A Day with John Lawson

We met for breakfast near my hotel as I was driving east and had stopped off near Indianapolis to visit with John.

We started off talking about racing and how it becomes a passion for so many of us.  But John corrected me.  He felt that it was an addiction.  He talked about how it could easily absorb all your focus in life and when you found that you had just devoted thirty years to it you also had to realize how that time might be time that was taken from your family.

I first met John last December at the PRI (Performance Racing Industry) show in Indianapolis.  There a car that he had spent seven years on as a project was on display.  It’s body harkened back to the Indy roadster days of the early 1960’s.  John had formed that body himself out of aluminum along with its frame. He had a Buick “nail head” V8 engine in the front that was waiting for a set of exhaust headers.  He caught my attention when he explained that he made his own wheels as well as the front disc brakes.

He also told me that he felt that it was going to be his last project, that he now wanted to focus on his family.  So I collected his contact information and told him that I hoped to get out to see his collection soon.  Soon ended up being five months later in Indiana.

Over breakfast our discussions continued and ranged from springs to alignments.  He has a wealth of knowledge in suspension set-ups for circle track and all of mine has been on road course set-ups.  Terms like caster, camber, and ackerman were traded across the table.  John had spent a lifetime studying springs and torsion bars.  He learned how the heat treating process would affect the properties beyond the basic spring rate.  He talked of how a batch of springs that went through the same heat treatment could and would have different rebound characteristics even though the spring rates, themselves, would be the same.

John tutored me in how camber, a huge factor in racing alignments along with caster, was a function of the change in tire construction from bias-belted to radial.  That with bias-belted tires the most camber you might use was half a degree negative, but with modern radial tires the flex of the sidewall meant three to six degrees of negative camber to prevent loss of grip as the sidewall rolled.

We talked about racing in general and how it has evolved into something that is so very different from its roots and now struggles  to engage with the fan base as well as it once did.

Breakfast concluded and John had me follow him to Jamestown to a shop where his project car that was displayed at PRI was being worked on. Steve’s Auto Fab was working to construct and TIG weld a beautiful and unique set of custom headers that would blend into external exhaust pipes.  Steve himself was working on the welding.

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Notice that the V8 engine is a Buick “nail head”.

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John custom formed the car’s aluminum body over bucks that he built himself out of wood.

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Notice in the above photo that the radiator is actually a two-piece design so that there would be space for the torsion bar suspension that John designed and fabricated.

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The tail light structures are works of art.

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John designed, made the wooden patterns, and had the custom gas cap cast for this car.

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The front suspension, brake rotors, calipers, and wheels were all designed by John.  He made the wooden patterns that the casting molds were made from.  He uses different local foundries depending on which one has the time and can do the best castings in the material that he needs the part cast in.  He then does the finishing machinery himself.

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John is not fond of louvers to vent for cooling so he designed and formed beautifully smooth venting in the hood and air exhaust ducts along the bottom edge of the engine compartment.

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He has been doing this kind of work for decades and his eye for detail is marvelous.

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Above is one of the wheels that he designed and had cast.

John wasn’t happy with the nail head’s oil pump so he left the pickup in the sump (also his design) and will rout oil lines to an external pump driven off the engine’s front gears.

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Above is the wooden pattern that John made for the cast oil sump. He also designed and made the patterns for these “lobster” calipers.  They are works of art.

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Steve’s Auto Fab, as the name implies, does custom automotive fabrication.  Steve was nice enough to let me explore his shop and see some of the other cars there.  It was quite an experience, as these photos will attest.

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That’s Mike working on the car above.

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The car above is a roller at the moment and John thinks that it deserves a Cadillac engine rather than the typical small block Chevy, and I agree.

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The J P Special, above, is a great example of the hot rodder’s art and had a unique feature applied to the flat-head’s exhaust header.

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It is a front fork medallion from a Ben Hur bicycle that was once manufactured in Indianapolis.  It fit the exhaust pipe perfectly and added a wonderful touch.

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Mike and Steve were great hosts that shared many interesting stories.

John wanted me to be sure to get a shot of this device:

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It is what is called a “Gas Fluxer”.  As it was explained to me it is used in the process of making race car frames.  In England it was common to braze the frames together instead of welding.  This produced a more flexible frame that was less brittle and acted as part of the suspension.  Fascinating stuff.

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Above is a shot of Mike sitting in A J Watson’s Indy roadster.  One of the six built by A J Watson that were race winners.

I could have stayed in that shop all day, but they had work to get done and John wanted to next take me to his own shop at his house.  A J Watson and John were good friends who spent a lot of time working together building and restoring Indy racing cars from the 1950’ and 1960’s.  John’s father worked with Mickey Thompson’s racers as well.

