How I got here, Part 1

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John Ross
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How I got here, Part 1

Post by John Ross » Tue May 23, 2017 6:31 am

I've been lurking here for some time and have only recently become a member. A friend on a shooting-related board asked about how I came about my parallel interest in vehicles. Can't sleep right now, so I thought I'd answer his question, and then I thought I'd also post it here. This may ramble a bit.

Like many young boys, I had a fascination with motorized vehicles. My father was an aerobatic pilot who taught flight instruction in the Navy, and he started taking me flying almost before I can remember. My uncle owned and rode motorcycles his entire adult life, and was passionate enough about it that before WWII he owned a Crocker, and in the ‘50s a Vincent Black Shadow. You bike guys know what those two names mean...

Anyway, I had been poring over aviation, automotive, and motorcycle publications at the library along with gun magazines since age 7. This was the era of the Land Speed Wars at Bonneville between Craig Breedlove and Art and Walt Arfons, Goldenrod, and the heyday of the Michigan Madman, E.J. Potter, with Bloody Mary, his exhibition dragbike.

When I was 9 years old, Dad took me to see E.J. Potter and his V-8 motorcycle at a local track.

I’ll never forget the sight and sound of Potter sitting at the starting line on his direct-drive-only bike (no clutch), perched on a jackstand, the alky-burning, Hilborn-injected 327 Chevy turning 7000 RPM with white flames coming out of the exhaust headers. When Potter rocked the bike off the jackstand, the spinning tire hit the pavement with a sound like a woman having her guts torn out with a pair of Vise-Grips. Every hair on my 9-year-old body stood up. Bike and rider rocketed down the strip, both tire and engine screaming. The bike was sideways most of the time, and left a crooked black stripe the entire length of the track. My whole body was shaking as I saw the speed displayed on the light board at the end of the track: 157 MPH. I promised myself that some day I’d build a V-8 bike of my own. It took thirty years, but it happened…

I started driving in 1968 at age 11 on our hundred-acre summer property in Imperial, MO in a 6-cylinder 1957 Ford station wagon that the caretaker had bought for $75 so that his sons and I could learn about cars. We took the body off and sold it for scrap, getting $17 if I remember right. A plywood and pine “truck bed” installation soon followed, as did a crude “roll bar” (mainly useful for passengers to hang on to while standing in the bed) and an aluminum beer keg for a gas tank. We called it our “dune buggy,” but if there’d been any sand around, I’m sure our creation, with its bald tires and forward weight bias, would have gotten hopelessly stuck…

I don’t know whether it was our ineptitude at bleeding brakes or if there was something seriously wrong with the braking system, but no matter what we did, the brakes on the car wouldn’t work at all if you just stepped on the pedal and expected the car to slow down. The driver had to pump the pedal quickly three or four times before the brakes would begin to bite. It taught us to think ahead while driving.

The Ford’s transmission was a manual three speed with a non-synchronized first gear. Additionally, the synchros on second and third were so worn that they might as well not have been there. That was what I learned on in 1968. It was a good teacher. Over 30 years later, soon-to-be Le Mans racer Chris Kniefel was my instructor in a Dodge Viper at Justin Bell’s racing school in Florida at Moroso Raceway Park. Chris was startled when I shifted the Viper GTS into 5th on the front straight at 135 mph so quickly that the tires chirped. “Where the hell did you learn to shift like that?” he demanded. I told him, but I’m not sure he believed me…

At the end of that same summer of 1968, Dad replaced his aging 1956 Thunderbird with a new 1968 tri-power L89 427 Corvette. Dad was impressed with the skill I displayed double-clutching the “dune buggy” I’d learned on, so he took me out on some paved rural roads where there weren’t many people, and let me drive his new Corvette.

Oh. My. God. Now this was what a car should be like!

On Christmas of 1968 I got a two-wheeled surprise. Honda had introduced its Z50 Mini Trail in Europe and Japan a year or two before, and would release the bike in America in 1969. My Uncle Graves was the financial backing behind Patterson Honda, a local dealer, and he got one of the first Z50A models brought into the country. It was waiting for me in the garage on Christmas morning. That was the first motorized vehicle I could call my own.

My parents were always good to me and my sisters, and Mom & Dad never fought or argued. However, I don’t have a single memory of my mother ever being NICE to my father. (To be fair, my sisters, who are over a decade older than I am, say that things were different when they were young.) Mom was always running Dad down in little ways. One example I remember was when some new friends my parents had invited to dinner asked Dad why he had chosen the Navy over the other military branches when he had enlisted. He told them that at the time (1941), he felt the Navy had the best flight program.

