Boy, have we got a treat for readers! We are honored to get the inside scoop on this 1966 Chevrolet Nova being rebuilt by the legendary Top Fuel drag racer Larry Dixon. This little Nova was his personal “streetcar” in the ’80s, and has been in Larry’s possession since then. In our multi-part series, Larry will recall his story of the car, let us follow along as the build progresses, and then, execute his plans leading up to Drag Week 2016.
Before this rebuilding process began, like many hot rods of the day, Larry’s car was fitted with a small-block Chevrolet engine, and could frequently be seen terrorizing the streets of his hometown of Indianapolis. As we’re sure you are aware, Larry has been racing cars for as long as he could reach the pedals, but when his racing career became his official day job in 1995, that meant that the trusty Nova was not going to receive much attention, as professional obligations kept Larry busy.
Fast forward to 2016 when Larry decided that it is time to get back in touch with his Nova. But, some big changes are going to be part of the plan. In 2015, Chevrolet announced the release of its LT4 crate engine, and this supercharged animal is capable of producing 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque. Do you see where we’re going with this story?
My story on the ’66 really starts out with a ’55 Chevy, which was my first car. – Larry Dixon
In case you haven’t put two and two together, This new engine will be getting installed into Larry’s Nova. Anyway, since this little Nova will now have an over abundance of horsepower, it needs to be able to stretch its legs – and not simply by parking at cruise nights – so Larry came up with a plan to rebuild his Nova to participate in Hot Rod magazine’s Drag Week. What does all this mean to you guys? This means that Larry is teaming up with Chevrolet Performance and Power Automedia to deliver you a series of articles that will not only entertain you, but also show you what it takes to install this all-new engine in a vintage car. So sit back, read the articles about the actual build of the car, and then how things go during Drag Week. With that being said, we want to let Larry introduce himself, and his Nova, to all of you folks reading this article.
Apparently, Larry’s little sister was trying to lay claim to his first car, a ’55 Chevy, before he could do anything with it.
Here Is My Story, By Larry Dixon
Everybody that reading this is a true car guy or gal, and everybody has a car-related story. This one is mine. My name is Larry Dixon, and for the better part of the last 20 years, I have been driving Top Fuel cars in NHRA competition. Before competing professionally in NHRA, I lived a normal life. When I was younger, I worked at a couple of gas stations, (when there were full-service islands, cleaning windows, and all), a speed shop for a couple years, and even did a stint at Ed Pink Racing Engines (that one was before I got my driver’s license, and I used to ride my bicycle to work after school). I’m explaining this so you understand that I am a regular car guy that simply hasn’t had time to play with my car. Now that I have a reduced schedule, I’m making time for my ride.
So the mission is, (and I do choose to accept it), to rebuild my 1966 Chevy Nova II, update it to 21st century standards, and compete in this year’s Drag Week. I heard about Drag Week four or five years ago, and I have been fascinated with the concept ever since. The thought of driving to five race tracks in five days – each a couple hundred miles apart, with just what you can carry in your car, or in a small trailer towed by your car – sounds like a lot of fun to me.
I really love the street essence of this event, but with my past schedule, I haven’t been able to go. Last year’s furthest east part of schedule ran through my hometown of Indianapolis, so I was able to go out for the day. I have to be honest, driving into the pits and not having a hauler there brought me back to when I was a kid, racing high school bracket meets in Palmdale, California.
Turning a ’55 Chevy Into A ’66 Chevy II
My story on the ’66 really starts out with a ’55 Chevy, which was my first car. It was a two-door sedan that I got when I was in sixth grade. My parents wanted me to sell my motorcycle (I was pretty reckless) and get a car. The ’55 they chose for me didn’t have an engine or transmission (or much of anything really, it was a shell), so they thought I would be safe for a while. Over the course of the next 10 years, I worked to get it running, and after that, to get it running faster. The first go around with it was in 1986, and the car ran low 13-second e.t.’s in the 1/4-mile. I was not content, so then came a bigger engine, fiberglass doors and front end, and Lexan windows. In 1987, the car ran 11.0-second e.t.’s. Around this time I realized I didn’t have a streetcar anymore, I had an actual racecar
Larry and his dad at Cackle Fest. Image: AA Fueler
For those that don’t know, my dad raced Top Fuel cars in the ’60s and ’70s, and for the better part of five years, one was powered by a big-block Chevy. I read everything I could on Chevys and drag racing, and two Chevy groups I idolized during high school were Reher, Morrison and Shepherd, and anything that came out of Bill Jenkins’ shop. I think I read Bill’s book about building a high-performance Chevy engines 100 times. Jenkins had a Chevy II that he ran in Stock Eliminator in 1966, and he ran against and beat Hemi cars in the same class. His smaller car with a smaller engine was beating bigger cars with bigger engines.
