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The Speedway Motors G-Comp Nova

8/31/2021

If this little ’65 Nova looks a little scruffy, there’s a good reason for that. It’s been around for over half a century, and the last 7 years or so have been particularly eventful. In those 7 years it’s been driven by some of the most famous names in the business. It’s won a few, lost a few, and been broken more than a few times. But it always comes back to fight another day. And for all of these reasons and a few more, it’s one of our favorites around here. Everyone at Speedway Motors who has had a part in making this car what it is (and there are a lot of them) gets a little misty when they talk about it. It brings out stories of great days, late nights, glory, and heartbreak. Some cars just have a good soul. This is one of them.

Our journey with the little blue Nova started around 2013. The Speedway Motors Engineering team had just developed a new, bolt-on performance suspension for first-gen Chevy II’s called G-Comp. It promised a radical improvement over the archaic hardware that these cars rode on from the factory, but we needed a test mule. A straight-looking ’65 Nova popped up on the internet and a deal was made to bring the car home to Lincoln.

Before the upgrades could start, we needed a baseline. Speedway Motors Senior Product Engineer Jared Cote strapped in behind the wheel and ran some impromptu hot laps around the parking lot. We knew it would be bad, but we didn’t know just how bad. Pictures from the day show a Nova with the outside front wheel and tire rolled under and body roll to the point of being dangerous. But we had a plan.

Yikes.

Once it was back in the R&D shop, the Nova was stripped down to a shell. Upon doing so, it was revealed that some sketchy floorboard repairs had been made with pop rivets. Fabricator extraordinaire Mike Limberg squared everything up and welded it all back together as it should have been. From there, the first production version of the G-Comp front and rear suspensions were fitted. It was an exciting day to see the cutting-edge suspension components that so many people had worked so hard to develop finally being bolted to a real car, ready for the moment of truth. Would it work as well as we had hoped?

If I may interject a personal note here, this is where I joined the Speedway Motors R&D team. I was thrilled that my first day of work involved turning wrenches on this wicked in-progress Nova. We would go on to build a few other cars, but this Nova will always be special to me. The first time I was ever part of a crew campaigning a car in an organized race was with this Nova. The first time I ever turned an autocross lap was in this car. You might say that we’ve grown up together.

Here's one of the first small blocks to go in the car. This shot was taken at the Nova's first real event, the SCCA Nationals in 2014. The G-Comp subframe is also visible here.

Back at Speedway Motors HQ, a fresh, big-inch small block from BluePrint engines showed up in a crate. It was bolted to a Tremec 5-speed and dropped into the Nova. It was topped with an MSD Atomic fuel injection system and some headers that were made specifically for the subframe were bolted to a custom exhaust system. In the first of what would become many last-minute thrashes on this car, it was finished up just in time for the Goodguys Heartland Nationals in Des Moines over July 4th weekend, 2014.

This version of the car was a nice driver. The suspension did in fact work very well. On the street, the car’s ride was firm, but not obnoxious. The big BluePrint engine had plenty of pull, but wasn’t so gnarly that it wouldn’t idle in traffic. The Tremec shifted smoothly. It was a like a new Corvette or CTS-V got swallowed up by a clunky old grocery getter.

And then things got crazy.

Speedway Motors has been involved in racing since day one, and in that time some legendary drivers have wheeled race cars for “Speedy” Bill and sons. One such legend was Robby Unser. A member of the famous Unser racing family, Robby became known around these parts as the man behind numerous Pike’s Peak records and an American IndyCar Series title, all in Speedway Motors cars built by “Speedy” Bill’s oldest son Carson Smith. With that kind of track record, he was a shoe-in to do some on-track testing of the G-Comp Nova. We’ll never forget the day that Robby showed up in the shop, shook our hands, and after hanging around for all of about two minutes, hit the parking lot in the Nova sideways and with tires smoking. This was a sign of things to come.

This car has always been about performance first, aesthetics second, but it still has a wicked stance.

With Robby behind the wheel, the Nova became a fixture at SCCA and Goodguys autocross events. What better way to test our performance suspension than to hammer on it weekend after weekend in pursuit of the fastest time around the cones. It may not look it from the stands, but autocross is brutal. If you’ve never done it, imagine wide open throttle, followed by hard braking and full-lock turns in both directions, over and over. Engineers call it cycle testing. We call it a fun day at the track. And it taught us a lot about how to make our suspensions better.

As things started to get more serious, the stock tank and in-tank pump could no longer hang with the g-forces. A Fuel Safe cell and Aeromotive hardware fixed things up.

As the Nova continued to evolve, it slowly got more and more hardcore. Spring rates came up, shock adjustments got dialed in, and a series of nasty small blocks made their way between the fenders. The boxy old Nova started to run at the top of the pack and even won the Goodguys points championship in 2016. The car’s unique character combined with Robby’s on the edge driving style made it a crowd favorite. People ran to the fences when they heard this car fire up. It’s one thing to watch a sleek Corvette lay down a smooth, fast pass. It’s another thing entirely to watch a car that looks like it should have a trunk full of groceries lay down a blistering pass amidst a cloud of tire smoke, carrying the inside front tire around the corners.

These days, the old Nova is running a dry-sumped 427-inch LS7 that makes about 700 horsepower. There’s a big, nasty 1000 cfm Quick Fuel carb tucked under the fiberglass cowl hood. It has a big Comp solid roller that won’t idle below about 1200. The ride height is hunkered down and the shocks are set on kill. The Tremec has been modified by Dederich’s Motorsport to shift clutchlessly, so it rattles and clangs and clunks whenever it’s not under load. It’s a far cry from the relatively mild-mannered car that first rolled out of the shop. But even with all of those rough edges, the Nova is still a total hoot to drive, even on the street. It still has the stock door panels, dash and full glass. Heck, it still has a backseat.

Here's the 427 LS, complete with the carbureted setup that has proven to be extremely reliable.

What’s it like behind the wheel? After you settle into the Procar seat, harness up, click the switches to turn on fuel and ignition, and turn the key, it starts up on the first crank. After a few seconds, it settles into a lumpy idle and the sweet exhaust from the 13:1 LS reverberates through your bones. The shifter goes into first with a satisfying “clomp” from the dog rings and the clutch effort is smooth and intuitive. Once in motion, the ride is firm but only totally kills you if you hit the big bumps. You can take any old corner just as fast as you dare; the sticky 285/18 Bridgestones will hang on and you’ll be glad you fastened that harness. Stand on the throttle and the loping LS turns into a wailing monster that leaves the tires clawing and scratching in just about any gear. It pulls hard, but it’s surprisingly linear and smooth. When you realize that your speeds have exceeded the triple digits, the big Wilwood brakes will bring your ride to a halt in short order.

The little gauges proved to be hard to see in the chaos of an autocross run, so the big oil pressure, temp, and tach were installed to be read at a glance.

Being in the passenger seat on the track with Robby is a completely different experience. That aggressive, fast car on the street becomes an absolute monster. Things happen fast and the straightaways, if there are any, disappear almost instantly. Then, Robby stands on the brakes about 30 feet after the rest of us would have and before you even realize what direction is up, he’s back on the throttle and hanging out the tail of the car. The forces are incredible, and it’s not uncommon to be a little disoriented when the ride is over. But as soon as you regain your wits, you’ll want to do it again.

The Nova is now a serious car that takes a pro like Robby to really drive it to its full potential. But even to the rest of us mere mortals, the soul of this car comes through behind the wheel. You can almost feel the passion, love, sweat, and blood that it took to turn this car into the monster that it is. It was a good car when it was first finished. It’s a great car now.

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