INDEPENDENT STUDY: PROJECT W-31
How Oldsmobile Hooked Up a Cadre of College Students With a Hands-On Learning Lesson
How Oldsmobile hooked up a cadre of college students with a hands-on learning lesson
Americans love to wax poetic about 1969—Woodstock, the moon landing, cool cars—but it also was a tumultuous time to be a young male. Postwar prosperity and optimism gave way to assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and general cultural confusion. But for a revolving door of Michigan State University (MSU) engineering students, 1969-1973 was a seminal period. Through an interesting sequence of events, they managed to convince Oldsmobile, MSU and its chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and a host of suppliers to support the preparation of a race car on a shoestring budget.
Paul Aurand, Rick Dolan, Bob Sedlak, and Jim Minneker (later to become a Corvette Hall-ofFamer) knew one another from MSU’s engineering school, but they truly didn’t get together until they joined the student chapter of the SAE. The club met once a month, often spilling over afterward to Monte’s, a watering hole in nearby Okemos.
In the fall of 1969, Jim Miller, an Oldsmobile engineer and technical advisor to the SAE chapter, playfully derided the students for not doing more as a group. Rick Dolan responded, “Why don’t you have Oldsmobile give us a car to build?”
Miller’s response surprised them: “If you guys find a place to work on it, I will find you a car.”
Dolan says, “We weren’t sure if it was Jim or the beer talking, but we took him seriously!” Within a week, he secured space in the blacksmith shop with the assistance of thermodynamics professor Frank Roop.
“Now it was getting serious,” says Bob Dennis, who joined the team soon after its inception. “We began looking at national records and what Oldsmobile offered. We decided against a 4-4-2 because they were not competitive, but folks were winning with W-31s. We spec’d out the engine, transmission, and rear axle.”
Several weeks later, Paul Aurand received an evening phone call from Jim Miller. “Be outside in 15 minutes, and be alone.”
They drove to the Oldsmobile Engineering offices, entered a locked facility, and parked next to a red vehicle. Miller handed Aurand the keys and warned, “The title has been sent to Lansing. The VIN has been removed. There’s no registration or insurance, and it has no plates. This car doesn’t exist. Kid, don’t get caught!”
Aurand continues, “I took the back streets on my way to campus. Several team members who had previously been alerted met me at our ‘garage.’ Nobody saw us come in.”
“If you guys find a place to work on it, I will find you a car”
What the team received was a 1969 4-4-2 hardtop that had been an Oldsmobile durability test vehicle set to be scrapped. Although the team had determined that the 4-42’s 400 was not competitive at the drags, Oldsmobile had followed through by including everything they requested: fresh W-31, four-speed, and 5.00:1 rear.
“Unfortunately it was heavier than it needed to be for the
class, but beggars can’t be choosers,” says Fred Bowen.
The team had varying amounts of automotive experience, but all had a lot to learn. “We studied magazine articles, including one featuring a team connected to Labadie Olds,” says Bob Dennis.
Adds Jim Minneker, “We wanted to race on the G/S national record (12.46). We raced in regional NHRA events, but it never got more competitive than that.”
Thanks to $1,000 in treasury dues that the SAE had collected over the previous 20 years, the team had the funds to buy equipment to make the Olds race-worthy. Yet it was the kindness of sponsors that really made it happen.
“We went on a letter-writing campaign,” says Minneker. “We were wholesome college kids racing cars asking, ‘Would you like a place on our car? A donation could give us a whole load of engineering experience!’”
Joe Guzek, engineer at Lansing-based Motor Wheel Corporation and another SAE technical advisor, was able to score Spyder wheels plus Goodyear 7-inch cheater slicks and Frontrunner lightweights.
“It was surprising how many were willing to donate equipment to us,” says Fred Bowen. “ACCEL gave us points, caps, and rotors. Once we were at US-131 and were approached by Calvin DeBruin, a 1950s-era MSU engineering grad and employee of Sealed Power. He provided us the company’s then-new ‘head land’ piston rings.”
“The services we had to pay for were getting the heads cc’d and a three-angle valve job,” says Paul Aurand. “That cost us a couple hundred bucks, but everything else was donated.”
