Peter Brock: The Prodigy

May 10, 2010
Peter Brock is strapped to his racing seat by a five-point harness. In the gutted cockpit, he's surrounded by a geeky paradise of analog gauges and rocker switches poking out of a black-crinkle instrument panel and center console that look like they belong in an old-school race car. (Actually, the material comes from a pickup truck bedliner that he cut to fit.) The Datsun 510 sedan is painted a silvery shade of green that blends seamlessly with the majestic firs and pine trees that dominate the landscape around Brock's home near Seattle. The camouflage will come in handy if any cops are around, because, at the moment, Brock is hammering the throttle hard enough to break loose the rear wheels in third gear. But how, you ask, does a puny Datsun four-banger spin the tires at 4000 rpm? It doesn't. Which is why Brock fitted the sedan with a small-block Chevy V-8 and dubbed the sleeper Datzilla.
1006 01+peter Brock+portrait
"I've always been a hot-rodder," Brock says over the roar of the 300-hp crate motor. "Most people don't realize that. I talk to Cobra guys and they have no idea I was involved with Datsun, and I talk to Datsun guys and they have no idea that I worked on the Corvette. Later on, my company was the largest hang-glider manufacturer in the world, and I recently designed a new aerodynamic trailer that's so much better than the competition that we can't build them fast enough. Most people know me for one segment of my life and not the others."
Datzilla is the perfect showcase for Brock's multiple personalities. It's an import-tuner special, and it's also a V-8-powered muscle car. It's a styling coup, and it's an engineering exercise. It's a race car, and it's a street car. Although he's known best as the designer of the Cobra Daytona Coupe and the architect of the Trans-Am-winning BRE 510s, Brock has played a seminal role in countless arenas. Today, at 73, he's as fully committed as ever, running (with his wife, Gayle) the Brock Racing Enterprises memorabilia empire, spearheading complex restoration projects, making presentations to enthusiast groups, and, having reinvented himself as a photojournalist, covering races all over the world. But even more impressive than his energy is his attitude. Despite setbacks that would have crushed a lesser man, Brock remains unfailingly upbeat and relentlessly enthusiastic.
"I wish I had his energy," says car-show impresario Bill Warner, who selected Brock as his first judge when he started the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance fifteen years ago. "He's been successful at whatever he's undertaken. I think it's because he has such an inquisitive mind. If he takes an interest in something, he's going to master it."
Brock's career doesn't begin and end with Carroll Shelby. It just seems that way. Brock is the first to admit that the Texas snake charmer gave him the opportunities of a lifetime. But Shelby also demolished some of his most cherished dreams, and much of what Brock has to say about him can't be repeated in polite company.
The two of them go back to 1960. A bad heart had forced Shelby to quit driving race cars, but he was still a slick salesman who was about to become the most colorful entrepreneur in motorsports. Even before he hatched the Cobra, Shelby created the country's first race-driving school, at Riverside International Raceway, and he hired Brock to run it. Brock was twenty-four at the time, an aspiring racing driver recently arrived back in Southern California. When the Cobra came online, he helped develop it, and he outran proven hot-shoe Billy Krause in a head-to-head test. But when Shelby had to pick a driver for the car's race debut in 1962, he chose Krause. In retrospect, Brock says, he himself would have made the same decision. But he was royally pissed at the time.
1006 04+peter Brock+sting Ray Racer
Before long, top drivers were lined up around the block to race the Cobra, and Brock never got another sniff of a factory ride. Meanwhile, Shelby American was already staffed by a Who's Who of stellar craftsmen, so Brock expanded into other areas. He designed the team stationery. He fashioned car graphics. He shot photographs. He wrote ad copy. As much as he wanted to be behind the wheel, he discovered that his real talent lay outside the cockpit. And what most people didn't realize back then was that he was already an acclaimed designer.
