You think inner city kids have little chance to succeed? The auto shop teacher (center) ha
As long as there are high-performance enthusiasts who feel strongly that an internal combustion engine is more than just the means of propelling a vehicle from A to B, the name Arias will be remembered long after he, and we, are gone.
Nick Arias Jr., of Harbor City, California, didn’t set out to be one of the symbols of the speed equipment industry; it was the achievements of his high-performance engine products that dictated that. Getting there took years of hard work, setbacks, and strained long-term relationships before that success was realized.
Nick was born in his home in a rough neighborhood of Pico Heights in downtown Los Angeles near Olympic and Vermont in 1929. Nick could’ve looked for the fast buck but instead, he and his buddies were only interested in fast cars. His keen curiosity in the mechanics of things was his path to success.
Nick’s father worked for Southern Pacific Railroad for 45 years. “My dad never missed a day’s work,” Nick begins. “He was a blacksmith by trade and worked in the Roundhouse on the steam engines. He was trained in Spain but the country was starving so he left when he was 17 and worked on a freighter till he came to California.”
Taken June 1952 in Kumhwa, Korea. The boys from L.A. (left to right): Nick, Joe Toros, and
Nick went to Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles: “I majored in auto shop, auto mechanics, and Industrial Arts. I had Vocational Auto Shop where I had four periods a day and that’s where I learned auto mechanics; in fact I attribute a lot of what I know back to school and the theory-end of the operation of the engine and how it runs. My instructor said you have to know how something works before you can fix it or change it. Everything I learned in high school, I practiced as an adult. I would call myself a B machinist not a Class A machinist.”
While you might conclude Nick went to what was essentially a trade school, Polytechnic, like any high school, had a strong emphasis on the academic side where Nick applied himself, graduating with top scores. He definitely had a head on his shoulders, which prepared him for the business world.
In the meantime, at age 11, he worked pumping gas after school to save money to buy a car. His first job after high school was working at Handy Parts, an automotive parts store on Automotive Row in Los Angeles. “My first car was a Ford three-window coupe with a Model B four-cylinder engine. I bought it from a World War II vet in 1946 for $250. It had a Winfield head and cam. I had it about three years then.
While it looks a little sorrowful, you’re looking at the race car that made history winnin
“I started building a little Model A bucket. It was lighter; it was more a racing car. It had a chopped-down flywheel, which was called a button flywheel. It really wasn’t practical for the street.”
Street is Neat
Our former R&C Publisher Tom Medley coined the term “street is neat”, meaning “get out and enjoy your ride”. Hot rod racing was indigenous to Southern California because of the year-round warm climate and the dry lakes. The vastness of the streets in the L.A. area made street racing a way of life and relatively safe for citizens and racers alike when just a tiny fraction of people occupied those streets, compared to today.
Nick and his high school buddies Joe Pisano and Kenny Bigelow wasted no time starting the Photons Car Club. While “Photons” left many scratching their heads, Nick and his buddies knew it meant faster than the speed of light! Those guys were serious when it came to speed!
Back home from Korea with the Arias-Toros coupe at El Mirage in 1956 with driver Mike Schm
Drive-in restaurants, hot rods, and street racing went together like a burger, fries, and chocolate malt when Nick was going to school. “At night we’d challenge the different drive-ins where the fast cars were and go street race. Simon’s Drive-In, in downtown L.A. on Washington and Flower, is where we used to hang out and also Stan’s Drive-In, in L.A. We went to the different drive-ins out of the area like the Piccadilly. In fact, that’s how the sport started the [speed equipment] industry, it was street racing originally. We raced at night on Sepulveda Boulevard, South Broadway, and Main Street in L.A.”
(No matter where you lived, you eventually went to the Piccadilly Drive-In in Culver City. The Piccadilly was where everyone hung out to go street racing, from custom car heavyweight George Barris, Indy 500 competitor Jack McGrath, to the builder of the first dragster, Dick Kraft.)
First Place Carrell Speedway
Nick’s little Model A bucket, as he called it, would turn heads for 100 laps in a big league race that made history: “In 1948 we ran the car at Carrell Speedway and had Dempsey Wilson (future Indy 500 competitor with four Top 10 finishes) drive it. Tony Gonzales, Walt Mahoney, and I were partners in the car. Back then, we couldn’t do anything by ourselves because we didn’t have enough money. We won the first 500-mile race they had at Carrell in 1948 on dirt. The place was packed. All the heavy hitters were there, like Troy Ruttman. We teamed up with Howard Johansen (of Howard’s Cams). We ran his engine and rearend in our car. We qualified Wednesday for Saturday’s race. Howard was at Carrell with his driver Pat Flaherty (future 1956 Indy 500 winner) who was hot lapping when he hit the fence and bent the car up. We were hanging out at Howard’s shop, so we cut a deal with Howard to pull all of his components out of his car and put them in ours.” (Walt Mahoney went on to become a racing photojournalist, plus he designed and built Ascot Park in Gardena.)
Nick and David Sanchez between classes at Poly High School in 1947. You’re probably thinki
That was a really big day for Nick and the boys. The press clipping read: “Dempsey Wilson won the 500-mile race before 15,000 spectators. He received $2,000, the largest payoff purse in local hot rod racing history. Only 15 of the 33 starters finished.”