The team tore into preparing the Olds. Removing the sound deadener, melt pads, and undercoating was tedious. Aurand says, “We installed OHC-6 Tempest front springs to improve front-end lift and weight transfer at the starting line. Air Lift airbags were installed in the coils. We also installed the Tempest’s drum brakes, which were marginal.”
Rick Dolan was enthused by the machine shop and made steel bushings for the control arms. The team also modified the transmission into a “slick shift” (with no synchronizers), which enabled faster shifts.
Initial testing revealed serious rear-wheel hop upon starts, so a pinion snubber was built and installed to control this problem.
Off to the Races
The team had a car, but how to get to the dragstrip? Initially the guys borrowed what was soon deemed the Trailer of Doom. Bob Sedlak explains, “I was towing with my 1963 Dodge wagon, and poor Bob Dennis was sitting in the Olds. I was simply trying to find the right speed, but there was no right speed. If you went 20 miles an hour it was marginal, and if you went a little faster or a slower it was wildly out of control.”
The group ended up borrowing a tow bar and using Al Wilson’s 1964 Plymouth for the rest of the year until Cliff Grupke bought his 1969 Cutlass. The pair presented nicely as tow and drag cars.
Project W-31’s first outing was at Onondaga in the spring of 1970. To their dismay, instead of G/S, they were obliged to compete in Super Stock due to wider-than-stock tires (the Goodyear “stockers” had yet to arrive). Jim Minneker and Paul Aurand piloted the Olds at the track. It performed admirably, but at Tri-City (its second outing), the transmission broke.
“We flat-towed the car with the driveshaft in place,” says Fred Bowen. “This caused internal damage to the tranny due to insufficient lubrication. After replacing the tranny, we always removed the driveshaft before towing.”
Few had previous track experience. Cliff Grupke, who joined in 1970, developed his own style. He says, “I usually stabbed the clutch. Thanks to the gearbox mods we made, it shifted nicely. I recall one time we were running well and went up against this Chevelle. I got to the line and used our rule of thumb: activate the Hurst Line Lock, bring yourself up to 6,000 rpm and, when you see the last yellow, go. We never red-lighted! When I saw that yellow, I let go of everything and got a good holeshot, but the Chevy also got out of the hole nicely. I reached for Second gear and missed, then jammed it in and got it going again. I still was ahead because he too missed the shift, but I recovered faster.”
There also were obstacles beyond their control. Bob
“This car doesn’t exist. Kid, don’t get caught!”
Dennis explains, “When we raced at Brohman M-37 Dragway, their so-called tech guys made us remove the air induction system, which was regular production equipment for the W-31. We said it’s factory, but they were adamant. They were afraid we were going beat the local guys, I think.”
Throughout the embryonic team’s existence, they also raced at Martin, Milan, and Detroit Dragway.
To test their handiwork, the team would tow the Olds across campus to the commuter lot, sometimes arousing complaints from the married housing complex a half-mile away. “The first time I did a test burnout was a disaster,” relates Bob Dennis. “It was a late spring night in 1971. I brought up the rpm’s, popped the clutch, and I’m flying along this parking lot.”
Dennis Kline continues, “I was in the car and remember the exhilaration of the openheader launch was suddenly replaced by absolute panic when I saw a flash of light in front of us, which was a chain reflecting our headlights.”
Bob hit the brakes, but it was too late. The chain went up over the hood, broke the windshield, and continued over the car.
In a later test run in the summer, there was an enormous explosion, followed by silence. Cliff Grupke tells us, “I remember pulling the spark plugs there in the dark so we could look down into the chambers. John Shook had this little 12-volt light bulb rig that he could clip onto the battery terminals and lower through the spark plug hole. As he was peering down number 7, he uttered, ‘I wonder where the piston went?’ Jim Miller later diagnosed the problem as an over-torqued rod bolt, which I never believed because I know how careful and precise we were in building the engine. Jim was able to secure another engine, which we promptly fitted with our racing bits that had survived.”
Uh-Oh, Part II
Aside from wide-open throttle tests in the commuter parking lot, the team never drove the Olds in public. Nonetheless, bringing a tow vehicle and rigging a tow bar were laborious, so Bob Dennis had the idea to obtain a provisionary pass to drive to the lot. “So, dumb me, I called Oldsmobile Public Relations.”