Brock had briefly, and unhappily, attended Stanford with the intention of studying engineering. During spring break of his freshman year, he drove to Los Angeles to check out the transportation design program at Art Center School. When the admissions folks asked to see his portfolio, he replied, "What's a portfolio?" After being told that he had to provide examples of his artwork, he hustled back to his car, spent a few hours sketching hot rods in a three-ring binder, marched into the admissions office, presented his handiwork, and asked, "Will this do?" He was enrolled at Art Center before the year was over.
Halfway through the transportation design program, Brock was headhunted to join the famed styling department at General Motors. At nineteen, he was one of the youngest designers in the company's history. An after-hours conversation with design legend Harley Earl led to Brock conceptualizing and styling a tiny, rear-engine commuter car that would later take larger shape as the 1960 Corvair. At the direction of Earl's successor, Bill Mitchell, Brock also drew the initial sketch for what eventually became the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. Brock still has this historic rendering, dated 1957. It's more stylized than the production car, and it's missing signature touches such as the coupe's split rear window, but there's no mistaking it for anything but a Sting Ray.
Still, Brock was no closer to his goal of becoming a race car driver. So he bought a trashed Cooper Monaco - an ex-works car that had been raced at Le Mans - and transformed it into a usable race car. He quit GM in 1958, returned to L.A., and got a job chasing parts for Max Balchowsky, the builder of the beloved West Coast special Ol' Yaller. That's where Brock met Shelby, who made him his first paid employee.
Fast-forward to late 1963. Immediately after they debuted, the Cobras laid waste to the American road-racing landscape. Now Shelby wanted to humble Enzo Ferrari, but he realized that the Cobra roadster - an aerodynamic brick - wouldn't be competitive on the fast European circuits. Brock suggested clothing the chassis in a slippery body featuring a chopped-off rear-end design that was inspired by a World War II-era German technical document that he'd discovered while poring through the GM library. But he warned Shelby that the coupe would look unlike any other race car on the planet.
1006 05+peter Brock+cobra Daytona Coupe
"I don't care what the hell it looks like as long as it goes fast," Shelby drawled.
"OK," Brock said. "How much money do we have?"
"There's no money. You'll have to do it on your own time."
"I didn't even have a drawing board," Brock recalls today. "I taped butcher paper to the floor in the accounting office, and that's where I made all the drawings for the wooden buck. I drew it up in quarter scale. I took 35-millimeter photographs, and I projected the slides onto the wall. AC wouldn't give Carroll their engineering drawings, so we had to reverse engineer the chassis. Most of the guys in the shop thought the coupe was a stupid idea, so [mechanic/fabricator] John Ohlsen, [driver/builder] Ken Miles, and I pretty much built it ourselves."
At the first test, at Riverside, Miles went 3.5 seconds a lap faster than he'd gone in the roadster. He called Shelby from the track and reported, "This thing's a rocket ship." By the time the coupe returned to Shelby American, the center of the shop had been cleared out so everybody could start working on it. "This is going to be done for Daytona," Shelby announced. It was. The car was sidelined by a pit fire while leading, but it scored a class win in its next race, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and won the GT world championship the next year.
When Shelby shifted his focus to the Ford GT40 and Mark IV prototypes, Brock hung out his own shingle. His first project under the auspices of Brock Racing Enterprises was road racing a dumpy little Japanese sedan built by Hino. Best known as a truck manufacturer, Hino was planning to enter the U.S. automobile market. Company officials were so impressed with Brock's efforts that they offered him contracts to design their cars, distribute their trucks, and run their race program. "God, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!" Brock says. But just before the contracts were signed, the company's owner died. By the time the dust had settled, Hino was out of the car business, and Brock was out of a job.