In 1988, I acquired my Chevy II. A friend of mine owned the car while I was living in California’s San Fernando Valley. This true Super Sport originally had a 327ci engine, and a four-speed transmission. One day, my buddy broke the engine, so he pulled it out to fix it. Unfortunately for him, the project was stalled by a lack of funds. The car was literally parked in the street, and on street cleaning days, he would have to push it out of the way so that way it wouldn’t get towed. For seven months, I continually asked him about buying the car. He finally agreed to sell it to me for $700 without the engine or transmission.
I was working at the speed shop at the time, so I secured a deal for a 350ci small-block and a Turbo 350 transmission. I also installed a set of 3.73 gears in the 10-bolt rearend, and added a small nitrous oxide system. I had a very reliable driver-quality car that ran 12-second e.t.’s on motor, and 11-second e.t.’s on the bottle through stock exhaust manifolds. It was the perfect car for me. Although I could drive it, the car needed paint and body work. But, I needed to gather more funds to pull that off.
Larry with his Chevy Nova, sometime around 1996.
Life Goes Professional
This is where Don Prudhomme comes into the picture. It’s the summer of 1988, and I get a call from him (my friend answered the phone and I thought he was screwing with me). He needed a crew guy that was available on short notice. It paid well enough that I could save enough money by the end of the season to paint my ride. By the way, the car still isn’t painted, but maybe this winter. I soon realized that I had a great time working with the crew on his Funny Car, and I really liked working there. Who knew that Snake would go from driving Funny Cars to Top Fuel cars, and I would go from being a crew member to driving for him? I worked there for 20 years, all the while, keeping my Nova, but not doing much to it or with it.
Larry as a crew member on Don Prudhmme’s dragster.Image: NHRA
Now that my schedule slowing down, I decided that now is the time to get back to enjoying my Nova. Drag Week is actually occurring in my neck of the woods, and I feel that this is the year to participate. Only now, I feel the drivetrain needs a complete makeover. My 11-second Nova isn’t going to be competitive, and there are streetcars that can run 6-second, 1/4-mile times!
I remember when my dad was the seventh guy to ever to run a 5-second e.t. in the 1/4-mile with a Top Fuel car, and the first to do it with a stock-block Chevy. It’s amazing how efficient engines and drivetrain packages can be these days with EFI, superchargers, nitrous, and turbos. They really have changed the landscape, and ultimately the time slip. So, my goal is to get my ride to run in the 9’s on pump gas, and get 20-plus mpg.
Opinions vary about what makes the ultimate streetcar, but this is going to be Larry’s version. I want to have a car that I can pile my wife and three kids into, and go to Woodward Dream Cruise if we want. I also want to go to a local Grudge Night race, pop the hubcaps off, and put a number on the board that won’t have people laugh me out of the pits. Oh yeah, and I want to do it legally.
The small-block in the Nova has served Larry well, but the LT4 will be an upgrade like never before imagined.
We Have A Plan
Initially, this car wasn’t built solely for track use. When I used to run it at the track, I couldn’t get away with running 12-second e.t.’s without a rollbar, so I would save the nitrous for the last run of the day, collect my time slip, and be on my way. Now, with 9-second elapsed times as a goal, the car is going to need a lot more than just a rollbar. To run legally in the 9-second range at the track, the upgrades I need to make to the car mean adding a 10-point rollcage, a window net, five-point safety harness, battery disconnect switch, and an aluminum bulkhead separating the trunk and interior. I know that’s a lot of mods, but maintaining as much of a stock appearance as I can is a must.
So, over the next few months, I look to share with you how things are progressing in my quest to attend Drag Week, and I look forward to sharing this build with you. I also want to thank Power Automedia and some of the vendors like Classic Industries and Chevrolet Performance, that have helped along the way to help me finish what I started 28 years ago. And maybe, just maybe, I will get to paint the car after this.