Veteran NHRA sportsman drag racer Jim Cowan has embarked on a new racing venture, set to become one of the pioneers of the highly-anticipated new Factory Experimental (FX) category. Cowan, a longtime Competition Eliminator racer and chassis builder from Surprise, Arizona, has partnered with Rob Smith to build what is anticipated to be the first Chevrolet COPO Camaro in the class to hit the pavement — a goal they hope to achieve over the next few weeks.
The 71-year-old Cowan and his son, Kyle, built the entire car from the ground up at their American Racecraft shop, beginning with a collection of parts last February. The Cowan’s got to work on the project, which is owned by Smith, earlier than most, and is believed to be one of the just three cars at or near completion at this time.
“In the beginning when they first started talking about the class, what really drew Rob and I to this was that it would be heads-up racing, and that we’d be racing with a five-speed,” Cowan says. “It brought me back to the days of the Modified Production type of cars. It’s blown a little more out of proportion than that now, of course…it’s more like right in between a Pro Stock car and a Factory Stock Showdown car, in essence. But that’s really what had our interest. We’ve been running Competition Eliminator for a long time, and we had thought about doing Pro Stock, but that’s just a little beyond what Rob wanted to spend. This seemed like a good fit for us.”
“I started at the ground floor like everyone else, but elected to build a body panel car like we used to with the old Pro Stock cars. I bought all steel components, and had this thing all put together that way,” Cowan explains. “A couple of months ago I got my hands on one of the composite front ends that GM and Five Star are making, so I changed the car out to that one-piece front end, instead of having steel fenders and hood. Because of how I built the car, we’re a lot further along than most cars…Chevrolet is putting out carbon-fiber doors, and bumpers, and rockers, and a lot of customers at the bigger chassis shops are just waiting on parts. Depending on how the weight comes out, I might switch over to the carbon doors…I gutted the factory doors out, but they’re still pretty heavy.”
Smith and Cowan have tabbed former Pro Stock racer Tom Martino to build the 350 cubic-inch, Whipple-supercharged engine for the car. “Tom started doing our Comp engines about three years ago, and he really woke our program up for us,” Cowan says of Martino. The factory-based powerplant will be backed with a Liberty’s transmission. All of the suspension components are from Adam Lambert and company at Precision Racing Suspension (PRS).
Like fellow FX class racer Geoff Turk, Cowan says he envisions the cars running in the 6.70s to 6.80s, at around 205 mph.
The FX category has, on many occasions, been discussed as a feasible transition for the Pro Stock category, which has suffered in recent years from lack of manufacturer diversity and relatability to the spectators. Without so much as a single exhibition pass on record at an NHRA event to date, even the possibility of such a seismic shift in the sport’s ultimate doorslammer category is a long way off. The names involved, or rumored to be involved in the near future, run the gamut, from those with 20-plus race, full-time aspirations, to those who view their racing endeavors as a rather expensive hobby.
Cowan, a traditional sportsman racer with other obligations in life to tend to beyond a full-time racing schedule — nevermind the finances that would be required to do so — is squarely of the mindset that he’d like to see the FX class become a 6-10 race program, in a similar vein to Pro Mod or the Factory Stock Showdown. “We’d love to have a points championship to run after. It just depends how NHRA categorizes them when this thing really gets up and running, because I know there’s going to be a lot of cars, and a lot of people will be drawn to it. Whether it’s any cheaper to run than Pro Stock…probably a little bit, but I still think there’s going to be a lot of interest. If the NHRA can keep these cars looking stock, it will be more relatable and exciting for the spectators. The average Joe that drives his Camaro SS to the races and sits up in the stands will be able to say, ‘hey, that looks like my car.’ Conversely, a Pro Stock car, they’re so much smaller ands more aerodynamic, a lot of people have a hard time relating to that. Even though these cars are slammed way down on the ground, these cars are very evident in reflecting a car that’s out on the road.”
Cowan adds, “I think by next year we’ll for sure have a full field, and maybe upwards of 20 of these cars.”
With the Camaro effectively a roller, Martino is now simply waiting on parts to get the engine built, tested, and prepared to drop between the framerails. From there, Cowan and Smith have about two weeks of work — building headers, wiring, plumbing, induction system, and so on — ahead of them to be ready to fire the car. Cowan’s hope is to make one of the early scheduled points stops, at either Norwalk in late June, or Topeka in mid August. “We were really going hard to make the first exhibition race, but we realized it wasn’t going to happen, and so we decided to step back a little back and move forward with things as they come.”
Cowan’s camp will include son, Kyle, who will eventually handle the clutch work, wife and team manager Deb, Smith on engine maintenance duties, and fellow Competition Eliminator racer Ken Justice handling the tuning.
“I tell everyone I’m 61; I still have a lot of energy and a lot of drive. I’m really looking forward to this…I’ve driven different cars over the many years, got to match race a Pro Stock car, drove a Pro Mod once, made a lap in a fuel Altered, bracket-raced a four-speed car, and driven manual and automatic Comp cars, so I’ve jumped into a lot of cars. I know the first time I let go of the clutch on the Pro Stock car, it was quite the thrill.”