Chesty’s Chariot: Stick-Shift Crown Vic Does Battle at Lemons

Chesty’s Chariot: Stick-Shift Crown Vic Does Battle at Lemons

With just over seven percent of all living Americans having served in the military and only .08 percent of those having served in the U.S. Marine Corps, you’re forgiven—barely and disappointedly—if you’ve never heard of Chesty Puller.

For our car-centric outlook suffice to say “Chesty” is the Marine’s Marine. Tough as nails, pragmatic and ready to tell it like it is, for one so bent on speaking truth Puller implausibly rose from private to Lieutenant General. He did it by both being a skilled warrior and legendary caretaker of the men under his command. If there was a Marine Corps god he’d be its commanding officer; for now we have to settle for 8×10 black and white glossies of Chesty’s steeled visage glaring down from the walls of nearly every Marine Corps office in the world. It’s an incredible legacy for someone who made their reputation starting 101 years ago and is now dead for 48 years.

At speed in desert tan, the Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children LLC racing team’s Crown Victoria—or what’s left of a Crown Victoria—puts in another lap during a 24 of Lemons race.

The Crew

Given how many places around the world the U.S. Government has Marines in action, it’s no wonder individual Marines are always moving. Either they’re deployed overseas, at sea or gearing up for the next deployment, with training and all-so short rest periods in between. That makes assembling and keeping a group of them together for an amateur racing team impossible—but fun to try nevertheless. Below, starting with team principle Brian Czech is a list of military men associated with Brian’s Crown Vic Lemons car.

  • Brian C. – US Marine with 14 years, two deployments to Afghanistan with 2d MSOB Golf Co (July 2011- February 2012) then Hotel Co (Oct 2013-May 2014), Chief Warrant Officer 2, Embarkation Officer. Drag race and road course experience.
  • Nate G.- US Marine with 10 years, Captain, MV-22 Osprey Pilot. Road course experience.
  • JD W. – US Marine with 18 years, multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Master Sergeant, Motor Transportation Chief. Drag, circle dirt track experience.
  • Phil W. – US Army with 12 years, multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Sergeant First Class, Special Forces Weapons Sergeant. Road course experience.
  • Erick M. – NG driller, Skip Barber Formula Car and World Racing League member. Road course experience
  • JR M. – US Coast Guard with 16 years, several Cutter deployments. Dirt bike and dirt track experience.
  • Brian F. – Retired Marine Infantryman, Desert Storm. Professional drag racer and road course experience.

But thanks to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brian Czech, USMC, Chesty’s spirit at least has a chariot to run riot with during Lemons races. It may be one beat and patched together Crown Vic, but “Chesty’s Chariot” carries its owner’s pride and resolve to make things happen. And in time-honored Marine Corps tradition, it does battle with last generation hardware and whatever equipment Brian can scrounge from the aftermarket, which turns out to be pretty good scrounging.

Erick Melton, Brian Czech, Phil Watson, and Nate Gravelle celebrate simply being there. Truly a home-grown effort, USMC LLC may not be big-time racing, but these guys do it all themselves and have a lot more fun than the big guys.

Brian, who joined the Corps in 2004 and got into racing considerably later, cut his racing teeth hustling an old F-150 down the quarter mile. He used the $1,800 tank-like pickup because that’s what he could afford and had time to work on between multiple deployments around the world. The ’78 Ford sported a 460 big block, C6 tranny, and a busted Detroit Locker rearend when he bought it. “Over several deployments I got the truck put together,” recalls Brian, which meant 12.6-second time-slips along with hauling firewood and lumber for building projects.

Surf City, North Carolina provided the all-important task of wearing down their cop car 4.6-liter PI engine for use in Brian’s Crown Vic racer. As seen, the transplant was performed with full military honors—barbeque included.

But as Brian readied himself for his February 2017 deployment, he could see the truck was more burden than a help. He had serious track plans for it, but the cost to get it there far exceeded the budget, plus his wife Laura was pregnant with their second child, so over one weekend he pulled, “the engine, transmission, rearend, the Currie axles, all the wiring I could reuse,” and anything else he could repurpose once he returned home. Then he scrapped the body. “The guy took it with a forklift through the window. That was not fun.”

The following deployment was aboard the USS MESA VERDE from February to late September 2017. While he was away in the Mediterranean and Gulf waters his daughter Briar was born in May, with Brian returning in October.

After the bustle of shipboard life, action ashore was not the same. “There was nothing for me to do. [I was going] out of my mind… pacing the house, and my wife said, ‘You need a hobby!” And that’s when the idea of running Lemons races got in Brian’s mind. “I had heard of Lemons; you don’t need a license, just put in a cage and drive. Simple. That’s always appealed to me.”

Again, money was super tight, but again Laura selflessly gave the green light to track action. One reason she did was the restrictive Lemons rules pretty much preclude anyone spending a fortune on it. Or, as Brian put it, “The rules mean you can’t make it snappy.”

