Innovation Saves Lives

Innovation Saves Lives

“Gentleman Joe” Schubeck, who tamed the clutch explosion

Racing has made some impressive strides when it comes to protecting its drivers, in particular since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident in 2001. The modular Steel and Foam Energy Reduction or SAFER barrier cushions the walls of tracks from Daytona to Indianapolis. Drivers who wear the HANS Device for head and neck restraint are spared the specter of a lethal basilar skull fracture.

As most of us know only too well, the situation wasn’t always that rosy in any form of racing, but the straight-line variety, particularly back in the 1950s and ‘60s, was among the most dangerous. If you drive a dragster, you were almost invariably swathed in an aluminized fire suit, wore an open-face helmet over a filtered mask and goggles, and stared at the rear of a supercharger inches from your face. As intimidating as that sounds, though, the legion of racers competing in production-based cars had it even worse: A maximum-rpm power upshift that shattered the clutch or flywheel in terrorist-bomb fashion, sending fragments rocketing through the production bell housing, the driver’s body and the very worst cases, into the grandstands.

“When I was driving in Top Fuel, there were dangers involved in it, and if you wanted to compete, you basically just accepted them,” Joe Schubeck recalls today. “But when it came to the masses, to the spectators that were getting hurt or killed, that was not acceptable to me. You shouldn’t have chunks of the flywheel flying into the stands and tearing somebody’s arms or legs off. But back in the 1950s and ‘60s, things like that happened practically every weekend at some track or other. I was there. It was gruesome.”

Like so many others, Shubeck’s entry into the world of speed was stoked by the countless hours of he spent reading hot rodding magazines, marveling at their coverage of the exploding California drag and dry-lakes scene. He put together his fire dragster, powered by a triple-carbureted flathead Ford swilling a cocktail of nitromethane and benzene, welding the chassis together in the basement of his parent’s home. He began to find customers for more dragster chassis, and decided to go into business, naming the firm Lakewood Industries after his Ohio hometown on the outskirts of Cleveland.

Schubeck raced Top Fuel and Top Gas dragsters through 1964. During that time, he literally stumbled upon a technology that would ultimately transform drag racing from a safety standpoint. While researching alternative means of welding, he learned of process called hydroforming, which uses hydraulic pressure to shape a flat piece of metal into a deeply dished, shaped form.

In the 1960s, the aerospace industry was successfully using hydroforming to produce critical components such as missile nose cones to exacting tolerances. Schubeck wanted to use it to make a no-weld adapter to house the flywheel and clutch for his newest dragster when fate intervened. As he described it, cars competing in the myriad Stock Eliminator classes, which made up the vast majority of most events’ entry lists, relied on factory-production cast-iron flywheels and clutches, enclosed in an aluminum die-casting called the bellhousing. In some cases, racers improperly drilled their flywheels for lightness, leaving them dangerously out of balance. When the explosion came, the disintegrating flywheel or clutch fragments would rip through the factory-made bellhousing as if it was a wet Kleenex.

“At least when it happened to us in the dragsters, we were usually down at the far end of the track,” he recalled. “The guys in the factory stockers would be right in front of the stands when the clutches blew.”

Galvanized into action by the unending carnage, Schubeck was determined to use hydro-forming to produce an explosion-resistant bellhousing. The manufacturing process involved a circular plate of ¼-inch thick steel hydraulically pressed into dies that replicated tooling for various housings installed on factory transmissions. The process also ensured that the new part would maintain a constant thickness, giving it the strength to contain one of the violent explosions. It was an instant hit in the marketplace and was rapidly mandated by virtually every sanctioning body for truly fast cars. The unchecked demand for his product and demands of running a business eventually forced Schubeck out of the cockpit.

Schubeck ultimately sold Lakewood. His subsequent activities included an effort to adapt the Chrysler Hemi as a replacement engine for crop-duster airplanes, which led him to develop the dual-plug Hemi cylinder head, since federal regulations mandate dual ignitions for piston-powered aircraft. That head has long been standard in nitro racing. He also developed a DOHC V-8 engine, originally for nitro applications, called the Eagle. More recently, he moved to Las Vegas and founded Schubeck Racing Engine & Components, where the Eagle morphed into the Schubeck 904 – as in cubic inches – a cost-no-object engine for marine and street rod applications.

Still forward-looking, he now produces a unique roller valve lifter for drag and oval racing that is virtually wear-proof. His whole life has been a case study of improving things.

“The good old days,” he snorted. “It was just luck that any of us lived through them”.

(Article from Hemmings MUSCLE MACHINES | March 2006, page 80)