Surrounded by trophies and winners circle photos, veteran engine builder Ron Shaver leans back in his office chair and smiles.
“I’ve just been really lucky to work where I play,” says the 64-year-old after one of his engines won for the sixth time in the last seven years at the Knoxville Nationals–the premier event for the World of Outlaws sprint car series.
In addition to scoring victories at all varieties of sprint-car venues, Shaver Specialty engines have also powered winners in off-road competition, stock car racing and on the drag strip. An aggressive development and test program, along with close working relationships with his blue-chip suppliers, sums up Shaver’s strategy in keeping the family business on the leading edge of the performance market.
Shaver’s 12,000-square-foot facility houses 23 employees, including five that work exclusively on engines. Others are dedicated to manufacturing and administrative duties. The company builds approximately 200 engines each year with 80 percent primarily for racing and the rest is a combination of street performance and restoration.
“When times got hard a while back, we started taking in work we normally wouldn’t do, like restoration,” explains Shaver. “It caught on so well that we just kept doing it.”
A variety of engines pass through Shaver’s shop at any given time. During our visit we spotted a ’56 Cadillac that came from an original Allard race car, an Olds 455 W30 and a Chrysler 392 Hemi.
Cutting up the competition
While Ron is building a strong reputation with race engines, the cornerstone of the Shaver family legacy will always be the famous vegetable cutter that his grandfather developed and patented in 1936. This heavy duty kitchen utensil was made famous in the early McDonalds, and the legend continues at hundreds of In-N-Out Burger joints in western states. Shaver Specialties continues to manufacture about 3,000 units a year, now marketed under the name Keen Kutter. At one time Shaver built 12,000 units a year.
We also saw 427 Fords mingling with the high-horsepower alky engines, all awaiting a turn on one of two dynos.
“On the nostalgia side, I recently did a 255 flathead,” says Shaver. “They’re nasty, oil leakers. We got rid of the leaks and also the Strombergs. I found an old Hilborn and got a FAST system. Made 200 horsepower–bone flat-ass to the wall. But the customer called and said, ‘Ron, this engine made me want to go out and drive the car again.’”
New crate-engine ideas
Shaver also offers a number of crate-engine packages.
“We’re getting a little more exotic with our crate motors,” adds Shaver. “We’ll build a basic crate motor like a 350 or 383. But there’s one I really love. We take an Dart SHP block, use a big bore and three-and-three-quarter stroke crank to make 400 cubic inches. We use Edelbrock heads and get a Hilborn fuel-injection manifold and put a FAST system on it. It makes right at 500 horsepower, and it runs like a pussycat!”
The emphasis at Shaver Specialty, of course, is on racing, and Shaver has built much of his reputation around sprint cars.
“I started drag racing as a kid in the ‘60s,” recalls Shaver, “and I went to school with Tom Hunt, the son of Joe Hunt. He talked me into building a sprint car.”
The Shaver family operated a prominent machine shop in south Los Angeles at the time, working mostly for aircraft companies like Boeing and Douglas and manufacturing the famous Shaver vegetable slicer (see sidebar). The Shaver facility was also close to where the Offenhauser and Sampson sprint car engines were built.
“We did a lot of machine work for them,” says Shaver.
Shaver’s sprint car engine won 21 of 31 races. Soon, other racers asked him to build an engine for their cars.
“Started selling one at a time, and next thing I’m building 200 a year,” says Shaver.
The TRACO connection
The growth wasn’t quite that seamless. Shaver did earn his stripes working at TRACO and also building Hemis for Bill Bagshaw before setting up his own operation in an old bakery building close to the family machine shop. In 1985 he moved into his current facility in nearby Torrance.
Shaver’s forte is the 410ci sprint car engine. Offered in two distinct variants–wing and non-wing–these all-alloy bullets cost upwards of $65,000. A wing engine boasts a strong power band between 4800 and 8500 rpm, usually reaching peak torque of 700 lb-ft at about 5800 rpm. Maximum horsepower is close to 900 at 7300 rpm.
“It’ll still have 870 horsepower at 8500 rpm,” boasts Shaver.
The 410 sprint-car engine concept arrived in the late ’70s, and the first engines made about 600 horsepower. Shaver says the 50% increase in power evolved mostly from cylinder heads, intake and valvetrain advances. Consider that most teams ran a 23-degree head through much of the ‘90s.
“The key is raising the ports, standing up the valves and going to a bigger valve. We’re up to a 2.230 intake now,” says Shaver. “With cams, the biggest improvement was going to a block with a raised cam location. That allowed a bigger cam core, and now we have a 1.200-inch base circle. Before it was .950. That fixed two things: what we could do with the lobe families, and the cam wouldn’t fail with drives on the rear.”