The call went nowhere, but eventually Jim Miller caught wind and said, “What in the hell are you doing? You’re getting people in trouble at Oldsmobile!” Dale Smith, Oldsmobile’s manager of vehicle testing and racing support, wrote about the episode (albeit incorrectly) in his book Racing to the Past:
“I did get a car for engineering students at Michigan State. Since they could not afford a trailer, they called Olds Public Relations to attempt to get the car registered so they could drive the car to drag racing events. I then received a call from a dumb $#!+ informing me that I had violated the General Motors racing ban, and that I had better get that car back before I got into deep trouble
… I told him the bottom line on why you, me, or anyone else here exists is to sell cars. In my job, I’m trying to improve Olds’ youth image and cultivate new customers.”
The Second Season
In the spring of 1971, with MSU repurposing its facilities, Project W-31 lost its space in the blacksmith shop. Fred Bowen enlisted the help of Dr. Charles St. Clair, chairman of the mechanical engineering department. “We drove around the area looking for a suitable place to keep the Olds. We had
little luck, so he said, ‘For now, you can keep it temporarily in my backyard.’”
From there, the Olds ended up in the driveway of Professor Roop. “I think we swapped upper and lower ball joints in his garage one time,” says Cliff Grupke. “We had absolutely no place to work on it, having to beg and borrow everything. I can remember writing letters to our sponsors asking them to renew their enthusiasm for our club.”
In the fall of 1971, Cliff Grupke became president of MSU SAE. “I tried to get everybody else to drive, but nobody seemed interested. I even threatened Al to drive it because he had worked so hard on that car, but I ended up driving quite a bit in 1972.”
Thanks to new member
Bob Senk, the team was able to finish rebuilding the engine and putting everything back together at his family’s farm. “We pushed the car under a shade tree, took the hood off, and dropped the engine in with a block and tackle, just like you read about,” says Grupke. “After the summer, we stashed it at my mom’s in Southgate. In the fall of 1972, a local teammate named Jim Mauer had an empty garage at his mom’s.”
Where Did Project
All members went on to successful careers in engineering, and none forgot this early experience. They were
reunited for the first time in 45-plus years because there’s a story to be told, but the million-dollar question is: What happened to Project W-31?
The trail seems to disappear in 1973. Rick Dolan recalls seeing the Olds at the trailer park next to Tom’s Party Store in Okemos. The car was sitting high in the front, as if the engine had been removed. Paul Aurand says that Doug Arden, a later member, claims the Olds was raced by George Cornell, who may have had a Lunati connection. Arden even thinks he has seen the Olds in more recent years— with lettering intact—in a Lansing lot.
Project W-31 was much more than a cool car story from back in the day. It’s about this great grassroots adventure by a group of engineering students who gained real-world experience through hard work, ingenuity, and initiative. Reminisces Bob Senk, “Absolutely thrilling! I’d go back right now and be glad to do it. As fun as can be. Way better than a rollercoaster!”
“We learned a ton of things in that short time. We also learned to build confidence in ourselves,” adds Bob Dennis. “Everyone was very lucky because we had something on our resumes when we graduated. The handson experience allowed us to stand tall and say, ‘This is what we’ve been doing while we were studying engineering.’”
Al Wilson agrees. “I was into it for a learning experience because I’d never done automotive work before. I learned everything I know from those years.”
n At Milan in 1972,Project W-31 prepares to go against anotherW-Machine.
n Project W-31 at Tri-City in 1970. Bob Dennis handled the first iteration of the lettering via contact paper. “Everybody agreed that those little 2-inch letters were too small.” He also painted the custom license plate and Dr. Olds trunk lid.
n On its first outing, Project W-31 ran G/SS due to wider-thanstock rear tires. Note the air induction system under the bumper.
n At Project W-31’s second outing in 1970, the four-speed broke.
n Under no circumstances was Project W-31 to be driven in public.
n Jim Minneker and Rick Dolan show off a trophy in 1970.
n The legendary Trailer of Doom, spring 1970.
n After blowing the engine during testing in the summer of 1971, Project W-31 received a new engine.
n MSU’s SAE club recruited new members with the line, “Drag racing is bigger than you think it is, Leroy! Get caught up in it this fall at MSU!”