By Mike Imlay
Video By Carr Winn & Clint Simone
Every SEMA Show vehicle has a story, but few intertwine the themes of mentorship, industry know-how, teamwork and inspiration as compellingly as Project Underdog, a student-customized 1972 Ford Maverick built under the tutelage of actor Sung Kang. Sponsored by Shell and featuring Pennzoil, and supported by Ford Motor Company, Samsung, NITTO, GReddy, Rocket Bunny and Facebook, the unique vehicle venture was completed at the SEMA Garage in Diamond Bar, California, just days before its official unveiling at the 2016 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.
Kang created Project Underdog as an exercise in youth engagement, putting together a unique team consisting of three aspiring California car enthusiasts from Alhambra High School, award-winning vehicle builder Steve Strope, members of the SEMA Garage and other industry professionals to successfully transform the unassuming "underdog" Maverick into a showcase performer and winner of a Ford Corporate Design Award for its significant contribution to vehicle design. Along the way, student builders Tony Chen, Alexis Hernandez and Christian Quiroz acquired valuable technical and life skills from Kang and his company of adult mentors.
The actor first drove the Maverick while shooting a Fast & Furious movie on location in Brazil and immediately fell in love with the vehicle. "The Maverick has always been under-appreciated, overlooked and undervalued, but those who love her are loyal forever," he explained. "This and the chance to make a difference for these students is something I can stand behind."
The Maverick is now on tour, benefit other aspiring industry students via an extensive media campaign ending in an October 2017 Barrett Jackson auction in Las Vegas where its sale will benefit the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Foundation. Providing financial support to young people pursuing automotive careers, the Foundation delivers dozens of annual awards ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 to deserving student recipients, with a $5,000 award going to a top achiever. The program also includes a loan forgiveness fund for employees of SEMA-member companies who are paying off loans from study at an accredited university, college or vocational/technical program. Since its inception in 1984, the Memorial Scholarship Fund has granted $2.1 million to more than 1,200 students.
"Kang's Project Underdog is, at its heart, designed to promote youth outreach and inspire the next generation to become future enthusiasts and pursue automotive careers," said Mike Spagnola, SEMA vice president of OEM & product development programs, who oversees the SEMA Garage. "Our SEMA programs were simply the right fit for this team project that proved the underdog can win big and benefit our community."
The vehicle build also proved the right fit for high-profile industry sponsors eager to support young talent eyeing industry careers. "Project Underdog' puts the spotlight on fostering automotive education for today's youth, one of the many core values that Shell, featuring Pennzoil, shares with Sung Kang and SEMA," said Don Moser, marketing director for Shell Lubricants, a chief Project Underdog sponsor. "These students [saw] a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hone their passion for cars and take on the task of rebuilding one of the greatest underdogs in automotive history, the Ford Maverick."
As for the vehicle itself, Project Underdog features a blend of humble, old-school hot-rodding and leading-edge, new-school performance tuning. Utilizing SEMA Garage resources, the build leveraged advanced prototyping tools such as 3D scanning, extensive use of CAD and even full-scale 3D printing of a dummy "engine block" for fitment into an unorthodox Maverick application. The vehicle's new bodywork boasts flared wheel arches, a custom front bumper and forward-mounted black wing mirrors, all riding on a set of deep-dish gold wheels. Amid these and other extensive chassis and body modifications, the project replaced the outdated 1972 inline six-cylinder engine with a new Ford EcoBoost 2.3L from a 2015 Mustang. Originally rated at 305HP, the EcoBoost was reworked to churn out an excess of 400HP while delivering modern levels of efficiency, fuel economy and lowered emissions. The high-achieving engine was mated to a six-speed Tremec T56 transmission -- a none-to-easy task, but a challenge the SEMA Garage team was happy to take on.
"Part of what we were trying to show here is the engineering ability of the SEMA Garage," explained Spagnola. "From the beginning we scanned the engine bay and we scanned the engine so we would know exactly how it would fit into the engine bay. We got dimensions from Tremec and their CAD files, so we knew what it would take to put that transmission into the car. The experience was something kind of new for us here in Diamond Bar. Our four SEMA Tech Transfer engineers here at the Garage help members all the time to produce products, but they've never had to do it themselves. It was neat to see them do that. It was a great learning process for us that will help us serve our members even better."
The Maverick build became a learning experience for its other industry supporters as well. According to Jesse Kershaw, product manager, Ford Performance Parts, Project Underdog helped speed the development of a new control pack, the electronic wiring kit that allows Ford's late-model engines to be transplanted into non-original vehicles like the Maverick.
