780-HP Nissan Hardbody Was Built to Win More Than Just a Race

Think about modified versions of mid-80s and 90s-era top selling workhorse Nissan Hardbody pick-up trucks and, if you’re old enough, you’ll recall a booming mini truck market that took over the enthusiast automotive scene. Compact pickups were fitted with hydraulic-assisted dancing truck beds, chrome wheels shod in ultra-low-profile tires, and enough audio equipment to put on a small concert in your local grocery parking lot. This 1994 D21 Nissan Hardbody is a beautiful modern example, balancing show and go in a small, powerful, drag race-winning package.

The Modern Take

You can still find that same style of custom truck roaming select streets, mostly in the Western U.S., though they’re few and far between. Since those days, the import automotive market has gone on to experience an initial boom in the 80s followed by a golden era, and continues to be a focal point for creative customization. Nissan revived the name with the 2023 Nissan Frontier Hardbody concept at the 2022 Chicago Auto Show, but that was more off-road focused. One of these modern builds based on the real classic show trucks from back in the day is Luis Chavez’s 1994 D21 Nissan Hardbody.

Chavez bought this truck in 2010, but it wasn’t supposed to be turbocharged and in show-ready condition with almost 800hp on tap, like it is today. He tells MotorTrend: “The intention was to use it as a work truck but little did I know what this truck would become. I started off small by lowering it and putting some wheels on and I just kept it clean and simple.” The transition from workhorse to powerhouse would unknowingly be set into motion after frequenting a few local gatherings.

Early Influencers

“I started attending some car meets on the weekends for fun and talking to others who loved cars as much as I did,” Luis recalls. “There I met Jordan Alatore who, at the time, was the president of a car club named Mini Machines. Alongside them I began to attend more car meets and then began attending car shows.”

This influence from fellow enthusiasts and newfound friends  prompted Luis to make some changes to the interior, swap out wheels, and other various details, all the while leaving the engine bay completely stock. That is, until opportunity came knocking, literally, as the truck’s original engine developed a rod knock in 2015.

Seeing the engine issue as an opportunity for major change to his Nissan, Luis’ initial plan was to drop a 6.0L LS V-8 in place. Having already stripped the engine bay, he was set to drop the new engine, but had a change of heart after a friend injected some sage advice. “After talking with Tepaswaps, he recommended keeping the Nissan truck with a Nissan motor. I ended up switching things last minute and decided to put in an SR20DET swap,” he adds. “We spent months working at his shop during weekends, holidays, and long nights after work, but it was all worth it in the end.”

From Static to Causing Static

Dubbed “La SR20,” the completed swap was a welcome addition to the build and rounded out its list of modifications, bringing with it plenty of 1st place awards at various car shows. Along the way, Luis met the crew from Team Showtime – a group consisting of both show and race builds.

Having spent his younger days in the street racing scene in Jalisco, Mexico, the urge to compete pushed him to start drag racing the Hardbody. “My truck was not fast—it didn’t have enough power. I knew I wanted to focus on drag racing, but I still wanted a truck that was clean and that I could take to shows and drive out on the street.”

Luis ripped out the SR20 he had swapped in, sold it to a close friend, then pushed those dollars into a new engine based on an SR20VET platform. With help once again from Tepaswaps, the bottom end of the new motor was strengthened with Darton sleeves, then stuffed with 9:1 CP Pistons and Manley I-beams. Up top, Mazworx provided stage-2 cams, a complete valvetrain overhaul, and some port work on the head.

A Full Race twin scroll manifold now supports a Garrett GTX3582R turbocharger paired with dual TiAL wastegates. Additional fuel was crucial to make this show car keep going, managed by a pair of AEM 450lph pumps and ID2000 injectors. With an AEM Series II at the helm, Luis says the new combination is good for 783 horsepower with over 650 lb-ft of torque, though the long-term goal is to hit that magic 1,000-hp benchmark.

When the truck isn’t in show mode, the front fenders, headlights, grill, and front bumper are all intact, held in place by custom tabs attached to a tubular structure. That custom addition attaches to the firewall, leaving the front wheels and suspension fully visible with the hood removed for a dramatic show car presence. A polished Mazworx intake manifold is balanced by a similarly-polished turbo and its intake piping, which highlight Luis’ car show experience.

