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Carrying The Torch—Cameron Bowles continues family’s Coal Digger legacy in NMRA/NMCA Open Comp

Posted By: Evan J. Smith
Carrying The Torch—Cameron Bowles continues family’s Coal Digger legacy in NMRA/NMCA Open Comp
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Evan J. Smith and the FSC Staff
Born into a family with an impressive racing heritage, Cameron Bowles continuines his lineage’s legacy. Racing in both NMRA and NMCA Open Comp, the 25-year-old already accumulated an impressive list of accolades and is still hungry for more.
Bowles, who is mature well beyond his quarter-of-a-century age thanks to having grown up around adults, can thank his father, Donnie Bowles, and his late grandfather, Don Bowles Sr., for instilling a love of drag racing in him right from day one.
“I always wanted to go fast. When I was in the car with my parents or my granddad, I’d always tell them to floor it,” laughed the young man who, surprisingly, didn’t grow up competing in the Jr. Dragster ranks like so many others. “I’ve been driving since I could sit in someone’s lap, then I was doing burnouts and donuts at our house. It was fun!”
Instead, Bowles stayed busy by helping crew on his family’s many race vehicles and even worked for Elaine Larsen’s famed jet dragster team for several years. “I was about 10 or 11 and stayed until I was 14, doing everything from running through checklists to fueling to searching the car over by climbing all over the engine to check for cracks,” noted Bowles. Ironically, he often found himself training older members of the crew who always underestimated his knowledge and skill at first but were always quickly proven wrong
Bowles’s attitude of always being willing to help anyone coupled with his natural ability to understand the mechanics of racing helped Bowles earn the respect of his peers and his elders. Those qualities also captured the attention of the NMRA staff, as Bowles was recognized as a recipient of the series’ Signature Award in 2011.
When he turned 16, Bowles officially began his driving career and joined the Kentucky-based Bowles family racing group which his late grandfather founded more than half a century ago. In the 1970s, the patriarch and pioneer, Don Bowles Sr., partnered with Jack Roush of NASCAR fame to form a joint effort team that is still in existence today thanks to Roush’s daughter and multi-time NMRA/NMCA champion, Susan McClenaghan. 
After racing sporadically and driving whatever was available, including a 1979 Ford Mustang, Bowles told his father and grandfather that if they didn’t have a car for him, he would just commandeer one of theirs and set it up to run in bracket categories and NMRA/NMCA Open Comp. 
At the time, the closest to being completed was his grandfather’s “Little Coal Digger #7” Ford Maverick which had previously been campaigned in Pro Stock. Bowles dusted it off, installed a 358-cubic-inch Windsor engine and Turbo 400 transmission between the factory frame rails, and was off and running on a 10.5-inch tire in 2015. “It used to run low eights, but I have it dialed back to high eights and low nines now to use in Open Comp and brackets,” he added.
After obtaining his NHRA license, Bowles focused mostly on the NMRA and NMCA bracket categories so that he could accumulate as much seat time as possible while he learned the ropes of class racing in a national series but dipped his toe into the Open Comp field as well.
Bowles showed a tremendous aptitude for driving in the challenging categories, as after completing his first full season of competition in 2016, he impressively finished his 2017 season tenth overall in NMCA Open Comp championship points. In 2018, Bowles moved up to fifth in points, but the following season was perhaps his most memorable yet.
“We hurt a motor at the NMCA season opener in Florida but made it through. I got my first-ever event win, and it was really special because my granddad was there for it,” recalled the man who went on to score a runner-up finish at the next outing in Georgia and a second win later in the year in Tennessee. Bowles’ efforts earned him not only the 2019 NMCA Open Comp championship title but also the honor of being named Driver of the Year.
Bowles continued to be a contender in his category of choice, finishing third in NMCA Open Comp for 2020, ninth in both NMRA Open Comp and NMCA NA 10.5 in 2021, and ninth in NMRA Open Comp in 2022.
In 2023, Bowles was surprisingly absent from the NMRA Spring Break Shootout Presented by Nitto Tire and the Scoggin Dickey Parts Center NMCA Muscle Car Mayhem Presented by Holbrook Racing Engines season openers at Florida’s Orlando Speed World in March of 2023, as well as the NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals Presented by MAHLE Motorsport at North Carolina’s Rockingham Dragway in April. 
“I was waiting on a motor for my Maverick, was covered up at work with the landscaping business I’m partnered in, and my dad was busy taking care of my grandmother and granddad,” he explained of the missed events. “But, after my granddad passed away, I was itching to go racing again and I knew he would want me to, so I went.”
So, yet again, Bowles borrowed a car — this time, it was his father’s white “Coal Digger #5” Roush Stage 1 2005 Ford Mustang. “My granddad worked in the mines and when he’d leave to go racing, people would holler at him on the CB radio while he was driving, ‘good luck, coal digger!’ which is where all the ‘Coal Digger’ names came from,” shared the young man, proud to be racing under his grandfather’s iconic nomenclature.