There’s no money in Lemons racing, but the glamour is as good as it gets in amateur motorsports as this work in progress shot suggests. This underhood peek seems to have occurred during an intake manifold swap or engine install.

“Messing around on Craigslist,” Brian, “found a ‘96 Crown Vic, a prior Lemons car. It had the original motor with non-PI heads, 4-speed Emco trans from a late model NASCAR. That means you use the clutch only for First and to downshift.” Being already prepped for racing the car came with a pro-built roll cage, a major score for a budding racer.

(Left Photo) Decorated in racecar functional, the Crown Vic’s interior doesn’t seem to have an eagle, globe and anchor visible, but the switch panel on the transmission tunnel was fabbed from an ammo box for that homey bunker look. (Middle) An important recent improvement was replacing the previous junk dune buggy seat with a proper Daytona XL throne from Momo. A good seat is vital; it’s like a helmet for your body, so even if the racing is low key, there’s no shame in a pro seat. (Right) Ample fuel storage is a must during enduro races and the 24-gallon ATL fuel cell holds enough to power the big ‘Vic between mandatory pit stops. An IMS dry break re-fueling rig speeds pit stops; it’s one of the team’s technical advantages. The white bottle is part of the Safecraft LT5 fire suppression system.

Brian drove from Camp Lejeune to Charlotte, North Carolina to pick up the Crown Vic from the retired NASCAR official who had put it together, brought it home and got to work. Step one was to repaint the ‘Vic in a “Marine Corps theme of digital camo on the left side, the blood stripe down the middle and then tan camo on the passenger side. People love it… it’s a super conversation starter.”

Of course, there was more to do than paint the car, but with amateur teams that means once the basics are taken care of you enter it in a race and find out what breaks. For Brian and his crew of mainly Marine Corps buddies that translated to towing to Carolina Motorsports Park in April of 2018 and getting on track for the first time.

At home in its lair the USMC LLC Crown Vic shows it’s two-tone green and tan paint bisected by the blue and red “blood stripe.” The paint is about 20 lbs worth of indoor latex “protected by clear garage floor sealer.” The Mercury grille was lying around and looked cool, the funnel in the headlight bucket made for a cheap scoop and the chain is the tow point. Use what you got!

The first thing to go was a gushing rear wheel seal, corrected right away. Once running, picking up fuel in the corners was a problem, but that too was quickly fixed during practice. Causing more than a little hitch in the team’s get along during the race was a loose hose that dumped all the coolant. As a consequence, the engine did a Three Mile Island impression when the driver—not Brian—drove the car hard a full lap back to the pits. Everything connected to the crank-bone was destroyed, starting with the crankshaft itself, the bearings and on and on, so a new engine was required.

Brian found a 2005 Performance Improved 4.6L out of a dead cop car and bolted it in. Furthermore, a round of improvements went into the ‘Vic, including an upgraded fire suppression system. Because the Lemons road races are interminable affairs lasting hours and requiring pit stops, a NASCAR refueling rig was somehow cumshawed. It, with the help of some gung ho Marine muscle, can put 15 gallons in the hulking sedan’s tank in 20 seconds. This is a big advantage, as most competitors struggle to get five gallons down the hatch in 30 seconds.

USMC LLC learns about racing in the rain last December at Road Atlanta. If the windshield looks opaque, it is thanks to no wipers, no defroster and a 100 percent reliance on Rain-X when everyone else is throwing mud and water into the air. The crew adapted, improvised and overcame by using Swiffer pads to manually wipe the inside of the windshield.

The team made another race at Carolina Motorsports Park—it’s their home track—in the fall of 2018. Results were okay, but the main occurrence was Brian sold the Emco at the end of the race. Like some sort of mechanical organ donor operation, the hot Emco was pulled from the Crown Vic as soon as the race was over by putting the sedan up on jack stands, dropping the gearbox and handing it to its new owner. Once that was done Brian headed to the post-race debrief!

See the U.S.M.C. In Action!

Anyone in the southeast U.S. wanting to see The Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children racing team squeal their tires is in luck as the team strives to make five events per year. Below is their 2019 calendar to date:

  • March 30/31 NOLA Motorsports Park
  • April 28/27 Carolina Motorsports Park (24hrs race)
  • September 14/15 Carolina Motorsports Park
  • November 9/10 MSR Houston (Marine Corps birthday race?)
  • December 14/15 Road Atlanta

Why Brian moved on from the Emco becomes clear when the next reports sponsorship from Silver Sport Transmissions who had recommended a Tremec 5-speed. There were some of the expected set-up headaches when switching to the conventional manual, but Silver Sport had Brian’s back all the way through the necessary spacers and hardware. “I can’t believe it, it was way cool… [they] saved me $2,900 in parts and shipping between the trans and bellhousing.”

