Volume II, Issue 4, Page 2

I CAN STILL SEE THE LOOK IN HIS EYES…

I remember it as if it were yesterday.  The phone rings and its Smokey Yunick. “Hey, Jim, I’ve been talking to Steve Lewis and he agrees with me we ought to find as many of the original design team on the small-block [Chevy] and see how many of them cats would come to the PRI Show in December to get publicly recognized, probably for the last time.”

For the record, Steve Lewis was the owner and driving force behind the Annual Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Show, currently held in Orlando, Florida. He and Smokey were close friends. In fact, Smokey was somewhat of a mentor to Steve and had recommended finding all of the then-living small-block Chevy engineers and bringing them to the PRI Show (December 1995) to celebrate the small-block’s 40th Anniversary. Heck of an idea. What followed became a piece of small-block history.

“I’m going to send you a list of the ones I know about,” Smokey continued.  “You call half of ‘em and I’ll see if I can find the rest. And ask the ones you talk to if they can travel and whether they know of any others we don’t. I think I’ve remembered most of ‘em. Steve also wants you to put together a little souvenir program with thumbnail backgrounds on each of the guys and then some words about how the small-block happened. You’ll have a hell of a good time doing it and he might even pay you something.”

Classic Yunick, for sure!  Up to that time, I’d been a student of the small-block Chevy for most of its 40-year life and reckoned I knew a little about the engine. But before I’d completed talking to my half of “the list,” I became clearly aware I was a neophyte. The aging engineers with whom I’d begun conversing KNEW the engine. I was stupid in their collective shadows. But Smokey was right about the project becoming fun. I even ran down Dr. David Cole, son of Chevy’s former Chief Engineer, Ed Cole, during the engine’s initial development, and the stories that came from him about his father were priceless. So, in fact, were multiple recollections from other small-block engineers who, inadvertently began bridging the voids in a number stories I’d previously heard from Zora Duntov. But we’ll get to him in a minute.

In all, we contacted 22 of the then-living team. Of that group, I believe 14 made that PRI Show. During the Show’s largest “official” gathering (the Opening Breakfast), each one was individually called to the stage and seated in a row of chairs across the stage…amid thundering applause and cheering. It was an inspiring and emotional moment. In addition, each was presented a special commemorative ring as punctuation to a contribution made to the aftermarket specialty and racing communities, literally affecting the lives of everyone in the place…and significantly beyond.  Smokey made the presentations, and it was awesome!

Bet you thought for moment I’d forgotten my reference in coming back to Zora? No I didn’t. I saved it, and in so doing want you to paint a mental picture of what follows.

At this stage in his life, Zora couldn’t handle being on his feet for long periods of time. He’d also told me he wanted to take a “tour” of the show floor, amid the hundreds of products booths and displays. Little did I know the significance of that walk with Zora. So my wife Pat and I located a wheelchair and beginning at the main entrance to the show floor, we commenced wheeling him up and down the aisles…or at least that was our intention.

From literally every booth we passed, people would come out to speak to him, shake his hand, touch him…or just stand and watch a legend pass. There were old friends, young friends, total strangers and a blend of whatever’s left over after that. He had time for them all. Instantly, he became the pied piper, a string of admirers and well-wishers trailing behind. The throngs delayed our progress until Zora, clearly exhausted, asked that we leave. At the exit, he asked me to turn him around for a final look. The massive displays spread out behind us; displays literally strewn with products that related either directly or indirectly to the influence of the small-block Chevy V8.

He sat in silence for what seemed like longer that I’m certain it was, smiled without looking at anyone in particular and said, “You know, Jim, who would have ever thought it would come to this?”  That was his last PRI Show. 

 

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