Don Bowles, Sr. has certainly lived a good life full of business ventures and drag racing accolades. And, at age 78, Bowles plans to continue the trend with even more excitement and innovation.
Hailing from Kentucky, Bowles was a coal mine owner-operator earlier in life. No stranger to hard work, Bowles understood early on that resting on one’s laurels does not a champion make. In ’61, Bowles acquired a ’61 Ford Starliner with a four-barrel carb and got started on what would become a storied career.
“At the time, I didn’t run national events very much… I’d go to Indy once a year, and that was a big deal,” said Bowles of his humble beginnings. Soon, though, Bowles found that his Ford was easily outrunning the Chevy and Mopar competition. “Back then, we wound run on concrete tracks with hay bales down the sides with people sitting on them. We didn’t wear helmets or have roll cages, and cars only came with lap belts for protection. It’s a miracle nothing ever happened.”
With “fast” trap speeds just breaching the 100+ mph mark, and elapsed times that many of today’s factory cars can outrun fresh off the showroom floor, Bowles made his mark in ’62 when he set an NHRA elapsed-time record of 12.74-seconds.
From there, he progressed to a ’71 Ford Mustang with a Boss engine and worked his way up to the 120+ mph zone. When Bowles met Jack Roush in ’72, though, he picked up speed—in more ways than one. He’s got his share of stories from the good ol’ glory days of racing, but those are better told over a cocktail and fine cigar.
“After I met Jack, I started working more seriously on my own engines,” noted Bowles, who spent many hours refining his car’s exhaust manifold design to try and make it run more consistently, and with more power. “I’d cut the manifold and move the carb trying to get more fuel distribution, and Jack was a big part of that program.”
Bowles’s foundation for racing had been solidified, and he continued to hone not just his knowledge, but his practical, hands-on skill for fabrication, development, and engine design. Bowles went on to rack up an impressive number of NHRA wins and Wally trophies, as well as victories in other series such as IHRA, throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.
When Bowles decided to try his hand in NMCA (and, for that matter, NMRA) competition, he did it with his typical passion, flair, and class. His fleet of “Coal Digger” monikered cars was right at home in the ProMedia family, and Bowles campaigned his Modular Muscle entry in the early 2000s at NMRA events across the country. In both 2005 and 2006, he finished seventh in points for the class. A win in Open Comp at the start of the 2007 season at the NMRA Bradenton, Florida, event was soon followed by a second at Atco in New Jersey, and Bowles was second in Open Comp Points for the year.
In 2009, though, Bowles made the move to Hot Street because he preferred the laid-back, family-style environment of NMRA and NMCA events over NHRA’s strict technicalities. Still working closely with Roush, he put his ’72 Maverick to work as the only heads-up racer on the official ROUSH Drag Racing Team.
“I prefer heads-up racing over index racing because I want to go fast and I want to win because I had a faster car and didn’t screw up driving,” laughed the congenial septuagenarian about his preference that would make Ricky Bobby proud. Two wins that season, coupled with three runner-up finishes, earned Bowles the right to be called the 2009 NMRA Hot Street season champion. In addition to the NMRA honors, Bowles also had a runner-up finish in Milan, Michigan, while racing in NMCA Pro Stock trim.
The following season, Bowles continued on in NMRA Hot Street as well as NMCA Pro Stock. Juggling the two classes worked well for him, as he could run a similar setup for both. Bowles remained in NMRA Hot Street until 2012, when a wreck while racing with his 358ci Fox-body Mustang at Milan, Michigan, took him out for a while.
When the NA 10.5 class was announced for 2013, Pro Stock and Hot Street racers rejoiced and Bowles came back in a big way. Running the NA 10.5 class with his ’92 Mustang, Bowles wound up the big winner at the end of the year when he picked up the points championship thanks to wins in Kentucky and Indiana, as well as a runner-up placing in Ohio.
“I was in the finals at every race for the rest of the year after Joliet. I didn’t think I had a prayer at first, but I won rounds and defeated the cars I needed to for points—it was pure luck,” confessed Bowles, who couldn’t believe the turn of events.
His commitment to the class never waned over the next three years, but Bowles got the itch to fill a new spot in his garage along the way. In 2014, he picked up a new-to-him, Jerry Haas Race Cars-built ’99 Mercury Cougar.
