Pat Donovan - The Mad Scientist of Sportsman Racing

By Jim Luikens


So you think all Top Sportsman cars are alike. You say if you’ve seen one red General Motors F-body race car, you’ve seen them all. Well, how about a Top Sportsman Firebird that doesn’t use or need nitrous to be competitive? Or one that uses the revolutionary Torque-Link (of the owner’s design) to mate a torque converter with a Lenco manual transmission? Or is powered by a 4-valve, dual overhead cam (DOHC) engine? This is the story of Pat Donovan who has been dubbed the mad scientist of sportsman drag racing by television commentator Brett Kepner.

Pat Donovan of Culpeper, Virginia has also been called drag racing’s great innovator. It is a title Pat that has rightly earned after more than 30 years of competition. However, he didn’t begin his racing career with the objective of earning that title. Entering racing he had just two goals, to go fast and to go fast in a Pontiac. Pat was not deterred when he found that many of the components he needed to go fast were not offered for Pontiac engines. He simply used his talent and ability to manufacture them himself.

Pat originally became interested in championship drag racing while still in high school. Recognizing the dangers of street racing, he competed at the strip with his street car, a 1965 Pontiac GTO. Before long, he was preparing competition engines for himself as well as others. The evolution of Pat the innovator was beginning to unfold.

In 1978 he constructed his first purpose-built race car, a Pontiac Sunbird. Since no one offered an all fiberglass Sunbird body he was forced to construct his own. Pat began by purchasing all of the outer sheet metal factory parts from a variety of Washington D.C. area Pontiac dealers. After using the factory components to create his own fiberglass molds he no longer needed the OEM parts. While I can’t say what happened to those parts, a clue can be found earlier in this paragraph. Suffice it to say that those parts are not cluttering the rafters of Donovan’s garage.

Originally, Pat just competed at races in the mid-Atlantic region and he achieved a fair amount of success. In 1989 the International Hot Rod Association created the ultimate class for a racer like Pat and named it Top Sportsman. The idea behind Top Sportsman was to maximize car creativity as much as possible by having as few rules as possible. Besides the prerequisite safety requirements and an equivalency formula to level the playing field for various types of engines, a racer was permitted to construct an unlimited vehicle.

Responding to that new opportunity Pat had Chick DeNinno of Fabrication Incorporated build him a 1989 Firebird. Pat and the new class were a perfect fit. Unlike some innovators that have great ideas but minimal results, Pat achieved much success with that blue Firebird. In fact, in the first six years of the class’ existence, Pat finished in the season-long IHRA top-ten points standings five times while winning many events.

In 1994 Pat enhanced his reputation again by debuting a 4-valve, dual overhead cam engine in his Firebird. Originally produced by Batten Performance of Romulus, Michigan, that new engine allowed Pat to continue competing in Top Sportsman without the need for the Nitrous Oxide power adder used by the other competitors. Nitrous Oxide increases horsepower but it decreases reliability. Being able to compete in a basically nitrous class without subjecting himself to the perils of nitrous use provided a big advantage in increased consistency and engine longevity.

Pat was forced to switch to the Batten engine because the evolution of Top Sportsman had made it tougher and tougher to continue qualifying with true Pontiac power. Initially starting with a 665 cubic inch displacement (cid) tall deck block, he soon advanced to a 706 cubic inch powerplant. Expecting to gain some additional horsepower he was disappointed by the lack of a significant horsepower increase over his smaller engine.

He then redesigned the complex front drive arrangement for the four overhead camshafts and gained more than one hundred horsepower on the big inch motor. After trying a couple of different size engines over the course of several seasons (but always with the DOHC heads) he settled on the 598 cid engine that he currently uses. Never one to leave things well enough alone, he intends to build a 632 cid engine this winter to see what kind of results it produces.

Equally interesting is his patented Torque-Drive unit. A Donovan invention, it basically allows a racer to adapt a torque converter to a Lenco transmission. Replacing a manual clutch with a torque converter provides greater consistency while still maintaining the advantages, such wide gear choices and minimal drag, of a manual transmission.

Pat’s unit also makes it easier to tune the chassis for outlaw and big inch combinations. His unit is lighter compared to other units of this type and the use of magnesium allows for quicker heat dissipation. To date more than 190 units have been sold to such faraway places as Denmark and New Zealand as well as many right here in the good old USA.

In 1999 Pat built his current Top Sportsman car. RJ Race Cars did the original construction of the chassis and Pat completed the final assembly. The car’s sturdiness and safety was tested almost immediately when the Firebird hit the guard wall during the final round of the 1999 Darlington event. Although the car held up well, and Pat escaped unscathed, it put his program back a year because he does all the work on his cars himself. The car returned to the track in grand fashion however, by winning the 2000 Budds Creek event.

However, there is more to Pat Donovan than just being a racer and an innovator. He particularly enjoys spending time at the track with young fans. He is also a respected businessman. After selling his long-time service station business, Pat opened his current machine shop. He is continuously adding to his inventory of specialty machines and looks forward to producing more patented racing components of his own design in the future.

Pat also appreciates the business side of his racing endeavor. By competing in a Pontiac, instead of just another “Me-Too” brand, it allows his car and its sponsors to receive maximum exposure and recognition. It has been said that racing is a game of inches and any advantage, whether on the track or in the media, is very valuable. After 30 years of laying the groundwork, Pat Donovan stands ready to reap the rewards of his innovations. As he says, “If it’s different, I want to work on it.”

Pat Donovan Racing