Understand that my father had received his civilian pilot's license in 1936 at age 20 and graduated 4th in his Navy flying class out of over 700 cadets. He then went on to become a wartime instructor, and after the war when he was in the Reserves, flew everything from fighters to 4-engine transports.

After Dad explained to this couple about his belief that in 1941, the Navy had the best flying program, my mother turned to them and said, "That's not it. He just didn't want to get his feet muddy."

This kind of dismissal made no sense to me, since Dad was a great guy. He was smart, fun, good at building things, and great with kids. He made everyone around him (except Mom, apparently) smile and feel good about themselves. He was always having me do fun and exciting stuff with him, like exploring the woods or the riverbank, or teaching me to fly and use tools.

Anyway, after almost 30 years of being treated like a second-class citizen in his own house, Dad decided he’d had enough and moved out. I could hardly blame him.

My parents divorced in December of 1969 and four months later, on March 5th of 1970, Dad learned he had pancreatic cancer. He was six feet tall and normally weighed 180 pounds, but by the time he died on October 5th, seven months later, he was under 100. Before he died he told me he was leaving me his Corvette, with the request that he didn’t want me to drive it on public roads until I was 17 and had one year of experience in traffic with a more normal vehicle.

I was in the 8th grade then, and that period when he was dying of cancer was the worst time of my life.

The day after Dad died, Mom told me she was proud of me, how I hadn’t complained ever and had kept my grades up while Dad was dying. She wanted to get me a present, something special, that I would learn with and get good use out of. I was full of bottled-up anger and frustration, and I knew exactly what I wanted.

I wanted to go racing.

John Steen, an off-road motorcycle competitor and owner of a company in California that sold Rickman motorcycle frames and other competition parts, was importing Hodaka Ace 100 dirt motorcycles and prepping them for competition use. The Steen SS, as it was called, had better suspension, engine mods, better rubber, and a bunch of other details. A local Harley(!) shop had an unused one for sale for $575, which made it about the least-expensive competition-ready motor vehicle in the country. (Even in those days, a track-ready race kart cost over $1000 new.)

Mom bought the Steen SS for me, and I welded up a carrier for the back of her station wagon so she could take me and my bike to Riverdale Speedway, the dirt track that was ten miles from the house.

I raced for two seasons, until I was 15, and managed to win a few first-place trophies in the 100cc class. I was hanging out at race shops about as much as gun shops in those years.

My Corvette mostly stayed in the garage. Mom drove it some, but she was 57 years old, didn’t like getting in and out of it, and she didn't seem comfortable driving it. Mostly I think it reminded her of Dad, and not in the good way that it did for me. I made sure it got started and warmed up to operating temperature every week if Mom hadn’t driven it, and I changed the oil probably more often than needed.

And then something happened that made me angrier than I had ever been in my life.

My other uncle, Ben Wells (Mom's brother-in-law), was an executive whose employer provided him with a company driver. This chauffeur was a fat man named George Gidorzi. One day Gidorzi was bringing Uncle Ben and Aunt Katch by the house for lunch just as Mom was putting the Corvette in the garage on one of those rare times that she drove it.

Gidorzi asked about the car and Mom told him it was mine. She explained that Dad had left it to me but I wasn’t 16 yet, so she drove it occasionally. He then apparently began to express horror that someone planned to turn a new driver loose with a Corvette, and that there was a good chance that I would be crippled or killed in it. She explained that my father had asked that I not drive it on public roads until I was 17 and had a year’s experience, and that I accepted that.

Gidorzi was undeterred. I wasn’t there at the time, but the obese jerk apparently went on for several minutes about the car being a rolling death trap. This, I found out later, was only the first of several such conversations that Gidorzi initiated with my mother.

Two weeks later, the school carpool driver dropped me off at home and I walked in the kitchen. Mom had a big smile on her face, but something in her happy expression didn’t seem right.

“There’s a lot more money in your bank account now,” she said brightly.

“Why?” At this question, her smile vanished.

“I sold the Corvette.” I could not believe what I had just heard. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

“When?” I asked finally.

“This morning, after I dropped you off at school.”

“Who bought it?”

“A mechanic at Barford Chevrolet.”

“How did a mechanic at Barford Chevrolet come to believe that MY Corvette was for sale?” At this question her face collapsed and the whole story came out. The mechanic was, of course, a friend of George Gidorzi.

“Don’t you even want to know how much money I put in your bank account?” Mom asked finally.

