Shafiroff Race Engine & Components is one of the world’s largest purveyors of race and modified street engines. In the hot rodding world it is a household name. What’s it take to make such a lasting impression? Hang out for a few minutes and find out how a you-and-me racer got to the top of the pile.

The last time I’d actually seen Scott Shafiroff I was perched atop a semi-trailer in the parking lot behind his shop sometime in the 70s. It was the middle of winter and bitter cold. I was looking through the viewfinder of my Nikon hoping that the camera wouldn’t stick to my face. Scott was busy arranging two of his cars for a Car Craft cover image, a Mustang II Pro Stocker and some kind of dragster.

We’d put jack stands under the front wheels of each to make it look as if they were doing a wheelie (the offending jack stands, along with the trickery, would be airbrushed away). It was late ’76 or ‘77. Rick Voegelin, California born and bred, was the editor of Car Craft then. Before he was even in the business, Rick had seen Scott’s red GT-3 Camaro run at an AHRA event in Fremont several years previous. Knew he had the magic charm.

When NHRA created Super Modified, Rick and his partner raced a Camaro in that class. Rick celebrated the parallel but championed Scott in the magazine because he was a serious, pragmatic young racer beyond his years and he dominated GT-2 and GT-3 at non-NHRA events. There was also something compelling to the California boy about Shafiroff’s New York state of mind.

Meanwhile the earth kept rotating, Shafiroff paved his own way, progressed, stepped up to much stronger, much faster cars. I got a glimpse of him at Atco one afternoon about 20 years later. He had brought his big-inch nitrous Firebird for a match race. I remember the burnout. It ran a 6-something. He wasn’t driving it.

Last summer I spent time on Long Island and visited Scott. He’s a man in full stride on his second go around (yes, he has an AARP card), a trimmer version with much less hair (sort of like what happened to me). I asked him if he remembered the cover shoot we did in the winter wind. He pointed to a frame on the wall. “Not a day goes by, I don’t think about that afternoon,” he said.

What got you hooked on the car and engine thing?
SS: From the time I was 11 years old, I read every car magazine I could find. I knew every zero-to-60, every quarter-mile, everything book-smart that you could learn without driving. I grew up in the era of the Muscle Car and it was just emerging then. My father was a Pontiac guy. In those days you upheld your allegiance to the brand and so he always bought Pontiacs. An older friend lived across the street and he had a four-speed Chevelle. I went for a ride and he power shifted it. I’d never experienced anything like it. That was it. I was hooked. Later, I was the local guy that not only tuned ‘em but drove ‘em, too. My love was driving. Building the engine became a necessity. If you wanted to race you had to learn how to build motors and that was my forte. It was always adjusting, fine-tuning and then gettin’ in and driving it faster than anybody else could. In those days driving really counted. It wasn’t just reaction time and judging the finish line. It was about gettin’ the car down the race track with a four-speed. That was the time I grew up in. It molded me. I was a creature of the time.

Who inspired you?
SS: Bill Jenkins. I called him in 1970 or ’71 to see if he would build an engine for me. He was too busy. But I always admired him, he was my hero.

So you raced on the street, right?
SS: (Laughs). Didn’t we all? Not only did we race on the street, over the years that we raced, I mean we would make thousands of runs but I went every week to the local track from the time I was fifteen until I went on tour. I went to National Speedway (Center Moriches, NY) every Sunday, rain, snow, shine, it didn’t matter to me. I’d pull away from my house in the rain and wouldn’t turn around until I was a mile from the track. But in those days, you got to make ten or twelve runs and I never made more than two runs in row without changing something. I would tow my car out and I would make all the time shots and then run class eliminations. Then in the afternoon, I’d enter the tow car in the bracket race. You get experience racing anything. And whatever it was—timing, jetting, spacing, air cooling, temperatures, tire pressure, shocks—it wasn’t just see what the car runs and dial it in, it was how do you make it faster. Now, the average guy racing might make two shots all day.

