The Man who Mas­tered Con­sul­tancy in Rac­ing

Drag Racer - - Contents -

AT THE LOWER COR­NER OF THE REAR WING OF 2017 FUNNY CAR NA­TIONAL CHAM­PION ROBERT HIGHT’S CAR THERE’S A DE­CAL THAT DIS­PLAYS THREE LETTERS, “JHE,” AN AB­BRE­VI­A­TION OF “JOE HORNICK EN­TER­PRISES.” Hight won last year’s na­tional cham­pi­onship at Pomona, Cal­i­for­nia, and JHE, based in Mooresville, North Carolina, as­sisted his team with tech­ni­cal know-how through­out the year.

Since the be­gin­ning of this cen­tury, Hornick has been the hid­den hand in a long se­ries of rac­ing suc­cesses. His busi­ness model is en­tirely his own: He of­fers his com­pany’s com­plete ser­vices to just one racer in each cat­e­gory.

The com­pany’s com­plete ser­vice is an in­ter­est­ing propo­si­tion. JHE uses a test pool that serves to ad­vance re­search and de­vel­op­ment in race en­gines with sim­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics. Let’s say it has four cus­tomers run­ning blown al­co­hol en­gines in four dif­fer­ent rac­ing cat­e­gories: a blown al­co­hol pulling trac­tor, Pro Mod, Top Al­co­hol Drag­ster and Top Al­co­hol Funny Car. In the test pool pro­gram, each en­gine runs dif­fer­ent com­po­nents or sys­tems and, in so do­ing, each race team shares a quar­ter of the R&D costs and re­ceives the cu­mu­la­tive re­sults from all four.

Ad­di­tion­ally, JHE has a base of con­sult­ing cus­tomers like John Force

Rac­ing and Earn­hardt Chil­dress Rac­ing. It also has a race en­gine-builder base. “If an en­gine builder is an ex­ist­ing valve spring cus­tomer,” says Hornick,

“I’ll help them with any en­gine prob­lem at no cost. That’s part of the ser­vice we pro­vide as a spring sup­plier, be­cause we have no con­sult­ing cus­tomers that com­pete against our valve spring cus­tomers.”

“When first start­ing out and work­ing long hours,” re­calls Ernie El­liott, renowned NASCAR race en­gine tuner, “I used to think if I could find an an­swer to a par­tic­u­lar ques­tion, I could do so much more.” Two decades passed be­fore find­ing a re­source. Then just be­fore El­liott re­tired from the sport, he be­gan col­lab­o­rat­ing with Hornick. “I worked with Joe for five or six years, and I learned from him, mostly through ob­ser­va­tion.”

Fo­rum con­trib­u­tors of­ten cite le­git­i­mate claims that Hornick has been the great­est in­flu­ence on the im­prove­ments of NHRA

Pro Stock en­gines since the early part of this cen­tury. In­deed, proof isn’t dif­fi­cult to find. He de­liv­ered the power that brought Pro Stock supremacy to KB Rac­ing dur­ing four suc­ces­sive years, three cham­pi­onships with Greg An­der­son in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and one with Ja­son Line in 2006.

For most rac­ing fol­low­ers, his time at KB Rac­ing is prob­a­bly the most mem­o­rable. Al­though Greg An­der­son was re­spon­si­ble for its ori­gins, it was Hornick who built it—the func­tion­ing work­shop, the equip­ment, the dy­namome­ter—he even hired the staff. But most im­por­tantly he shocked the Pro Stock world with un­matched en­gine power for the time. The as­ton­ish­ing suc­cess is still re­mem­bered to­day but, for him, to­ward the end of his ten­ure the man­ner of his de­par­ture will be re­mem­bered more painfully. The re­la­tion­ship didn’t last, a sub­ject that is plainly still un­set­tling.

But c’est la vie, as they say—the jour­ney wasn’t in vain. He switched to Cag­nazzi Rac­ing to em­power Jeg Cough­lin. From these ef­forts came a fur­ther two Pro Stock cham­pi­onships in 2007 and 2008. Prior to these, he helped steer Joe Gibbs Rac­ing to three NASCAR ti­tles. More re­cently, two con­sec­u­tive NHRA na­tional cham­pi­onships were won when he joined forces with Norm Grimes, crew chief for Jim White­ley’s Top Al­co­hol Drag­ster.

Sev­eral years ago, Jimmy Prock, crew chief to John Force Rac­ing’s Robert Hight, bought a Midget race car for his son, Austin, but soon re­al­ized the car, par­tic­u­larly the en­gine, was well worn. There were no grounds to sug­gest it might suc­ceed. “That’s when I first met Joe,” says Jimmy. “He brought it to life with bet­ter parts that lasted longer. To­day, that’s what he does for our Funny Car pro­gram.”

But how does one ac­quire these skills? They of­ten come through fail­ure, fail­ure, par­tial suc­cess, more fail­ure and ul­ti­mately com­plete suc­cess. Again and again, those in­volved in re­search are com­pen­sated by suc­cess only after they’ve been in a seem­ingly ir­re­versible down­hill slide, nav­i­gat­ing be­tween shadow and light.

