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Dirty Bird— Chad Stephens takes flight in Coyote Stock behind the wheel of his throwback Ford Thunderbird

Posted By: Evan J. Smith
Dirty Bird— Chad Stephens takes flight in Coyote Stock behind the wheel of his throwback Ford Thunderbird
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by the FSC staff
Introduced to drag racing as a child, Chad Stephens always immediately had an interest, but gravitated heavily toward aspects of it that challenged him both intellectually and creatively. Now, Stephens is putting both sides of his brain to work in NMRA Fastest Street Car Coyote Stock as he campaigns his “Dirty Bird” 1987 Ford Thunderbird in the highly competitive class.
As far back as he can remember, Chad was at the track. Growing up in a gearhead family, his parents Greg and Wanda, would take trips from their home in Ontario, Canada, to Indianapolis, Indiana, for the NHRA race every Labor Day weekend. “There were always plenty of American muscle cars around and I grew up in the right era,” said the man, now 49 years old. “When I was young, I loved watching Funny Car and Pro Stock run. I always gravitated toward high-rpm, production-type door cars.”
From piecing together perfect performance packages on paper to obtaining his first Fox Mustang in high school, Chad spent much of his youth daydreaming about drag racing. Every Wednesday and Friday night, he and his friends would hit up their local track where they would scour the latest issue of Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords magazine to get inspiration about the latest mods and upgrades.
“I had a budget so I couldn’t buy the trick parts, but I found that driving — cutting a good light, reading the track conditions, and knowing how to row gears — helped cut down my elapsed times significantly,” noted Chad, whose skills didn’t go unnoticed as he was often asked to drive other cars.
Chad’s father, Greg, was always supportive of the sport as well, and in 1996, the men found another Fox. With that, the Stephens family headed to Florida where Chad went from a low-13-second racer to a certified 10-second pilot. “Going from 1.90-second to 1.40-second 60-foot times was addicting and I was hooked,” he affirmed.
As Chad began wrenching more often, he wound up working at two different race shops and eventually got involved with engine building and cylinder head work. Never shy to start a conversation, he learned many important tips and tricks simply by talking to people whom he respected. “I loved the thinking process and figuring out how to get the most out of what you have for the money,” added Chad.
After having “worked his ass off” for years, though, Chad realized his bank account didn’t match the hours he was putting in. As he had also started a family and knew he needed to provide for his progeny, Chad said “yes” when his father approached him about an opportunity to get into the pipeline industry.
In 2007, the Stephens family — including Chad’s brother, Damien — bought out their original US-based partner and took full ownership of Pipeline Repair Services Inc. in Caistor Centre, Ontario, Canada, on the northern side of Lake Erie not far from Buffalo, New York. The company’s slogan, “Under pressure is how we work best,” certainly holds true for Chad’s racing endeavors as well.
Over the years, PRSi proved a blessing for the Stephens family; the business pays the bills for the guys to go racing while also offering plenty of mechanical and intellectual challenges to satiate Chad’s analytical, problem-solving personality.
In 2004, however, Chad decided to build a Ford Thunderbird for NMRA Hot Street. “Bob Glidden had so much success with the platform, plus it was a Fox, so I wanted to try it,” Chad explained. “The Thunderbird had better aerodynamics, a longer wheelbase, and more overhang. It lent itself to potentially better performance.”
Non-traditional Fox platform performance parts were tough to come by in the early 2000s, though, so after procuring a clean, original Thunderbird in 2004, Chad got to work. However, in 2006, he found a red model in Illinois on the RacingJunk classifieds that piqued his interest; “T-Bird” Tony Vece had posted a roller for sale that was simply too good to pass up, and Chad wasted no time changing the trajectory of his plans.
At first, Chad had swapped his target to NMRA Pure Street, but finally focused on his growing both his family and his family’s business instead and the 1987 Thunderbird sat silently. Around 2015, Chad attended an NMRA race and chatted with Coyote Stock’s Walter Baranowski. “Something about watching them go down the track… production cars, engines that spin at high rpm, and a stick-shift class… it was a catalyst that got me in motion,” said Chad, who had been hit by the harsh reality that time, especially with his father, was limited.
