Photos by Kevin DiOssi/NMCA
Combination. It’s a word that’s used often in drag racing to describe a particular engine/transmission setup. In the case of Tim Savell and Mike Bankston, though, the word alludes to the collaborative projects the two have shared over the years, and the combination of their skills and resources has yielded impressive results.
Growing up, Savell didn’t really have a motorsports mentor to look up to. With no one to teach him the tricks of the trade, he had to learn it all himself.
“I was just a kid that went to high school, had a little hot rod, and went out street racing,” said the man from Terry, Mississippi. Driving his father’s Oldsmobile, however, piqued his interest in the automotive world and as he got older, Savell’s tastes required more and more horsepower to be satisfied. “I had a fast street car, a ’69 Camaro, and I’d drive it to work, then drive it to the track on Friday night to bracket race, and then go street racing on Saturday night.”
His Camaro, which ran 10.50s in the quarter mile and was equipped with a 355ci engine, transbrake, and a nitrous kit, was replaced by a second ’69 Camaro when Savell met and married his wife, Cindy.
“That was my first real drag car,” noted Savell, who made the purchase more than three decades ago. Cindy encouraged his racing habit since day one, and Savell readily indulged himself in bracket racing where he did remarkably well for many years.
Eventually, the Camaro was sold and in 1998, Savell picked up a 2000 Chevy Lumina Pro Mod that he drove in IHRA Top Sportsman and various bracket races. The car was equipped with a clutch, Savell’s stick-shifted first, and he fell in love with the idea of rowing through the gears. As often happens in life, though, other priorities temporarily sidelined Savell’s racing efforts, the Lumina was sold, and he focused more on enjoying his time with his young children.
Savell wasn’t out of the game entirely, though, and switched his focus to driving for other car owners instead. In 2000, he raced a clutch car to victory at the IHRA World Finals in the Top Sportsman class at Red River Raceway. It took him a long time to get progressively quicker, but he worked hard at it.
“I wasn’t one of the fortunate ones to hop right into a 3.70s car,” laughed Savell, who earned his stripes as a weekend warrior. Around this time, Savell also took a brief dip into the world of boost around 2002, where he jumped behind the wheel of Todd Wynne’s turbocharged Pro 5.0 Wynne Speed ’98 Mustang for a stint in the NMRA.
Through his racing, Savell reputation as a solid, consistent driver and an easy guy to work with. It was around 2006 that he received a phone call that changed the course of his career. “Mike Bankston [of the Bankston Boyz Racing Team] knew I had a lot of experience with clutch cars and that I loved the clutch, so he called and we talked and he asked me to drive,” recalled Savell of the fateful conversation that started the collaboration.
Savell was quickly initiated as a driver on the two-car team, and was gifted the honor of driving a Tim McAmis-built ’67 Camaro chassis that had been previously belonged to Shannon Jenkins. A stint in the ADRL series Pro Nitrous class lead to a second seat for Savell in another Bankston car, but, after a while, Savell was burnt out from the relentless pace and walked away from racing.
“It wasn’t anything harsh, I just wanted to take a break,” he offered up of why he made the choice to back away. “I stayed out for about two years, and then Mike [Bankston] called again and said he’d like me to consider driving again, and I agreed.”
Savell came back around 2013 and the pair dabbled in the no-prep world for a short duration. Although they did well, Pro Mod racing was where they both wanted to be. Bankston acquired an RJ Race Cars-built ’12 Camaro in 2014, and Savell committed to going all in.
Even before Savell set foot in it, the new Bankston purchase had already amassed an impressive history. “It was Mike Castellana’s world champion ADRL car, the Al-Anabi car,” said Savell proudly. “That car had as much time on a plane or a boat as it did on a race track!” When it was delivered, the Camaro impressed everyone—especially Savell. “It was my understanding that Shannon [Jenkins] had a lot of input on the car when it was built. He’s brilliant, and it’s a really well-built, special car. Sometimes you get one that just seems to want to do the right thing, and that’s this car. You beat it to death and it asks for more,” Savell explained of how the reality far exceeded the expectation.
The newly minted Bankston Camaro came equipped with a clutch, of course, as well as a nitrous huffing Reher-Morrison engine. Although the team had no qualms with the Reher-Morrison setup, it was their desire to try running a fuel-injected setup that ultimately enticed them to switch over to Pat Musi power.
“The sport was swaying towards EFI, and Pat’s motors are good for that so we bought a 903 with a clutch around 2015 and it ran really good,” Savell added for clarification.
There’s no replacement for displacement, and soon the Camaro’s 903ci engine progressed to a 942ci version, and then that progressed further to its current Musi-built 959ci combination that’s tuned by Bankston himself.
Nitrous oxide still flows through the car’s veins compliments of five systems of Musi goodness, but a computer-controlled Edelbrock EFI system now handles what the old carburetors once did.
