INDUSTRY INSIGHTS: KEITH DORTON
Transforming challenges into opportunities is the foundation of success for Automotive Specialists, whose owner and founder offers words of wisdom and inspiration culled from 55 years at the apex of motorsports.
On a fateful day in late 1963, 18-year-old Keith Dorton reported for his first day of employment at the legendary North Carolina racing shop of Holman & Moody. A self-described “hot rodder,” Dorton was at the threshold of a lifelong interest in all things related to horsepower.
Across the span of the next six decades, Dorton would emerge as one of the most respected and influential engine builders in the performance industry. His engines have powered NASCAR winners, and he has served as an important mentor to three generations of engine experts.
It is also why Dorton is the ideal guest for this month’s Industry Insights. When this interview was conducted in April, the COVID-19 crisis had plunged our industry into the shadows of uncertainty. So we deemed it fitting to hear from a man who has persevered through more than his share of adversity. Despite the hardships, Dorton’s Concord, North Carolina-based company, Automotive Specialists, celebrates 55 years of operation in 2020.
Along the way Dorton endured several economic recessions, the fuel crisis of 1974, significant health challenges, and various other upheavals. He was also forced to reinvent his business as an evolving motorsports landscape—rule changes, economic fluctuations, and shifting markets—prevailed. Above and beyond, Keith Dorton has proven to be a survivor.
PRI: At the moment, our industry has been rocked by forces beyond our control. You’ve seen a great many challenges come and go, but the COVID-19 crisis seems different than anything we’ve faced before. Would you agree?
Dorton: It is different. But speaking just for ourselves, we’re not going to throw in the towel. During our time in business, which is 55 years now, we’ve seen similar challenges, but not as disastrous as this. The one that comes to mind is the gas crisis in the 1970s. Racing, for a short while, just stopped. Motorsports pretty much came to a halt, and we were at a loss as to what to do.
When that hit, I got to thinking about what our business could do to survive, and also help the current situation. One of the things we thought of was to utilize the knowledge we had gained in racing, particularly with engines, to make an engine more efficient. So we took a conventional street engine and started making changes. We invested in equipment to test for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, and began testing and adjusting, and we made substantial improvements in mileage, while also reducing emissions. From that we started building engines for fleets and other applications. Guys who used two-ton trucks to haul scrap metal or whatever, they came back and said those engines paid for themselves in just two months based on the fuel savings. So that’s one thing we did to get through the fuel crisis.
PRI: That’s a good example of turning a crisis into an opportunity. Sometimes people might think that’s a corny view, but it’s relevant.
Dorton: I wish there was something in my profession that I could do to help our current (coronavirus) situation. Other people in our industry are using things like 3D printers to build ventilators and things like that, and that’s great. And they’re giving the tools to the medical people so they can do their own. It isn’t about monetary gain in that situation, it’s about giving back.
PRI: You were hired on at Holman & Moody during one of the most dynamic eras in the history of the performance industry. You were awfully young, Keith, and it’s like you were thrown into the deep end of the pool. I suspect one of the first things you discovered was that this industry could hardly be described as “calm and steady.”
Dorton: No, those words don’t describe our industry very well. (Laughing.) But gosh, it’s been great. We don’t realize how good we have it during the good times. And this is one of those times when it’s like a slap in the face, reminding us how good we had it before.
You know, things just escalated so fast back in those days. So many innovative people were involved, and it was very interesting. That era, in my opinion, wasn’t about making money. It was about kicking your competitor’s butt. It was fun, oh, yes. That’s exactly why I love the land speed racing industry today; it’s like backing up in time 40 years. People are there to have fun. Big-time racing has evolved into how much money you can make, and that’s sad to me.
PRI: In 1965, you left Holman & Moody and started your business, at just 21 years old. Looking back, are you amazed that you were in business for yourself at such a young age?
Dorton: Oh, yes. If I was 21 now and wanted to get started, I don’t know how I would do it. In February 1965, I got married, was called for the (selective service) draft, and I lost my job at Holman & Moody. That’s a lot within a couple of weeks! They put my butt on a bus to Charlotte and told us not to plan on coming back. But (the military) turned me down because I had torn my rotator cuff and needed surgery, so they classified me as 4-F and sent me back home. Fortunately, my wife Patsy had a job. We had used all our savings to buy a house, and I borrowed $100 from my dad to start a checking account. So from that I started our business in a little garage, not really sure what we would be doing.
PRI: What was the biggest challenge in the very beginning? Acquiring equipment, or finding customers? Or was it something else?
Dorton: I had made a lot of connections in racing, and I was drag racing myself. So I had some racing work lined up. But the biggest challenge was money, and just keeping things going. I did a lot of brake jobs and tune-ups (on street cars) that first year to pay the bills. A good friend let me have a two-bay garage at no charge to work from, and that was a big help.
PRI: You ended up getting heavily involved in NASCAR racing, but you continued to work with drag racers for many years as well. How did you balance that? Those are two very different customer bases.
Dorton: I didn’t think about it, really. They are more similar than they are different. If you look at a Top Fuel car to a stock car, they are different, yes. But the principles are the same. And you know, I had a little bit of both of those things in me, and both felt natural to me. I think that helped us, and I never thought about them being different.
