In so many cases, when veterans come home from tours of duty, or are discharged from their respective branches of our military, they may find it difficult to acclimate to their new life as a civilian. In some of those cases, these men and women may be adapting to physiological and psychological changes which they endured through combat. This road to what is their new “normal” can be a roller coaster of a learning experience. Finding a sense of self and purpose often seem to be among the biggest struggles for our homecoming Vets.
Our friend Troy Smith found a special purpose while acclimating to civilian life, after retiring medically from the United States Army. Troy served 6 years in the Army’s storied 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (the infamous Night Stalkers), piloting Chinook Helicoptors. The Army offers a Morale Wellness Recreation (MWR) program for those who are transitioning to civilian life, or are interested in doing some group trips and adventures, as a way to help with such a huge adjustment. Troy decided to talk to the person in charge of his local MWR program to check out one of the adventures, and found that the program lacked attendance, in part because transportation wasn’t always provided.
Doing It Himself
For many of these disabled veterans, transportation was a tough hurdle. It was at about that time he had discovered Veterans Adventure Group (a true non-profit devoted to helping facilitate veterans to participate in extreme sports). Troy bought an RV and helped transport our American heroes to and from these events. Then, one day, he had the brilliant idea to bring up drag racing potentially being added as one of the extreme sports that Veterans Adventure Group offers.
Troy already had a drag car: a 1968 Camaro (AKA “Fire In The Hole”), with a naturally aspirated big-block Chevy, which was built on a tight budget. He, along with his wife Jennifer, and daughters Kendra and Kaitlin, put this car together with essentially stock suspension and a 454 out of an RV, with Molner rods and 12:1 pistons. He ran it on E-85 through twin Holley 650 carbs and made a devilish 666 horsepower at the flywheel, turning it north of 7,000 rpm. When it was pointed out that 7,000 is a lot of revs for a stock crank, Troy’s response was simply, “Limits are meant to be pushed.” Spoken like a true combat veteran, I suppose.
Troy offered a trip to Lights Out 9 for anyone interested from Veterans Adventure Group, and raised $3,200 through sponsors and donors, to feed, transport and pay admission for a total of 19 people. The crew all had their own special instructions: some just to sit back and enjoy, others to cook, fuel, tune and prepare between rounds.
During the fourth pass on Saturday, the Camaro’s electric water pump died and the engine temperature pegged the gauge on the return road, along with just the opposite reaction from the oil pressure gauge. When he arrived back to the pit, they cut the oil filter apart to find it full of bearing material. We have all been in those shoes; it’s not a good feeling. Alone, Troy would have probably bowed out for the rest of the weekend. But with his team there, he was not going to let something as minor as a trashed engine stop them from racing for the rest of the event.
Fighting Against Hopelessness
Troy, his wife, daughters and crew of vets began to work like a well-oiled machine, tearing the engine down to find the carnage. By 3:00 pm they had the engine out of the car, and with no engine stand, the crew rested it upside-down on the tunnel ram intake manifold.
With a phone call out to Summit Racing, Troy was able to locate a Scat iron crankshaft, main and rod bearings and a water pump at their Atlanta, GA warehouse, sending his wife to retrieve those parts. Fortunately, South Georgia Motorsports Park, where they were racing, wasn’t very far away.
Through the night and into the dawn hours, the crew labored over the engine, cleaning oil journals with carb cleaner, gooping the new pieces in assembly lube, and bolting the rotating assembly in with a borrowed torque wrench; there was no balancing of any sort going on here. The goal in mind was to finish out this race, come hell or high water. At 7:45am, the Frankenstein engine that was not long for this world, fired back up.
That Sunday at Lights Out 9 was beyond a special day. Troy and his crew had worked through the night on an engine that had no hope only 20 hours prior. Now they were making a time trial — a good one at that: 6.38 in the eighth-mile. That was right there with his best passes the day before. In the first round of eliminations, the car made a record pass: 6.20, on an unbalanced, dirty, nothing-remotely-resembling-precision engine.
As Troy was telling the story, he actually began to choke up. The memories he and his crew of veterans made that weekend will live with them forever. Over that weekend, Mark Fretz from Brodix stopped by and took notice of the crew working tirelessly to get the Camaro back in the fight. That wouldn’t be the last time their paths crossed. Not by a long shot.
Still An Uphill Battle
Later in the season Troy was at the Outlaw Street Car Reunion — still running the same thrown-together engine from the thrash-fest in Valdosta — and he lost his oil pump pick-up tube at half-track (yes, it was welded). He chuckled, “Well, I guess it rattled so hard at 7,500 rpm from being unbalanced, that the pick-up tube actually cracked.” The engine locked right up and his weekend was over. The cobbled-together engine-that-could finally couldn’t.
Once home, Troy found the rods were blue from the heat, but somehow, none of them were bent. Molnar sent Troy some new rods in exchange for the damaged ones, and Troy, his family, and a few of the helping hands quickly worked over the next few weeks to reassemble the 454 — his time around, though, it had a balanced crank. In Memphis, the car ran great, until a battery issue caused the fuel pump to perform poorly and lean out, ultimately torching the pistons and bringing the 2018 season to an end.
Over the next few months, Troy, with the help of his family and friends, began yet another rebuild of the engine which had been through so much. This time around, they had some sponsorships, and were able to land an upgraded set of heads and a set of Twin Blade 1050 carbs, which Treavor Wiggins of Get-M Garage —who is also a veteran — tricked out for Troy.
A Covert Mission
Unbeknownst to Troy, Mark Fretz from Brodix, along with Scott Scovronski of Competition Products, and Joe Jolly of Sunset Performance Engines, had been coordinating a whole slew of vendors and builders to outfit Fire In The Hole with a well-deserved, custom-built big-block Chevy engine.