Chad was able to begin working on his “Dirty Bird” Thunderbird in 2017 with the goal of running in NMRA Fastest Street Car Coyote Stock the following season. He installed a Ford Performance factory Gen 2 5.0-liter Coyote engine in his 1987 Thunderbird, which he dubbed “The Dirty Bird,” along with the mandatory stock Ford powertrain control module.
Chad installed an Aeromotive fuel system along with a JLT intake and Brisk spark plugs to keep the engine breathing and combusting happily, then bolted on a set of American Racing Headers 1 3/4-inch long-tube headers and a custom X-pipe.
Given that rowing gears was what initially drew Chad to the Coyote Stock category, he selected the quintessential transmission for the class — a G-Force Racing Transmissions G101-A four-speed manual (that he built himself) with a clutch and flywheel from Rob Youngblood’s Advanced Clutches, and a long H-pattern shifter.
With the naturally aspirated Coyote engine being restricted to its sealed-stock configuration, Chad spent a ton of time carefully deliberating the Dirty Bird’s rearend and suspension setup. Mounted with that suspension is a Ford 9-inch rear based on a a Team Z housing massaged by Darryl Chatterson of Chatterson Automotive Services.
“We modified existing suspension components from UPR and found that, yeah, there was a learning curve, but it wasn’t impossible to use the Thunderbird,” said Chad, who realized his Fox required slightly different control arm lengths along with other slight oddities. “We had to fabricate a lot of things for ourselves.”
Chad did the wiring and plumbing himself and the build came together organically, prompting him to believe it was meant to be. The information and insights he gathered along the way, too, he generously made available to others looking to do the same and Chad even collaborated with UPR Products to develop a “Dirty Bird” package available for public purchase.
With an affinity for factory-appearing race cars, Chad paid careful attention to the interior elements of his Fox-platform Ford. He made a concession for weight savings (and safety) with the Kirkey race seats, but chose to keep as much of the interior as stock as possible. “It’s still got the factory dash, door panels, headliner, rear seat, and carpet,” continued Chad, who feels right at home sitting in the middle of the original configuration.
On the outside, the T-bird’s exterior appearance was lightly modified with minor enhancements including a custom-fit Mustang Mach 1 chin spoiler, carbon fiber cowl hood from Kelly Cooper at Joe Van O Carbon Fiber, and set of Mickey Thompson-wrapped 15-inch Bogart wheels that shroud the TBM brakes.
Finished in time for the second race of the 2018 NMRA season in Atlanta at Atlanta Dragway, Chad and his Canadian cohorts headed down to Georgia. Having not driven the car at all other than to drive it into the trailer, he had a genuine concern about how it would drive — would it be a boat, or would he enjoy it?
With his eyes glued to the RacePak IQ3D digital dash and his body surrounded by the 12-point chrome-moly cage from Performance Concepts (later updated by Chatterson), Chad left the starting line at 7,000 rpm and hooked the Mickey Thompson tires to the track. “On the very first pass I realized, man, I love this car,” proclaimed Chad.
The rookie learned a ton during his inaugural year racing in NMRA FSC Coyote Stock. It was a Pandora’s Box of discovering what he didn’t know, but Chad pieced all the knowledge together to produce an impressive finish which landed him 10th overall in championship points for 2018. He continued filling both his brain and his run logs with more data, and, in 2019, Chad had improved to finish sixth in points.
The following year was a bit of an unexpected ride for everyone around the globe, as the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the Canadian-American border being closed and Chad being trapped in his home country. Unable to race with the NMRA, Chad found a silver lining in the situation and began testing more at his home track, Toronto Motorsports Park in Cayuga, Ontario.
With a prior personal best of 10.08 at 132 mph in Coyote Stock trim, Chad took advantage of the unexpected opportunity and pulled nearly 500 pounds of weight from the Thunderbird. With the Dirty Bird flying free, Chad blasted the quarter mile to a new, improved time of 9.76 at 135 mph on pump gas and with a stock tune-up.
In July of 2020, Chad obtained a 12:1 compression ratio Ford Performance 2018 Gen 3 Coyote engine. He transplanted the naturally aspirated, 307-cubic-inch bullet into the Thunderbird, and Chad made three consecutive 10.0-second runs at Toronto in October. 
