In 2006, 33-year-old John Langer and his 525-cubed '69 Firebird made trips from Philadelphia to points around the eastern U.S. chasing the annual NMCA circus as he has done for the last nine years, but this year was different. John and his potent Trans Am clone locked up the NMCA TCI/ProX-sponsored Pro Stock World Championship points title with two more rounds remaining, much to the dismay of the many Chevy and Ford racers in this series, which is open to all domestic makes.
Many of John's competitors work in performance shops or own their own businesses, but John's job as an engineer specializing in the selective demolition of nuclear powerplant facilities requires extensive travel and often conflicts with his racing. For example, a scheduling conflict prevented him from attending the NMCA race in Atlanta, Georgia, and he had to leave early from the Columbus, Ohio, event so he could return to work on time the following Monday, thereby handing the win to defending champion and second-in-points, Jamie Stanton.
John frequently has to fly into Philadelphia to get his race car and trailer and then drive to where the event is that particular month. Arriving late, he gets in as many qualifying runs as he can, completes the event over that weekend, and drives home Sunday night into Monday. But work he must, or there is no racing. Although he has won significant cash and contingency this year, it is not enough to financially sustain his efforts long term.
Last year's defending champion spent huge money for a fresh Bischoff Engine Service (BES) big-block Chevy for his '71 Chevelle to defend his title in 2006, going so far as to say that it was specifically built to defeat John Langer. Nevertheless, the unassuming white Firebird with blue stripes continued to tally up points and win events.
As a matter of record, John has won every round of NMCA competition he has competed in this year. His '69 Trans Am clone has been slowly and painstakingly sharpened into an 8.80-at-153.6-mph rapier, and he wields it with skill and style. In this type of racing, the fastest car advances and the loser goes home. There are no break-outs to save you from the big-block Chevys, no bracket to equalize you with the mountain-motor Mustangs, and no buy-backs to get you back in the game against the Dodge Viper in the next lane. It's Pro-Tree, heads-up, and the second car to cross the finish line is done for the weekend.
John competes with traditional Pontiac power using an IA II block and Wenzler Series II heads (no power adders) and at a 3,250-pound race weight on 10.5-inch tires. Although his Bird has run quicker in non-NMCA trim, John posted the aforementioned numbers at the 2006 opening NMCA race in Bradenton, Florida, and it remains the current NMCA Pro Stock world record for both e.t. and mph, a significant accomplishment that also paid extra points to that weekend's race win.
After nine years of trying, what changes propelled him from a Top 6 season finish last year to runaway World Champion in 2006? During the off-season, John went from 477 to 525 cid using the same Ross custom-forged pistons (since he had three sets). He decided to use shorter 6.600-inch GRP rods so the piston-pin height would remain the same with the longer-stroke Sonny Bryant 4.400-inch stroker crank.
John is adamant that this is not a bracket-car engine but a full-effort racing engine. Both the engine and transmission require constant maintenance and freshening and are not something that can be built on a budget. His figure to replace this engine is about $35,000, so he doesn't have a spare and makes do with as many extra parts as he can carry. This engine required a great deal of development to reach this level (he's used the same block and heads for six years), and in its current state, is a very efficient powerplant capable of serious power at higher rpm than most people would dare take a Pontiac engine of this displacement. This was achieved through a lot of broken parts and painstaking cylinder-head and valvetrain research aided by Tony Bischoff of BES and T&D Machine Products.
Now with significantly more displacement and power, the final piece of the puzzle was adding the NMCA rules-required increase in weight to just where the car wanted it to launch with 1.2-area short times. The result was better launches and a more stable car despite the power increase.
Transferring that power rearward is a transmission comprised of a Chrysler 727 case with a BOP bellhousing adapter, Chrysler 904 internal components, and a short roller-bearing tailshaft. The unit is roughly the same length and width as a Powerglide but has a lighter rotating assembly as well as another forward gear.
