Engine Builder Keith Dorton and Automotive Specialists celebrate fifty years of racing–and winning
Keith Dorton is one of the most respected engine builders in the industry. His engines have won races and set records in everything from NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, dirt cars, to land speed racing. Besides winning multiple engine builder of the year titles, he’s also been inducted into the MPMC Hall of Fame.
At age 12 Dorton built a 1932 Ford Coupe powered by a flat head Ford. By age 15 he was drag racing at a nearby drag strip. Keith began his professional engine building apprenticeship right by working at the legendary Holman Moody racing operations. By 1965 he had started his own shop, Automotive Specialists, which makes this year it’s 50th anniversary.
We recently had a chance to sit down with Dorton to talk about his years building engines. Dorton could fill a book with some of his stories, but these were just a few of the best.
Starting Automotive Specialists
I had been working at Hollman Moody and got persuaded to start my own business, you might say. And I wasn’t quite ready to go out on my own when I did, but I didn’t have any choice. It was tough–I was 21 and had just gotten married. But I did know a lot of people already in the industry and that helped.
I started in a two bay garage, and like any new business I had to do a lot I didn’t want to do. Things like tune-ups and brake jobs to go along with engine work. But it quickly evolved into doing race engines. At that time a good bit of the business was drag racing and dirt-track racing, but from my experience with Hollman Moody I had gotten my feet wet with big-time racing to, so we evolved into that relatively quickly. But it was a very humble beginnings.
An crankshaft balancer was the first major piece of equipment that we purchased. At the time here the closest place to get an engine assembly balance was in Winston-Salem (about an hour-and-a-half away), so we capitalized on that and did a lot of balance jobs for all kinds of engines. And our first customer was Ralph Earnhardt (father of Dale Earnhardt Sr and grandfather of Earnhardt Jr).
Running an engine machine shop requires a lot of investment in equipment, and we definitely didn’t start out with a big budget to buy everything we wanted right away. We were constantly working to buy equipment; there was just no end to it. We got one piece of equipment that we used to pin fit and hone rods and pistons, and if I remember correctly we purchased it in 1966. And were still using it daily.
We bought so much stuff from Sunnen that I didn’t just know the credit manager there on a first name basis, we became friends! Another early purchase we made from Sunnen and was a line hone machine. We couldn’t afford a CK10 automatic cylinder bore hone so we would put block in the line hone machine and put a Coca-Cola crate on the ground so we could stand up high enough and did the bore hone using the oil from the line hone machine. We did that for a number of years until we were able to buy our first CK10.
Everything was such an investment. The first CK10 I bought was the same price as the first house my wife and I bought when we got married. When we bought our house it was $14,000 new, and when we bought the first CK10 it was 13,000. I had to do a lot of talking to convince my wife that we needed a piece of machinery that cost the almost the same as the house we were living in!
There are a lot of guys that got their first shot with us and went on to have a very nice careers in racing. There are a lot that went on to become head engine builders for their own teams and won championships. Harold Elliott, his first venture into the industry was with us, and for years we worked together. Now he runs HM Elliott, which does coatings for bearings and other things, and a lot of top engine builders trust his stuff.
You know how racers are, they will sacrifice just about everything in order to race or get into the business. We have one guy that had moved here from Washington state to North Carolina he had been promised a job but when he got here they had decided not to give it to him. He was a carpenter and didn’t have any real experience with racing engines except for racing as a hobby, but I liked him and needed somebody, so I gave him a job. And in a couple of years he was tops. He left us to go to Junior Johnson’s, and he was the head engine builder for Junior for years. His name was Beecher Hedlund.
We were really big into porting cylinder heads in the early years before CNC equipment became available, and Larry Wallace came in and just fell right in on the cylinder heads. And later on he started his own company and worked for Penske Racing as the head engine builder. He really helped put that program together and had a lot of success there.
That is one thing that I am proud of. There are so many that got their first experience in racing here. And I am happy that they were able to learn a career and move on and do well for themselves, because when they were here they worked hard and contributed to what we were doing and were part of the family.
The Earnhardt Family
Ralph Earnhardt was a mentor and a friend, and he was also my first paying customer. I really respect what he did and tried to take his advice.
We had a dirt car for a while there, and I actually raced against Ralph. He gave me a lot of advice, and I hardly listened to any of it because I was still young. Harold Elliott and I had that dirt car not only for our own enjoyment but because we thought we needed it to promote the engine building business. So we would come in at 7:30 in the morning and work on the business until 7 at night, and then we’d work on the race car until midnight most nights. But we would get to the track on Saturday afternoon and still be working on the car because we didn’t have time to do everything, and Ralph would just jump up and down. He’d say, “Don’t ever come to the race track and work on the car!” He wouldn’t even raise his hood at the track. We’d say, “We have to, we just don’t have enough time during the week.” And his answer would be, “Well then you shouldn’t be here!”
