Diesel Power in a Desoto


Leon Eckery has been messing with cars all his life and he’s been through a number of hot rods, and did his share of drag racing, rock crawling, SCCA racing, and even motorcycles. What intrigued him lately, as well as his son Warren, was land speed racing. And Pikes Peak.  And Power Tour, along with One Lap of America. They needed a car to do it all…and one that would be different.

You see, Leon admits to having a penchant for different when it comes to cars, trucks and even motorcycles. In fact, one friend dubbed his driveway ‘the land of the misfit toys’! So when a 1956 Desoto Fireflight came into his life, a plan started to develop.

Actually, it was his son Warren who brought up the prospect of building something with diesel power to net the most bang for their buck, plus it was different. In looking at the Desoto parked in the yard, the thought of dropping a Duramax drivetrain into the forlorn 1956 kind of made a sense (in Leon’s mind).

Leon found a running and driving 2003 2500HD Chevy pickup with over 200,000 miles to serve as a driveline donor. At first, they thought they were just going to need to rework the chassis of the Desoto a bit, and beef things up underneath to get the drivetrain fit. Soon though, they realized that the 1956 chassis was never going to live up to the demands of that kind of torque, power and weight.

More thinking, measuring and imagining ensued until their buddy and builder Shawn Petta of Function Fab determined that they could modify the truck chassis and, in theory, drop the body in place. The Duramax was stripped down to the running chassis and required electronics.

Obviously the wheelbase of the two vehicles was different and rather than cut a section out to the middle, it was decided to reposition the rear axle forward on the existing frame. From there, Shawn built a custom rear suspension system consisting of a heavy duty truck 4-link system supported with QA1 coilovers as well as a Watts linkage to reduce the side-to-side movement.

Meanwhile, the Desoto body was pulled apart with the floor cut away to see where it would all come to rest on the chassis. The body was kept in its aged patina experience except for a couple minor modifications. In the rear, the quarter panels were sliced a bit to make changing the rear wheels a lot easier and made to resemble something of a fender skirt.

Leon had Dan Moschkaw update the headstuds of the stock Duramax with a set from ARP and replace the injectors, filters and pump with FASS components. Warren added a 64mm Stealth Turbo, and used a set of open manifolds and downpipe. A little tuning was required with the new 2.47 gears coupled to a Gear Vendors Under/Overdrive unit that puts the final drive at 1.3:1 (with the rpm at about 2,800). Rod Coddens (aka Idaho Rob) of Adrenaline Truck Performance took to the task with his trusty laptop and EFI Live programming.

What was originally thought to be a 12-18 month build ended up running more than four years. But patience pays off and the Desotomaxx was not only done, but it was done right and ready to race.

Leon and Warren have run the DesotoMaxx at El Mirage three times now turning in consistent 146 mph passes. It seems that they found their wall of air for the 7,200 pound brick and need more power to get through it. In 2017, they tackled the Big Bend Open Road Race which is a 59-mile run from Ft. Stockton to Sanderson and back in west Texas. They ended up running third in their 100 mph target class as well as bringing home the trophy for Most Unique Vehicle.

For 2018, the plan is to head to Bonneville and shoot for a 200 mph pass, but first there will be serious updates to the drivetrain. To answer that call, a new engine is being built at Scoggin Dickey Parts Center Raceshop based on an all new Duramax block.

“The car doesn’t really fit any classes to go for a record in the SCTA, so 200 is more of a personal goal,” Leon told us.

Records or not, Leon and Warren have already hit their number one goal of having something completely unique at the race track and on the road.


What do you do with a fairly straight, somewhat solid four-door 1956 Desoto when it shows up in your junkyard? Combine it with an 2003 Duramax to build a land speed car of course. Isn’t that obvious?

About five years ago the Desoto was dragged into this very junkyard with an impending trip to the recycle yard. Instead it was repurposed as a land speed race car.

To go land speed racing, the interior has to be all business. Sure there’s the mandatory certified safety equipment from the full cage, Kirkey seats, DJ belts, fire system and door net, but note the operational plexiglass side windows. The donor Chevy dash is fully functional as are turn signals,
headlamps and soon, air conditioning.

At this point, there’s not much to see under the hood, unless you like nearly-stock 6.6L diesel engines with 200,000 miles. Other than a custom intake with a K&N filter, the engine was left alone with the focus on shaking the car down and getting seat time. The SDPC Raceshop in Lubbock, Texas, is working on a new engine that will be in place for the 2018 season.

The custom rear end, built by Shawn Petta, consists of a Currie sheet metal center section mated to a pair of stock GM 2500 axle tubes and brake assemblies.

The rear suspension consists of a modified four-link supported with QA1 coilovers as well as a Watts linkage. Jim Mellow at Rare Breed assembled the Yukon center section with 2.47:1 gears, a Wavetrac unit and 35-spline Moser full floating axles.

Leon didn’t want to have the turbo and plumbing peeking out from under the hood so they cut the original hood and shimmed up the skin from a 1956 Chrysler just high enough to add the extra clearance needed and welded it in place.

The stock Chevy truck wheels just didn’t fit the offset required for the Desoto body, so a set of 17×8-inch Dodge dually wheels were called into action. Nate Jones at Cowboy Tire helped mount, balance and shave a set of Dunlop racing tires to support the 7,000+ pound Desoto at speed.

As for the braking system, first and foremost is a big DJ parachute at the ready to help the original 2500HD brakes from the donor Chevy. Actually, the complete ABS system is still in place and functional.

Rather than build the race spec rollcage inside the interior, Shawn elected to build the entire chassis and then lower the body down over the assembly, similar to a funny car. That simplifies the process a bit since the entire build took more than four years of fab work and assembly.

Leon and Warren ran the Desotomaxx at the 2017 Big Bend Open Road Race. They finished third in the 100 mph target class and also received the Most Unique racecar award. (Not a surprise there.) Photo by: Wayne M. White, Studio 2108.

The Desotomaxx ran 146 and change a number of times at El Mirage, a sign that the original 6.6L just doesn’t have the oomph to get the aerodynamically challenged beast through the air. That will be remedied next season.



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