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Nick McGrath's Fox Mustang packs turbocharged LS power in NMCA Xtreme Street

Posted By: Steve Baur
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi

 
A youthful collaboration with a friend evolved into a thriving business and a way of life for Nick McGrath, and his latest NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street build—an LS-powered 1987 Ford Mustang—is just the latest progression of that initial decision.
 
In high school, McGrath, now 42 years old, drove a 1984 Buick Riviera simply as transportation and was jealous of his friend’s Chevrolet Monte Carlos.
 
“Mine was front-wheel-drive, but at least it had a V-8 in it,” laughed the man of his teen years growing up in a small town in rural Illinois just south of Chicago. “We all had cars of some sort and took ‘em apart with hand tools in parking lots. We would cut the exhausts off and rip up and down local roads. At the time, we thought 85 mph was flying.”
 

Fresh out of high school in 1998, McGrath bought a 1992 Ford Mustang LX from a local dealership and fell in love with the Fox platform.
 
“We progressed from outside into wrenching in a garage and that turned into ‘hey, let’s hide a nitrous kit on the car’ which got us started in racing,” McGrath shared of the illicit nights he spent street racing with his friends. “We would be out until 2:00 a.m., but still woke up for work every day. It was a ton of fun.”
 
By 2003, McGrath and a friend, Tony Palermo, decided to rent a small warehouse building so that they had a more solid place to work on their own cars. They called it “Straightline Performance” and soon received plenty of requests for work from others.
 
“It snowballed and Tony went off to do his own thing, but I went all in,” recalled the accidental entrepreneur.
 
McGrath quit his day job to focus solely on his new venture. Less than three years later, he installed a Mustang Dynamometer and the equipment helped take his shop to a whole new level. With a quickly growing customer base and a focus on performance installs and tuning of LS and LT engines, the owner knew he found his niche.
 
Meanwhile, McGrath raced his “Sugar Bear” turbocharged Fox Mustang and did quite well with it from 2017 through late 2019. After discussing with his tuner and Straightline Performance employee, Kevin Stevens, though, McGrath realized that he would need to go in a different direction if he wanted to be more competitive.
 

Rather than continue to chop up Sugar Bear, McGrath decided to build a strictly radial tire-focused car.
 
“Sugar Bear was originally a small-block-nitrous and slick-tire car. We made it work on radials, but it wasn’t quite right and I knew it wasn’t going to get to the level I wanted,” noted McGrath, who balked at the idea of cutting the cage out. Fortunately, a friend called with a lead on a notchback Fox body for $500 and it “was a no-brainer” to start with that instead.
 
McGrath’s new-to-him 1987 Ford Mustang “wasn’t even a roller” when he took ownership of the shell, roof, floor, trunk, firewall, quarters, and front-end parts that made up what resembled a car in the winter of 2019.
 
He and his Straightline Performance team wasted no time in getting to work, and Stevens fabricated the double-frame-rail 25.2 SFI certified chassis in-house. The men intentionally “overbuilt and overengineered” the car for NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street and Ultra Street so that they could switch to X275 or Limited Drag Radial (with a different powerplant) if they felt so inclined in the future.
 
For McGrath’s immediate plans, however, a 400ci LSX engine from Randy Crowley at PER Race Engines was installed and topped with a set of Mast Motorsports LS3 heads and CID intake manifold. Inside, the race-ready LS is fortified with MGP aluminum connecting rods, Diamond pistons, a Winberg crankshaft, and a cam from Cam Motion’s Steven Balusik that had been spec’d by Martin Smallwood of Cam Motion.
 

Given that Straightline Performance is primarily an LS-focused shop, it made sense for McGrath to run what he recommends to his customers, too.
 
“I have enough faith in the platform to put it in my Mustang and be competitive, and it shows them what they can do, too,” he clarified of why he went with the cross-platform engine combination. “I also use Randy [Crowley] for all of my customers’ engines, and I trust him to build mine as well.”
 
Similarly, Rodney Massengale at RPM Transmission has been building his customers’ transmissions for years, so McGrath called his supplier when he needed a new two-speed Turbo 400 to match to his ProTorque converter and Precision Performance Products shifter.
 
McGrath strongly believes in the capabilities of turbocharger-supplied boost, so he outfitted the engine with a billet unit from Harts Turbo. Having previously run a big-block car on nitrous, McGrath knew a small-block on nitrous could be competitive (as he credits Ron Rhodes’s incredible performances), but he wanted to give himself an opportunity to expand his knowledge.
 
“We’ve run nitrous on a ton of cars and wanted more of a challenge to prove a single-turbo car can be fast in such a tight class,” he added.
 
To manage it all, McGrath and Stevens wired in a Gen 3 BigStuff3 engine management system, an EFI solution he’s relied on for many years. Next, he added a Racepak dash to facilitate system monitoring and manage data acquisition.
 

