Written by Mary Lendzion
Photos by Kevin DiOssi
As clear as day, Joe Clemente can remember when he was a child watching his father work on his classic cars and wheel them around their neighborhood in New York.
He told himself that he, too, would have one someday, and that day came when he turned seventeen and purchased a previously-owned 1989 Mustang, and after asking Jim LaRocca to build a small-block Ford for it, Clemente began racing it at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey and on the street.
“Unfortunately, within two and a half years of getting the car, it succumbed to a street racing accident, said Clemente. “Within six months, I was dying to get back into racing, and I didn’t want to build another street car, so I got a 1992 Mustang, and we put a small-block Ford engine in it, along with a ProCharger, and Jim LaRocca, who was invaluable in getting the most out of ProCharger combinations, helped me and we ran low 9s and did well in NMRA Renegade. In fact, we won the NMRA race in Bradenton with a 9.63.”
The following year, Clemente took a break from racing to focus on work, and he sold the car. By 2014, however, he was raring to return to racing.
“Tommy Annunziata, who was going to build an NMRA Coyote Modified car, thought I should build a Coyote Modified car and race with him,” said Clemente. “It sounded good to me, but the power-adder thing had left my body.”
With that, Clemente decided that he would prepare a car and engine for the high-winding world of NMCA FST Carburetors NA 10.5.
“There was a man in New Jersey who had a Fox body Mustang that had been sitting behind his house with weeds growing up through it,” said Clemente. “I expected it to be rusty when I went to take a closer look at it, but it wasn’t. It didn’t have a drivetrain or any glass in it, but it was clean. I asked him what he wanted for it, and we cut a deal and I took it and dropped it at C&F Race Cars so they could make it an NA 10.5 car during 2016.”
As part of the process, C&F Race Cars back-halved the car and brought it to 25.1 specs for a 6.0 chassis certification.
“C&F Race Cars did the whole kit and caboodle,” said Clemente. “They built the car like a Pro Stock car. It has the front frame rail according to the guidelines, but the struts and everything else are in the stock locations. They also did the carbon wheel tubs and the four-link, and the Optic Armor on all sides of the car.”
During that time, Clemente had an engine designed and built by a builder whose name he declines to share, and C&F Race Cars installed it into the car, which was painted by Murphy’s Auto Body. While it helped the car clock 8.30s in testing, Clemente was looking for more.
“I ended up selling the engine to a man who was building a Cobra Jet clone in September of 2016,” said Clemente. “During that time, my buddy, Rich Concato, suggested I talk to Tom Martino about a new engine, so I did, and he came up with a few suggestions, and then we waited for the rule book to come out so we could see where we would be. When it did,webuilt a 406 cubic-inch small-block Chevy at the end of 2016, but we didn’t dyno it until 2017, and then in April of 2017, we made some test passes at Capitol Raceway in Maryland, and the car went 8.01. We had some converter and transmission issues, as well as a few other things fighting us, but we kept working.”
For the following five months, Clemente continued to test and make adjustments to the engine, transmission and suspension. He changed the ride height and the center line of the crank, among other things.
“We brought the car back to C&F Race Cars to have the engine re-set for the centerline of the crank, and to change the four-link and put some additional four-link brackets on so we would have more tuning options,” said Clemente. “We changed the shocks twice, and played around with 125 and 123 springs just to see what would happen. TomMartino is a good engine-builder and C&F Race Cars has built plenty of Pro Stock cars, but this car was not going to behave like a Pro Stock car because of its tire size.”
Clemente, who was in test mode and not race mode as he was dialing in his new car and combination through 2017, reached out to other drivers and professionals for input, and among them was Bruce Blair of Extreme Fabrications.
“For suspension input, Bruce Blair was a dynamic factor,” said Clemente. “He got the car to leave the starting line properly and to go down track straight. He really helped my program.”
With that, Clemente had a baseline before parking his car for the remainder of 2017, and then used the winter months to have his engine freshened and the gear ratio in his ProFlite transmission changed.
While he was planning to make his FST Carburetors NA 10.5 debut in early 2018, he had to focus on his job as a retail food distributor and wasn’t able to travel to the events, so he committed to testing locally.
