Words: Brandon Flannery; Photos: Louis Kimmery, Marshall Robilio
Hot rodding has its earliest roots on the streets and dry lake beds of California. This is a fact and undisputed. The population concentration, industry, and booming economy of pre- and post-war California combined with adrenaline-fueled youth and year-round cruise weather to spark one of the greatest adventures mankind has ever known. Businesses of all kinds sprang up on the west coast and the enthusiasm spread east.
By far one of the most influential areas for racing and hot rodding east of the Rocky Mountains was cultivated along the banks of the Mississippi River. Had there been a magazine like Hot Rod located “down yonder” to publicize all that was happening, history might have been written a little differently. Once known as the “Traction Capital of the South,” Memphis stands as the largest racing-related business area outside of southern California.
As World War II ended servicemen returned home, bringing with them the experiences and stories of the guys they had been exposed to. Trained in mechanical vocations and thirsty for adrenaline-filled experiences, they gravitated to their machines of freedom: cars.
Hot rodding spread across the land and those in Memphis eagerly climbed aboard. The Memphis Rodders car club was founded in 1947 and quickly became a feared competition-oriented hot rod club. The surviving members host an annual reunion to this very day. Inspired by the pages of Hot Rod magazine, they began hopping up their cars and looking for places to race. They landed on an air strip of an abandoned Army air base in Halls, just north of Dyersburg. The facility had been a large one, and was the only inland B-17 bomber training facility east of the Mississippi for planes like the Memphis Belle. The landing strip became a popular place.
Raymond Godman was one of the Memphis Rodders who already had taken an interest in racing stock cars. He found a new love in drag racing and organized the area’s first race at “Hall’s” as it would be called, in 1955. Following Wally Parks’ lead to get kids off the streets and onto the tracks, he quickly became an NHRA Advisor and convinced the NHRA Drag Safari to stop in Memphis. Raymond’s dragster, the first of several named “Tennessee Bo’ Weevil” was a class winner at the 1957 Nationals, and the Memphis Rodders began appearing in magazines, especially after several class wins at the State Championship Drags in 1958. Inspired, the local car culture boomed with drag racers and show cars.
Godman was also inspired, and set out to build a state-of-the-art dragstrip near Memphis. After two years of construction, Lakeland Raceway opened in 1960 on July Fourth and quickly earned Memphis its “Traction Capital of the South” title. Bill Taylor assumed the lease on the 128-acre facility after the first year and operated the track for most of its life. Though he briefly partnered with Larry Coleman and Pat Collins, and his brother, Lee, who managed it towards the end, Taylor was always there and most people know the track as having been operated by him. It changed names several times over the years, with Shelby County International Raceway being the only one without Lakeland in the name, and was active for 19 years before closing in 1979. It remains abandoned and hidden behind a now also-abandoned Factory Outlet Mall in Lakeland.
Movie buffs will recognize Lakeland as the dragstrip in Two-Lane Blacktop where the tools were put up to race in 1971. The legendary Don Garlits also brought fame to Memphis by setting national speed records there in 1972 and 1973. Driver Larry Reyes relocated from California to drive Bill Taylor’s King Fish Cuda, setting the early funny car craze on fire. Lakeland was often home to big-money match races throughout the heyday.
Speed shops sprang up and local guys became legends. Bruce Hale opened the Memphis Speed Shop in 1961. Local racer Joe Lunati transitioned from building engines in the early 1960s to grinding his own camshafts for racers. Lunati Cams was formed and eventually progressed into crankshafts, rods, pistons, and rotating assemblies.
Taylor partnered with his brother-in-law Larry Coleman in 1961 to start a transmission shop that started a 50-year growth and development period. The two eventually separated, with Taylor starting Torque Converters, Inc. (TCI) and Coleman keeping the Cole-man Taylor Transmission shop. Both companies survive today, and Taylor (who eventually sold TCI) continues to serve racers needs with another company he founded called Bill Taylor Enterprises.
Like many of the early pioneers, Godman founded his own company in 1977, centering around the design and development of plumbing systems for fuel and braking. Today Godman Hi-Performance endures on Elmore Road in Memphis.
Another set of businesses began to thrive, with humble beginnings in a racer’s garage. Ivars Smiltnek along with friends John McWhirter and Bob Woodard began hopping up Oldsmobile V8s in the early 1960s, paying special attention to the cylinder heads.
This would eventually become Racing Head Service (RHS), one of the first racing-only cylinder head manufacturers. It began in the basement of Ivars’ house with one machine and lots of vision and ended up being the premier supplier of heads and engines to drag racers and oval track racers.
RHS grew and found a logical need to develop its own camshafts. This led to the creation of Cam Dynamics in 1972 with the three RHS partners, Woodward, Smiltnieks, and McWhirter, along with Mark Heffington and Tom Woietesek from Crane Cams in Florida.
Cam Dynamics found its start in a tiny vacant building on the corner of Union and Marshall in Memphis and was just about all they could afford to rent. Soon the landlord refused to renew the lease so that he could “restore” the building.
Not only was this building the “Birthplace of Cam Dynamics,” but also the “Birthplace of Rock & Roll” and the home to the “Million Dollar Quartet” of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. It was the original home of Sun Studios and remains a popular tourist destination today.
The owners of Cam Dynamics eventually split up, with Heffington continuing Cam Dynamics and the others forming Competition Cams in 1976.
Memphis-area performance companies dominated drag racing in the late 1970s and ’80s. Envelope-pushing racers like Bob Glidden made names for themselves using Memphis-based equipment. NASCAR, too, would eventually grow to accept the superior hardware coming out of Memphis and names like Labonte, Yarborough, Wallace, Childress, and Earnhardt would become household names with their help.
RHS worked closely with COMP Cams, combining forces on many projects and set up shop in what was supposed to be a “Gasoline Alley” for Memphis. The multi-building facility on Democrat Road is near the airport, and this location helped foster RHS’s ground-breaking foray into the fledgling mail-order parts business and later, the development of the industry’s first crate engines.
The widespread popularity in all forms of racing broadened their horizons and attracted customers from all over the world.
Today the Memphis heritage survives with many of these original companies, and even speed shops, still in business and doing very well. The local industry’s commitment to ride the cutting edge of technology while providing good ol’ southern-style customer service has also spawned many new companies like FAST, makers of electronic fuel injection and Eagle, manufactures of crankshafts and rotating assemblies. Hypertech Inc. was founded in 1985 by Mark Heffington, and the company leads the way with electronic engine control systems for modern computer controlled cars.
Memphis is definitely a hot spot on the map for those in the know, and an eye-opening realization for others once the companies and their accomplishments are tallied into one list.