In the American justice system repeat offenders suffer increased scrutiny, higher bonds and stiffer sentences than other, less successful criminals. In racing the same can be said for those who consistently win more often than their peers. Closer tech inspections, frequent tear downs, suspicion of cheating and even blatant shunning can come with the territory when racers are too successful. Kurt Neighbor has experienced this and then some throughout his highly successful multi-championship racing career. “Nobody likes winners,” Kurt said flatly. “When you win, you just aren’t going to be popular among your peers. As a result, I sometimes ask myself if I really enjoy this and my answer is that I must. I worked at this until I ran my health into the ground, but I’ve slowly recovered, and I’m still out here performing at a decent level. I work on my cars every single day. It’s 90 percent of who I am and what I do.”
In 1966, as a teenager, Kurt started racing a ‘57 Ford at Thompson Dragway and Dragway 42 in Ohio. After a couple of years, he bought a new ‘69 Mach 1 428 Cobra Jet that he campaigned in NHRA and AHRA Stock Eliminator until 1977, when he switched to a 427 tunnel port Pinto Pro Gasser. A couple of years later, he was among the first to buy a new ‘79 2.3L carbureted turbo Fox body Mustang. There were no parts for those cars back then, but with a cutting torch, welder and a pipe bender in hand, he transformed the little Mustang into a full tube frame race car. Bigger challenges, however, lay ahead.
“A friend of mine kept bugging me to go Funny Car racing,” Kurt recalled. “Eventually I found a beautiful car with a Pat Foster chassis and a brand-new ‘85 Mustang body in Louisiana. I sold the Mustang and used that money to buy the Funny Car body and chassis. I talked to Jim Dove at Dove Manufacturing [one of the nation’s premier FE engine specialists] about building a 427 SOHC cammer, and he told me to have at it. It took me two years to engineer, cast, fabricate and finish everything I needed to finish the project.”
Ford 427 cammers might have been all the rage with Connie Kalitta, Pete Robinson and a host of A/FX Mustangs in the mid-to-late ‘60s, but by the ‘80s, those cars were virtually non-existent. Even so, the potential of these engines was still there. With smaller dimensions than the vaunted 426 Hemi, the Ford 427 cammer had a true hemispherical combustion chamber with large valves and an angled plug. Each cylinder head had its own camshaft that actuated shaft-mounted roller rockers. With a long 6-foot timing chain spinning both of the cams, each cam had to be timed separately from the other to compensate for flex in the chain drive. Yet, even with this liability, it was a fearsome engine that was promptly banned by both NASCAR and NHRA, in part because it was sold only over-the-counter and never in a stock, production line vehicle.
Being the true blue Ford guy that he’s always been, Kurt immediately saw potential in running the engine combination in the Top Alcohol Funny Car category where the E.T. record was very attainable in the 6.80 range. Unfortunately, it took Kurt two years to gather the parts then engineer and custom machine everything he required—such as solid billet heads—to get it where he thought it needed to be. In the interim, a number of nitro teams were dropping down into the alcohol ranks as costs escalated. They brought with them items such as high helix blowers and Brad Anderson heads, which pushed the class ahead in performance. The bar had been raised significantly, yet Kurt was still successful—but at a price.
“By 1989, I was going 6.40s with the car when the record was a 6.26,” Kurt said, “but I was spending sixty hours a week in my business and then another sixty to eighty on the car. It drove my health right into the ground. From 1990-91, I was barely able to get out of a chair, and I had to concentrate on recovering physically. By 1992, I was strong enough to build an FE 427 engine for a customer who wanted to go Nostalgia Super Stock racing. I went to one of the first NMCA races at Norwalk and found that this was a lot easier, and I started having fun again. You didn’t have to almost rebuild the car between each round.”
Kurt started driving in Nostalgia Super Stock for one of his customers, and by 1995, also raced his own Ford Thunderbolt. He ultimately won two national championships and finished second in points three times, but he was itching to go quicker. With a heads-up 10.00 index, A/NSS was the quickest class within Nostalgia Super Stock, so Kurt petitioned for the addition of an A/FX class that would be run off of a 9.50 index. NMCA agreed, so Kurt started on a ‘66 Comet, which ultimately took four years to build.
During this period, Kurt added further to his drag racing resume by driving Bill Glidden’s Hot Street Fox body Mustang, which is a heads-up, non-power adder class for small-block Mustangs that runs in the National Mustang Racing Association (NMRA), a sister sanctioning body to the NMCA. Kurt set the national E.T. record with that car and was the runner-up in championship points for two consecutive years.
When Kurt took delivery of the Comet from G-Force Race Cars in Buffalo, New York, it had all of the classic characteristics of a ‘60s factory experimental. The back-halved chassis, altered wheelbase and engine set back under the windshield were all features of which “Dyno Don” Nicholson would have approved. Perhaps the only thing missing was the dropped front axle, which Kurt opted to pass on, in favor of a stock front suspension.
Of course, the biggest eye-catcher is the 427 SOHC engine—the same basic power plant that Kurt used in his Funny Car—sitting in all its glory within the engine bay. With this custom 10.850-inch deck height (stock is 10.170) one-off cammer engine, Kurt’s Comet has gone as quick as a 9.14 at 155 mph on 10.5Wx33 M/Ts with 4.11:1 gearing within the Ford 9-inch rear. Adding an extra 250 pounds of ballast in NMCA trim, the car carded a 9.32 at 151. Burning methanol, Kurt uses 2 3/8-inch throttle blades on the Hillborn injection system, which is considerably smaller than the 3 ½-inch size typically found on a similar engine. Backing up the engine is a C-6 automatic with an 11-inch 4,800-rpm stall converter. The full stainless steel exhaust system features Flowmaster mufflers.
“It’s a fantastic car,” Kurt said with pride. “After some testing at Dragway 42, we took it down to Memphis to run it at the last race of the year. We just wanted to get through the new car blues and get experience driving the car. I’d never driven an injected car, and there really isn’t anyone familiar with a combination like this because it’s so odd, so I work to find answers to my problems, and then I know how it works.
“On the first pass, it went way under the 9.50 index with a 9.32,” Kurt said. “There are all sorts of ways to slow down a carbureted engine, but you can’t put a throttle stop on mechanical fuel injection. You have an idle circuit and a wide-open-throttle (WOT) circuit, so the second the pedal hits the floor, you have all the torque and power—now! With a car like this, you don’t drive into it, and I was trying to figure out how to launch the thing and not drive through the converter, all at my first race.”
As Kurt dipped into his bag of tricks to get a handle on the car, he used a combination of experience, luck and excellent reaction times to go rounds. In the finals, he ran a 9.502 on his A/FX 9.50 index to give the yellow flamed flyer a win on its maiden voyage. Kurt has kept winning with the car, including a victory at NMCA’s 2010 Maple Grove event. In 2011, he plans on campaigning the Comet and his original ‘79 Mustang (which he bought back) in NMCA.
“The cars have been really good to me, but without my wife Barb, it would be impossible to do what I do. I also have to thank Jim Dove for his tooling, Mickey Thompson for their tires and Mr. Gasket Company for making gaskets for me. No one has made gasketsfor these engines in thirty years!”
Text and Photos by Rod Short