Under the once-black-and-gray exterior, which was a result of Sugar Bear donating its front clip and doors, a set of AFCO by Menscer Motorsports spindle-mount front shocks and rear canister shocks were installed with plenty of sensors to feed into the aforementioned Racepak.
 
A Precision Shaft Technologies driveshaft feeds into the ultralight Strange Engineering center section and internals, fitted in a Racecraft housing, which Stevens finished up with bracing and more along with Strange axles. Stock location upper and lower torque boxes from Merillat Racing, Stevens-built control arms, and other pieces rounded out the stout suspension.
 
The Mustang rolls on 17-inch RC Components wheels, and McGrath made his inaugural passes in Straightline Performance’s latest test mule in late 2020 with a few shakedown test sessions in Cordova Dragway in Illinois.
 
As everything went according to plan, the car then made its official competition debut at the 19th Annual Nitrous Supply NMCA World Street Finals presented by Chevrolet Performance at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Indiana, in September of 2020. McGrath qualified eight of sixteen in NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street with a 4.824 at 147.47mph hit, then “got lucky” with two holeshot round wins on his way to the finals where he ultimately cut it a little too close with a red light.
 
“A runner-up against Tim Knieriem at our first race was great,” he shared. “But we couldn’t figure out why it seemed to slow down as we put more power into it.”
 
With the off-season winter shut downs looming for his local tracks, and hungry for answers, the guys headed out to RadialFest in Alabama—something out of the ordinary for them. The gamble paid off and they were able to track down their new car blues; a broken torque converter was the culprit and a quick fix produced a 4.68-second hit, and McGrath closed out the year with validation.
 

Hungry to get back at it, though, McGrath had to wait as the NMCA season opener in Florida was nearly a 24-hour drive for him and the business owner simply couldn’t take so much time away. Letting it be his intentional “drop” race for the year, he readied himself for the 13th Annual NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals in Atlanta, Georgia, in April instead.
 
However, McGrath planned something else prior to getting started with his 2021 season—a big color change. Having always owned silver cars in the past, he decided to change things up by having M.O. Graphics wrap the new Straightline flagship vehicle in Chevrolet Jetstream Blue.
 
“It’s a big change for me, but I love it,” said the driver who had a tough time stepping away from his longtime color at first.
 
Turning heads in Georgia and definitely confusing a few hardcore fans with the blue hue, the not-silver Straightline shop car qualified sixth of 25 entries in the combined NMRA Edelbrock Renegade/NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street class when it ran 4.645 at 153.72 mph. McGrath wheeled his way to two round wins, too, before his 4.653 at 153.74mph pass in round three was outran by Eric Bardekoff in the opposing lane.
 
“We are never happy to lose, but we got flat-out outran,” he confessed good naturedly of the defeat. “We hadn’t been able to put this much power down with Sugar Bear, so it’s a learning curve as we start picking at things. We’re still a little gun shy from the last old car, but made a lot of progress and just ran out of rounds to keep at it.”
 

McGrath’s faith in his team’s work and in his build yielded decent dividends at the following race near St. Louis, Missouri. Held at World Wide Technology Raceway, the 16th Annual NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street-Legal Drag Racing Presented by HPJ Performance ran the Brian Tooley Racing Real Street Shootout during NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street qualifying for the quickest LS-powered machines.
 
Although he was sixth of 26, as the field was once again combined with its NMRA counterpart, McGrath’s 4.588 at 153.84 mph marked a strong new personal best and he picked up the win along the way in the specialty heads-up eliminator competition.
 
“It was cool getting that win, but because it was a race within qualifying, we couldn’t do anything too crazy with the tune up,” joked the driver of how he had to play it safe. In eliminations, McGrath pushed through the first two rounds yet again before going out in the third once again. “It had rained overnight and we blew the tires off at the hit from having tightened down the front end just a little too much.”
 
The next event on McGrath’s calendar was another combined event, as the Inaugural Arrington Performance NMRA/NMCA Power Festival Presented by Force Engineering at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan, hosted nearly 30 entries in his category. McGrath clicked off a competitive 4.661 at 151.62mph pass to wind up tenth, but wasn’t able to advance past the first round of eliminations.
 
“Other than it being one of the hottest track weekends I had ever had,” lamented the racer of the time he spent roasting in the humid, horrible air, “it was a good race and the car was running strong. We started leaning on it, but it blew the tire off. Turns out, the boost controller was commanding two more pounds of boost than we were commanding on launch and the suspension wasn’t set up for that.”
 

Befuddled by the mysterious boost issue, McGrath continued his season at Ohio’s famed Summit Motorsports Park with the 20th Annual NMCA All-American Nationals. A good qualifying run of 4.792 at 151.77 mph landed McGrath seventh in the 21-car field, but he noticed the boost controller was still misbehaving. As a result of the inconstancies, he headed back to the pits to pack up after going out in round two of eliminations and knew something had to change.
 