So you’re saying that practice, the act of driving, makes perfect?
SS: There isn’t any substitute for experience, you can’t replace actual laps. You know, you listen to Greg Anderson. That guy races four or five times a week. You have to have laps, you have to have experience. And then you gotta be smart enough to accurately interpret what you find. Faster or slower, it all leads you. Even when you slow the car down that helps you because it tells you what didn’t work and points you in the direction of what could work.

And it’s the same with building engines?
SS: Yes. You’re constantly trying things. Even if it goes the wrong way it’s still a plus because you’ll know to do something else. There’s no substitute for just doing and doing and doing. All the reading, and the theory and the bench wrenching mean nothing until you go out and do it. Any good engine builder is a doer, not a talker. You try things, you throw stuff at it, and then the sharper guys can interpret the results and it becomes a short-cut. You don’t have to try five thousand things. You did a few things and it gives you an idea that you’re going in the right direction or the wrong direction and about what the combination likes.

And that’s where experience comes in again?
SS: When we drove, we didn’t have computers. Now you don’t even ask the driver what happened. You look at what’s in the computer and see those cold numbers. In the old days, you came out of the car and said, well the shocks felt a little loose and the car was movin’, or the motor felt a little rich, it was straining here, I shifted there. It was all done seat-of-the-pants.

Same thing in the dyno room?
SS: When you dyno a motor those sounds and feel are there, too. You feel the vibrations through the soles of your shoes, through the concrete floor in the dyno room. In the car, you can feel the motor detonating with your hand on the steering wheel. In the dyno room you can feel it through your feet and you just know your on the edge of the target.. It’s a carry-over from the days when the driver was also the mechanic and also did the tuning. You came to the point where you said “this is the way I gotta go” and you made the appropriate changes.

What was your first drag race car?
SS: I raced probably a half-dozen cars before I had my own. I used to drive other people’s cars all the time and I was racing before I had a driver’s license. Back then, you paid five or ten bucks and you could race. Nobody ever asked to see your license. I had natural ability with a four-speed and I hung out with an older crowd. I never raced an automatic car. If you had a hot rod, it had a four-speed in it. If it didn’t, you’d get laughed over to Jersey. My first cars were Pontiacs and when I finally raced my Ram Air IV Firebird at a national event going heads-up against small-block Chevys, that’s when I realized I couldn’t do that. I switched to the small-block in 1971.

You raced Fords, too. What's the story behind that?
SS:  I raced a series of small-block Chevys, my (GT-2, and GT-3) Camaros and the Vega until I did that experimentation with the Fords at the end of ’74. The rules were such thatthe small-block Chevy at that stage of development couldn’t compete against the Cleveland. Glidden, Gapp & Roush, you couldn’t outrun ‘em. There were only three or four small-blocks that ran in the eights and mine was one of ‘em. We go 8.90s and they’d go 8.80s, 8.70s. Nobody could compete with ‘em. I ran the Fords for a couple of years and found that one engine was just like another. They’re like women: all different, but all the same. I don’t mean any disrespect. You gotta give ‘em what they want. You listen to their language and they’ll tell you what they want. You gotta speak it and understand it and feel it.

Your AHRA GT Camaros were a tremendous success. How come?
SS: I raced the Camaro at the end of the ’71 season. It was one of those storybook deals. We were competitive right off the bat and by the last race of the year I won the final, and went the first ten-second run. That was a cool thing. In ’72, we just dominated. With AHRA and IHRA, we won 9 out of 13 races and were runner-up at two.

How long did you race before opening the motor business?
SS: I ran the GT car, then I ran Pro Stock, and because I’d gotten notoriety in the beginning I got some help with sponsors. In the winter, we went to the west coast. All the racers used to live across the street from Disneyland at the Marco Polo motel. I raced Pro Stock until the end of ’76. Television coverage hadn’t come about yet, the purses were no longer in line with the cost of the car. All of a sudden is was getting expensive and development was getting to be more expensive, too. It wasn’t making monetary sense.

