Outlasting Them All

Apr 25, 2013

Although Automotive Specialists’ race engines have held 13 world records since 2009 and have powered wins in the land speed arena as well as virtually all of NASCAR’s touring divisions, the USAR ProCup series and at the Daytona 500, Snow Ball Derby and Copper Classic to name a few, engine builder Keith Dorton says that winning isn’t everything.

“A lot of people measure success by how many races they win, but that’s not it. The best part of my job is seeing the smile on a driver’s face or a crew chief’s face when he knows that his engine is as good or better than anybody else’s out there,” says Dorton, who started Automotive Specialists nearly five decades ago in his hometown of Concord, N.C. “You don’t have to be in Victory Lane. That always helps, and we’re very proud of our wins, but you can’t win them all.”

Automotive Specialists builds complete race engines from start to finish in a 15,000-square-foot facility. Approximately 60 percent of its customers are oval track racers, while the other 40 percent are from other types of motorsports, including road and drag racers, hot rod owners and land speed competitors.

A 48-Year Legacy

The first of his family to express an interest in racing, Dorton established Automotive Specialists when he was just 20 years old.

“It wasn’t easy because in 1965, if you went to the bank and you were only 20 years old and needed to borrow $2,000 to buy a crankshaft balancer, they looked at you like, ‘Are you crazy? How are you going to pay for it?'” Dorton recalls.

He says he grew up “intrigued with mechanical things.” At age 12, he found a ’32 Ford coupe, fixed it up with pieces from the junkyard and had the car on the drag strip by the time he was 15.

He attended college at what was then a small regional school, presently the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Although he learned valuable skills like mechanical drawing and how to operate a slide rule, Dorton says he didn’t acquire a degree and wishes he would have gone further with his education.

“For one thing, it probably would have saved me a lot of money,” Dorton laughs. “When you have to learn things by trial and error, it can get very expensive.”

When asked about Automotive Specialists’ very first paying customer, legendary NASCAR driver Ralph Earnhardt, Dorton recalls a good friend and advisor.

“It was a little intimidating because he was a well-known guy and I thought, ‘Gosh, what if I screw something up?’ We became very good friends; he advised me a lot,” Dorton says.

Earnhardt’s son Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove some of Automotive Specialist’s race cars, and the shop eventually built engines for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as well.

Dorton says Ralph Earnhardt was a customer of Automotive Specialists when the shop was one of the few in the area. And although textiles were once the most prominent industry in his hometown-employing Dorton’s father and several members of his family-the racing and motorsports industry has become a focal point of the area these days.

Automotive Specialists now operates with a staff of four, but had as many as 12 employees at one point. Over the years the company has lost people to NASCAR teams with abundant resources and sponsorships as the racing industry continues to thrive.

Dorton’s brother, who had been working at Automotive Specialists since he was a pre-teen, became a head engine builder for Hendrick Motorsports, which is also based in Concord. Other Automotive Specialists’ engine builders eventually left to work for teams from Junior Johnson to Penske Racing.

“Back here, the NASCAR teams had a lot of resources,” Dorton says. “The more cars they added on, the more personnel they needed. It only made sense for them to pay one of our guys probably double or more than I could possibly pay them.”

The shop later moved from a 7,500-square-foot building to the purpose-built facility where Automotive Specialists has been housed for 13 years. Dorton’s son Jeff, daughter and wife also play major roles in the business.

Jeff looks after the cylinder head department, Dorton assembles engines and both share duties such as handling customers and parts and working on the dyno. The shop has two other employees that are responsible for tasks such as parts preparation, installation of engines on the dyno, dressing out the engines, and engine check-in and out.

The Evolution of Speed

Although Automotive Specialists’ customers are mainly from the East Coast, its engines compete all over the world. The company has sent engines to New Zealand for road racing applications and to Australia for land speed and oval track competitions.

Dorton feels fortunate to have witnessed major drag racing records fall throughout his career.  He remembers when it was considered impossible to go more than 200 mph in a quarter-mile from a standing start; of course, now cars can reach 320-plus mph going just 1,000 feet.

Horsepower capabilities have also increased significantly over the span of Dorton’s career. For example, he says it is not uncommon to make a 350-plus cubic inch small block, naturally aspirated engine achieve 900 horsepower. That’s nearly three times the power that was possible when he started.

Dorton has seen the industry incorporate technological advancements from the aerospace and aircraft industries as well, among others, to gain advances in power as well as engine longevity.

“When I started and even way on into our years in business, engine failures were a regular happening on the NASCAR track. That was one of the biggest causes of a car not finishing the race,” he says. “Now it’s a rarity when you have an engine failure in that type of racing, and that’s trickled down all the way to the short tracks.”

He says it’s not as difficult as it once was to keep up with the newest technology.

“Over the years, you had to make your own technological advancements versus getting on the Internet and checking on a part,” Dorton says. “We had to take what was there, modify it and hope it would work and last.”

He says technological changes such as the advent of the Internet have worked in the industry’s favor, but makes it more difficult to keep unique ideas under wraps.

“I guess the only negative part of it is that a lot of us in this business, when we would find a camshaft profile or a cylinder head design for an intake combination that really worked, we went to a lot of effort to keep it to ourselves. But that knowledge leaks out awfully quick now,” Dorton says.

He recalls coming up with a combination of an intake manifold that worked with a restrictor plate for an engine that won the Daytona 500 in 1990.

“I found the combination for this manifold that was worth a lot of power, but me and my son, who was super-young at the time, were the only ones that ever saw how the whole thing went together,” he recalls.

