The Goodguys Del Mar Nationals Autocross was a contest of speed and skill, hard-fought by cars and drivers from around the country. Walking the pits throughout the day, we were treated to some rarities and backstories worth sharing. After all, the life story of a car runs deeper than a little track-rash and chipped clearcoat.
We caught up with the owners and their machines between runs to dig a little deeper. Below are our top picks from the event — not all the most glamorous or the fastest, but those most rich with story and allure.
1966 Shelby Cobra: Owned By Bruce Cambern And Driven By Scott Fraser, Fresno California
The overall winner of the event was the original first-owner 1966 Shelby Cobra of Bruce Cambern. These real aluminum cars are certainly precious collectibles in the eyes of the speed purist — and with a value pushing seven figures, it takes a healthy dose of trust and reckless abandon to wheel one of these legendary cars on the ragged edge.
The backstory of this car was relayed to us by Cambern, who worked as chief chassis engineer at Ford for 31 years. He originally purchased the car in 1965 with a list of options totaling $8,493, a solid investment in 20/20 hindsight. Through his time at Ford, Cambern had the opportunity to apply his engineering training and Ford’s diagnostic resources to evaluate the Cobra’s design — and his findings were nothing less than shocking.
“The interesting thing about this car is that when I worked at Ford I put it in their computers and ran it, and the geometry is terrible! There’s no camber gain because the A-arms are almost the same length, so to run them in a road race situation it has to be all static. They used rubber bushings, so when you stepped on it, it understeers like hell,” Cambern exclaimed.
“When I looked a the steering I found it had reverse Ackerman! I asked the designer, who worked in the same building as me, why he did that, and it was because we couldn’t fit the magnesium wheels over the steering arms. So, they torched them and bent them in. I flipped them left to right and put on smaller rod ends to get some Ackerman. I shortened the steering arm by three inches to speed the steering up,” he continued.
We felt a little sad to hear the venerable Cobra may not have been all it was touted to be on paper, but that didn’t keep it from dominating racing fields around the globe. Camber assured us that while the body is original English AC Cars material, he retains many of the original components — engine, transmission, emblems, and other like items, all crated up in the garage for safe-keeping.
To bring this Thoroughbred Shelby into focus, Cambern executed a full reboot of the Cobra’s powerplant and suspension. Leaving little untouched or modified — perhaps an original sin among car restorers — we where exhilarated by his pragmatic approach.
“The engine is an early Shelby aluminum block; it’s 498 cubic inches, has Carillo rods, Moldex crank, and Blue Thunder heads that flow 380 cfm, which is a lot for an FE titanium intake and exhaust valves. The rev limiter is chipped at 8,200 and it’s a 4.25-inch stroke that makes 850 horsepower at 7,650 rpm and 631 lb-ft of torque at 5,700 rpm. Weighing 2,350pounds, it’s like a sprint car!” Cambern laughed.
“It also has FAST fuel injection, a compression ratio of 15:1, and the cam is so radical that you don’t get a lot of pressure. With fuel-injection you can’t have any air in the lines so I have a swirl pump leading to a Bosch inline fuel pump that feeds the injectors and I run 55 pounds in 65 pound per hour injectors,” he described. “The intake is an Edelbrock Victor, Jr. — we welded everything up and changed the runner lengths to get them all the same.”
The old Cobra certainly shows its share of battle scars, a few pings in the aluminum chin and some rough edges but that endears it to us — this car is really driven, not hidden away under a sheet to be mummified and lost. Cambern has abdicated from the driver’s seat and now entrusts his Ford to Scott Fraser who drives the car with the kind of gusto befitting of a raucous side-piped racer.
“The course is really slick, it’s our first time bringing the car out here so we came in blind. Driving the car — it’s an animal, you have to be very gentle because it has so much power, it’s so light, and it has a 90-inch wheelbase. It looks like I’m not driving that hard, but if you watch in-car video and watch my hands there’s a lot going on,” Fraser described.
1965 Corvette: Brian Hobaugh, San Ramon California
Mid-’60s Corvettes really marked a turning point in America’s sportswear — priorities were changing, and ’65 marked the first year for disc brakes on all four corners and the last year of the original “fuel” fuel injection. The fastback rear design summed up the 1960s in a poetic gesture, blending the Art Deco ’50s and the space age ’60s These cars were made to run, and this one has never been babied.
