Grants Pass in Oregon sits on the banks of the Rogue River, and boasts a population of 36,000 souls. It’s not tiny, but it certainly isn’t a big city, which is what makes the concentration of cool gearhead stuff in the area such a pleasant surprise. From muscle car restoration shops and yearly two-stroke boat racing to the jaw-dropping metalwork of fabricator Randy Grubb, Grants Pass is buzzing with motorized activity, and because it’s not a big city, there’s still plenty of open space to take things out for exercise. We stopped in Grants Pass to visit Jake McDonald and his friends at SpeedFreak Speed Shop. We only had 24 hours in town, but Jake managed to serve us a picnic on a Dodge Charger, donuts in a big block Chevelle, and a raucous show of pull-started mayhem on the river during the annual Boatnik festival. Even more than that, we enjoyed meeting Jake’s buddies and getting a chance to see their project cars.
Jake’s interest in cars started with a show across the street from the house where he grew up. “I lived across the street from a market/deli where all the old local hot rodders would come get coffee basically every morning, and Saturdays would pretty much turn into full-on parking lot car shows.” It didn’t hurt that his dad was also into cars, giving little-kid Jake the opportunity to be thrown back in the passenger seat of such treasures as a ’78 Porsche 911 SC and a Ford Lightning. His dad runs a machine shop business, where Jake has worked since Jr. High, grinding carbide cutting tools and running some of the CNC mill and lathe projects. “On a day to day basis I might be doing anything from running parts to modifying tools by hand on the manual machines, or maintenance on the CNC tool grinders, which has been great for my general sense of attention to detail and mechanical engineering.” Jake has taken that basic understanding of machining and programming and started his own business as a custom car shop. “I started simple with machining the Speedfreak billet aluminum hood pin kits that I’ve been selling, but I have a lot more plans for parts to be featured in future builds. I’ve been a ‘maker’ for as long as I can remember, from Legos to drawing, so cars have really given me a massive canvas and a whole new medium to let my creativity go nuts with.”
About a year ago, Jake had a chance to sharpen his fab skills with Randy Grubb-famous for the Jay Leno tank car, among other masterpieces. “I had approached a long time mutual friend, Don Tippit, about wanting to fabricate some aluminum engine bay panels for my Chevelle, as well as having an interest in learning aluminum fabrication and metal shaping for a variety of other applications with custom car building. Don got me together with Randy, and Randy was extremely nice about lending his time, space, tools, and teachings to help me get going building my own skillset, rather than just making the panels for me and sending me on my way. Even after the engine bay panels were done, he just kept saying ‘See ya tomorrow,’ so it went on to my learning how to make the aluminum seats, console, and door panels that are all in the Chevelle now. Randy and I get along great as friends, he’s an excellent teacher, and has the rare skill of looking at a piece with both an artist’s eye and an engineer’s, so learning from him has been an awesome experience.” Randy is helping Jake now to make a fully coachbuilt car, an aluminum body based off a Porsche 550, but on a VW chassis, with an electric motor. “With a flat torque curve and a target curb weight of less than 1,000 lbs, it should be a killer little autocross/street car.”
Right now Jake lives in his shop and works on the projects there after his work at the machine shop, but down the road he hopes to build customs fulltime, as well as run an apparel brand with his original artwork. “I’m a big fan of Magnus Walker, both in his build style, as well as his freedom to build his cars 100% in his own vision. I’d like to be able to build at a high level, in my own vision.” In the meantime, Jake is much like the rest of us, working on projects a little bit at a time, with plenty of breaks to goof off with his buddies, or work on their cars. Here’s what was in the shop when we stopped by.
1967 Chevrolet Chevelle
Jake bought the Chevy right out of high school and drove it until a crash in heavy fog led to a near disaster. He could have abandoned it, but instead he found donor frame, did the repairs and went for an upgrade. In the engine bay is a gen IV 454 which he warmed-up with a custom cam grind, closed chamber heads and forged flat top pistons for about 10:1 static compression. It’s topped by a 670 Holley street avenger and CVF Racing serpentine kit. Behind the engine is a 700r4 and an 8.5-inch late model 10-bolt rear end out of a Caprice interceptor, with Yukon 3.73 gears and a Detroit Truetrac. Inside is a custom seat, and there are other examples of Jake’s metalwork around the engine bay.
1969 Dodge Charger
Like so many of us, Jake had an ultimate dream car, and like so many of us, it was a Dodge Charger. Maybe it’s too many viewings of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Jake’s car came to him via the previous owner who did one of the “take it all apart and give up,” deals. It’s a real R/T SE car, and when Jake is done with it, the 440 will have a supercharger, EFI, and be backed by a Viper t56 6-speed. “Should be fun,” he says. Yeah, you think?
The Gambler Jav
We actually met Jake when he invited us to join his team for this summer’s Pacific Northwest Gambler race, which unfortunately falls exactly on the same date as a Roadkill Zip-Tie Drags event. Boo. “The Javelin now known as The Harpoonigan is a team effort between my friends Cody, Casey, and me. We scored a $500 Craigslist find, and plan for mad-max’d-out, Gambler 500 glory…if the 304 holds together and we don’t hit the threshold of fatal rust inhalation.”
1988 Ford Mustang
All Jake’s buddies have cars too, although they aren’t all muscle-era machines. Denny’s Foxbody out front is a 347 stroker/5 speed he bought off Craigslist. Turns out, the seller was his own brother #smalltownstuff. “I’m still trying to encourage him to throw a set of little boggers on and take it out on the Gambler with us, we’ll see,” says Jake. Denny’s had a series of fun drivers, including a 2015 GT, a C6 Z06, and an Edelbrock-supercharged 2014 Mustang..all within the past year. Commitment issues.
2013 Ford Mustang
Cody recently moved back to town, and his daily is a red 2013 GT, with a Bama Performance tune, Roush exhaust, and SR Performance lowering springs. With one of the most reliable cars in the group, Cody often gets support/wingman driving duties when the guys plan a roadtrip with the older machines. He also puts up with A LOT of pedestrian danger jokes. He’s a good guy.
Casey apologized for bringing the Forester he picked up for $700 instead of his Grand National, but the Subie is a great example of how a little bravery and wrenching can get you a hecka cheap daily driver. Casey picked up the car cheap, minus its factory-equipped five speed. An eBay transmission purchase and swap later, he’s now got a solid daily for less than $1,300. He’s got a habit of whim-buying though. Casey lives down by San Francisco, and when he saw the Grand National for sale in Oregon, he bought a one-way ticket to Portland, and drove the car, previously sight-unseen, a full 16 hours home to Pacifica, hemorrhaging fuel the whole way. That car now sports a forged, balanced, full-roller 3.8L, wearing a Precision 6466 ball bearing turbo. We’ll believe it when we see it, Subie man.
2013 Nissan GT-R
Hiding in the back of the alley was Steven’s daily-driven 2013 Nissan GT-R black edition. “It’s fed a steady diet of fuel and tires, and after some investigation, does get sideways,” says Jake. He tells us that Steven also owns an absolutely spotless Delorean. We’ll have to see that next time.
With all these performance cars, you’re gonna laugh when you hear that the star of the visit was a 1989 Nissan 240SX. Why? Well, because the owner, Chris, was hilarious, but also because his story was so quintessentially Roadkill. Get this, Chris wanted a drift car, so he got the 240. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original ka24 (2.4L) let go in catastrophic fashion soon after. Says Jake, “See: ‘bent rod.’” Chris found an engine on Craigslist that sounded good so he set off to Washington—it was snowing– in his daily driver Honda hatchback. When he got there, the motor barely fit in the hatchback—definitely not surprising, and his ratchet straps broke so he had to drive home in a snowstorm, holding the engine out of his lap with one hand while steering with the other. That would be fine if the new engine had actually solved his problem, but it wasn’t any good either! Perhaps foolish, but not a quitter, Chris went to the machine shop, had the block cleaned up, bored 2mm over, turned the crank, bought fresh new pistons, bearings, and rings, and had the rods cleaned up, and got a valve job on the head, and then did the swap under a pop-up greenhouse tent in his gravel driveway while it was snowing. Spirit award, Chris. You get it.
The morning after our shop bbq—which quickly devolved into a puppy party when the neighbors came by with a itty bitty pitty, we met the gang for breakfast, and a quick tour of the vacant lots in the area. Since the Chevelle obviously had the pavement burnouts covered, we matched the AWD 6-cyl Challenger GT we were driving against Casey’s Subaru for a dustcloud off-road challenge. With our throats dry and dusty, we decided to find some more refreshing entertainment. Perhaps by a large body of water? Maybe where there was ice cream? Conveniently, the weekend we were there was the annual Grants Pass Memorial Day Boatnik race—the 59th running. The racers are little flat-bottom wood hydroplanes powered by two-stroke engines. They sound like old school dirt bikes, and watching the racers frantically pull-start them and crouch over the wheels like GP riders was thoroughly exhilarating. “It’s all kinda old technology,” Jake told us. “At this point, they’re all trading used parts back and forth to keep ‘em running.”
We left Jake to the racing, but asked him what he was would advise a kid who wants to start his or her own shop. “Just get out there and do it,” he answered. “Start now, with whatever you can. Me and my friends got our start just by picking up a cheap set of tools, saving up and getting a project car after keeping a patient eye on Craigslist for a while. Make an effort to surround yourself with people that know more than you, whether it’s a local hot rod shop, car meet, or online forum- it’s a great way to learn. Don’t waste the resource of the internet just looking at memes and cat videos.” Hey now, Jakey, you watch what you say about cat videos.
Scroll through the gallery for some more from our time in Grants Pass.
Got a neat shop we should visit? Tell us about it in the comments, or at firstname.lastname@example.org attn: shop visit.
Ok, so left to right, we have Denny, Steven, Charlie Washer/Dryer, Chris, Elana, Cody, Jake, and Casey.