“I wanted to run some local classes and OSCA with it. It was a good, safe car with the technology to be a Pro Stock car already on it,” Bowles explained of what prompted the purchase decision.
First up on the “to do” list was to assemble an engine for the new Cougar. The car came with a Roush-Yates aluminum block-based engine, but Bowles simply didn’t have the time to finish out the build himself. Too much customer work is a good problem to have, but Bowles still wanted to go racing… instead, he yanked the naturally aspirated 389ci self-built, NASCAR-based engine from his NA 10.5 Mustang and swapped the 1,100+ horsepower bullet into the Cougar.
Paired with a G-Force transmission stick shift gearbox, the temporary engine enabled Bowles to get the Cougar race-ready, but the car itself simply didn’t fit him quite right.
“The pedals were too close, and there wasn’t enough space between the top of my helmet and the roof,” lamented Bowles, who instead hired Ed Brady, Jr. to put laps on it for him at the 15th Annual NMCA All American Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana. There, Brady coaxed a 7.580 at 181.96mph pass from the Cougar in the NMCA’s first exhibition race of its new Pro Stock class during qualifying to rank third. A near-perfect reaction time gave Brady an advantage at the start for round one of eliminations, but his 7.669 at 176.97mph pass wasn’t enough to outshine Merv Moyer’s 7.506 at 181.13mph hit.
Once the Indy event was in the books, Bowles got started reworking the Cougar so it felt more like home. With safety a top priority of his, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to get out of the car quickly enough if he happened to be involved in a wreck or fire.
“We changed the brake, clutch, and throttle pedals to be longer, and made some room for my head at the top. I’ve only been in two wrecks all this time I’ve been racing, so I try to be as safe as I can,” Bowles elaborated of his concerns with the Cougar.
The engine program, too, finally received the attention it needed in early 2017 and Oakley Motorsports of Owensboro, Kentucky, took point on builds for the Cougar’s two different classes. In addition to the Pro Stock FR9 small-block, Oakley put together a big-block for Outlaw 632 use.
While the specs on the Pro Stock FR9 small block are top-secret as similar combinations are still currently used in NASCAR Cup competition, the 638ci big-block Ford muscle was fortified with a Bryant crank, GRP rods topped with Diamond pistons, and capped with Ford Motorsport heads utilizing Jesel valvetrain components. Bowles will switch between the two motors—while keeping the rest of his setup the same—depending on what class he’s running and what the rulebooks mandate.
A big concern for Bowles was keeping the engine happy and running smoothly, despite regularly operating at 10,000+ rpm.
“When we were going fast with the Fairmonts and Mavericks, we were checking valvetrains every round and changing springs regularly. It was lucky if we didn’t break something. Now, I’m seeing guys make three runs and have to change the engine. At $90-100,000 for an engine with a $30,000 refresh cost, I’m trying to make something that makes power without having to work on it as much,” Bowles candidly shared of the cost to go racing, and how he uses the knowledge he’s gleaned through decades of experience to help keep maintenance bills to a minimum. “I’m old enough that I don’t feel like working that hard anymore!”
When deciding what engine combination to utilize on his newest ride, Bowles also opted to scrap the car’s previous carbureted setup and go with a new electronic fuel injection system from Holley.
“On the NA 10.5 car, I lost four to seven horsepower going from two carbs to fuel injection, but the Pro Stock teams are all in it together and we’re working on it, and Holley’s got a lot of great products so it’s coming around more,” Bowles noted of the struggles he’s had to overcome in making the switch.
Backing the engine is a G-Force stick shift transmission, of course, but Bowles hasn’t decided exactly which configuration or unit he will be running with just yet. “I’m working with Leonard Long to get it dialed in, and I have four different transmissions that I’ll be testing to figure out what works the best,” boasted Bowles.
Another area that receives a considerable amount of attention from Bowles was the Cougar’s suspension. A four-link rear end works well with the Pro Stock-style strut set up in the front. Bowles upgraded the shocks at all four corners to help it hook better, and to accommodate for the different tires he planned to run in NMCA trim.
