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.




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


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




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.



The tail light structures are works of art.


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


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.


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.



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



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.




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.



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.


That’s Mike working on the car above.




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.



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.


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.


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

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


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.


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.


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.


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




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.



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




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.


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.


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.



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




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


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



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


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.


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.





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


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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The Chick Magnet gets bigger brakes

In the past I’ve shared my adventures with my 1992 Toyota Pickup truck, a.k.a. the Chick Magnet.  I’ve had the truck for about sixteen years and it has been a journey of repair and improvements.  It got the Name “chick magnet” through its unfortunate habit of being rear-ended by women drivers.  After four times things have settled down and I have been enjoying it as my daily driver.

red pickup truck

Its been re-painted, re-upholstered, it has had its suspension rebuilt, and it has a wonderful engine built by the folks at LC Engineering in Arizona.  The only area that it seemed lacking in was brakes.  The stock brakes were essentially adequate, but as more power was added to the drivetrain they developed a bad habit of pulsing and feeling a bit weak.

I looked all over for “big brake” options.  There are some nice aftermarket solutions that use Willwood calipers and larger rotors.  My problem with that solution was that it required larger wheels, usually 17” rims.  I just didn’t want to make that investment all over again since I changed to XD122 Enduros in 15” and liked the look as it allowed me to keep a wide enough sidewall that it still looked like a truck.

So what to do?  I explored several forums and learned what other Pickup owners had done.  Most of them were 4WD trucks and mine is a 2WD.  Others had swapped out their 22RE for a Chevy LS engine.  Buried in all the information was a 1 ton version of my truck that had much larger calipers and bigger rotors that just might be a bolt-on swap. Would it really be a bolt-on?  I decided to locate the parts and give it a try.

Rockauto had some 1-ton PD66 type calipers and rotors for a very good price.  If I was going to gamble I would at least try there so my budget wouldn’t take a big hit if it was a mistake.

With larger calipers that had much larger pistons than my original calipers I knew that I would need to upgrade my brake master cylinder from the stock 7/8” piston to something larger so I found a Toyota one that had a 1 and 1/16” piston to replace it with.

Then came the weekend that I had time to put the package together.  My hope was that since everything was Toyota that it would not mean fabricating a new caliper bracket or drilling and tapping new mounting holes.


The above photo shows the 1-ton calipers on the left and the originals for my 1/4-ton on the right. The new ones are not only larger, they have a nice cadmium plating to help keep them looking good for a long time.

I removed the original sized rotors from the hub and bolted up the larger 1-ton rotors.  Everything fit like a glove and they even were not too large for the splash shields.


Above are the stock rotors and hub with the mounting bolts removed.


The new rotors bolted to the original hub just fine.


As you can see above, the big rotors still fit the factory splash shields even though they are a larger diameter.


Here you can see that the 1-ton rotors are a only bit larger in diameter than the stock, but that size differential makes a big difference.

The only thing that needed modification on the splash shields was the area where the larger caliper brackets needed to bolt up.  A little work with some tin snips and a ball-peen hammer and the brackets fit perfectly.


Then the new brackets were bolted up.


Followed by the pads and new calipers.



There was only one piece of fabricating required.  There is a flex hose brake line that connects the the hard line on the caliper to the hard line on the chassis.  The hard line on the caliper was kept in place on the old caliper by a metal bracket.


There was a different metal bracket to work with the 1-ton calipers, but Toyota no longer has them available and I was unlikely to find a 1-ton truck in a local recycling yard.  So I got new hard lines for the calipers, they were the same as the ones on the old calipers, and cleaned up the metal brackets.

What I needed was a piece to bridge the 1.75” gap between the small caliper bracket and the mounting hole on the new, big caliper.  So I fabricated the metal bridges.


I made a square hole in one end so that I could use a smooth headed carriage bolt on one end.  A regular bolt head would have interfered with the caliper bracket mounting bolt.


A nylock nut was used on the carriage bolt so there should be no danger of it vibrating loose in the future.


Above is another view of the caliper and the bracket bridge where you can see where it could have interfered with the caliper bracket mounting bolt.

All the bolts were checked for proper torque and the new master cylinder was swapped in place of the smaller stock unit.  All the hard brake lines matched up perfectly to the new master cylinder and the system was bled before a test drive.

So how are the new brakes?  Wonderful.  I get a lot more braking capacity and the pedal feel is even better with the larger bore master cylinder.

