Project Underdog Heads to Auction

By Mike Imlay/Originally found in SEMA News—September 2017

Maverick Build by Actor Sung Kang’s Student Team Set to Benefit SEMA Scholarships

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Each step of the Project Underdog Maverick build was recorded and presented in a popular YouTube/Garage Monkey online video series filled with raw, behind-the-scenes footage, intimate conversations and real-time progress reports.

Project Underdog, a highly customized ’72 Ford Maverick originally conceived by actor Sung Kang, is finished, fine-tuned, revved and ready for auction. Sponsored by Shell and featuring Pennzoil, and supported by Ford Motor Co., Samsung, Nitto, GReddy, Rocket Bunny and Facebook, the unique vehicle build was completed at the SEMA Garage in Diamond Bar, California, with specialized tuning provided by Cobb Tuning, headquartered in Austin, Texas.

Kang enlisted inner-city students Tony Chen, Alexis Hernandez and Christian Quiroz 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.

Debuting at the 2016 SEMA Show, the Maverick went on to continued refinement and a year-long media tour, which will now culminate at the October 19–21, 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. Since its inception in 1984, the memorial scholarship fund has granted $2.1 million to more than 1,200 students.

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The project’s three dedicated high-school builders got to unveil their handiwork at the 2016 SEMA Show alongside the project’s team leader, actor Sung Kang. Designed by Steve Strope, the project was backed by Shell, featuring Pennzoil, among numerous other industry sponsors.

Kang, whose acting credits include the role of Han in the Fast & Furious movie franchise, first drove the Maverick while shooting one of the series’ installments 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 could stand behind.”

The actor had previously captivated fans throughout the world when he documented a prior vehicle build, the FuguZ 240Z, through videos in social media. In similar fashion, each step of the Project Underdog Maverick build was recorded and presented in a popular YouTube/Garage Monkey online video series filled with raw, behind-the-scenes footage, intimate conversations and real-time progress reports. But unlike the 240Z build, Project Underdog was a markedly purposeful experience for Kang, who hoped that it would help spark greater car enthusiasm among a new generation of young people—especially the disadvantaged.

“I feel like it’s been a long road, but it’s been very rewarding,” Kang said of the completed project. “The whole spirit of it was working with kids and making new friends. The most rewarding has been the transformation that I’ve seen with the kids. I think when we first met them, each of them had a different place they were coming from in terms of self-esteem—to see Alexis now at UTI as a student, to see his life transform in the sense of who he feels he is and what his contribution is to the community, and then to see Tony come out of his shell and be more extroverted. And today I found out that he actually bought a go-kart, which is pretty awesome. It’s another step forward proactively to pursue his dream. And then I talk to Christian periodically on the phone, and he’s aggressively attacking school and seems very positive about where he is in his life. Another rewarding aspect is all the new friends that have been made on the journey. That’s something that you can’t put a price tag on, this magic recipe that happens when you meet people that you actually enjoy working with.”

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Cobb engineers rendered close, expert attention to the mapping and incremental dyno tuning of the Ford 2.3L EcoBoost engine mated to a six-speed Tremec T56 transmission—a first-of-its-kind engine transplant that brought modern levels of fuel efficiency and performance to the Underdog Maverick.

The Project Underdog U3 Maverick is a showcase blend of humble, old-school hot rodding and leading-edge, new-school performance tuning. The vehicle’s powertrain is based on the replacement of its outdated ’72 inline six-cylinder engine with a new Ford EcoBoost 2.3L from a ’15 Mustang. Originally rated at 305 hp, the EcoBoost has been reworked to churn out in excess of 400 hp while delivering modern levels of efficiency, fuel economy and lowered emissions. The high-achieving engine is now mated to a six-speed Tremec T56 transmission. A Currie Enterprises rearend and Baer brake system are other key performance upgrades.

To create that unorthodox combination, Kang and his student team leveraged advanced SEMA Garage resources, including 3D scanning and extensive CAD work to produce a full-scale, 3D-printed “engine” that greatly aided in the prototyping and fitment of the actual engine block. Meanwhile, 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.

“Part of what we were trying to show here is the engineering ability of the SEMA Garage,” said Mike Spagnola, SEMA vice president of OEM and product-development programs, who helped oversee the U3 Maverick’s development. “From the beginning, we scanned the engine bay and engine so we would know exactly how it would fit into the engine compartment. 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 at the Garage help members all the time to produce products, but they 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.”

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Student Alexis Hernandez (right) and his fellow young teammates got a valuable opportunity to work alongside actor Sung Kang (left), SEMA Vice President of OEM and Product Development Programs Mike Spagnola and other leading industry professionals to create an incredibly detailed project vehicle benefitting SEMA Memorial Scholarship programs.

Spagnola is especially proud of the project’s unique incorporation of the latest vehicle technologies.

“The Ford 2.3 EcoBoost engine was first introduced in the ’15 Mustang,” he said. “To our knowledge, this is one of the first transplants to go into a street car that’s street legal with an aftermarket GReddy turbo on it. So we have a larger turbo, different tuning and all sorts of SEMA-member aftermarket products—all put into a ’72 Maverick, of all things. It’s a one-of-a-kind vehicle featuring the first crate-motor offering from Ford, the first harness wire kit, the first of a lot of things. It’s fun and an honor to be on that cutting edge.”

Spagnola also noted that the build team paid careful attention to the Maverick’s tuning.