“It already had 17” tires for NHRA, and they use a 100-inch rollout, but for the big block we’ll be running a 103.5” roll out. Since they’re a little taller, we changed the gear ratio, too,” he continued in his highly detailed manner.
The wiring work has yet to be completed on the Cougar, but Bowles expects to have it wrapped up well before the end of the season so that he can get out there and give it a go himself.
“We were hoping to have it out in early June, but an issue with the bell housing being slightly out of spec took that off the table because we didn’t want to burn up any parts,” Bowles added. Undeterred, though, he’s hoping to test at his local track, Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and make it out for the 16th Annual SDPC Race Shop NMCA World Street Finals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in September of 2017 with the small block FR9 under his Cougar’s hood. He’s excited about the new venture, and can’t wait to try his hand at a stick shift car again.
“I need to get some seat time in the Cougar because it’s faster than my previous cars and I haven’t run a manual since 2009,” he asserted of his desire to get going in the 7.40s-capable car and make up for lost time.
Through all his years of racing, Bowles has never strayed from his desire to focus on making big power without any power adders.
“I’ve never driven a nitrous or turbo car. I’ve had ‘em on my chassis dyno in my shop and I know they make a lot of power and tremendous torque, but it just hasn’t been in the cards for me,” shared Bowles, who briefly campaigned a supercharged ’06 Mustang GT with a Powerglide transmission in Open Comp in 2006 before handing over the reins to his son, Donnie Bowles.
The challenge of running naturally aspirated, though, is actually another reason for Bowles’ interest. “When you got bad weather, it really slows you down. When you’ve got a hot track, you have to tune the motor to get off the starting line and get down. And when the sun goes down, everything changes. Naturally aspirated varies a lot more in performance than a turbocharged car, for example, where you can just tune to what the track can handle,” he articulated of the variables that come into play when considering a tune.
Similarly, the challenge of driving a stick-shift car is one that Bowles prefers over an automatic. He’s run both over the years, but it’s the manual that is near and dear to his heart.
Perhaps it’s the thrill of doing something different that keeps Bowles going, as he recently began a new project that he hopes will be an innovation for the future of drag racing.
“I know many years ago that Don Garlits tried using compressed air as a power adder, and we’re trying that now,” he said of the surprising project in progress. “We think that we can pump up the air tanks, and, with the new computer systems with so many control options, be able to run like a turbo car but better since we will be able to regulate it to a constant boost. If we can do that, it’ll make it easier on parts and we’ll be as fast as the turbo cars.”
With an incredibly successful career already undeniably his, Bowles has no desire to quit while he’s ahead. Instead, he’ll continue doing what he loves from behind the wheel of his new Cougar, and hopes to make his mark in both the record books as well as in drag racing history itself.
- Owner: Don Bowles
- Driver: Don Bowles
- Hometown: Madisonville, KY
- Occupation: Coal Mining
- Class: NMCA Dart Pro Stock and Outlaw 632
- Crew: Cameron Bowles, Michael Bowles, Daniel Bowles
- Engine: Ford FR9 Small-Block (For Dart Pro Stock) 638ci Big-block Ford (For Outlaw 632)
- Engine builder: Oakley Motorsports, Owensboro, KY
- Carburetor or EFI system: Holley EFI
- Fuel brand and type: VP Racing Fuels C-25
- Headers and exhaust: Custom header by Matt Wright, BRC
- Transmission: G-Force GF-2000
- Transmission Builder: Leonard Long/G-Force Transmissions
- Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Clutch: Ace/Boninfante Shifter: Long Shifters
- Rearend: Mark Williams, 5.00:1
- Body and/or chassis builder: Body: Roush Composites/ Chassis: Jerry Haas
- Suspension (Front): Pro-Stock Style Strut
- Suspension (Rear): Four-Link
- Brakes (Front): Lamb
- Brakes (Rear): Strange Engineering
- Wheels (front): American Racing TrakStar Pro Series
- Wheels (Rear): American Racing TrakStar Pro Series
- Tires (Front): Hoosier
- Tires (Rear): Hoosier
- Safety equipment: Stroud
- Vehicle weight: 2,450 lbs.
7.50 (NMCA Dart Pro Stock trim)
1.08 (NMCA Dart Pro Stock trim)
181.96 (NMCA Dart Pro Stock trim)