What else was changing?
SS: I’ll tell this story with respect. I loved Don Nicholson. I was a kid and I remember he had that little flatbed truck he used to tow with. The top of the dashboard was just filled with rolls of Tums right up to the windshield. He had ulcers from the aggravation of racing for a living. I was probably 22 or 23 then and he was probably 35 or older, but he looked 50 to me then. I also saw people who’d owned companies and done other things and then had come back to racing and they were really having fun. And there’s Don with his Tums, trying to make a living out of racing. I said to myself, “I’m going the wrong way here. I need to have a career and then I could race, too.” I’d spoken to D*** Moroso (when his business was in Stamford, CT, an easy jog from Long Island--Ed.) and told him that I was going to retire from driving at the end of the year and that I’d like to work with him and help develop stuff at Moroso. So I had it all planned six months before I actually retired.

When did engine building take preference to everything else?
SS: I sold all my stuff and worked at Moroso for nine months, but I also built engines on the side. I rented a room at a speed shop that I had used for $100 a month and built engines at night. After a few months, I realized that I’d never cashed the Moroso checks because I was making a lot more money just workin’ at night. Then D*** moved everything upstate, making the commute impractical for me. I decided then that I would stay with the engine business. That was in 1977.

What was the routine?
SS: I got my own shop at the end of ’79. It was just me. I’d go to the track on the weekend, and get a customer to drop his car off on Monday. I’d yank the motor, rebuild it, put it back in the car for the weekend, take it out to the track, drive it, and give it back to the guy. I used to do a car a week alone and then I finally hired somebody to yank the motors so I could concentrate on building engines.  In the ‘80s I also did a lot of general car work, too. I had two mechanics and a couple of lifts and we used to do everything. The turning point was when I began advertising nationally. Here’s a funny story. When Weld Racing went out of business (presumably the first time—Ed.), I made them an offer on the whole package. I’d bought 900 sets of wheels and I had a 2,500-foot shop with 16-foot ceilings. They filled it to the sky. I couldn’t get a car inside. I didn’t realize how many I’d bought, so I took a little ad out in National Dragster. I then began to realize the importance of advertising and national exposure.

What happened next?
SS: I always had a local reputation and when I started racing with nitrous, I already had my whole clique. When I was running Pro Stock and staying on the west coast, I knew Dale Armstrong. He’d dabbled with it and he gave me a 10,000 RPM plate. I put it a friend’s Camaro. Nitrous was so crude in those days, no measuring, no monitoring of anything. I kind of evolved that into being one of the originators of really tuning nitrous. It was our secret weapon. We’d street race that thing and killed ‘em for a couple of years. Nobody knew what nitrous was. We hid the bottle behind the door panel. Then I put it on some race cars and started with the prelude to what became IHRA’s Top Sportsman--big-blocks with juice in old Pro Stock cars. I toured with it a little bit, it was notoriety. I started with nitrous in ’76 and by ’81 we were really into it. By ’82, we went 7s and match raced those things locally. Eventually, IHRA created Top Sportsman.

What did you do to prepare for that?
SS: We did all our work with Mike Thermos and NOS, including dyno testing. The nitrous notion grew and evolved into what Pro Mod is today, but it began with Top Sportsman. I like to think I helped to bring it along, made it palatable and understandable. Now, it’s very well accepted and I’m very happy to be a part of that. We won the NMCA Pro Street championship for the last two years. I still go to every race and tune it, play with it. I don’t drive anymore. Vinnie Budano has been doing that for the last five years. It’s every bit as much fun standing behind the car on the starting line as it was when I drove. Vinnie’s a great driver, a great friend, and we really click as a race team.

Tell us about the weirdest combinations you ever built.
SS: Yeah, the guy wanted to power generators with 472-inch small-blocks. I guess that was pretty close to it. It was a challenge, camshaft, cylinder heads, and how do you make power at 1,500-2,000rpm wide open? That one I called the Generator Motor. I had another I called the Alternator Motor. The Alternator was for a contest for who has the loudest stereo and so you need all these hideous amps and all this power. These guys make up brackets for the front of engine to accommodate five alternators. A stock 454 big-block won’t spin ‘em. These guys are buyin’ 600 and 700 horsepower motors to create the amperage and blast the stereo.  