He also told me, “Don’t ever go to the race track unless you can afford to lose absolutely everything. You can blow an engine and wreck and come home with nothing. Don’t ever go to the track thinking you are going to bring back money.” And of course we all did that, but he was about the only one who was good enough to go racing and bring back money.
Building Engines in the Early Days
When we first started almost everything when it came to race parts had to come from the West Coast. People here in the southeast, we had the reputation of just being redneck dirt racers, and they weren’t all wrong, but we weren’t all dummies either! But the West Coast guys making the speed parts, they had a different mentality and they didn’t have what we needed for high horsepower endurance-type racing.
Connecting rods for instance. We couldn’t just go get a quality connecting rod. So for a small block Chevrolet that you are running on a half-mile dirt track, you went and bought what they called the Pink rod from General Motors. So we had to rework that rod to make it suitable for oval track racing. We would spend the better part of the day preparing one set of rods. You had to remove all the flashing and make sure all the grinding marks were in the same direction. And then you put bushings in and resized them, and then shot peened them. That was a lot of work but it extended the life of the rods by at least two times.
Same thing on crankshaft. Back then when you got a brand-new crankshaft from, say Chevrolet, it might have 0.0025 to 0.003 thousandths of an inch of runout in it. So we had to learn how to straighten them with a hammer and a chisel. Then you had to sit down and remove all the flashing and try to get rid of the stress risers and everything. There was hardly anything that you could buy and put right in the engine like you can now. These days you can buy a crankshaft, and all you have to do is measure the bearing clearance. You can even buy them already balanced to your rods and pistons.
There was a period when we went through a lot of piston failures. There were a limited number of piston manufacturer’s that we trusted, and we work with most all of them. We studied the problem trying to figure out what we could do to get the pistons to live.
The pistons we were using had a fair amount of machine work inside the piston, and every tool mark that was in those things left a stress riser. You couldn’t get in there and remove every tool mark, but we did what we could and then shot peened them. And it worked.
So I shared what we were doing with one of the piston manufacturers I was working with, and I just about had to pull the phone away from my ear because the guy was hollering so loud. “You can’t do it! It’s going to move the metal around and distort the piston!”
Well, I did know that. But we worked around that and by getting rid of all the sharp edges and the problem went away. I kept that to myself for a long time, and it really helped our engines. Compared to today, the time it took to build a good race engine 40 years ago was just astronomical. Yes, you could ignore some of the stuff we did. You could skip all those steps we took with the connecting rods and be OK one or two races, but by the third or fourth race you were going to find yourself with a flat tire because the engine had spit chunks of broken rod out the bottom of the oil pan onto the track.
Restrictor Plate Racing
When NASCAR first put restrictor plates on the Cup cars for Daytona and Talladega it cut the horsepower down by 200 right away. And we got beat pretty bad the first time we went to the race track with a restrictor plate engine. So I got on a mission, I just wasn’t going to let it whip me. At the end of that season I became like a hermit working on the problem. I spent all my time at the shop and kept the doors locked. I pissed off a lot of people and had to go back later and apologize for it. That’s all I thought about seven days a week. I barely even slept.
Back then we didn’t have the computing power to do simulations or things that are so common today. And nothing we’d ever done before related to what happens when you put a restrictor plate in between the carburetor and the intake. So we did some weird things trying to understand what was going on. We’d get an engine on the dyno and I would put on a crash helmet and a face shield and hang off a chain so I could look down into the carburetor and see what was going on with the engine running at speed. We even put windows in manifolds and put lights in there. How stupid does it sound now to put a 12 volt light inside the manifold of a running engine? But I’d put a helmet on and watch it hoping to see if I could figure out what was happening.
But as crazy as it sounds, it worked. It wasn’t until I put the windows in the manifold that I could see the air speed was accelerating so much because of the restrictor that it was causing the air and fuel to separate, and raw fuel was bouncing back up off the floor of the plenum.
So then it was just trial and error trying to find ways to keep the fuel from separating from the air. But we finally did hit the sweet spot, and I think it was 1990 that we had between 30 and 40 intake manifolds at Daytona. These days a Cup team will just hire an engineer to get on the computer and run some simulations, but back then we had to do it by trial and error.