PRI: At one point you made the decision to scale back your overall volume, because you felt like it was reaching a place where you couldn’t be personally involved as much and that wasn’t acceptable. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Dorton: There was a point, especially in the heyday when we were doing so many NASCAR engines, we had 14, 15 really good guys in the shop, many of whom went on to become top engine builders for the big teams today. But I felt I was not as hands-on as I wanted to be. I’ve always been out on the shop floor versus sitting in an office. And you reach a point where your volume is beyond you being able to oversee it at the level you want. That was uncomfortable for me. Today, every engine that goes out of here, I’ve touched it. For most engines, I assembled it. I feel like, even though we didn’t have many failures when we had more people and more volume, it was still uncomfortable.
PRI: Along the way, NASCAR racing started to change. The rules tightened up, and some of the knowledge and parts and pieces you had worked very hard to develop were no longer allowed. Was that a frustrating experience?
Dorton: Oh, yes. It was, and it still is. When we ran big blocks in NASCAR, they put some restrictor plates on them one year, I think, then went back to the 358-inch small block. When the restrictor plates knocked the power down by a lot, we were doing a lot of work in that area. Anyway, we were all told when they did the restrictor plates, “Don’t cheat.” They were adamant. If they found (your engine) was sucking air anywhere, they would take almost everything except your first-born child. We were told very bluntly, don’t cheat. And we didn’t; that first year in 1989, we showed up at Daytona and our engines were legal. Well, we got our butt handed to us; I’ve never been so embarrassed. But we went home and went to work. That next year (1990) we came back with a vengeance and won the (Daytona 500). We had something like 20-some engines down there. We stayed pretty heavily involved until sometime in the 1990s.
PRI: It looks like that’s when things really started to change. The rules continued to tighten up, and many of the big teams began to bring their engine programs in-house. Was there a point, Keith, when it became apparent that you were going to have to develop some new markets? Was it hard to face the fact that after all those years in NASCAR racing you had to look elsewhere for business?
Dorton: Yes, but going back to what I said earlier: We don’t know how good we have it until something goes away. But yes, it was tough. And we’ll always face this in the engine business; you have to adapt to the times.
The thing that has changed our business model the most over the years has been the way racing has changed. Starting with the manufacturers getting involved in crate engines, and the rules we’ve had to contend with. And the escalation in costs. So at some point we had to just think about survival. We’ve had to work on a variety of projects.
But I’m doing some things today that only came about because we had to change our business model. When the NASCAR work was no longer there, we found some pretty cool projects to get involved in. I have one project that, for the past couple of months working on it, I found myself very excited. My mind is racing with possibilities and ideas with the project, almost to where I have a hard time falling asleep because my mind is thinking about the project. It’s an excitement, and it’s nice to have that in your business. It’s a variety of projects: vintage engines, muscle cars, land speed engines…it has definitely kept the brain cells active.
We got to a point a few years ago that I realized I didn’t want to just stuff pistons in a hole and put the oil pan on. I wanted to continue to learn and do things that make what I’m doing better. I could never have dreamed of the interesting projects that have come around in recent years, but they have. And I’m happy with it. I don’t dread coming to work, and there was a point when it looked like someday that might become the situation.
PRI: One interesting wrinkle to the engine business is that it’s about more than simply how much power you can make. Is that what helps keep it interesting?
Dorton: Oh, yes. No matter how much power you make, it’s got to live. So there is a lot to that. I’m very fortunate, with my son Jeff involved in the business—he’s 51—it’s been a saving grace for our company. With the new electronic age we’re in, Jeff has really been on top of this. That was a new element for me, and it wasn’t easy to tackle that. Jeff has been a lifesaver, and it’s helped our company keep up with the times.
PRI: In 1980, you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was 40 years ago, Keith, and it obviously did not stop you. But at the time that was surely a scary thing, to hear that diagnosis. How did you work through the fear of that reality, and what it might mean?
Dorton: I was very fortunate…Jeff was 10 years old, and I had a couple of really good guys working for me. I was stopped for a few months, where nothing was happening. I wasn’t able to work. But those guys kept things going, and I’m forever grateful. It was a tough time financially, there is no doubt. From every respect, it was a tough time. I fought that (MS), off and on, for a long, long time. I put my faith in God the whole time. Now, I doubted a lot during the hard times, but I managed to stay with it.
Today, I’m very thankful. This June, it will be three years since I’ve needed crutches to stay upright. How many people can say they are in better physical condition at age 75 than they were at age 55? I can say that, because it’s true. I give thanks every day for that. Really, I have to pinch myself sometimes: Am I really doing this well?
There is more to life than building engines, and I found that out. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but I realize it now.
PRI: You have been involved in raising money to fight MS. I’m sure that’s a very personal project for you.