“I already know the answer to that: Not nearly enough. But since you want me to, I’ll ask. How much did the nice man at the Chevrolet dealership give you for a 435 horsepower Corvette with aluminum heads and less than ten thousand miles on the clock?”

“Twenty-five hundred dollars.” I knew it was worth three times that amount, but I said nothing and just stared at her. “Please say something.” I remained silent. “Please, you can’t just never talk to me again, let’s talk about this.”

There was, of course, nothing to talk about. The title was signed over and the man’s check had been cashed. The Corvette Dad had given me was gone.

My mother’s expression changed to one of anger, and she raised her voice. “You’ve GOT to say something, I’M YOUR MOTHER!”

“Yes, you are, and I’m amazed Dad stuck it out with you for as long as he did,” I told her, and walked out of the room.

I am more ashamed of uttering that sentence than all the other bad things I’ve ever done in my life put together. Not because it was a lie, but because it was true.

In the morning I apologized to Mom and she said said she understood why I was angry. I wasn't sure she really did, but that was of no consequence. Two seemingly unrelated things were about to happen to me in the next week, and I was going to have my frustrated anger channeled into something more productive and profitable, albeit of questionable legality...

A few days after Mom sold my Corvette, my history teacher announced that we were going to be assigned a term paper. I was in the 10th grade. We were studying WWII, and I planned to do something involving aviation during the war. That evening the phone rang, and an older friend named Vic, a mechanic at the local Standard station, wanted to come by and talk about something. I said okay.

Vic showed up in a gold-colored 1969 Plymouth 440 GTX, a car I had not seen him drive before. I soon learned what he wanted. He was going street racing that night and wanted me to come along. It sounded like it might be fun, until he added these words: “Bring your .44.”

Vic explained that there was money involved, sometimes big money, and almost every racer had an “enforcer,” someone he brought along to make sure the other guy didn’t try to back out of paying after losing, and to generally watch his back.

This struck me as a REALLY bad proposition. The right guy for this kind of job would be a very large, physically imposing person. I was neither. I hadn’t even started shaving yet. What did Vic expect me to do, threaten to shoot somebody over a $50 debt that wasn’t even owed to me? I told Vic he’d been watching too many bad movies.

Vic kept after me and I finally agreed that I’d come along and see what this was all about. I’d watch his back and make sure no one hurt him but I was absolutely not going to get involved over purely financial disputes. He seemed okay with that.

That evening I got an education. We went to one of the local Steak ‘n’ Shakes and there were all kinds of guys standing around the parking lot, scoping out each other’s vehicles. Most of the guys were white, but a few black men had come to race. Most of the cars were mid-size bodies, like Chevelles, Roadrunners, and Fairlanes, with first-gen Camaros and some Mustangs thrown in the mix. I noticed that no one had a Corvette. The behavior of the guys would have given a drama teacher material for a year.

I have never played poker, but I know a little about how it’s done. These guys had similar strategy. They all acted completely nonchalant, but they guarded their engine compartments like Fort Knox. About half the cars had hood pins with padlocks through the posts.

Vic pointed out some of the cars he had seen race. I soon realized that this was a very different kind of racing than I was familiar with, as it involved betting. Everyone was here to hustle everyone else for money, like in a pool hall. You might agree to a $50 bet with some guy, with the intention of sandbagging him and thereby inducing the next guy to race you to bet more heavily.

Except maybe the first guy you raced had been sandbagging you a little bit, too…

Watching the dance between the drivers got me to thinking about the best kind of car for this type of competition. As I looked over the vehicles in the parking lot, it struck me that many owners had spent a fair amount of money on things that wouldn’t make their cars any more competitive. I saw little point in beautiful paint jobs, polished aluminum, and lots of chrome. Then I wondered if that was part of the strategy—look like a showboat but then surprise them with a killer motor. Then there were the beaters: ratty-looking cars that may or may not have had some serious driveline work done. I decided I’d pay close attention to them all.

After a good 40 minutes of jawing back and forth, the drivers started leaving for the spot where they’d race. It was standard protocol for the two cars who had agreed to race each other to follow each other closely to the race site. This was because there was a story (which may have been an urban legend) about a Dodge engineer in Detroit who showed up with a VERY stock vehicle, and on the way to the race site, had switched it for an identical-appearing car with a full-on engine under the hood.

People will do things like that when there’s money involved…

We went across the Mississippi River into Illinois to a stretch of rural road near East St. Louis that was known locally (at that time) as “****** Slicks.” I was never sure if the East St. Louis Police Department didn’t have the manpower to patrol the area, or if someone had been paid off. In any event, we didn’t see any cops around there, that night or any other.

