Monday, February 13, 2017

Polish Eagle Racing & The Fiat 128 SKI

This is the story of a Fiat race car that my father and I built (well I helped a lot) in 1975-1977. He died of cancer in 1981 without really getting a chance to race it. Now I'm restoring it in time for its 40th anniversary and race it once again.

The story of a Polock and the Italian sports car....

My old man was born in 1926, in Springfield Massachusetts, to a 2nd generation Polish family. He had a great sense of humor and loved Polish jokes. He would be the first to tell one and often said, "If you tell me a Polish joke, just speak slowly so I'll get it." He was also an early member of the PRDA, a very exclusive club started by Tony Adamowicz and Oscar Koveleski in the late 1960's. In order to be a member of the Polish Racing Drivers of America, you of course, had to be, a Polish Racing driver, and because this was a very small number, they also let Polish non-racing drivers in, but not to discriminate, they decided to allow Non-Polish racing drivers to join and just in case, if you where not a race driver or Polish, you could join. But that was it, no one else could join.

With an older brother and sister, Ralph R. Gilman was the 3rd child of  Henry "Pop" Gilman, a mechanic at the Indian Motorcycle factory and before that, the Springfield Armory. As a teenager, Ralph attended Springfield tech (a trade school) and played football. In 1944 he was drafted for service in WWII, as an infantryman, destined to join the ranks of the 7th infantry and their attack on the Japanese mainland. Lucky for him, and about 500,000 other GI's, Japan surrendered, and there was no invasion.  This left him and a whole bunch of guys in the Pacific theater with nothing to do. For my dad, because of his years at Springfield tech, learning a trade, he ended up a welder, at the fuel depot at Subic Bay, Philippines.

After the war, he returned to Springfield and met my mother, Margaret "Peggy" Lash. You see, her mother, Alice Lash, was the first female employee of Friendly Ice cream, now, a large restaurant chain on the east coast. Peggy had just spied this cute guy working at the new (2nd) store and all of a sudden, needed a job.
My parents eventually moved to Connecticut where in 1961, my father started his aerospace welding / machine shop, L.M. Gill Welding, specializing in state of the art welding and job shop machining. At the time, the American space program was in full swing and electric TIG welding was a fairly new technology and my old man was hot stuff with a TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) and a natural engineer, a consummate problem solver, so L.M. Gill kept pretty busy through the 60's and 70"s.
L.M. Gill welding today in Manchester CT.
During this time, my parents hobby was sports car racing, with the Sports Car Club of America, or SCCA. Members since the 1950's, my dad was in Flag & Communications, the people in the white suits that manage the course and help in emergencies and my Mom handled credentials. Because of this, I would grow up around some of Americas most historic races and drivers of the time. Places like Sebring, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, 2 different Thompsons and Bryar and drivers like Gurney, Revson, Donahue, Poesy, Hobbs, Newman and many others. Because of his proximity to "off track excursions", he became known as the guy who could fix your magnesium wheel if you broke it.  At the time, magnesium was considered unweldable by the general public because of it pertinacity to catch on fire if heated too hot and a "mag" wheel was a weeks pay for most drivers. Often he would find the driver and offer to fix the wheel for a minimal cost (I think $20) and in most cases had it back to the guy the next race or sooner. He did this type of thing for many of the pro teams as well. So it was common knowledge around the race circuit that my dad was a clever guy who could get things done.

One day he gets a phone call from Charlie Rainville, asking if we are going to be at the Bryar drivers school next weekend. My dad says we are and Charlie tells him to bring his helmet if he has one and hangs up.  When we arrive at Bryar, dad finds out why he needs his helmet, You see, my father had talked about wanting to build and race a car for so long, his buddies got tired of hearing him and they got together to put him through drivers school. This is a requirement in the SCCA to get your competition drivers licence. Dave Beldon loaned his drivers suit, Walt Lapham donated the use of his racecar and dad took his required physical under the grand stands at Bryar motor sport park. In July of 1970, dad drove his first competition sports car, a 1966 Alfa Guliietta.

Walt Lapham's Alfa and my dad at drivers school.
His "doctors office" can be seen in the background.

We lived in Hebron Connecticut, a small country town, about 45 minutes drive from my dads shop in Manchester. One summer day in 1975, he comes home, not in his white 1967 Alfa Duetto, but in a dark blue, 1972 Fiat 128 SL. Typical of my dad, he hadn't really said anything about building a race car, so it all came as a bit of a surprise. Well, I think we started taking the thing apart that night.

A quiet guy, dad most often had a smile and a pipe sticking out of the corner of his mouth and it seemed most people liked him immediately. After all those years of helping guys out at the track, when it got around he was finally building a race car
there was little shortage of people
Ralph at the old Thompson track helping a Ferrari driver.
willing to help him.  Of course the first question these guys would ask was, "Ralph, Why a Fiat!?"
The old man liked a challenge and I'm sure many of these guys that asked him this, didn't see that building the car, was as much, if not more fun for my dad, than racing it.
A challenge because, at the time, there where many other car makes that supported racing in the US. In fact, Datsun had just started their program of making full-on competition parts available at any of their dealerships, you could buy and bolt on. Other manufacturers had a network of race teams where you could source parts from, Fiat was not one of them. So you couldn't find high performance parts for a Fiat here in the U.S. In Europe though, Fiats where formidable race and rally cars, so the old man knew given the right prep, this car could win races. He also loved the way it looked and no one else was racing the 128sl. The car would be prepared for what was then, C-Sedan in the SCCA, a 1300cc displacement (engine size) class of cars. It would be racing against cars like; Mini Cooper, Datsun B210, Alfa GTA Junior.

