with his current combination. “I pull the timing at the launch so it’ll hook, then add some back in, then pull it out again in third gear, all for the safety and longevity of the engine. Compared to my Buick, this thing is a piece of cake to tune!”
Originally, Garcia had hoped to attend a few more NMCA events in 2023 but a little life hiccup got in the way. Instead, he’s simply pivoted his plans to focus on 2024 instead, where he will most likely race at five of the six scheduled events in the NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp category along with his six-race Buick Oldsmobile Pontiac series. “I don’t like to travel much because I’m not comfortable leaving my car at the track while I’m in a hotel,” he explained. “But, since my friends have motorhomes and stay at the track, now I’m OK with it because they’re babysitting.”
After 12 years of ownership, Garcia is still grateful every day to have had the opportunity to purchase a Tom Rix masterpiece and thankful for the minimal maintenance he’s had to invest in it. Although it wasn’t the Chevrolet of his boyhood dreams, his bright 1974 Buick Apollo GSX has become the capstone to a cool collection of Buicks that helped build a bracket racing career he can be proud of.
The Details
Owner: Joe Garcia  
Driver: Joe Garcia
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Occupation: Retired
Class: NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp
Crew: None
Car Year/Make/Model: 1974 Buick Apollo GSX
Engine: Buick 455 
Engine builder: Mike Phillips, Automotive Machine and Performance (Philpot, Kentucky) 
Displacement: 462 cubic inches
Block: Buick
Bore: 4.35 inches
Stroke: 3.90 inches
Crank: Stock Buick 
Rods: TA Sportsman 
Pistons: Diamond 
Heads: Buick Stage II
Valvetrain: PAC Valve Springs / TA 1.65 Rocker Arms
Cam-type: COMP Cam  Int Lift 569 Dur 299 / Exh Lift 577, Dur 314
Carburetor or EFI system: Carburetor Quick Fuel 950-cfm
Power-adder: None
Fuel brand and type: VP Racing Fuels 112
Headers and exhaust: Custom Built Headers (no exhaust)
Transmission: Light Weight Turbo 400 with CSR carbon fiber trans shield
Transmission Builder: Mike Zaffino (Pro Trans in Lansing Illinois
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Turbo Action Cheetah Shifter / ATI custom 8-inch converter
Rearend: Moser 12 Bolt with lightened spool and axles with 4.10 Richmond Pro Gear 
Body and/or chassis builder: All Metal Stock Body and Suspension/10-point Roll Bar
Suspension (Front): Stock with AFCO coil overs (Double Adjustable)
Suspension (Rear): Calvert Mono Leaf Spring and Traction Bars, Alston Wheelie bars
Brakes (Front): Wildwood Race Disc Brakes
Brakes (Rear): Wildwood Race Disc Brakes
Wheels (front): Generic
Wheels (Rear): Weld Racing
Tires (Front): Hoosier
Tires (Rear): Hoosier Radial Slicks, 9x30-inch
Driveshaft: Custom Dynotech Metal Matrix  
Aftermarket body modifications: Fiberglass Stage II hood
Safety equipment: NHRA Cert 8.50
Vehicle weight: 3,250 pounds
Quickest ET: 9.44 seconds
Best 60-foot: 1.25 seconds
Fastest mph: 140

join our

email list

You’ll be first to know about NMCA events, race results and so much more!