“The engineers at Cobb did the tuning in successive baby steps,” he explained. “They took their time, running it up to 2,000 rpm, checking it, then to 3,000 rpm, checking it, and mapping as they went along, because this had never been done before. Again, this is really the first 2.3 EcoBoost to get transplanted into anything of this kind. To get the mapping right with all the aftermarket products that were incorporated into the vehicle was skilled work.”

Project Underdog helped inspire its other sponsors to push their envelopes as well. According to Jesse Kershaw, product manager for Ford Performance Parts, the Maverick accelerated the development of a new OE control pack, the electronic wiring kit that allows Ford’s late-model engines to be transplanted into non-original vehicles like the Kang team’s U3.

“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 that will make your life very easy there,” he explained, adding Ford had originally planned to debut its kit at the 2016 SEMA Show.

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The Maverick was built at the SEMA Garage in Diamond Bar, California, where it benefitted from the facility’s leading-edge capabilities, including fullsize 3D printing of a Ford EcoBoost 2.3L engine prototype, with help from Stratasys. Ford also took an active role in the fitment of the real thing, speeding the development of the necessary control pack for the project.

With the Maverick also slated for a reveal at that same Show, Ford saw the project as the perfect chance to get some advance real-world feedback on the control pack in advance of its debut. Much of what Ford learned from the experience was eventually folded into the OE’s installation instructions, making the application easier for future builders.

“What I liked about doing the Maverick with one of our 2.3L engines is that it’s a little unconventional,” Kershaw said. “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.”

The vehicle’s updated styling emanated from Pure Vision founder and well-known vehicle builder Steve Strope, a longtime friend of Kang’s. Strope believes the out-of-box thinking that went into the project helped teach its team of inner-city students valuable lessons in overcoming obstacles. Such empowerment, he said, was always key to 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,” Strope said. “They were not the stars of the world, the football team, the homecoming kings. They’re from the inner city and don’t get a lot of opportunity, but they like to work on cars.”

With their handiwork now going to auction, the young team can experience not only the pride of a job well done but also the feeling of satisfaction that comes from giving back to the wider community, since the proceeds will benefit SEMA scholarship programs for other students like themselves.

Spagnola said they won’t be alone in that satisfaction. A host of SEMA-member companies contributed significant support, technologies and specialty equipment to the project (see sidebar), resulting in a true “underdog” performer that will also make its highest bidder proud.

“It was fun to see the car go from the 2016 SEMA Show, where we were mostly interested in getting it to look right, feel right and get the design right, along with fitting the engine and transmission, and feeling the thrill of actually starting it,” Spagnola said. “It’s been a long journey, but now it’s really a car. It’s been upgraded with aftermarket knowhow into something streetable that’s got some terrific horsepower—the same or more horsepower that you used to get out of a V8 but from a four-cylinder that is half the size and weight. And that’s a great combination.”

Aftermarket Upgrades

In addition to title sponsor Pennzoil, the following SEMA-member companies and partners helped bump the Underdog Maverick up to a true street performer with a powerful roster of product contributions and build support. In alphabetical order, they include:

  • 09 Racing: carbon-fiber fender mirrors
  • Aeromotive: fuel pump
  • AJE: front coil-over spring suspension, cross members, A-arms
  • Amada America: sheetmetal fabrication
  • American Power Train: assistance with the Tremic transmission custom build, shifter, shift knob, throwout bearing, clutch master cylinder
  • Art in Motion: three-piece wheels
  • Baer Brakes: front and rear rotors, calipers, hardware, master cylinder
  • BBK: throttle body
  • Bendpak: lifts, tube bender
  • Bilstein: rear shocks
  • Carbon Signal Automotive: interior, gauges, center console
  • Cerullo Seats: seating
  • Currie Enterprises: rearend
  • Dapper Lighting: lights
  • Eaton: rear leaf springs
  • Flaming River: steering rack and column
  • Ford Motor Co.: engine and engine-management system
  • GReddy: turbocharger, engine performance work
  • Griffin Thermal Products: radiator, fan shroud, electric fan
  • Hillco Fasteners: hardware
  • Hotchkis Performance: swaybar
  • L&G Enterprises: custom paint and bodywork
  • Maverick Man: hood, trunk
  • Maverick Maniac: clutch pedal, seat rails
  • Nitto Tires: tires
  • NRG: steering wheel, hub
  • Painless Performance: wiring harness kit
  • Pennzoil: title sponsor
  • Pilkington Classics: glass windshield, rear window, door and side windows
  • PPG: paint
  • Prothane: urethane bushings
  • Quick Time/Lakewood Clutch: bellhousing, clutch disc, pressure plate, flywheel, pilot bushing
  • Rocket Bunny: body kit, including flares, spoilers, side skirts
  • Steele Rubber Products: weatherstripping, windshield gaskets, seals, fillers
  • Stratasys Inc: 3D printing of prototype block
  • Topolino Junkyard: grille, taillights
  • Tremec: transmission
  • XRP Inc.: fuel and oil lines

Further Information

To help bring his Project Underdog brainchild to fruition, actor Sung Kang partnered with the resources of the SEMA Garage to create a build benefiting youth outreach and SEMA programs for students. For more information about the SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center, visit www.semagarage.org, email garage@sema.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 julietm@sema.org. To view Project Underdog’s promotional video and episodes, visit Garage Monkey’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/garagemonkeytv.

About Elizabeth Puckett

Elizabeth Puckett is a seasoned writer and hardcore gearhead. She was born with motor oil in her blood and a passion for everything that goes fast, especially if it's also loud and smells of race gas.