HOLMAN & MOODY SHOP VISIT BARES A TREASURE OF LEGENDARY FORD RACING CARS – AND TALES
CHARLOTTE, NC (Feb., 2012) – The name Holman & Moody is one that most every Ford performance enthusiast should recognize. Founded by John Holman and Ralph Moody in 1957, Holman & Moody’s endeavors in motorsports are the stuff of legends. While best-known for their efforts in NASCAR with Fords and in sports cars with Ford GT40s, Holman Moody’s racing history is much broader than you may think.
The team was also responsible for Ford’s European rally efforts in the 1960s with the Ford Falcons, which stunned the European motoring world, almost winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1963. Holman & Moody can also lay claim to the Ford Mustang’s very first race win, at the 1964 Tour de France auto race. The team was also involved in off-road racing, offshore power-boat racing, and just about anything else you can think of. The closest thing to Holman & Moody in today’s racing world in terms of the breadth of their abilities and the quality of their entrants would be Roush Fenway Racing, who handles the lion’s share of Ford’s NASCAR operations. It should be no surprise, then, that Holman & Moody earned the title “The Best Known Name in Racing” from its heyday in the sport.
Following our stops at the 2011 Bullitt Nationals at the “Tail of the Dragon” and the Taurus SHO Club’s 2011 Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, last summer, we were lucky enough to spend a day at Holman & Moody’s legendary shop in Charlotte. Yes, Holman & Moody is still around today, now run by John Holman’s son, Lee. After only a few minutes with Lee, you soon realize he’s a veritable encyclopedia of Ford racing history, and listening to him tell stories about his experiences growing up in motorsports is an absolutely priceless experience.
Stepping into Holman’s shop was almost like stepping into a time machine. We’ve had the opportunity to tour many of today’s world-class racing facilities, which feature bright, spotless workstations and state-of-the-art equipment. Holman’s shop takes a very different approach. Everything is done by skilled hands, the way things were done back in the 1950s and ‘60s. The cavernous, dimly lit shop features a plethora of old racecars in various states of build. Several original GT40 MKII chassis sit stacked up on racks, ready to be transformed into racers – almost 50 years after they dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Engines are assembled by hand, bodywork is hand-turned on an English wheel, and everything is crafted with the utmost care.
Walking into the shop’s front showroom, you’re met with a partially constructed GT40 MKII and a small store featuring a selection of Ford and Holman & Moody memorabilia. One of Holman’s business ventures has seen his company building brand-new GT40 MKIIs for customers, but using as many original parts as possible. Holman was quick to point out a little-known fact that makes this product very special.
“Back in the 1960s, we were primarily responsible for building GT40 MKIIs,” he noted. “All of the MKIIs actually raced with Holman & Moody serial tags, which makes us the manufacturer of record. Because of that, the FIA says genuine MKIIs need our tag on it, so when a new car turns up with a Holman & Moody serial tag, it’s seen as an original, real – but new – GT40 MKII.”
There are plenty of companies making fantastic replicas of Ford GT40s, but Holman is extremely enthusiastic when it comes to his vehicle.
“We’ve done lots of little things to these cars to make them not only fast, but also reliable and safe,” Holman told us. “For instance, on the wheel bearings we add a special spacer which prevents the bearings from moving apart. When that happens, they won’t have a square wear pattern, which causes them to wear out much more quickly. Our competitors don’t use these spacers, but we do – because with them your wheel bearings will last for a couple of seasons without even checking them. Without them, you might last one race.
“Also, here in the back,” he said as he points to the rear frame, “we’ve reinforced the rear suspension pick-up point to be tied into two bolts rather than just one. This splits the strain on each bolt in half, which makes the piece far less likely to break. This is another thing that we’ve done on these cars that’s unique to our MKIIs. These are things that if you don’t know they’re supposed to be there, you just don’t know what works. We have the advantage of having built these cars new in the 1960s and raced them, and we’ve been working on them for 50 years.”
There was also an old Ford Fairlane in mid-build that really caught our attention. As Holman went on to explain, it was a particularly special (and brutally quick) version of the big Ford race car.
