The start to the new race season is always full of excitement as hopes are high that the year will be a kind one, full of wins and maybe even records. For NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars racer David Barton, the season started off in the opposite fashion as his 2019 COPO Camaro had a date with disaster at the 50th annual NHRA Gatornationals race in mid-March at Gainesville Raceway in Florida.
Barton, who is based out of Robesonia, Pennsylvania, and works as the General Manager of Ray Barton Racing Engines by day, made the trip down to Florida ready to campaign his COPO for car owner Gary Wolkwitz. SAM-Tech Factory Stock Showdown qualifying went well, and Barton was eleventh going into the start of eliminations with his 7.879-second pass.
“Last year we had a slight head gasket issue, and, now that we’re making close to 200 horsepower more than last year, it’s become a major problem and the heads are lifting off the block a lot easier,” disclosed Barton, who is pushing the GM powerplant further than the factory ever intended thanks to the new Magnusson supercharger he’s running and is one of several drivers facing similar issues. “It’s smaller than the Whipple, but it’s a more efficient design and air temps are cooler and overall it really kicks ass.”
Throughout the race, the problem got worse and worse so Barton did what he could to mitigate things and stay safe, including keeping the radiator on the low side and putting a bigger catch can on, too. “I was trying to be cautious and not lean on it until I needed to,” he explained. Well, in the first round of Saturday’s eliminations, Barton was paired with Chris Holbrook and he knew that he could potentially be outrun by a tenth. So, Barton cranked it up, added some timing and leaned it up a bit, and the problem got worse. “It was spitting water out the header, some got under my back tire, and I spun out in a split second.”
Barton has been driving for a number of years and the idea of “if it gets squirrely, I’ll just lift” wasn’t even an option as the COPO made a hard right turn across the center line (and directly in front of Holbrook, who narrowly avoided being caught up in the mess) so quickly that Barton didn’t even have time to process what was going on. One second he was winning the race and the next, he was in the wall.
“I regretted taking the car back down the track, yes, but how many people would have pulled the plug on an entire race when it seemed as simple as overflowing the catch can a little?” mused the driver in hindsight.
Fortunately, Barton wasn’t hurt at all in the wreck (despite whacking his head on the roll bar) and the damage to the COPO wasn’t as bad as it first seemed. “I thought it was completely wrecked, but after we took the nose off, we realized it absorbed the hit really well,” shared Barton. “All the stuff on the front that was crunched, I could just unbolt and put on replacements – I didn’t want to have to do this at all, of course, but that was a big relief.”
Car owner Wolkwitz understands sometimes you have to pay to play in racing, and is committed to doing whatever is needed to move forward while also taking steps to be safer. The car will be repaired to erase any evidence of the collision, and Barton will be modifying the COPO’s potent LS7 engine to hopefully prevent the head gasket issue from continuing – although he’s hesitant to share the specifics of his plan so as not to give up a competitive advantage.
If all goes well during the rebuild, Barton expects to be back in action with Wolkwitz’s COPO in four or five weeks so that he can race at the NHRA event in Charlotte, North Carolina.