- Featured Stories
- Douglas County
- City of Ava
- General Interest
Racing is a sport that has taken a lot of criticism for not being an actual competition. Comedians have used the line, “another left turn” in their comedy routines to poke fun at the mere lack of respect that racing sometimes gets. Many movies have also ridiculed some of the ideas behind racing. In all reality though, any event that has hundreds of fans flocking to see each race, sponsors spending millions of dollars each year and race teams dedicating their lives to the sport, it should get more recognition.
The one thing that gets less recognition than the sport itself is the people who are behind the scenes and under the hoods of these race cars each week. Drivers are seen in the winner’s circle and cars are showcased at different events, but for the people who spend hours upon hours perfecting the motors for these cars there is no spotlight.
Jeff has a gift and an expertise in something unique. He builds performance racing heads for a living, and he first got started right here in Ava, his hometown.
I first started to get to know Jeff DeGase the moment I met with his dad, James DeGase. He is a man that loves to talk and loves to talk about his son’s accomplishments.
I met James at the Douglas County Herald and we proceeded on the journey to see Jeff at his shop in Pontiac. The ride was long, but scenic and the conversation flowed as easily as the creeks in Ava after a hard rain. He quickly explained how intelligent Jeff was, but that he can be quiet. At this point, I didn’t know what to expect.
James told of Jeff’s earlier days in racing with Bill Frye and also of his frustration with him as a son and his lack of interest in the family farm. Don’t get me wrong, James thinks the world of his son, but he had doubts about a career in racing.
We laughed and I was mesmerized by the accomplishments of this man that I would soon meet. I felt as if I was as important as Oprah. I was going to interview a man that had met the best of the best in racing.
As soon as we pulled up to Jeff’s shop in Pontiac I could see that he enjoyed the simple life and kept to himself, but definitely deserved respect. He quickly met us at the door and welcomed us into his shop.
It was immaculate. The walls were neatly painted and the epoxy floor was clean, just cluttered with Edelbrock manifolds and several sets of Brodix racing heads as well as machinery. It was as if we entered into his sanctuary.
The shop felt as comforting as the arms of a well received hug. Everything he enjoyed was neatly placed about – equipment, guitar, plants and his bird, a green winged macaw. I was impressed.
After I introduced myself and briefly explained what I was there for, I gave Jeff the opportunity to relive his experiences while I just listened. He was not all that shy, but is very modest. He told me about the good old days of racing the drag strips in Arkansas with Bill Frye. They raced a Chevette that has still been seen at local race tracks and has been owned by several others in Ava.
He recalled one time when he was headed down the track and the faux side window was sucked out of the car. He was afraid at the time that it was going to be the front windshield and it was going to cave in on him.
Jeff also drove another drag car that was envied for its ability to win. It was fast! It had a good motor, but its paint scheme was non-existent. After several times of winning people began to notice. The track promoter mentioned to Jeff that if he was winning with this car, he should have enough money to get it painted.
Jeff and Bill have more than just the drag strips in common. They first started tinkering with motors down at Squires. Jeff said they knew every abandoned barn in their area and once they found an old, rusty, gasoline Maytag washing maching. It took no time until they had the motor rebuilt in the thing. From there, they moved onto racing engines.
Jeff was more intrigued with the heads and manifold. He said that not much was known at the time about how changing the heads would affect the motor. He just kept experimenting. Jeff got one of Bill’s first engines a 454 Chevy big block out of a salvage yard at his job for a phone company. He commented on the fact that the hood was up and the motor had been drenched with rain on more than one occasion leaving everything pretty corroded. Bill took it to his shop and put it on the stove to heat the pistons up enough to remove them from the motor.
In the beginning, Bill Frye and Jeff were building their own motors. Later on, Bill began running an engine from Russell Baker Racing Engines out of Miami, Okla., but was still modifying the heads and manifold with long time friend, Jeff. With this, came many wins and a lot of interest from other drivers, as Bill now began to be a driver to look out for.
Once others realized what engine Bill was running and took notice of the fact, he was continually leaving the pack during races. At the same time, Russell Baker was getting questions, and when he realized what helped his engines run so well, Jeff was given the opportunity to work for Russell Baker.
He gladly accepted as this gave him more opportunity to learn about the very thing that challenged his brain. Along with the job came more and more contacts.
During his time at Russell Baker, Jeff became friends with a gentlemen by the name of Randy Dorton. Randy was a person that Jeff had high regards for and later became a friend of a lifetime. He is one that changed Jeff’s life forever.
This opened up so many opportunities for Jeff as Randy became the chief engine builder for Hendrick Motorsports.
Randy was in charge at Hendrick Motorsports and he quickly got Jeff an interview as he knew that Jeff was one of the best around.
Jeff was sent a sample set of heads to port out and bring with him to his interview. They wanted to see his work.
