Rob Dyson – Interviewed by Frank Muller

dailysportscar.comDyson Racing has always been a favorite of mine. Rob Dyson and his team have been a fixture of American sportscar racing for nearly thirty years. In my opinion, they grew into the premier American privateer operation. I recently heard that Pat Smith, chief mechanic for 28 years, would be retiring as of the Sears Point ALMS date. I thought the Road Atlanta race would be the perfect opportunity to talk to Pat about his wonderful career just prior to its conclusion. I made arrangements with Chris Dyson and all was set.

Upon visiting the paddock last Friday I discovered that Pat would not be in attendance. He and the team had jointly decided that it would be better for everyone if the team began getting used to working without relying on Pat’s presence.

I didn’t want to let the interview slip totally away. I asked Chris to set up a time during which I could talk with the senior Dyson. Saturday morning, after the first LMP practice I met with Rob. We spent a fascinating forty minutes talking about the history of the team, his years with Pat Smith, and the cars they had run. And I got a little glimpse into the future of the team. That interview follows below:

Background Questions
FM: You have been working with Pat Smith since 1975, from your earliest days in SCCA club racing. How did you and he hook up initially?

dailysportscar.comRD: Pat taught auto mechanics at our local VoTech (vocational technical school). I needed someone to help me out. At that time it was just me and couple of kids from our farm that would come along on the weekends. A friend of mine introduced me to Pat. I said to him, “Why don’t you come on by?” He came over one day, looked around my shop and said, “You better get some sandwiches, we’re gonna be here for a while”.

FM: Did he have any formal engineering background?

RD: No, no, he’s just smart and he also never forgets… anything.

FM: Did Pat have any background in racing before you met?

RD: Pat had done a lot of drag racing, in his own car and another guy’s car. He was a great mechanic. He made his living being a mechanic.

FM: You started SCCA club racing in 1975, running a Datsun 510. In those days who went to the races? Pat worked on the car back in New York while you went to the races?

RD: Oh, no, no, no, when Pat and I first started working together, even though we both had full-time jobs, Pat, he’d work on the car after school. Then I’d get out there at night. Sometimes we’d meet one another, although rarely. I just picked up where he left off. Pat was better at transmissions, but I was better at fabrication. We both kind of muddled through all the various things. Then we’d go to the races, sometimes driving all night.

FM: So it was just the two of you doing all the work?

RD: Yes, except for the bodywork, we farmed a little bit of that out.

FM: In 1982, you decided to build a Firebird for IMSA GTO.

RD: I said to Smitty (Pat Smith), “I think we ought to move up”. I thought we were capable at that time. We had a couple more guys hanging out with us. We had a crew of three… Pat, two other guys, and me. I thought the Firebird would work. Another guy built it, and to be charitable, I’d call it a learning experience. The car really didn’t do anything very well. But it taught us a lot. In 1983 and ’84 we ran a very mixed schedule, some Trans Am, some IMSA, finishing third overall at the Elkhart Lake 500 miler, which was pretty interesting when you think about it. Here we were running a car that was clearly outclassed but we just outlasted everybody.

: You were still running the Firebird when you started thinking about the Porsche 962?

RD: Bob Akin was a very dear friend. So I asked him, “These Porsches look pretty slick. What’s the story on them?”. He told me, “If you’re gonna run a car, you’ve got to run a Porsche, they’ve got the customer backing. It’s a little bit more expensive, but you’re around at the end. So you have a shot. The car that you’re running, first, it’s a lower level class. To get it running right you’ll have to build a whole new car, why bother. Why don’t you move up?”

So I talked to Al Holbert, who I knew a little. He worked a deal to get a 962 from Bruce Leven, the 101 chassis.

FM: What was Pat’s reaction to the 962, after tube-framed cars, and things he understood very clearly?

RD: Well, I said to Pat, “Look, with the Firebird, we’re racing a prototype. It’s just not called that. It’s a one-off, with everything made by us or the guy who built it. So we absolutely had to do all that stuff. The problem was, the car was just so unique. It was flawed in every respect. So we were constantly updating and redoing stuff, many times all by ourselves.

FM: So you were very used to being creative?

