Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by Mary Lendzion and Fastest Street Car Staff
Bob Zelenak likes living in the countryside in Pennsylvania. It’s private, peaceful and surrounded by fields and forests.
He drives seventeen miles, some of which are up a mountain, to his job as a fleet and warehouse manager at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. After his shift, he joins his father, Bud, for fulfilling work at their shop, Continental Competition, which is on the same property as both of their homes.
When the workweek is over, Zelenak climbs into his Mustang to compete in NMRA Edelbrock Renegade, and sometimes NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street, and he has seen a lot of success in the category. He has earned wins and a runner-up, and he has led qualifying and finished in the top ten in points.
Read on for more about Zelenak, who’s prepared to pump out more power with a 450 cubic-inch engine with a new shortblock built by Continental Competition.
WHEN DID YOU DEVELOP AN INTEREST IN CARS?
It was definitely when I was young, and would sit in my dad’s 1965 Mustang fastback. I would turn the steering wheel and pretend like I was driving it. Also, my dad used to race in NHRA Super Stock in the 1970s, and in Super Gas and Brackets in the 1980s, and I spent a lot of weekends at the track with him. We would go to Fairmont Dragway in West Virginia, and Keystone Raceway Park in Pennsylvania. We would also go to Ford events, where my dad would race his 1978 Mustang Cobra. My mom, Susan, raced it, too. We still have both of those cars.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAR?
My first car was a hand-me-down from my sister, Beth. It was a 1989 Thunderbird with a V6 engine and an automatic transmission. She drove it when she was in high school, and then I drove it when I was in high school. Then, I got my first job as a valet parking cars at a resort, and I drove the Thunderbird until I had saved up enough money to buy a Mustang on October 16 of 1999. I remember the exact date, and it’s actually the 1993 Mustang that I race now.
WHERE DID YOU FIND THE MUSTANG, AND WHAT CONDITION WAS IT IN?
I found it in Auto Trader, and I went to Pittsburgh to look at it, and when I decided to buy it, my dad went and picked it up for me because I was away at college at the time. It was black with a black interior, and it was nice and clean, with no rust on it. It had a 5.0L with a five-speed T5 transmission, and a set of aftermarket mufflers on it, but other than that, it was almost 100 percent stock. It didn’t have many miles on the odometer. I came home from college that night and saw it sitting in the garage, and I wanted to drive it so badly, but I couldn’t because I needed a registration and insurance, and it was a Friday, so I had to wait until the following week to get all of that done.
DID YOU KEEP IT MOSTLY STOCK FOR A WHILE, OR DID MODIFICATIONS BEGIN RIGHT AWAY?
I didn’t really make any modifications to it right away. I drove it around for about three years, in the rain and snow. I would put bags of sand in the trunk for traction. I wanted to keep it nice, so I eventually bought a 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R to drive on a daily basis so that I could take the Mustang out of the elements. I drove it when the weather was nice. When I did start to modify it, it was the typical bolt-on stuff, like headers, intake and throttle body. Then, it wasn’t long before we stuck a little nitrous on it, and changed the gears in the back and got a better clutch. The nitrous was fun. We hid it, and we did a little bit of street-racing in addition to taking it to Keystone Raceway Park. The car still looked pretty stock, and we ran low 13s with the nitrous and BFGoodrich drag radials. Back then, that was quick enough to beat some people.
WHEN DID YOU BEGIN TO PAY ATTENTION TO NMRA EDELBROCK RENEGADE?
I started noticing the class and going to races to watch it in the late 2000s. I loved the stock-appearing cars, and I wanted to join the class. It took a while to work up to it. There’s a lot to learn, and my dad and I started to put a plan together. We built a 347 cubic-inch engine and we got a C4 transmission, and we kept the fuel injection. We went with a cam that would help performance, and that made it less drivable on the street, but we still took it up the road a bit. It was a pretty typical transition for someone who bought a stock car and sees the project snowball.
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR EDELBROCK RENEGADE RACER WHO INSPIRED YOU TO GO AHEAD AND JOIN THE CATEGORY?