"In this case, when the SEMA group decided to do Project Underdog and they contacted Ford [about making the new engine work in the Maverick], we said, well we're actually working on this great install kit the will make your life very easy there. We're planning to debut it and show it as a new product submission at the SEMA Show in a few weeks, so this was the perfect timing to get it out here and get some real-world feedback from the SEMA team. A lot of what we've learned here is going to roll into our installation instructions, and probably add some some tweaks to the control pack that will make it easier for everyone else to put it in their car," explained Kershaw. "What I liked about doing the Maverick with one of our 2.3-liter engines is that it's a little unconventional. I won't say it can fit in anything, but if you can make it work in here, and you can work around the details and get all the small details right, the lessons learned here can be applied to so many other platforms."
Pure Vision founder and well-known vehicle builder Steve Strope became Project Underdog's designer through his longtime friendship with Sung Kang. Down to the wire right up to its SEMA Show debut, Strope noted that the Maverick required a lot problem-solving and out-of-box thinking on the fly. However, he viewed those bumps along the way as a valuable education for the team's high schoolers.
"Hopefully the kids are seeing that, because that's what this is all about," he said. "It's supposed to be teaching and mentoring the kids in the small picture of this is how [something] goes together, and the big picture [of] this is what you do when a problem hits you."
Moreover, helping inner-city students overcome daunting obstacles was always at the heart of Sung Kang's vision for the build. "He was formulating the idea for this project, and already had the terminology Project Underdog, because these kids he envisioned were underdogs. They were not the stars of the world, the football team, the homecoming kings. They're from the inner city, don't get a lot of opportunity, but like to work on cars," reiterated Strope, adding that the team was encouraged by several aftermarket sources who came along at just the right moment to keep the build on track and on schedule. "There were a lot of good people with big hearts and knowledge helping out, and that kind of saved the day," he said.
Bolt manufacturer ARP was among the aftermarket companies that rushed in to keep the project moving, supplying its hardware for use throughout the Maverick. In fact, ARP Vice President Robert Flourine confessed to wanting his own Maverick build project in his younger years, but unfortunately lacked the time and money for it back then. Still, he says, he had something today's youth often miss out on: high school shop training.
"What drove me to this was the fact it was getting young school kids in the project and learning how to put together a project of this scale," said Flourine. "Getting these young people involved and learning skills and learning a vocation, I think, is one of the best things we can do for our youth. When I was a young man growing up, we had metal shop, we had auto shop, we had a variety of vocations we could learn in school. Too many schools have gotten rid of those programs."
Indeed, opportunities like Project Underdog are so sought-after nowadays that student builder Alexis Hernandez never thought he'd make the team. "At first I was like shocked. I didn't think I was going to be picked. There were so many students. When we got called, I was like, is this for real? It was pretty crazy," he recalled.
Tragically, the excitement of the build was soon tempered by the sudden death of his father, who had taken real pride in Hernandez' achievement. But Hernandez learned to channel his sadness into the project as a tribute to his late father.
"My dad was telling everybody about this project," he said. "When he passed away, I thought about how he talked to everybody, and said, 'I can't just give up. I'm going to keep on doing it for him.' It was amazing. After that I started coming to the SEMA Garage early mornings and late at night to work on it."
In those late hours, Hernandez gained not only valuable technological skills but an even more important spirit of camaraderie. "A lot of industry people came together and helped us out with this project," he explained. "I learned about working in a team and working with people who have been in the industry for many years. I learned a lot about old-style and new technologies."
It's an opportunity Hernandez believes he wouldn't have gotten anywhere else, and one he will now take with him as he continues his vocational education at United Technical Institute, which he entered just weeks after the vehicle's SEMA Show unveiling.
Back at the SEMA Garage, Spagnola says all three students learned to push beyond the limits in the unusual vehicle build, which culminated in a huge thrill for the entire team when a turn of the ignition key verified that their hours of painstaking dedication had paid off.
"Starting the car was like seeing your baby born," he said. "It was great to see all three of our students mature in different ways. As excited as we are about the car, I'm more excited about the students, seeing them grow, seeing their passion for this industry, and hearing them talk about their future."
For more information about the SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center, visit www.semagarage.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 909-978-6728. To learn more about the SEMA Memorial Scholarship program, contact Juliet Marshall, SEMA manager of education projects, at 901-978-6655 or email@example.com. To view Project Underdog's promotional video and episodes, visit Garage Monkey's YouTube channel at YouTube.com/user/GarageMonkeyTV.