Isn’t it funny how sometimes our greatest attributes can also be our greatest pitfalls? For Mike Niehaus and his 1986 Mustang GT hatchback, this certainly was the case at one point. See, Mike has an extremely fast street car. If you’ve ever seen his Mustang at an NMRA event, you’ll undoubtedly remember his white four-eye Fox flying past the 330-mark, banging gears all the way down the strip.
For the first time since I bought the car, I thought about swapping in an automatic for about five minutes. – Mike Niehaus
Yes, Mike’s Fox is still rocking a manual transmission. Not the stock one, of course, but a fully built unit. But, as we teased, having a low-9-second capable, manual transmission-equipped street car didn’t come without its headaches. Mike’s a well-known, highly regarded racer in the NMRA scene, and for good reason.
When your scribe first met Mike at last year’s NMRA World Finals event in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he and his nasty Fox hatch were the runner up for the Tremec Stick Shift Shootout class. The class, as we all know, is extremely competitive – with participants making passes as low as 8-seconds. Mike’s Fox is more than capable of being a contender for this class, amongst others; but what makes he and his four eye so unique of course, is the story behind the car. One thing’s for sure – Mike’s Mustang has always been equipped with a manual transmission, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
In The Beginning
Like any relationship that involves a labor of love, there are four stages in all that we go through (yes, this includes racecars). The first stage is the romance stage (or what we like to call, the honeymoon stage). The second being the power struggle stage (no pun intended). The third is the stability stage, and the fourth is the commitment stage. We can bet that Mike has already endured all of these stages, but his story like many others, starts with the first stage. We’ll call this Act 1.
“I bought the vehicle as my first car in high school in November of 2000,” Mike explained. “I had worked at McDonald’s for about a year and a half so that I could save enough money to purchase a car, which just happened to be a 1986 Mustang GT at Dave Gill Pontiac in Columbus, Ohio. The first couple of mods were a Flowmaster cat-back, a set of 3.73 gears and a pair of Weld Racing Draglite wheels for the front and rear.”
Mike admitted that the original build spanned about four years in all, during which he experimented with different combinations. His Fox was once naturally aspirated, but is now blown, thanks to the Vortech Superchargers system we see today.
“The original build was similar to the current one, but on a much smaller scale,” Mike told us. “We built the engine to 327 cubic inches using a forged SCAT Crankshafts rotating assembly, which we installed in a Boss block. We topped it with a set of hand-ported, Trick Flow Street Heat cylinder heads, a Holley Performance Products SysteMax II intake manifold and a Vortech S-Trim supercharger kit. We made 590 horsepower at the rear wheels, and we ran a best of 10.33 at 138 mph in the quarter mile.
“In 2010, I switched from using 93-grade octane pump gas to E85, and we made 634 rear-wheel horsepower. The car made two passes before it sheared the cam pin off and bent every single valve. I tried to replace all of the valves and try again, but the car never ran right after that, so it sat in the garage until 2013 – when I started the build that is currently in the car,” Mike sighed.
The Honeymoon Stage Was Over
Frustrated for those years past, Mike had a new, more powerful vision for his four-eye hatch. He was determined to do whatever it took to make his Mustang run nines – even if it meant completely rebuilding the car. Mark those last words, because Mike did exactly that – to the tune of a low 9-second pass, in fact. But, before we get to the present, we must travel through Act 2 – the beast within.
Remember that narrative about our greatest attributes sometimes also being our worst? Well, you’re about to learn what trial and error means in regards to a manual transmission and drag racing, our friends.
“I’ve never had the best luck with transmissions,” he confessed. Mike explained, saying that the car was originally equipped with a stock TKO-600. After reaching the limits of the stock transmission, Mike said, “I had to completely let off the throttle, get it in Third gear and then get back on the gas during any hard driving. Needless to say, it was killing e.t.s having to drive like that. So, I decided to build a face-plated TKO-600 from Liberty Gears, which shifted beautifully.”
There’s nothing more awesome than seeing a street car cruising down the street or on the highway with a parachute strapped to its rear bumper.
Mike confessed that the only oversight was that he felt that he didn’t do his research on the TKO-600.
1986 Mustang GT Specs
Brakes: Aerospace Components front and rear brakes
Engine: SBF 331 cubic-inch
Power Adder: Vortech V-7 YSi
Rearend: Built 8.8-inch, Strange Engineering 31-spline axles, Strange spool, and 3.55 gears
Suspension: Team Z Motorsports upper and lower control arms, rear anti-roll bar, QA1 K-member, Strange Engineering shocks/struts, and UPR Products caster/camber plates
“First time out with the new transmission and exhaust, and the car ran a 9.73-second e.t. at 149.78 mph. I was so happy, I made five more additional passes on that day, but on the sixth pass, it ejected Third gear out of the bottom of the case on the Two-Three shift.” Mike said.