“We went to Atco Dragway in New Jersey in May of 2018, and we were definitely going in the right direction with the car, but then things took a turn,” said Clemente. “I was making a pass, and when I went through the traps, my elbow hit the shifter when I reached for my chute, and the trans went into second gear. By the time I got my hand back to shift, the front of the car, then the side and back of the car, hit the wall.”
Clemente, who said he was moving right along at the time of the impact, was not hurt, but the car was.
“When I took the car to C&F Race Cars to be looked at after the wreck, I told them I didn’t think it could be fixed, but Charlie Bauer said ‘Go have coffee with my wife, and get out of here,’ and a little while later, he told me it could indeed be fixed, even though it wasn’t going to be easy or cheap,” said Clemente. “He said we would need a shell that we could cut off of another car and put on my car, as well as all new body parts, front clip, axles and rims. The four-link got junked, but the main hoop of the car was straight and square.”
C&F Race Cars carefully put the car back together in the subsequent months, and then it went to back to Murphy’s Auto Body to be repainted.
“I remember the exact day we got the car back,” said Clemente, with a laugh. “It was September 15 of 2018, and we made test passes, and then began making the necessary adjustments. There was no doubt in my mind at that point that the car was even better the second time around.”
With several test passes under his belt, Clemente parked the car for winter, and then loaded up for the 17th Annual NMCA Muscle Car Mayhem at Bradenton Motorsports Park in Florida in March of 2019.
“We tried a different fuel and on my very first pass at that race, the motor melted because we just didn’t have the right tune-up for it,” said Clemente. “The block was okay, but the rods and pistons definitely were not.”
Clemente turned the hurt engine over to Martino, who repaired and reassembled it in time for the 11th Annual Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals presented by Mahle at Atlanta in April.
“I made a couple good hits and went 7.98 in qualifying, but in the first round of eliminations, the car laid over and I went 8.44, but I got the win,” said Clemente. “We found out we had a hurt transmission, and we were hurrying to put the spare in. Luckily, I had a broke-bye in the second round of eliminations and my opponent couldn’t make the call to the lanes in the third round of eliminations and I went on to runner-up with a 7.93 against Leonard Long. I felt I had a competitive car at that point, and was very happy.”
While Clemente broke the rear-end under his car at the Inaugural Comp Cams NMCA Memphis Homecoming at Memphis International Raceway in May, he plans to make the remaining races on this year’s NMCA tour.
“I consider it quite a feat to be able to go 7.90s in a new car,” said Clemente. “Leonard Long told me that I’m there, and I just need to go discover the secrets that no other driver is going to share. I told him that was exactly what I’m going to do. The car has a lot more left in it, and I’m going to find it. I’m one hundred percent in.”
Owner and driver: Joe Clemente
Hometown: Burlington Township, New Jersey
Occupation: Retail food distributor
Class: FST Carburetors NA 10.5
Crew: Rich Concato is the crew chief, and the rest of the crew includes Joe Macaluso, my son, Carmine Clemente and Ricky Concato and Dan Larocca
Engine: Small-block Chevy
Engine builder: Tom Martino and Bob Cave of Martino Race Engines
Displacement: 406 cubic-inches
Pistons: Built withTom Martino’s specs
Cylinder heads: SBX by CFE
Carburetor: Two by Book Racing
Fuel brand and type: VP Q16
Headers and exhaust: Headers and collectors fabricated by C&F Race Cars
Transmission builder: Dave Smith of ProTrans
Torque converter: Coan billet
Rearend: Ford 9-inch fabricated by C&F Race Cars
Body and/or chassis builder: C&F Race Cars
Suspension: Santhuff’s suspension set up and tuned by Extreme Fab Beadlocks
Wheels: Billet Specialties
Tires: Mickey Thompson slicks and frontrunners
Fiberglass/Carbon body components: The front clip, doors, trunk and rear bumper are carbon
Vehicle weight: 2810 with driver
Quickest ET: 7.93
Best 60-foot: 1.11
Fastest mph: 173.87
Sponsors: Concato Race Car Wiring, Martino Race Engines, Bruce Blair, who owns Extreme Fab Beadlocks and C&F Race Cars
(Feature from the October 2019 issue of Fastest Street Car)