These are of­ten the in­con­ve­nient facts: “In re­search work,” says Joe, “you might fail four­teen times be­fore mak­ing a gain. But by those fail­ures you learn what not to do and, cru­cially, you need to re­tain your en­thu­si­asm through­out.” WD40, the ubiq­ui­tous pen­e­trat­ing, wa­ter-re­pelling lubri­cant, suc­ceeded only after 39 de­feats.

A na­tive of Madi­son, Min­nesota, when Hornick ar­rived in the South more than two decades ago, he gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a fab­u­lous vir­tu­oso in race en­gine prepa­ra­tion. His rep­u­ta­tion was sup­ported by the suc­cesses of the race teams he joined; he was an en­ter­prise unto him­self.

Hornick is a deeply re­flec­tive in­ter­preter. He lis­tens, he learns. “Most rac­ers want to flour­ish,” he says, “they want to be pro­pelled to promi­nence.” Ja­son Scruggs, Rick Jack­son and Norm Grimes are three such can­di­dates. Some­times, the lat­ter two con­test the ti­tle in fields of 30 cars or more. All three carry the prom­ise of vic­tory.

Jack­son, who runs John Lom­bardo Jr. in his Top Al­co­hol Funny Car, ad­mits that he’s been on a far firmer foot­ing since first con­tact­ing

Hornick five years ago with valve gear con­cerns.

Hornick’s at­ti­tude to­ward the race car, par­tic­u­larly the race en­gine, is very se­ri­ous. Says Grimes, “If there is vul­ner­a­bil­ity, he rarely shows it. He uses a fine­grained anal­y­sis, prun­ing away un­til he ar­rives at the so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.”

Nev­er­the­less, his en­gi­neer­ing knowl­edge was greatly re­in­forced by im­mers­ing him­self each year in thou­sands of hours of test­ing (dy­namome­ter, Spin­tron and track). Mind you, head­ing a cup team with an an­nual multi-mil­lion dol­lar re­search bud­get can be the ideal ve­hi­cle for any am­bi­tious spirit that wants to make an in­deli­ble mark in rac­ing. Yet, for Hornick and his in­nate thirst for knowl­edge it pre­sented a much more com­pelling op­tion: an op­por­tu­nity to learn more. An in­vet­er­ate ob­server and ques­tioner, he is con­stantly seek­ing and sift­ing in­for­ma­tion.

Of course any­thing can hap­pen through­out the course of a rac­ing sea­son. “Things go wrong,” ex­plains Richie Gil­mor of Earn­hardt Chil­dress Rac­ing, “but no mat­ter how bleak things look, Joe’s pres­ence tends to bring an ex­pec­ta­tion that all prob­lems have their so­lu­tions, and he’ll find them.”

“In my com­mu­nity—that is in pro­fes­sional drag rac­ing,” says John Medlen, “I no­ticed that he’d tackle any­thing, from top pro­fes­sional teams to off-the beaten-path teams. He’d even hop on board with ob­scure rac­ers try­ing their best to suc­ceed, so long as they didn’t com­pete with his reg­u­lar rac­ing clients. That’s when I got to know him.”

More­over, it’s easy to be­come in­doc­tri­nated by your own dogma, your own be­liefs. NHRA Pro Stock Mo­tor­cy­cle multi-time cham­pion Ge­orge Bryce once said that Hornick was the cen­tral fig­ure of ev­ery Pro Stock team you ever cared about that suddenly ex­pe­ri­enced an up­turn in per­for­mance.

The old phrase, there is no stupid ques­tion, is not one Hornick read­ily ac­cepts. “A stupid ques­tion,” he says, “is one that has had no fore­thought be­fore be­ing asked. I ap­pre­ci­ate those who try to think through the prob­lem for them­selves be­fore ask­ing the ques­tion, rather than idly pos­ing it.” Of course this is a salu­tary re­minder to most of us; it evokes that mar­velous quote by E. M. Forster: “Spoon feed­ing in the long run teaches us noth­ing but the shape of the spoon.”

Yet for the se­ri­ous-minded who need help in be­com­ing more com­pet­i­tive or main­tain­ing their pres­ence at the win­ning edge, Hornick has demon­strated re­peat­edly that you are stronger hav­ing ac­cess to some­one who can de­ter­mine the crit­i­cal fac­tors that bring a suc­cess­ful so­lu­tion to a given prob­lem.

“Jimmy Prock is vis­ually alert and more au­da­cious in his drag rac­ing cal­cu­la­tions than any­one I know,” says Tom “Mon­goo$e” McEwen. A shrewd judge of tal­ent—he co-crews with Chris Cun­ning­ham—it was Prock who in­vited Hornick to join Robert Hight’s 2017...

“Our rac­ing cap­i­tal is em­bed­ded in the qual­ity of our en­gi­neer­ing, it’s our com­pet­i­tive advantage,” says Rick Jack­son. “Much of that advantage was cre­ated by Joe Hornick.”

Hornick de­liv­ered four un­for­get­table NHRA Pro Stock Na­tional Cham­pi­onships to KB Rac­ing from 2003 to 2006. Then he joined Cag­nazzi Rac­ing for two years, where Jeg Cough­lin per­pet­u­ated Hornick’s supremacy by be­com­ing the Pro Stock cham­pion in 2007 and...

Norm Grimes with Jim Whitely as­sisted by Hornick won the NHRA Top Al­co­hol Drag­ster Cham­pi­onship in 2012 and 2013, and in 2015 with Joey Sev­er­ance.

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