Pete Brock not only transcends racing, he transcends transcendence—how’s that for a lead to an interview? Each one of his careers could be a book by itself, he’s had quite a few, and they’ve been all over the place—but they’re all places hot rodders would like to be participating. Brock was the youngest GM Design hire in its history, a Shelby America driver, the designer of the Daytona Cobra, a successful factory racing head with Datsun and his BRE Racing enterprise, a leading manufacturer of hang gliders, a design teacher, author, and photojournalist. Can there be much more in him at the age of 78? Sure, he’s currently manufacturing the trickest race car trailers around.
That’s an intimidating resume, but you needn’t be turned off; like you, Brock considers himself a hot rodder at his core. We sat down with him to fill in some blanks around his time at Carroll Shelby’s testing the Cobra, designing and building his Daytona Cobra, and to get his candid take on what was going on inside Carroll Shelby’s head.
HRM] Your working life is a whipsaw of one job and then you go to something completely different. Do you have ADD, or what?
PB] [Laughs] I’m interested in so many different things that when something presents itself, I feel it’s important to go in that direction. When I first heard about Baja, I thought, man, I’ve got to go run Baja. I didn’t know anything about it; I just thought it was too cool not to do. It seems that whether it’s hang gliders or building race cars or whatever, I just take time off and do it. I just add it onto what I’m already doing. Like working for Shelby—I was there several years and then that got cut off when Ford came in and basically took over the program. So what else was I going to do? Luckily, I was able to work for Nissan, so that filled up the next few years. Then when I had the BRE shop over in El Segundo, California; I would pass that big powerplant by the beach, and that’s when guys started flying hang gliders off that giant sand dune they dug out for the base of the plant, and that’s where hang gliding started. I’d drive by there and see these guys flying bamboo and Visqueen gliders off that hill, and I wanted to do that too. Eventually, we had the World Cross Country championships in the Owens Valley. We’d be flying 300 miles at 15,000 feet. We reinvented the airplane. It was a lot like the hot rod culture in SoCal; the whole flying culture developed right there on Torrance Beach.
HRM] So you dropped BRE and started building hang gliders?
PB] When Datsun USA President Mr. Katiyama was forced into retirement, the whole new management team cut off racing and I didn’t have anything to do. I could see my future was in building gliders—it was beginning to be a worldwide market. We became the largest manufacturer of gliders in the world at that time. But times change and different things come along, and when a new one came along, I grabbed it and took it to see what I could do with it. For me it was an exciting thing and I don’t think I have ever done anything in my life as exciting as ultralight flight. I love racing, it’s fantastic, but there’s nothing like hooking into a thermal and climbing out of it at 2,000 feet doing circles in a 90-pound glider.
HRM] Then why did you stop?
PB] I screwed up my back moving some furniture and couldn’t do it anymore. I had to have my back operated on and that cut out my flying. The other thing was that it got to be such a large business all of the lawyers started looking at it and product liability came in, and we started spending as much money defending ourselves in court as we were taking in profits.
HRM] So then you went from that to journalism?
PB] I started doing some writing, like the book on the history of the Shelby and the Cobra [Daytona Cobra Coupes: Carroll Shelby’s 1965 World Champions]. That took two to three years, but after it appeared, I got so many people asking me if I would continue to write and take photos. I was teaching automotive design at Art Center. All of these opportunities would come to me like covering Le Mans. I would say, “No, I’m teaching,” and I’d hang up the phone and think I was out of my mind. These guys are offering to pay my way to go to France and cover Le Mans and I just said no. So I started doing more writing, and I did it for another 15 years.
HRM] You’ve been vocal about your disappointment in modern-day road racing. Why?
PB] Prior to the 7.0L Chevys in Can Am, a lot of the development was with low drag, and that was my interest—to make cars aerodynamically efficient with low drag. But as soon as you got an excess of horsepower, it changed the whole scope of racing because now it was how much downforce you could create because you had more than enough horsepower, so you were going with more and more downforce, and that completely changed racing. Now hardly anyone lifts anymore. The skill of the driver has taken a totally different turn, and that’s one of the things I believe made racing die off. Now you try to get more and more out of a car with a thicker rule book, and you have these very expensive development programs that gain you 0.002 of a second on certain tracks—and cars have to change for each track. Costs have gotten berserk. And development on the engine is set at the beginning of the year, so if someone is doing something [that increases performance], you can’t just go back and incorporate it, you’re stuck. It just seems your hands are tied all of the time. If you look at how exciting NASCAR was in the early days, with Curtis Turner and Smokey Yunick, and the great ideas they came up with, and how to cheat—that was a fantastic way of racing because the rules were so loose it allowed you to innovate. It wasn’t really cheating; it was how your mind worked things out. Now with data acquisition, it’s easy to figure everything out on the computer, so you lose the essence of what racing really is.
HRM] What would fix this?
