Steve's love of racing started at a young age. ABC's Wide World of Sports would televise many of the NASCAR races. It was the 60's. The drivers of that day were Fred Lorenzen, LeeRoy and Cale Yarborough, a young Richard Petty, and many others. Anytime any kind of auto race was on TV Steve was glued to it. (There wasn't much).
Junior High School came around and Steve learned that his uncle was building a dirt oval track car. He spent as much time as he could at the the shop watching and helping where possible. On summer Saturday nights he would go to the track and watch. In those there were hundreds of cars in the different classes. What a BLAST!
In high school Steve was fortunate enough to go to the Genesee Area Skill Center. (A vocational school for high school credit). The Skill Center had a student project car, a 1962 Chevy II built for D/G. It was his first hands on drag race car. Racing at Tri-City in Saginaw, Michigan formed Steve's adult life. Many things happened during that time. First thing was that they got badly beaten by the competition in Modified Eliminator. Didn't know until years later, when Steve went to his first NHRA National event in Columbus, Ohio, that those guys that won all the races at Tri-City were some of the elite Modified racers in the nation, Larry Kopp, Paul Mercure, Bill Meropolis, Tony Christan. If you're going to race, race against the best.
The second thing that happened was Steve's first whiff of Nitromethane . The who's who of fuel cars came to Tri-City to match race. Top Fuel Dragsters like Pat Dakin in the G.L. Rupp dragster, Chuck Kurzawa in Bob Farmer's Bob's Drag Chutes dragster, and Jeb Allen in the Praying Mantis dragster. Jeb was 17 years old, Steve was 16. There were the Funny Cars of Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Roland Leong's Hawaiian, Ed "The Ace" McCulloch. The one that changed Steve's life forever was the Pat Foster driven Barry Setzer Funny Car. Not to mention Jungle Jim Liberman and Pam Hardy "What a Show". If it wasn't for the generosity of the McKenna family, who managed Tri-City Dragway and let the guys from Skill Center in for free, all of this might not have happened.
The Skill Center was also where Steve first learned the meaning of the term work ethic. Jim Gray and Don Koeppen, Steve's Auto Shop teachers, stressed doing the job correctly. The auto machine shop at the Skill Center is the first place Steve bored and "hand" honed blocks, reconditioned connecting rods, resurfaced heads and blocks, repaired valve guides, replaced valve seats, did valve jobs, and assembled engines.
We lost Jim Gray a couple of years ago but Steve will never forget all the things he taught him. They remained close friends and Steve is still close to his family. Still friends with Don Koeppen too.
The summer after high school Steve worked for a local machine shop, Fletcher Engineering. The Fletcher brothers were known for building short track engines in the Flint, Michigan area. Tiny Lund stopped in the shop while in town on the ARCA tour. Flint was a great place to grow up in the 60's & early 70"s, lots going on.
September 1973 Steve started at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Michigan (now Ferris State University) in the Auto Machine Program. Three of Steve's classmates started at the same time. Scott Barr, who is now retired from General Motors as a tech at the Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan. Bob Kerns, who is now a retired engine builder from Rousch Industries. Steve Espeseth, who is currently an engineer for EDS/McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, Missouri. The Skill Center gave the four guys kind of a leg up on the other students and also some of the professors. They did learn how to grind cranks, bore and hone blocks with boring bars and a Sunnen CK-10, recondition rods and fit pistons with Sunnen rod machines. There was a Tobin Arp line boring machine, in rough shape. No line hone in the CK-10, some old guide and seat machines. Different valve grinders and stone valve seat grinders. The school also had an engine dynamometer in a pretty nice cell. The class was designed to teach the operation of these dedicated machines. There wasn't much engine theory or testing projects. Turns out none of the professors knew how to operate the dyno. After that one year program, Scott Barr finished his degree in Auto Service. Steve Espeseth transferred to South Illinois University to finish his degree. Bob Kerns left and got a job at Automotive Machine Shop in Pontiac, Michigan. Steve Sanchez left and went to work at Diamond Racing Engines in Warren, Michigan.
