No one can predict where they’ll end up as they chase their racing dreams, it’s an unpredictable ride that will take a whole lot of turns. Luis Martinez started out racing his family’s 11-second bracket car but now finds himself wheeling a turbocharged LS-powered 1969 Nova with over 2,000 horsepower under his right foot. It’s been a wild journey for Luis and he’s ready to see where it will take him next.
Luis first started going to race tracks like Maple Grove Raceway and Island Dragway when he was just three years old. Luis Martinez, Sr., Luis’ father, would campaign his small block Ford-powered Pinto at these tracks.
“My dad always welcomed me into the shop to help him with the racecars when I was a kid. I was attracted to racing because I always looked up to my dad, he was my hero. The race track itself was the other thing that drew me towards racing. The smells, the sounds, seeing the cars race down the track going fast really got my attention. When I was a little kid it was just always about cars, I had Hot Wheels, toy cars, they’ve always been something that I was infatuated with,” Luis states.
Eventually, the elder Martinez would purchase a 1965 Mercury Comet to race, and that was ultimately the car Luis, Jr. would start racing.
“When I turned 16 years old my dad put me in the Comet and let me start racing. That car had a small-block Ford in it and ran 11s…I thought it was the fastest thing on Earth at the time. When I turned 18, dad sold the entire racing operation so he could do the responsible thing and work in improving our family’s home,” Luis says.
Racing was just too expensive of a hobby for Luis to pursue after his father sold the Comet, so he took a break for a few years. When he got back into racing, he decided to try a different form of motorsport: drifting.
“I built a Formula Drift team and did that for a while with Brad Henniger as my driver…this is well before he was my crew chief. We did that for a few years but realized we just didn’t have the budget to run with the big teams. I sold the drifting operation and moved to Maryland but really didn’t have any money to race so I took a break again,” Luis explains.
The Nova that Luis now drives was originally purchased by his father 15 years go. Luis, Sr. found the car near his parents home in a neighbor’s yard. He would ask if they wanted to sell the car and the answer was always no, until one day they decided it was time for the Nova to go. Since the Nova had sat outside in the yard for so long it wasn’t in the best of shape, but he purchased the car for a mere $800 and it was perfect for what Luis wanted to do.
“Dad restored the car, painted it bright yellow, added some stripes, and dropped in a 350 cubic-inch small–block Chevy. He drove the car on the street for years and took it to car shows. Eventually, dad decided he wanted to make the car faster and put a turbocharger on it. I told him that we needed to ditch that small-block Chevy and put an LS-based engine in it. Dad is old school, he likes carburetors and distributors, but in the end, he decided my plan was the way to go,” Luis says.
The Nova was going to be an 800 horsepower street car with a roll cage and would go to the track on occasion. Luis was well on his way to making this happen and even got the Nova on the dyno for final tuning, but that’s when disaster struck. A mechanical failure occurred during the Nova’s tuning session and destroyed the engine. Undaunted, Luis and his father picked up another LS that could handle even more power, put it together, and ended up making a respectable 1,480 horsepower to the tires.
Luis kept working on refining the Nova more and the project really began take shape. The problem is that the car was starting to grow some serious muscles and Luis’ father wasn’t sure if it was something he could drive.
“The project started to get out of hand…it was originally a father/son build, but dad told me to keep the car because it just got too fast. Things really started to spiral out of control after that, and now the car makes around 2,000 horsepower. It’s still a street car with tags and insurance. I recently put headlights and turn signals on it so I could drive it at night. For the longest time when I took it to car shows and cruise-ins I would have to leave early to get home before dark, but that’s not a problem anymore,” Luis says.
The Nova’s 388 cubic-inch LS mill was built by Mike Lough Racing Engines in Oak Ridge, Missouri. Luis worked with Lough to create a powerplant that would be a killer on the track, but still had good street manners so it could make trips to get ice cream. The engine is controlled by a Holley Dominator ECU and is tuned by PSR performance. Since the Nova is a no-time car, Luis is pretty tight-lipped about what parts are used in the engine and the exact amount of horsepower it makes.
The Nova makes plenty of boost thanks to the single 88mm Garrett GTX 5533R Pro Mod turbo that is stationed at the front of the car. A pair of VS Racing blow-off valves and Precision Turbo & Engine wastegates ensure the boost stays at the exact level PSR Performance commands. To keep all the boosted air nice and cold, Luis added a water-to-air intercooler from Tick Performance. Transmission Specialties was selected to build a stout Powerglide transmission that’s paired with an FTI bolt-together torque converter as part of the Nova’s drivetrain.
Horsepower is awesome, but if you don’t have the right suspension it’s useless, and Luis didn’t skimp in this department. Under the rear of the Nova, you’ll find a Quick Performance Ford 9-inch rearend that uses a set of Moser Engineering 35-spline axles, a Moser spool, and a set of 3.78 gears. A set of JRI shocks have been added to the rear suspension, along with a Calvert Caltracks leaf spring system and a TRZ swaybar. The front suspension uses a full set of TRZ control arms, AFCO shocks, and AFCO springs.
For wheels, Luis elected to use a set of RC Components Torx wheels in the front and rear of the Nova. Mickey Thompson tires are wrapped around each of the wheels, with a pair of 28×10.5 radials putting the power down in the rear. Wilwood brakes are used in the front, and Aerospace Components in the rear to bring the Nova to a stop after each pass.
The Nova still retains a steel roof and quarter panels; the rest of the body panels are composite parts from Glasstek. Luis was never a fan of the yellow paint that covered the Nova originally, so he had PSR Performance spray it with Shark Steel Gray, a color found on the C7 Corvette.
Luis currently races the Nova in the Carolina N/T series and picks up grudge races when he can. The Nova could end up going class racing next season since it does fit the rules for Ultra Street and X275. When he’s not making laps in the Nova, Luis is bracket racing his small block Chevy-powered 1974 Vega in Super Pro at different tracks each weekend.
The Nova has been a fulfilling project for Luis since he got to work with his father so much on the build. It has taken a lot of help to get the Nova to this level and Luis is thankful to have such a great team around him to make it happen.
“The support I’ve received from my mom Blanca and my father has been amazing. My friends Brad Hettinger, Justin Conrad, Mike Serrano, Desiree Star, Jesse Fleck, Charlie Smith, and Craig Serra have all played a big role in getting this car done, or helping me out at the track. If it wasn’t for this group of people, I wouldn’t be able to race at the level I do, and it’s a lot of fun just having them around on this journey,” Luis says.
Luis Martinez’s voyage through the drag racing world has been guided by the lessons he learned from his father. The time he spent growing up working on his family’s racecars put him on a trajectory that included plenty of racing. Luis will always be able to enjoy his Nova knowing it’s something that was heavily influenced by the biggest hero in his life, his father.