PB] One thing to make road racing better is go back to more production cars; limit tire sizes so that adhesion is limited, taking more driver skill. Also, limit the aerodynamics, get rid of the wings, make anything [aero aid] attached to the body protrude no more than 3 inches off of the body. That’s why in the golden era of SCCA production racing when Porsche, Toyota, Datsun, and Triumph were all running in C/Production, you couldn’t change the exterior of the body much, so here was all of this money being poured into racing cars that looked like what you drove on the street. The fan following for each of the brands was fantastic. But when they started allowing one guy to run bigger tires or certain aero aids, then you get into this balancing thing where you want to make everybody equal. That’s not what racing is about. Racing is about how you can be smarter than the next guy, so if you take away the rules and make basic limitations for weight, how much rubber you can put on the road, and amount of fuel you can carry—leave it at that and don’t change the bodies—it would be better. If you went to stock bodies in NASCAR, all of the speeds would come down. They’re trying to slow the cars down anyway, so you could do it automatically with real stock bodies. It’s that simple.
HRM] Why don’t they do it?
PB] I think the sanctioning bodies know where their bread is buttered, so if a company comes in with a bunch of money then that will ensure the rules stay the same and they don’t obsolete whatever is running. Remove aerodynamic fixes and get back to improving performance by reducing drag, which transfers to production cars—which helps corporate fuel economy—and allow a lower minimum weight so we get back to more exciting materials like what they are using in the C7 Corvette. I think racing is such an exciting thing to do that if you start tying people’s hands then all of the creativity is taken away from the real thinkers.
HRM] So were you being creative with the rules?
PB] When we were racing the Datsun 2000s, there were eight or more rules in the SCCA rules book written strictly around our cars because we came up with ways to take the existing rules and interpret them. There was a rule that said if the rule wasn’t in the book, you couldn’t do it. So you couldn’t put an air dam on a car. But it also said air scoops for the brakes were legal. I invented the air dam for racing in production cars; we were the first to put one on a production car when we put them on the Datsun 2000. So I just put ducting for the brakes all across the car and made a gradual turn to the scoops on the side and there was no way they could say that it didn’t conform to their rules, so they finally said all air dams are legal. I did it originally not as an air dam but because I wanted to get air up to the radiator, so I had to block off the air going underneath the car and create negative pressure behind the air dam so you had positive pressure in front of it to suck air thru the radiator more efficiently. Once we did that, the car was instantly fast. That was the real fun of racing—figuring out different ways to get around the rules. Sometimes we would protest our own cars because the rules said the chief steward could determine if a car was illegal, so we would protest the beginning of the season and get a ruling on something, because once the ruling was set, it had to carry all of the way through the season. You had to figure the politics and read the rule book and that’s one of the things I enjoy most about racing, to read through the rulebooks. You get them to agree their own rules agreed with the solutions I came up with.
HRM] Were you a good driver?
PB] I was a good club driver. As soon as I got out racing with the real [pro] guys, I wasn’t there. There were just certain guys that were better, and you don’t find that out initially. It’s like being a boxer—you can work your way up through golden gloves and get to the top, and then you find out you can’t beat the top four or five guys. Racers are the same way, and that’s why club racing is so much fun—you’re not going against Fangio and Moss every weekend.
HRM] You wanted to race for Shelby, but Bill Krause ultimately got the seat.
PB] Yes, and actually I tested faster than him. I was so pissed at Shelby because he promised me I could race, but when I look back, I had maybe 10 races in my log book and Billy had been running sprinters and dirt and other tracks for years—the guy was just so race savvy. That was his advantage. So Shelby made the right decision, but it sure pissed me off at the time because I thought I deserved it. Shelby was a lot smarter than I was. The minute that Cobra was successful, there was a line outside Shelby’s door: Bob Bondurant was there, Gurney was there, Bob Holbert was there—all of the top drivers at that time wanted to drive for Shelby, so who was he going to pick, me or one of them?
HRM] Why didn’t you quit Shelby when he said you wouldn’t drive?
PB] Because that was the top team at the time, there was nothing else out there as good as the Shelby team. Not being corrected and having total control over the Daytona project—what it was going to look like, how we were going to build it. That was an opportunity you couldn’t pass up. It was really swimming upstream because everybody was against it, and yet I knew there was real value to what the Germans had figured out in the late-1930s. Of course, the war came along and they didn’t get a chance to do any of that stuff; and all of the data was there, but no one had ever used it. I was just lucky to have found it and say, “Hey, this is a real speed secret.” So the combo of American horsepower with good aerodynamics changed the way racing went.
HRM] If Shelby wasn’t behind the car, why did he allow it to proceed?
PB] We got enough interest when I got the sketch done that he took it to Dan Lovetchure and the guys at Goodyear, and they’re the ones who put the money up. I asked him what the budget was and he said, “We didn’t have one.”
HRM] So how were you able to start?
