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Glimpse power plant's past, future behind doors of Texans' engine shop
Saturday, August 12, 2000
CELINA, Texas -- Tucked away virtually unnoticed on Celina's town square, two artists sculpt aluminum and steel to microscopic tolerances.
Their masterpieces are some of the planet's most powerful racing engines. Dennis Piranio and his right-hand men, Jack Twohig & Jeff Fagala, make motor magic for high-performance dragsters, sprint cars, hydroplanes and ocean racers all over the world.
Need a 5,000-horsepower, supercharged, alcohol- burning pusher? No problem.
"Most of the world champions use our stuff,'' said Piranio, 50.
But nestled among the exotic, powerful engines are several little blocks at the other extreme -- 40-horsepower Model A four-bangers, which Piranio said really put out 28 horsepower, despite Ford's claim.
As if a reputation as one of the best performance engine builders wasn't enough, Piranio also has achieved the same status with antique car buffs.
One customer sent a Model A engine from London for Piranio to rebuild.
He handles antiques and racing power plants, "but nothing in between,'' said Twohig, 55, whose specialty is meticulous machine work.
Neither endeavor caters to the public, which accounts for the business's low-key presence.
As popular and relatively affordable as Model A's are -- a restored one can be had for $10,000 or $11,000, he said -- ownership still is limited.
Piranio does 35 to 40 Model A engines a year, he said, at an average price of $2,600. Improvements can boost the cost to $4,000.
Parts are reasonably priced and available, he said, because the Model A is such a popular car with collectors. In fact, Piranio's wife, Beth, runs a parts business for Model A's at the same Celina location.
It can take two to three months to build a racing engine, assuming parts are available. The shop completes 15 such engines a year.
It's equipped to make many parts on the spot, including the few hard-to-find items for the old Fords.
But each engine is a work of art, said Billy Loftice of Princeton, Texas, who runs at least six Piranio engines and has captured championships with them in tractor and truck pulls, as well as on the water.
"I'm pretty particular, and I like it to be right,'' he said. "Dennis is a perfectionist.''
That means he's a little slower than other engine builders, Loftice said, but the quality and reliability are top-notch.
"He is never satisfied with the status quo. Every rebuild comes back a little different, with the latest technology,'' he said.
That attention to detail brought Piranio business from Sydney, Australia, where the top drag racer Down Under uses his engines.
"He's got to like us a lot,'' Piranio said, because the import duty for parts shipped into Australia is 100 percent, and an engine can run $100,000.
David Kirkland holds the world's speed record for a hydroplane drag boat at 239 mph. He uses a Piranio-built engine -- the 5,000-horsepower model.
"It's actually the fastest propeller-driven boat that's ever been,'' Piranio said.
The list of top-ranked racers who are among his clients is a long one. But his business is all word-of- mouth because Piranio does not advertise.
His reputation began, he said, as a drag racer.
As a kid, he hung around family members who raced and soon got hooked. He raced funny cars between 1967 and 1984. Several top driver awards and championships hang on the little office wall.
"We were always at the top,'' he said. "That's really what made the deal go.''
He said competitors would ask him for advice and help on their engines. "I gave them the stuff I had. It worked. They ran good,'' he said.
So good that in 1978, a racing magazine featured him on its cover, saying his improvements may have revolutionized the sport.
But none of that explains the fascination with little putt-putt Fords, or how two such seemingly different businesses came together.
"I restored one from the ground up in high school. I really liked that car,'' Piranio said.
He was active with the Dallas Model A Ford Club and heard that the best Model A engine rebuilder around wanted to sell out.
"So I bought it, all the equipment. I thought if I did one or two a year, that would be OK. I really thought about it more for retirement. It would be a little slower,'' he said.
But no such luck. Just as the man who sold him the business predicted, the engines came in as soon as word got out.
"It has pressed us,'' he said, "and pushed our delivery dates back. But (Model A owners) aren't in a panic. They aren't rushing toward a certain race.''
One of his secrets is a pressurized, specially filtered room used for assembling the sophisticated high-powered engines. It provides a dust-free, temperature-controlled environment.
Behind a nearly finished 2,000-plus horsepower V-8 on a recent visit sat a nifty little aluminum motor -- a brand-new Model A engine clone he built with the most sophisticated racing technology that provides five times the power of the original.
It's the only one in existence, a prototype on its way to a client in New York.
A Model A with an engine like that would go really fast, he said, "but the problem would be stopping it. They have manual brakes.''
Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch