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Battle Tested—Martin Connelley Wins Big with his Small-Tire Stallion in Multiple Classes

Posted By: Evan J. Smith
Battle Tested—Martin Connelley Wins Big with his Small-Tire Stallion in Multiple Classes
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by the FSC staff
When it comes to small-tire radial racing, there isn’t much Martin Connelley hasn’t already won. From impressive finishes at major events to multiple championship titles, he’s been a big name on the drag racing scene for more than two decades. Though he’s wheeled plenty of cars over the years, his silver 1990 Ford Mustang, though, recently helped him capture top honors in both NMRA Renegade and NMCA Xtreme Street for the 2023 seasons.
Connelley is a proud, self-made, small-town man from a tiny town in the hills of rural Appalachia. Thanks to his father, Martin “Marty” Connelley, he began racing go-karts on dirt circle tracks when he was about ten years old and continued until he was an adult.
“Then, I got into street cars around 2000. Everyone was into Mustangs back then and we street raced a big, but got into heads-up racing and running series,” said the now 42-year-old from Salyersville, Kentucky. “I met my wife, Michelle, about two weeks before my first heads-up race at the end of 2001.”
The couple married in 2005 and continued racing, just the two of them in a $1,500 pickup truck with an open trailer, as often as they could. Connelley did well, earned a few championship titles, and his drag racing efforts continued to snowball. “We would go and watch the NMRA and NMCA a lot when we were younger,” he remembered, “and I always wanted to race there.”
In 2009, Connelley grabbed his wife and his friend, Eric Mitchell, and the trio departed during a snowstorm to drive from Eastern Kentucky to Omaha, Nebraska, to buy a roller with no cage in it. The car, a 5.0-liter, five-speed Mustang ended up being the silver Fox that became Connelley’s iconic ride.
“We figured we’d race it a little and then sell it. We put a 10-point cage in it, nothing fancy, and I built an engine for it to run 5.50s,” Connelley clarified of the work he did in the garage built into the side of the old horse barn on his family’s farm. 
Mitchell ran the Mustang from 2009 through 2010 when the 8.5-inch slick tire scene was hot. The men traveled a bit, including to Donald “Duck” Long’s historic first event, and made many semifinal and final round appearances; in between, Mike Adams updated the cage to 25.5 SFI standards.
Connelley took over the driving honors in 2012 after he got a big block engine for the little Ford and entered into the fiercely competitive X275 field, and Mitchell moved to tuning duties. “We ran our first radial race that year. I met [X275 founder] John Sears, Jason Rueckert was prepping… it was the good ol’ days of radial,” reminisced the racer. “We ran X275 and Outlaw 275 and had a fuel line come loose in the semis of X275 but won Outlaw 275. That weekend really helped us to start getting recognition.”
With nitrous as his power adder of the moment, Connelley continued to run X275 in 2013. Unfortunately, when a parts failure caused major engine damage in 2014 and finances were tight, Connelley had to pause his pursuits. “That was when we decided to put a BES-built small block turbo combination in the car,” said Connelley. 
In 2016, Connelley sold his engine to his friend, Jason Martin, and competed in his first NMCA event in the Xtreme Street category behind the wheel of Martin’s Mustang. Eventually, Martin sold his Mustang and Connelley took a sabbatical, but returned in 2017 with his revived Fox.
“It had sat parked for three years, but I ran a few X275 races in 2017 with the small block turbo,” he continued. “That was the first time I ran in the 6.90s.” Going a 6.970 at nearly 200 mph was a big deal for the man, but he didn’t continue with the combination afterward; instead, the silver car sat again.
In 2019, Connelley reappeared in NMRA Modified Street alongside Ed McCarty’s ProCharged 1989 Mustang LX. At the race in Georgia, Connelley clinched runner-up status — not bad for his first time in the class.
At the next NMRA race in St. Louis, Connelley captured a plethora of bragging rights. From qualifying number one in Modified Street to setting both ends of the class record with his huge 7.729 at 177.95 mph pass and wrapping up with his first NMRA Victor award, he ran the gauntlet with BES Racing Engines power on board.
