By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – One look inside the Southern Speed garage on McCullough Boulevard will be enough for anyone – car savvy or not – to see it is not a normal garage.
Of the 10 or so cars, most of them are Ford Mustangs from the early 1990s. The sides and windows are covered with stickers, hoods are popped open to reveal the powerful engines, and the fat tires are unmistakably those for a drag race car.
“All these cars reach about 180 to 190 miles per hour,” said Graham Hill, one of Southern Speed’s three full-time mechanics. “We don’t specialize in Mustangs, but that body type is very versatile. You can do a lot with it.”
Hill said the garage speaks to a very specific niche of customer – “outlaw” drag racers from across the South.
“’Outlaw’ means you race what you brought,” Hill said. “No regulations on parts, suspension, fuel or the size of the turbochargers.”
The challenge of modifying a car and the head-to-head competition captivate Hill.
“It’s fun to take what data we have and find the best way to make it do what we want,” he said. “It takes knowledge and creativity. You can’t plug in anyone to do this work.”
Unlike the other members of Southern Speed, Hill didn’t come from a racing background.
“A friend brought me to a racetrack in high school, and before I knew it I was taking my sister’s Mustang and racing myself,” he said. “My parents didn’t know until someone told my dad they saw his boy was getting to be a good driver down at the race track.”
Though Hill said he had to fight to race until he was 21, his parents are just happy to see him doing what he loves.
Kevin Mitchell is a mechanic, fabricator, and driver for Southern Speed, but said much more work is done in the garage than out on the track.
“A driver can’t make the car go faster, but he can sure slow it down,” he said. “I just make split-second decisions behind the wheel to keep it running as fast as it can.”
Mitchell comes from a line of racers, and it was his family that took Hill under its black-and-white checkered wing.
“My grandfather is in his 80s and is rebuilding a Chevrolet truck in his garage,” Mitchell said. “It’s in my blood.”
Mitchell and Hill said the Southeast is the birthplace of the sport, and it remains the most popular area. The closest track is the Holly Springs Raceway, and Hill said they race about once a month.
“You could do it every weekend if you had the money,” said Mike Goff, fabricator at Southern Speed. “It’s definitely a lifestyle.”
Hill said few people have the money to buy and keep up a car on their own, especially since such high performance demands a constant replacement of expensive and often custom parts.
“Most race crews are relatives, high school friends, or beer-drinking buddies,” Hill said. “It takes an understanding spouse and family.”
Camaraderie even grows between racing opponents. It is not uncommon to see different teams loaning each other tools and parts.
“It’s a form of creative expression, and we take lots of pride in the finished product,” Hill said. “When you see other people like that, you respect how hard it is to make what they do look so easy.”