Since he figured the car would be done close to his 50th birthday in 1976, the car number would be "50". Funny thing at his birthday that year, a friend asked him how it felt to be a quarter as old as our country. Dad also decided we should race this as the Polish Eagle Racing team. My oldest brother, Randy was a graphic artist and designed the logo and silk screened stickers for the car.
One wing over the eyes, the claw clutching the shield and
the bottom translates to: "The Royal Chicken"

 The car first hit the track at Lime Rock Park in north western Connecticut, on a test day.  Now I don't remember if it was the first or second time at Lime Rock that the brakes failed at the end of "No name straight", but, I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I should tell you something of how we got to the test day. After all, building the car was, for me, more fun than seeing it race, because I got to build it with my dad.

This is not ours, but how the 128SL coupe looked new.

I'm the youngest of three sons and both of my, much older brothers, got to race in the Soap Box derby in the late 1960's. They got to build and race their cars with the old man, but I was too young to do this. I remember being pretty disappointed that the Soap Box derby lost its appeal in our family by the time I was old enough and eligible to race. That was until I got to help build a real race car. As I said earlier, it was a summer evening in 1975 that the Fiat came home, it would be the end of it's life as a road car.
First, we started stripping out the seats, door panels, carpets, all of the interior. One specific thing I remember is; one and a half trashcans worth of fiber sound insulation and "tar" that I scraped off the cabin floor using a torch and a steel scraper. Next was engine and the suspension. I'm sure Dad had a plan, but to me, a 14 year old boy, getting to take a car apart, and not having to worry how it went back together was a blast. Once we got down to the bare unibody, (Sheet metal body-chassis style of construction.) Ralph started to plan out the roll cage. For safety I knew a roll bar was required, but a roll cage was much safer. What my dad had planned was well beyond this. He intended on replacing all of the cars unibody construction "stiffness" and mounting points with a full tube frame chassis. Now at the time, the SCCA didn't allow a stand alone tube frame with body panels hung off it for this class, like GT Lites do today. While this may be standard today, at the time, it was only the top professional teams that had the resources to build this type of car. But with Dad's aerospace welding machine shop, he could do things even the top team didn't do. In fact, at one point, Bill "Murph" Mayberry, one of Roger Penske's  mechanics, said, "Ralph, your nuts, Roger doesn't even do things like this."
One of the reasons for adding the complete tube frame is stiffness. The last thing you want in a car is for the chassis to flex and when we where first taking it apart, you could jack one wheel up off the ground and the other three stayed on the ground and the doors wouldn't open. That's flex!

At some point the car moved to L.M. Gill welding and one hundred and eighty feet of  TIG welded, inch and a half steel tube later, the unibody was just along for the ride. Now when you jacked up a wheel, the car rocked on the opposite wheel and the doors opened like a Mercedes. But that was not the only reason he wanted to add the frame;
Taking a page from Roger Penske and Mark Donohues "book", my father poured over the SCCA rule book (GCR) and figured out all of the things he was allowed to do, not allowed to do and the things that where in between. An example of "in between", the GCR stated you couldn't change the geometry of the suspension, but it didn't say you couldn't move all of the suspension points up into the car by say, 3 inches, lowering the cars center of gravity. In addition, he mounted all of the suspension on rod ends and bearings, this eliminated the "flex" in the suspension mounts. Add to this, custom McPherson strut housings, twin tapered roller bearings and host of other modifications with the advice of guys who had been professionally racing and preparing cars for years, we built that little Fiat into a pretty impressive race car.
Once the welding, machining and fabrication was completed, the chassis/ body needed to be painted. Again, not doing the usual, Dad knew of a brand new paint that was being used on airliners that held up to the abuse of flying at 450 mph, Imron, by DuPont. So that's what he wanted the car painted with, but most car guys had never heard of this stuff, let alone had experience with it.  Charlie Rainville, did all the body work (fender flares) and painted the car. In addition to being a great driver, Charlie was an accomplished body and paint guy and built fine furniture as a hobby. ( Frank Bernstein did a lot of the engine work. (I'll point out more details of the cars unusual prep in future posts during the rebuild.)
It was an exciting day when the car came back all freshly painted in it's white Imron. Now to start putting all the pieces together.

