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Street Race Truck More... The Toolbox

TJ's 1967 Nova

12/21/2020
Novas can look like stodgy grocery getters compared to a Camaro or Corvette, but slam one on some big tires and they start to look really mean.

Old cars all have stories to tell, and when that car is in the right hands, the best stories are those yet to come. TJ Zessin’s Nova has been there and done that; from drag racing to canyon carving. And its owner has also been around. A machinist by trade, he’s also made parts for high-end cars all over the country through his company, Atomic Machine and Design.

TJ's Nova looks fast sitting still. And with plenty of power and a G-Comp suspension, it walks the walk too.

In the dark ages of internet car shopping (around 2000) TJ went looking for an old Chevy to build into a drag car. A lifelong fan of Chevy muscle and Novas in particular, he found this one on the Yahoo Classifieds. He hauled it home, put quarters on it, new front sheetmetal, and replaced the front and back glass with lexan.

Those numbers aren't just there for looks. TJ regularly campaigns the car at autocross and open road events.

He built up an old school 454 sporting rectangle port heads, a big single plane intake, Holley Dominator, and a solid flat tappet cam. It had a Powerglide and a 9” rear and ran consistent 10.50’s. Then in a turn of events that’s all too familiar to many of us, the local dragstrip closed. TJ trailered the Nova to a few regional tracks, but it was never quite the same. The car was put into storage and he moved on to other projects.

This angle shows just how low the Nova really is. But it's still drivable on the street; we see TJ and his Nova at Cars and Coffee events on the regular.

After sitting for about 5 years, TJ got an idea. Speedway Motors had just released the G-Comp suspension system for ’62-’67 Chevy II’s, and it seemed like a great excuse to bring the old Nova drag car out of its slumber. The G-Comp suspension would not only make the car suitable for street driving, it would also make it fun to drive through the twisties and maybe even take on an autocross event or two. Dragstrips may be few and far between, but big empty parking lots and a handful of cones are easy to come by.

This angle shows just how well the wheels and tires fit in the Nova's wheelwells.

In preparation for its new life, TJ had mini-tubs installed to hold more tire. He opted for a G-Comp bolt-in front suspension, an Unser-edition rear, and Afco coilovers and Wilwood brakes on all four corners. Slicks and pizza-cutter fronts were great for drag racing, but obviously wouldn’t cut it around corners. Instead, TJ chose Weld wheels measuring 18”x9” front and 18”x10” in the rear. Sticky 255/275 Dunlops plant the power and look cool, stuffing the wheelwells on the slammed Nova.

The aluminum LS1 provides significant weight savings over the iron headed big block.

TJ knew that the rowdy, iron headed big block was not going to be the best choice for street driving and corner carving, so it was pulled in favor of an all-aluminum LS1. A cam swap and some ported heads makes for 385 horsepower at the wheels. It’s hard to believe that a grocery-getter 60’s compact could ever pull enough g’s that oil control would be a problem, but this little Nova can corner hard enough to starve the pickup, so TJ opted for a dry-sump system to keep the slippery stuff where it belongs. A 4L60 transmission sends power to the 9” rear.

Looks like a cozy place to spend an afternoon at the autocross.

You might expect a gutted shell of an interior, but though this Nova is primarily a race car, the interior is fairly complete and comfortable. There's carpet and door panels. There's a stock dash, which mounts the 5" tach and shift light. Corbeau seats look comfy and fit surprisingly well inside the Nova. Simpson harnesses hang from the cage that was carried over from the drag racing days.

The trunk holds the battery and an aluminum fuel cell that's lined with a Fuel Safe bladder.

This version of the Nova has been finished for a few years now. We’ve seen it at a few Goodguys autocross events, and TJ has even flogged it at the Sandhills Open Road Challenge. If you’re not familiar, this is an open road race held in a remote part of western Nebraska. It requires high speed driving on roads that wind through canyons and other elements of the local scenery that make it a challenge for any driver. It’s not for the faint of heart or for cars that aren’t up to the task. TJ’s Nova has finished it twice, a testament to the car and driver.

Sandhills Open Road Challenge tech stickers are badges of honor that the Nova (and TJ) survived.
The silver paint glows under the lights.

TJ has plans to go back the Sandhills and otherwise keep driving the wheels off it. There’s also talk of a swap to a manual transmission and some more tuning on the spring and shock package. This little silver Nova has had an interesting life, and it seems like the stories will just keep getting more epic.

TJ has a long history with his Nova, and he has no plans of slowing down now.

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