English Racing tuner and half-mile racer, Aaron O’Neal, discovered that his passion wasn’t contained to the 1320'... His J35 V6–swapped Civic makes 1,000hp and does 200mph in the half mile!
“I live my life a quarter mile at a time… For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.” - Dom Toretto, The Fast and the Furious (2001)
When these words were first spoken, the world was a simpler place. Miley Cyrus was still a fairly normal 8-year old kid, nobody had ever said “on fleek” before, and a street car that ran tens was considered fast. But the timeless wisdom contained within that quote still rings true, and by that measure, Aaron O’Neal is at least twice as free as Dom ever was. Do some quick math - Half-mile racing lets you live more of your life with your foot to the floor, and O’Neal has wholeheartedly embraced this eternal truth.
“I have been around racecars since I was 5; between my Grampa/Uncles/Dad there have always been fast cars or motorcycles around,” O’Neal explains. “I have always felt a ‘stock’ car or truck was a sin, so it became a habit to modify them as soon as I bought them. I made the move away from domestics to imports in 1999 right before the first Fast and Furiousmovie.
Perhaps inspired by the “quarter mile” races in that film that involved three minutes of screen time and ten upshifts, O’Neal took an interest in other forms of straight-line competition. “I was on a forum where someone posted about roll racing and an idea for a roll racing track,” he recalls. “It wasn’t well received there, but his idea of less strain on drivetrain and a safer way to top out a car was still a good one.”
While that thought percolated in his head, circumstances would lead O’Neal to his current gig as one of the resident tuners at English Racing. Per O’Neal, “I met Luke [English] in 2006 at a racetrack event for the previously-mentioned (now extinct) forum and started talking to him about airplanes. We were at a track so it switched to cars, but that led to me helping them on and off at the shop on my days off with Paul Nelson's white Evo 8 that he was campaigning at the time. I had also worked with Luke prior doing ‘dyno day’ events tuning cars between 2007 and 2008, and I finally decided to quit my day job and go to work for him in April of 2008.”
“Fast forward to 2013 and Shift S3ctor was in its infancy, but somehow as a shop we found out about it and went to one of the events,” O’Neal Explains. “I didn’t go the first few times and it wasn’t until October of 2014 that I went to the first 1/2 mile race to see what it was all about. When I got there and saw not just a wild selection of cars but a race field where it was all about bragging rights, I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ I competed in my first 1/2 mile event in my freshly swapped (but NA) V6 Civic the next April and ran 125 all weekend on a basically stock engine and pump gas. I was definitely hooked at that point.”
Well That Escalated Quickly
Just a couple short years later, and O’Neal’s 1994 Honda Civic DX hatch is knocking on the door of 1,000 horsepower to the tires, and 200 miles per hour in the half-mile. The boosted V6 is based on a Honda Pilot J35A4 block topped by Acura TL J32A2 cylinder heads, which have been treated to an English Racing race port job, then stuffed with Ferrea valves, Supertech valvesprings, and TB Motorworx cams. A stock 93mm J35 crankshaft swings forged connecting rods topped by custom 10:1 compression Wiseco pistons.
Those “Top Fuel” edition pistons are made to English Racing’s specifications, and are black anodized with DLC-treated pins for durability. O’Neal explains, “We switched to Wiseco after having issues with other manufacturers either not standing behind their products, QC problems with their stuff, or what I felt was excessive noise. I knew an employee at Wiseco via the many other car forums, and met him in 2012 at PRI which started our association and use of Wiseco full fledged at that time. I was also associated with Kevin Kwiatkowski [of Kiggly Racing, a legend in DSM drag competition] and knew that he had been instrumental in testing the HD series so his background in engineering and desire to leave no stone unturned helped our faith in the products.”
While high-strung turbocharged engines have a reputation as being hard on parts, O’Neal isn’t willing to accept routine failure as the cost of going fast. “I don’t think pistons are consumables - I am strongly opinionated on that one,” he states. “It’s true you aren’t racing if you aren’t breaking but I think most ‘piston’ failures are bad tuning or bad luck (fuel system or nitrous related) and not the piston. I have had emergency engine builds in my own race program where I pulled pistons out of a broke motor and put them in the next block with nothing more than a hone. No smoke, no noise, go to the next race and race, come back and fix it properly. The pistons have never been an issue in my experience.”
The desire to keep things together also explains the V6 J-series under the hood, rather than the far more common B- or K-series inline four. O’Neal explains, “Long ago, Gray Baskerville at HOT ROD magazine talked about a big block Chevy in a Chevy II as an ideal racecar because it was the biggest motor in the lightest car. It was about a week after I started working for Luke when I saw a J-swapped Civic at the local dragstrip and thought, ‘I need one of these.’ When it came time, I had no doubt that I wanted a J in the car. It was a $300 motor which was the bait - it costs as much as a K to swap properly, but it got me started on what I am doing now.”
“A B or K has one fatal flaw; power per cylinder at 1,000+ wheel horsepower and the cylinder pressure you have to deal with,” he continues. “Engine life starts dropping from thousands of miles to tens of miles or a handful of passes. I can make the same 1,000-1,100 wheel horsepower with six cylinders and spread the load, keeping the engine a little more reliable. A 4 cylinder making 1,000 wheel horsepower will normally be 50 psi; to make 1,200 it needs methanol and almost 60 psi in most cases. I make 1,000 at 35 and 1,100+ at 40 on Ignite "red" ethanol, which is far easier to work with overall.”
One Step At A Time
Once the power was available O’Neal and the team took things methodically, working toward their ultimate goal: The FWD half-mile record. “Aero is the key to keeping it straight. We have done a lot of testing and started with the car only running 125 MPH. I have a custom 3-piece wide front end, NASCAR style roof rails, a good wing and diffuser combo in the back, and an underbody flat bottom to keep it doing what it is supposed to. We run Mickey Thompson Pro Bracket Radial slicks in a 275 on the front and 245 Toyo R888s on the back. We estimate 1,900 pounds of downforce on the front at 150+ and there is no torque steer through the modified TL 6-speed.”
“It ran a best of 199.38 at 37 psi during the Neverlift Half mile in Coalinga, California in April . Terminal speed was 201.1, and then the intake manifold blew apart, halting higher speed attempts,” he casually adds. “I finished second in the finals against [teammate] Myles [Kerr], though with a 195 [average] so it was still a great time. It makes just under 1,000 whp at 35 psi with a smaller turbo - we have switched to a larger turbo and more boost, but cracked the block before it got dyno'd at full power. That will all be sorted for next year when my sleeved motor (now a 3.7L with larger bore and of course Wiseco pistons) and dogbox are done and in the car. The current FWD 1/2 record is 208, and we are gunning for all of that and a bit more.”