Thanks to Greg Rickes for this picture at Lime Rock

During all of the engineering and prep of this car, friends would give him parts or recommend the optimal parts he could use. Because so few Fiat racing parts were at hand, this Fiat has parts from, Fiat, Porsche, Alfa, Chrysler dragster, Volkswagen, Toyota, Volvo, Lotus, Jensen,and Sikorsky HH-3F & HH-52A helicopters.
One example of a sourced high performance part is the brakes. In addition to going fast, you want to stop fast, so he stuffed 11" disc brakes inside 13" wheels using Girling AR calipers and duel master cylinders. These where not the usual type of brake caliper you would find on a C sedan race car. These where used on sports racing and formula cars. The brakes worked so good, on the Fiat, they failed. 
This all happened at the end of "No name straight" at Lime Rock. It's not really a straight, but the curve is so minor most cars are flat out along it's whole length and at the end, there is a sharp right hand corner and then you go up a steep hill. Charlie Rainville said, the Fiat could go around that corner in 3rd gear. My dad explained to Charlie that Charlie could take that corner in 3rd gear, but he took it in 2nd gear.
So, on this test day, at the end of the straight, dad lays on the brakes and the peddle goes right to the floor, another attempt and nothing! Well, thought dad, I know what's on the other side of that guardrail, a swamp, and I don't want to go in there, so I hope Charlies right. He stuffed it back in 3rd, stood on the gas and that car went around that corner like it was on rails. (My dad told me years later that he had to change his shorts)

He came into the pits and we jacked the car up to see what happened. The brakes actually hadn't failed, it was because they had so much stopping power, the front drive hubs twisted. This caused the front discs to wobble and knock the caliper pistons back and blow most of the brake fluid all over the engine compartment. It turns out, that because the stock Fiat hub was made of such soft steel (Poorly heat-treated steel was a problem on Italian cars back then) that under hard braking, the hubs shaft had twisted one and a half splines.
Now he had to find a solution. Remember this is the 1970's and there is no internet and there is no easy way of sourcing parts from Europe where they race these cars all the time. Even if you did find a suitable part, they are likely all custom and expensive. He could have the guys in his shop machine new ones, something well within the capabilities of the shop, but this too would be very expensive, as these where very complex parts. For the first time I sensed my father had a problem that he did not have an easy solution for.
Timing is everything sometimes, because not long after this failure, my oldest brother needed help with his Porsche 914. While under the car, my dad noticed that the drive hubs of this mid engined German car, where of virtually the same design as the Fiat, but 20% bigger and made of good, well heat treated, German steel. After purchasing a pair of these and some modifications to the Fiats front drive assembly, we had Porsche 914 drive hubs mounted in the Fiat.

There are always "teething pains" on a new car and this one had so many sophisticated modifications, that it was not unexpected. Just about the time we got the car sorted out, my dad sold his business in Connecticut and retired in Tucson Arizona. I was in my last year or so of high school, but the plan was to work on the race car and go racing. However, timing is everything. Shortly after we arrived in Tucson, my dad was diagnosed with cancer and died 14 months later. I was very close to my dad, but was too young to understand that, at 55, he was a young guy. (Last November 19th, I lived more days than he did.)
For his funeral, we scattered his ashes over the desert near our house in Tucson like my mother wanted. My brothers suggested we mix his ashes with racing fuel and running him through the race car, but that would damage the valves and he wouldn't have liked that. Mom didn't like that either. So, ashes on the desert near our house, it was. The morning after, we had breakfast with Maury and Amy Schlossberg. Maury one of my dads closest friends and one of the reasons we moved to Tucson. When my mother raised a glass in toast to my dad, gesturing in the direction of where his ashes had been scattered. Maury, pointing in the opposite direction, down the hill, said in his thick Austrian accent, "No, Peg, it rained last night, he's over there!".
That was my father's sense of humor, I'm sure he laughed.

I was 20 at the time and wanted to keep the race car, but I was not in a position to do anything with it, so it went to my middle brother Kerry. Kerry lived in Alaska at the time and after my mom sold the house in Tucson, the Fiat lived briefly with me in Los Angeles and eventually Kerry took it up to Alaska. Up in Alaska, he put it on the pole for a street race there, but detonated the clutch on the first lap. That would be the last time the Fiat took to the track.  After another 5 years or so, it returned to LA when he moved down to start a job with me at a movie prop house.

In 2001 I had been running my own company for a while and Kerry was full time at Disney's WDI, so he decided, since I had the space, we should restore the car for SCCA GT5 and go racing.
The car was disassembled and prepared for media blasting to fix rust and dents. Well, that's as far as it got. Over the next few years, the chassis and all of the parts where moved around the shop and eventually to a storage unit behind the shop. After 13 years of sitting outside, the car now need even more rust repair.
Last December I convinced Kerry to give me the car and I would restore it and get it back on the track. I reorganized my garage (See how I used that word, "reorganized", makes you think my garage was organized already)
The car after 15 years of storage under cover, but outside.

This is the journey of taking a 40 year old race car and getting it back on the track for it's 40th anniversary at the same track it all started at. The plan is as follows:

  • Find all the parts in storage
  • Media blast the car
  • Fix all the bodywork
  • Restore the suspension
  • Replace worn or damaged parts
  • Repaint the car
  • Reassemble the car
  • Go to drivers school
  • Test the car
  • Rebuild the trailer 
  • Tow it to the East Coast
All in time for the Historic Festival in September, at the first track this car ran on, Lime Rock Park.

Next: How much damage is there?

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