Storied Pro Nitrous competitor John “Hitman” DeCerbo is no stranger to fielding entries that most would consider art on wheels. Unfortunately, the Canfield, Ohio construction mogul saw his season go up in flames during pre-race testing at the 2021 PDRA Summer Shootout presented by Ty-Drive.
The culprit? A failed o-ring in the oil filter of his behemoth 959 cubic-inch Reher Morrison power plant put oil under the slicks, and the car made an immediate left turn at the drop of the button resulting in heavy frontal contact with the left-side retaining wall. The hit burst the fuel cell in the ‘68 Camaro, resulting in a dramatic inferno. DeCerbo exited the car under his own power without injury.
The team returned to the pits and immediately began assessing the damage, while DeCerbo put a call in to his longtime friend and chassis builder, Tim McAmis.
“The crash looked way worse than it actually was,” DeCerbo stated. “The worst part was the fire damage. It destroyed the plumbing and wiring entirely. It was especially frustrating because we had been making good progress on this combo, and that was the first pass where we were really looking to get after it.”
Following the completion of the Summer Shootout, the charred remains of the car were disassembled, and the chassis was delivered to the team at Tim McAmis Race Cars (TMRC) in Hawk Point, Missouri, so the necessary overhaul could begin. Though the task of rebuilding the car was difficult enough in itself, an even bigger challenge remained to be seen. DeCerbo made it clear that he wanted this to be his most impeccable creation yet. While the TMRC crew got to work whipping the ‘68 Camaro back into shape, DeCerbo began brainstorming ideas. The usual duo of Steve Dekkenga from SD Enterprises, and master airbrush artist Matt Willoughby were once again tapped for the job. After some deliberation, it was decided that the latest DeCerbo Construction-backed masterpiece would take on a colorful look with a sinister vibe, while paying tribute to America through patriotic livery.
“I wanted to do something with this car to reflect what’s going on in this country,” DeCerbo said. “You know, I’m a patriotic guy, and I just really wanted to do something to thank all of our armed forces, and the police and firemen, because I believe in what this country was built on, and their sacrifice is the reason we get to do any of this.”
“My mind is constantly working and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this car,” DeCerbo continued. “I’m a really meticulous guy and I pay attention, and I don’t think there’s any better combination for a project like this than Steve Dekkenga and Matt Willoughby. They are incredibly talented, and they’re perfectionists just like me.”
A signature trademark for DeCerbo’s past creations has been the mural of a creature on the hood, a brainchild of DeCerbo’s imagination and Willoughby’s artistic creativity.
“So, it’s actually pretty funny. ‘The Creature’ stems back prior to John’s involvement in Pro Mod racing. It’s gone through a lot of different renditions, and I drew some inspiration for it from the Bones Brigade skull, where it’s almost comical looking. Each version has been personalized to John, but they have gotten increasingly more edgy and scary,” laughed Willoughby.
The latest rendition of the creature was carefully applied throughout the course of over one hundred hours of Willoughby’s time, a true testament to the level of perfection DeCerbo expects to achieve on his cars.
Between bodywork and paint, this elegant look took just over 585 hours in total to complete.
“When we received the car it needed some paint on the chassis near the nose, and we had to strip the paint on the back of the body. Weight is extremely crucial in this form of racing, so it had to come off,” said Dekkenga, the owner of SD Enterprises. “This car was a lot of work, it really was. My guys here at the shop are class acts, and it’s so rewarding to work on a project like this and see it through to its completion. I can’t say enough about John and everyone that had a hand in this project. These are the projects that make you better at what you do, because you have to take it to a new level.”
While the paint and graphics on the exterior of this ride are stunning, the details of the interior and chassis are just as painstakingly detailed and thought out, a quality that has become tradition amongst the DeCerbo/McAmis collaborations of the past. Tim McAmis and his team are no strangers to innovation, but when you pair that with someone as detail oriented as John DeCerbo, you have the opportunity to push innovation to the next level.
“John is a pain in the ass, but it’s an ass ache you learn to live with because he lets us push limits and make cool shit!” joked McAmis. “All kidding aside, John is the kind of person you like to work with because he appreciates details and knows how much effort goes into making things. He’s full of ideas and a lot of them have led to new products and build features that end up becoming standardized and utilized throughout the industry.”
Forward of the custom bead-rolled titanium firewall, the car features a unique fabricated aluminum fuel cell, similar to that of a Fuel Funny Car produced by Murf McKinney, and tidily fastened to the chassis via a trick TMRC Quick Release carbon strap and pivot system.
Just behind the fuel cell, you’ll find the addition of a newly designed and manufactured battery tray that features an integrated primer fuel pump. Upon further examination, the trained eye can detect that said battery tray is actually a 3D Printed component, a process that is becoming increasingly popular at TMRC.
“It’s printed on our large format USA-made printer from USA-made material, which is a high-temp carbon fiber filled polymer,” said TMRC’s Justin Spencer. “The primer pump side features cushions under the clamps that are printed from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which is commonly used on the soles of shoes. You can control the rigidity of the clamps based on how little or how much infill is used. The idea was to clean up the commonly used titanium battery trays and incorporate the primer fuel pump. The entire 3D printed component is right around one pound.”
Inside the car adjacent to the drivers compartment you will find the implementation of a redesigned mount for the push-to-talk radio button. The previous velcro strap-type mount has been replaced by the new TMRC 3D Printed PTT Clamp, which will ensure that the button remains firmly in position and easily accessible to the driver, something that is crucial in the case of an on-track incident.
The completion of this car is something that has DeCerbo and team eager to get back on track in 2022.
“We’ve been working so hard lately, we really want to get out and do some racing this year,” DeCerbo said. “I’d like to run the whole PDRA tour this year, and I’m sponsoring a few local races at Norwalk and Dragway 42 this year, so we’ll try to hit those too. Business comes first for me, though, so if you don’t see us out there that’s why. I love to go racing, I love to see the racing family, but work will always come first. My guys are the best, man. If I didn’t have people like Blake Housley, Joey Bieganowski, and Larry Kabetso, I’d quit racing and just stay home. You know, these guys just make it fun.”
“My goal is to always improve things,” DeCerbo added. “Whether it’s work, or cars, or anything really. It always has to be more badass than the last time we did it. I feel like we’ve done that with this car. None of this would have been possible without Tim McAmis and his staff, the team at SD Enterprises, my buddy Matt Willoughby, Brandon Switzer, and Blake Housley. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done. I can’t wait to get this thing to the track.”
Photographs by Cole Rokosky, Tim McAmis Race Cars, and Shawn Kelly