“Pat [Musi] had RaceWire do the whole car to prepare for the EFI, and it really wasn’t that bad switching the car over since Pat did everything. Basically, we picked up the car and it was ready to rip!” asserted Savell of the easy “out with the old and in with the new” change.
Meanwhile, in place of the traditional clutch setup, the Bankston team swapped in a killer, Tutterow-built Bruno-Lenco automatic combination with a TY-Drive from Ty Tutterow and Neal Chance lock-up converter.
“I really prefer the clutch because it puts more drivability back in the car, and you can really feel what the car wants and what it doesn’t,” noted Savell, who was surprised by how well the lock-up converter changed the game. “A clutch car is faster than an automatic if it doesn’t have a lock up, but the lock up is a game changer. I miss the old cutch setups, but evolution has caught up with us now and this is really cool. Plus, with the clutch, we had to service it on every single pass—with this you don’t! Running the automatic saves time, parts, and requires less maintenance.”
Underneath, the suspension is comprised of an RJ Race Cars four-link style setup and Penske shocks reside at all four corners. Carbon fiber wheelie bars help keep the Camaro planted where it should be, and since the car was so well-built the first time around, the Bankston Boyz haven’t had to make any significant changes. All that was left to do was jump in the driver’s seat and fire up the newly fuel-injected machine.
“The biggest difference between the EFI and the carbureted setup is just the tuning—it’s so nice doing things on the computer. The only things I notice are little things, like idling better when you do the burnout. The fuel injection seems to be very efficient, and tunability is a whole lot better versus the carb,” he elaborated of the big difference that still felt familiar.
With the Camaro ready to run under the Bankston Boyz flag for its inaugural 2016 NMCA season, Savell unfortunately had work commitments that prevented him from attending the first NMCA event of the season at Florida’s Bradenton Motorsports Park in March. He then joined the fray at the second stop on the NMCA tour at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Georgia.
“We weren’t trying to do anything crazy, but I felt confident that the track conditions were good,” noted Savell, who pushed his Bankston Camaro to the top spot in VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod qualifying with a 3.767 at 197.97 mph pass. Additionally, that run also set the elapsed time record for the class, and positioned Savell nicely on the ladder. In eliminations, Savell clicked off a string of impressive 3.8X-second passes to take wins over Paul Gibbs, Ken Cruz, and Adam Flamholc in the first three rounds, and defeated Michael Biehle II in the finals for the win.
At the next stop in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Savell wound up in the number-two spot in qualifying with a 3.900/194.07mph pass, and then made it through to the finals for the second race in a row.
“We just whittled our way down through the rounds,” he joked of how he made it look easy. Running against Stephen Stringer, Savell’s 3.815/198.88mph blast put his opponent on the trailer and put himself in the Aerospace Components Winner’s Circle.
Moving on to the famed Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Indiana, Savell was back on top of the qualifying order courtesy of a 3.849 at 199.14mph trip. In eliminations, he advantaged to the semi-finals and was paired with his Bankston Boyz teammate, Billy Banaka, driving a ’69 Camaro.
“I know Billy’s driving style, he knows mine, we both make the same power, and we were both a little hopped up trying to go for it,” Savell stated of the sibling rivalry-type competition the two share. It wound up being a double-red-light situation as both drivers fouled, but the win went to Banaka and Savell stayed to cheer him on when he took the overall victory. “I don’t do this because I want the experience, I do it because I love the competition. The day I leave my house and I don’t care if I win or lose is the day I will quit racing.”
As the season wound down, Savell was positioned well on the points leaderboard. Just prior to the 11th Annual Nitto Tire NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street-Legal Drag Racing in Illinois, though, Savell suffered a frightening top-end wreck while driving the Bankston Boyz Dodge Stratus at a no prep race in Kennedale, Texas. He was lucky to walk away with his life, but fractured three ribs in the process and was pretty banged up when it came time to run the Camaro at the NMCA event. Savell pushed through the excruciating pain and set his mind on the mission at hand—racing. He could rest later.
“It took absolutely everything in my being to get in the car because I was hurt so bad.” Savell was a touch off his usual pace during qualifying and landed ninth with a 4.197 at 184.14 mph pass, but he made it to the final before falling to Kevin Fiscus.
For the last NMCA event of the year at Norwalk, Ohio’s Summit Motorsports Park, Savell had to overcome several adversities. The team only managed the 13th spot on the qualifying sheet, and a broken ring and pinion early on in eliminations sent the guys scrambling in the pits. A surprising second ring and pinion failure in the finals could have ended it all. Instead, Savell’s hole shot advantage over opponent Randy Adler meant Savell had just enough wiggle room to limp through the traps and turn the win light on in his lane.
Despite the late start, Savell’s performances throughout his first season of NMCA competition earned him an abundance of points in the class championship chase. So many, in fact, that he earned the championship itself, his first, and couldn’t have been happier about how it all worked out.
