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The Giant Car Craft LS Engine Swap Challenge

A Heads-Up Wrenchfest Where The Winner Takes Home A Brand-New LS6!

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You could tell from the first moment you walked under the Car Craft Engine Swap Challenge tent that the team from Williamsburg, Iowa, had come prepared. The Olds Cutlass convertible was nothing really to look at, especially compared with their competition's beautiful big-block, Chevy-powered Camaro. But this was no beauty contest. This was an all-out test of skill at the Holley LS Fest in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to see how quickly a team of car crafters could swap a GM Performance Parts LS6 into a car and drive off. The game was as simple as it was challenging. And the team that won got to keep the LS6 and the Holley HP EFI system. The big question was: How long would it take?

It had dumped buckets of southern-flavored rain the day before, and the day began overcast and humid. The two cars faced each other under the open-sided tent with puddles covering both worksites just to put a damp spin on the conditions. Holley was looking for a fun competition to round out the usual drag racing and autocross events, and this looked like a winner to us. There were plenty of applicants, but the decision came down to Corey Ritter's team from Lexington, Kentucky, working on his '69 454, five-speed Camaro head to head against Justin Dermody's crew and their 350, Chevy-powered, '70 Olds Cutlass convertible.

The tension before the start was real enough and had that feeling you sense right before the big cross-town high school football game.

The Challengers
With the two cars face to face under the tent, it was clear the Iowa boys had done their prep work. In a later discussion with Justin, he admitted he had purchased a complete Holley HP EFI computer and wiring harness from Jegs so he not only knew how to wire the system, but also so he would be familiar with the software should he need to access it with his laptop to get the engine running. The Olds team's preparation was evident in little things like a green tape line on each midpoint position on the body like the NASCAR teams use to indicate exactly where to place the floorjack to raise the car. As a further bit of not-so-subtle intimidation, Team Olds sported a monster Snap-on rollaway tool chest, while the Camaro guys had their tools laid out on the ground alongside their car. When the horn sounded, it appeared Team Camaro would really have to hustle.

THE TEAMS
Team Camaro Team Olds
Corey Ritter, owner Justin Dermody, owner
Townsend Gregg Trent Lower
Robb Combs Clay Koenig
Brian Geary Dustin Bernacki
  Mike Drapac, software help/coaching
  Dan Bernacki, Dustin's father

The Rules
Rather than go over all the details, we'll just hit the highlights of what the teams were required to accomplish to win. Holley supplied a complete LS6 engine for each team complete with all the necessary pieces, including a Holley intake and an HP EFI system with the wiring harness. Hooker headers were also supplied but were not required, nor was an exhaust system. The teams were selected from a bank of entries, and Holley's Bill Tichenor told us that most teams failed to supply sufficient information and were bounced before the selection process even began. Once the two teams were selected, the car had to drive from the track's main gate to the site under its own power and was allowed to cool down. Four team members were allowed to work on the car, but only with handtools. No power tools were allowed except for unexpected fabrication work. The official time would end when the car started and moved 10 feet under its own power. Holley reps would then inspect the car and assess penalties for loose bolts or other infractions. The final test was a short drive to ensure the car was properly assembled. If it failed the drive, the timer would start again and the team would have to repair and retest the car.

The Engine Swap Challenge
At the horn, both teams attacked their cars. The first surprise came almost immediately from Team Olds when the front bumper fell off within seconds, and in less than two minutes the entire front clip was sitting on the ground next to the car. Team Camaro had barely begun its effort, and it appeared that the team was almost instantly behind. Justin told me later, "Our goal was five minutes to get the old engine out, and we did it in six." Justin's friend Trent Lower was the one who put the most amount of effort into their preparation. "He's a fabricator, so he'll look at something until he figures out a way to make it work better," Justin says. Just after this event, Trent put those talents to work at a shop of his own called Iowa County Customs in Parnell, Iowa. The Olds team looked almost choreographed, where each member had precisely defined tasks. We noticed that when Clay turned the small-block over with the crank bolt there were marks on the balancer to indicate where the converter bolts would be accessible, and the rumor was that the bolts holding the converter in place were very short. We also witnessed a battery quick-disconnect, fuel quick-connect fittings, and radiator hoses with hand-twist clamps preconfigured for the LS engine. While the crew was removing the old engine, Justin was making all the wiring harness connections for the EFI system and filling the engine with oil. With very little drama, the old small-block lay on the ground, and the LS6 slipped right into place.

At around the 11-minute mark, Team Olds had its LS6 bolted in place while Team Camaro was making headway, having removed the Rat. But the Camaro guys were hampered by adding a new flywheel and mechanical clutch linkage adapter on the new LS engine before it could go back in. That's when disaster struck. The mechanical clutch linkage adapter hit a boss on the block that needed some tweaking. While hammering on the aluminum-block boss, the impacts cracked the block through to the water jacket, which immediately began leaking. A Holley representative was called in, but the damage had been done.

Team Olds was aware of some kind of problem with the Camaro, but its members were running their own race. As the announcer acknowledged the 20-minute mark, the whole team let out an audible groan, and it was apparent that this had been their goal. As it was, they weren't far off. Attempting to use the Hooker headers burned a few minutes when the passenger-side header crashed into the trans shift linkage, necessitating a switch to stock exhaust manifolds. In less than 30 minutes, Justin fired the engine to ensure it would run, and then the team jammed to complete the reassembly. A scant few seconds later, the front clip was dropped back onto the body, and with sweat dripping, Trent climbed behind the wheel, fired the engine, and backed up the car the required distance to stop the timers. A postswap inspection revealed only a loose throttle linkage, and the final official time was posted as an astonishing 31 minutes, 57 seconds. Considering Holley had allowed room in the schedule for the Engine Swap Challenge to continue through to the following Sunday if necessary, Team Olds had just placed an impressive elapsed time line in the sand for future competitors.

The RideTech Suspension Challenge
It doesn't take long for you to learn that Olds' owner Justin Dermody is a hustler. Not more than 10 minutes after his team had completed the Engine Swap Challenge, he walked down to the RideTech trailer to see what kind of deal he could swing on a complete pneumatic suspension system from company owner Brett Voelkel. Brett just happened to have a complete A-body chassis on display sitting in front of his trailer. Brett said, "Tell you what, you bring your car over here, and if you guys can swap the complete suspension over before the end of the day, you can have it." Clearly, Justin and his guys were on a roll. Then Brett suggested they baseline the car on the slalom and then test it again after the suspension swap. They bolted the Hooker headers on the Olds after removing the shift linkage, Justin and Brett donned helmets, and Brett flogged the Olds through the wet/dry slalom course. Then Team Olds rolled the big Snap-on toolbox in front of the RideTech trailer and let the wrenches fly. Three hours and six minutes later, after battling 40-year-old rusted bolts that had never been off the car, the Olds was sitting on a complete RideTech Street Challenge Level 3 suspension that includes both the front strong-arm pieces with the muscle car front sway bar along with the matching rear system and controlled by the Ride PROe3 control system. When Brett blasted through the autocross course again with the new suspension in place, the upgrade was worth 16 seconds-all accomplished in less than four hours. Amazing.

The '11 Engine Swap Challenge
Holley had so much fun with this year's event that you can expect to see an improved (which means much more challenging) version of the Car Craft Engine Swap Challenge at next year's event. The dates are already locked in for September 9-11, 2011, at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. For updated information, check out LSfest.com.

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