RD: We were used to being, not only creative, but having to work very hard to make the car work. So we took a look at the Marches, we took a look at the Porsches. Lola had a car. Bob Akin said, “Look, it’s simple, nobody collects Marches”. And he was right. “You gotta get a Porsche,” and that’s what happened. So we worked with Al and got the deal.

FM: I would imagine the fact that Al Holbert and Porsche in general supported the car helped a bit?

RD: Well, they supported us to a point. When we got the Porsche we sent a couple of the guys down there (to Holbert’s shop in Pennsylvania) and they were explaining it to us, you know little quirks and that kind of thing. I think, in essence, they were blowing us off. You know, “who the hell are these guys?” So we decided that we were going to go testing and learn the car. And we were going to run Atlanta, which in those days was in April. Alwin Springer was a real help. He came to a couple of the tests and showed us how the engines worked. He showed us a whole lot of things related to chassis setups and how to run the car. So that was a real plus.

The other thing was, we were a fairly keen team. I mean Pat was very keen, very smart with the basics. We just out-worked everybody. So when we showed up at Lime Rock, on Memorial Day weekend, we had the car pretty well sorted. By golly, we kicked their asses (taking first with some clever pit strategy).

Two weeks later, they took fourth at Mid-Ohio and a month later a third at Watkins Glen. And they continued to impress, finishing third at Portland, third at Sears Point, first at Road America, eleventh at Pocono, seventh at the second Watkins Glen event, first in Columbus and finally an eighth at the Daytona Finale. Quite an impressive record for a team’s first season with a new car.

FM: When you moved into the GTP class, did you have a team in place that could run that car?

RD: No, we were just four guys. We had to add a couple more guys. And that’s what we had, a close six, running a GTP.

FM: Dick Yagami made some valuable contributions to your 962. How was he attracted to the team?
(Dick Yagami was a designer/aerodynamicist who was responsible for a lot of the tweaks used on Dyson 962s.)

RD: Yeah, when Yag came with us, he worked part-time. Dick knew Drake Olson and kind of came along with Drake. And then we did bring him on full-time. He was a general, overall kind of… he was an aerodynamic guy and an industrial designer by trade. That helped, he got us thinking ‘different’.

FM: With the kind of success you were demonstrating did other teams try to steal away any of your talent?

RD: Well, ultimately, Yag did leave. He went to Nissan.

FM: What about Pat? With his reputation, did anyone ever try to entice him away?

RD: I’m sure they did, but he never mentioned it. But I’m sure people talked to Pat.

FM: At the peak of the IMSA GTP era, how many 962 chassis did Dyson Racing own at any one time?

RD: Maximum was three, that was because we were running two cars and we had number 101 put away.

FM: And that’s the one that is restored today, in the original orange, yellow, and white colors?

RD: Yeah, yeah, a beautiful car.

FM: The DR2, really fascinates me. The really radical-tailed car? (The DR2 was possibly the most radical 962 variant raced in IMSA.)

RD: The DR2 was a Nigel Stroud design for Richard Lloyd. It had a rising-rate front suspension. So I worked a deal to buy a copy of that car. We put a lot of work into it and I think it actually didn’t work on our American tracks. Our tracks were too rough. The suspension was a little tighter and it just didn’t quite work right. We won a bunch of races with it but it was not the leap forward that we thought it would be.

FM: You mentioned it was a Lloyd copy. Did Fabcar build that for you?

RD: No, it was built over in England.

FM: I saw a picture of the tub with a Fabcar plate on the sill. Did they do enough on it to make that valid?

RD: Well, Dave (Dave Klym of Fabcar) did a lot on it. He’s consistently done a lot of work for us. The only car he’s not working on for us now is our Lola. Although we’ve asked him to do some stuff, but he’s so backed up with all of his other projects he hasn’t been able to do it. But Dave has been a supplier of ours for a long time.

FM: Does the DR2 still exist today?

RD: You know, I don’t know where it is. I mean it may be at some of these vintage deals, you know, Porsche things. It was sold off and the only one I’ve got is the 101.

FM: As IMSA GTP died out (1993) were you still running the DR2?

