Ed Iskenderian, the founder of Isky Racing Cams and an icon of the hot rod industry, will be presented with the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award on Friday, March 23 at the Grand Opening Breakfast of the 2012 Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show.
Iskenderian was born in Tulare County, California, in 1921. His Armenian parents fled Turkey after World War I and settled in Northern California, where his father, who’d been a blacksmith in Turkey, bought land to grow grapes. The family vineyards were destroyed by heavy frosts and its land taken back by the bank.
The family then relocated to Los Angeles, where Iskenderian’s father opened a shoe shop downtown. Iskenderian first got interested in cars as a boy riding his bike through his neighborhood and seeing older guys driving their suped-up Model Ts.
“In our neighborhood there were some guys that belonged to the Gun Holders Club and they used to race at the Muroc dry lake [now the Edwards Air Force Base] several times a year in the summertime,” Iskenderian said. “We finally got a ride up there in a rumble seat and we’d arrive at night [and] try to go to sleep. It was cold, though.”
Iskenderian and his friends watched the cars doing time trials and hitting speeds as high as 140 mph. Records were being set on Model B Fords, some outfitted with Ford Flathead V-8 engines, which were gaining in popularity at the time, according to Iskenderian.
Despite being too young to drive, Iskenderian soon got his first car, a Model T truck that his uncle gave him. He and his friends learned how to fix the truck up by talking to the older guys in their neighborhood and through trial and error.
“Later I got a used Flathead Ford V-8 from the wrecking yard, a late-1936 engine for $65,” he said. “It looked like a racing engine to us [when we] compared it to a Model T engine. Even stock that [Flathead] would go about 90 mph in a little stripped-down Model T.”
Iskenderian first attended Polytechnic High School where he took machine shop classes. He later transferred to and graduated from Dorsey High School.
Iskenderian then joined the Navy where he hoped to be a flyer. Because he had an overbite, Iskenderian couldn’t wear the face mask so he moved from the Navy to the Army Air Corps, still hoping to fly. During his three years in the service, Iskenderian worked as a steward on an air transport that flew throughout the Pacific. Though he wasn’t doing machine work during this time, Iskenderian was learning what he could about military equipment and aircraft engines. Like a lot of other car enthusiasts in the service, he couldn’t wait to test out his new knowledge once the war was over.
“We learned a lot more when we were in the Army, so when the war was over, we started going back up to the dry lakes again, and then pretty soon drag racing got started,” Iskenderian said.
Back home in Los Angeles, Iskenderian bought his first racing cam from Ed Winfield, who taught the future “Camfather” about cam grinding and shared many of his scientific theories.
“After the war, I decided, ‘Gee, I would like to try that cam grinding’ because Winfield had shown me how he had built his own cam grinder,” Iskenderian said. “We had machine shop experience in high school and, before we got into the war, we had started to work in defense plants where we got to use the machine shop and be an apprentice machinist, so I thought I’d like to try that.”
Iskenderian acquired his first machine, a piece of military equipment designed to do round grinds that he adapted for cam grinding. The Isky Racing Cams shop still uses that machine, as well as several other military machines Iskenderian has acquired and adapted over the years. He started selling his cams through the mail to speed shops and individual customers, setting a goal of selling five cams a day for $20 a piece. It took about a year for him to reach that goal.
“It was hard to sell them at first because I had no reputation and if you went to the speed shops most of them would say, ‘Oh no, you couldn’t know anything about camshafts, you’re just a kid that races at the dry lakes like the rest of them,’ because Winfield had the good reputation for doing that,” he said.
Iskenderian had a booth at the first hot rod show held at the Armory in Los Angeles in 1948, sharing space with Ansen Automotive. From that show, Robert E. Petersen and Bob Lindsay, who’d helped organize the event, got the idea to start Hot Rod magazine and Isky Racing Cams became an advertiser, soon attracting more orders from around the country.
“When the magazine came out, it even got bigger and bigger, and drag racing started and got big,” he said. “We had to run two or three shifts at the shop in order to keep up with the orders we were getting.”
The shop started out with two employees, then grew to 10 and eventually had as many as 60 employees.
Today the shop, which has been operating in Gardena, California, for more than 40 years, employs between 55 and 60 workers at one time. An early employee was a high school student who’d help Iskenderian respond to the questions he was getting from customers on topics like how to hop up an engine.
“Since we didn’t have any speed shops selling our stuff, we’d make that fella, he could be from somewhere back East or in Northern California, and we’d make him a dealer, ‘We don’t have a dealer in the area so you’re our dealer there and you get the discount,’ so he’d only have to pay $20 for the cam when the last price was $30,” Iskenderian said. “I remember one time up in Lompoc, California, one fella, his name was McDonald [and] he said, ‘My speed shop is under my bed, I keep all my parts under my bed.’ He was a hot rodder himself and didn’t really have a shop but he became a dealer that way.”
The hot rod hobby grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s as Iskenderian built his business.
In the early 1960s, Iskenderian was part of a group of speed equipment manufacturers that included Vic Edelbrock, Bob Hedman, Dean Moon and Phil Weiand who met to discuss the idea of organizing.
“We were called one day to [a toy company] and they told us, ‘We ought to be organized, us speed equipment manufacturers ought to be organized,’ and I said, ‘What for? Why is that?’ and he said, ‘Us toy manufacturers, we’re organized, we have our lawyer which we all chip in a little bit and if any legislation comes out against us, our lawyer can fight it for us,'” Iskenderian said.
This idea led to the start of SEMA, which was then known as the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association. Iskenderian served as the organization’s first president.
After more than 60 years in business, Iskenderian is still passionate about camshafts and hot rodding. His sons work at Isky Racing Cams with him and he has grandchildren he’d like teach about machining, sharing his unwavering fascination with new generations.
“I’m still interested, I’m still curious about a lot of things,” he said. “I keep thinking there’s something right under our feet that we’re asleep on and there [are] ideas, I think we just can’t see it for some reason and maybe we’ll stumble on something if we’re lucky. I haven’t lost interest for some reason, [I’m] still curious.”
On Friday, Iskenderian’s name will be added to the prestigious list of past Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award honorees: Wally Parks, Carroll Shelby, George Barris, Vic Edelbrock, Andy Granatelli, The Ford Family, Alex Xydias, “Speedy” Bill Smith, Jack Roush and Jack Chisenhall.
For more information on the 2012 Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show, running March 22-24 at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, visit www.hotrodshow.com.