Sleepers are where you find them. Or, more often, where they find you. The '68-'72 Nova has become the most popular choice for sleeper status because it is one of the few remaining cars from the early '70s that can still be found for a decent price. Most of these cars are cruisers, but occasionally you will run across one that does much more than it appears-the sleeper. You may recall back in the April issue we featured Troy LaCrone's black 8-second Nova ("Back in Black"). That car was pretty radical. Before Troy put his spin on the bad-in-black Nova, the car used to sit on Tom Oermann's shop floor. That small-block was a bit too high strung for Tom, which begat his current X-Body adventure.
But just because Tom sold his 8-second car to buddy Troy doesn't mean Tom doesn't like to go fast. In fact, his move to the silver car is still quicker than most guys' 1,320-foot aspirations. This latest Nova is no slug when you consider its best pass to date is a 9.87 at 134.50 mph. What makes this Nova fun is that it garners very few second glances, and that's just how Tom likes it.
Pop the hood, and right away the bling-casters are unimpressed. Where's the monster-inch Rat motor with the fabricated valve covers and centrifugal blower? In its stead is a much more low-key small-block. It doesn't even have aluminum heads. The more knowledgeable will point to the Dart heads and acknowledge that when combined with a big cam and a good induction system, there's plenty of power potential in Tom's combination. Of course, there's also that telltale plate with the NOS Cheater solenoids. Tom doesn't try to hide it, but that doesn't mean it's there just for decoration, because he's got it dialed in for a serious, all-or-nothing 250hp shot. Tom's never had the engine on the dyno. According to him, "My car is my dyno." Because we were curious, we dialed up our handy power-speed calculator and with a race-ready 3,480-pound car with driver, a 134-mph trap speed equals something close to 700 flywheel horsepower. Not bad for an all-iron small-block.
All this didn't happen overnight. In fact, Tom's owned this car for more than 10 years. "I bought it from my neighbor back when you could get these cars for $600, complete with the Thrifty Six." Those days of cheap Novas are gone now, especially when you consider the car had only 54,000 original miles. The low mileage made the transition from caf cruiser to street sweeper much less of a struggle. Even the wheeltubs are stock width, despite the fact that Tom has stuffed 10-inch-wide Hoosier QuickTime Pro DOT tires under the back. "It's tight, but they don't rub."
Tom puts plenty of miles on the street with his Nova and has run up against his buddy Troy more than once. The last foray almost put the car into the guardrail, so now he prefers to hit the nitrous only on the track. The problem there is that sharp-eyed readers will notice there's no rollbar in the car. "I've got away with running low 10s a couple of times," Tom says in reference to the Nova's lack of safety equipment. But to keep running the car at the track, it's inevitable that there's interior tubing in this Nova's future.
Besides the emphasis on horsepower, the real secret behind Tom's very efficient elapsed time can be found in the rear springs and Calvert Racing CalTracs bars. Initially, Tom tried just the CalTracs bars with the stock multileaf rear-spring setup. "When we videotaped the launch, the car would hit the tires so hard it would actually compress the sidewall down to where the rim would almost touch the asphalt. Then it would push back, bounce the front-end, unload the rear, and spin the tires." After talking with Calvert owner John Calvert, Tom tried the new two-piece rear monoleaf spring system called the Split-Leaf Mono spring that comes in two overlapping pieces front to rear. By adding a stiffer front section, Tom was able to increase the compression stiffness to soften the initial hit on the rear tires. The new springs also increased ride height by 1 inch, which helped tire clearance. Tom went with John's suggestion for a shock as well, using a Rancho compression-adjustable shock, again to fine-tune the compression rate of the rear suspension. There's not even any preload in the system. With the rear suspension tuned and an original set of six-cylinder coil springs in the front with adjustable shocks, Tom's 60-foot times are not only quick at 1.37 seconds, but much more consistent as well. "It's great. It pulls the front wheels about 8-10 inches off the line and sets the front tires down so softly, I can't even feel it," Tom says. Tom may not feel it, but the victim in the lane next to him probably does.