RD: No, we abandoned the DR2 because that was an air-cooled car. We bought chassis number 148, the last all Weissach-built 962. By that, I mean, the tub and everything was built by Porsche. After that, any of the ones after 148, the tubs were built by Klym (Fabcar) under a contract with Porsche. We ran the 148, which was a Group C car, and we put it into IMSA trim.

World Sportscar Era
: After the demise of the IMSA GTP class (1993) you jumped right into WSC with a Ferrari-engined Spice.

RD: Well, we bought a Spice and then adapted a Ferrari engine to it. I looked at the regulations and they said it had to be a street-derived engine. Well, one man’s “street-derived” is another man’s “all-race” engine. I looked at all the street cars. I got out a Road & Track and looked at all the specs of all the cars they tested in 1993 and I looked for displacement. I saw the 348 Ferrari and thought, “that might work”.

So we checked around at junk yards and found a couple of 348 engines for literally nothing and pulled them apart. We looked them over and felt they looked pretty slick. So I called Bob Akin again, and I said, “Bob, I’ve got a Ferrari engine I’ve got to trick up to run in this Spice”. He replied, “Well, you’ve got to go see Ted Wenz”. So we went to Wenz and he and Peter Marcovicci did a phenomenal job of rebuilding the engines, great engines.

But the Spice car was a disaster from the word go. It was the worst car, no, it was the second worst car I’ve ever driven. The worst car was our Firebird. Everything was a disaster. You couldn’t make it work. The steering was a disaster.

We did run it and it was a great car because it was exciting. We didn’t do very well with it but the fans loved it. It sounded great with a flat crank, in essence a derivation of the Cosworth V-8, and it was loud, and throaty, and high-pitched and all of that stuff. It wasn’t like the 333SP though. But, you know, it was a Ferrari. And then all of a sudden everybody started showing up with all the Spice cars with the Oldsmobile Aurora race engines in them. The class went from a “street-derived” engine, normally aspirated, to race engines. Well, we were clearly out-classed. So that car went away.

FM: So you’re saying the engine spec for the class slid away from what you had prepared for?

RD: Yeah! The rules said “street-derived”. Anyway, we went on from there, we realized that wasn’t going to work. We had used Bob (Bob Riley) to make the Spice work a little bit better. We called him and he came to take a look at some stuff. Bob re-fabricated some uprights and some other pieces to make them work better. But he kept saying, “I don’t want to keep selling you parts. I want to sell you a car”.

So Pat and I went out there (Indianapolis) late in the season and looked at what Bob had drawn up. As soon as he showed us what he had done, with the separate coils and shocks and the overall packaging, I told him to build us one with an option on a second car. You could literally change all the springs in the pits, in five minutes. And that’s what got us into the Riley & Scott RS IIIA.

FM: Pat has been integral in the success of the team almost out of gut instinct and intuitive decisions. He’s been able to adapt to whatever you’ve decided to do.

RD: Pat has been… uh… whatever I throw at him he’s been able to work with it. It’s… uh… we always stick to basics. We always run for the race. We always run the whole weekend to get the race setup. We don’t spend any effort other than getting into the show and qualifying. We want to run the car with a race setup. We never run light fuel loads or in this case, high boost, either with the Porsche or now with the MG-Lola. We always run it to ensure that it’s raceable.

FM: Just a very practical, functional setup?

RD: With Pat, that’s one of the great things about him. It was always basics, oil in the engine, water in the radiator, gas in the tank, a battery that works, steering that works, brakes that work. I mean it was just very basic stuff. We never got ahead of ourselves. We always stood on our basics.

FM: That leads me to the next question. When you decided to go with the MG-Lola, on a technical level, how much of a leap was it from the Riley & Scott to the Lola?

RD: Significant, I think. It brought back all the complexity we had got away from. It brought back turbos, which add a whole roster of complexity that you just don’t have in a normally aspirated engine, particularly one like the Lozano (Ford/Lincoln). The Lozano fellows have just done a terrific job. They virtually eliminated all the problems for us. You bring a turbo back and that’s a whole other thing.

The Lola is a very light car, all carbon chassis. We had had that with the Spice. That adds complexity. You know if you want to add a bracket on a tube-frame car you just weld it on or drill it into a bulkhead. But with the carbon, that makes a difference. Aero load, the whole complexity went up significantly. But it was kind of a combination of all that we had learned, a culmination of all our time together.