Number five, as it’s casually referred to, began its life as a showroom-floor, production Mustang but was immediately sent to the track and entered into the 2005 NMRA Spring Break Shootout in Bradenton, Florida. Over the years, it transitioned from having simple bolt-on modifications into a race-ready, purpose-built machine. 
“The car soon sported a Roush Stage 3 supercharger kit while retaining the stock chassis setup with the exception of a Moser 9-inch bolt-in rear axle assembly,” Bowles detailed. In 2006, when Don Bowles Sr.’s yellow 2006 “Monster Mustang” was ready, the white 2005 was prepped for Donnie Bowles instead. In late 2007/early 2008, it was delivered to Steve Matukas to receive a racing-style front suspension, ladder bar suspension in the rear, and mini tubs. “The drivetrain at that time included a Roush-built 4.6-liter Three-Valve engine with a TVS supercharger, McLeod clutch, and G-Force GF-5R five-speed transmission.”
Matukas fabricated the headers and exhaust, A-arms, K-member, and steering components from scratch, then installed the Strange Engineering front struts. In the rear, AFCO double-adjustable shocks were bolted into place to supplement Matukas’s custom ladder bars and wishbone setup.
Now, the Roush Mustang features an upgraded powerplant from Bowles’s partners at Roush Competition Engines that was converted over to run on propane fuel in 2010. Based on a 5.4-liter 2013 Ford GT500 engine block with a Darton Big-Bore steel sleeve kit, the 3.700-inch bore bottom end was made whole thanks to a Sonny Bryant crankshaft and Carrillo connect rods slinging Gibtech pistons. 
Fitted with a set of Ford GT500 cylinder heads that had received Roush’s porting and machining handiwork, as well as a valvetrain enhanced with T&D rockers, PAC springs, Jesel posts, and dual overhead custom-ground Comp camshafts, the engine’s total displacement finally topped out at 374 cubic inches.
Since Bowles took the reins of the Mustang, the drivetrain had also been updated to utilize a TCI Pro-X Powerglide transmission with a Coan bolt-together torque converter, and a Moser 5.13 gear Pro Street rearend.
In St. Louis, Missouri, for the 2023 NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Muscle Car Drag Racing on May 4-7 at World Wide Technology Raceway, Bowles entered the Mustang into NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp and qualified ninth out of 20 with a 0.021 second reaction time. He earned two round wins in eliminations before going out in round three, but the loss wasn’t one he dwelled on for long.
Given that the weekend was a combined race featuring both the NMRA and NMCA, Bowles had also entered the Mustang into NMRA ARP Open Comp. In the all-Ford field, he had a 0.048 second light during qualifying and ranked 22nd of the 29 cars competing.
“I had never driven the car before, but that race was right after Granddad passed away and I told everyone I was going to win it for him,” affirmed Bowles, who did exactly that. Racing on a 9.84-second dial-in, he easily worked his way through the field, picking off one opponent after the next, until he found himself in the finals against Jon M. Pickering. With a quicker reaction time, Bowles led the way and expertly judged the finish line as his 9.902 at 128.57 mph pass turned on the final win light of the weekend in honor of Don Bowles Sr.
With his grandfather watching over him from above, Bowles continued on to the NMRA Ford Homecoming race at Summit Motorsports Park in June in Norwalk, Ohio. It was an eventful weekend that didn’t yield similar results, despite the team working around the clock to thrash on the Mustang.
“It kept losing high gear and we ended up having three different transmissions in the car that weekend,” shared Bowles, grateful for the help and support he received from his friends, crew, and teammates. Qualified sixth in NMRA ARP Open Comp with a quick 0.007 section reaction time, Bowles, unfortunately, wasn’t able to make it past the first round of competition. “We worked ourselves to death, but ended up not faring too well in eliminations.”
Back at a double-header race at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan, in late July, Bowles yet again ran both Open Comp classes at the NMRA/NMCA Power Festival. He qualified eighth and 10th, respectively, and was able to go a found rounds in each category but a trip to the winner’s circle wasn’t in the cards for the weekend. “Overall, it was pretty good,” he said with his usual positivity. “Even a bad day at the track is better than a good day at home.”
One month later, Bowles returned to Summit Motorsports Park to attend the NMCA All-American Nationals. Running on Mickey Thompson-wrapped Race Star forged wheels and with Simpson equipment keeping him safe, he qualified the Mustang twelfth overall thanks to a 0.013 second reaction time in NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp.
Having dialed in at 9.96 seconds, Bowles’s 10.152 at 110.21 mph pass in round one could’ve gone either way but luck was in his favor as he advanced to round two. There, Bowles had his propane-powered pony car’s tune-up on point and went 9.970 at 128.87 mph. Bowles was a touch too quick in round three, having run 9.947 at 130.49 mph, but the transgression held no penalty as his competitor had turned on the red light at the start and gifted Bowles the right to move on yet again. Round four, though, resulted in Bowles heading back to the pit to box up his Mustang.
At the NMCA World Street Finals at historic Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park during the weekend of September 21-24 in Indiana, Bowles battled his way through the largest NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp season of the year. With 63 car and driver combinations on the qualifying sheet, Bowles’s 0.006 second light placed him eighth going into eliminations.