Connelley brought home two more runner-up finishes that season and finished third overall in the season championship points even with having missed the first event of the year in Florida. “It was a last-minute decision for us to run at all, but the orange car fit the rules perfectly and we’re glad we did it,” he explained of the conversation that took place while he was making the delivery rounds during his daily shift as a UPS driver.
Impressively, Connelley also won at the DXP No Mercy 10 event at South Georgia Motorsports Park and consequently locked up the DXP 235 season championship in the process. Next, he went on to win Wild Street at the World Cup Finals: Import vs. Domestic race at Maryland International Raceway.
When Modified Street was jettisoned for 2020, though, Connelley knew he needed something new. He partnered with Jason “Cheeseburger” Waterman to put Waterman’s small-block engine into his stagnant silver Mustang (and to tune it) and had an absolutely stellar season as a result.
Although Connelley only went to three events during the pandemic year, he won every one — and even doubled up on two occasions. At DXP Lights Out 11, Connelley won DXP Street with his silver Mustang and Limited 235 with McCarty’s Mustang; at the NMRA/NMCA All-American Nationals in Michigan, he won the combined NMRA Renegade/NMCA Xtreme Street category; and, at DXY No Mercy 11, Connelley pulled off the impossible by winning both DXP Street and Limited 235 yet again.
“That was a fantastic year,” he said humbly. Rightfully earned, Connelley and his silver car even appeared on the cover of Drag Illustrated magazine in April of 2021. “But, when DXP Street went away, we put the supercharged small-block from Eddie’s car into my silver one and mini-tubbed it for 2021.”
Connelley committed to the NMRA and NMCA for the year and did OK, but broke the engine block during the Ohio Valley Prize Fight race in June. “Blocks were really hard to come by at that point, and we didn’t want to put another Dart block in to risk breaking that, too, so we started looking for an aluminum block but didn’t find what we needed,” Connelley said.
For his 2022 season, Connelley partnered with Terry Wilson on his program and Wilson loaned the small tire standout his BES-built big-block engine. Some unexpected health hiccups kept him from racing as much as he would have liked, but once again operating his silver Mustang in a nitrous-infused configuration, Connelley still managed to kick some butt. “We went to Duck’s race and the World Cup Finals because we liked how we fit into the rules, and we won Wild Street at WCF,” he stated.
The late-season success motivated Connelley to come back big in 2023, and that’s exactly what he did. With the same setup as he had in 2022, Connelley kicked things off at the NMRA season opener in Florida. Although a VP Racing Madditives Renegade semifinals finish wasn’t what he had intended, he redeemed himself at the NMCA season opener two weeks later with a win in Edelbrock Xtreme Street. Along the way, Connelley also reset both ends of the class record with a 4.497-second elapsed time and 156.23 mph trap speed.
“NMRA was rough because we didn’t have the right parts in the car and we had the wrong gearing, but we got it sorted in time for NMCA and continued on,” he shared. At the next outing, the combined NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals in North Carolina, Connelley added a coveted Nitto Diamond Tree ring to his collection of achievements thanks to a win during Saturday’s specialty Testo Shootouts. Later, in eliminations, stayed in the game through to the finals but had to pedal it mid-track and took home the runner-up reward instead. “In St. Louis [at the NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Muscle Car Drag Racing], we spun the tires in round two and went out.”
It was a shaky first half of the year, but Connelley kept his focus strictly on succeeding and went on a massive winning streak for the second half. In June at the NMRA Ford Homecoming at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, Connelley clinched both the number one qualifying honors as well as the overall win for the weekend, and both feats were accomplished with 4.61-second passes.
Next, Connelley headed to Martin, Michigan, in mid-July for the NMRA/NMCA Power Festival at US 131 Motorsports Park. Once again, he faced a combined NMRA VP Racing Madditives Renegade/NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street field but the larger number of opponents proved to be no match for the man. Unsurprisingly, Connelley eared a spot in the final round and turned the win lights on in his lane with a stout 4.54-second hit.