FM: I noticed in your pits here there was a fellow wearing a Lola sweatshirt. Do you get fairly close support from Lola?

RD: Yeah, well we’ve established ourselves as running these cars pretty well. Lola provides us with a couple of people and it helps, mostly on the mechanical side, the engineering we handle.

FM: When you went with the MG did you need to hire new people with special technical skills?

RD: Yes, we brought two people on. We hired Peter Weston to be our chief engineer. We had worked with Peter when we tested the first Lola 900 car, four years ago, I guess. Everybody was pretty impressed with him. So I had a meeting with him. I’ve got a business over in England so I called him and said, “Why don’t you show up and we’ll talk”. I hired him late last year to come on board with us to add, to elevate, our game in the engineering area, also to allow us to get a little more logistic support in England as far as parts and that sort of thing.

FM: And “Big Steve” is from AER?

RD: Yeah, Steve, Stevie is a full-time employee of AER and he shepherds our engines.

FM: I noticed, walking around the paddock, that your front-end aero is very different from the Field car. Is that a Lola tweak or is that tweaks you guys have come up with yourselves?

RD: Well we spent… that was Peter, and we spent some time in a wind tunnel, like about a week. And it created a whole lot of things for us to make our cars run better. We had to get the aero down. We were not doing a good job in that area. We had the engine and the drive train and we got the suspension stiffened up and we got all that straightened out. We needed a little tweak with the aero and my son (Chris) worked a deal with the Lola people to get some wind tunnel time, in exchange for some things they owed us and off we went.

Pat’s Retirement
FM: Pat Smith isn’t with the team this weekend. Has he officially retired?

RD: Pat and I have been talking about it for a couple of years. Pat had said, “sixty, I want to retire”. Pat and I worked together for 28 years. So, uh… he just felt that it was time. He took all of this to heart. And after a while, it was time to retire. It was him, Pat said it was time. It wasn’t me saying, “Smitty, you’re getting soft or old or you’re forgetting half the stuff you used to remember “. It was just that Pat said, “There are a lot of things I want to do in my life”. I’ve got all the time in the world for Pat Smith so I told him to name his date. So the idea was that the official start date of his retirement was his sixtieth birthday, which is in less than two weeks, so Pat’s retiring. But we decided that now, if he was here, the guys would continue to rely on him. So they need to stand on their own now.

I feel confident that it was the right decision for him. I am as close to Pat Smith as any human being I know. We have had a wonderful experience, a lifetime experience. We were in the truck in the old days, it was he and I, 3:00 in the morning, on the way to Nelsons Ledges (an SCCA club track in northeastern Ohio) sleeping in the truck before the gates opened.

FM: Would you say Pat was still enjoying the racing but just realized that it was time to get on with some other things.

RD: I think that’s part of it. I think the other thing that he felt was, “I’ve got other things that I want to do. I’ve got my health so I want to do them.” And Pat’s got a very sophisticated mind. I think he wants to go to the opera. He wants to do some photography. He’s got a couple of cars he wants to fix up. He’s got a 1962 Corvette, he’s got his old drag car, he’s got a 1948 Chevy sedan he’d like to get squared away, he just wants to get a lot of things done.

FM: If you go to Le Mans next year, will you be able to persuade Pat to come with you or would you rather not impose on him? Would he want to do it?

RD: You know, I hadn’t thought about it. I think that Pat… uh… that’s interesting. I can’t speculate on that, whether I would ask, or whether he would come.

The Future
: With the two of you being so close, Pate must almost feel that Chris is like a son to him.

dailysportscar.comRD: Well, he is Chris’ godfather so I think there is an element of closeness there. I also think that the other aspect of it is that our families are very close. His kids started coming to the races when they were 10 and 13. So as adults, we know each other’s kids.

FM: Any mixed feelings about Chris racing?

RD: (Dyson chuckles) Ummm… yeah, I think they are mixed. It’s funny, when Chris started expressing an interest in racing, I was down in Florida at an ISC (International Speedway Corporation) meeting in Daytona. The Chevy drivers were down there testing for the 500… and I ran into Dale Earnhardt. “I see your son’s getting interested in racing, my son is too”, I said. “What are you going to do?”
He told me, “Well, I’m gonna get him the best stuff so he can’t blame it on the equipment.” So I thought, I’ll do that too.