Vic had paired up with a guy in a 1968 428 Cobra Jet Mustang. Vic said he thought the guy had a stock motor and had only added glasspacks which might give the car a few more horsepower but mostly just made it louder.

“How much is on the line?” I asked.

“A hundred fifty.”

“He’s at least 700 pounds lighter—have you got the motor to make up for that?”

“I think so. But here’s the main thing: I’ve never seen this guy before and aside from the mufflers, he’s bone stock. His car’s a 4-speed. I’m betting he can’t shift as fast as this built TorqFlite,” he told me, patting the lever growing up out of the transmission tunnel.

Turned out he was right. When our turn came and Vic nailed the throttle from a 5 MPH rolling start, the lighter Mustang pulled ahead by half a length to about 60 MPH, when the driver missed a shift just as the GTX’s automatic banged into second and chirped the tires on its way to over 100.

The Mustang driver paid Vic the $150 without complaint. Vic handed me a twenty and thanked me for coming along. All the way back to the house I was thinking about how to build a fast car that looked slow on a budget of about $2500, the money I had from Mom selling my Corvette. I was thinking of what racer/engineer Mark Donohue often said: that he was always looking for an “unfair advantage.”

So was I. I just didn’t expect to find it in a high school history class…

I started looking for a suitable car to build into a street racer, and at the same time I was researching WWII aviation for my term paper. I came across a reference to the Germans experimenting with injecting Nitrous Oxide (NO) into aircraft engines for better high altitude performance. The Germans during that period were always trying crazy stuff, not the least of which was the Komet Me163 rocket plane, a production military fighter aircraft with less than eight minutes(!) of fuel supply and that also had a nasty tendency to blow up.

The sources I was referred to regarding these Nitrous injection experiments were all in German, so after I got copies of the texts I had to find an engineer-type whose native language was German. I found a Swiss man on loan to one of the local universities, and he was a big help. He seemed amused at a 15-year-old’s rabid interest in an obscure and ultimately impractical aviation experiment. The main thing I took from this research was the importance of getting the correct amount of additional gasoline introduced into the engine for the amount of nitrous oxide being supplied. Lean combos destroyed motors.

My Chemistry teacher at the time was amused at my sudden interest in stoichiometric ratios and similar molecular issues. You guys here on Speedtalk are probably equally amused at the idea of a fifteen year old kid in Missouri stumbling onto something that the guys in California had been tinkering with for over a decade. However, I'd never seen any mention of nitrous regarding race cars, and thought I'd found something new.

Things were coming together on several levels. I found a 1965 Chevy II sport coupe with a 300 HP 327 engine, Powerglide 2-speed automatic, and 12-bolt rearend that I was ultimately able to buy for $325 because the engine had a rod knock and the owner knew that it wouldn’t be drivable at all pretty soon. Another gun and racing buddy named Jerry helped me look the car over and get it back to his welding shop in Jefferson County, near our summer place. I was still only 15 and couldn’t legally drive on public roads.

Boemler Chevrolet in Arnold, MO (where Dad had bought his Corvette) sold me an L88 427 engine new in the crate for $1180, with 12.25:1 compression and the new “open chamber” cylinder head design, unlike the ones on Dad's '68. GM had offered the 396 in Chevy IIs (Novas) from 1968 to 1970, so there were factory motor mounts to facilitate the engine swap. We pulled the intake manifold off and port-matched the intake runners to the heads, then pulled the heads and took them to Ron Winterhoff of Ron’s Porting Service in St. Peters for him to give us more flow.

I hadn’t yet decided what transmission to use yet. I was leaning towards a TH400 automatic as I didn’t want missed shifts to ever be an issue on a car I intended to make money with. Torque converter technology in those days was nothing like it is now, however, and a 4-speed had the advantage if your shifting was perfect.

Then a local drag racer at Pevely’s I-55 Dragway started parting out his Biscayne drag race car during a divorce. Someone else had already bought the engine, and he had a B&M Clutch-Turbo trans setup for sale.

The Chevy II wasn’t titled yet and I couldn’t have it in my name at age 15 so I called my uncle Graves and showed him what I had bought. He looked pained and asked why I hadn’t talked to him first before buying such a piece of junk. I laughed and explained that I wanted to learn about engines and this was a cheap way to do it. I pointed out that the car was light and with a healthy rebuilt V8, ought to be fun. I told him I would challenge him to a race when I was all done. He howled at that one, as he drove a 1967 Porsche 911S with a 7700 RPM redline. He had let me drive the 911 several times when we went out to hunt clubs in sparsely-populated areas of Missouri.