Since the normally-aspirated car is very sensitive to any altitude and/or air-density changes, the converter and gearing must be carefully balanced to what the engine can produce under any given atmospheric conditions. To that cause, John travels with four to five PTC torque converters with a 9.5- or 10-inch converter case and different stall speeds to dial-in to each track's traction and air-density conditions. The Bird's fabricated Moroso 9-inch Ford rearend design also affords easy rear-gear swaps. John admits most racers wouldn't swap these parts back and forth between runs to be 0.03 second quicker, but that is what's required to be a serious contender.
John does most of the suspension tuning with the front of the car as once the rear is set up properly changes are minimal. "If I didn't run the travel limiters on the front suspension," he says, "the car would wind up on it's roof," so he adjusts the launches using shocks and travel limiters until it will carry the wheels off the starting line at about 6 inches.
Where It All Began
As you can see, John is quite familiar with this combo as he's owned the Bird since his college days 15 years ago when he was working on his degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He came by his mechanical bent both genetically and environmentally as his father was a dealership mechanic all his life; John treasures the Snap-on tools that he inherited from him. We have no doubt that his dad would be very proud of the year John has had. To rise to this level with an unusual combo while working full time requires a lot of motivation, and John discussed some of it with us.
"I've always been a Pontiac guy, and this Trans Am will never have a non-Pontiac engine in it as long as I own it." The '69 Firebird/Trans Am is his favorite car, but the reason he continues to use Pontiac powerplants goes back to his first car, an '80 Turbo Trans Am. After a fun day flogging his Turbo T/A, John went to the local speed shop in Holmes Circle, Philadelphia, to buy some go-fast parts for it. The shop owner laughed and told him that he had exactly what John needed. He came back with a Class 3 hitch and told John that to go fast with a Pontiac he needed to either tow it down the quarter-mile or put a Chevy in it. John reflects on the irony that the speed shop is now out of business while he's setting records and winning a Pro Stock World Championship with a Pontiac-based engine.
He credits Rick Moroso with a lot of the fabrication that converted the '69 into a race car, but Competition Engineering, Mickey Thompson, MSD, LTI, Kooks Custom Headers, Performance Transmission, PTC, Mike Smith Paint, and Ed's Trim shop all contributed to the championship that others had told him was impossible.
NMCA Racer Mentality
A completely new engine will debut at the season opener in Bradenton, Florida, next spring in an effort to stave off the inevitable off-season development of his competitors, which will be aimed directly at his Bird. The world of heads-up racing is such that next year the competition will be faster, and the go-fast-or-go-home nature demands you always move forward.
When you talk to John and most of the other racers in the staging lanes, they are all very passionate about winning if they possibly can. However, when you catch them after the day is done, another story emerges, one about a community of racers who not only push each other to otherwise seeming impossible heights, but also support and help each other like a band of brothers. As an example, at the NMCA race in Maple Grove, Pennsylvania, John spent the evening helping Steve Cagle and friends swap out Steve's problematic Turbo 400 for a proven Powerglide. The next day, Steve Cagle lined up against John in first round competition and beat him.
It was the first time that year and would have prevented John from locking up the championship, but fate intervened. Although they had swapped the Turbo 400 for the Powerglide successfully the night before, they didn't add the required weight to keep the car legal with the much lighter Powerglide in it, and Cagle was disqualified when he parked on the scale after the run. As a result, the win went to Langer, who worked his way through the field for the event win and secured the championship in the process.
It tells a lot about a person's character that they would help a competitor when that competitor's success could cost the helper so dearly. But as one of the other NMCA racers told me, "I'm not interested in beating a hurt car or getting a bye because someone broke. A championship against weak competition is meaningless. I'll win or loose on the track."
For John, being able to enjoy the championship surrounded by friends and competitors who respect what he has accomplished is all the more rewarding. So good luck to John and all those who would chase a dream on their own terms, and congratulations on winning his first NMCA Pro Stock championship in a way that that can make him and the entire Pontiac hobby proud.
Take A Ride In The Nmca Pro Stock Champion '69 Pontiac Firebird
John explains, "I strap in and check the high and low shift limiters as I wait my turn to do my burnout. I pump the brakes about three times to make sure everything is working properly. After a high-gear-only burnout on the rev limiter, I let go of the line lock, then re-engage to keep set revs down. Back to Neutral as soon as gas is off, I back up to begin staging. I check all gauges, recheck the seatbelts, and prepare to run.
