Former drag racer Dan Dvorak specializes in maximizing engine power
Published: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 12:22 p.m.
WALDO — Drag racing pioneer and prolific National Hot Rod Association record-setter Dan Dvorak continues to make motor magic at Dvorak Machine Shop, a fixture since 1986 on U.S. Highway 301 near Waldo.
A sign on the metal building reads “Maximum Engine Performance” and several rusting bodies of 1960s vintage Plymouth cars dot the property like relics of Dvorak’s early career.
Inside you will find Dvorak at work on a number of current projects including several Chrysler Motor Parts products.
“Chrysler Power and Performance MoPars” magazine called Dvorak “arguably the world’s best expert” in MoPar engine modification and stated he has held NHRA records “more times in a MoPar than anyone else on the planet” in quarter-mile stock and super stock car drag races.
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Dvorak, a New York native whose family moved to Hialeah when he was a child, began his quest to wring the last drop of horsepower from an engine with the family mower.
“When I was a young kid, I took the cylinder head off our mower and rubbed it on the concrete to plane it down and raise the compressor and power. It worked,” Dvorak said laughing.
By 15, Dvorak had a 1963 two-door Dodge with a three speed.
“That’s how I got hooked on drag racing. My friend’s car could always get by me at the end of the run,” Dvorak said.
Falling behind his friend compelled Dvorak to get his first drag racer — a 1962 Dodge nine-passenger wagon with a 440 hemi engine — and in 1964 he set out to compete at newly opened Miami Dragway.
In a history of his career, Dvorak wrote he found that the wagon with it’s high-performance engine fit a favorable “niche” in the NHRA weight-to-horsepower ratio scheme, which gave him an advantage in the days before the enhanced “bracket racing” or elapsed-time division classes.
Dvorak said he kept improving his engine performance, much to the chagrin of his fellow racers.
In 1965 he named his wagon “The Lawman” after a popular television series of the time and the fact he considered becoming a lawyer.
Dvorak moved to Gainesville around 1969, studied law at the University of Florida and continued to make the national drag race circuit from Gainesville to Indianapolis with additional two-door Plymouths.
Dvorak estimates he set “about 50 class records, and likely they’ve been broken.” His career spanned from 1964 in Miami until about 1993 on the nationwide circuit when he signed a “non-compete” agreement with a racer who agreed to buy engines built by Dvorak at his shop.
In 2004, Dvorak had his right leg amputated below the knee due to an illness which had the symptoms of diabetes — possibly due to exposure to heavy metals in his machine shop.
After a three-year hiatus he began rebuilding his high-performance engine machine shop.
“I had the stump of my leg up on a modified stool so I could work the machine tools” before being fit for a prosthetic, he said.
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Now, Dvorak is in the process of restoring his original 1963 Lawman Dodge station wagon and has a two-door 1964 Plymouth Savoy he found in 1998 just about ready to race.
Dvorak is ambivalent about if, where or when he will take the cars to compete.
“The rules are stacked today,” Dvorak said, indicating increased difficulty for certain classes of modified cars. But he did not rule out participation as a car owner and driver.
Meanwhile, MoPar engines are coming in from as far away as Vashon Island, Wash., for his skillful touch thanks to word of mouth, magazine ads and the Internet.
Dvorak scurries about his shop performing operations like what he calls “super stock head prep” and “super port flow” on motor parts which were shipped to Dvorak Machine from around the country.
“My great-great-grandfather was the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak,” said Dvorak, 66, as he took a break from grinding the valve area on a head from a 426 Chrysler Motor Parts big block engine in a surgery-like procedure.
The extra horsepower produced by the whine of the high-speed grinder under Dvorak’s expert direction will be music to a racer’s ears and right foot.
“I’m an old-school-type engine rebuilder with hardware and tools. That’s what many of my racing customers want. If you add the modern computer technology for ignition and fuel on top of the added horsepower — look out,’ ” Dvorak joked.
Dvorak designed special oil systems, seals and ignition timing stabilizers for MoPar engines.
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Mike Largen, a part-time assistant at Dvorak’s shop, said he saw Dvorak race The Lawman wagon back in 1964 in Miami.
Largen is currently helping Dvorak race prep the 1964 Plymouth Savoy two-door also named “The Lawman.” The car’s 426 hemi engine — specially prepared by Dvorak — has custom rocker arms and push rods which allow a higher lift cam to produce more horsepower.
“This car has an aluminum front end and carbon fiber drive components for lightness and strength,” Largen said about the 1964 Savoy Super Stock AA/SA 2100 class cars, which should cover the quarter-mile in the high 9-second to 10-second range.
Drag racing legend Don Garlits said Dvorak built an engine for one of his vintage race cars on display at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.
“Dan built the engine in my 1962 Dodge Super Stock Cross Ram car, a 413 CID engine. It runs fine, just as good as the original did in 1962,” Garlits said.
Dvorak’s sister, Julie Dvorak, said her brother works hard and focuses on his projects.
“He’s the creative one, and he has always done well at everything he’s tried. He’s even a good cook,” Julie Dvorak said.