“My father and I have had it since 1983, but we’re the fourth owners of the car. It was originally purchased in ’65 by the first owner to autocross, and has autocrossed from the first week of its life until now — it’s never taken a break — so we’ve got over 50 years of non-stop autocross,” explained Hobaugh.
This ‘Vette shows it’s racing cards from across the parking lot, the flanking body lines swell like a ‘rood-raging musclecar, and its fiberglass fenders have had a fair dosage of massaging throughout it’s tenure of fat rolling stock.
“The original owner, Ron Christiansen, did the flares in the front and back, but in the ’70s Larry Park (the third owner) made the flares bigger. Five years ago I changed the color of the red and blacked out all the trim to give it a completely different look — different than the classic red Corvette,” Hobaugh recounted.
Beyond the aggressive exterior, the mechanical underpinnings are fairly modest considering the impressive times produced on the track. No crazy modifications, or LS-swaps here. “Drivetrain-wise it’s a stroker small-block Chevy, not an LS. It’s fuel-injected and makes about 525 horsepower at the crank. The engine is still mated to the stock four-speed transmission with a twin-disc, lightened McLeod Racing clutch,” Hobaugh revealed.
A big part of the secret to making this Corvette navigate the cones with the grace of a modern supercar is the suspension. The advantages of modern adjustability did not get overlooked by Hobaugh and his father.
“The suspension is all Van Steel coilovers with JRi shocks, there’s not a lot done to this car that is super-trick. We just changed to the coiler set-up this year, which was a big change, and the main thing it gave us is the adjustability,” Hobaugh emphasized.
Stopping the ’65 are a set of modern Wilwood disc brakes featuring six-piston calipers in the front and four-piston in the rear. Aluminum hats bolted to spec-37 rotors keep the unsprung weight down and offer performance thermal capacities. Rolling on super-wide 18×12 inch Aristo Collection wheels on all four corners, the contact patch of Falken RT615K tires keep the car planted.
VW Meyers Manx Clone: Mike Ahlstrom, Yucca Valley California
If there was ever a Southern California automotive icon it has to be the humble VW buggy. The simplicity, availability, and popularity of these machines made them ideal candidates for home-built projects. In the desert, on the drag strip, or just cruising the Pacific Coast Highway they were everywhere.
Rolling up to the autocross with half as many cylinders, half as much horsepower as the nearest domestic competitor, and no fancy boutique chassis design or factory backing might have looked like the last nails in the coffin for Mike Ahlstrom. In a David and Goliath display of power to weight ratios the Yucca Valley-based air-cooled racer put on a show! With a best time of 57.564 seconds, Ahlstrom would have found himself placed seventh in the Pro Class had he not come to run just for fun.
The VW flat-four powerplant that propelled his likable buggy was naturally aspirated featuring a 2,275 cc displacement, dual Weber IDF (EMPI HPMX) carburetors, a modest 7:1 compression ratio and a side-draft merged collector, four-into-one exhaust. Ahlstrom estimates about 150 horsepower to the wheels, and we think that sounds about right. The early swingable gearbox was built by KCR in Riverside, California and features common mods of close ratio third and fourth gears, a superdiff, and an aluminum side cover.
The suspension on Ahlstrom’s car is pure Ferdinand Porsche; the swingaxle rear means big camber and toe change through the travel, and the early link-pin front end prioritizes simplicity over geometry but that didn’t stop him from going out and making fast laps.
“I’m an old-school guy, swingaxle is it. We’re going to try to adapt to the balljoint front end to get some of the better steering geometry and help my understeer problem,” explained Ahlstrom. After lighting-up the tires in a few corners and getting into some cones Ahlstrom was contemplating some tuning changes.
“We have 3/4-inch swayers front and rear, so there’s no body roll at all — which I think might be part of my problem, I’m thinking of putting smaller bars in so I gain a little weight transfer,” he explained.
A car weighing in at a mere 1,550 pounds with driver, doesn’t take much braking to come to a halt, but Ahlstrom fitted it with all-wheel disc brakes and dual master cylinders. The VW pan has been reinforced and braced to improve handling, “The only thing original on the pan are the front and back clips and center tunnel. We cut out all the side panels and replaced them with 1×2-inch square tubing, and with that, and the four-point roll bar it’s real rigid,”Ahlstrom concluded.
The Autocross display had a story parked in every pit space, all it takes is a little coaxing and the memories start to flow. Those who came for fun surprised themselves, and those in-it-to-win-it tried their very best to make clean laps. We wish our top picks the best in their future races, and hope more folks who are just as enthusiastic will add to the future field of events.