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SEMA Heritage: Turning Valve Jobs Into Science

SEMA News—October 2011

John McWhirter, one of the founders of Racing Head Service The man at the mill is John McWhirter, one of the founders of Racing Head Service (RHS). On the other side of the camera is Hot Rod magazine staffer Bud Lang, who photographed McWhirter cc’ing a Chevy cylinder head for a February 1971 profile of the Memphis-based shop. At the time, Lang wrote, the NHRA’s rules for Junior and Super Stock drag racers were so restrictive that “the few shops or engine builders specializing in high-performance work on such engines have, over the years, turned otherwise standard valve jobs into a science.” Lang then spent the next four pages explaining in thorough detail how RHS prepped small-block Chevy heads, with McWhirter—“the gentleman in charge of head production”—as his guide.

McWhirter did far more for RHS than just build cylinder heads. He, along with Ivars Smiltnieks and Bob Woodard, launched RHS in 1967, working from a basement filled with machine tools. As Lang explained, the “talented trio” honed their head-work skills campaigning a couple of ’50s Oldsmobiles at racetracks all over the country. Why race such “relics,” as Lang called them?

“One reason was that they were a lot of fun, but the main reason was they were ideal test cars,” he wrote. “Because of their low horsepower rating, the Olds engines would react favorably (or disagreeably) to any small change. If you make the right move, the gain in performance…is substantially more noticeable.” After years of experimenting with these Olds engines, many of RHS’s “speed secrets” found their way “into Chevys, Fords, Ponchos, and who knows what else,” Lang wrote.

By the time of Lang’s visit in late 1970, RHS had outgrown the basement and moved to bigger digs in a Memphis suburb. Not long after, another move would locate the business near the Memphis airport. And just a few years later, the trio that founded RHS would join with Tom Woitesek, Russ Smiltnieks and Ron Coleman to form Competition Cams.