A lot of durability lessons we learned in off-road filtered over into our sprint car engine.
— Ron Shaver
Shaver is also using an in-house cylinder head on his premium engines. Starting with a clean sheet, Ron Sperry–a longtime powertrain engineer at General Motors who is now consultant–drew up the original design using 3D modeling, and Rick Shaut–a veteran out of the Earnhardt Childress Racing shop–took care of producing the prototypes on his home-based 5-axis CNC machine.
Within a few months the new cylinder head was approved by World of Outlaws, and it’s now a fixture on 4-time champion Donny Schatz’ car, which is owned by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. The valves stand at a 10-degree angle on the topside of a very small combustion chamber, and there’s enough real estate on the deck to support high-tech rocker arm designs.
“I actually started on this project 12 years ago,” says Shaver. “Originally I had a 7-degree intake and 11-degree exhaust, and the Outlaws wouldn’t buy it. They wanted both the intake and exhaust on the same plane.”
Shaver is a staunch advocate of torque–and much of his success falls back on building engines for disciplines that require titanic torque numbers.
“A sprint car doesn’t have a gearbox, and it needs lots of torque,” explains Shaver. “The off-road trucks need low-speed driveability because they can’t get up to speed in the dirt. In fact, we overdid it with the trucks when put individual runners instead of a plenum. It created massive problems because the transmission wouldn’t hold up.”
The off-road market actually led Shaver to devoting more resources to engine development.
“Before, I’d always done it by the seat of my pants,” he explains. “Then Bill Howell of GM came to us in 1980 to enhance their off-road truck program. Bill taught us how to do R&D using the A-B method, test, change and retest. We did learn one thing–you have to have a lot of money to do R&D.”
Shaver’s off-road engines scored numerous victories in the popular Class 1, 7, 8 and Trophy Truck categories in SCORE–including the Baja 1000–and engines built for the Herbst brothers won a total of 10 championships.
“A lot of durability lessons we learned in off-road filtered over into our sprint car engine,” adds Shaver.
Development tools at Shaver include a Superflow flow bench, Waterman test equipment for injectors and carburetors, a Spintron machine and two Heenan-Froude dynamometers. One dyno is set up for alcohol engines and is set up for about 1000 horsepower. The other runs mostly gasoline engines but can handle engines over 2000 horsepower.
The Spintron has been an invaluable tool for critical valvetrain issues and also to test lifter designs that are manufactured by the company. In one test the Shaver team learned that tightening the valve lash actually helped improve piston-to-valve clearance in specific high-compression applications. While that solution goes against conventional wisdom, turns out that with an aggressive cam and suggested valve lash, the rocker bangs on the valve like a sledgehammer and knocks it higher than the cam profile intended. By reducing the lash, there’s less of an impact on the valve stem and the valve follows the cam profile more closely.
The turnaround time on vintage engines could be up to four months, depending parts sourcing. A new 410 sprint car engine takes three to four weeks from order to shipment. Rebuilds can be done as quickly as two weeks. Shaver has set up a dedicated part numbers with most of his top-tier suppliers, like Bryant crankshafts, Carrillo rods, JE Pistons and Donovan blocks.
“There’s a Shaver part number for most everything,” explains Shaver. “They’ll ask if it’s wing or non-wing. If the part number has a “W” on it, that’s for a wing.”
Not every sprint-car owner can afford a $65,000 engine with a service life of 10 racing nights. Shaver is strong advocate of the A4MP (Alternative 410 Motor Program) . This engine project is not designed to add another class in sprint car racing but rather offer current 410 racers a less expensive but competitive choice. Based on the LS architecture, the engine is not sold as a crate spec motor but rather a list of approved parts—including hydraulic roller lifters, 3-stage dry sump and mechanical fuel injection–can be assembled and tweaked by approved independent shops.
“It will make about 750 horsepower with 650 torque, and it lasts 20 nights,” says Shaver. “On short tracks like three-eights and under, it will keep up with the big guys. You’re not going to take to Eldora or Knoxville, but the engine will keep up and win races. And it costs only $20,000.”
Less expensive alternative
As of now, the World of Outlaws have yet to approve the alternative engine but most other sanctioning bodies will allow it. Unfortunately, says Shaver, acceptance by the racers has been slow despite promising trial rides from leading drivers.
In addition to the engine programs, Shaver Specialties has enjoyed a diverse history of manufacturing. In the ‘70s, Shaver built 14,000 skateboard trucks a day for a partner who assembled and shipped the finished product. At one time the company manufactured lifters for Isky, but now the emphasis is on hydraulic roller lifters for COMP Cams and Edelbrock. Shaver also manufactures the gears used in the Shaver/Wesmar gear drive.
“It all has to do with engine building, and like I said,” sums up Shaver. “I’ve been lucky to work where I play.”