“The cases on these early transmissions are the weak point, but what can you expect from a transmission nearly 30 years old? I was pretty down and out at this point, and for the first time since I bought the car, I thought about swapping in an automatic for about five minutes,” he laughed.
“Then I realized I wouldn’t be happy with an automatic transmission in the car, so it was back to the drawing board. That’s when I got in contact with Walt from ProMotion Powertrain, and he talked me into using a built Tremec 3650 with a G-Force 1,000-horsepower gear set. Other than a small shift fork issue, it has held up pretty well,” Mike added. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about clutch set up, and proper driveshaft movement, amongst other things when talking with Walt. Moving forward with this newfound knowledge, the car will only get quicker.”
Rising Like A Phoenix
Ah, yes – the third stage – stability. Here, Mike finds himself taking a no-compromises approach, and it pays off.
While swapping pistons, Mike had the block bored .030-inches over, so that the displacement increased to 331. He also replaced the tired TFS Street Heat cylinder heads with a set of Trick Flow R 225 CNC’d versions, which were set up to complement the use of a solid-roller camshaft.
“Since I switched to a solid-roller camshaft, I knew I would now have the ability to remove the valve covers fairly quickly,” Mike said with enthusiasm. “With that in mind, I replaced the old intake manifold with an Edelbrock Victor Jr. carbureted intake manifold, and converted to EFI. The new intake setup uses an Edelbrock elbow and an Accufab Racing 90mm throttle-body. Since I knew the Vortech S-Trim wasn’t going to move enough air, I decided it was time for an upgrade. I purchased a Vortech YSi-Trim head unit, along with an 8-inch Renegade crank pulley and 3-inch supercharger pulley,” Mike said.
This is when he decided he wanted to give E85 another chance, so he continued the build by installing a set of 120 lb/hr fuel injectors to be used with the Aeromotive Eliminator fuel pump that was used in the last build.
“Of course, I’m a diehard stick-shift guy, so I went with a McLeod Racing RXT twin-disc clutch to hold the power,” Mike entailed. “The rearend still consists of a factory 8.8-inch, but it’s been upgraded with a set of Strange Engineering 31-spline C-clip eliminator axles and spool, paired with a 3.55 gear. I also changed the exhaust system using a pair of Borla XR1 mufflers and a Kooks universal X-pipe.”
Mike said the new combo made 817 horsepower and 689 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels, and ran a best of (at the time) 9.89-seconds at 143 mph in 2015. After the transmission fiasco earlier, he unfortunately started fighting belt-slip issues.
“I broke down and decided it was time to put a 50mm cog pulley on it. With a 73-tooth crankshaft pulley and a 28-tooth supercharger pulley, it has become a lot more consistent,” he added.
Since then, the car has gone a best of 9.45-seconds at 150.98 mph at the NMRA World Finals last year in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
A Special Thanks To…
Mike’s Fox is now making 980 horsepower and 750 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels on 21 pounds of boost. How incredible is that?
“One last thing,” Mike said. “I’ve had a lot of help along the way with this car. First off, I have to thank my awesome girlfriend Abby Lundberg for putting up with me and this car, and also motivating me and pushing me to do things the way I want and not just go with the latest trend.
“I also have to thank Brian Turner of Dyno Tune Motorsports for giving me a killer tune, and for showing me how to change different parts in the tune when I’m at the track if I need more or less power. Thanks to Tom Willing for helping me out with parts along the way, and actually painting the car for me, which later got me into painting cars for a living,” Mike added. “He also helped me early on with the solid-roller camshaft valve adjustments, which was all new. Last, but certainly not least, I have to thank Mark Carlyle of Carlyle Racing for getting me all the parts for the short-block in this monster. He has a lot of knowledge on what parts are needed to make big horsepower, and he steered me in the right direction on what parts to use to handle the power I was looking for.”
So what’s next for Mike and his Fox? We’ll let him tell you…
“I plan on pulling the engine out and freshening it up, and adding a little more compression along, with a camshaft change,” he told us. “I also plan to try and find a higher tooth-count crank pulley to try and up the boost from the current 20 psi to somewhere around 23-25 psi. Last but not least, I plan to focus on reducing my 60-foot times for the new season to start,” he concluded. We like the sound of that!