"I hit the trans brake, pre-stage, and start the data recorder. Concentrating on the lights, I launch at 6,800 rpm off the transbrake when they flash on, ride the wheelie, and when the horizon reappears, I'm ready to shift at 8,600 rpm to Second gear. A very short time later, the tach is at 8,600 again, and the Third gear shift is made. I hit the chute just before I cross the line. After the traps, I leave the water pump and fan on, and shift to Neutral.
"If I win, I go to the scales of the tech department to weigh the car and check the data playback for anything significant. Once in the pits, I study the data in detail, looking for any potential performance increase I might get from a converter and/or gear swap, and I'll check the valvetrain before the next round."
John Langer's 2006 Nmca Pro Stock Championship '69 Firebird Specifications
Classes Run: NMCA Pro Stock, RAM Racing 10.5, Atco 8.5 index
Year/Model: '69 Pontiac Trans Am clone
Race Weight: 3,250 lbs (NMCA), 3,200 lbs (Ram Racing), 3,075 lbs (Atco 8.50 index)
Curb Weight: 2,850 lbs
Fuel: VP Race C25
Engine: 525-cid IA II block
Engine Builder: John Langer/Bischoff Engine Service
Power Adder: None
Carburetor: DaVinci Dominator, 1,050 cfm
Jets, Primary/Secondary: #90/#90
Spacer Plate: 2-inch Super Sucker
Intake Manifold: Edelbrock Victor
Airbox: Rick Moroso custom fabricated
Fuel Pump: BG 400
Heads: Wenzler Series II
Head Porting: Bischoff Engine Service (BES)
Flow Numbers: 380 cfm/240 cfm at 0.750 lift at 28 inches of water
Valves: Titanium 2.275 intake/1.70 exhaust
Pistons: Ross forged, 4.350-in, semidomed, fit to combustion chamber to maximize compression
Rings: Childs & Albert
Rods: GRP forged 6.600-in
Compression Ratio: 18.4:1
Crankshaft: Bryant, billet, 4.400-in stroke
Brand: Comp Cams solid roller
Duration at 0.050: "Open 24 hours" says the owner
Lift With Specified Rocker Arms: 0.888/0.875
Installed Position: 113-deg
Rocker Arms: Shaft mounted, T&D 1.70:1/1.65:1
Distributor: Stock points
Amplifier: MSD digital programmable 7
Spark Plugs: NGK
Total Timing: 32 degrees
RPM Timing Is All In: Idle/mechanical advance locked out
Headers: Kooks custom stainless, step
Primaries: 2-, 211/48-, 211/44-in
Exhaust Pipes: 4-in
Mufflers: Flowmaster Racing
Transmission: Chrysler Pro-Flite
Converter: PTC 10-in, 6,500-stall
Shifter: B&M Pro Ratchet
Rear: Moroso fabricated moly 9-in
Rear Gear Ratio: 4.70:1 to 5.00:1 depending on conditions
Spool and Axles: Moser 40 spline
Brakes F/R: Aerospace Components 1011/44-in/11 31/48-in disc
Wheels F/R: M/T 15x3.5 / 15x10
Tires F/R: M/T 26x4.5x15 / 29.5x10.5x15
Tire Pressure F/R: 42 psi/11.5 psi
Springs: Moroso Trick
Control Arms: TRZ moly upper and lower
Shocks: Strange 12-way adjustable
Shocks Adjustment Setting: Depends on conditions
Other Features: Moroso rack-and-pinion steering
Coilovers: Afco 2-way adjustable
Ladder Bars: Moroso custom moly adjustable
Stabilizer Bar: Moroso custom moly
Shock Adjustment Setting: Depends on conditions
Rollcage: Moroso custom moly, 14-point
Interior Mods: Front racing seats, otherwise stock
Exterior Mods: VFN fiberglass
4-in cowl hood, VFN fiberglass front bumper
Safety Mods: Simpson 5-pt harness, Simpson drag chute
Paint: By Mike Smith
Best 11/48-mile ET/MPH: 5.46 at 126
Best 11/44-mile ET/MPH: 8.61 at 156
Best 60-foot: 1.221