It's Midnight Mayhem night at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway dragstrip, and we're on scene concluding the first day of Car Craft's Anti-Tour. It's sneaking up on midnight when a nondescript Chevelle pulls into the staging lanes. It rumbles with that telltale tenor that most knowledgeable car crafters instantly recognize as the signature of displacement with a little bit of compression and cam timing. Few notice the Chevelle amid all the hot street cars, especially with the buzz in the pits surrounding a bright-orange Camaro from Utah-the driver claims it's an original ZL1 Camaro and the car's making laps in the low 12s. While everyone's rubbernecking the Camaro, the Chevelle idles right through staging and does a quick burnout. When the Tree comes down, the black A-body leaves straight with no drama, pulling down an impressive high-10-second blast at well over 120 mph. The driver pulls into the pits, kills the ignition, and saunters over toward a group of cars. Few have noticed until we nonchalantly ask about the Chevelle.
"That a Rat motor?"
"Yeah, it's a 540." OK, you just got our attention.
"What's it run?"
"It's kinda off tonight, probably the heat. It only ran a 10.80-something. Its best is a 10.69 at 125 mph."
All of a sudden the conversation has been neatly hijacked by the unassuming owner of this low-key Chevelle. This story could be about how first impressions are not always accurate. Or perhaps it could be about how the desert seems to attract unique car crafters and fast cars like bugs to a bright-yellow staging bulb. Rowdy McDaniel is the Chevelle's owner, with long hair and the look of a guy who's been there and heard all the stories already. Truth is, he's full of his own stories, which come at you all at once in submachine-gun-like fashion. At first they sound almost too fantastic, but there's something about him that makes you want to believe. It's at that moment when you realize this guy's a hustler, but in a good way. Besides, he's really not selling anything. This self-employed remote-location manager for commercials, television, and movies is quick to tell you he's owned his Chevelle or, as we learned, the essence of his car, for 29 years. He barely looks older than his machine and we're loading up for that question. But he's already three steps ahead, pointing out that he bought this Chevelle for the hefty sum of $1,250 when he was only 14. That's when the stories start flying. He started driving the car right away, not bothering with such trivial requirements as a driver's license. Somehow he survived the street races and Wild West adventures. The car was not nearly as lucky: At just inside three decades, the Chevelle's been wrapped around a telephone pole, stolen, and reincarnated from the ground up three times. The last time, Rowdy started with two bodies and two frames in late December and finished the build on March 1. Most importantly, he points out proudly, it's been a daily driver for all those years. The car's history sounds as if it would read like a movie script, and we can't help thinking that the Chevelle would be perfect for a remake of Two-Lane Blacktop. It wouldn't even need James Taylor-Rowdy fits the part of the long-haired driver perfectly. All it would need is a suitable desert rat to play Dennis Wilson's part as the mechanic.
Rowdy says this car has always been a driver. He's done the Las-Vegas-to-Phoenix run about 10 times, roughly a 600-mile jaunt, when he was going to school in Phoenix at UTI. He estimates that the car has seen an average of 10,000 miles a year for most of those 29 years. "Except for last year-it was under construction so I only got to put about 5,000 miles on it." Gas mileage? If you have to ask, Rowdy says, you've missed the whole point. Clearly he's not concerned with trivial matters like ecology or world petroleum reserves. Here's a guy who's just interested in equal helpings of horsepower and fun. Everything else is secondary.
One last story should wrap this all up. Since Rowdy lives in a big convention town, the SEMA show is a huge annual affair. One year he was leaving the show at the end of the day when he noticed long lines of people waiting for a taxi. He offered to take three guys, loaded down with their booty of catalogs and shop-wall posters (you know the kind, signed in Sharpie black ink with a mildly suggestive greeting) back to their crosstown hotel in his black Rat-turned-taxi. "I had so much fun," Rowdy says, "I made three or four trips runnin' guys all over town." It only takes about five minutes with Rowdy to understand that he just enjoys the hell out of this car, and that's as it should be.