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Here is a photo of A J Watson working in John’s shop.  It was A J’s first time using a pneumatic rivet gun.

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John is reducing the number of his projects and is selling off many of his pieces of metal working machinery.

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One of his favorites is a flat-belt driven drill press that A J Watson used to build his race cars with and gave to John.

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John also has a collection of books and reference materials.  Here is a peek at a small part of his collection.

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Here is reference materials that you find in no other place.  Priceless information that has often been discarded in favor of modern texts.

John also has some classic automotive testing machines that are in pristine condition.  Test equipment such as this Sun distributor machine.

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John told me how it had never actually worked and sat unused until someone who new electronics opened up the back and found a wire that had never been connected when it was manufactured.  So this is now a virtually new machine ready to service a technology that you will only find in classic cars.

Another piece of Sun equipment is this Engine Performance Tester.  It may appear large and bulky compared to the laptops and scan tools used today, but it was technology to die for in its day.  With it you could set the cam timing perfectly just by watching the vacuum meter which was large enough to see while working on the engine.  It also has an oscilloscope to give you precise information on how ignition was taking place.

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John has other priceless gems in his collection of car parts.  Here on a shelf is an intake manifold  made by Detroit Racing Equipment topped off with a pair of Rochester 4-barrel carburetors. Perhaps a couple of hundred were made and it is likely that there are only a handful still in existence, and here they are.

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Shelves full of parts that defy a person to put a value on.

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John also has a love of aircraft and fashioned these seats from ones that were in a B-17.

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John still has a couple of cars in his personal shop.  This one is a moonshiner’s car from North Carolina.

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This next photo is of a bullet hole in the rear inside wheel well.

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John’s wife’s family were the Bakers of Clay County, Kentucky. They were the model for the movie Thunder Road, staring Robert Mitchum.  This car had been chased by revenuers who shot at it, hitting the trunk and the bullet passed through to put a hole in the wheel well.

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Another in-process restoration project also sits in John’s shop.  It is a Pan-American race car that originally belonged to Joel Thorne.  Joel was heir to the Chase Manhattan Bank and Pullman Railroad fortunes (valued at $38 million).  Joel was what could be called a daredevil sportsman who spent his money on fast cars, motorcycles, hydroplanes, airplanes, and women.  Joel liked living the playboy life and after graduating from Rutgers University, he attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1933 and was hooked.  The next year he was a mechanic for Lou Moore and a couple of years later he tried to qualify for the race.  He had acquired a front-wheel-drive Shaw/Offy.  This was the first car to have an Offenhauser Engineering Co. badge on the engine.  Shaw had raced the car previously and came in second in the 1935 race.

In between hydroplane racing, stunt flying for the movies, and other playboy activities Joel continued his quest to be competitive in the Indy 500.  In 1938 he wanted to buy the Sparks “Big Six”, a six cylinder version of the successful Offenhauser 4-cylinder engine in a race car.  In 1939 Joel Thorne qualified to start 20th and finished in seventh place.  He continued to edge his way up over the next couple of years.

Thorne entered the big car in the 1951 Pikes Peak Hill Climb but after two practice runs he put the brute back on the trailer finding it too terrifying an experience.

Then he decided to use the car for the basis of an entry in the 1953 Carrera Pan America race, the Mexican Road Race.  He hired Sonny Bohman to build the car, which was essentially an oversized Indy roadster with two seats and a fifty gallon fuel tank.  The car was not ready and Joel never competed. The car was still unfinished when Joel was killed piloting an airplane in 1955.

And here is the car as it sits today.

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The wells on either side of the fuel tank are for the spare wheels and tires.

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John told me that the original frame was derived from a road car but was too far gone to save.  John fabricated a new frame from tubing and used many of the original gussets in its construction.

John has lost interest in the car and finds that he would rather work on cars that are his own design.  So he will find a buyer who is interested in taking the project to completion.

John and I spent over four hours exploring all the treasures and listening to his thoughts on the current state of racing, as well as his perspective on a life where he spent much of it focused on racing.  John, a master in metal, is just as comfortable in working with wood.  This skill has allowed him to create his own  patterns to mold custom parts with.  These patterns are works of art in and of themselves.  He has a wealth of knowledge and experience in this part of American racing, and his skills are unique and rare.  It could be said that he is a national treasure.

John does have regrets though.  He feels that he invested huge amounts of time into his passion (my word, John calls it an addiction) and consequently it was time he lost with his family.  He feels now that he is on track to bring his family into the foreground of his life and he doesn’t want to go back to the tunnel vision that his obsession with racing became.

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