In 1967, more or less as a consolation prize, Toyota - which now controlled Hino - hired BRE to design and build a Le Mans prototype and race the lovely new Toyota 2000GT in the States. But Brock ran into another minefield. While negotiating the purchase of an American distributorship, Shelby had convinced Toyota that he, rather than Brock, ought to run the 2000GT program. When Brock realized that the Toyota deal had been snatched out from under him, he knew exactly what he had to do. "I got in my car and drove straight to Nissan," he says. "I told them, 'I can change your image and put you on the map.' "
1006 09+peter Brock+datsun 2000
Brock understood, as only a designer could, the importance of presentation. He painted his Nissan race cars red, white, and blue to make them more appealing to Americans. He created graphics that were memorably bold so the cars photographed well from every angle. The crew wore embroidered uniforms and Brock modeled a fashion-forward neckerchief that prompted endless ribbing. "We hated wasting time cleaning and polishing the cars," says Trevor Harris, the team's chief engineer. "But in retrospect, I realize that Pete was way ahead of his time. He made sure that the team always looked great, and he was always romancing the media. He turned this nothing team with nothing race cars into the star of the Trans-Am series."
BRE earned Nissan a road-racing championship with the Datsun 2000 roadster in 1969. (The Toyota 2000GT racer turned out to be a dud.) Then, with the backing of Datsun's iconic Mr. K - Yutaka Katayama, the first president of Nissan Motor Co. U.S.A. - BRE did even better with the new 240Z. Buoyed by this success and featuring ace driver John Morton, the team moved up to the 2.5 Challenge, which featured import sedans in the Trans-Am series otherwise headlined by American pony cars. BRE won back-to-back national championships, dominating the series so thoroughly that the 2.5 Challenge was soon canceled.
In 1972, Brock quit racing cold-turkey and embarked on a second career in hang gliding. Before it was over, he was a major manufacturer, and his team won six out of seven world championships. "Hang gliding is the most fun thing I've ever done, period," he says. But, eventually, he came back to his first love.
Brock lives in an inviting Prairie-style house designed by his wife in the upscale city of Redmond, Washington, best known as the home of Microsoft, which is where Gayle worked as an executive before retiring. The two of them, both previously married, met at a Cobra club event and connected immediately. Since marrying ten years ago, they've enjoyed a Tracy-and-Hepburn romance that straddles work and play. He taught her how to handle a camera, and they now travel together constantly, photographing races around the globe. At home, Gayle is the administrative powerhouse who manages the vast BRE portfolio of photo archives, models, art, calendars, clothing, and so on.
The Brocks have not one but two garages on their property. In the second one, Peter is delicately scraping clay from a quarter-scale model of a King Cobra raced by Shelby American in 1964. When he's finished, the model will be digitized to create a full-size foam buck so that an aluminum body can be formed to fit the already-restored chassis for a Canadian collector. There are no engineering drawings of the original car, so Brock is working from a handful of photographs. In restoration work, historical accuracy is paramount, but the designer in Brock can't resist the temptation to beautify a bit while he's at it. "I'm just cleaning up the proportions," he says with a grin as he shaves clay off the ungainly fender.
1006 12+peter Brock+shelby Can Am
Unfortunately, life isn't so easily prettified, and Brock has suffered more than his share of ugly misfortunes. Shortly after he started hang gliding, one of his sons was killed in a crash that prompted Brock to invest in a safer design. Later, Brock lost his life savings on an experimental engine that could be assembled with a single tool. An SCCA Can-Am car he designed for Shelby turned out to be an aesthetic disappointment and a commercial disaster. Decades earlier, a one-off road-racing special he created for Triumph looked like a winner, but the company shut down the program after a single race. Then, without crediting Brock, Triumph used a bastardized form of his design as the basis for the 1975 TR7.
In recent years, the most rewarding - and most frustrating - project he's worked on was the updated Daytona Coupe. Jim Price, the head of Superformance, a South African replicar manufacturer that was already producing high-quality Cobra roadsters, had asked Brock to design the body. Brock agreed, but only if a brand-new chassis was developed. The result was more supercar than kit car - a thoroughly modern machine with throwback looks and outrageous performance. "How many other cars will run 130 mph in the quarter mile and still be tractable on the street?" Brock asks.