With my uncle now in a good mood, I asked if he’d put my Chevy II in his name and not mention it to Mom. Mom wanted me to have her 1968 Opel GT to drive when I turned 16. She didn’t like getting in and out of it anymore. My uncle had driven the Opel and proclaimed that it “didn’t have enough power to get out of its own way,” a sentiment I shared. The car also understeered worse than any car I had ever driven.

I told him Mom would just say I was wasting time obsessing about cars and I didn’t need that kind of nuisance. My uncle knew we weren’t getting along so well since she’d sold the Corvette, and she’d been drinking more than usual in the two years since Dad had died. He agreed to keep the Chevy II our secret. That was one roadblock out of the way.

I didn’t mention the L88 motor that was sitting in the corner of the welding shop…

Jerry and I pulled the 327 and tore it down for a rebuild. The crank was forged, which surprised me, but the rest of the motor appeared to have been pieced together from leftover parts—for example, the pistons didn’t match and there were three different makes of pushrods in the engine. I had a local shop grind the crank and modify the block for four-bolt main caps after they decked the block and gave it a clean-up bore. Speed-O-Motive supplied a master rebuild kit with reconditioned GM “pink sheet” rods, forged pistons, cam, lifters, pushrods, and valve springs.

At the same time I was collecting the remaining parts needed to make the Chevy II what I wanted: 750 Holley from a swap meet, Camaro front disc brakes and dual master cylinder from a junkyard, custom heavier rear springs made by Launer-Voss in St. Louis, Summers Brothers oversize axles and spool for the rearend, steel 15” rear wheels that used up all the available space in the rear wheelwells, Doug Thorley headers for the L88, a thicker radiator, seamless steel tubing for the driveshaft from Ryerson Steel, truck U-joints, and some rear tires retreaded with a super-sticky compound by West Coast racer Jack McCoy in Modesto, CA, under his trade name "Bite-Rite."

I added up my receipts and the total investment was about $2900, including the L88 and the parts to rebuild the 327.

With the rebuilt 327 hooked up to the Clutch-Turbo, and the stock iron exhaust manifolds plumbed back into a dual exhaust system, the car ran well. It was no fire-breather, but everything worked and it had some snap.

It was time to try to build a nitrous system.

A local scuba shop (they actually have a few in St. Louis) provided two “bail-out bottles” and Puritan-Bennett filled them.

I’d been talking to a Monsanto engineer (another shooting friend) about how to measure nitrous flow and he said he had a way to do it if I provided him with the hardware I intended to use. I came up with a bunch of different injector nozzles (I think they were off an old Hilborn unit) from a local sprint car racer. I was deathly afraid of poor mixing of the nitrous with the gasoline and having one or more cylinders get mostly nitrous with disastrous results. Art Freund machined up an aluminum Y-block fitting to feed the fuel and nitrous into two legs of the Y and the mixture out the third leg. It was my theory that the vaporizing nitrous would better atomize the liquid spray of gasoline, but I didn’t tell anyone this. Years later, NOS would patent this design as their “Fogger” nozzle.

The end of the school year and my 16th birthday were fast approaching, and I had a summer job lined up at a municipal swimming pool in a small town outside Chicago. I put the nitrous plan on hold until my return in August to study for final exams.

More later...

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Re: How I got here, Part 1

Post by Ken0069 » Tue May 23, 2017 8:35 am

John Ross wrote: This may ramble a bit.
Man, that's an understatement if I ever read one! #-o Maybe you should write a book!
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Re: How I got here, Part 1

Post by bubbabbc » Tue May 23, 2017 8:41 am

Ken0069 wrote:
John Ross wrote: This may ramble a bit.
Man, that's an understatement if I ever read one! #-o Maybe you should write a book!

And that was the condensed version.

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Re: How I got here, Part 1

Post by n2xlr8n » Thu Jun 29, 2017 2:03 pm

We of sentiment are waiting for part II.
He who is in me is greater than he who is in the world.

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Re: How I got here, Part 1

Post by pdq67 » Sat Jul 01, 2017 6:53 pm

n2xlr8n wrote:We of sentiment are waiting for part II.
Right, waiting for more to read!!

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Re: How I got here, Part 1

Post by pdq67 » Wed Aug 02, 2017 2:57 am

What happened to the continuation of this thread??

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Re: How I got here, Part 1

Post by pdq67 » Sun Aug 27, 2017 10:37 pm

As, "Paul Harvey", would say, "Where's the rest of the story??

He, He!!

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