Canadian Chad Stephens’s Thunderbird & American Muscle Car Addiction

Growing up in Canada during the height of the American muscle car craze, Chad Stephens believed that the United States’ drag racing scene was the pinnacle of performance and the standard which set the benchmark for professional achievement in the sport. Motivated to be a part of it, he focused his life around racing and built his current 1987 Ford Thunderbird for NMRA Coyote Stock competition.

Right from birth – as his mother rode to the hospital in a big block-powered 1968 Chevy Camaro to deliver him – Stephens, now 47, was surrounded by horsepower. His father, Greg, was an avid automotive enthusiast and, with three drag strips near his home along with frequent trips to car shows and swap meets all across North America, it wasn’t long before Stephens translated his hobby into a diehard passion.

“I started out spectating and then would sneak the family car to learn the basics of drag racing,” admitted Stephens, who started with a 5.0 Ford Mustang in high school. He owned many cars over the years, but his favorite had established a storied history before it fell into his hands – Ron Robart of Fox Lake Power Productions’ black and blue Mustang GT that Cory Roth also won a championship with. “I had a 370 cubic inch engine in it from Mike Curcio and ran 9.30s on the motor back in 2004. Being a privateer against more serious competition always felt like a David versus Goliath situation, and she was always an excellent car to me.”

Soon, Stephens spiraled into fixing, tuning, and eventually constructing serious street and race cars for a living; he spent several years working at a speed shop where he specialized in cylinder heads, intake porting, and camshaft design. His family began racing together in the early 2000s with some excellent success, and, more importantly, they had genuine fun doing so. Between his career and his kin, it seemed like Stephens was on track for the life he had always dreamed of.

Doing this alongside my brother and father made the experience better than I ever could have imagined, and the field in Coyote Stock is incredibly close with wild, showstopping wheelie action that always makes the highlight reel.

In 2006, Stephens was busy putting together a Ford Thunderbird to run in NMRA Hot Street but the project was sidetracked when he scored an amazing deal on a roller from “T-Bird” Tony Vece in Illinois. “After already owning exactly six-million Fox body Mustangs, it was time for a change,” laughed Stephens with his typical friendly sarcasm. “I chose the Thunderbird because it had the best aerodynamics of all the Fox bodies.”

Concerned about escalating budgets, Stephens opted to step down to NMRA Pure Street instead, but life intervened and he never got the chance. “Between family, children, and building a business to support us, the ‘Bird sat patiently for over a decade,” explained Stephens, who works as the Operations Manager of his family’s Ontario-based Pipeline Repair Services company.

The 1987 Ford Thunderbird, which Stephens christened “The Dirty Bird,” sat until the right time presented itself and the right class made sense to him. Inspired by the tough competition and immense challenge of extracting every last ounce of performance from the sealed-stock production Coyote engine within the NMRA Coyote Stock ruleset, Stephens began building the Bird in 2017.

Stephens installed a factory Ford Gen 2 5.0-liter Coyote engine in the Bird along with a stock powertrain control module, then got to work making the most of what other minor adjustments were permitted according to the spec-engine NMRA class.

To ensure the Coyote was able to create as much horsepower as possible, Stephens installed an Aeromotive fuel pump and matching regulator. Breathing was made easier thanks to a JLT intake and custom “What’s in the box?” meme-ified airbox inspired by Brad Pitt, while Brisk spark plugs ignite the air and fuel mixture.

Expelling the spent exhaust gasses as quickly and as efficiently as possible was a task Stephens entrusted to American Racing Headers as the 1-3/4-inch long tube headers and custom 3-inch stainless steel exhaust flow into Flowmaster Outlaw mufflers.

Next, Stephens selected the quintessential transmission of NMRA Coyote Stock, the G-Force Racing G101-A four-speed manual. A RAM diaphragm-style clutch along with a flywheel from Rob Youngblood’s Advanced Clutches and long H-pattern shifter neatly wrap up the Thunderbird’s powertrain.

Given that the engine itself couldn’t be modified, Stephens paid close attention to his non-Mustang Fox body’s suspension. Out back, a Ford 9-inch rearend and Ford Racing housing which had been modified by Darryl Chatterson of Chatterson Automotive Services works with a constantly changing variety of gears and 35-spline Strange Engineering axles and spool.

UPR Products supplied the front control arms, while Chatterson created custom rear upper control arms to work with the Wolfecraft rear lowers and Viking Performance shipped shocks and struts up to Stephens in Canada.

Stephens also paid close attention to his Thunderbird’s appearance, as he’s never been afraid to be the center of attention. Painted “Funky Chicken Red,” the owner outfitted the car with perfectly accented 15” RC Components color matched black and red “Torx” wheels which shrouded a set of TBM brakes. “I also installed a Mach 1 chin spoiler which was the opposite of ‘fun’ to fit,” joked Stephens, “and a big shout out to my buddy Kelly Cooper who owns Joe Van O Carbon Fiber and makes great things, like my hood!”

The Dirty Bird’s striking red interior also received a few upgrades, such as the Kirkey race seats, RacePak IQ3D digital dash, 12-point chromoly cage from Performance Concepts that was later updated by Chatterson, and a few little custom details from the door panels to the instrument cluster and switch panel.

Rolling on Mickey Thompson E.T. drag slick tires, Stephens took The Dirty Bird out for its maiden voyage at the 2018 NMRA race in April in Atlanta, Georgia. “It was a big step up, and we ran 10.60 at 125 mph in the 1/4-mile on my first pass ever with the brand-new car and combination,” recalled Stephens, who qualified mid-pack in the 16-car field. “We later ran a 10.50 and I was elated for having zero testing.”

