When was the last time you saw an NHRA Super Gas car roll in the gate pulling its own sleeping quarters and tools?
Yeah, us neither…
California native Rick Fletes has been, in recent years, staking his claim to the wholly unofficial title of drag racing’s “Ironman”, traversing thousands of miles across the nation on several occasions behind the wheel of his impeccably-unique Duramax diesel-powered 1970 Chevelle — his wife, Heather, a set of slicks, and all the gear necessary for racing in tow. Even when he doesn’t leave his West coast home, Fletes is turning heads on the interstate highways towing a legitimate camper to the racetrack for he and his wife to stay in.
This weekend, Fletes is trying his hand at NHRA Super Gas competition for the first time (he usually runs in the 10.90 Super Street eliminator) at the NHRA Pacific division meet at NorCal’s Sonoma Raceway. And it would be a fair assumption he’s the only guy there to drive through the gate in the same car he’s driving — maybe the only one at any major NHRA race anywhere in the country.
Last year, Fletes hit Dragzine’s radar when he drove halfway across the country in his Chevelle to compete at the Summit Racing Equipment Midwest Drags. There, we met up with Fletes, who showed us around his setup, complete with wheels and tires and other equipment on a hitch-mounted rack, and the rest stuffed into the trunk and back-seat. Like a complete badass, Fletes drove out to Ohio from California, did the entire drag-and-drive event, and drove right back home. Already this year, he’s driven from California to Florida and back, and intends to do it again if the coronavirus allows it.
But his story didn’t really begin in 2019.
Fletes purchased the Chevelle and the LB7 Duramax engine in 2007. With a single HTT 67.7mm turbocharger and a Turbo 400 transmission, the combination has been, relatively speaking (considering what he’s doing with it), amazingly reliable. In all, he’s racked up 100,000 miles on the setup since it was first built, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
“We’ve had troubles,” Fletes says after a hearty laugh to our inquiry on mechanical problems on his many trips. “Transmission issues…that’s the biggest thing. We’ve had to pull the transmission frequently and rebuild it. I usually pull it every month just to be safe. But it’s never left us stranded…the only time I’ve ever had to get a tow-truck, it was out here near home. We’ve always been able to limp it home, fix it, and keep rolling. We usually carry enough parts when we head out on long trips to fix pretty much anything. Unless the engine takes a crap, then I’m screwed.”
Fletes’s long-distance mindset, it turns out, was inspired by a truck and a car that looks a lot like a truck.
“I had a ’72 El Camino back in the 90s that we raced…it was a pretty nice street car and then became a race car, and we just needed more room. We wanted something we could drive…I didn’t want a race car anymore. So I’d bought a Chevy Duramax truck back in 2001 and thought the engine would be pretty cool to have in a car…it runs great, and it runs quiet, and it’s clean..it’s not smoky. So that got the wheels turning, and I bought everything in 2007 and tore it all down and got it fired by the beginning of 2009.”
“The goal was have something we could drive everywhere,” he continues. “We drove it a lot early on, not necessarily for racing. We trailered it when we did, mostly because I didn’t trust it yet. It was probably five or six years before I trusted it and thought we could go further.”
The more Fletes threw at it, the more confidence he gained.
Fletes rebuilt the junkyard engine in 2017 — at the time he estimates he had 75,000 miles on it, on top of the 50,000 it had when he bought it. Impressively, it still has bone-stock pistons, rods, and crank inside a likewise-stock engine block, and following the same theme, the cylinder heads are also as stock as the sky is blue. More incredible yet, those parts all have more than 200,000 miles on them and keep on taking a licking.
“The heads didn’t get a valve-job…they were pressure tested and passed, so we got new rings and seals and springs and slammed it on the engine. The pistons are de-lipped LB7’s with 200,000 miles. We balanced it, put good fasteners in it, and that was it. And we’ve put another 25,000 miles on it since,” he explains.
“The first year we trailered the car everywhere, and last year we towed our camper and followed the NHRA divisional circuit. But this is the first time we’ve tried to sun Super Gas,” Rick adds.
Fletes’s mission in running Super Gas this weekend is to acquire NHRA grade points and prepare to enter the 9.90 index class at the NHRA’s prestigious U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in September (which he will also drive to). He had in the spring driven to Florida, intent on leaving the car out East to run half of the Outlaw Diesel Super Series season. When that fell through due to the coronavirus, he flew out and drove the Chevelle back home. “The car was sitting at Ryan Milliken’s shop in Florida for two months and I said ‘screw it, I’m going out there and either we’re racing or we’re bringing it home.’ ”
Fletes drove from Florida to Indiana to compete at (and won the 6.70 class) a diesel event and then pointed his wagon west toward the homestead.
A consistent 10-second runner, Fletes has coaxed a 9.89 best out of his marathon machine, along with a slew of 9.90s, making it a perfect fit for Super Gas.
The Fletes’s will soon turn their attention to the Schied Deisel Extravaganza in Indiana in August, followed by the U.S. Nationals. With the cancellation of Drag Week, other events are a possibility if tracks remain open, with everything wrapping up with the ODSS at Emerald Coast Dragway in Florida in September.
In an age of enclosed trailers and lavish motorhomes that have eliminated some of the gritty experience of yesteryear, Fletes and his Chevelle are a definitive throwback…a man in an armored suit of Chevrolet stamped steel that can do the seemingly impossible, time and again.
“People are just blown away…especially people out on the road,” Fletes says of the reactions to his drag-and-drive style. “We don’t talk to them, but we just see their reaction, and most of the time they have their phones out and they’re taking videos and pictures and have their thumbs up. Just yesterday a guy saw me traveling down I-80 and he took pictures and put it on Chevelle page on Facebook and we found it. I saw it and was like, ‘that’s me!’ ”
“At the track it’s the same thing: everybody loves it,” he adds in closing. “The car has quite the following.”