The guys at the shop joke about it being the first pickup truck that can do an “endo”.  Actually the performance is so good that the brakes are easier to modulate and the brakes are so heavy duty that I probably won’t need to replace the pads for another 100,000 miles.  They are easy to modulate and don’t grab and lock up. Instead they have plenty of reserve capacity and great pedal feel.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Care and Feeding, Cars, Life and Cars, Modifying Cars | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

PRI 2015–more cars

In our last post there were celebrities of the human kind and many of the four-wheeled kind.  Plenty to view, but there were more, much more.

Here are some for the Chevy fans out there:


Putting cars on their sides to view has become very popular at these shows.


The perspective above shows off many of the performance suspension features of the new Corvette.


…and the Camaro


How about a classic Camaro?



With a modern twist…







The folks at Optima batteries had various race cars on display…


This truck had been at the VIR races earlier this year.


and this Chump car was at VIR, too


Ford was well represented.




Another car on its side.


Remember the Capri?




One of the big stars of the show was the new Ford GT.  I first saw the new Ford GT at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit early this year, but this is the LeMans race car in full race trim.  There will be changes before the 2016 Le Mans race, but this give you a good idea of some of the features on this amazing race car…









PRI 2015 was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, so the home of the Indy 500 showed off many examples of the race cars as well as the Borg Warner trophy.


Ed Carpenter’s team car…











Every year some company comes out with a new exotic track car and here is the one introduced at this year’s show:





So reach into your pocket for about $150,000 and get ready for an exciting track day.


I hope that you’ve enjoyed this view of the show.  Unlike SEMA it is only for racing industry folks so this is your exclusive peek. 🙂

Posted in Automobiles, Car Shows, Car Stuff, Cars, Racing, Rally Cars, Road Racing, Road Trips, Sports Cars | Tagged | 1 Comment

PRI 2015–Celebs

PRI may be over, but it is not forgotten by a long shot.  This racing industry show gave many thousands the chance to see and talk to many critical vendors that support the sport.  In addition there were many celebrities there to talk to the attendees and share their perspectives on this world-wide industry.

The first morning’s breakfast had Dave Despain’s commentary on the industry as well as a lively interview with Brad Keselowski.


Over the rest of the days there were seminars on Land Speed Racing with Louise Ann Noeth of Land Speed Productions, Derek Daly speaking on how to position your self for success, and EricTheCarGuy talking on how he has become a YouTube phenomenon and what that can mean for racing entrepreneurs.

There were many others as I walked about the show floor:


John Force, multi-championship funny car driver.


Indy’s own Borg Warner trophy.


Lynn St. James later put in an appearance at the Sportscar Vintage Racing Booth.



World-wide TV coverage.



REVTV had coverage as well.

Plenty of stars were there on the people side of things, but perhaps the most exciting celebrities for the folks that attended PRI 2015 were the cars:




How about a Mustang body? That weighs only 115 pounds!



And who doesn’t smile to see a vintage air-cooled VW racer…




There were drag cars, too.


I just love the supercharger butterflies on this…


From cages…



To rally cars…





Some wilder cars, or trucks…


Tractors, too…



Some land speed record cars:






This will be continued in the next entry….

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PRI 2015–taking a Brake

Performance and racing is often all about power.  Achieving the most horsepower and torque you can and pulling away from your competition. Then come the corners and physics insists that you don’t ignore its properties or off you go. 

To help with that you need a set of high performance brakes.  Some classifications of racing allow you a great deal of latitude and many of today’s performance cars come with performance brake upgrades that rival what were exclusive to race cars less than a decade ago.

PRI has a lot of floor space dedicated to the competitor and enthusiast who need more brake options and many of the top brands are represented this year.  Here are but a few.


Stainless Steel Brakes started out years ago with a unique solution to Corvette calipers rusting and jamming.  Today their product line is vast and wide.




Baer is a brand associated with muscle car upgrades and resto-mods.


Stop-Tech has an excellent reputation in the aftermarket world for high performance alternatives to stock brake components and fluids.



Power Stop is another similar supplier.


They are offering brake kits through a range of hot rod and replacement suppliers.


Wilwood is a supplier many race and track day folks turn to for their upgrades.





Brembo is one of the premiere suppliers of performance brake solutions to race teams, OEM automobile manufacturers, as well as aftermarket upgrades.

This year the Brembo folks have made themselves very open and friendly to the enthusiasts that come to PRI helping them understand the product line and the applications that are available to enhance the racer’s needs.



Another high end brake supplier is Alcon.  There is at least one F1 team that uses their brake technology as well as the Bentley Car Company.