Diamond had three partners/owners: Jim Cavalaro, Nick Plantus, and Bruce Elkins. Jim ran the business and was in charge of block prep and engine building. Nick was the machinist and was in charge of the piston department. Butch ran the cylinder head department. Steve worked for Butch and almost immediately started porting heads and manifolds. Diamond had a popular aluminum Big Block Chevy head, a magnesium Hemi Crossram manifold for NHRA Super Stock, and iron Hemi heads. As time went by the porting shop was full of Small Block Chevy and W-2 Chrysler heads for Winston Grand National stock cars. The customer list read like a who's who of NASCAR. Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Junior Johnson driven by Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, Jack Tant driven by Lenny Pond, Neil Bonnett, Harry Hyde driven by Dave Marcus, just to name a few. It was just about all the Chevy and Dodge cars on the circuit.
The heads were all cast iron and were hand ported by Butch, Steve, and usually another understudy. There were no CNC machines in those days. In 1975, 1976, & 1977 Butch and Steve literally ported hundreds of these heads.
This is where Steve learned his craft, under Butch's watchful eye. Steve really didn't know what was important, he was just removing metal the way Butch instructed. The word "craft" is key. Butch didn't teach Steve the science behind it. Steve didn't understand until years later...This is where Steve learned to use his grinders.
Early 1976 Butch was approached by Richard Maskin to help build an AMC Head for Maskin's NHRA Pro Stock car. Gary St. Denis was introduced and built patterns to have the heads cast. He also machined the castings. Richard arranged to have the castings poured at New Haven Foundry. After all of that Butch and Steve went to work porting the heads. Butch did all the valve seat work and finishing porting.
Once again, Steve removed the metal as instructed by Butch. At the same time the Small Block Stock Car heads were being produced by hand. Steve was able to go to the 1975 Daytona 500 and assist Neil Bonnett in the preparation of his car for the race. Steve got his first taste of that type of racing and LOVED it! He went to as many races as he could, working 70 hours per week at Diamond and flying into the races. In 1976 Neil finished 5th at Daytona. What a blast!! While in Daytona that year Butch took Steve to Smokey Yunick's shop where they worked on a project on Smokey's Flow Bench. Smokey was a fascinating man. He had a small motor in his shop that ran on sunlight. Remember that was 1976.
During 1975 through 1977 Steve learned about pit work. He chased gas, caught gas, carried tires, and jacked. Steve said, "I never played high school sports. Never threw a touchdown pass, never hit a home run or made the game winning shot. But I have been over the wall in Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Darlington, Michigan, and Atlanta". Steve's life went on like that for 3 years.
Late in 1977 Steve thought he had better learn more than what he was doing at Diamond. Maskin's partner Dave Kanners sold his share of he Pro Stock AMC to Andy Mannarino. Almost simultaneously, Jack Roush, from the famed Gapp & Roush Championship Pro Stock team, asked Andy to drive his new Mustang II Pro Stock car. Andy said he and Maskin were now partners and Roush said "bring him along." A new Pro Stock team was born. One day Maskin was over at Diamond and mentioned to Steve that they needed a head porter over at Roush's. Steve called Maskin that night to find out more. Next thing he knew he was sitting in Roush's office for an interview.
Steve took the job! He started in January 1978. Remember the story about the grass being greener on the other side? Steve soon found that out. The heads for the Pro Stock were already done by Jim Tarian at Booth-Arons. Then Roush announced that if you worked on the race car you had to do it without pay. WOW! To make matters worse, after testing in Baton Rouge the team went on to Gainesville for the car's first race, during qualifying Andy crashed! It was so spectacular it became the Agony of Defeat on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Luckily that winter, a guy fell off a ski jump and that became the new Agony of Defeat. Steve didn't have to see the crash anymore. The Maskin and Mannarino team took the AMC out of the mothballs and continued to race. The deal between the two and Roush was over. They had a year contract with Roush so at the end of 1978 they had to find a new home. Andy and his brother, Tony, put some money together and bought a building on Grand River Avenue in Detroit. Steve was asked if he wanted to move in the new building and start his own business. TOTAL FLOW PRODUCTS was born January 1, 1979.