It didn’t take him long to knock the rust off, as Stephens followed up with a trip to the semi-finals not long after and ultimately ended his inaugural 2018 NMRA Coyote Stock season tenth in championship points. “My first season was an educational one considering I hadn’t raced competitively in nearly 14 years,” he shared.

Having run 10s consistently for the Bird’s first 50-plus passes, Stephens finally spun at the NMRA season opener at Bradenton Motorsports Park in Florida the following year but it didn’t slow down his enthusiasm. “To attest to the awesomeness of the G101-A, it had made over 150-plus shifts on track flawlessly. Leonard [Long] and Paul [Long] and their G-Force crew are a great group of guys,” Stephens added excitedly. He picked back up after the initial hiccup, though, and upgraded his NMRA season-ending points status to sixth overall in 2019.

With high hopes, Stephens was ready to begin his 2020 NMRA drag racing season but the Covid-19 pandemic quickly killed the plan as the border between the United States and Canada was closed after the first event of the year.

Instead of giving up, Stephens simply shifted his attention to testing. Having run a personal best of 10.08 at 132 mph in Coyote Stock-legal trim, Stephens pulled nearly 500-pounds of ballast and blasted the Bird to a new best of 9.76 at 135 mph on pump gas with a stock tune-up.

By July, Stephens took ownership of a 12:1 compression ratio and naturally-aspirated 2018 Gen 3 Coyote 307-inch powerplant. After setting it in place in his Thunderbird, he made his first test pass at Toronto Motorsports Park in October with a 10.29 at 132 mph result, then made three back-to-back 10.0-second runs thanks to a clutch adjustment.

Knowing a 9-second timeslip was close at hand, Stephens headed home to his shop to put a different rearend in and returned to Toronto not long after. Just as predicted, The Dirty Bird gave its pilot a 9.94-second hit and then followed up with 9.90, 9.89, and 9.87-second blasts to officially mark Stephens as having the first Gen 3 Coyote-powered car to run in the 9-second zone.

By far, this is my favorite car I have ever owned. It was something different that presented many challenges along the way; however, we’ve learned a lot and the results show that.

In 2021, Stephens was able to escape the confines of Canada and returned to the U.S. for a standout season of American drag racing. He stayed in the game through to the semi-finals at the second NMRA event of the year in Georgia, then drove friend and fellow Coyote Stock driver Andy Johnson’s car to the quarter-finals at the race in St. Louis, Missouri.

Back behind the wheel of his Thunderbird, Stephens earned his first-ever Coyote Stock category win in June at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, and it was an emotional occasion that validated all of his hard work and commitment over the years.

Moving on to NMRA in Michigan, Stephens made a quarter-finals appearance but a dead fuel pump ended his weekend early. Wrapping up the year in Kentucky and with a 20-car Coyote Stock field, Stephens went four rounds but ultimately went out by twelve-thousandths of a second in the semi-finals.

After the previous uncertainty surrounding the Coronavirus, Stephens rallied strong and concluded his 2021 with an impressive finish of fourth overall in the NMRA Coyote Stock championship points chase.

Although Stephen’s Dirty Bird is beautiful sitting still, its wings haven’t been clipped as the car loves to fly with wild wheelstands. “By far, this is my favorite car I have ever owned. It was something different that presented many challenges along the way; however, we’ve learned a lot and the results show that,” said Stephens.

For as much as he loves the thrill of competition and is happy to have returned to racing, the thing Stephens enjoys the most is being able to share it all with his family and his Dirty Bird endeavors facilitated that. Stephens’s brother, Damien, also shares a predilection for power and recently began racing in NMRA Factory Stock.

“Doing this alongside my brother and father made the experience better than I ever could have imagined, and the field in Coyote Stock is incredibly close with wild, showstopping wheelie action that always makes the highlight reel,” continued the Stephens Racing & Performance and Team Dirty Bird Racing member.

Still facing border restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic, Stephens has spent a tremendous amount of time refining his combination so that both he and his Coyote-powered 1987 Ford Thunderbird will be able to best utilize the dyno-verified 510-rear wheel horsepower and 440-pound-feet of torque. He hopes to be able to improve upon his current personal best 1/4-mile elapsed time of 9.75-seconds and trap speed of 140.68 mph, which were coupled with a 1.28-second 60-foot time.

Stephens hopes to be able to continue his quest for a championship title in NMRA Coyote Stock in 2022, but knows he has to stay relentlessly focused to make it happen as racing in the United States but being based in Canada has its own share of challenges. “It adds a secondary level of cost and complexity that many other U.S.-based teams don’t have to contend with. Although it hinders logistics and costs, it puts us in a unique position to be able to promote our team and partners on a multi-national stage,” stated Stephens eloquently of his geolocation’s hidden advantage.

Photo gallery


Stephens truly believes in family and would like to thank his father, Greg Stephens, brother Damien Stephens, girlfriend Michelle Piccioli for supporting him throughout this craziness, his crew back home in Canada, Darryl Chatterson, Chris Joeli, Steve Toth, Tim Donathen and fellow teammates Kevin McMullin and Randy Soper, and his good friends Jacob Lamb and Tim Matherly for all of their help in making The Dirty Bird fly strong like a strong American eagle.

About the author

Ainsley Jacobs

P.TEN Marketing's Ainsley Jacobs is a freelance motorsports marketing professional with extensive experience in marketing and communications, website development, social media management, photography, journalism, and more.
Read My Articles

Blue Oval Muscle in your inbox.

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from FordMuscle, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes