Traco Engineering Shop Was ‘Organized Confusion’
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published July 7, 2010.
There was a time when a small, brick-front building in an industrial section of L.A., lodged between Helen’s Café and Jim Narin’s Machine Shop, housed the most important race shop in America.
The only indicator of its purpose was a large, fading Champion Spark Plug sign that filled most of the front facade’s upper half, and above that, in smaller script, “Traco Engineering.”
Traco built racing engines. The best. End of discussion. If you didn’t run a Traco in your sprint car, Indy car, Trans-Am car, Can-Am car or sports car, you settled for second place.
The proprietors of the little shop of horsepower were Jim Travers and Frank Coon, the same “Whiz Kids” who had created the first Indianapolis roadster and wrenched Bill Vukovich, Sr. to back-to-back 500 wins in 1953-54.
They got into the engine-building business when their eccentric Indianapolis car owner, Howard Keck, suddenly and unexpectedly pulled out of racing in 1956.
The first opportunity for the budding entrepreneurs came in 1957 when the Ford Motor, Co. clandestinely initiated an Indianapolis engine project. It contacted Pete DePaolo, 1925 Indianapolis 500 winner and a Ford engineering consultant. DePaolo in turn called Travers and Coon.
The Henry Ford Museum had obtained a Mercedes Benz 300 SLR. Basically a Formula One car with a sports-car body, the engine utilized a desmodromic valve system, among other advanced technical features unknown to any but the Germans.
Ford commissioned Travers and Coon to disassemble the mysterious engine, see what made it tick and collect critical dimensions. The museum’s curator was dead against it and agreed reluctantly only after pressure from Ford Racing management and the assurance that the car would run when finished.
With no special tools or drawings, Travers and Coon completed the daunting task and, to the curator’s glee, fired the engine. Thinking back today, Travers comments with a chuckle, “…that damn thing probably didn’t run before we tore it apart.
“Afterward, in a meeting with these Ford big shots,” continues Travers, his memory of that day not dimmed by his 80-plus years, “somebody asked what our company name was. “We didn’t have one. So I thought real quick about Frank and my last names and said Traco.”
Unfortunately the Indy engine project was shelved when in June 1957 the auto industry agreed to cease all racing activity. Travers and Coon, however, soon used the data they had gleaned at Ford.
Lance Reventlow dreamed of creating an all American Grand Prix car and hired Traco to build an engine for his Scarab. Working with genius Miller/Offy engine designer Leo Goossen, they produced a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, incorporating a desmodromic valve system similar to the Mercedes’.
The horsepower was good, as was reliability. Unfortunately the car was overweight and of front-engine design at a time when Formula One cars were going to rear engines. Part way through the 1960 season, Reventlow dropped the project.
Though done with the Scarab, Traco was far from short on work. They developed engines for Champion Spark Plug customers, and then focused on USAC oval racing.
The Chevy was just beginning to challenge the venerable Offy for supremacy in USAC, and when they built a Chevy Champ car engine for Eb Rose that set a track record at Trenton in 1962, it garnered a lot of attention. Then, when Roger McCluskey won the 1963 USAC National Sprint Car Championship with a Traco Chevy, customers lined up.
A.J. Foyt, long a vocal Offy loyalist, was in the queue. He liked the Traco Chevy so much that he ran his sprinter as the Traco Special.
“God almighty,” exclaims Travers. “Talk about somebody hard to work with. They called me crabby, hell, Foyt was never happy. But we did win a lot.”
Foyt also figured prominently in an explosion in Traco’s business. Driving John Mecum’s rear-engine Scarab sports car with a Traco Chevy, Foyt beat a bevy of international racers at Nassau in December 1963. The entire road course community took notice, not the least of which were Roger Penske and Bruce McLaren.
McLaren, who was just beginning to build the cars bearing his name, used Traco engines extensively in his sports cars and Can-Am cars. When he was developing his Formula One car in 1966, he used a modified Indy four-cam Ford, developed at Traco.
Penske was equally enamored by Traco’s ability and engaged Traco in his immensely successful Daytona Corvette project. Penske was still driving at that time and trounced Carroll Shelby’s highly touted Cobras at Nassau in 1964. In 1966, Penske’s Traco Corvettes won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Traco’s sports-car engines surged to 80 percent of its sales, as their reputation and business spread worldwide. Their customers consisted of both manufacturers and privateers, and the number of drivers who won with their engines is, literally, too large to list. A few were Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, David Hobbs, Chuck Parsons, Chris Amon and John Surtees — not a bad for a couple of L.A. midget mechanics.
Penske remained as Traco’s most loyal customer until he took his engine program in house. The famed Trans-Am Championship-winning Sunoco Camaros, the Trans-Am Championship AMC Javelins, Penske’s NASCAR cars and the 1972 Indianapolis-winning McLaren of Mark Donohue all used Traco engines.
Traco accomplished all this with only a half dozen employees in a shop that Travers described as “2,100 square feet of organized confusion.”
The old Traco building is still owned by Frank Coon’s widow — Coon died in 1997 — and now houses a recording studio. But the music that’s produced there today can’t compare to the sweet melody of high horsepower that once reverberated off those walls.
Jim Travers and Frank Coon lived lives of remarkable achievement, and Traco was an important part.
For their unparalleled accomplishments, Travers and Coon were recently honored as inductees into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.