Project Underdog

SEMA News—January 2017


By Mike Imlay

Project Underdog

Actor Sung Kang and a Student Team Unveil a Maverick Powerhouse

  Project Underdog
Actor Sung Kang piloted both the Project Underdog team and the finished Maverick, seen here arriving at SEMA Ignited this past November in Las Vegas. A unique build that was designed to engage youth, the vehicle will go to auction to benefit the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Foundation.

Every SEMA Show vehicle has a story, but few intertwine the themes of mentorship, industry knowhow, teamwork and inspiration as compellingly as Project Underdog, a student-customized ’72 Ford Maverick built under the tutelage of actor Sung Kang. Sponsored by Shell, 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 recent 50th anniversary 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 team 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,” Kang explained. “This and the chance to make a difference for these students is something I can stand behind.”

Kang, who played Han in the movie series, documented each step of the Maverick build in a popular YouTube/Garage Monkey online video series filled with raw, behind-the-scenes footage, intimate conversations and real-time progress reports. It was a markedly purposeful experience for Kang, who hopes that it will help spark greater car enthusiasm among a new generation of young people, especially the disadvantaged.

Project Underdog
The project’s three dedicated high-school builders experienced the thrill of unveiling their finished work at the recent SEMA Show. Designed by Steve Strope, the project was backed by Shell, featuring Pennzoil, among other industry sponsors.

The vehicle now goes on from the SEMA Show to raise funds other aspiring industry students via a media tour ending in an October 2017 Barrett Jackson auction in Palm Beach, Florida, 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–$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.

“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, who oversees the SEMA Garage and is vice president of OEM and product development programs for SEMA. “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 to be 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.”

Big Aspirations

  The 2016 SEMA Award
The Maverick was built at the SEMA Garage in Diamond Bar, California, where it benefitted from the facility’s leading-edge resources, including fullsize 3D printing of a Ford EcoBoost 2.3L engine prototype, which greatly facilitated fitment of the real thing.

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 computer-aided design (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 those and other extensive chassis and body modifications, the project replaced the outdated ’72 inline six-cylinder engine with a new Ford EcoBoost 2.3L engine from a ’15 Mustang. Originally rated at 305 hp, the EcoBoost was reworked to churn out in excess of 400 horses 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-too-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,” Spagnola explained. “From the beginning, we scanned the engine bay and the engine so that 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 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, and it will help us serve our members even better.”

Project Underdog
Student Alexis Hernandez (right) and his fellow young teammates got a valuable opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with actor Sung Kang (left) and SEMA Vice President of OEM and Product Development Programs Mike Spagnola, along with other veteran industry professionals.

The Maverick build became a learning experience for its other industry supporters as well. According to Jesse Kershaw, product manager for 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, we said, well, we’re actually working on this great install kit that 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,” Kershaw said. “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 [we will] probably add some tweaks to the control pack that will make it easier for everyone else to put it in their cars.”

Pure Vision founder Steve Strope became Project Underdog’s designer through his longtime friendship with Kang. Down to the wire and right up to the SEMA Show debut, Strope noted that the Maverick required a lot of 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,” Strope 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.”

Strope added 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.

Further Information

  • To help bring his Project Underdog brainchild to fruition, actor Sung Kang partnered with the resources of the SEMA Garage. For more information about the SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center, email, visit or call 909-978-6728.

  • To learn more about the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Foundation, contact Juliet Marshall, SEMA manager of education projects, at 909-978-6655 or

  • To view Project Underdog’s promotional video and episodes, visit Garage Monkey’s YouTube channel at

“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.

“What drove me to this was the fact that it was getting young school kids in the project and learning how to put together a project of this scale,” Flourine said. “Getting these young people involved and learning skills and learning a vocation 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 Hernandez never thought he’d make the team.

“There were so many students,” he said. “When we got called, I was like, is this for real? It was pretty crazy.”

Tragically, the excitement of the build was tempered by the sudden death of Hernandez’s father, who had taken real pride in his son’s 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 I 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 in the early mornings and late at night to work on it.”

In those late hours, Hernandez gained not only valuable technological skills but also 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 it’s one that 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 said that all three students learned to push beyond the limits of 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,” Spagnola 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 futures."

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