Dorton: I’m not involved currently, but I was involved for many years. With MS, you can go through periods when it’s less devastating. During one of those periods, I got involved in a bicycle ride, the MS 150. It was maybe 20 years ago, and I was able to get to a good place physically for a while. During that time I—after too many beers one night, I think—accepted the challenge of participating in this 150-mile bicycle ride. You know how it goes: “I’ll bet you can’t do that.” I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in probably 20 years. Well, one of the things for everybody in our industry is that we don’t show up looking for second place. We go to win. So I didn’t set out to finish second, and I didn’t; I finished something like 320th. But from that first year I had the idea of selling advertisement on my bike and my jersey, to raise money to fight MS. I challenged people to sponsor me. I put them on a guilt trip about helping poor ol’ Keith, because I wanted to raise money for this cause. And I also got to know the people in the MS society very well. So I ended up selling something like $35,000, maybe $40,000 worth of sponsorship that first year. After that, I had the number 1 on my jersey because I had raised the most money. I was very proud of that. Over the next six years I raised just over $250,000 total. Later on my MS knocked me down again, and couldn’t do the ride anymore.
Right now, I do okay, but I don’t have much balance. I got a recumbent bicycle to ride, but those are too dangerous to ride on the street because they’re so low. But I’m grateful that I’m able to get around without crutches and come to work every day.
PRI: Give us a quick synopsis on some of the things you’re involved in today.
Dorton: We’ve got some road race customers Down Under, in New Zealand and Australia. We are doing a lot of vintage engines, and hot rod engines. I was a hot rodder from the get-go; my first car was a 1932 Ford five-window (coupe) with a flathead. I’ve got three flatheads in the shop right now—two of them are for hot rods and one is for Bonneville. One of the flatheads is the project I’ve been so excited about.
Right now, in our assembly room I’ve got what looks like a period-correct (Chevy) 327 with four two-barrel carbs that’s going into a 1940 Willys coupe. We’ve also got a flathead going in a 1932 roadster that the guy will run up in New Jersey at The Race of Gentlemen. I’ve got an SB2 road race engine, a super late model type of engine that runs on dirt. Really, we hardly have any two projects that are alike. We do a lot of LS engine projects as well. I fell behind on that market at first, but we’re doing a fair amount of it now.
PRI: You brought your son, Jeff, into the business some years ago. What’s the key to making a family-based business work?
Dorton: Gosh, I’m not sure how to explain that. Jeff, he’s worked with me since the beginning. My wife Patsy has worked with me since we got married. In the early days she also had to work another job so I could do what I wanted to do. Our daughter Camille has worked with us, but she’s moved to part-time because she took a job at our church. But she still works with us a couple of days doing payroll and administrative work. Patsy came out of semi-retirement when Camille went to part-time. So it’s a family operation, still today.
PRI: You’ve got a milestone coming up for Automotive Specialists this year: 55 years in business. That’s quite an accomplishment, Keith. What are you most proud of in those 55 years?
Dorton: Businesswise, I’m proud to have done things the way we wanted, with our ideas. Some of it worked, some didn’t. Honestly, that’s a hard question. You would think that winning the Daytona 500 would be one of my proudest moments, but it wasn’t. Not really, not in the big picture. But there is not any one thing that stands out over those years.
One thing I am proud of is being involved with so many people, especially the younger guys that have come along through the years. I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions and trying to help guide any young guy who is interested in engines. And many of those guys have had a great career in their own right and done very well. I’m proud of that.
PRI: We’ll wrap it up with this, Keith. All of us in the performance business are facing a very serious challenge with the coronavirus. It’s only natural that people are a little scared at the moment. What advice would you give the people who are trying to figure out how to lead their business through this and continue on?
Dorton: Like I said earlier, speaking just for us, we’re not going to throw in the towel. We’re going to get through this. To begin with, we need to use this time productively. For example, while we’re down, I’m thinking of how we can improve the flow of our business. This is a great time to step back and evaluate everything. How can we work better? How can we be more efficient? This has opened my eyes that we maybe were in a rut. We don’t want to be in a rut; we want to keep climbing that mountain. How can we do it better? It’s about a lot more than just wiping everything down with sanitizer and cleaning the floor. We have to face the reality that we’ve got to pay our bills.
I don’t think you can act like nothing is wrong, and I’m not going to do that. But I’m not just stopping, either. I want to press forward. I want to stay healthy, and I want my family and employees to stay healthy.
I’ll tell you one thing that might really come out good in the future from this virus: getting back to racing parts being made in Southern California, and Nevada, and North Carolina, all over the country, instead of overseas, because it’s obvious we currently have a problem.
But just like we did during the fuel crisis (of 1974), you’ve got to cinch up those belts and be ready to work really hard when things open back up. We don’t know what things will be next week, 30 days from now, or next year. This is something we haven’t seen before.
It’s kind of a wake-up call. You know, the people in our industry are some of the most innovative people you’ll ever find—mechanically and otherwise. They can improvise. We don’t have to have a CAD system to make something work; they will figure things out. So we can do this. We might have to make some sacrifices—and we already have—but we can do this. We have to share ideas and hardships and work together. If we come up with an idea and share it, good things could happen.
PRI: Keith, we really appreciate your voice of experience. And we congratulate you and everyone at Automotive Specialists on your 55th year in business. Thanks for sharing some time with us.
Dorton: Thank you, Dave. And we wish all the best for everyone in our industry over the next few months.