On the cusp of breaking the 9-second mark with his “5.0 liters of stock Ford fury,” Chad doubled down on his program. With a new rearend installed, he returned to TMP and the Dirty Bird flew even higher as it delivered a 9.94-second timeslip to its owner. Chad, now the first to have a Gen 3 Coyote-powered car in the 9-second zone, proved he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder as he followed up the performance with 9.90-, 9.89-, and 9.87-second runs.
Chad returned to the NMRA and his beloved Coyote Stock class in 2021 with a standout season. “I felt like I was going to get a win that year, but I didn’t expect it to happen as soon as it did,” laughed the man who found himself standing in the winner’s circle at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, in mid-June and needed a day or two for the accomplishment to really sink in. “After that race, Rob Youngblood called me to test out his new diaphragm clutch.”
Feeling like he had a solid hold on his race program by then and having finally dialed in his combination, Chad agreed to mix things up by testing the new Advanced Clutches components. At the final race of the year in Kentucky at Beech Bend Raceway Park, Chad set the top speed for the weekend with his 139.69 mph pass and went to the semifinals. He wrapped up the year with his best finish to date, standing fourth in the championship rankings.
Unfortunately, Chad had to press pause on his momentum in 2022 as more border-crossing issues cropped up. “I didn’t even touch the car until June because we were focused on the Pipeline business, but I spent a lot of time over at Toronto Motorsports Park testing and am grateful for the track staff being so accommodating,” continued Chad, who was able to sneak into the States for the World Cup Finals race in Maryland in November. There, running in the All Motor class, he reset his new elapsed time personal best to an impressive 9.499 at 141.39 mph.
Ready to get back at it for a full schedule in 2023, Chad showed up in Orlando, Florida, ready for the season opener in March. With no expectations as he hadn’t been able to test prior to the event and the car was “totally different” with new tires, gearing, and other parts, Chad was pleasantly surprised to find himself qualified second in NMRA FSC Coyote Stock thanks to a 9.815 at 134.81 mph run.
“I just wanted to get some decent runs and produce data, and we did that. The reality was, it ran really well despite me chasing some issues,” stated Chad, who made it through to the semifinals but went out when his clutch switch failed and the car smoked the tires when it left the line on the factory rev limiter instead of the rpm Chad had intended.
Moving on to North Carolina’s Rockingham Dragway in April, Chad ran a new Coyote Stock-legal personal best of 9.69 seconds during pre-race testing. He encountered some hiccups with the track’s timing system that caused a little controversy during qualifying, but his run of 9.768 at 137.11 mph ultimately placed him third in the order.
Having battled some issues with tire spin, Chad picked up a first-round win in eliminations but knew he needed to leave the line a little softer than usual. Although he almost caught Randy Soper who ran 9.867 at 136.12 mph, Chad’s 9.882 at 136.65 mph hit just couldn’t quite make the cut.
“When I came back from that race, I took apart the front end and found two of my Viking struts were bent and locking out the rebound from fully extending,” said Chad, who also put in a new clutch to prepare for the next outing in St. Louis, Missouri, at World Wide Technology Raceway.
There, Chad qualified lower on the list with a 9.770 at 137.64 mph pass which put him in ninth, then exited eliminations during round one despite a valiant effort. “I want to forget his race,” laughed Chad. “Even though it had a ton of potential, it was still spinning. Turned out, it was time to replace my Viking rear shocks, too. We went testing locally afterward and it ran great.”
Based on the Dirty Bird’s performance in testing, Chad headed to Norwalk, Ohio, feeling like he could easily capture the number one qualifier spot – and he did. Going 9.760 at 140.83 not only gave him the honors but also marked him as the only driver in the 16-car field to eclipse the 140-mph barrier for the weekend.
As if the feat wasn’t special enough, Chad did so with a special Glidden-inspired wrap on the Thunderbird to commemorate the NMRA Ford Homecoming special event and to celebrate so many incredible years of Ford history.
Running the only 2018 Gen 3 Coyote in the class, as his fellow competitors all compete with newer model-year engines, Chad worked his way through the eliminations pairings with the win light turning on in his lane three times in a row. His luck came to an end in the finals, though, as Ed Bennett got the win and Chad secured the runner-up title.