In fact, once Brian and his military crew had the big ‘Vic up and running, he’s had exceptional luck finding help maintaining and upgrading it. For sure much of this is Brian’s 1,000-watt optimism and energy, but for us, after seeing firsthand the shameful treatment of U.S. Servicemen during the Vietnam era we’re thinking there is overdo appreciation for young military families today. This country asks more than it knows of its service people—easy to do with so few Americans with direct military experience—so it’s good to see some in the performance industry put money behind the sentiment.

It’s appreciated more than can be put into words, says Brian.

How does the wiper end up on the roof? Turns out when you ashcan the original wipers thinking they wouldn’t be needed it’s easier to stick the replacement on the roof. Similar thinking goes for the headlights, but they were missing when Brian bought the ‘Vic so he welded a bar to the radiator support for aftermarket lights.

While Lemons racing attempts to avoid racing’s typical financial black hole, there are still plenty of places to, shall we say, explore the aftermarket. For Brian, this has meant “my Amsoil guy sent me all kinds of 5W-20 racing oil, engine flush, engine cool… and Evans waterless coolant, I have a social media contract with them. And C&R Racing, the NASCAR radiator guys; I was working on the car with my son five days prior to the Barber’s race. I stabbed the radiator, leaking coolant. Not good! I called C&R told them the deal, who I was, talking back and forth after he had seen pics of the radiator. ‘Man, that’s a 10-year-old NASCAR radiator.’ He took $300 off the price. It came in the evening before I had to leave, so I put it in the trailer and went to the track.”

Brian says he has two cash sponsors—we’re guessing they aren’t in Roger Penske ‘s league—and companies such as Full Tilt Boogie (differential cooler) and Momo (racing seat), “have put their trust in me; helped me get better.” You can tell Brian is truly amazed and appreciates the support. “Without these companies and people, I couldn’t do it… since last fall this has really started to snowball.”

Looming large for Brian’s “Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children Racing, or USMC Racing for short” is the Can’t Git Bayou 24 hour Lemons enduro at NOLA Motorsports Park near New Orleans at the end of March. Proving that Brian’s luck is likely self-made because he’s full of ideas as well as energy, “A lot of Marine corps recruiters will be there at New Orleans. Lemons and the track will waive the entry fee for Saturday, and I’m also working with the Marine Corps for a static display. It might work!”

How’s this for a sleek racing profile? We’re not sure how much this 4-door sedan weighs, but with all the glass removed—except the windshield—and the entire interior and many of the systems gutted it’s probably a lot closer to a Mustang than we think.

“With any Lemons race, the black flag penalty is always fun. They might make you play games like checkers or chess. My idea is to make this like corporal punishment, like in the Marine Corps, pull ups, sit ups, 100-pound logs.” But then Brian remembers there are a bunch of what seem to him like ancient fogies driving, “and here I am at 33 and [the physical fitness course] is a struggle.” Still, don’t be surprised to see a mock combat fitness course laid out in the black flag pit at New Orleans.

Thanks to the constant movement of military life—they don’t call it Active Duty for nothing—Brian finds, “I’m the last Marine standing on the team,” at the moment. To keep the vibe going he’s aiming to involve veterans. At least they have less hectic schedules, and in fact, Brian will have to ship out sooner or later himself. “I’ll try to run the car with veterans; try to keep it that way. [I’ve] got to keep the car afloat.”

Sounds like a plan. But if that proves too much, we wonder if the Corps might let Brian take the ‘ol Vic on deployment. It’s not exactly up-armored, but it’s quick and hard to hit, plus it’s already camouflaged for anywhere on the globe. We think it would look good with a ma deuce or two.

(Left) Brian’s big-block F-150 got him on the drag strip, but not the road race course that he was most interested in. Unlike most enthusiasts who prefer either drag strip or NASCAR roundy-round racing, Brian, “is more of an F1 and World Rally kind of guy.” (Middle) Brian and Laura’s son Landon is four and a half, which is apparently not too young to introduce to sporting machinery. Daughter Briar is just one and a half, and like Landon has a great time at the track according to dad. (Right) Brian Fennel a retired Marine artilleryman strikes an attitude in front of Chesty’s Chariot. And yeah, the acronym stands for what you think it does.

A smart man, Brian married Laura, and even better she has made new friends at the races so everyone has a good time. That’s doubly important when the budget is so tight and family time crowded by deployments.


About the author

Tom Wilson

Infatuated by things that make noise and go fast, Tom has been writing about cars and airplanes for over 35 years. So far that’s meant a decade editing Super Ford magazine, plus long associations with Road & Track, MSN Autos and more lately Kitplanes magazine. It’s also meant some SCCA racing and a lot of fun sampling everything from Trans Am cars to F1 chassis as part of “work.” Besides the racing hobby Tom enjoys flying his biplane, plinking tin cans and messing around with telescopes.
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