Nick (left), Dick Hampton,...
Nick (left), Dick Hampton, Jimmy Valentine, Tony Gonzales, and Walt Mahony: Yep, they all piled in the ’40 Ford from L.A. to Palmdale, CA, for a potty break then off to El Mirage for the weekend in 1947. Hopefully they didn’t forget the sunscreen.
Like so many hot rodders who went on to become successful businessmen, Nick sought out employment where he could grow and learn the manufacturing end of the business. Nick quit Sharp in 1953 to become the general manager of Wayne Manufacturing, later bringing on board Bob Toros. “Wayne is where I learned how to design and manufacture cylinder heads,” Nick says.
Next door to Wayne Manufacturing was Frank Venolia, who had a small shop making pistons, which he sold to Warner. Between the two companies, Nick learned the ins and outs of making and designing heads in one building and the piston business in the other.
Nick joined the Screwdrivers Club of Culver City, which was a member of the Russetta Timing Association. He took the ’37 Chevy to Bonneville in 1956, running two separate engines. The Chevy motor went 138 mph in the A/Gas coupe then they ran in B/Gas coupe with a 270 GMC replacing the Chevy for an even 150 mph. Both engines ran the Wayne 12-port head. (Unlike the stock Chevy/GMC head, the Horning head had the intake on the left side of the head and exhaust on the right, with six large intake ports and six exhaust ports.)
Nick’s Wayne 12-port never...
Nick’s Wayne 12-port never met an engine bay it didn’t like because it sure got around. “When Bob Toros (right) and I got back from Korea in 1952 we started building a new ’37 Chevy race car, but we wanted to run Bonneville in 1953 and we were still working on the Chevy. We put my GMC in Bill Millon’s coupe and ran it at Bonneville in 1953 and went back in 1954 and ran the ’37 Chevy.”
The Piston Business
“Bob Toros and I started the Venolia piston business in 1953, while we were racing the ’37 Chevy from 1953-55. We called it ‘Venolia’ because everyone knew Frank Venolia. We weren’t making enough money in the business; we were competing against Jahns Pistons and Forge True Pistons. We were doing all right but not enough for me to support a family. I got married in 1957 to Carmen. I sold out to Bob and went to work as a tune-up man at Yeakel Brothers Cadillac. Joe Pisano was in sales. I was making a good living doing that.
“At night, I started to build high-performance engines like the 302 GMC at home in my dad’s garage. I was able to accumulate some extra money because I didn’t own a house at that time; I didn’t want to rent a garage because of the overhead.”
Four years went by and Nick always knew the future of the high-performance piston business was virtually untapped: “I kept thinking about coming back into the business in 1962. I went to see Bob on a Saturday and wanted a commitment from him; we grew up together, he was a good starter on a project, a good machinist, but a poor finisher on projects. You couldn’t grow with that attitude. I didn’t want to put my hard-earned money back in the piston business and have it fail. I already had three kids by then. I went back to work Monday at the dealership and asked Joe Pisano if he wanted to go in with me. Joe said yes. Joe and I started hustlin’ the racers. We were competing against Forge True and Mickey Thompson, but the thing took off.
El Mirage 1949: Kenny Bigelow...
El Mirage 1949: Kenny Bigelow (known as Mr. GMC) ran regularly at the dry lake. That’s 20-year-old Nick with the shades watching Mike Schmader doing some frontend work on Kenny’s Chevy while Dick Hampton looks on.
“We bought the forging dies from Harvey Aluminum. They made the dies from our blueprints that Bob and I designed. Joe and I were running Funny Cars and Bonneville cars but we were working until midnight while going full time at the business. I quit working on Joe’s race cars because I’d get home at 1 in the morning then get up and be at work at 8. My wife was upset with me for working on the race cars and Joe got upset with me for quitting working on the race cars, which created aggravation between Joe and me for a year or two until finally Bob and Joe ganged up on me and voted me out of the company. I still had a third ownership in the company but they wouldn’t let me on the property. That was in 1969 when they bought me out.