The Little Engine That Did

I’ve always referred to it as: “My hot rod motor”… To call it “junk” or a “junkyard anything” would be inaccurate. From the beginning, it was built with decent parts… it just wasn’t “race stuff.”

The iron block may be the first V-8 I ever owned. Something my volunteer builder procured when he was assembling the engine for my first Modified around ’94. Or it could be from the complete engine I bought off the bulletin board at Knecht’s in Cottage Grove, OR. “Hear it run on the dyno!” the index card proclaimed. It was built as a backup by some IMCA racer’s dad. I guess they didn’t need it. I’m quite certain the rotating assembly came from that IMCA motor. The iron “202” cylinder heads were a sponsorship from Roger’s Automotive in Auburn, CA. The Vertex mag was purchased directly from the manufacturer when I worked for Competition Specialties.

I managed to land an engine sponsor my second year in a Sprint Car and the hot rod motor was relegated to a spare. I’m happy to say that my race engine (built by Rick Guest aka R&G Machine that advertises in this paper) never missed a beat so the spare sat idle for the next five years or so. It wasn’t until my buddy stuck it in my Super did it breath life again. I ran the car a couple times in Banks, OR (there were non-engine related issues) and again it was mothballed.

In 2007 my neighbor and fellow Sunset competitor Tommy Moreno was making a run at Rookie of the Year with a talented Stock Car graduate piloting his Sprint Car. Pat Canfield had won a Feature about mid-season and was well ahead in rookie points when the team barfed their only engine with two races remaining on the schedule. I volunteered the use of my hot rod motor and Moreno and Canfield didn’t hesitate. They extracted the engine from my Super and plugged it into their Sprinter. The following weekend at Sunset, Canfield peddled to third or fourth in the Main Event and within a week or two had a similar finish over at Madras. The team was able to clinch top rookie honors and wound up with a top five in the overall point standings as well. Afterwards Moreno cleaned, wrapped and returned the engine to me. It sat on the end of my workbench for another eight years.

In 2015 Bernie and Jimmy Voytek prepped my Super for competition with West Coast Vintage Racers and reinstalled my hot rod motor. Unfortunately the club had moved away from dirt track racing by the time I was ready to participate. The Voyteks convinced me to give asphalt racing a try so I towed the Super to Roseville, CA for the West Capital Alumni Assn. races on Halloween of ’17. We had a blast that weekend but battled overheating problems each time I took to the oval. Bernie suggested I might have a cracked cylinder head and sure enough that turned out to be the case.

I ended up buying another vintage race car for the full on racing engine that came with it. Bernie located another set of iron cylinder heads, similar to what I had, and installed them on my hot rod motor. I brought the engine home and slid it under my workbench. This time it wouldn’t sit idle for long…

The 2019 edition of the Wingless Sprint Series was winding down when I received a call from a friend whom I know from the NW Old Time racers group. A biker friend of hers, “Rhino” was crew chief on a Sprint Car and they had blown their only engine with two events remaining. Turns out I know Rhino and his brother-in-law Lance Hallmark. I explained to Hallmark exactly what I had and told him he was welcome to use it. One of the races remaining was the HPP Wingless National – A two day show at Cottage Grove with an inflated purse. It was imperative that the team participate in that as well as the season finale at Willamette, if they hoped to maintain their ranking in the points. Hallmark picked up the engine the night after we spoke. He plugged it into his Sprint Car the next evening and Friday night called me from the racetrack in a panic. He had adjusted the valves and the engine would not fire. He had already missed warmups, qualifying and his heat race- all that remained was the Feature. In frustration, Rhino had already thrown in the towel and taken a seat in the grandstands. Fortunately I was able to get ahold of Bernie and put him in direct contact with Hallmark. With the valves reset to Voytek’s specs, the hot rod motor sputtered to life and Hallmark joined the starting field in the 22nd and final starting position. In short order, Hallmark familiarized himself with the limitations of his new power plant and began to move forward. By the conclusion of the race he had broken into the top ten.

I decided to attend on Saturday night when the big money was being offered. Hallmark had continued to make adjustments in gearing and engine cooling throughout the day, to improve the marriage between his car and my engine. He gave us a thrill before dusk by winning one of the three preliminary heats. Based on that win and Friday night’s finish, he was slotted seventh for the fifty lap Feature. Race sponsor Mark Herz grabbed the lead at the drop of the green flag but within four cantos, Hallmark seized the point. He had clearly adjusted his driving to maximize his car’s potential- limiting his slides through the turns to maintain forward momentum. Before long he had opened up an insurmountable lead and no one was closing. Then disaster, a back-marker got upside down in turn two bringing out the red flag. We figured our Cinderella Story had ended as only a couple of lapped cars separated Hallmark from some hotdogs up from California that had threaded their way through the field. But when racing resumed, Hallmark again began to pull away and it was easy to see why. He wasn’t scrubbing off speed in the corners or breaking the tires loose on the straightaways. By contrast the second and third place entries were at opposite lock coming off the turns and fishtailing on the straights. When the checkered flag fell, Hallmark was again leading by a large margin.

Modest in victory, Hallmark called my engine a “Torque Monster” and revealed had he’d never turned more than 5,900 rpm! He and his crew invited me to join them on the front straightaway but I declined. Hallmark deserves all the credit for his win. Bernie Voytek just smiled like the Cheshire Cat. He estimates that my engine has a lowly 11 ½ to 1 compression ratio and makes between 400 and 420 horsepower! If more people had known our secret, I’m sure the celebration in the pits would have been larger.

Race engine builder Brian Crockett was attempting to assist Hallmark when he discovered that the motor had a hydraulic lifter cam. After he congratulated Hallmark he remarked: “You guys just set race engine technology back thirty years!”

But then again, it isn’t a race engine… it’s a hot rod motor.

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