It’s mixed, it is mixed. This sport is very, ignoring the financial drain which is significant, but ignoring that, it’s just money. And I don’t mean to be flip about it. This is a physically and emotionally draining sport. It sucks a lot out of you. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense. It requires an intense, high level of commitment… if you want to win. If you want to show up and participate, well you know, don’t go to the gym six days a week, go twice a week. You know, if you’re content to be an “also ran” that’s fine. But if you want to run up front, like we do, and have been, you’ve got to be committed, intensely committed.

I was concerned, you know. Chris is well-educated, erudite, articulate, mature beyond his years and a terrific athlete. He was all–county baseball, lettered in basketball, lettered in baseball and can hit a golfball a ton. And I was not hoping, but thinking that maybe he really wouldn’t want to get involved in racing.

FM: Because he would be missing out on a lot of other opportunities?

RD: Yeah, I gravitated towards mechanics because it was something I could master. Chris has mastered everything he’s tried. He was not a “garage rat”. It wasn’t like he was interested in the mechanics and all that stuff. He came up from the other end, from the athletic side, not unlike a lot of these guys.

In the old days every driver came up from the mechanical side, ‘cause you had to. If you wanted to race, you had to bring your own car. Nowadays, in Chris’ case and whole lot of other guys, they can show up with their helmets, and with the data dumps they’re able to get, they can get up to speed right away using all the traces and all the other stuff from the computer.

Well, in our day, in order to tune a car, you had to get your ass in it to try it. It either worked better, or it didn’t. And if anybody was going to be doing any adjusting, it was going to be you. But Chris has got this opportunity, with an established team. With the data dumps and all that stuff, it really enhances a driver’s ability to get up to speed. And Chris has become a solid, solid racecar driver whose performance, speed and confidence is remarkable. He has really ramped up. And it’s not hanging on by his fingernails either. He is swimming in it, not drowning in it.

FM: How are his enthusiasms divided as far as driving and/or ultimately taking over your role as a manager?

RD: Well, I think he’s mastering that too. In many ways he has recognized that it is going to be, ongoing, his responsibility to maintain the viability of Dyson Racing. I’ve told him, “look, my life is changing”. Whether he agrees with the direction, his effort is now concentrated. This has got to become his deal. That’s really the bottom line of what’s going on. Chris is assuming a greater role, in procurement, in purchasing, getting the guys, getting us spiffed up. He’s doing a much better job at that than Pat or I ever did.

FM: You must feel a great sense of satisfaction over the long run of successes achieved at Dyson. Is there any one period that stands out now as your favorite?

RD: Well, it’s a time-based thing. When we were running the Datsun, you know, we were very competitive in the northeast. That was a very competitive series (SCCA ). That kind of set the stage for us to be able to compete. There were eight or ten guys every weekend that had a chance of winning. That was very competitive racing. And while we are in competitive racing here (ALMS), the numbers aren’t any different. There are eight or ten guys that are really good in this level of racing. The only variant is that the cars are a little different. But the level of competition and the emotional and physical commitment that you have to make is exactly the same.

We took our club racing very seriously. We were not there just to participate. I’ve never shown up to a race, and Smitty and I never showed up to a race just to show up. We showed up to win the race. We always wanted to compete, at the highest levels, no matter where we were. And that has remained the same throughout all of our racing history. It wasn’t like, gee, we turned it on in the last three years when we got the MG.

FM: So, to follow up on that, do you have a most favorite time?

RD: I think each period had its own attributes. It used to be me and Pat and one other guy, Duane Smith. The three of us would go to the races, leave at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and drive all night to get to Nelsons Ledges or we’d drive all night to get to Summit Point. We’d sleep in the truck if we had to because we were too late for a hotel room.

When I look back on that, it was kind of the innocence of it all, the lack of complexity, even though we thought it was complex. So I guess at every time it’s just a little bit different. At any one time though, there was something, a spark of emotion because we wanted to absolutely compete.


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