“I was very happy with how the car ran this race, but was still chasing a little tire spin every once in a while,” noted the man who still clocked a quick, 9.766-second run earlier in the weekend despite the chattering tires. “I had spun three passes in a row, so I put more clutch tamer in it to leave the line, and it bit me in the ass even though I purposely deep staged and cut a 0.009-second light.”
With more data on the new combination in his hands and more solutions in his mind, Chad plans to work as hard as he can for the remainder of the 2023 season so as to finish as high in points as possible. He knows it’ll take nothing short of a miracle to clinch the championship, but he’s making a conscientious effort to finish on a high note nonetheless.
“In Coyote Stock, because we all use many of the same parts and a sealed engine, it forces you to scrutinize every element of your program and push forward with unconventional thinking to find an edge over the competition,” Chad elaborated of what keeps him so invested in the popular NMRA category. “Every pass you make, you have to decipher what’s going on — even when the results don’t match your expectations.”
Add in the complexities of varying track and weather conditions, as well as underlying anomalies and the simple laws of physics in relation to finding failure points of mechanical components, along with having to cut a good light and nail every shift point, and the competitive, crazy, wild wheelie-producing class becomes much more difficult than the pure fun that it seems on the surface.
“For 2024, we’re hoping my brother, Damien, can move from NMRA Richmond Gear Factory Stock to join me in Coyote Stock, too, where we have genuine friendships and share knowledge amongst each other out of respect,” Chad outlined of his plans for Team Dirty Bird, which also includes Factory Stock racer and first to the nines in the class, Mark Anderson, with his naturally aspirated, 4.6-liter Two-Valve Ford Mustang owned by the Stephens family. “I couldn’t do any of this without the unwavering support of my longtime girlfriend, Michelle Piccioli, or my family and crew.”
During the upcoming off-season, Chad will make a few more adjustments to the Dirty Bird to help it fly even faster. “We just redid the rear upper control arm boxes which will help me adjust the suspension even better, and we’ll revise and hone a few other details over the winter,” he explained.
Although he’s eager to score a second win in NMRA Fastest Street Car Coyote Stock and hopefully earn a championship title with the “Dirty Bird,” too, Chad gets the most enjoyment out of going racing with his family and his friends. He loves both the competitive camaraderie of the Coyote Stock class and being pushed to think through challenges to find creative solutions while also being able to showcase his skills as a driver and always appreciates it when a fan takes the time to stop by his pit area and chat.
“Yes, we race to win, but I believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something like this and we want to live in the moment with what we’re trying to do,” concluded Chad. “Racing is a community and the more we help one another the more we thrive.”
The Details
Owner: Chad Stephens     
Driver: Chad Stephens
Hometown: Caistor Centre, Ontario Canada
Occupation: Operations Manager at Pipeline Repair Services 
Class: NMRA Coyote Stock
Car Year/Make/Model: 1987 Ford Thunderbird
Engine: 2018 Ford Gen 3 Coyote
Engine builder: Some wizard at Ford
Displacement: 5.0 liters of fury
Block: Stock
Bore: Stock
Stroke: Stock
Crank: Stock
Rods: Stock
Pistons: Stock
Heads: Stock
Valvetrain: Stock
Cam type: Stock
Carburetor or EFI system: EFI
Power-adder: None
Fuel brand and type: VP Racing Fuels C10
Headers and exhaust: ARH 1 ¾-inch headers and custom X-pipe
Transmission: G-Force G-101-A four-speed
Transmission Builder: Scarily enough myself
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Rob Youngblood at Advanced Clutches
Rearend: 9-inch Team Z housing  
Body and/or chassis builder: Chatterson/Performance Concepts 
Suspension (Front): UPR Products and Vi-King
Suspension (Rear): Chatterson, Team Z and Vi-king
Brakes (Front): TBM
Brakes (Rear): TBM
Wheels (front): 15x3.5-inch Bogart ‘Dragstar’
Wheels (Rear):  15x10-inch Bogart ‘Dragstar’
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson 26x4.5  
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson 28x10.5 E.T Drag  
Aftermarket body modifications: Joe Van O Carbon Fiber cowl hood
Safety equipment: Racequip and Simpson 
Vehicle weight: 3,015 pounds
Quickest ET: 9.69 seconds (In NMRA trim)
Best 60-foot: 1.28 seconds
Fastest mph: 141 mph

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