…and clutches, too.


A popular track alternative to OEM brake pads is Hawk.


…and Motul as a brake fluid upgrade.


Lest we forget the tubing and lines that is the transport layer of brake fluid.




Finally there was Ultra-Lite brakes, a relatively new vendor that supplies a lot of titanium hardware and other components at reasonable prices.




No doubt I missed one or two, but the above represent many of the supplier choices that came to PRI 2015 to show off their products.

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PRI 2015 in Indianapolis

Its December and time for a flight to Indy to see the largest racing industry show on the planet.  PRI (Performance Racing Industry) is all about the racing world and the myriad of companies that support it with parts, services, and technology.


A couple of years ago it was purchased by the folks at SEMA and since that time Indianapolis has become its home in December.

There are thousands of people here and nearly a million square feet of space for exhibitors to show off their wares.


But before all that begins the folks that run PRI have a breakfast for the attendees with some entertainment and some interesting interviews.  Yesterday’s breakfast featured some country singing and yodeling from a Texas girl followed with some comments from Dave Despain.


Dave also interviewed Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion and 2010 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion.


With the festivities complete the crowd moved to the show floor area where major and minor brands had their exhibits for all to see.

PRI is only open to racing folks, unlike the big SEMA show in Las Vegas, but if you are serious about racing then you should put this on your calendar.

So what is it like?  Lets take a look at the many vendors…






One of the most fascinating areas of the show is known as machinery row.  This area is packed with fabricating machines, welding machines, and huge five axis milling machines along with smaller providers of machine tools and cleaning supplies.





the Lincoln welding display showed a welder that does, both TIG and MIG off the same machine with automatic adjustment for type of metal and thickness.









It’s a fascinating area to wander around in as I mingled with the crowds, and there are plenty of crowds.


PRI is easy to find your way around in and there are plenty of guides around the area to help you find a specific vendor or area of interest.


It was nice to see some young faces in the crowd soaking up the racing technology.


I will be back with another entry later where I’ll showcase the cars, the celebrities, and some specific areas of interest.

Posted in Cars | 1 Comment

Why Are We Still Talking About Electric Cars?

A couple of months ago I wrote about my experiences test driving a Tesla motorcar. I think it might be more appropriate to consider these as battery cars.  Certainly they are rechargeable batteries, but batteries non-the-less.  Electricity being the power source and motors (electric) being the power plant that drives the wheels.

Battery power for cars is the key to its success or lack of it.  The ideal battery would recharge from zero (or nearly zero) to 90% in minutes and provide power to allow for a few hundred miles of cruising at highway speeds between charges.  Such an electric vehicle would compete successfully with gasoline powered cars even when fuel prices were at the $2 a gallon price (or less).

In a brilliant (maybe) move Tesla made its patentable technology open source right from the get-go.  The stated aim was to foster faster development of electric-powered vehicles.  Be careful what you wish for Tesla as another luxury brand, Audi, is getting into the EV market.  If Mercedes and other established luxury car companies step into that space what chance does Tesla have.

Without dealership franchises, not much.  While it was an interesting concept for a business model it is also a business model that will likely be the tapeworm that sucks away the profit potential of Tesla.  Has any car manufacturing company had a successful business model that included company owned dealerships?

With the currently low gasoline prices in America Prius and Volt are struggling yet out of the twilight zone comes yet another Electric Car company.  Faraday Future, another EC company borrowing the name of a nineteenth century electrical genius.  What is next, the Steinmetz Car Company?

Faraday Future has no EC, yet.  They are promising one will come to market in 2017.  If you look at their staff of executives you can see that they have raided several from Tesla and at least one from BMW’s ranks.

Rather than shout to the world what automotive rechargeable wonder they are going to enter the marketplace with their descriptions of their vehicle to be are soft and filled with marketing speak phraseology.

In the background are rumors of associations with companies such as Apple, and the Beijing Automobile Industry Holding Corporation, as well as the Leshi Internet & Technology Company.

Just a few clues have emerged on what a Faraday vehicle might be like.  It’s first iteration is to have a battery pack larger than what is available in a Tesla model S. It is to have “seamless connectivity to the outside world” with the promise of autonomous driving.  Also mentioned is “unique ownership models”.  Could this be a lease-only situation much like occurred with the Chevy EV?  If you remember in that case it meant that when Chevy puled the plug, all examples of the EV car had to be returned to GM and were destroyed.

What is the future of battery-powered cars?  Murky

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Electric Cars | Tagged , , | 2 Comments