Detroit has long been home to some of the most impressive, ground-pounding drag cars that the racing community has ever seen, and an insatiable desire for speed seems to course through the veins of those who live there. John Wilhelm spent his childhood riding his bike around a suburb of the Motor City that was full of people working on cars in their driveways and knew at a very young age he wanted a part of the action. So much so that he got into a bit of trouble for driving cars before he even had his license. He actually had to sell his first car, a 1969 Camaro he had bought at 15 years old, to pay for his sister’s car after one of those joyrides went sideways. Despite that relatively rocky start in the hobby, he got a job sweeping the floors at a body shop that allowed him to get his second car, a 1971 Camaro. From that entry-level position, he worked his way up to being a painter’s helper, a painter, and a manager before getting the job he’d always wanted: working as a territory manager for PPG Industries. Being a die-hard fan of the Chevrolet Camaro, Wilhelm has owned a slew of them over the years, but that first 1969 Camaro that he had to give up never left his mind.
Drag racing in his neighborhood was more than just a hobby, it was a way of life, and Wilhelm spent his early years learning from some of the local greats around him as well as watching legends like John Force on TV. This saturation led to countless experiences at both the official and unofficial dragstrips in the area, and after riding in a nitrous-equipped Chevelle at 16 years old, he knew he wanted a drag car of his own. Over the years, he raced a number of cars with his friend, George Bluga, as the ever-steady crew chief and builder, but in 2004, he sold his last race car after the untimely death of a close friend and legendary Mustang racer, Steve Grebeck, made him reevaluate his priorities. Even so, he regretted getting rid of it, and a persisting itch to get behind the wheel of another adrenaline-inducing, straight-line speed demon remained. That itch lasted for 12 long years until Wilhelm decided it was time to get back in the game. In November 2015, he traded his Harley and boat for a Glasstek fiberglass shell modeled after a 1969 Camaro with a few bars of the chassis in place. After a few calls to those same guys he grew up racing ,a plan to create the baddest grudge race car possible began to take shape.
To get things started, the car went over to his cousin’s shop, Jim-Powski Racecraft, for all of the heavy-duty fabrication. The team essentially started from scratch, crafting a custom double-framerail chassis out of chromoly tubing. Once a solid foundation had been formed to build off of, Jim Filipowski fitted the car with Strange Engineering struts connected by a Stilleto rack and pinion. Out back, they opted for a fabricated 9-inch rear end stuffed with a Strange Engineering Pro Series aluminum third member sporting a 4.10:1-ratio spool and coupled with their Hy-Tuf 40-spline, gun-drilled axles—all showing that they had a serious powerplant in mind for this machine. For the rear suspension, Filipowski set the car up with a custom four-link to drive the 17-inch-wide Hoosiers into the ground and Strange coilovers to control the immense forces the car was sure to exert. Once the car was transformed from just a shell into a roller, it was time to find a heart that could fully test the capabilities of the chassis, and Wilhelm found just the piece when an old Pro Stock racer’s Sonny Leonard Hemi-headed big-block Chevy came up for sale. This allowed the headers featuring 2-7/8-inch primaries and massive 5-inch collectors to be fabbed by Filipowski with the engine in the chassis before the car came home to the small shop Wilhelm had in his backyard.
Now, as a grudge racer who doesn’t want the competition in the lane beside him to know exactly what kind of power he’s got under the hood, Wilhelm likes to play things a little close to the chest and won’t actually say exactly what the engine is. With a slight smirk on his face, he’ll tell anyone who asks that it’s “632 cubic inches or bigger.” What we can tell you is that it is almost certainly much bigger and could make power easily edging into the 1,000hp range—if not twice that—naturally aspirated. Further hinting at the true potential of this engine combo is the fact that the block itself is billet rather than cast, and the fabricated intake manifold is topped with a set of split 1150 Holley Dominators from CFM Performance Carburetors that feed air into and out of the engine through giant titanium valves being controlled by a beefy Jesel valvetrain.