Who: Tom Oermann
What: '71 Nova
Where: Tom's from Lonedell, Missouri, the Show Me State.
Short-block: Instead of massive inches, Tom relies on quality parts from a relatively small 383 with an internally balanced 3.75-inch stroke and only a 4.030-inch bore. Cola makes the 4340 steel crank while Eagle 5.7-inch H-beam rods take the pressure from a set of Ross forged pistons squeezing the air and fuel at 11:1. Lubrication is important when you spin a small-block up with this much power so Tom uses a full kick-out Milodon pan and pump assembly.
Camshaft: Tom tapped Lunati for the camshaft duties, using an oval-track-style roller for durability measuring 258/268 degrees of duration at 0.050-inch tappet lift with 0.600/0.618-inch lift with a 106 degree lobe-separation angle. There's also a Manley double roller chain involved with all this action and a set of 0.080-inch wall-thickness Comp Cams pushrods that make the connection between the roller followers and the rocker arms.
Heads: Big power also means big ports, so Tom chose a pair of 230cc Dart Iron Eagle heads fitted with 2.05/1.60-inch stainless steel valves and large 1.625-inch diameter K-Motion valvesprings with titanium retainers just to keep the weight manageable. Rather than rely on stud-mounted rockers, Tom opted for a Jesel 1.7:1 shaft rocker system to keep the valvetrain stable at higher engine speeds. Of course, the heads are not nearly stock, with full-race porting completed by Ron's Porting Service located in St. Charles, Missouri.
Induction: Nothing less than a big, single-plane Edelbrock Super Victor with an 850-cfm Barry Grant Demon carburetor forms the induction path and is the platform for a simple NOS Cheater system pumping 250 hp through a single-stage plate system
Exhaust: All that nitrous also demands a very efficient exhaust exit strategy consisting of a set of 171/48-inch Hooker Super Comp headers and pair of 3-inch Fowmaster Delta series mufflers.
Transmission: Tom grinds transmissions for a living, but that doesn't mean there's some wild, exotic gearbox behind his nitrous'd small-block. In keeping with his understated intentions, that's a simple Turbo 350 behind the 383 with stock ratios and an ATI 8-inch torque converter that spins up to 4,500 rpm before it launches the Nova.
Rearend: Tom started with a DTS custom 12-bolt, adding Strange 35-spline axles and a spool that spins with a set of Strange 4.11 gears connected by a Mark Williams aluminum driveshaft. There's also a TA Performance aluminum cover to help keep everything properly preloaded.
Rear suspension: When you make enough power to push a 3,280-pound missile into the high 9s at 134-plus miles per hour, you'd better make sure the chassis is up to the task. Tom added a set of frame connectors to stiffen the body and then added a set of those new Calvert Racing (calvertracing.com) Split-Leaf Mono springs that creates the opportunity to stiffen just the front-half spring section in comparison to the rear half. To these trick springs he also added CalTracs traction bars. Rounding out the package is a pair of Rancho adjustable shocks.
Front suspension: While the steering box and linkages are all vintage '70s, Tom retained the six-cylinder front coil springs to help in the business of weight transfer, damped with a pair of Competition Engineering adjustable front shocks. Tom has also retained the front sway bar, mainly to help the handling on the street, where the front springs and shocks make turning corners a bit of an adventure.
Wheels/Tires: The skinnies up front are a pair of Weld Draglite 15x5-inchers mounted with Mickey Thompson 27.5x4.5 tires while the rear sports a slightly wider package consisting of a pair of 15x10 Welds with Hoosier 28x11.5x15 gumballs.
Body: John Bardot of Luebbering, Missouri, laid down the Sikkens Mopar Bright Silver paint and, other than a mini-tubbing, the rest of this Nova is the way Chevrolet built it back in '71.
Performance: 9.87 at 134.50 mph, with a 1.37 60-foot time.