By Jim Morrison
This article appears courtesy of OpenWheelRacers.com
Mike Fedorcak gets fired up about his ‘Munchkin’ midget race cars — especially at the suggestion his Volkswagen-powered creations are purpose-built for small race tracks.
“The thing had a track record at IRP (a five-eighths mile oval where cars reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour)” said the Yoder, Ind., racer. “How much more versatile can you be?”
Over the Christmas holiday, NASCAR star Tony Stewart swept both nights of the Rumble in Fort Wayne in one of three Munchkins Fedorcak built his shop in 1987 and 1988. Fedorcak worked out engine problems in a second Munchkin on Friday and then finished third behind Stewart and Dave Darland the next evening.
Tony Stewart drops low in his “Munchkin” to pass early leader Rich Corson en route to winning the second of two nights of racing at the Rumble in Fort Wayne in the Allen County Memorial Coliseum Expo Center. Photo by Jim Morrison
The car Fedorcak’s racing in this season’s Rumble Series is the same record setting-chassis from 1989. It’s powered by a 166-cubic inch Volkswagen Autocraft power plant. Stewart’s is the first car built and utilizes a 146-cubic inch engine. A third Munchkin sits in pieces in his race shop to eventually be restored to vintage condition by Mike and his daughter, Emma.
Stewart owns the two cars raced in the Rumble Series, but Fedorcak maintains the one he drives in his Yoder, Ind., shop. Stewart’s instructions, “treat it as if it’s your own car.” “So I do,” said Fedorcak.
In Fort Wayne, Stewart and Fedorcak utilized different chassis setups for their Munchkins. Stewart took Fedorcak’s out for the first practice session on Saturday, telling the car builder it felt loose. Fedorcak made several changes, but not all of those suggested by Stewart. He did not want his chassis working as tight as Stewart’s.
“My goal next year is to beat Dave Darland,” said Fedorcak. “Tony is just a great driver.”
While some claim the Munchkin holds an unfair advantage over a conventional midget, Fedorcak says there’s nothing ‘trick’ about his car.
“There is no magic on any of it,” said Fedorcak. “It is all straight-forward conventional stuff.”
The frame is shaped a little differently. Fedorcak built it like a truck because he wanted it as strong as possible.
It is chassis setup, making the driver comfortable in the car. They still must select the right tires, springs and shocks.
And, the driver must steer it around a rubber-covered concrete floor with 13 other competitors for 60 laps. At Fort Wayne, Fedorcak said fellow competitors had already bought up all of the tires constructed of the compound he wanted to run.
Fedorcak recalls winning ‘The Night Before the 500′ in the car Stan Fox beat him with the week before, running side-by-side with the Hall of Fame racer for many laps. Fedorcak felt extremely uncomfortable with the car set up for Fox and Bob East made many chassis changes.
“You have to have a car comfortable with the driver,” said Fedorcak.
As for Stewart, Fedorcak says he just one of the best in the world. For himself, Fedorcak trains all year even though he only races once or twice each winter, keeping himself in excellent physical condition. He routinely does 200 pushups and situps.
“Honestly, many of the positions I gained on Saturday night came when their arms did not work and I took advantage of it,” said Fedorcak.
USAC officials inspected Fedorcak’s Munchkin five times during the weekend. It weighed 50 pounds above the minimum weight limit when first weighed and was just under 900 pounds at the end of the second night, according to Fedorcak.
“This is a national event,” said Fedorcak. “It is supposed to promote creativity and innovation. If you want a car like everyone else, buy a Kenyon car.”
When Stewart found the final Munchkin after last year’s Rumble in Fort Wayne, it had been through three other owners. Mike Austrakus was then the owner. Jeff Kaiser of Fort Wayne and Dick Myers from Michigan were other owners. In fact, Fedorcak drove the car for Myers for a year after selling it to him at the beginning of the 1996 season.
Several changes had been made, most of which were removed by Fedorcak. The power steering unit being one of the first, saving about 25 pounds and eliminating a part that could fail during a race.
“I don’t like to rely on something that can fail,” said Fedorcak.
The chassis frame was broken in places. Much work was needed just to get it ready for this year’s Rumble. The engine was three or four years old and Fedorcak did not even checked the timing.
