It was hate at first sight. Like having your marriage arranged with an ugly chick, Steve Yoder Jr.'s parents bought him a '76 Laguna when he turned 16. They figured that forcing their boy into a turd of a first car would keep him out of trouble, but the sinister ploy failed miserably. After 23 years and several iterations, Steve has yet to dump the Laguna. And why would he? Pretty she ain't, but the big-block-powered ogre rips the quarter-mile to the tune of 10.96 at 122 mph on a slim budget of $25,000. In a world infested with aesthetically blessed but athletically inept muscle cars, this Laguna has no interest in contributing to the problem.

While Steve very much embraces the notion of driving something different nowadays, it was hard to accept as a teenager. "I hated this car at first," he admits. "Everyone at my high school was driving around in Camaros and Chevelles, so my Laguna didn't exactly command a lot of respect. The more people made fun of the car, however, the more it grew on me. I liked the fact that no one else had a Laguna, and I thought the role it played in NASCAR history was pretty cool."

Unfortunately, the dominance the shovel-nosed '75-76 Lagunas displayed on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega didn't carry over to the street, as GM engineers struggled to transcend the stifling emission regulations of the smog era. Consequently, Steve's Laguna made do with a wheezy 145hp 350, which was only slightly less embarrassing than the standard 140hp 305. Nonetheless, he still managed to get himself into plenty of trouble. "The only parts I could afford were a set of headers and a four-barrel carb. The car ran 16s at the track, but I got pretty good at maximizing its burnout potential," Steve recalls. "I left tire marks behind me wherever I went, and did my share of street racing and speeding. It didn't take long for me to lose my license. I was stuck riding my bike for an entire year, and couldn't drive again until I turned 18. That experience really taught me a lesson, and made me appreciate the car even more."

Slightly older and a whole lot wiser, Steve made the most of his year of leave by scheming up a comprehensive battle plan and saving up enough money to pay for it. With small-block V-8s that made less power than a modern Toyota Prius, cars of the Laguna's vintage weren't any more popular in the late-'80s than they are today. Nonetheless, where others saw hopelessness, Steve saw potential. He ripped out the tired 350 and dropped in a brand-new LS6 crate motor from GM Performance Parts. Back then, a crate LS6 was an all-iron 454ci big-block, not an all-aluminum 346ci small-block. With the Laguna's hefty 4,000 pounds of mass and GM's decision to kill the factory 454 option in 1976, it was only appropriate to opt for a big-block. Steve matched it up with a Coan TH400 trans, and swapped in a stock 12-bolt rearend out of a Monte Carlo. "I found out the hard way that Lagunas and Monte Carlos aren't as similar as people say they are," he quips. I had to fabricate some custom brackets to get the rearend to fit. I rebuilt the Posi and installed some 4.10:1 gears while it was apart, and the car ended up running low 13s on street tires."

With the Laguna running harder than it ever had before, Steve shifted his attention to spicing up its appearance. Despite the fact that it hailed from the rust belt, the car was in very good shape overall. Since the Laguna needed a fresh coat of paint anyway, Steve used the opportunity to install some fiberglass bits to lighten up the big A-body. "I did all the bodywork 15 years ago, long before eBay, so finding parts was a real challenge. I wanted to shed some pounds and keep the car looking as original as possible," Steve says. "A friend referred me to U.S. Body Source, which makes all kinds of restoration parts for oddball cars like mine. I ordered up fiberglass doors and a front nose and hood, saving about 400 pounds. To finish it off, I painted the car GM Dark Red, which ended up being slightly lighter than the original color."

By this time, the 20-year-old interior showed ample wear, and the stock bench seat looked terribly out of place. To maintain the stock-looking vibe inside and out, Steve heisted the swivel bucket seats and various trim pieces off of a '75 Chevelle, and transplanted them into the Laguna. The stock instrumentation-not comprehensive or legible enough for a healthy street machine-was ditched for a full slew of Auto Meter gauges. They're integrated into a custom instrument panel that neatly houses a 5-inch tach and speedo without looking the least bit garish. The stock steering wheel and shifter were replaced with pieces from Grant and Hurst, respectively. Never a fan of the factory red color scheme, the entire interior was re-upholstered in black.