Actually, there was one guy, Joel Howard. He had a black 1986 Mustang GT that he had bought new off the showroom floor and it was so nice. We got to be good friends, and he was a big influence on my decision to run Edelbrock Renegade. He was a cool dude, Unfortunately, he passed away in 2019. The first time I took part in Edelbrock Renegade was in 2012, and it was the race in Columbus. My car was still a street-strip car, and it was running mid 9s at the time with an 8.2 deck 358 cubic-inch small-block Ford that my dad and I built. We topped it with Edelbrock Victor Jr. heads that we ported at our shop, and we had a small nitrous kit, maybe 250 horsepower worth. My car was still really heavy, still had power windows and I was still driving it on the street to school and work, but I wanted to see what competing in the class would be like.
WAS THE EXPERIENCE WHAT YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE, OR WERE THERE SOME SURPRISES?
I qualified in the mid 9s, and at the time, the cars were running in the mid 8s. I eventually went 8.60s with that little 358 cubic-inch engine. In the subsequent process of trying to go faster, and trying to learn everything we could learn, we went through a lot of damaged parts. We hurt a lot of pistons and we had to sleeve our block. I knew we had a lot of work to do to become more competitive, and by 2015, I had decided that it was time to update the chassis to the 25.5 spec that it is now.
WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN THAT PROJECT?
I cut the old 10-point mild steel cage out, and installed mini tubs and new torque boxes. My friend, Dan Johnson, came to my shop to fabricate a 25.5 chrome moly cage and did a lot of welding on the car. I also built a stronger 9-inch rear end and installed a Strange center section, Moser axles and Strange brakes, and Dan helped me build headers. The body was all original at the time, but we have added some stuff for weight loss, like Motor City Solutions fiberglass doors and front bumper, a Harwood carbon fiber hood and Optic Armor windows. The front fenders are still steel. We ran some local events to test and get the chassis figured out, and then with a 427 cubic-inch small-block Ford and nitrous, we ran two NMRA events in 2016. We went 7.70s in the quarter-mile, but we had an oil pump issue, hurt two cranks and had to put main caps on, so it was a tough year for the car, but we got it figured out and the car really started showing its potential. When we started running eighth-mile, we went 4.70s with that engine. We switched to the 450 cubic-inch small-block Ford this year.
YOU HAVE MENTIONED THAT YOU’RE DEDICATED TO SMALL-BLOCK FORDS WITH NITROUS. WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO THAT COMBINATION?
I have always been a small-block Ford fan, and I guess I’m just stubborn. It’s a cool engine with a huge following. I haven’t really gotten into the 4.6L engines or the Coyote engines. I have always said I want to stick with small-block Ford nitrous combinations. On top of that, I’m proud of what we have accomplished with my small-block Ford nitrous combinations, and want to do even more. My current combination, the 450 cubic-inch engine, has a World Products Man O’War block, High Port heads, BES intake, Book Racing carburetor and a nitrous plate system by Fast Lane Nitrous. I look at nitrous as a pretty cool science project, and you won’t see me race with anything else. It’s always fun to watch people come up and look at the engine and then get to see the sad look on their face when they realize it doesn’t have a turbo or supercharger.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS OFFERED AT THE SHOP YOU SHARE WITH YOUR FATHER, CONTINENTAL COMPETITION?
The main part of the business is machine work. We do machine blocks and balance engines and do clearance checks for people who are building their own engines. We also do custom rear end housings and differentials of all kinds.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY DOING WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING OR RACING?
I play golf once a week on one of the world-class golf courses where I work. I guess you could say I’m an average player. Other than that, I like to spend as much time as I can with my fiancee, Miranda, who I call Tilly, and our cat, Mini.
YOU HAVE AN IMPRESSIVE RACE PROGRAM. WHO HELPS YOU ALONG THE WAY?
I have help from our shop, Continental Competition, Cage Rage Fabrication, Fast Lane Nitrous Racing Systems, BES Racing Engines, Neal Chance Converters, World Products and Total Seal Piston Rings. I really want to thank my dad, who comes to every race with me. He is my biggest fan as well as my biggest hero. I would also like to thank my whole family, who watches me race on the live feed, my fiancee, Tilly, my friend, Troy Dennis, fellow racers in the pit area and people who stop by to check out the car. I’d also like to add thanks to the NMRA and NMCA staff for making the events a great place to race.
(Interview from the September 2021 issue of Fastest Street Car)