'65 Olds Cutlass Project Car - Turning The Wheel
Project Olds Gets Its First Official Thrashing On The Street, Autocross, And Road Course At The Optima Ultimate Street Car Faceoff.
From the September, 2010 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Stephen Kim
Photography by Henry De Los Santos, Nick Licata, Robert McGaffin
In just eight short months, our '65 Cutlass project car has gone from vegetating on grandma's driveway to pulling major g's around Road America. During that time, it's blossomed from a mushy, wimpy conglomerate of decrepit OE parts into a cutting-edge Pro Touring machine poised to grip it up at autocross events and road courses throughout the country. During one glorious weekend in May, we did just that. As Brent Jarvis and company at Performance Restorations (www.PerformanceRestorations.com) were putting the finishing touches on Project Olds, car owner/photographer Robert McGaffin decided to give it a proper shakedown thrashing at the Optima Ultimate Street Car Faceoff at Road America. It proved to be one heck of a maiden voyage, as the event pitted 40 wicked g-Machines against each other in an automotive triathlon featuring timed hot laps around Road America's famed 4.048-mile road course, an autocross shootout, and a braking competition. Although the excursion revealed several bugs that need to be ironed out, Project Olds performed remarkably well overall.
The Optima Ultimate Street...
The Optima Ultimate Street Car Faceoff kicked off at Andrew Chevrolet in Milwaukee with a breakfast hosted by Pennzoil. In preparation for a weekend of festivities, McGaffin deftly affixed his official car number onto the front windshield.
To recap, Project Olds has been transformed from slug to slugger by trading in its 330ci small-block and two-speed automatic for a 514hp big-block Olds and a Tremec TKO 600 five-speed stick from Hurst Driveline Conversions. Since the Pro Touring creed calls for multifaceted talents, the chassis has received some big-time fortification with a complete Detroit Speed and Engineering suspension, Baer brakes, and R-compound Nitto NT01 meats wrapped around 18-inch Rocket Racing wheels. The event kicked off with a cruise around Milwaukee up to Road America's premium facility in Elkhart Lake. During the 80-mile trek, a few stabs of the throttle quickly revealed the Cutlass's bipolar demeanor. "The 461 big-block doesn't buck or surge at all at low speeds, and pulls very hard from idle all the way up to 6,000 rpm," McGaffin says. "It has so much torque that you never feel the need to wind it out all the way. The overall balance of power and driveability is excellent."
After rolling into the pit...
After rolling into the pit lanes, the Road America crew gave Project Olds a proper inspection. Rules vary by track, but at the bare minimum cars competing on a road course must have seatbelts, a battery hold-down, good brake pedal pressure, and healthy hoses and belts. The Optima event also mandated proof of insurance, and functioning lights and turn signals.
After a pit stop at West Bend Dyno Tuning in West Bend, the racers rolled into Road America's facility on Saturday afternoon. As a warm-up to Sunday's main event, we were treated to a riotous team go-kart racing session. This afforded the opportunity to socialize and make some new friends with fellow competitors, and as we found out the next day, it always pays to have friends should you need a helping hand.
On The Autocross
While the road course and braking events proved to be ridiculously entertaining, we were most concerned with how quickly the Cutlass could rip through the cones. First and foremost, Project Olds was built as an autocross machine, so we were very eager to see if it could hang with the lighter and more powerful competition. The field ranged from first- and second-gen Camaros, to Chevelles, E-Body Mopars, and late-models. Many boasted lightweight aluminum LS motors and modern Hemis, so it remained to be seen if plopping in a big-block would hamper the Cutlass' ability to plant the front end through a tight autocross course. As we quickly learned, that myth doesn't always hold true.
During the 80-mile cruise...
During the 80-mile cruise to Road America, the SAM-built 461 big-block ran nice and cool, never exceeding 170 degrees. Thanks to the Tremec TKO 600, the Olds cruised at 70 mph on the freeway at just a hair over 2,000 rpm. Spirited driving limited fuel mileage to 11.5 mpg, but we expect that to improve as the rings fully seat and the motor loosens up with additional miles.
From the first turn of the wheel, the chassis didn't disappoint. Our man McGaffin ran a total of six laps, and laid down a best time of 49.28 seconds. He then tossed the keys to Kyle Tucker of DSE, who pared that down to 47.86 seconds on his first lap out, which was good for a Ninth Place finish in the event. For reference, the fastest time of the day was 46.27 seconds, which was posted by Brian Finch's second-gen Camaro. Likewise, DSE's own second-gen Camaro shop car recorded a best lap of 46.88 seconds. Considering that the DSE Camaro is powered by a 615hp L92, and weighs 200-300 pounds less than our big A-body, we were very pleased with how well the Cutlass performed. "In stock trim, the Cutlass pitches and rolls so badly that it's very difficult to set it up for a corner. It understeers a lot, and never has enough power to really get going," McGaffin says. "With the DSE suspension, big-block, and five-speed, the difference is night and day. The balance is very neutral, and the car remains extremely flat and predictable in the corners. The frontend doesn't push at all, and the chassis puts down the power very well when exiting corners."