“It’s a dream to win a championship in any series, but the NMCA was special to me,” said Savell, who shares the series with many of his heroes. “We had a great year, Mike did a great job tuning, and I was fortunate enough to be consistent.”
Savell is the first to note that he couldn’t have won the title without the help of his crew and the support of the Bankston Boyz group.
“The people that work on the car—the guy that puts air in the tires and keeps ‘em right—they’re all just as important as the driver or the tuner. I didn’t win the championship, our team did. It’s Mike, Cindy, Billy, Randy Auwarter, Keith Auwarter, Lee Otis Kelly, and Mark Niebes,” said Savell, who considers it an honor to be surrounded by such an outstanding group. “Mike gives me a tremendous opportunity to drive, and the best parts. I’m incredibly grateful to him.”
Although Bankston is the man who makes it happen, Savell also knows that he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for the support and encouragement from his wife, Cindy, over all the years.
“It’s the two of us, we’ve grown up our whole lives racing together. It takes a lot of commitment to race at this level, and Cindy has been gracious enough to give me this gift and to not hold me back and to support me to live my dream. She’s my everything,” Savell said of his respected and beloved partner in life and in racing.
After the excitement of the championship died down, Savell and Bankston set to work freshening up the Camaro, the chassis, and its engine.
“We really left it alone, mostly, to be honest. It wasn’t broke, so we didn’t need to fix anything. We just did normal things like heim joints and whatnot,” he continued.
Ready to get going again with NMCA VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod in 2017, Savell qualified sixth with a 3.878 at 194.34 mph pass, and defeated Ken Cruz and Adam Flamholc in rounds one and two of eliminations. In the semifinals, a weird noise turned out to be loose torque converter bolts, and Savell wasn’t able to run against Andrew Handras.
At the next race in Atlanta, Savell and the Bankston Boyz posted a 3.855/192.11mph number to qualify fifth, and he earned wins in the first two elimination rounds once again before bowing out to eventual winner Adam Flamholc.
Business obligations prevented Savell from taking the Camaro to the third stop on the 2017 NMCA season tour in Kentucky. Undeterred, Savell’s set his sights on running in Joliet, Illinois, and is eager to get his first win of the year, but when the Bankston crew rolls into Route 66 Raceway, though, there very well may be a new car with Savell’s name on the side inside the trailer.
“We’re working on a new 2017 Dodge Dart that we’re hoping to debut at the Super Bowl race,” disclosed Savell. Just like the others, the new Dart will run Musi power and nitrous oxide. “It’s all we’ve ever really run, nitrous cars. And since we went to fuel injection, we wind up wearing out more parts than we burn up. Mike’s preference is nitrous, all our backgrounds are with nitrous, and we would be at a big disadvantage dealing with the learning curve of a blower car or a turbo car.”
Ironically, the new Bankston Boyz Dodge Dart wasn’t originally intended to be a part of the team at all. When Savell wrecked the Stratus at Kennedale, Bankston wanted to update it to a ’17 Dodge Dart, so a body was ordered.
“Well, it wouldn’t fit the chassis without hacking up the body, so we had a body but no chassis, and Mike just decided to build a new car instead,” laughed Savell of the easy solution to an expensive problem. Jerry Bickel Race Cars built the new chassis, which runs a 959ci Musi-built engine and uses a Bruno-Lenco drivetrain configuration.
With the end of the year fast approaching and critical points on the line to potentially give Savell his second season championship in as many years, it’s no surprise that the Bankston Boyz have kicked things into high gear prepping for the final countdown. Based on how things have panned out so far, though, the collaboration between Savell and Bankston has proven to be nothing short of a winning combination and should be one that continues for years.
Driver: Tim Savell
Owner: Mike Bankston
Hometown: Terry, MS
Occupation: Trucking Manager
Class: VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod
Crew: Mike Bankston, Keith Auwater, Lee Otis Kelly, Cindy Savell, Mark Niebes, also my teammates Billy and Lanita Banaka
Engine: Musi Racing Engines 959
Engine builder: Pat Musi
Cam type: Custom MRE roller
Carburetor or EFI system: Edelbrock EFI
Fuel brand and type: VP C-25
Headers and exhaust: Pro-Fab
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Neal Chance
Rearend: Mark Williams
Body and/or chassis builder: Rick Jones / RJ Race Cars
Suspension (Front): Lamb
Suspension (Rear): PRS
Brakes (Front): Lamb disc
Brakes (Rear): Lamb disc
Wheels (front): Weld V Series
Wheels (Rear): Weld Delta
Tires (Front): Goodyear
Tires (Rear): Hoosier
Safety equipment: Simpson
Vehicle weight: 2,375
Quickest et: 3.68
Best 60-foot: .924
Fastest mph: 205
Sponsors: Mississippi Foundation Repair, LevelHome.com