“I ran it the way we got it,” said Fedorcak.
On race day, Fedorcak’s engine smoked up the Expo Center. He found several pushrod tubes defective and replaced three of them. His crew also replaced rubber ‘O-rings.’
Fedorcak calculates it would cost about $12,000 to build a Munchkin chassis today in kit form, about $3,000 less than a ‘kit car’ from Bob East. But, Fedorcak’s fabricating shop today is not geared to mass produce a chassis like the Beast shops near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I would almost rather somebody copy it,” said Fedorcak, noting he would probably even send them the blueprints.
From the beginning, the cars created controversy since the chassis was so different from conventional midgets of the era. Fedorcak built his first one in 1987 followed quickly by two more.
“I just wanted to have some fun and win some races,” Fedorcak said.
Until then, Fedorcak had only one USAC win—a victory at the old Fort Wayne Coliseum in 1983 when he was racing for Chuck Rencurrel.
Winning his first Speedrome race on Aug. 20, 1987 Fedorcak believes was one of his major accomplishments. He followed that up with another victory on Sept. 18 of that year.
Several racers expressed interest in obtaining a Munchkin. Fellow racer Richard Myhre undertook a plan to have about 20 Munchkins built by Skip Brown in California. Fedorcak shipped a third Munchkin and the blueprints to the West Coast.
USAC then implemented several rule changes that impacted his car’s design. Weight was added to the front bumper, no side skirt body panels were allowed and a minimum total car weight of 850 pounds was implemented.
Fedorcak also had to change his fuel tank supplier and the tank shape. Unknown to Fedorcak when he built the car, his tank supplier was not an approved vendor with USAC. He had also used square corners to curtail costs, but USAC wanted the tail to be a more conventional shape. Those changes caused interest from others disappear and parts made in anticipation of building 20 cars went unused.
At the same time, USAC also began sanctioning a series of races at Indianapolis Raceway Park, broadcast by ESPN television in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
That’s when Fedorcak built the third car.
As Fedorcak had been building his first car, he ideas of things he’d like to try. But he realized if he went back to make the changes the car would never be finished.
“I had to stick to the plan on paper,” said Fedorcak.
The chassis Fedorcak raced at IRP, and recently at Fort Wayne, is identical to the one now owned by Stewart, he said. The only change was a different front clip that allowed for a longer wheel base for the bigger track.
Fedorcak crashed the first time he raced the new Munchkin at IRP, something he admits scared him. It also challenged him. He came back to set a new track record at IRP on Aug. 17, 1989, finishing second to Don Schilling. He posted wins at Gainesville, Ga., in March of 1989, Kalamazoo, Mich., in April of that year and again at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June on the big paved half-mile in the Hawkeye state.
Fedorcak’s last USAC win came at the Night Before the 500 when he beat Jeff Gordon.
Fedorcak drove one of Steve Lewis’ No. 9 Beasts to victory lane at IRP that evening, driving the car Stan Fox had beat him with the week before.
The car Stewart owns is the original Munchkin, buying it from Fedorcak during a late night poker game before the 2004 race. Stewart had raced the car at the Rumble Series in 2000 and 2001 before the Rumble attained a USAC sanction in 2004.
Fedorcak had driven the car to a Fort Wayne win in 2002 and finished second in the RCA Dome in early 2003 before parking it in the back of his shop. The engine needed some work and Fedorcak turned his attention to other things.
When Stewart called at 11:30 that December night, the pair did not even know if it would start, let alone run a race. It took Fedorcak an hour to dig it out from the items he had piled on and around it.
The car needed work on the valves when Fedorcak parked it after the RCA Dome. He suspected the valves were stretched and he could no longer adjust them.
He advised Stewart the car might not even start, something fresh in his mind after spending three days trying to get Chuck Rencurrel’s car to run for that year’s Rumble in Fort Wayne. He had just given up on that effort and crawled into bed when Stewart called.
After starting work at 4 in the morning digging the car out, they got it the Fort Wayne Coliseum Expo Center.
The rest is a story now well-known across the racing world, and beyond. In a few days, Mike Fedorcak plans to drive to Columbus, Ohio, with his 1984 pickup truck towing the second Munchkin to the race in Fort Wayne, hoping to add a little of his own accomplishments to the record books.
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