If drag racing is hard on the motor and driveline, road racing is hard on everything. Considering this event was McGaffin's first road course outing, we weren't expecting to light up the timing equipment. Our time of 2:15 was quite a bit slower than the 1:47 lap posted by the First Place DSE second-gen Camaro, but it was a great learning experience nonetheless. As luck would have it, several mechanical gremlins quickly surfaced, cutting our seat time short. "After completing my warm-up lap, I started pushing the car a little harder as I got more comfortable with the track. On the second timed lap, the oil pressure suddenly dropped as I hit the brakes coming down the hill approaching Turn 8," McGaffin says. "I've seen five big-block cars blow up over the last year on a road course due to oiling issues, and I wasn't about to become the sixth. I pulled off the track into the pits to diagnose the problem, and it turned out that oil was puking out of the breathers, and the dipstick tube had worked its way out of the block. I bolted the dipstick back up, and the oil pressure seemed fine, but I decided against turning more laps on the road course."
Road America is one of the...
Road America is one of the most challenging and intimidating road courses in the country, and it wasn't too kind to Project Olds. To remedy the loss of oil pressure under braking, we plan on installing an accumulator system. Likewise, an oil separator tank will be plumbed into the valve cover breathers to prevent oil from spewing all over the place.
Like our abbreviated run on the road course, mechanical woes limited our time competing in the brake challenge as well. Interestingly, this wasn't due to any shortcoming of Project Olds' four-piston Baer brakes, but rather brakes that worked too well for the rest of the car to handle. "The braking competition was conducted on an 800-foot course with cones marking off the final 300 feet of the track in 100-foot increments. The goal was to accelerate as hard as possible, and then start braking anywhere between the cones placed 300- and 100-feet from the finish line without overshooting," McGaffin says. "On my first pass, the brakes grabbed so hard that they starved the carb of fuel, and the motor shut down. Once the car lost brake vacuum, I overshot the finish line. The top finisher of the day completed the course in 8.18 seconds." [Editor's note: This is not an uncommon problem, and is the subject of our story, "Corner Capable," on page 76.]
Despite its size and weight,...
Despite its size and weight, the big Cutlass was in its element around the autocross, finishing Ninth overall with a time of 47.86 seconds. The big-block's meaty torque curve made it easy to squirt from corner to corner, while the DSE suspension provided plenty of stick. The only criticism was that the rearend didn't settle quickly enough during brisk side-to-side transitions, so we may upgrade to double-adjustable shocks in the future to help control the compression and rebound valving individually.
After hitting the road, all projects need to have their bugs worked out, and Project Olds is no exception. Since the purpose of any shakedown session is to find out what problems may arise under real-world competition conditions, we were pleased with the overall performance of the Cutlass over the course of the weekend. We managed to bring the car home in one piece, and have already started formulating a plan to address the oiling and sputtering issues. The experience has brought us one step closer to fully dialing in the Cutlass for battle, and without turning the wheel on the track, that goal would be impossible to achieve. By far, the biggest triumph of the weekend was how well the car ran in the autocross course in the midst of mixing it up with machines that clearly boasted power and weight advantages. While we're not quite ready to wrap up the project, we've come pretty darn close to building and fully dialing-in a complete car in just eight months.
The Ultimate G-Machine Shootout
Like it or not, the Pro Touring movement has earned a notorious reputation for producing cars that look much better than they run, and the Optima Ultimate Street Car Faceoff was conceived to put that stereotype to rest. The event is open to all muscle cars and late-models, and just about any engine, trans, and suspension combo is game. The only real stipulation is the mandatory use of DOT-approved tires. The event we attended combined a street cruise, a BFG Hot Lap Challenge, a DSE Speed Attack Autocross, and a Baer Brakes Speed Stop Challenge. Once the rubber cooled, Brian Finch of Nashville placed near the top of every competition with his '71 Camaro, and was named the overall champion of the weekend. The event we attended on May 1-2 is just one in several Faceoff competitions that will be held throughout the year. Select vehicles will be invited to race in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational (www.OptimaInvitational.com) during the SEMA show later this year to fight for the title of the ultimate Pro Touring machine in the country.
After pulling off the road...
After pulling off the road course, we noticed a puddle of oil forming beneath the car. A huge thanks goes out to Herb Lumpp who helped us reattach the dipstick tube to our big-block to stop the leak.
Too much negative g's can...
Too much negative g's can starve a carb of fuel, which is exactly what happened to Project Olds in the braking competition, causing us to overshoot the finish line. To solve the problem, plans call for installing jet extensions, modifying the floats, and tinkering with different vent tubes.
Although we didn't get much...
Although we didn't get much of an opportunity to mash the brakes in the braking challenge, the Baer four-piston clamps performed flawlessly on the road course. Even after several laps, they exhibited zero fade and inspired the confidence to brake late entering every corner. Project Olds' original steering column had a nasty tendency to deflect as the big-block torqued over on its mounts, so an aftermarket unit is definitely in the cards. Our pilot says the DSE steering box was remarkably responsive and provided as much feedback as a rack-and-pinion setup.
In our haste to make the Optima...
In our haste to make the Optima event, we didn't have time to install a set of proper racing buckets. Even with a five-point harness, McGaffin was slipping and sliding all over the stock bench seat throughout the weekend, which made it extremely difficult to drive at the limit. We'll be installing some Procar seats very soon to help secure our photog in position.
Brian Finch and his '71 Camaro...
Brian Finch and his '71 Camaro was crowned champion by winning the autocross competition, finishing Second in the brake challenge, and posting the third-quickest lap on the road course. The Camaro boasts an L92 small-block, Tremec T56 trans, a DSE suspension, and C6 Corvette Z06 brakes.