Nick went into the Army and to Korea in 1951 with his school friend Bob Toros. Nick was a mechanic in the Motor Pool. “We were lucky because we would have probably gotten killed. But while we were in Korea, Kenny Bigelow was killed at El Mirage.
“Bob Toros and I sent money home from Korea to Mike Schmader, who was in the Photons, to buy what was left of Kenny’s ’37 Chevy coupe from Kenny’s mom. When Bob and I got home from Korea we scrapped the car out but kept the GMC engine. (Kenny was known as “Mr. GMC.”) We started building a race car out of another ’37 Chevy. Our goal was to set a record in 1937 in Kenny’s memory. We put a rollbar in it, a Halibrand quick-change–equipped Ford rearend, and a tube axle under it.”
Nick on leave from the Army just after his dad, Nick Sr., picked up his brand-new Fleetlin
In the process of chasing parts to update the engine, Nick went to Wayne Manufacturing, which had switched from manufacturing Chevy 12-port heads to manufacturing the 12-port heads for GMC after Wayne Horning left. That’s where Nick met Harry Warner. Warner had purchased the company from Horning in 1950, which included the drawings, the patterns, as well as the jigs, plus the company name. Horning, however, continued to manufacture the 12-port heads for the Chevy engine under his company name of Wayne F. Horning. Confusing as it reads, it was befuddling to the racers as well. Horning finally sold the business in 1952.
After spending some time with Nick, Mr. Warner was sufficiently impressed with Nick’s background that he offered him a job. Nick was already employed by Al Sharp machining heads for the Flathead Ford. Sharp, a pattern maker, formed Sharp Speed and Power.
Nick (left), Dick Hampton, Jimmy Valentine, Tony Gonzales, and Walt Mahony: Yep, they all
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 met an engine bay it didn’t like because it sure got around. “W
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 (known as Mr. GMC) ran regularly at the dry lake. That’s 20-
“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.
Lions Drag Strip 1955, “That’s Scotty Finn’s dragster,” Nick says. “He was one of the firs
“I was helping out Don Rackemann (a member of the Screwdrivers, who also managed Saugus Drag Strip with Lou Baney, another Yeakel employee) a few months after I left Venolia. Don was making headers at Exhaust Engineering, renting the building from Louie Senter, of Ansen Automotive fame. (In fact, Nick, Rackemann, and Lou Baney teamed up to run Rackemann’s ’29 Ford roadster at Bonneville where it ran 176.227 with Nick’s 302-inch GMC motor—we’re talkin’ a six-banger here, folks.)
“Louie had a piston division at Ansen and he wasn’t happy with the quality. Louie stopped by to see Rackemann and we started talking. He kept talking about his piston division and I said why don’t you sell it to me? Louie went back to Indy for the month of May and when he got back I bought him out in August 1969 and started Arias Pistons.
“I ran some ads in Hot Rod and National Dragster. Then all my old customers I’d dealt with at Venolia started calling me. I was making Senter’s pistons and also mine. I’ve been in this same building 43 years.”
If you didn’t race at Santa Ana Drag Strip at some point before it closed in 1959 you neve
Remember, we said Nick had a head for business? Well, no one denied the advantages of hemispherical heads, yet not one company, including Chevrolet, had considered such heads for their V-8. It made good business sense to offer such heads; subsequently Nick developed the Arias Hemi cylinder heads for the big-block Chevy in 1972.
“When I was at Venolia all the fuel racers with Chevys competing against the Chryslers kept saying, ‘If we had a hemi head on our Chevy we could beat the Chryslers.’ I presented it to Bob and Joe in the late ’60s and they shot it down. I was surprised that Bob did because he also knew how to make heads working at Wayne with me.
“After starting Arias Pistons I knew where I was going with the company and I started doing the heads myself. Rudy Moller and I designed the heads. Rudy had retired from Northrup Aviation and did the drawings on the heads.
“I sold all my engine business and equipment to Joe Fontana 20 years ago, which included the four-cylinder Midget motor known as the Pontiac Super Duty 4. Joe was here renting my building for 12 years, but I brought back my redesigned Hemi heads for the street rodder running the LS Chevy. I’m doing the block again for the four-cylinder Pontiac engines.”
Married with children, Nick’s customer painted the ad on his ’57 Chevy. Nick was forced to
Nick’s peers recognized his contributions to the sport of drag racing when he was inducted in the 9th Annual Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield in 2000. Nick was also inducted into the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2005 in Gainesville Florida.
Nick inherited his work ethic from his father who never missed a day’s work until his retirement from the railroad. Nick arrives at his office at 9 and leaves at 4, five days a week. “Retirement?” we asked Nick, to which he responded, “Why?”
The “Occupy” crowd is jealous of success and wealth. (But will take both if it’s handed to them.) They need to read this story, to see how success and wealth is accomplished ... that is if they can read. Nick worked damn hard for both, thank you. It takes more than an old-time hot rodder to make a legend; it takes guys like Nick, who is a legend.
Long after Mr. Arias (and we) are no longer, the Arias name will be remembered—remembered, not because of what we say, but what you say. There’s an element in this country with little desire to work for a living who despise those who’ve become successful. Sure these are tough times, but growing up during The Great Depression and during the Second World War, as Nick did, was a very, very tough time as well.
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