“This Fairlane is a copy of one of our original unibody NASCAR racers,” said Holman. “It’s a 1964 Ford Fairlane 500, which is the long-wheelbase version. Ready to race, this car weighs just 2,800 pounds and it has a 427 in it. The first one we built has been running at the Nurburgring in Germany, and it’s turned times that are 10 seconds-a-lap quicker than the quickest Cobra, one-minute-a-lap quicker than the quickest Mustang – and it’s a rocket, to say the least! We gear the cars to take advantage of the high-torque of the 427, so in the YouTube video of our first car on the Nurburgring, you can see it passing Porsche 930 Turbos at just 6,250 RPM! The FIA went to the German who owns the car and told him he needs to slow down, and he told them, ‘No thank you – Everyone else needs to speed up’!”
Elsewhere in the shop was a pair of GT40 replicas awaiting installation of their Holman & Moody-built 289 Hi-Po engines. These unique machines are earmarked for a pair of customers who were in Charlotte to see their cars being completed. Holman told us a few of the differences between these two cars, which the owners plan to take vintage racing once they’ve been finished.
“These are the engines that will be installed in those two customer cars,” Holman said as we walked past a pair of small-block V-8s. “One was done for American racing, which allows the roller cam, roller rockers and things like that. The other one was built for European racing, which has to have the stock, standard Ford rocker arms, stock distributor, points and plugs. The one made for American racing will have an aftermarket Wilwood braking system, but the European one needs the Girling CR brakes to race over there. And with these being considered kit cars, they’ll be gone over with a fine-tooth comb to ensure they’re as correct as they need to be to legally go vintage racing. With our Holman & Moody MKIIs, they’d be built exactly to the spec that they were originally raced under, and you’d never have a problem getting entered. But of course there is a price difference …”
Near the shop’s entrance was another GT40 MKII, this time a completed one. This is the same car that Holman brought to the “SVT Superfest” event at Virginia International Raceway last summer to wow the crowd. Alongside the Ford Racing engineers in brand-new Mustang Boss 302s and Shelby GT500s at VIR, Holman’s drivers Mark Besso (the company’s development manager) and Bob D’Amato (who’s serves as president and chief design officer for the new venture) gave event attendees the rides of their lives in this very car for a small charitable donation. Unfortunately, the car encountered a technical problem during the weekend of hot-lapping. It caught Holman by surprise at the time, afterwards telling us it was the first time that car had needed service for a failed component in more than five years!
Besso and D’Amato not only are capable hot shoes at the track, they’re key business partners in Holman & Moody’s new venture called “HM Performance.” It’s their job to help take Holman & Moody into the 21st century, developing a new line of performance and styling components for modern Ford vehicles. The way Holman explains it, HM Performance is aimed at enhancing the driving dynamics of your new Ford while giving it a look and feel that’s uniquely Holman & Moody.
“We’re trying to start a new line of products for the new Fords with the same kind of quality engineering that made our name legendary on the old cars,” said Holman. “We’re working on things like a short-throw shifter kit for the new Fiesta. Plus, we’re developing HM Performance brake and suspension kits for the new Mustangs – and we’re hoping you’ll be seeing a lot more of Holman & Moody in the near future. For years we’ve been locked in the 1960s performance world. Virtually all of the things we’ve made will only fit on Ford cars from the 1960s, so we’re very excited to branch out and be working on Ford’s new lineup.”
While getting to spend time with Holman one-on-one at his shop was quite a treat, it was hearing his fantastic (and often times hilarious) stories from his experiences racing Fords that left the most lasting impression on us. Lee told us of the great lengths they had to go to build, homologate and race many of Ford’s most famous race cars, and suffice to say, you’d never believe some of those stories if Lee himself hadn’t told them! Below are a few of the stories we recorded from our time with Lee, as well as from his speech during the SHO Club banquet:
“In the early days, we found that Ford had a really nice attitude towards what we were trying to do,” said Holman. “Ford wanted to race because racing taught them how to make production cars better. They could use the technology and the advances we made in racing to improve their road cars. In racing, you expect engines to blow up and cars to crash, so Ford could then take what they learned from us and apply it directly to their production line. It was not unusual to have an engine blow at the track and then get orders from Ford to fly it up to Detroit the next day so their engineers could study how it failed.
“My part of it, being the boss’ son, gave me responsibility for everything, but authority for nothing. But it meant I got to travel the world at a young age and see a lot of things that were quite neat. In the 1960s I got to go up to Detroit and be a non-union Ford employee to run parts from the Indy engine program to the machine shop. I was designated “non-union” because it allowed me to get things done much more quickly without all the rules, and allowed us to finish cars and go racing.