The Brock Coupe, as it was originally called, turned out so well that Shelby wanted a piece of the action. After numerous lawsuits, a settlement was negotiated: Superformance could continue to build the cars, but they could be sold only through Shelby dealers as Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupes. Although Brock is no longer associated with Superformance, he's still got a Brock Coupe of his own - red rather than the much more popular blue-with-white-stripes paint scheme he'd created for the race cars. And he continues to upgrade his car, recently sending it to Pratt & Miller to have Dan Binks, crew chief on the Corvettes that race in ALMS, retrofit it with a cutting-edge LS7 small-block.
That's Peter Brock in a nutshell. When prodded, he's happy to reminisce about Shelby and BRE, and he makes a lot of money off nostalgia. But he himself is always focused on the next project, the next challenge, the next race. "I just love neat cars," he says as he studies the clay model of the King Cobra. "That's why I love desert racing so much, because the minimum number of rules make it the epitome of technology and innovation. Or ALMS - I never get tired of that, either. Racing is the coolest thing going, because you're working with great achievers and people always try their best. They're so passionate about the sport that they're willing to give up everything in their lives to do it."
For a long time, there's no sound in the shop but the scraping of the modeling tool against the clay. And after a while, it becomes clear that Brock, inadvertently, has been describing himself.
Brock's Greatest Hits
1006 02+peter Brock+el Mirage
El Mirage: Brock's high-school ride, a chopped and channeled '46 Ford with a Cadillac V-8, won the custom class at the 1955 Oakland Roadster Show - and inspired the graphics package of the Brock-penned Shelby GT350.
Cadet: This GM exercise - a rear-engine, two-seat 1956 design on a 67-inch wheelbase - was green-lighted by design czar Harley Earl and later took larger form as the 1960 Corvair.
Sting Ray racer: This 1957 styling exercise initiated by Bill Mitchell was transferred onto the spare Corvette SS chassis as a roadster (above) and later morphed into the production '63 Corvette Sting Ray.
Cobra Daytona Coupe: The enclosed version of the Cobra roadster won its class at Le Mans in 1964 and the GT championship in 1965. It went on to set twenty-three land-speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Hino Samurai: The slick mid-engine GT on a LeGrand chassis featured Brock's "ring airfoil," a Ferrari F40-style movable rear wing in 1967.
Toyota JP6: This gorgeous wedged-shaped GT built in collaboration with chassis engineer Trevor Harris in '68 was stillborn when Brock lost his Toyota contract to Shelby.
Triumph TR250K: This one-off design concept for British Leyland was raced at Sebring in 1968 by Triumph team manager Kas Kastner and later inspired the wedge shape of the TR7.
Datsun 2000: The first collaboration between BRE and Nissan gave the Japanese automaker a road-racing championship in 1969 with driver Frank Monise.
Datsun 240Z: With Mr. K's enthusiastic backing, BRE enlisted the even faster John Morton and the brand-new Z-Car to up the ante against rivals Porsche and Triumph, winning two consecutive SCCA national titles in 1970 and '71.
Datsun 510: Morton, Brock, and the 510 defeat the likes of Alfa Romeo and BMW to score back-to-back 2.5 Challenge Trans-Am titles in 1971 and '72, marking the apogee of BRE's success. BRE 510s also set class records at Bonneville and in NHRA competition.
Shelby Can-Am: Brock was hired by Carroll Shelby in 1991 to create the body for the SCCA's high-performance, low-cost, Dodge-powered spec racer.
Brock Coupe: Brock was responsible for Superformance's modern take on the shape of his iconic Cobra Daytona Coupe; the new car debuted in 2003.
Aerovault: BRE's production aluminum race-car trailer, which went on sale in 2008, retails for $17,900 and is lighter, more aerodynamic, and just plain cooler than the competition.


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