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Close Calls and Narrow Misses...

During the mid-1950s, William G. Brown was the Technical Editor for HOT ROD Magazine. Because of his street-racing exploits in the greater Los Angeles region, he came to be known as “Racer Brown.” Like him or not, he was crusty, frank, and to the point about virtually any subject and, for the time, later advanced the technology of racing camshafts and valve train components well beyond what was available in that era. He was also an expert target shooter of handguns. But we’re getting ahead of the core subject here.

Because he was the magazine’s Technical Editor who also penned its monthly technical letters column, I became one of his followers. Racer’s approach to editorially discussing technical issues was often based on hands-on experience, both as an engineer and high performance enthusiast. I could relate to that. I was also building both stock and racing engines to help pay my way through college, so absorbing his technical exploits was like eating candy. He was also good friends with Vic Edelbrock, Sr., to the point that when Vic managed to latch onto a pair of new 265 cubic inch small-block Chevrolet engines ahead of their release in production vehicles, Racer was called in to report the results from Edelbrock’s foray into a new family of GM engines.

In that context, I recall some of the comments he made about the then-new engine, particularly regarding the shaft-less rocker arms and chrome-flashed facing on the top piston rings. Both these features had been criticized by contemporary automotive scribes but Racer saw these two features as a sign of future components. Interestingly, as an aside, it was this same “lame” valve train concept for which he designed a family of camshafts capable of achieving then-unheard-of 8500 rpm as afforded by the revolutionary Edelbrock “Tunnel Ram” in the mid-'60s. But again, we’ve digressed.

When GM saw fit to enlarge the new small-block offering to 283 cubic inches, Vic, Sr. again invited Racer into his Culver City, CA, shop for an array of engine dyno tests, the results from which were to be aired (again) in HOT ROD Magazine. When all the open-header exhaust noise had subsided, the first one-horsepower/cubic-inch (on gasoline) small block Chevy was achieved. In fact, the cover of the HRM issue in which Racer’s story appeared was top-blurbed with “One Horsepower per Cubic Inch Small-Block Chevy.” This same engine has been mentioned in a previous edition of “Technically Speaking.”

After leading the technical side of HRM for several years, Racer chose to leave and pursue the life of a cam grinder. Even before leaving his desk and typewriter behind, he’d been dabbling with some lobe designs of his own, sparked in part by his friendship with Ed Winfield, the patron saint of racing camshaft and engines at the time.

This puts us in the mid-60s time frame and about the point at which I joined the HRM staff. Although not intended as such, this fortuitous opportunity put me in proximity of Racer’s shop in Inglewood, CA. Having used and run his camshafts back in Texas, I elected to meet and get to know one of my engine-building heroes. What followed was an enjoyable and informative friendship that lasted all the way up to the time he passed away, a number of years afterward. But it was during that time I came to know him quite well, to the point that when the phone would ring in the wee hours of the night, it was almost always Racer wanting to discuss some off-the-wall idea, complain about just about any you-name-it issue or ask what was going on at the Edelbrock “money factory,” as he liked to call the company. Over time, it was clear he never lost his fondness for both Sr. and Jr., and it showed.

So why am I sharing all this with you? It’s to set the stage for one of many humorous experiences I had during our friendship. Perhaps the most notable involved a mutual friend of Racer’s and mine, Dawson Hadley. Dawson had a long history in the high performance industry, particularly in parts design. For example, he was instrumental in many ignition products produced and sold by the Accel people, had a flair for fresh and forward thinking and actually was my project partner when Edelbrock produced its very first EFI system, back in the early 80s. He was a nervous type, not unstable but a heavy smoker and given to being easily startled. Hold that image for a few minutes.

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