Keith Dorton’s life has taken many twists with almost as many turns as a NASCAR roadcourse, but he has never been a secret to racers seeking speed and performance engines.
We asked Dorton about his start in racing and he surprised us with his response; “I built my first car, a 1932 Ford Coupe with a flathead in it, when I was 12 years old. I started racing at the local dragstrip because in those days, especially in drag racing, nobody asked if you were under 16. I started racing there at 15 because I could get away with it.”
“In order to make power in restricted engines, you have to pay attention to all the details. I like looking for what I call free horsepower.”
Even more of a surprise to us was that Dorton was considered a Ford guy. If you look at his credentials today, Dorton’s Shop, Automotive Specialists Inc., has built more GM engines than any other brand by a large margin. GM teams call him one of their own. “It’s funny because my first real job was at Holman-Moody racing in their engine shop. It was a factory supported team so all I touched was Ford engines there,” said Dorton.
“At Holman-Moody, I was amazed at how much they had to work with. Because it was a factory based team, there were so many parts that we could do a lot with development and research. I also saw a lot of waste, but I learned a lot from the operation about parts development,” he said of the Holman-Moody experience.
In 1965, He decided to open his own shop in order to build race engines for any class of racing. Not just build race engines but build race winning engines. Dorton remembers how Automotive Specialists started; “The first paying customer I had come through the door was Ralph Earnhardt. I’m proud to say that I’ve had a long relationship with the Earnhardt family and have built engines for three generations of Earnhardt racers.”
In typical Dorton fashion, he downplayed his role in building engines for the Earnhardt family. Not only was Dorton a major supplier of engines for Ralph Earnhardt, but he built many of the engines that Dale Sr. raced with on the short tracks in the Southeast. When Dale Jr. formed his own race team, Dorton was asked to produce race winning engines for the new JR Motorsports team.
Ford or Chevy?
“Sure, I started by building Ford engines and we have built so many GM engines but I can’t say that I’m a Ford guy or a Chevy guy. An engine don’t know if it’s a Ford or a Chevy. They are all interesting and that makes me just an engine guy,” He says.
Proof that Dorton is considered a engine man rather than a branded engine man came when Chrysler called in Dorton to work with their famous W-2 racing heads to improve their NASCAR Cup program. He was one of the first engine builders asked to work on the W-2 NASCAR heads.
Dorton’s Automotive Specialists Inc. have had a client list that reads like a who’s who of oval track racing including Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough along with the three generations of Earnhardt racers. With numerous Engine Builder of the Year Awards, Dorton has expanded his engine lease program to include NASCAR’s Nationwide and Camping World Series, ARCA and most recently, land speed racing.
Within two years of participating in land speed racing, Automotive Specialists have broken three SCTA records at Bonneville Salt Flats. Dorton obviously has talent as an engine builder having supplied engines that have won a wide variety of the country’s most prestigious racing events like the Daytona 500, the Snowball Derby and the Copper Classic. With all the awards and accolades in just about every type of racing, Dorton says that he “loves short track racing the most.” “I’m not much of a limelight guy,” Dorton explained, “I like to be back behind the scenes.”
Overly modest, he will give you his honest opinion when asked. We tested that when we asked him about crate engines. “I’ve always said that there is a place for crate engine racing. I may sound hypocritical but I think crate engines do take away from circle track racing. We have our own sealed spec motor now because I think you can take a factory engine, pay attention to certain details in the motor and produce a high performance budget spec engine without having a factory engine that comes out of a dump truck. Fans want to see speed and performance.”
Attention to detail is what he has always preached. “In order to make power in restricted engines, you have to pay attention to all the details. I like looking for what I call free horsepower.” Reducing piston ring friction with different rings and engine bearing friction by using narrow engine bearings are types of things that you have to do to make horsepower,” he claims.
A large part of what has made Automotive Specialists Inc. a big success with race teams is Dorton’s philosophy on failure analysis; “You have to use all of your resources when investigating why a part failed. Consult with the part’s manufacturer, break out the magnifying glass, take a look at the old parts and compare them to the part that just failed. More often than not, the failure will be in the assembly or a process of the assembly. I’m not immune to that either. We just caught an engine on the dyno the other day where an assembly problem almost cost us an engine.”
A Video of Keith Dorton that shows the lengths that he will go to in order to solve an engine problem:
Dorton and Yunick
While he continues to blaze new paths in engine building, Dorton is also a piece of history and a link to the past. “I miss having conversations with Smokey Yunick. He operated mainly on theory where I have to see everything. I believe it’s OK to have a theory but you have to support it with facts. Smokey and I argued about the process but we always got to the same conclusion. We just took different ways to get there. In the end, results are what counts. I miss the debates with Smokey,” he lamented.
As if the mention of Yunick brought back a memory, Dorton said, “For a while I took up smoking a pipe. It’s a habit that I didn’t keep thankfully, but I smoked a pipe so that I could use the smoke to see where the airflow was going and how it was reacting in the engine. I don’t know if that is why Smokey always had a pipe of not, but that’s why I did.”
It’s hard to separate the difference between Yunick and Dorton when it comes to the rules. Reminiscent of Smokey, Dorton’s spelled out his philosophy on engine building and rules; “Take advantage of everything that is there. Take advantage of cubic inches and compression ratio. Check the rules carefully. Build as big as you can under the rules. With carburetors, oval track rules have led to more restriction and ultimately more expense. Go with less restriction when you can. Most importantly, don’t take things for granted in the rules because they can change.”
Keith also has a unique understanding of race car drivers. He knows that the engines he builds must be tailored to the driving style of each individual driver, and he takes the time to understand what the driver is looking for from the engine. He also understands that drivers will demand more than the engine can give them on some days; “A driver will keep going regardless of what the gauges say. I’m convinced that the best way to save an engine is to attach a wire to the driver’s testicles that will send an electric shock when oil pressure drops.”
Dorton’s Leadership Role in Finding a Cure
There is a very compassionate side to the master engine builder also. He supports many racers and many causes. The one that is nearest to his heart is the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. There is no telling how many Halls of Fame that Dorton will be enshrined in because of his work on the track, but off the track, his charity work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society has already earned him a place in their Hall of Fame.
Normally Dorton is happy to be behind the scenes, but when times call for a leader, he steps up in a big way. Watch Dorton in action here:
Dorton suffers from the disease and has been to many specialists throughout the years seeking help for the pain that MS causes. Although he is a reserved man that does not seek the limelight, Dorton has made himself one of the most recognizable faces of this disease, especially in the racing community. “We are still a long way off from finding a cure for MS but I have seen first hand where the funds go and how they are used to push toward finding the cure. We are so much closer now than we were even five years ago. I’ve seen progress in treating other diseases from the research that has come from the work that doctors are doing in treating MS. So there is a link there, and there is much to be gained from all of this work,” he says.
He is a quiet and unassuming man, a leader when he needs to be, a behind the scenes man when he can be, and a very private man about most things.
In a sport where so much focus is only on the results, Keith Dorton can build a race winning engine, that’s no secret and that’s all you really need to know.