Keeping up with the Joneses in a class like the NMCA’s Dart NA 10.5 class takes grit, determination, and in many cases, cubic dollars to fill the 400-plus cubic-inch naturally aspirated engines in the front-running cars. New Jersey’s Rick Riccardi has no grit and determination shortage, but the longtime racer doesn’t have the same pocketbook depth as some of the other racers in the class.

An on-track incident at Atlanta Dragway in 2015 turned his 1980 Mercury Capri onto its lid and pushed him into a chassis rebuild. With the assistance of Matt Wirt Racefab Engineering and many other supporters, Riccardi completed the rebuild and got back into action in 2016 but pulled back not long after, vowing to put together a brand-new engine combination that would be up-to-date with others in the class.

Riccardi is one of those hands-on competitors with a burning desire to understand the function of every component attached to his machine. To satisfy his urges, he’s worked hand-in-hand with longtime engine builder and induction specialist Dave Jack of Dave Jack Cylinder Heads to develop a state-of-the-art small-block Ford that he expects to run at the front of the NA 10.5 pack.

Most days, after he finishes up with the responsibilities of his day job as a line mechanic at Downs Ford in Toms River, NJ, Riccardi hops in the car and heads 55 miles up the Garden State Parkway to the DJCH shop in Rahway, New Jersey. There, he helps out with whatever needs to be done in the shop and working on his engine when time permits. The process has been slow-going, but the experience has been well worth it.

“Dave and I are partners on this engine; I work in the shop to help out with whatever they need in exchange for gaining knowledge I couldn’t buy anywhere else. I’m getting a hell of an education. I’m not going to pass up learning the tricks of the trade,” says Riccardi.

Three years ago, when Jack suggested building a new engine, Riccardi expected to only be out for a single year. The best-laid plans often change, though, especially in the time of COVID-19, and at this point, Riccardi is thrilled that the engine is together and ready for an assault on the NMCA’s 2021 Bradenton season opener this weekend.

With a high-compression, high-powered, inline-valve naturally aspirated engine such as this, it is critical to use the dyno as a tuning tool to develop carburetor tune-ups and gain insight into the engine’s powerband to spec torque converter parameters. Riccardi has high confidence in the equipment used at DJCH to test his engine.

“We don’t chase dyno numbers, but every dyno is completely different. Over the last 21 years, [the numbers on] Bob and Dave’s dyno relates to what my car does on the track,” said Riccardi.

Riccardi has picked up substantial power compared to the old engine, which was on pace with the other competitors in the class, running 7.9-second elapsed times. He believes that with the new Dale Cubic carburetor that’s on the way after the team’s dyno sessions, he should be running right at the pack’s current performance level based on the team’s calculations.

“Knowing how much power we made, and the fact that I have 50 pounds less to carry for the cylinder head break, that should put me right where we need to be. We get to weigh 2,615 pounds, and before we were at 2,670 pounds,” he said.

He credits several additional partners who assisted with his efforts to get back to the track, including Bob Oster of B&B Performance Machine, Jamie Wagner from Holley/Racepak, Smitty Smith and Rick Roberts at Edelbrock, Dale Cubic of CFM Performance Carburetors, the guys at MGP Rods, Bob MacDonald at Jesel, and NHRA Pro Stock racer Shane Tucker’s dad, Rob, who is an old friend of Dave Jack’s and helped with several design aspects of the induction system.

One of the key people in his program is Matt Wirt of Matt Wirt Racefab Engineering, who completely revamped the chassis to get Riccardi to the front of the pack. His wife, Jenni, has been a driving force behind this effort, pushing him on the days when the two-hour drive to the engine shop was a grind and providing every opportunity for him to focus on the task at hand.

Power-to-weight ratio is everything in this class, and although Rick Riccardi’s wallet may not have the same power as some of his competition, the brainpower team behind his effort is on par with the best in the business.