Lake Norman & Mooresville

Disease doesn’t stop race car builder

Keith Dorton, left, in 2005 as he talks with Billy Godbold at Darlington International Speedway during the MS 150 Bike Tour.
Keith Dorton, left, in 2005 as he talks with Billy Godbold at Darlington International Speedway during the MS 150 Bike Tour. COURTESY OF ROSS TAYLOR

A misunderstanding 50 years ago between engine builder Keith Dorton and John Holman, co-owner of the 1960s racing powerhouse Holman-Moody, sent Dorton into business for himself and Automotive Specialists Inc. was born.

For five decades, the Concord native has navigated his engine building business through the ever-changing racing industry, collecting poles, victories and 19 world land speed records along the way. When a 1980 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis sometimes kept him from working, then employee Keith Almond and later Dorton’s son, Jeff, made sure the business never stumbled.

And when Dorton lost his younger brother Randy in the October 2004 Hendrick Motorsports plane crash near Martinsville, Va., the family soldiered on, citing their faith in God as the catalyst that has kept them going.

“The Lord blessed me with pretty good health for awhile,” aaid Dorton, who began working on a 1932 Coupe at age 12 in his grandfather’s barn and had it ready for the Concord dragway three years later.

“I rode the bicycle (in MS fundraising events) for awhile (and raised nearly $250,000). Then it hit me again hard. Technology had improved and there were MRIs. There weren’t any lesions (on my brain and spinal cord) so they questioned whether it was MS. It doesn’t make any difference to me. It’s still a struggle. Right now, they’re not sure what I have. … But they have shown me how through therapy to retrain my brain. They told me at Duke that my brain doesn’t know what my feet are doing.”

Now 70, Dorton uses crutches, but still reports daily for work at his company’s 15,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2000. It’s only the third building the company has called home. The first was a two-bay garage behind a service station where Dorton worked after leaving Holman-Moody. All he had in his business checking account was $100 his father had given him and his new bride, Patsy.

“It was scary,” said Dorton, whose wife then worked at Consolidated Credit’s home office in Charlotte. “To do engines you had to have equipment. I got to know the people at Concord National Bank pretty well. I guess the president of the bank liked me because he never told me no.”

Dorton soon purchased a balancing machine and it was then that Ralph Earnhardt became a customer. Earnhardt told Dorton if he would work by himself and focus solely on balancing crankshafts he would make a good living. At the time, the only other balancing machine was in Winston-Salem. However, Dorton said if he had listened to Earnhardt, he would have become bored.

The hard-working Dorton eventually moved his company into an old 7,500-square-foot rock building where it remained for about three decades with 12-14 employees. It was at this Concord location that Dorton discovered the sound of an engine running on a dynamometer with an open exhaust wasn’t as sweet a sound to the neighborhood’s residents as it was to him, especially at 1 a.m.

“We had the police there a number of times and mad neighbors. I finally realized those people were normal. I was the one who wasn’t normal,” Dorton said with a chuckle.

“We did a lot of research on reducing the noise pollution from a dyno. We spent a lot of money on it and then the city wouldn’t let me put it on.”

It was then that Dorton found the current location for his company, designing and constructing the building that houses it. Today, with several series using crate engines and the manufacturers aligning themselves with four primary engine suppliers in NASCAR’s top three touring series, Dorton’s company has remained in business by diversifying.

“We have four-cylinder Toyotas that run dirt,” Dorton said. “We have done some Sprint Cup fuel injected engines. We do a lot of land speed engines (for the Bonneville Salt Flats). We should have eight or nine cars out there this summer. We are still doing some experimental engine work for the Department of Energy. We also have done some pretty sophisticated and very expensive street rod engines. We have a lot of odd projects.”

Four people, including Dorton and his 46-year-old son, comprise the shop, while his wife and their daughter, Camille, handle the office. There also is a part-time employee. Thirty years ago most of Dorton’s business was in NASCAR. Now, “if it burns any type of fuel, we’re working on it,” he says.

“It’s been a good way to make a living for me,” said Dorton, who was inducted into the Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council Hall of Fame in 2012.

Junior Dragster events

The June 20-21 American Junior Dragster Racing Series event at Mooresville Dragway marked the first of eight scheduled for the facility.

The others are set for July 11-12, Aug. 15-16, Aug. 22-23, Sept. 5-6, Sept. 25-26, Oct. 24-25 and Nov. 14-15. The Aug. 22-23 weekend is a Triple Crown event. The other two events comprising the Triple Crown are Sept. 11-12 at Rockingham Dragway and Oct. 10-11 at Darlington (S.C.) Dragway.

Victory for Anderson

Mooresville’s Greg Anderson captured his second straight NHRA Pro Stock victory and third this season in the New England Nationals in Epping, N.H. It was Anderson’s 77th career victory and his 122nd final round appearance. Heading into the June 19-21 Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn., Anderson possessed a 70-point lead over Erica Enders. Anderson’s teammate Jason Line was 131 points behind in third.

Enfinger Maintains ARCA Point Lead

After nine of 20-events on the ARCA Racing Series schedule, Huntersville’s Grant Enfinger possessed a 55-point advantage over Tom Hessert in the driver standings. In the first nine events, Enfinger was the only multiple-race winner with three victories. He also had recorded five top-five and six top-10 finishes.

OWM Return to East Lincoln

During the next month, the open wheel modifieds will frequent East Lincoln Speedway. The UMP Open Wheel Modifieds are scheduled for June 27 and July 18, while the 602 OWM are slated for July 11.

Deb Williams is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Deb? Email her at dwilliamscltobs@gmail.com.

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