When I was a math major studying at the University of Texas, my career plan never included writing a monthly column for the back of National DRAGSTER. I also recall that it didn’t say anything about becoming a professional engine builder. I’m sure that my parents thought that my fascination with drag racing was just a passing phase, and that I would get a “real” job someday. That was almost 30 years ago, and my interest in engines and racing is stronger than ever.
Although I’m more accustomed to working with a torque wrench than a word processor, I am looking forward to this new assignment. Warren Johnson is a tough act to follow, both on the race track and on the pages of this newspaper. Just as W.J. and I have different approaches to racing, we have different approaches to writing, too. Don’t expect to read any theoretical dissertations on induction system harmonics or advanced valvetrain dynamics here. I intend this page to be a place where bracket racers and weekend warriors can get practical, hands-on advice about engines.
My drag racing roots reach back to the days when you could find the ingredients for a race-winning engine in a salvage yard. Buddy Morrison and I started our engine building business in the back of an auto parts store in Mansfield, Texas in 1971. What we lacked in business experience and working capital, we more than made up for with wide-eyed enthusiasm and youthful optimism. We had a tool box, a 1/4″ drill, a die grinder, and a world to conquer.
In the ’70s, a couple of college kids could actually pay their way in drag racing. It was a time when you could race a Modified Production car or Gasser five days a week. We used $15 crankshafts, $11 pistons, and junkyard 4-speeds. It wasn’t glamorous and we were never contenders for a “Best Appearing” award, but it was a terrific education in the fundamentals of racing. The things I learned at places like EastTex Raceway, Tyler I-20 Raceway, and Hallsville had more impact on my career than the calculus classes I took in college.
Buddy and I hooked up with Bobby Cross to campaign a Chevy-powered Maverick we called “the Real Boss 302.” In 1971, We ventured into Yankee territory to race at the Springnationals, and discovered that we could compete with the “killer cars” we read about in magazines.
Bobby wanted to spend more time with his family and business, so we talked to Lee Shepherd about driving our car. We’d raced against Lee’s lime-green Chevy II station wagon at hole-in-the-wall tracks from Arkansas to Oklahoma, so we knew his ability. A self-taught cylinder head porter, Lee was as good with a grinder as he was with a 4-speed. He won Modified Eliminator at the ’74 Winternationals with our pumpkin-orange Maverick, and we were on our way.
In 1972, Buddy and I rented a stall in a industrial park in Arlington, Texas; Lee opened Shepherd Racing Heads next door. Gradually we acquired the equipment, the people, and the knowledge to turn our hobby into a real business. We had a virtual production line building small-blocks for doorslammers and dragsters.
After our first taste of success with that mongrel Maverick, we bolted our drivetrain into a borrowed Stingray Corvette, strapped Lee into the driver’s seat, and got serious about racing. In 1976, we took the giant step to Pro Stock following the standard Chevrolet recipe: a 331ci small-block in a short-wheelbase Monza. We had a pretty rough initiation to professional racing: Lee crashed in Englishtown, and we couldn’t get the trick factory cylinder head castings we needed to be competitive. It wasn’t until we built an unconventional long-wheelbase Camaro that we started to win consistently: in ten races in 1980, that red-white-and-blue Z28 racked up six wins and three runners-up. The following season we developed a small-displacement big-block that won six more times and powered Lee to his first of four straight NHRA Winston championships.
In the five years from 1980 to 1984, a Reher-Morrison car reached the finals in 44 of 56 NHRA national events. In 1983 and 1984, Lee swept the NHRA and IHRA Pro Stock titles. He won every race on the NHRA tour at least once, and compiled a 173-47 won-loss record. Lee is still ranked 15th on the list of all-time NHRA winners with 29 career victories in Pro and sportsman classes.
Bruce Allen joined our team after Lee’s death in a testing accident in 1985. Bruce continued the record of success at Reher-Morrison Racing Engines, capturing another “Mountain Motor” championship and winning 12 NHRA races in 30 final-round appearances. He finished third in the NHRA standings three consecutive seasons, was runner-up to Bob Glidden in the 1989 NHRA championship, and went to the final round of the Pro Stock Challenge six times.
The racing world has changed dramatically since Buddy and I bolted together our first small-block at Mansfield Auto Supply. We scoured the junkyards for seasoned blocks and “fuelie” heads; now we can buy factory and aftermarket parts that are light-years ahead of anything we imagined in 1970.
The technology of engine building has also changed. Buddy built our first dynamometer and our first flow bench from scratch at a time when such equipment was virtually unknown in drag racing. They were our “secret weapons” in the Pro Stock wars of the early ’80s; today we test every engine on the dyno, from our own race motors to the bracket racing big-blocks we sell to our customers.
I’ve seen a dramatic change in racers as well. There are still people who piece together engines from a pile of used parts and port their own cylinder heads in their garages, but it’s much more common for serious racers to buy complete, dyno-tested engines. You only have to stroll through the rows of motor homes and enclosed trailers in the sportsman pits to see how the sport has matured. Many of these racers have reached the stage of life where their time is better spent working on their businesses than working on a motor in a cold garage.
On the rare weekends when Bruce and I aren’t racing at a national event, I like to get back to my racing roots at a track like Kennedale Raceway. This gem of a drag strip is just a few miles from my house. The competition on Kennedale’s 1/8th mile is intense, but the atmosphere is cordial. As I walk through pits talking to racers, I hear a common theme: They love to race, but they have busy lives outside of the sport. For racers like these, a one-day bracket race satisfies their craving for competition without the expense of traveling and the hassles of spending days away from their families.
This monthly column will be aimed at the thousands of racers who spend their weekends at tracks like Kennedale. I hope you enjoy it!