McGrath had been wanting to step up to the Gen 4 version of the Big Stuff 3 software since it became available but was hesitant to rewire the new car.
 
“We needed more processors and options and to not have to run 9,500 other boxes,” he joked of the ancillary electronics. “Having an incorporated boost controller is great and the speed of the Gen 4 is fantastic. It’s like taking an old Atari and replacing it with, well, with whatever system is the best right now—I don’t play video games!”
 
With the latest and greatest BS3 onboard the blue car, McGrath made the most of having an in-house dyno as he made nearly thirty pulls with the Mustang to get the new engine management sorted out before the 20th Annual NMCA World Street Finals Presented by Chevrolet Performance in late September.
 

Pulling in to historic Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in Indiana, McGrath hoped his problems were behind him. He was fifth on the qualifying list courtesy of a 4.631 at 153.65mph trip, then took down Scott Grove and Kirt Sanders in rounds one and two, respectively, of eliminations. He was paired with Dave Fiscus in the finals, and while McGrath ran his quickest pass of the weekend going 4.621 at 153.51 mph, it wasn’t enough to get the job done.
 
“I couldn’t be mad. Dave kills himself working on that car and it’s really cool how committed he is to the program,” stated McGrath in regards to Fiscus’ winning Buick V-6-powered Mustang. “We were learning the new BS3 system, but were happy with the progression and it was nice to have a low-4.60s car.”
 
Finishing sixth for the season in championship points with a new car and sporadic system problems is surely something to be proud of, but McGrath is still hunting for his first championship title. He’s helped many friends and customers earn their own, and plans to keep chasing the dream in 2022 with his LS-powered Mustang and even more NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street excitement.
 
As he eagerly awaits the start of a new year and new possibilities, McGrath welcomed a new member of his family late last year, as his wife gave birth to their second child. “…Kara is a diehard and loves racing, so thank you to her for always supporting me through all of this,” he said, grateful of his spouse’s partnership. “Also, big thanks to all the guys at the shop and those who have helped out this year, like Mike McKay, Vito and Nick Caputo who race in NMCA Open Comp, Rick Raffaelli, Dan Murchek, and John Eliacostas.”
 
Things certainly changed for McGrath since his early days as he has owned nearly a dozen different Fox Mustangs of varying levels of modification over the years. Having gone from wrenching in parking lots to running several hundred cars on his dyno each year at Straightline Performance, as well having as a successful racing career, is something he never saw coming as a teenager, but a life he now can’t imagine being without.
 

The Details

Owner/Driver: Nick McGrath
Hometown: Joliet, Illinois
Occupation: Owner of Straightline Performance
Class: NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street
Crew: Kevin Stevens (crew chief), John Eliacostas, Dan Murchek, Rick Raffaelli, Mike 
Car Make/Model/Year: 1987 Ford Mustang LX
Powertrain
Engine: LSX
Engine builder: Randy Crowley at Precision Engine Rebuilders (PER)
Displacement: 400 cubic inches
Block: LSX iron
Bore: 4.180 inches
Stroke: 3.65 inches
Crank: Winberg polished crank
Rods: MGP aluminum
Pistons: Diamond
Heads: Mast Motorsports LS3
Valvetrain: Jesel
Cam type: Cam Motion solid-roller spec’d by Martin Smallwood
EFI system: Gen 4 BigStuff3
Power-adder: Harts turbo
Fuel brand and type: VP C25
Headers and exhaust: Made in-house at Straightline
Transmission: Turbo 400 two-speed
Transmission Builder: RPM Transmissions
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: ProTorque converter, shifter Precision Performance Products
Rearend: Racecraft housing modified and finished in-house by Straightline, Strange Engineering center section and axles
Chassis
Body and/or chassis builder: Kevin Stevens at Straightline Performance
Suspension (Front): Spindle-mount AFCO
Suspension (Rear): AFCO by Menscer Big Gun radial shocks
Brakes (Front): Strange Engineering
Brakes (Rear): Strange Engineering
Wheels (front): RC Components spindle-mount
Wheels (Rear): RC Components double beadlocked
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson 
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson
Aftermarket body modifications: David Ball made hood, Motor City Solutions front nose, Straightline Performance carbon wing
Safety equipment: Stroud Safety harnesses, Tim McAmis window net, Fireade fire system
Vehicle weight: 3,150 pounds
Quickest ET: 4.588 seconds
Best 60-foot: 1.08 seconds
Fastest mph: 154
Sponsors: Straightline Performance, MO Graphics, HPL Oil, Harts Turbo, RPM Transmissions, Precision Engine Rebuilder, Smallwood Race Development (SRD), RC Components, ProTorque

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