Who ever said you have to spend a ton of coin to go fast?
Since the beginning, mechanical prowess has always found a way to equal and even supersede the existence of deeper pockets — that’s the hot rodding way, afterall. But GM’s venerable range of LS engines have made speed cheaper and more accessible than ever, and Florida native Rusty Hidalgo has taken full advantage of the platform to motivate his classic ’72 Caprice around cars of significantly greater cost in all regards to his own. And it’s a fact he takes particular pride in.
I’m the one trying to show them you don’t need all of this stuff or a lot of money to be in this game.
Hidalgo is a part of south Florida’s ever-growing scene of “donk” drag racers — generally defined as 1971-76 Caprice’s and Malibu’s rolling on outlandish 24-28-inch wheels — but he’s taken bit of a controversial, outsider approach, instead opting to run his old-school ride on slicks and factory steel wheels rather than rely on the rubber-band-thin sidewalls of the tires his counterparts utilize to put his horsepower to the ground.
Under the hood of Hidalgo’s mount is a 2005 5.3-liter LS engine he pulled — naturally — from a junkyard that he paired with a set of no-name aluminum heads from China and a camshaft he bought off of Craigslist. Still stock bottom end, of course. The engine runs on 93 octane pump gas fed from an in-tank Walbro 450 fuel pump. Hidalgo notes, “it’s pretty much a slapped-together car, just using what pats I had at the time.” He sourced a BorgWarner 80mm turbocharger for it, and using some stock manifolds and a little homage fabrication, concocted the turbo setup that’s helped the old engine produce far more power than it probably has any business making.
“As soon as it gets into boost, it gets crazy,” he comments.
Hidalgo has backed it up with a Turbo 400 transmission and a 3,600 RPM stall converter, transferring out to a 8.5 10-bolt rearend.
“I pieced the car together, because when I picked it up, it was pretty much the way you see it but had a 350 small-block with a 350 transmission and a stock differential. I wasn’t going to use any of that, so at the time I had a ’96 Impala and I basically took everything off the Impala and retrofitted it onto the ’72 — the brake system, steering, suspension, the differential. It’s a stock suspension car with adjustable upper and lower controls arms and some Competition Engineering shocks, but it doesn’t have any coilovers or an anti-roll bar. It’s a pretty sketchy car when it gets up past the eighth-mile.
“I wasn’t really planning on the car coming out the way it has. It’s worked out pretty well, and it’s given me a lot more than I thought it would,” he adds. “It definitely needs some refining, but the way it’s working now, it’s pretty quick. At Darlington, it went 10.70 at 128 mph. It’s making 740 horsepower on 18 pounds of boost. It also has a 200-shot of nitrous on it — every time I’ve tried to run it, a switch didn’t arm it or the race night ended or something, so I haven’t hit it yet to get a number with it.”
Rutsy spent three months putting the car together and says since the day it was together, it’s been a matter of “beating the dog-piss out of it.”
This “donk” has all the amenities of a ’72 Caprice: “roll-down windows, and well, that’s about it,” he shares with a laugh. While licensed and tagged for the street, he says it’s “a bit risqué” for driving past a certain hour, given the exhaust is routed right through the hood.
[Donk racing] is a sport down here they call donk racing, and I happen to be what you might call the rebel of the group — the one that likes to put the slicks on the car.
Hidalgo is already planning his next move, with some 10-inch aluminum rear wheels, an anti-roll bar, a boost controller, and an upgraded air-to-water intercooler on the way in an effort to make a little more power and transfer it a little better. With said changes, the hope is to belt out 1,000 horsepower on both power adders — and hurt some feelings while picking his competitors’ pockets.
“They’ve got a lot of donks down here in Florida and they have a lot of high-horsepower engines in them. They run them on these big rims, and the majority of the time the car is limited in what it can do because they retard them on timing so much to get them to hook. It’s a sport down here they call donk racing, and I happen to be what you might call the rebel of the group — the one that likes to put the slicks on the car. It’s gotten to be pretty big and people are putting a lot of money into it. I figure this car couldn’t have put me past $6,500 to $7,000, and that’s only possible because I’m my own mechanic, my own builder, I do it all myself.”
The whole scene, he says, is largely predicated on racers trying to outspend the next — both on the cars and the bets — “they might have 50, 60, 80 thousand dollars in their cars, and they’re all trying go be bigger than the next guy. I’m not trying to be that guy. I’m the one trying to show them you don’t need all of this stuff or a lot of money to be in this game.”
“Everybody tries to consider me like I’m the FarmTruck, but I consider myself to be Kamikaze,” in a reference to the cars and characters of Street Outlaws. “I built my car to prove a point. If the 5.3 blows, I can get another one for $300 or $400 and we can play this game all day.