Car customizer takes rebuilt Firebird to Vegas for national event

Car customizer takes rebuilt Firebird to Vegas for national event

CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign car customizer and one of his clients will head to Las Vegas this week to show off a 1969 Pontiac Firebird that has taken national honors.

Troy Gudgel, the owner of BBT Fabrications in Champaign, will display the cybergray Firebird he rebuilt for car owner Sid Tracy at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show.

That show starts Tuesday and continues through Friday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The Firebird was chosen as one of five finalists for Street Machine of the Year at the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association's PPG Nationals show in Columbus, Ohio, in July.

Gudgel was subsequently invited to take the car on an invitation-only "cruise" from Pleasanton, Calif., to Fort Worth, Texas. The cruise was limited to 50 cars, and 36 actually participated.

Tracy, a Fort Myers, Fla., resident with roots in Champaign, said he's been a custom car buff for about a dozen years. His first project was a 1962 Chevy Corvette, and the Firebird was his fifth custom car.

When Tracy became frustrated with bodywork on his 1930 Ford Roadster, Gudgel was able to achieve what Tracy wanted.

"It was inconceivable how he was able to make it work. He has no formal training in bodywork, but he's a master at it," Tracy said.

"Troy is developing a name for himself, and it's nationwide," said Tracy, the former president of Traco Labs. "He's a talent for the ages, destined for good things."

Gudgel, 27, graduated from Centennial High School and took some general courses at Parkland College. He started BBT ("Built By Troy") Fabrications in 2008, and moved to the 510 S. Staley Road location about four years ago.

There, he assembled a team of technicians, including Pete Fortney, who specializes in metal and fabrication; Greg Stallmeyer, who does paint and body work; Dave Mannon, who handles interior work; and Joe Kern, who does wiring and electrical work. Rounding out the staff is Larry Gudenrath, who orders parts and manages the office.

Gudgel comes by customization naturally. He said his dad, David Gudgel, and grandfather, Don Gudgel, were into hot rods. So it wasn't surprising that Troy began tinkering with cars at an early age.

His first project was a wrecked Chevy S-10 pickup that he fixed up and customized. He finally parted with it two years ago.

The BBT Fabrication team had an array of projects in various stages of completion in their workshop last week. Joining the Firebird there were: a 1953 Chevy pickup, a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, a 1970 Chevy El Camino, a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle, a 1966 Ford Mustang and a 1969 Chevy Camaro.

Many of the projects are for area residents, but one is for a client in Chicago.

Clients come to BBT Fabrications with varying notions of what kind of customization they seek. Some know exactly what they want; others have a few ideas but want Gudgel to "fill in the blanks."

The projects are extensive. Many are seeking $60,000 to $80,000 in work, and in some cases, a client has had more than $200,000 in work done to a vehicle, Gudgel said.

But that's a relatively small price, compared to work done to other cars that were finalists in the Street Machine of the Year competition. The winning car had about $1 million of work done to it, Gudenrath said.

For the record, the other finalists in that competition were a 1965 Chevy Corvette, a 1967 Chevy Nova, a 1969 Chevy Camaro and a 1969 Ford Torino GPT Special.

The typical time frame for a "complete build" is about two years, Gudgel said. So far, he has completed eight builds and expects to finish two more by spring.

Gudgel said in most cases, he's not restoring the vehicle to its original condition. His work tends to be "resto-mod" — keeping much of the original look, but improving the drivability with modern drive trains and adding creature comforts such as air-conditioning and power steering.

Clients generally aren't looking to resell their cars and get a return on their investment, he said. They just enjoy the creation.

"It's like buying a piece of art, a Picasso," Gudgel said.

Looks aren't the only thing that counts at competitive events. At the Good Guys show in Columbus, for example, cars competing for Street Machine of the Year had to perform on an autocross course, taking three two-lap passes.

Tracy's Firebird has enjoyed a lot of press since its triumph in Columbus. It's been featured in the Good Guys Gazette and in StreetScene magazine after winning a National Street Rod Association Pro's Picks award.

The Firebird is also scheduled to be featured in the February 2014 issue of Hot Rod magazine, due out later this year.

According to Gudenrath, Gudgel took the Firebird's original factory frame, modified the suspension, put in a new motor, installed a modern drive train, added a six-speed manual transmission and modified the body, reshaping side pieces and giving the front end a different look.

Though sometimes car customizations evolve as they proceed, Tracy said that with the Firebird, "we started with objectives and ended up with something almost identical to what we wanted to do."

Gudgel said when he first started out in business, he juggled it with working full time for his dad's seamless gutter business. That limited his customization work to nights and weekends. Even so, he was spending 40 to 60 hours a week at it.

He said the business has grown largely by word of mouth, but folks have also learned of his work through specialty forums on the Internet.

Gudgel said his first priority is "putting out a quality product. Quality has to surpass everything."

When told of that, Tracy exclaimed, "It's beyond stressing quality. He absolutely delivers it!"

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