THE MARK OF ZORA…

“Would you mind calling and extending an invitation to be our banquet speaker when we induct him into the Superflow ‘Hall of Fame’ next month?  You and he have been friends a long time and he might be more favorable to coming if you extended the invitation.”  It was in the early 1990s and SuperFlow’s Harold Bettes, also a long-time and respected friend of mine, was calling to ask if I might coax Zora Arkus-Duntov to Colorado Springs for the event.  As I suspected, he was reluctant.

“Are these the people who make the flow benches?” he asked.  “Yes, and they want you to be their keynote speaker at the induction banquet.”  “I don’t know, I might be sick.”  Just as I figured.  But Harold wasn't giving up easily.   In his next call, “Tell him he doesn’t need to be a speaker.  Rather, we’ll put him up front on a platform with some comfortable, over-stuffed chairs, a couple of palms for decoration and a reading lamp.  We’ll turn down the lights and he can be interviewed and talk about anything he’d like to share, for as long as he wants.”  “Who’ll do the interview,” was my question.  “Well, we thought you might.”  Even today what next unfolded was like yesterday.  “OK,” Zora said, “We’ll see you there.”

When I arrived at the historic Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Zora and his wife Elfie, clearly as charismatic as he, were also checking in and invited me up to their room “for some tea.”  It was the afternoon before the banquet the next evening, so it seemed a good time to visit.  I suggested to Zora that we do some “practicing” for the interview by exploring possible topics for discussion. 

At the time, we’d been friends for almost 25 years, as I had been privileged to meet him in '66 when I was the wet-behind-the-ears Technical Editor of HOT ROD magazine.  In the following years, there had been ample opportunities to share time with him, so I reckoned to know him pretty well.  That was my first incorrect assumption.

We had begun our tea-time visit around two in the afternoon, and as the day wore on I came to realize there were sides to the man about which I’d never had a clue.  With Elfie sitting on the bed addressing Christmas cards and snow beginning to frame the windows of their hotel room, Zora recounted times at the Broadmore when he’d come there pretending to be a GM “Playboy” who sat around the pool in the afternoon, sipping cocktails until evening dinners. 

When, in fact, he and a cadre of GM engineers and marketing types (including Elfie) had been sent there to make “practice runs up the hill” (Pikes Peak) with '56 Chevys disguised as '55 models, which they did in the darkness of early morning hours, in the dust and precipitous curves with guards standing at the top and bottom of the road to prevent intruders from discovering this clandestine exercise to gather marketing information on the new ’56 models upcoming.  “Chevrolet refused to honor my expense account when I got back home.”  Well, of course they did, “playboy” image or not.

Why I didn’t tape record that afternoon visit, I will never know.  It was classic stupidity on my part because by the time Elfie asked if we’d like to have dinner, it was almost seven o’clock…five hours from when we began…and not repeatable, ever.  It had seemed like 30 minutes.  Yet, in that span of time, I came to realize the depth and extent of Zora’s involvement in the first few decades of Chevrolet’s presence in racing and high performance…deeds that even affect you as a reader of this column today. 

He WAS the underground conduit to GM’s foothold in the early phases of NASCAR.  Well, he wasn’t the only person by any means.  But in his recounting of the clandestine ways “special parts” were channeled into the hands of the “right” people, including Smokey Yunick (more on him in a future column), it became abundantly clear why the Duntov stamp could be found in so many areas…outside his influence on the Corvette.

And then, I will never forget the next evening.  If you can imagine a banquet room filled with some 400 people, riveted on the man either directly or indirectly responsible for the reason many were there.  Among them were racing and motorsports people delivered into an industry invigorated by the small-block Chevrolet engine for which Duntov had championed high performance parts from GM, two years before the engine’s introduction.

Except for Zora’s somewhat halting manner of speaking (residuals from a mild stroke some years previous), the room was virtually without sound.  No tinkling of eating ware or ice-cube-filled water glasses…at all.  As I attempted to seek the keys that unlocked his recollections of times we’d discussed the day before, he shared experiences in a fashion never again to be heard.  And as I watched him pull thoughts from a past not to be relived, it was as captivating for me as the hundreds in attendance.

He spoke about “running the hill” in the '56 Chevys, as he had shared over tea the day before, and how tense it was to be doing that in the dark at one or two o’clock in the morning.  About sitting in the stands at NASCAR races (in a “plain white shirt”) and then meeting with various car owners to hand out “special parts” from the trunk of a rental car.  About selling new cars at manufacturer’s cost to “selected” race teams to make certain the right parts got into the hands of the proper people. 

About how the infamous “Duntov cam” for small-block Chevrolets was derived from an asymmetrical lobe concept he’d designed for flat-head Ford V8s running his Ardun, hemispherical chamber, OHV heads on these engines.  About his legendary “memo to management” penned to Maurice Olley (his former GM boss) that was ultimately the cornerstone of GM's entry into the “youth market” and over-the-counter high-performance parts business with 4-barrel intake manifolds, solid-lifter camshafts and dealer-installed dual exhaust systems for the small-block Chevy V8.  And about, and about…

Later, he was called to the podium to graciously receive his award.  It was almost anticlimactic, by comparison to what had transpired during the previous hour or so.  And when he returned to the banquet table, he leaned over around Elfie and almost in a whisper said to me, “I liked yesterday afternoon better.”  Frankly, both were career highlights for me.  Any further attempt at a description would be like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. 

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