The Taming of the Turbos
On May 19, Annette Summer and her 1957 Chevy Bel Air-bodied Pro Mod turned in a 4.15-seconds performance at 179.52 mph over the eighth mile at Carolina Dragway. Now, for most front-running Pro Mod pilots that might be a decent lap, but probably not cause for great celebration. For the lady they call “Pink,” though, it marked a momentous occasion.
“I told all my friends it was like being pregnant for three years and finally giving birth,” she says. “Finally, it makes a run and we can be happy again and carry on. But it was three years of hell. I’m not kidding, it’s been rough because we didn’t have anyone to help us.”
Summer is recalling the odyssey that she and husband/crew chief Vern Summer embarked on in 2003 when they decided to make the switch to running turbocharged powerplants. Making the change even more challenging, just a year earlier the Aiken, SC-based duo had made the jump to full-time Pro Modified status after enjoying several seasons on top of the Pro Street scene.
Summer made her IHRA Pro Mod debut with her current ride, a ’57 Chevy Bel Air originally created by Tim McAmis, in July 2002 at Leicester, NY, after purchasing it earlier that year from current IHRA Pro Mod champion Mike Castellana. She started with nitrous-assisted horsepower between the frame rails, but after qualifying not even once that first year, a decision was reached in the off season to go with turbo power and a new Vanishing Point-built ’63 Corvette for the 2003 campaign.
“I was originally against it because I had worked with nitrous all my life, but as I got to running them (turbos) I started to like the challenge of making it happen,” says Vern Summer, who has been down the pioneering road before.
“Twenty years ago I was actually suspended from IHRA for running one of the first nitrous cars in what’s now Top Sportsman,” he explains. “I thought it was legal and so did the guy that teched me in. But for both of us, it was our first IHRA race. He got in trouble, I got suspended, my momma got in the middle of it, and they unsuspended me and let me come back at Rockingham. So there was a time when nitrous was new and wasn’t allowed on the grounds, too.”
The Corvette served as Summer’s test bed for the first couple of years, mostly with a 600 cubic incher up front pressurized by a pair of Duttweiler turbos. Countless turbo ducting configurations, gearing experiments, tire size and type changes, and even substantial body modifications followed, but the ‘Vette remained a real handful, notoriously shaking the tires on practically every run.
“We’ve literally put thousands and thousands of hours into this thing with test after test and I hate testing like that,” Vern says. “I like to test and find something new, but all we’ve been doing is trying to find a good combination and it’s like getting a shot of adrenaline when it finally does good.”
A turning point for the team came in October 2004 at the ADRL’s inaugural Dragstock event in Jackson, SC, when noted tuner Darrell Makins, formerly with Scotty Cannon’s championship-winning Pro Mod team, walked up to their pit, unexpectedly announcing he wanted to get involved in their turbo program.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘Have you lost your mind? I mean, this is so hard.’ But he has been the missing piece of the puzzle for us,” Summer says. “He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life; he can figure anything out, draw it out, design it, and then make it.”
Vern Summer heaps praise on Makins, too. “Without Darrell I’d be in trouble because I’m just a wrench guy. I’m a mechanic and I can fix anything on the car and I can peck on the computer a little, but it’s just evolution. Right now Darrell can make that motor do anything he wants it to, no matter how much boost we need, when it comes on, how quick you want it, he can make it happen.”
With Makins’ help, the ‘Vette finally made it happen last October at the Orlando World Street Finals, when Summer steered it to the number-one qualifying position in 6.404 seconds at 220.21 mph. She later ran a career-best 227.84 mph in the opening round of eliminations and her qualifying time stood up as low E.T. of the meet. Significantly, the Orlando event also marked the first race with her current combination of a 526 c.i. engine and a pair of Innovative Turbos 101 millimeter units under the hood.
“The Vette was so nose heavy when it had those big, monster turbos on it, but these new Innovative turbos took off I think about 55 pounds from the nose of the car and then it started working like it should,” Summer says. Still, despite the car’s new-found success, Summer’s team began reconsidering the ’57 rolling chassis that was lying idle in a corner of their race shop.
“One day we had everything out of the Corvette and decided to switch it over and when we put it on the scales it wound up being about 300 pounds lighter. So, given that the ADRL is the only place I can run a circuit and it’s eighth-mile racing, we thought maybe we could be competitive with a lightweight car—even though a turbo car usually is not competitive in the eighth mile.”
The ’57 now weighs in at just over 2,650 pounds, which just happens to be about the minimum it probably would need if approved for IHRA Pro Mod competition. According to Summer, that’s no coincidence.
“I’ve been talking with (IHRA Technical Director) Mike Baker probably about a year and a half now, we e-mail, talk on the phone, and he wanted me to come last year and make exhibition runs. But I told him, ‘Until I can be competitive and the car can make repeated runs I’m not going anywhere. But I’ll keep you posted on what combination I have in the car and what it does and everything about it.’
“We’re trying to base it on the guidelines of a blown car,” she continues. “He (Baker) knows what clutch, what size tires, what transmission we’re running, etc. There’ll be a little bit of difference because the blown cars have a gear ratio rule and other minor things, but we’re just giving them (IHRA) data now so they can make the rules for the future.”
And the future, like it or not, lies in turbocharged powerplants, states Vern Summer. “The kids like it, the factories like it—I don’t have to like it—but I do now,” he quickly adds with a smile. In fact, he no longer even seems to mind all the trials and tribulations he’s been through to make the turbo combination work. “I was talking with Darrell a little while ago and he pointed out if we hadn’t had all this trouble we wouldn’t know as much as we do now.” The man knows what he’s talking about.