To couple all of that horsepower to the driveline, a Browell SFI-certified bellhousing, along with a 10-inch triple-disc, billet RAM clutch was utilized to mate the magnesium-cased Liberty Extreme five-speed manual transmission up to that impressive Sonny Leonard mill. Some may wonder why an automatic wasn’t used, but Wilhelm told us he likes the manual because, “It brings the driver back into it. You’ve got to hit the shift points and cut the light with your foot, not a button.” He admits the clutch is more work to properly dial in, but believes there is more tunability in sending the power to the rear tires with it than with a converter. To help lower the amount of time between shifts, the optional pneumatic shifter from Liberty was fitted to the unit, a massive improvement over the manual shifter when thousandths of a second could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
With the driveline sorted, the car went over to Sliwa Composites, where longtime friend Mike Sliwa went absolutely nuts with the carbon fiber in an impressive effort to save every ounce of weight that they could. The seat was formed out of carbon, the entirely carbon floor was painstakingly laid up and cut to shape before being Dzus-fastened into place, the hoodscoop was molded out of carbon and fit to the car, massive carbon wheel tubs were crafted and put in place, a custom Precision Shaft Technologies carbon driveshaft was ordered, a one-off carbon wing and carbon supporting strut rods were formed, and carbon window vents designed to pull vacuum from inside the car were created. A prototype set of Don Ness carbon-fiber wheelie bars using sailboat mast material sourced from Australia were finished using machined aluminum couplers to join all the bars together and attach them to the car. The assembly saves about 10 pounds when compared to a similarly designed titanium set. What really blew our minds: The motor plate and mid plate that hold the drivetrain to the chassis were built out of military-grade -inch carbon-fiber plate, saving 16 pounds over the aluminum pieces they were modeled after.
Another thing that sets this car apart in our eyes is that it doesn’t have the goofy proportions of a typical Pro Mod. Wilhelm wanted the car to be as original-looking as possible, so the body he started with was a full-scale Glasstek recreation of a 1969 Camaro, complete with a factory wheelbase and factory-height front end. He admits the front-end aerodynamics give up a little bit of top-end speed, but thinks it’s worth it to maintain the look of a real Z/28. He also wanted people to look at his car and assume that it’s a steel car, even though it’s not, so he started the painstaking bodywork and panel fitting before Dave Bloomingberg and Shawn Sherril from Dave’s Collision in Livonia, Michigan, took over to help get it ready for its debut. Wilhelm opted to do the final sanding and prep just before paint to make sure everything was done to perfection, then a custom shade of PPG paint dubbed Sinister Blue mixed by Randy Borcherding of Paint House was sprayed by Wilhelm himself before Jeff Matauch airbrushed all the graphics on the car, including the front grille, emblems, and even the marker lights.
Once the body was painted and the chassis had been powdercoated by Bill Walker of QC Dun-Right Coatings, the final assembly began in Wilhelm’s backyard shop. Lexan windows were painstakingly fitted to the body, the Weld Delta-1 wheels and Hoosier racing tires were mounted up, the inside was completely filled with carbon-fiber components, and a seven-point Simpson harness and Firebottle Racing fire-suppression system were fitted to help keep the driver safe. The small amount of upholstery for padding on the race seat was stitched by Virginia Fraser, and Tom Coniam from Loose Ends Wiring neatly ran all the wires and hooked up a MSD Power Grid controller as well as a host of other MSD goodies that were being used to send a powerful spark to light off the VP Racing Q16 race gas that is pumped to the carbs from a 2-gallon fuel cell by a Magnafuel electric pump. It’s all business on the inside of the car, with only a steering wheel and a RacePak IQ3 digital dash in between the driver and the windshield; everything else is designed to be easily accessed for servicing in between rounds of racing. The shifter is even topped with a set of brass knuckles as an homage to Wilhelm’s father—a rather tough character—and they’re on a quick disconnect in case things get dicey after a he beats someone in a grudge race.
It was an all-out thrash to finish the car for the 2018 Detroit Autorama, and Wilhelm and his friends spent many late nights and weekends in the shop to get the car together. The countless hours they poured into this machine certainly paid off, and this is definitely one of the nicest Pro Mods we’ve ever seen. It was very amusing to watch a normally jovial Wilhelm immediately turn on the swagger and start talking smack when another grudge racer approached him at the Autorama, showing that he means business with this car. Wilhelm said, “This car seriously was a dream of mine, and I’m thankful every day for my friends and family that helped me be able to live that dream.” He then explained that fast is never fast enough, saying there will definitely be a power-adder on the car in the future, and with working headlights, taillights, and turn signals, it may even wind up with plates on it running Drag Week with us someday. No matter what happens, HOT ROD is certainly looking forward to seeing what this car is capable of, albeit with no times up on the board, keeping this sinister car’s true capabilities shrouded in mystery.