“I won both Ohio and Michigan on hole shots, so it was pretty awesome that the driver did his job,” laughed Connelley; he had been cutting quick 0.0X second lights all weekend long, but did his best bracket racer impersonation in the finals with an impressive 0.003 second reaction time.
By then, Connelley had a solid advantage in points in both series and extended his lead even further at the NMCA All-American Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in late August. There, he took another trip to the winner’s circle — his third in a row — after having qualified in the first spot as well.
One month later, he wrapped up his Red Line Synthetic Oil NMCA Drag Racing Series season, and clinched the championship title, with a runner-up finish at the NMCA World Street Finals at famed Indianapolis Raceway Park.
As if his achievement wasn’t already remarkable enough, Connelley headed to Bowling Green, Kentucky, the very next weekend for the NMRA World Finals Featuring the Holley Intergalactic Ford Festival at Beech Bend Raceway Park. His goal was to also win the Holley NMRA Ford Nationals Series season title, but he would need to win the race to do so…
Incredibly, Connelley did exactly that when he prevailed in the final round of racing and clinched his second title for the same year by a slim 35-point margin. “This was one of those years… it’s hard to come off of it and leave it behind because of how uncommon it is,” he confessed. “Every year is tough, but some have better rewards, and 2023 was definitely rewarding.”
In its dual championship-winning configuration, Connelley’s silver superstar still utilizes the Mike Adams-fabricated 25.5 SFI chassis. “At the World Cup Finals this year, we ran a new personal best of 6.86 in the quarter and runner-upped,” added Connelley. “We’ve worked with Tin Soldiers Race Cars on a lot of things, too, and they’ve helped a ton over the years.”
The 1990 Mustang had most recently been run with Wilson’s 584-cubic-inch big-block engine, built by Tony Bischoff at BES Racing Engines with Trick Flow PowerPort A460 cylinder heads, and fed a hefty dose of both Robert Lane’s Fast Lane nitrous oxide as well as VP Racing’s Q16 fuel. A three-speed Turbo 400 from RPM Transmissions and ProTorque U9 bolt-together converter round out the uncomplicated yet effective combination.
Built almost entirely by Connelley at his home-based Connelley Racing, the Mustang features trick side-exit exhaust headers from Connelley’s own hands. He also tackled all of the plumbing and wiring, while with Mitchell on the setup.
Back in 2017, Connelley and crew got on board with Eric Gash and Haltech and installed a modern Haltech Elite 2500 EFI system on the Mustang. “Eric and Dalton Winfield were a big part of our success,” explained Connelley. Winfield took on a role of operations manager and oversaw the details required to run a championship-caliber race team, from coordinating logistics to planning parts procurement and managing public relations. “Dalton and my wife do more than anyone can imagine.”
Ironically, even though “Eric Gash hates carburetors,” Connelley had to convert back to a carb setup temporarily when he ran DXP Street. “But, then we put the Haltech Nexus R5 EFI on in 2021,” he confirmed. “We aren’t scared to change combinations depending on where the advantages are in the rules, and I keep everything  from motor plates to K-members so we can switch it up easily.”
Menscer Motorsports shocks and struts coupled with components from TRZ Motorsports round out the stock-style suspension, and the rear utilizes “an old, factory 9-inch truck housing… not the latest and greatest fancy stuff, but it has been upgraded by TRZ with new brackets.” Moser axles terminate to TBM brakes, and the rear Mickey Thompson wheels were enhanced for both performance and safety with a set of Mac Fab-bead locks.
Inside, the cockpit was intentionally left spartan yet functional so Connelley can focus on the task at hand — winning. A Motor City Solutions fiberglass dash, aluminum Kirkey racing seat, and carpet installed by Dalton Winfield’s father, Ron Winfield, were really the only upgrades made.
Outside, Connelley kept the original appearance of the Mustang as close to stock as possible. Most of the paint is still its original 1990 Ford shade of silver, but Tim Hunley sprayed any upgraded components (such as the Schoneck Composites nose, and Motor City Solutions fiberglass hood and doors) to match at Rick Salyer Body Shop
Connelley Racing isn’t a secretive source of racecar shenanigans; rather, the shop is open to the public and Connelley accepts custom builds and other commissions for racers who would like to capitalize on his experience and success alike.