By creating as much as they could in-house, ordering a number of parts locally and contracting with a company in San Francisco with no connections to racing to mass-produce parts, Dorton says he was able to keep the design in-house for more than a year.

Automotive Specialists (www.automotivespecialists.com) had 20 engines with the intake manifold combination in Daytona that year and ultimately won the big race.

Jack of all Engines

Dorton says Automotive Specialists’ business comes in cycles, and it tends to move with the times, rather than focus on just one type of engine.

“When I look back over all the years, there would be times where a big percentage of our business would be for NASCAR. Then all of a sudden, a big part of it is late-model dirt. Then you get into drag racing or whatever,” Dorton says.

Whether it’s from Ford, Chevrolet or Chrysler, or whether it’s for NASCAR, a Midget car or a hot rod, Dorton doesn’t discriminate when it comes to engines.

Automotive Specialists has even built several variable compression ratio (VCR) engines for the Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and Envera Systems.

Dorton notes that VCR engines have the same principles of race engines, but the goals are emissions and fuel economy rather than speed.

“These are relatively low-rpm and low-horsepower to what we normally do, but we still work with the same basic tolerances,” Dorton says. “Some of the mechanical things about changing the compression ratio while the engine is running are pretty challenging.”

Automotive Specialists has seen a lot of business from hot rods in the last year. The shop recently worked on a Chevy 283 with four two-barrels that’s period-correct from the late 1950s.

“I’ve put together more hot rod engines in the last year than probably in the last 10 years all together,” Dorton says.

From Start to Finish

Although Dorton enjoys the challenge of working on a variety of engines, the shop’s most common projects involve oval-track V-8s.

If Automotive Specialists is building a brand-new engine, the process starts with cylinder block preparation. Then, the right components are selected for the power required, and the durability is confirmed.

Dorton says the shop uses past experiences with similar engines to build new ones and sometimes asks for assistance from product manufacturers. The last steps include final machine work, assembly and dyno testing.

Engine rebuilds make up the majority of Automotive Specialists’ business.

“When the engine comes in, we take a number of photographs to make sure that there’s no question about accessories, and what’s on the engine and what’s not. Then we have a check-in sheet we fill out along with that,” Dorton says. “Then it’s disassembled, inspected, checked for cracks, flaws and so forth. Necessary parts are ordered and replaced.”

Then, the engine is assembled and dyno-tested.

Dorton says Automotive Specialists’ biggest achievements include the VCR engines as well as intake manifolds it has designed for Edelbrock and the carburetors it has designed for Holley Performance Products.

One of Dorton’s current projects is a “sealed engine” developed for oval track racing. Designed to be durable and cost-effective, the engines are sealed to prevent modification and can be used for different divisions requiring horsepower restrictions by using different carburetors.

Dorton says the engine has greatly exceeded expectations on performance and how long it can run without maintenance.

Due to advancements in machining and manufacturing, the shop doesn’t stock as much inventory as it once did. The company plans ahead and benefits from the repetition of orders from oval track touring series. Dorton says it does most of its work through contract-type arrangements and never sets an hourly shop rate.

“We base all of our prices on what it takes for us to survive,” Dorton says. “We’ve never looked at what somebody else was charging to set our prices, because everybody’s different.”

Although Automotive Specialists continues to regularly update its equipment and facility, Dorton owns two pieces of equipment from the shop’s beginnings that are still used on a daily basis.

“One machine we have that I bought back then is a connecting rod/piston honing machine, and then we’ve got a machine that does finish honing on part of the blocks we bought in 1966. Cosmetically, they’re looking a little ragged, but so am I,” Dorton laughs.

No Plans for Retirement

One of the challenges Dorton faces is that he’s never quite satisfied with what the shop has achieved-he’s always looking to get cars around the racetrack a little faster. Other obstacles include keeping cash flowing, being able to pay the bills and managing time.

But Dorton says he’s fortunate that his family is involved with Automotive Specialists and all get along so well. His wife Patsy has looked over the shop’s books since Day One, his daughter Camille has been with the business full-time since she started a family of her own and his son has been assembling engines since “he was big enough to hold a wrench.”

“I’m hoping that my son will stay in it a long time-certainly as long as I have, not that I plan on retiring anytime soon,” he says. “Jeff handles much of the day-to-day operation of the business.  He also knows his way around the racetrack. He was an accomplished driver on dirt tracks, winning his share of races in go-karts, midgets and mini-Sprints.  He has gained the respect of those in the industry, and many customers and vendors rely on him.”

Dorton volunteers at a local detention center in his spare time and teaches an engine-building class for boys ages 12 to 18. He encourages the boys to enter into a career they like, so they can enjoy going to work on a daily basis as much as he does.

In addition to working with local youth, Automotive Specialists establishes positive relationships with local racetracks and is active with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“I was diagnosed with MS in 1980, and with that disease there are a lot of ups and downs. So over the years, we’ve been active in raising money for them.”

Over the last eight years, the shop has raised more than $250,000 for the National MS Society. And when Dorton was in remission six to eight years ago, he participated in 150-mile bike rides for the cause. Similar to race cars that support certain charities, Dorton got manufacturers involved and advertised on his bike jersey.

Automotive Specialists’ successes over the course of 48 years might be plentiful, but Dorton says his biggest accomplishment might just be the simple fact that he’s managed to stay in business so long.

He says his friend Smokey Yunick, a racer, builder and International Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee, said it best: “He told me, ‘I’ll tell you something. I’ve done some checking into it and as far as I can tell, you’ve outlasted everybody as far as being an engine builder and race engine builder without any outside help.’ I’m proud of that.”