When the first of the Baja races were held, there was a wide variety of vehicles competing. From Bronco’s to home-built buggies to Detroit iron, the rules were wide open to interpretation.
Some, like James Garner, thought that cars were the answer. Garner fielded a team of Olds 442’s while others went with Chevy and Ford sedans. This Tri-Five Chevy is a fine example of what a period Baja racer car was, and thanks to guys like Jim Riley, remains as a competition worthy vehicle that routinely takes on NORRA. Riley is the second owner of the ‘Rippin’ Rooster’ and the Glendora, CA is also the founder/CEO Azunia Tequila.
The “Rippin’ Rooster” was originally built by Larry Schwacofer, but for some time now has been lovingly tended to by the Jim Riley Racing Shop. Riley’s racing shop has had the “Rooster” ready for NORRA for a number of years, and no matter how bad the damage has been due to the race, it is always rebuilt and ready to go again.
Normally, a “Tri-Five” Chevy is one from 1955-57, but with a ’55 body, ’57 front and rear pieces and a ’56 windshield, it encompasses them all.
The “Rooster” has seen a couple of looks over the years, and for this year’s NORRA race, Riley decided to pay tribute to another American icon, Robert “Evel” Knievel. Always a showman, Evel Knievel wore white leathers with blue stripes that featured red edging and white stars (and huge, 70’s lapels!) that endeared him to fans. Riley chose to emulate that look with a new paint scheme.
The refrigerator white paint was applied to the car by one Reuben “Sonny” Tudor, while it was Tim Cecil of Sign Pros who applied the signature stripes. The body of the Tri-Five is steel, as are the rear fender panels, but fiberglass is used for the hood, front fenders and trunk lid. Providing great light while keeping a low profile is a Rigid 30-inch E Series Hybrid bar but a pair of round lights are roof mounted, just like they were back in the day.
Another concession to modern amenities are the multiple Fox shocks per wheel that are used in place of what we can only guess were single Gabriel shocks back when the “Rooster” was a cockerel. The suspension is nearly as it came from Chevy, with A-arms, spindles and springs being stock items. Even the brakes are stock! The same goes for the rear suspension, as the leafs are stock items that now utilize two per side Fox Shocks for help with the dampening.
Riley had Method Race Wheels custom produce a set of classically styled 5-spoke wheels for this vehicle, though the tough General Tires Grabber tires (35x12.50x15) are off the shelf items. The result is perfect in both style and substance and allows the engines power to get to the ground.
The engine is where the “Rooster” gets its rip, as the Chevy small block seems to have all the right parts. A 1973 vintage, the 350ci engine has was sent to Arringdale Machine, where it was balanced and align honed, and given a bore and stroke of 4.040x3.48. The block was sent next to Simpson Racing Motors for the build.
Simpson began with forged steel rods and crank to hold the lower end together while JE forged pistons and rings help with pushing the engine to a 9.5:1 compression ratio. Lucas Oil products are used within.
Feeding the beast is a Holley carb that sits atop an Edelbrock intake manifold. A K&N air filter cleans the air while a MSD ignition system provides the sparks. A full Magnaflow exhaust allows the spent fuel to freely flow out to the desert air.
An old school Turbo 400 transmission, built by Get It in Gear of Lake Havasu City, AZ puts the power to the 12 bolt rearend via a JL Reel driveshaft while a CBR trans cooler makes sure that the 400 stays cool throughout the race.
A stock Chevy of 1955 was actually pretty comfortable, but that was then and this is now. Now, the interior of the “Rooster” is a far cry (cackle?) from comfortable, but it is capable. A full cage makes even the Tri Five’s interior seem tight, and gone is every vestige of upholstery and in its place are a pair of Mastercraft seats and harnesses.
A custom dash houses a set of Auto Meter gauges while a center console features a Race Pak instrumentation package, a Garmin GPS system and a Rugged Radios communication system. A Sidewinder rows the TH400 while with its center pad, the steering wheel looks like it came off of a dirt track car. Keeping the dirt at bay is thanks to the Rugged Radios fresh air system.
Though perhaps not in contention for the overall, the “Rippin’ Rooster” has a long pedigree of class wins and championships. To date, it has 48 class wins with 8 championships including five Baja 1000 wins and now a Mexican 1000 win. Recently Riley has two Class Wins in the Vintage NORRA Mexican 1000, along with one 2nd place and a 3rd place finish.
Riley bought the car off of Schwacofer (who used to wear cowboy boots when he raced) for $5000, but immediately put another 20K into it to make it truly race ready. When the car was finished though, he actually did not race it the first year. Instead, he let Rick Johnson drive it and continued to drive his 71 Nova, the “Snortin Nortin’” in the NORRA Races.
Riley says he purchased the car because of his love for racing in Mexico and the rich history of the Baja 1000. He remembers listening to his dad’s great stories about pre-running the 1971 Mexican 1000 with his buddies and it became a dream of his to revisit his adventure as an adult. Although Riley had raced in Mexico for over 10 years, he says that the modern equipment never gave him the sense of genuine Mexican adventure.
It was the vintage class and the NORRA Mexican 1000 that appealed to Riley. He says that the thought of racing down the peninsula in a 1957 Chevy or a ‘71 Nova, tracing some of the original course and actually doing it has been an incredible adventure. Though Azuna Tequila, Riley personally supports and sponsors the NORRA races so they can continue the spirit of the race.
So, raise one for off-road history, and for the continued running of the “Rippin’ Rooster.” Long may it crow.
A hard case for a hard course, the “Rippin’ Rooster” is a history lesson that usually made the history of the competition.
The Simpson Racing Motors-built 350 Chevy engine features a Holley carb, an Edelbrock intake, JE pistons, an MSD ignition and a K&N air filter.
The now sparse dash/center console contains only the essentials such as Auto Meter gauges, a Rugged Radios comm system, and Garmin GPS.
A full roll cage envelopes the driver and passenger, who sit in Mastercraft race seats and harnesses.
As there was no “off-road” magazines back in the day, Hot Rod magazine was the publication to read to get all the news on Baja races.
A Sidewinder shifter rows the Turbo 400 trans and the center console has only the switches it needed when first built. Notice the labeling on the switches. Our mother had one of those tape guns a long time ago.
Now that’s what we call a door latch.
Old is cool, but new Fox Shocks, two per wheel, are used to dampen the stock design and sprung suspension systems.
A set of custom Method 5-spoke style wheels have been shod with General Grabber tires. All in 15-inch, of course.
The iconic Chevy Bel Air tailfins are cool, no matter what the setting.
This Tri-Five Chevy is now just as at home in the desert as it was on Main St. back in 1955.
Just like its namesake, this Rooster doesn’t get off the ground, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fly.