Tuned on the hub dyno by Eric Gash of Barely Able Racing, Connelley’s favorite part about the Mustang is simply the way it feels to sit in it right before he’s given the go-ahead by race officials to fire it up.
Ready to have that feeling again, Connelley will again be running in NMRA VP Racing Madditives Renegade and NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street in 2024 in hopes of defending both of his championship titles, but he’s going to do it with a Trick Flow-headed and BES-built 8.2-inch deck small block Ford running on VP Racing’s M1 methanol and a single 76mm Harts turbocharger in his silver Mustang this time. 
“Our biggest advantage is that we have a pretty awesome team,” he affirmed. “With Eric Mitchell tuning the car and Eric Gash tuning on the hub dyno, and Dalton Winfield, Cory Brooks, Brent Daniel, Krusty Ramsey, and Jason Waterman, we’ve got so much knowledge between all these guys. A lot of the races we’ve won, we may not have out-run the other guy, but we flat-out out-raced ‘em with a solid plan and good decisions, and that credit goes to my team.”
With so much undeniable success already earned by the small tire racer, Connelley takes pride in still being a grassroots racer and in being a true hometown hero who inspires his neighbors. “I like showing them that there’s more out there, and even if they never leave our small town in Appalachia, I can help them feel like they’re reaching the world,” he concluded.
The Details
Owner: Martin Connelley
Driver: Martin Connelley
Hometown: Salyersville, Kentucky
Occupation: UPS Driver
Class: NMRA VP Racing Madditives Renegade, NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street, and Ultra Street
Crew: Eric Mitchell, Dalton Winfield, Ron Winfield, Cory Brooks
Family: wife Michelle, son John Martin, daughter Izzy Grace
Car Year/Make/Model: 1990 Ford Mustang
Engine: 8.2-inch-deck small-block Ford
Engine builder: BES Racing Engines
Displacement: 347 cubic inches
Block: Shelby Aluminum
Crank: Callies Magnum
Rods: GRP Aluminum
Pistons: Ross
Heads: Trick Flow High Port 
Valvetrain: T&D Machine
Cam type: Solid-roller
Carburetor or EFI system: Haltech Nexus R5
Power-adder: Harts 76MM Turbo
Fuel brand and type: VP Racing Fuels M1
Headers and exhaust: Vibrant and stainless headers
Transmission: TH400
Transmission Builder: Rodney Massengale / RPM Transmissions
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: ProTorque Bolt Together Converter
Rearend: Ford 9-inch
Body and/or chassis builder: Mike Adams Racecars
Suspension (Front): Mike Adams Racecars w/ Menscer Motorsports Struts
Suspension (Rear): TRZ Motorsports w/ Menscer Motorsports Shocks
Brakes (Front): TBM
Brakes (Rear): TBM
Wheels (front): Weld Racing
Wheels (Rear): Mickey Thompson w/ Mac Fab beadlocks
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson ET Front
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson ET Street R 
Aftermarket body modifications: Schoneck Nose, Motor City Doors, Mike Adams Racecars Wing
Safety equipment:
Vehicle weight: 3,100 pounds
Quickest ET: 4.49 (Xtreme Street Trim)  6.87 ¼ Mile Street Fighter Trim
Best 60-foot: 1.05 seconds
Fastest mph: 157 (Xtreme Street trim) 199 (quarter-mile, Street Fighter trim)
Sponsors: Barely Able Racing (EFI Support, Hub Dyno Tuning, Track Support)
Haltech, BES Racing Engines, Trick Flow Specialties, Pro Torque Converters, Harts Turbo, Aeromotive, TBM Brakes, Tin Soldier Racecars, RPM Transmissions, Menscer Motorsports, T&D Machine, Hyperaktive Performance Solutions, Neal Chance Racing Converters, TRZ Motorsports, Red Horse Performance, Mickey Thompson Tires, Paint by Krusty, VP Racing Fuels, and UPR Products.

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