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.
Funding was drying up for the Pro Stock Car and other things were happening at Total Engineering so Steve moved the head operation out to Livonia. Sharing some space with an existing machine shop, his 3 man operation was a good fit...for a while. It was late 1983 and business started to slow. Steve found out how hard it was to feed 3 or 4 families. It also dawned on him that his employees didn't share his passion.
1984 - What a year! Hemi's were selling like hotcakes. The operation was moved into Maskin's Garage. That was good and bad, but business was booming. Maskin took the Zul design Big Block Chevy and created Darts next product. To this day, that is probably the best Big Block made. Maskin was also approached by Buick Motorsports to build a V-6 head. Steve developed the ports for the original castings. They were built small so you could port them for different applications. That year at the U.S. Nationals 13 of the 16 qualified. Nitro Funny Cars had the TFP prepped Dart head and 14 of the 16 qualified Top Fuel Cars had the heads. Also Scott Brayton qualified on the Pole at the Indy 500 with the Buick V-6 heads prepped by Total Flow Products. Poncho Carter had the same heads and qualified on the Pole in the 1985 Indy 500. The Buicks made lots of power but the rest of the engine couldn't stand up to the demand. If it was the Indy 200 they might have won.
1986 was more of the same. Dart had a new Small Block Chevy head. Steve had one of the best crews he ever had. The Hemi business was good and the repair business started to get popular. Late in the year the rules changed and the fuel cars could run bigger fuel pumps and super chargers. That came along with needing bigger camshafts. Pretty soon the Dart Hemi Cast Aluminum Heads started to fail, literally breaking the top of the head. The racers started running solid billit heads by another manufacturer. They didn't break but the ports were really bad and they didn't perform well.
In 1987 Dart started building a forged aluminum head for fuel racing. We put good ports in them and quickly took the fuel customers back. We were still porting these by hand.
Steve was getting burnt out, and the business deal with Maskin was beginning to sour. At the end of 1989 Steve decided to leave, leaving behind the crew that he trained. One of the guys Steve left behind was Jim Becker. To this day Steve still says Jim was the only guy in his employ that ever taught him anything. Jim ended up leaving Dart a couple years later and is now retired from Kalitta Motorsports.
In 1990 Steve went into his garage by himself and went to work. Porting this and that, doing whatever he had to do to keep going, while still doing Hemi repair for a few teams. Candies & Hughes approached him to do a head for them. Using the Dart forged head, Steve came up with a pretty good head. By now Steve could port an exhaust port in his sleep. The intake port was the question. The plan was to start small, run the heads, and make adjustments as necessary. It turned out to be a month's long project. There are not any dynamometers that will hold a nitro engine, so they had to be run in the car. The procedure went like this: At a national event with the track prepped for competition, make a baseline run with all existing parts. When the car ran good enough to qualify well, you put the prototype heads on and make a run. Gather the data, look at the parts, and go from there. This has to be done under racing conditions. You can't learn what you need at a test session. When the team learned what they could, the heads went back to Steve for the next step. It took over half a season to get the heads where they needed to be. Steve will be forever grateful to Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes for their trust in him to complete this project.
The end of the 80’s brought an end to Steve’s first decade in business. Along the way he developed a taste for Blues music. Seeing a need for some organization, Steve set out, by recording some of the musicians that moved to Detroit from the farms in the south. The auto companies provided income so the musicians could play at night and on weekends at the various clubs/bars. Steve’s brain child turned into Blues Factory Records. A recording, booking agency, and artist management company. This is another story for another time.