What’s the popular menu at Shafiroff, street motors or drag race motors?
SS: It’s still mostly drag race motors but we’ve always built street engines. In some sense it’s harder to build street engines there so many compromises you have to accommodate. A race motor only needs three things: power, reliability, and price. Everything else doesn’t matter. A street engine has to do so many other things and it’s challenging. Without a racing background, I don’t think you could build these 600 to 1,000 horsepower street engines and have them be reliable. Our average big-block makes 650 to 800 horsepower. A 1,000hp engine in a half-way prepared, 3,400-pound car will run an 8-second quarter and guys drive ‘em around on the street like nothing. It really is an amazing time. With the cylinder heads and camshafts we have now you can have incredible power and drive it happily on the road, too. What I find are a lot of older racers who’ve come back to it but just for the street scene. You know, if it rains on Tuesday, you can always take it out on Wednesday.

So it’s really about a total combination, correct?
SS:  It’s the total packaging. There’s a certain amount you have to spend. Not spending enough can be a big problem. If you’re trying to make certain level of power and don’t have the budget to buy the parts to make that level, then I’d rather not build it. You have to be more realistic in your expectations or work a little harder and get up some extra money. The worst mistake people make? They say “I have a block or a crank or heads and I want to build the motor using what I have.” If they start off with one major component that’s just not right and then spend all this money to build something around it’s a complete waste. Peddle or give away your precious parts and buy the right stuff the first time. If you don’t you won’t be happy because you compromised. Be realistic, lay out a game plan and follow it. I offer my customers choices, but with guardrails, so they can pick what they want and have input to the build. I won’t build something that they want that doesn’t compliment the package. You have to build it for the customer strictly according to his actual usage.  It’s kind of like a New York diner. There are 147 things to eat, a very wide selection. If it’s not there you don’t need it.  

How do see the LS engine in the mix?
SS: Its coming and we’re doing some development work with GM on the iron LSX block but it’s still gonna be a long time before it replaces the big-block. It’s definitely a part of the future but it’s not just going to replace everything. Its in a nice niche, it’s a great engine, but it’s going to be a long time before you see ‘em lined up in the staging lanes for Super Comp.

Carbs or EFI?
SS: With nitrous especially, carbs are just flat faster than fuel injection in any form of drag racing that I know. In my experience carbs are always faster.

Your thoughts on Toyota and NASCAR?
SS: It’s a touchy subject. Toyota has so much money available that it has almost diluted the value of the teams. They can afford to subsidize race teams, whereas everybody else has to go to their sponsor for whatever dollars it takes to run one ($28 million). You can get on a Toyota ride for less money ($14 million) than a Ford or Chevy ride. I don’t think it’s a good thing. There are only a few bastions of American spirit left. I have mixed feeling about it.

Talk about offshore parts for minute. Have they gotten better?
SS: The offshore parts have gotten much better. As a matter of value it’s excellent. There’s always better, but there’s also a big difference in price. They only thing they don’t have is quality control over every single part. That’s where a good engine shop is indispensable. Instead of the QC being done there, we do it here. The power of the Internet enables anyone to research parts, prices, products, there’s no more mystery. It has made the strong stronger and the weak go away. It sharpens the intensity of competition. If you can’t sell a good product at a really fair price then you’re goin’ away. If you can’t do it, somebody else will and with the Internet people will find you. You have to give it all.

What’s next, Scott?
SS: I’m building a’69 Camaro for myself now and I just want to cruise it to the different spots, tell lies, swap stories and just hang out. The young kids today just missed it. I feel a little sorry for the guys with their rice rockets. It’s just so different now. It was a great time in the ‘60s and ‘70s just to be around these cars.

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Comment by Allen (Roper) Gauthreaux Jr. on July 30, 2011 at 9:17am
Our own Cueball Porch has his 434 engine's in Falfa

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