PB] Shelby gave me the Cobra that belonged to Skip Hudson because the clutch had exploded and sheared the steering and he crashed the car at Daytona. We pulled the body off of it and then reverse-engineered the chassis, and the whole process was done crudely. I never had a drawing board in the place because I never told Shelby I worked for GM as a designer—I wanted him to think of me as a race driver. When I drew that car up, I drew it on the floor in the accounting office on butcher paper because we couldn’t afford to go out and get Vellum. There was no time to figure out where the hinges on the door were going to go or how we were going to make the latches on it; you know, all of that kind of important stuff was figured out by the talented guys in the shop.
HRM] But everyone else at Shelby’s saw the greatness in it, right?
PB] No. When we started building the Daytona, the only guy that made the thing happen at Shelby was Ken Miles—everybody else in the whole company was against building the Daytona. They thought it was dumb-looking and wouldn’t work, but Miles knew. He had built a couple of specials himself. Being English, he knew some of the things that the Germans were testing and researching in the late-1930s and knew that we should convince Shelby to continue doing the project. So the car was literally build around Ken. We went out and tested it and the car was fantastic, and then we got ready for Daytona and Shelby pulled him out of the car and wouldn’t let him drive it. Ken was so angry he left for the day, but he came back because there wasn’t another place for him to go, just like with me. He stayed and proved he was a team player. Everybody was down on Shelby because he was screwing Miles over on the program, so finally he let Miles back into the car.
HRM] What changed?
PB] I believe it was ego. Shelby didn’t want Miles driving because he thought he would be more famous than Shelby.
HRM] What did you like about Shelby?
PB] During the era he was doing the Cobra development and bringing the guys in, he was a great leader. He was full of BS and it was a great learning experience being around him because he would pick anything out of the air and say it, and if it seemed to work and people believed it, then we would go ahead and do it. So it was fun watching him because it was that good-old-boy thing where he wasn’t being malicious or anything, he just used the talent he had and that was his talent—he was a silver-tongued devil.
HRM] What didn’t you like about Shelby?
PB] That he would attack people just to try and put them out of business because he thought they were in competition, and in some cases he was so uninformed about what was really going on. Like the Cobras—he got completely out of the Cobra program to get into the GT40 program, and then the whole kit-car industry grew up around that car and what he had created. At first, he helped all of those guys out, patted them on the back and said it was wonderful that they were doing it. When he realized how big the industry was, then he thought he should do it himself and he started building his own cars. Well, to do that he was ordering parts from these other people that had their own Cobra businesses, and then he would try to put them out of business. Like the Kirkhams, even when they were supplying most of Shelby’s Cobra parts. Shelby would go to them and say he would buy their entire year’s worth of production and sign a contract. They called me and asked if they should do it and I said, “As long as you get the money up front.” But if you let a car out the door, you’ll lose money. Shelby paid that way for two years and then finally [Kirkhams] got a great big order and Shelby’s truck driver said he forgot to bring the check. He went back with a bunch of cars on the transporter and Shelby told them he wasn’t going to pay them—that they owed it to him. That almost put [Kirkhams] out of business.
HRM] Who was the best driver during those Shelby years?
PB] Dan Gurney was the best we had driving for us and he proved it in so many ways. The guy that had the rawest talent that never got to use it was Davey McDonald. If he hadn’t been killed at Indy, he would have had the same greatness as Dan and Ken Miles. Miles was great. He did the best engineering development and he was the easiest on cars. Dan and Davey were equals, but had two totally different styles of driving; Ken was perfectly on the line, and Davey was the dirt-track guy on pavement.
HRM] What was the most exciting time in racing for you?
PB] As much as I enjoyed driving as a club racer, I think it was more fun racing as a team manager with Datsun because I got to race against guys like Cas Casner, Bob Tullius, Richie Ginther, and Shelby. Those guys were all running their own teams, and competing against those guys with the talent I had working for me was just fantastic. I had Turner Harris, Jimmy Horton, and Matt Tilton, John Neff, Bruce Furness—we had some magic and really had fun because you could create stuff. That collective enthusiasm of the team was more fun than being an individual driver.
HRM] You were the youngest hire in GM Design and designed what became the Stingray racer. Why did you leave that?
PB] I had just turned 21 when I found an ex-works Cooper race car, and I wanted to be a racer, so that’s when I quit GM. My goal had always been to go racing and I realized after I had a chance to work with Bill Mitchell and Zora Duntov and Harley Earl on the development of the Sting Ray that this was pretty big. Then I was looking around for the next big project to do and it wasn’t there. So I figured I better go out and do those things I wanted to be doing, so that’s why I left.
In 1966 filmmaker George Lucas’ first movie was about driving a Lotus-23 around Willow Springs with Brock doing the driving. It was a student film called 1:42.08, A Man and his Car, Brock still has vivid memories of what was preoccupying Lucas’ mind. “Lucas kept talking about how he wanted to do this sort of modern-day Buck Rogers movie, but with all of these creatures in it,” Brock says. “I was thinking, yeah right, that just doesn’t sound good—it sounded sort of dorky.”
But Brock was gifted with a unique lesson years later after watching Lucas’ Star Wars. “I remember thinking that this proves you should follow your dreams to as far as you can go with them, and don’t give up,” says a somewhat chagrined Brock.
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