Steve's first equipment purchase was a Sunnen valve guide dial bore gauge and adjustable hone. The company bought a Kwik Way seat grinding kit. Ray at Electric Tool Service in Detroit gave Steve credit on a couple of hand grinders and attachments. Myron at MC Carbide did the same with carbide cutters for porting. Someone found an old Van Norman valve grinder with a burned out motor. Tony Mannarino rigged up a new motor on it. Gary St. Denis lent Steve his Superflow 110 Flowbench. The very raw basics were in place. As work came Steve bought and horse traded for more tools of use.
The company was called Total Engineering. The primary members were Richard Maskin, Andy Mannarino, Gary St. Denis, Leonard Gianuzzi, and Steve. They did what ever it took to get and keep the doors open. From auto repair to fabrication projects and machine work. The real passion of the group was to build race engines, not only for their car but for others.
1980 came along, Andy got some backing and purchased a Don Ness car, The M & M Boys white Pontiac Firebird with the big blue bird on the side. The company got a new Super Flow Dyno. With all that in place Steve borrowed some money and bought a new Super Flow 300 Flowbench. Those years ('70,'80, & '81) Steve buckled down and really learned how cylinder heads worked. He got his hands on as many Small Block Chevy race heads as he could. Flowed them all, checked cross sectional areas on them all, measured key areas and cross referenced all that he could with the new dyno. Same with the manifolds. The team bought a set of heads from John Eikie at CFD and a set from Shepard Racing Heads. Ran them on the dyno and in the race car. Between those two sets and all he learned, Steve built the heads that ran the quickest and the fastest in the car.
In 1981 the team built a 340 c.i. Oldsmobile. With what Steve learned he reworked a set of Batten heads that flowed 395cfm and made 650 horsepower. When Steve was done the heads flowed 320cfm and made 715 horsepower. Go figure... That was the point when Steve knew he had some things to figure out. Cubic Inches, RPM range, valve lift, type of induction, type of fuel. If he knew those things he could build a pretty good set of heads. He would need it, because what happened next he never saw coming.
It was late one mid July night when Steve got a phone call that changed his career. Richard Maskin had gone to Englishtown for the Summernationals with his friend Arthur Kuzin. Arthur's father was sponsoring a couple of Fuel Funny Cars in return for taking his son racing. Arthur introduced Richard around and the next thing you know he called Steve. The conversation went along the lines of: build a flow bench fixture for a Hemi. We are going to start building Top Fuel heads. Steve didn't believe him but built the fixtures anyway. When Richard returned he enlisted the help of Tim Connoley, an Airflow Tech at Chrysler. Tim had drawn the roof and floor of his idea of the ideal Hemi exhaust port. Steve built templates off the drawing and started building a model port using an old Chrysler aluminum Hemi head. Meanwhile, Richard got a hold of some of the patterns necessary to pour a casting. He reached out to Gary St. Denis to complete the work on the patterns and core boxes. It was also arranged to have Gary do the machine work on the castings to turn them into heads. Richard, Tim, and Steve drove down to Sidney, Ohio, home of Ross Aluminum Foundry. The goal was to deliver the finished patterns and to file sand cores to use in the first prototype heads. All the while the finished core boxes were being built, Ross poured the castings, Gary machined them, Richard shopped seats, guides, and other hardware. Steve went to work hand porting the heads using the 2 templates from Tim's drawings and his recently gained knowledge of sizes and shapes of ports. The results were incredible! Too many successes to mention at this point. The company was formed using Arthur Kuzin's nicknamed "Art the Dart"...Dart Cylinder Heads was born.
MORE TO COME...