“Some of the things I had my hands on at that time were so exotic and so neat – and you people are driving cars today with that same technology. The Indy engine from 1965 is very similar to the V-8 engines in today’s Taurus SHOs. It had four valves per cylinder, semi-hemi heads, I-beam style rods, aluminum block, aluminum heads, and more. The pieces that we thought were incredible, state-of-the-art racing engines in 1965 have now become standard, production items!
“One of our most famous engines was the SOHC 427. We helped Ford develop that engine, and it was always a little bit funny. In order to be competitive in NASCAR, we needed this so-called ‘Cammer’ motor to compete with Chrysler’s Hemi. NASCAR insisted that we make 500 of them, so Ford set up an assembly line and built 500 SOHC 427 Cammer engines. We went to one race in Atlanta and won the race too easily. NASCAR said, ‘You’ve had your fun; don’t bring it back.’
“So we were stuck with 500 of these SOHC engines and had nowhere to race them, and nowhere to blow them up. So we invented the “funny car,” the drag-racing FX Mustangs, so we’d have a place to blow those motors up. At one point, we didn’t think we were blowing them up quite fast enough, so Connie Kalitta came up with the idea of adding nitrous oxide. So we went to a 1,000 horsepower dyno with a Cammer motor and a supercharger, and Kalitta was there to add the bottle. We had the engine running at full song, about 6,500 RPM, right before Kalitta hit the little red button. The engine never turned another revolution. It blew the supercharger off of the top, and the cylinder heads off the sides. Then the crankshaft sheared the rod bolts and ran all around the dyno cell like a buzz-saw. Kalitta just stood there watching all of this and turned to us and said, ‘Well, wasn’t that special?’
“Back when we were involved with Ford’s NASCAR program, Holman & Moody provided all of the Ford engines, and we built all of the cars. Teams would get a car from us, and if they wrecked it, they’d bring it back to us and grab the first completed one off the line and we’d begin working on the wrecked one. By the end of it, a lot of the cars would have been in the hands of several different teams and drivers. And if you had a NASCAR team like the Wood Brothers, you paid Holman & Moody just $1 for your race car, and we had the right to buy it back at the end of the year for $1 as well.
“But in the case of A.J. Foyt at Daytona one year, he heard that we had an engine on the truck that had 12 more horsepower than the other motors, and he asked my father if he could have that motor for the race. My dad told him if he hadn’t eaten quite so much dinner, he wouldn’t need the extra power, and that he’d never notice it anyways. During practice, I was on the backstretch taking photos of the cars, and when Foyt came by, he pushed the clutch in and blew his engine to smithereens. When he got back into the paddock, he laughed at my dad and asked, ‘Now can I have that engine?’ That was typical in the day when Ford was paying the bill. The cars and engines were essentially free, the drivers were really having a lot of fun, and everybody just wanted to go as fast as possible.
“That was a stupid move, in my opinion, but our competition pulled one that was even dumber. Richard Petty was there and he was running really slow. He told his brother, Maurice, that his engine didn’t even have enough power to blow itself up. Not believing his famous brother, Maurice went over to the car in the garage area, opened the hood, cranked the engine and held the throttle wide open until it eventually exploded while he was standing right beside it. He was banned from NASCAR for 12 months for that.
“Primarily our job with Ford was to make their cars better. We found quite quickly that Henry Ford wanted us to be doing all those things to the cars. He sent a letter to all of his department heads that said if Holman & Moody asks for it, just do it. Because of that letter and the authority and responsibility that Henry Ford gave us, we could actually do something like go to an assembly line and shut it down and get the next 15 Ford Falcons made to our specs for the Monte Carlo Rally. They were all identical, with no sound-deadening, undercoating, heater delete, radio delete, etc. We had the power to shut down production, which drove the plant managers crazy. They couldn’t deal with it.
“Today in racing, everything is determined by your budget. In the 1950s and 60s, our budget was, ‘Go do it and send us the bill.’ Looking back on it all, what really impresses me today is that when we were doing everything we did with Ford, we were racing in Europe with the GT40 MKIIs and Monte Carlo Rally Falcons. We also entered the East-African Safari Rally’s and were also doing the Baja Broncos. We had 450 employees in Charlotte, and about $14 million in annual billing to Ford Motor Company to do what we did. Winning on the world stage was that important.