Another quick reaction at the starting line, this time 0.007 seconds, coupled with a pass of 9.918 seconds at 138.41 mph on his 9.92 dial in, enabled Bowles to earn yet another round win. “In round two, I had a late light and gave up the win at the stripe,” he stated of how his NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp season concluded. “Since I was done too early, I bought into the Brackets, but didn’t fare well there either… I went up against a real good competitor. He had me on the tree and never even looked over at me as he drove through the finish. I was impressed.”
Finally, Bowles headed to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to finish out his second series’ season with the NMRA World Finals featuring the Holley Intergalactic Ford Festival at Beech Bend Raceway Park on September 29-October 1. 
Bowles showed his skill on the tree during NMRA ARP Open Comp qualifying and left the line just 0.009 seconds after the green light lit, placing him ninth in the 39-car group. “My car was running really well,” recalled the driver. 
Four round wins later, and Bowles was on to the semi-finals. With a targeted elapsed time of 9.89 seconds, his 9.909 at 134.74 mph effort was solid but simply not enough to get the job done as AJ Williams in the opposing lane had gone 14.023 at 94.54 mph on his 14.02 dial-in. 
“I had my car dialed in pretty good, but not good enough to be able to run it out and know exactly what it would run. It was tough running against AJ since I couldn’t judge a 14-second car hardly,” recalled Bowles. He took a guess at what he thought he needed to do, but the weather had changed and his car slowed as a result. “He had me on the tree, too, and it didn’t give me much to work with.”
Having concluded both the NMRA and NMCA seasons, Bowles was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had finished seventh overall in the NMRA ARP Open Comp standings and eighth in NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp, despite missing the first two events of the year for both series. “For a car I’d never driven before and not running a full season in either, I was thrilled to have gone as far as I did and I consider it a very successful year,” he asserted.
Although he was happy with the results, Bowles was even happier for his teammate, Susan Roush-McClenaghan, who had captured both the NMRA Exedy Clutch Modular Muscle and NMCA MagnaFuel Open Comp championship titles in an incredibly rare double-up feat.
Running two full schedules and sometimes even two classes on the same weekend can definitely be stressful, but Bowles is blessed with a top-tier team standing behind him and a family that wants to see him succeed. “It can be a lot to manage sometimes, but I really don’t do much other than work, race, and go hunting,” he laughed. “I’m grateful for Grandy, mom, dad, Missa, Carrington, Noah, Steve and Cathy, Cal and Holly, Josie, Susan, my team, all of my family and friends, and even my employer, who make it possible for me to go racing.”
Bowles enjoys staying busy, however, and is planning to keep up the hectic pace. For 2024, he intends to run his Maverick — as he finally got his engine back during the summer of his 2023 season — in NMRA ARP Open Comp and will continue with his father’s Mustang in NMCA NA 10.5.
The Details
Owner: Donnie Bowles      
Driver: Cameron Bowles
Hometown: Madisonville, Kentucky
Occupation: Landscaper/equipment operator
Class: NMRA/NMCA Open Comp
Car Year/Make/Model: 2005 Roush Mustang (original Roush VIN car)
Engine: Ford “5.4” 4V
Engine builder: Roush Competition Engines
Displacement: 374 cubic inches
Block: 2013 Ford GT500 w/ Darton Big-Bore Steel Sleeve Kit, 
Bore: 3.700 inches
Stroke: 4.35 inches
Crank: Sonny Bryant
Rods: Carrillo
Pistons: Gibtech
Heads: Ford GT500, custom Roush porting and machining
Valvetrain: T&D rockers, PAC springs, Jesel posts
Cam type: Double Overhead, Comp Cams custom grind
Carburetor or EFI system: Kinsler 8 stack/F.A.S.T. XFI
Power-adder: N/A
Fuel brand and type: Propane
Headers and exhaust: Steve Matukas custom
Transmission: TCI Pro-X Power Glide
Transmission Builder: Coan
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Coan Bolt-Together
Rearend: Moser 5.13 Pro Street
Body and/or chassis builder: Roll cage by Roush, all other by Steve Matukas
Suspension (Front): Strange Struts; A-arms, K-member and steering by Matukas
Suspension (Rear): AFCO double-adjustable shocks, custom ladder bars and wishbone by Matukas
Brakes (Front): Strange Steel
Brakes (Rear): Strange Steel
Wheels (front): Race Star Forged
Wheels (Rear): Race Star Forged
Tires (Front): 27.5x4-15 Mickey Thompson
Tires (Rear): 29.5x10.5W-15 Mickey Thompson
Aftermarket body modifications: VFN 3-inch cowl hood
Safety equipment: Simpson
Vehicle weight: 3,400 pounds w/o driver
Quickest ET: 9.54 seconds
Best 60-foot: 1.27 seconds
Fastest mph: 142
Sponsors: Aeromotive, Mickey Thompson, Simpson, Race Star Industries, Moroso, Brisk spark plugs, Meziere

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