1990 started out much like 1989 ended. A handful of professional racers and even more sportsman became Steve’s clientele. Everything was rolling along until one faithful day that summer. Born in 1897, Steve’s maternal grandfather, oldest of 10 children, was a farmer in Brainerd Minnesota. One day in June, Steve’s mother called to tell him of a family reunion in Brainerd. These are distant relatives that we knew of but never really knew. She said, “Get yourself a flight, and I’ll get rooms.” About a week later she called back saying the closest rooms she could find were about 40 miles away. Steve asked, “What weekend was that?” Sure enough it was the same as the NHRA National Event. The home where the reunion was held was so close to the track that you could hear the fuel cars. In attendance was Steve’s grandfather’s youngest brother, by then an old man, turned with a puzzled look and asked “Is that a car engine?” Before flying out the next day, Steve went to the race track. After a couple hours he went on to the airport. He turned in his rental car and checked his luggage through to Detroit. Then he found out there was a weather delay. Wondering what to do, Steve walked out of the terminal just as a car pulled up. It was Roland Leong (The Hawaiian) with his crew chief Wes Cerney. They said they were driving to Minneapolis and offered a ride. During the 3 hour ride, Roland asked how Maskin was. Steve said he wasn’t working with him anymore. Wes and Roland turned and looked at each other without a word. The next day at the shop, Steve’s phone rang. It was Wes asking Steve to build Roland heads like the ones Candies and Hughes had. Wes went on to explain that he had talked to Leonard Hughes and got his ok. It took Steve the remainder of 1990 to prepare heads starting with Dart Forgings and also heads built from a special material manufactured by Brad Anderson. Once again, when you make a change as big as a cylinder head, it must be tested under race conditions. In 1991 they put the heads on the car and made runs during qualifying at various races. When the U.S. Nationals came around, the car was ready. The result; Roland’s car with Jim White driving, qualified #1, set low ET of the meet, Top Speed of the meet, set both ends of the national record (5.19@291MPH), won the Big Bud Shootout, and won the race. The car was so fast it would have qualified #2 in Top Fuel.
The heads were the most talked about thing in the sport. Another test was coming up. The race in Dallas was a few events later. That race track was 1320 feet of concrete. Most tracks have a concrete starting line and then transfers to asphalt after a few hundred feet. It varies from track to track. The concrete is better for the traction. Steve decided to attend the Dallas race. He wanted to see if Roland’s car could go faster. Once there, walking around the pits, Steve noticed the owner of Dart Cylinder Heads and 2 of his former employees working on another Funny Car. Rumor was that Dart had a new design head. Roland’s car could run 290MPH with relative ease. The Dart backed car struggled to run 286MPH and destroyed a lot of parts doing so. The reason Steve knows that is because the owner of the other car approached him years later. He said the reason Dart did that was to try to beat Steve. They never did!
1991 was the end of Roland’s Hawaiian Punch sponsorship. So in 1992, Wes Cerney (Roland’s crew chief) took a job with Kenny Bernstein’s Budwiser King Top Fuel Dragster. Wes along with Dale Armstrong approached Steve to prepare heads. The result was the first 300MPH run in drag racing history. It happened March 20th1992 in Gainsville Florida. Steve had prepared heads from Dart and Brad Anderson for the Bud King Team. The Bud Team ran 300MPH with both manufactures heads in 1992. He was the only car in 1992 to run 300MPH. It wasn't the head manufacturer that made the difference, it was Steve’s preparation. To this day, Dart advertises that their heads were the first to 300MPH.
Steve moved the company into a larger facility at the end of 1992. He also started to build his own crew. In 1996 he bought his first CNC machine. It was small, 4 axis, and it had its own digitizing system. Steve knew he could port competitive heads by hand but doing so took lots of time. With this machine he could do 1 port or chamber by hand, digitize and machine the rest. It was a long learning curve. The company was still doing a wide variety of heads for many different motorsports. Realizing that head repair was necessary, the company headed down that road. After meeting a local welder, Steve realized there wasn’t much that they couldn’t repair. At the end of 1998 Steve decided to build their own Hemi head for Fuel Racing. He hired a very clever machinist (he called himself an engineer) and on his advise bought a 3 axis machining center.
To be continued....