Last summer, I spent a week of quality time under the hood of my ’66 Caprice. I was installing Holley’s Terminator EFI system while most of ACC’s staff was in Monterey, CA, for the Pebble Beach auctions. Normally I’m there, too, but this time was different. I was staring down the ultimate of all deadlines: a soon-to-be-delivered new daughter. As such, my wife put her foot down: No leaving the state.

So through the heat of one week in August, Auction Editor Chad Tyson helped me wrench on my car. We installed the EFI unit and documented the process for ACC’s “Wrenching” feature. A few days after I finished the story, Emma Jane was born. Her little face shifted my priorities from EFI tuning to snuggles and onesies.

That soft world is where I’ve been living throughout most of the past year — that is, up until a few weeks ago, when the car payoff finally came. In July, the stars aligned enough for me to find the time to go to the drag strip.

Slow going

Portland’s been growing exponentially over the past few years, but our roads haven’t. As such, traffic has become unpredictable.

Portland International Raceway is 13 miles from my driveway. The drive is usually short. What I didn’t bank on was an Andrea Bocelli performance at the Moda Center, which is just off Interstate 5 about halfway to the strip. A glut of Portlanders were in need of their tenor fix, so I sat among them on the freeway, car idling on a stagnant 85-degree night.

In the old days, heat soak used to toast the carburetor and boil the fuel in the bowls, making the engine run funny. On top of that, the starter would also bake from the headers, so shutting the car off was a commitment — you’d stay wherever you stopped long enough to let things cool before it would fire again.

After the injection install, I fitted a Powermaster 9100 mini starter from Summit Racing in place of the factory unit for better hot starts and redid some wiring to help the charging system function properly.

Here was my chance to see what all these changes would do in heavy, hot traffic — and the payoff was sweet. The car idled fine, held a good air/fuel ratio, and never pushed 190 degrees. No fussy weird idle wiggles, no cooked float bowls, no red-hot starter.

My first run down the strip was a teachable moment for me and for the car’s self-learning ECU. When I mashed the pedal, the car fell flat on its face. Then, a half-second later, it woke up, figured out what I was asking it to do, and screamed down the track. The time slip showed a 13.5-second quarter-mile at 108 mph.

I dug around inside the Holley program on my laptop to find the proper setting — “Acceleration Enrichment versus Throttle Position Sensor,” which is EFI-speak for accelerator pump shot. I messed with the setting, and the next run netted me a 12.51-second pass at 109 mph — close to the car’s best.

There’s more time in it, and tuning it for power will be fun.

That should be the end of the story right there, but it isn’t.

Expect the unexpected

At around 10 p.m., after a night of throttle mashing, I found myself a victim of night paving on the freeway. Once again I was sitting still — again swathed in big-block heat soak that would have cooked the old setup.

As a knee-jerk reaction, I exited the freeway and headed for the surface-street bypass.

The going was good for three blocks, until I rolled up to a police car in the road. So I bypassed again, heading up a neighborhood street to get around the police. There, I hit a wall of taillights. I had run smack into one of Portland’s annual traditions: The World Naked Bike Ride.

There was no escape this time. Ten thousand naked people on bikes had closed down the road ahead, and I was locked in with a bunch of other cars as the three-mile-long stretch of human nudity hooted, hollered and slowly rolled past.

One naked dude did tell me I had a “sweet ride.” I thanked him and tried not to look. It was the definition of irony: The naked riders are allowed to be naked because it’s not a parade — it’s a protest. Of oil consumption.

Now, with nowhere to go, I let my already-hot car heat up even more. But even after a night of starting, stopping and full-throttle runs, this time there was no fuss, as the ECU was watching the fuel trim and handling my cooling fan. Thanks to the Holley EFI and a few other mods, my Caprice, which for 18 years has been a fussy toy built of speed parts, has become something I didn’t expect: a real car.

With no end to the ride in sight, I eventually backed out of that neighborhood and rejoined the paving fun on the freeway, again with no trouble.

Is the car faster? It will be. But the bigger deal is that it’s just so much more usable now, regardless of what I throw at it or who is with me. That’s a huge win considering my status as a new parent, the landscape of traffic these days, and other things you can’t make up — or even imagine — until you see them.

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