Jeff started working on the heads in the Russell Baker shop while Russell was gone to a big race at Eldora Speedway, the World 100. After many hours of looking over his shoulder and perfecting the set of heads he was working on, Jeff had finished his masterpiece.
Jeff was not being sneaky, but didn’t want Russell Baker to know what he was doing because it wasn’t a definite deal yet.
He then took off to Concord, N.C., to show Hendrick Motorsports why he needed to be on their winning team.
Just to give an idea of how grand this place is, all Hendrick race cars are construed, start to finish, at the 100-plus-acre Hendrick Motorsport complex. They build well over 550 engines a year on site. They employ over 500 people to perform the day to day activities. Jeff was soon one of them.
After missing his turn off on the way to Concord, Jeff got his first glimpse of NASCAR; he passed Charlotte Speedway. At that point, Jeff knew his dream of some day being in NASCAR had come true.
Jeff worked for Hendrick Motorsports from 1994 to 2007. In those years, he has seen and been a part of several Championship wins by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. His favorite championship win came in 1996 when his all time favorite driver, Terry Labonte, won.
Jeff got to experience a lot at Hendrick Motorsports as the chief in research and development and the motors he developed were still being used as of last year. He had the rare opportunity to be a part of something magical. When asked who was the most impressive person he ever met at the shop Jeff replied, “Morgan Freeman.”
In 2004, Hendrick Motorsports dealt with a lot of change. Within that year owner, Rick Hendrick lost his dad, a shop regular. The Oct. 24 plane crash claimed the lives of 10 of their upper management.
The plane was leaving for Martinsville, Va., to the Subway 500 Nextel Cup Series when it suddenly went down due to pilot error. Those on the plane that day were president of Hendrick Motorsports, John Hendrick and his twin daughters, Kimberley and Jennifer Hendrick; Ricky Hendrick, Rick’s son; general manager Jeff Turner; chief engine builder, Randy Dorton; Joe Jackson, DuPont executive; Scott Lathrom, pilot for Tony Stewart; and pilots, Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison.
This forever changed the dynamics of the shop. Though it has been said that Randy built a hierarchy so efficient that he could walk away and Hendrick engines would continue running on all eight cylinders, it changed and team members had to carry on and mourn in their own way.
This was all so hard to take in and the date was one he wanted to erase, and Jeff knew his career at Hendrick Motorsports was coming to an end.
He planned to stay with Hendrick for 10 years and made it just over 13. Jeff had created a bond with so many that he considered his racing family and in the blink of an eye they were gone.
Jeff had a new vision and one he would carry out. It seems as if Jeff has come full circle. He moved back closer to home, where he now resides in Pontiac and builds racing heads for dirt late models, just like in the beginning.
Jeff had moved back home to be with his family and opened up his business, Competition Induction.
Jeff commented that if he had to give any advice to someone he would suggest, “Never open a high performance racing head shop during the middle of a recession.”
In reality, Jeff is doing great. He has made a name for himself and has enough work to hold him until fall without any more orders coming in.
Jeff has several different types of heads that he has put into production mode; he sells these to different companies and gets royalty checks off the already manufactured personal design.
To provide some insight on what he actually does, cylinder head porting is the process of modifying the intake and exhaust ports of an internal combustion engine to improve the quality and quantity of the air flow.
Cylinder heads, as manufactured, are usually suboptimal due to design and manufacturing constraints. Porting the heads provides the finely detailed attention required to bring the engine to the highest level of effiency. More than any other single factor, the porting process is responsible for the high power output of modern engines.
This process can be applied to a standard racing engine to optimize its power output as well as to a production engine to turn it into a racing engine, to enhance its power output for daily use or to altar its power output. This is something that is precise, time consuming and requires a lot of patience.
Jeff, who has been doing this forever, has a great love for this hobby and a real eye for the process.
Most people’s experience with air get the impression that air is light and nearly non-existent as we move slowly through it. However, an engine running at high speed experiences a totally different substance. In that context, air can be thought of as thick, sticky, elastic, gooey and heavy. Pumping it is a major problem for engines running at high speeds so head porting helps to alleviate that problem.
Jeff, I was impressed with your set up and in fact, you have shown so many that dreams can become reality and with enough hard work, passion and determination anything is possible. I thank you for the opportunity of reliving your NASCAR years and sharing your excitement of the future to come. You are truly one of the best in the business.
No matter how little or how much respect is earned from a sport, it still takes the hard work of so many others like Jeff DeGase. For them, it’s more than the wins, or the spotlight, it’s about the relationships gained. They value such things with the same pride as they do their work and just like a great running racing motor, relationships take time, patience, and love.
The best of luck to you, Jeff and let the memory of your long time friend, Randy Dorton, live on!