“Now, looking at a modern team in NASCAR, they may also have about 450 employees, and a shop with a couple of hundred-thousand square feet, but it takes about $200 million a year to keep the doors open and run their program. The money and the concepts of racing have changed so much from when we were doing it! We used to have the power to send any of our engine guys up to the Rouge plant in Detroit and have them “hand massage” the stock cores to make a block that would live up to 500 miles at Daytona. All of the manufacturers did that.
“But the teams racing today don’t have that advantage. The cars and motors are built to spec, and they can’t have things made exactly the way they want anymore. And the fun part for me was that I was the guy who got to go shut the factory down. I’d be 20 years old and walk into a plant and tell them to shut it down because Henry wants us to have some part. Could you please stop doing what you’re doing and make these for us? Can’t possibly do that today!
“A couple of years ago I had the chance to go over to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which is one of the most elite historic events in the world, and if Lord March wants you there, he pays for everything. The owner of the Le Mans winning GT40 MKII was not willing to go, but he told Lord March that I was the only person he would allow to drive his car up the hill. He knows I have one of my own and that I would respect it.
“At this event you have the best of the best. You have John Surtees driving the Ferrari he won Formula One races in, Stirling Moss in the Mercedes Silver Arrow that he won the Targa Florio in – and it was at that event that I had the ultimate hot-rodder’s dream! I was in the changing room putting on my driving suit with John Surtees and Stirling Moss to my right, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Jack Brabham and Alan Mann to my left. Lord March walked in and Jackie Oliver asked him if he could have a go at the black car (the GT40 I was driving) and in a very loud voice, Lord March proclaimed, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Holman is the only qualified driver for that vehicle.’ Right. I’m the only guy qualified in this room to drive this priceless car, but it took me an hour to put on my crash helmet.
“Finally, I had a medical problem that prevented me from racing for a while – I got too fat. My crash helmet is up so tight in the Gurney bubble on my GT40 that the vibrations give me motion sickness from my inner-ear vibrating so much. The doctor told me I either had to lose some weight, or quit driving. I got to thinking that there was a third option: Build a roadster! So I’m in the process of building a GT40 MKII roadster now. Hopefully by next year I’ll be out racing again. It’s never fun to be car-sick while you’re going 180 MPH!”
Those were just some of the wonderful tales we heard from Lee Holman – and just a sample of what you’ll hear if you attend an event where Lee Holman is the guest speaker. Hope you enjoyed his “insider’s look” back into the colorful racing history of the 1960s!
We’ve now had the pleasure of spending time with Mr. Holman on several occasions during club shows and events over the past few years, and each time has truly been a treat. You should know that Holman & Moody’s shop is open to the public, and they welcome visitors! There’s always a great collection of classic Fords either on display or being built there, and Lee and his team are among the friendliest in the business. So if you’re ever in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a few hours to kill, we’d highly recommend paying Lee Holman and his spectacular shop a visit.
Photos Courtesy Mike Laney / Ford Performance Group
A GT40 MKII CHASSIS IN HOLMAN & MOODY’S SHOWROOM
GRAB YOUR VERY OWN HOLMAN & MOODY MERCHANDISE
A 1964 FORD FAIRLANE ROAD RACER IN THE MAKING
A CUSTOMER’S GT40 REPLICA AWAITING ITS ENGINE
ONE OF TWO 289 HI-PO V-8s AWAITING INSTALLATION
THE FUTURE HOME OF A HOLMAN MOODY BUILT 289
HOLMAN’S GT40 MKII WHICH WE SAW IN ACTION AT VIR
THE TIGHT CONFINES OF A FORD GT40 MKII’s INTERIOR
THE BUSINESS END OF A FORD GT40 MKII AND ITS 427
HMPERFORMANCE: TAKING HOLMAN & MOODY INTO THE FUTURE
A ‘FIREBALL’ ROBERTS 1963 FORD FAIRLANE NASCAR RACER
THE 1967 FAIRLANE NASCAR RACER DRIVEN BY FRED LORENZEN
A TRICK THUNDERBIRD BUILT FOR A CUSTOMER
A MONTE CARLO RALLY FALCON UNDER WRAPS
AN ORIGINAL SHELBY COBRA IN FOR A FRESHENING
ORIGINAL GT40 MKII CHASSIS WAITING TO BE BUILT
HOLMAN’S NEW GT40 MKII ROADSTER IN MID-BUILD
THE FAMOUS HOLMAN & MOODY SERIAL TAG