The 615 cubic-inch short block consists of a 10.2-inch deck-height Brodix block, a billet 4340 steel crankshaft, CP pistons and Crower 6.65-inch rods. topping off the shortblock is a set of Brodix BB 3 XTRA heads with 363 cc intake runners for big flow. The combination of piston dome and combustion chamber size comes in at a stout 15.0:1 compression ratio.
Howard’s Cams custom ground a “top secret” camshaft for this engine, which has about .800 inches of valve lift. Get-M Garage supplied a 4500 carb for the build to handle the huge amount of air this big-block needs. Sunset Performance Engines assembled the monster big-block and supplied the dyno time to run it in.
With everyone working together on the engine in total secrecy, the revelation also needed to be coordinated stealthily. Treavor planned a trip to Brodix with Troy under the guise of flowing a set of heads with the Brodix staff. Troy was told a film crew would be there, working on a promotional video for the heads they would be flow testing.
Troy was given a tour of the shop and wound up in the dyno room. “I saw this awesome looking big-block and said to myself, ‘I sure hope I get to see that make a pull!’” recalls Troy. It was at that moment that Mark, Scott, and Joe presented the engine to him. Then, Troy got to see the dyno pull he was hoping to see. The engine made 987 horsepower on the pull, and that was without a vacuum pump. And then, he got to go home with it.
No Time For Feelings
The kicker to this amazingly generous gift was that Lights Out 10 was in 3 days! In Troy’s mind, it was simple. There was zero-chance of the engine not being in the car by then. Troy and his crew scrambled — like they are so used to doing by this point — to sit this beautiful new engine in his Camaro, bolt up his transmission and Hughes converter, and reassemble the rest of the car.
Sure enough, on race day, the crew was busy putting the final touches on the car in the pits, bolting up some 2-1/4-inch headers that Jeff Brotherton donated after seeing them installing the existing 1-7/8-inch headers Troy had from before on the gorgeous new mill. Everyone worked to get the nose back on the car and they were able to make it just in time for qualifying.
On the first pass, with that extra 300 horsepower over the last time the car was out, the Camaro did a nasty wheel stand. On subsequent passes, the team fought some tire spin issues and pushed the limits of what was essentially the Camaro’s stock suspension. Though Troy and “Fire In The Hole” didn’t really go many rounds that day, he and the crew put on one heck of a show, and had made a lifelong memory doing it, thanks to the incredible generosity of some amazing people and companies.
Check out the video of the reveal below:
Special Thanks To Those Involved
- Sunset Performance Engines
- Provided machine work, assembly, and dyno time for the new 615ci engine.
- Brodix Inc.
- Providied the engine block, crankshaft, heads, intake, stud girdles and plug wires.
- Howard’s Cams
- Provided a custom camshaft, lifters, pushrods and timing set.
- Competition Products
- Provided main and rod bearings, billet distributor and gear, cam button, gaskets and timing cover.
- CP Pistons
- Provided custom pistons.
- Total Seal Rings
- Provided piston rings.
- Milodon Inc.
- Provided the oil pan, oil pump and pickup.
- Lucas Oil
- Provided the oil and lubrication products.
- Crower Inc.
- Provided the connecting rods.
- Williams Manufacturing
- Provided sheet metal valve covers.
- ARP Fasteners
- Provided head studs and a complete stainless engine fastener kit.
- Competition Cams
- Provided stainless stud mount rocker arms.
- Get-M Garage
- Provided the custom 4500 carburetor.
- Hughes Performance
- Provided the torque converter.
- K&N Engineering
- Provided the carbon fiber hood scoop and filters.
- Unlimited Products
- Provided the fiberglass hood.
People instrumental in making this possible:
- Jessica Smith (Troy’s wife):
- Jessica was in charge of diversion tactics to keep Troy from buying more parts for the engine he was in the process of building.
- Scott Scovroski:
- Scott was a key player in coming up with, and planning the entire engine build.
- Mark Fretz and the employees at Brodix Inc:
- Mark coordinated with Scott to spearhead this build, and the employees at Brodix gave their heart and soul in the products they put together for this, and every build they do, day in and day out.
- Joe and Jennifer Jolly:
- Many hours and use of their state of the art equipment at Sunset Performane Engines made this finished product possible.
- Jeff Brotherton:
- President of Brodix Inc., allowed Mark and many of their employees to devote equipment, time and parts to this project.
- Treavor Wiggins:
- Treavor not only provided a trick carburetor, he also dragged Troy to Brodix for the unveiling of his new engine, holding the secret the entire time.
About Top Secret Speed
Top Secret Speed is the name of Troy’s shop, which is really a collaboration of Troy, his wife, and their two daughters. Together, they, along with help from some local veteran hobbyists and racers, build anything from street-cars to all out drag-cars. Their biggest focus, is to help give back to fellow veterans and get them outfitted to race. Troy’s pricing in his shop goes as follows: Vets receive parts at wholesale cost; Vets who need work done on their cars are charged about half the regular shop rate; Vets who wish to bring their cars over to use the shop, or just need helping hands working on their cars, are not charged for labor. Troy’s biggest goal is to get people together working on cars, and to get them back out racing.
In addition to Troy’s shop, he started collecting parts of his own, as well as a slew of parts that people had been donating, filling his 12 x 20 shed. He began “Veteran’s Parts Exchange”, which is essentially an ongoing swap meet for fellow veterans. Transmissions, carburetors, engine blocks, brackets, etc. are given to other veteran racers and hobbyists who are in need, with the rule that they must not be sold for a certain period of time, or must be donated back into the circulation of parts when the owner is done with them. Troy, thank you for your service to our great country, and thank you for all you do to give back to our veterans. More information about Troy’s mission can be found at topsecretspeed.com or facebook.com/topsecretspeed.