Tech NotesWho: Rowdy McDaniel
What: '66 Chevy Chevelle
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada
Short-block: This is the part everybody wants to know about. Rowdy started with a Dart Big M iron 4.500-inch-bore block and added a 4.250-inch Callies steel Dragonslayer crank, Manley H-beam 6.385-inch-long rods, and a set of SRP forged, 10cc, domed pistons that create roughly a 10.5:1 compression ratio. Mike Lewis from Laytonville, California, did the machine work. Rowdy built the engine himself with help from Clevite 77 bearings and Sealed Power 11/416-inch rings. He chose an Isky mechanical roller cam with 267/272 degrees of duration at 0.050 with pole-vault-like 0.730/0.714-inch lift numbers working on the Isky Red Zone EZ Roll mechanical lifters and Trend 31/48-inch-diameter, 0.135-inch-wall-thickness pushrods.
Heads: To make Rowdy power you need a great set of heads, so the 540 got a set of AFR 335 CNC'd castings outfitted with fully machined combustion chambers and 2.300/1.88-inch stainless steel valves with titanium retainers. Rat motors are famous for tossing valvetrain parts and evidently Rowdy's learned the lesson. Rather than stick with stud-mounted roller rockers, he invested in a set of Larry Tores' T&D shaft-mounted 1.7:1 rollers, which keep everything glued together.
Induction: Big Rats need big carburetors, and this stealth big-block breathes through a Pro Systems 1,100-cfm Dominator ducted with help from an Edelbrock Victor 454-R single-plane intake. Rowdy also says that his current black Holley fuel pump is probably too small to feed this voracious Rat the gallons of 91-octane pump gas it devours. Ignition is handled by an MSD distributor and plug wires with Autolite 3924 plugs.
Exhaust: Rowdy managed to squeeze 2-inch Hedman headers with 3-inch collectors between the framerails with minimal difficulty and plumbed the 3-inch mandrel-bent tubing through a pair of DynoMax Ultra Flo mufflers.
Power: It makes 753 hp at 6,700 rpm and 673 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm. Now you know why he needs that T&D rocker-shaft system and those big pushrods.
Cooling: Rowdy has a handle on keeping this Rat cool even in desert conditions with a modest aluminum radiator, a pair of Spal 12-inch electric fans, a Stewart beltdriven water pump, and a 135-amp alternator.
Transmission: It takes a stout transmission to push a 3,490-pound Chevelle into the mid-10s and live on the street to boot. Rowdy uses a Coan Extreme Street TH400 with a Coan 10-inch converter that stalls at 3,500 rpm.
Rearend: That's just a run-of-the-mill Chevelle 12-bolt out back with Richmond 3.55 gears and an Auburn limited slip. Rowdy says the axles are stock. They have to be the most abused stock axles in Nevada.
Suspension/Brakes: If you think the drivetrain is powerful yet unremarkable, wait until we run down the suspension. Except for cut springs, a 111/44-inch front sway bar and Competition Products front shocks, the only other trick in the front is '68-'72 Chevelle single-piston-caliper, 11-inch disc brakes. In the rear, Rowdy has had to add a set of Lakewood bars and an H&R antiroll bar to keep the rear tires glued to the track.
Wheels/Tires: Those are simple aluminum Weld wheels on all four corners. The rears are conservative 15x8-inchers with 5.5 inches of backspacing mounted with a pair of Mickey Thompson 275/60R15 ET Street radials.
Interior: The safety freaks will no doubt notice that the car has no rollcage or harnesses, so don't bother to write. Rowdy says he re-covered the black upholstery himself using his 1898 treadle Singer sewing machine. Other additions include factory gauges and an original Chevelle console and shifter.
Exterior: The only clue to this Chevelle's potential is the Goodmark 2-inch steel cowl hood necessary to clear the tall Edelbrock intake manifold. Maaco painted the car black, and that about says it all for the exterior. "It's built to look good from a distance that seems to be increasing," Rowdy says.
Performance: Rowdy says the Chevelle has run a best of 10.69 at 125.90 mph with a best 60-foot time of 1.59. The Chevelle's best mph is 127.53. He says the current engine has 4,900 miles on it.
Appearances: There's a promo that ran for Spike TV where Rowdy's Chevelle runs off against a yellow Lamborghini.