Inside Is What Counts

Just a glimpse of the front of this truck throws subtle clues that there are surprises under its hood. The velocity stack that takes over a portion of the grill and the four pins that secure the hood make for quite a tease. The large Speedfactory intercooler is in plain view, but painted matte black so that it blends naturally into the bumper and lower valence. Step around to the side however, and the skinny 17-in. Weld Racing front wheels, and 15-in. rears wrapped in beefy 275/60 MTs let you know this Hardbody can burn rubber down a drag strip.

If the sticky rolling stock on display isn’t convincing enough, then the drag wing hanging off the rear, and the parachute, should spell it out for you. The gutted tailgate uses a row of drilled holes to avoid drag, and under the lightweight roll pan is a Drake Muscle Cars differential cover. Also viewable from the street is a custom TSF antiroll bar set up, with one-off chassis bracing provided by Twisted Metalworkz, and Marcos’ Garage & Fab Trac bars to help keep the truck on the straight and narrow under full throttle.

Inside, a set of Sparco Sprint buckets are flanked by roll cage bars that connect and run throughout the cabin, as well as making their way into the truck’s bed area to improve safety and offer an increase in overall rigidity. A trio of gauges pair with an AEM CD7 to monitor the truck’s vitals, and Luis grips a Sparco steering wheel with one hand, while the other shifts a manual transmission lifted from a Nissan 350Z.

Luis is currently putting the truck through initial testing after its latest build, and admits that the process hasn’t always been easy. Multiple issues have sprung up, and he adds, “We worked through the setbacks and after some passes and small adjustments with the help of Erick’s Racing, and we began to see some progress. We aren’t where we want to be just yet, our goal is to go low 5s in the 1/8th and prove that it can do it all: show, race, cruise, and even small trips.” Given Luis’ experience, it will be sorted and soaring up to 1,000 hp before we know it.

Car 1994 Nissan Hardbody

Owner Luis Chavez

Instagram @lasr20_garage

Engine SR20VET; TepaSwaps custom engine mounts; Darton sleeves; CP Pistons 9:1; Manley I-beam rods; Mazworx stage 2 cams, valvetrain, port/polished head, intake manifold; Garret GTX3582R; Full Race twin scroll turbo manifold; TSF Fabrication down pipe, exhaust; TiAL wastegates x2, blow-off valve; JMD muffler, charge piping; Speedfactory intercooler, radiator; AEM 450lph fuel pump x2, flex fuel sensor; ID2000 injectors; Marshall fuel pressure gauge; HKS oil cap

Drivetrain CD009 6-speed transmission; Mazworx shifter; Clutch Masters 850 Series twin disk

Suspension Viking double-adjustable shocks; Bell Tech leaf springs; TSF custom anti-roll bars; Energy Suspension bushings; Song’s Alignment specs; Twisted Metalworkz chassis bracing; Eleven23 Motorsports roll cage; @_mgfab Trac Bars and differential fabrication

Braking Wilwood 2-pc. discs, pads, 6-piston calipers, master cylinder; TSF custom caliper brackets

Wheels & Tires 15×10 Weld Racing wheels and 275/60 Mickey Thompson Pro Bracket Drag Radials rear; 17×4.50 Weld Racing wheels with 26-6.00 R17 Mickey Thompson Sportsman S/R Radial front

Exterior Paint by Millan Body Shop

Interior Sparco Sprint seats, steering wheel; Racequip harnesses; carbon fiber dash kit

Electronics AEM Electronics Series 2 ECU, CD-7 digital dash, boost/AFR/oil pressure gauges, boost solenoid; Wiring Specialties engine and chassis harness, fuse panel

Thank You I want to thank my wife @magda.chavez.5473 and my daughters @arianna__chavez @lesleychavez.z for the endless support. Special thanks to Eddie TepaSwaps for the help 24/7 at the track, shows, and all the modifications we do everyday. I’m thankful for my pit crew’s help @marquez510 @chispa_marquez @canelo454 @smokey_mj @ek_ricky. Special thanks to @sr20s13abel for the help and recommendations on this new setup. Lastly, special thanks to my tuner @ericksracing for the help from the shop to the track, always ready to help no matter the time. – Luis

Swap: @tepaswaps

Tune: @eriksracing

Fabrication: @tsf_datsun

Alignment: Song’s Alignment

Chassis Brackets: Twisted Metalworkz Roll Cage: Eleven23 Motorsports Paint: Millan Body Shop

Tire Services: @beltrantiresllc Suspension Fabrication: @_mgfab

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