Mr. Fix It, Phil RemingtonHide Text
Phil Remington can Design, Build, Repair, Patch Together, and Generally Fix Anything on a Race Car
Mr. Fix It " Written on the occasion of Phil Remington’s 70th birthday.
Photography by David Gooley. Period photos by David Friedman.
Phil Remington can design, build, repair, patch together, and generally fix anything on a race car, from the manifolds on a Scarab to the sweeping tail of a Ford Mk IV at LeMans. Preston Lerner visited Mr. Fix-it at the All American Racers shop in Santa Ana, Ca., where "Rem" was fabricating a brake cooling duct for Toyota's IMSA GTP car.
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, Woody Allen made a movie called Zelig about a guy who always managed to be on the scene whenever history was being made during the twenties and thirties. He could be found hobnobbing with Adolf Hitler at Nuremburg, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge at the White House, Pope Pius XI at the Vatican, even Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium. Wherever the crossroads of history happen to fall, Woody Alen's Zelig was there...
The motorsports community has its own version of Zelig. His name is Phil Remington, and his hard-to-believe career provides continuing proof that fact is stranger than fiction. When West Coast hot rodders started tearing up the dry lakes before World War II, he was there. When Sterling Edwards won the first bonafide sports car race staged on the West Coast after the war, he was there. When Lance Reventlow ran the first American Formula One car at Monte Carlo, he was there. When Carroll Shelby's Cobras crushed all comers from Riverside to Daytona, he was there. When John Holman and Ralph Moody were dominating the Southern stock car scene, he was there. And when Dan Gurney's All American Racers finally won Indianapolis 500, Phil Remington was there
It sometimes seems as if the man has been everywhere – Formula One, Indy cars, endurance racing, Can-Am, Trans-Am, NASCAR, GTO, GTP. Once, he even made an around-the-world promotional trip for Ford as chief mechanic, fabricator, and all-purpose nuts-and-bolts wizard with a pair of new 1958 four-wheel drive trucks that he'd disguised as '57 models by rigging them with aluminum skins and headlight conversions.
"We had to be able to look 100 percent, appearance-wise, all the time," he says. "If those trucks got skinned up or damaged, we had spare sheet metal to repair them. We ha paint, thinner, a compressor, and welding outfits so that we could fix anything."
And make no mistake: if there's a piece of an automobile that Remington can't fix, then he can make a perfect copy to replace it. If he can't copy the piece, then you'll have to wait until God creates another.
"He's the best fabricator in the world, and that's not his strong point," says Carroll Smith, a longtime racing consultant who worked with Remington on the Ford assault on LeMans. " His strong point is his incredible intuitive feel for machinery. When there is a problem, by the time other people realize it, he's already made six fixes."
Back during his days as director of research and development at Shelby American, Remington was responsible for hundreds of modifications to the all-conquering Ford GT40s, Mark IIs and Mark IVs. On the sketches for these fixes, there used to be a legend: " Draftsman: Remington. Designer: Remington. Engineer: Remington. Approved: Remington." Just call him the last of the soup-to-nuts mechanics.
A generation later, Remington's still at it. When we caught up with him at All American Racers shop in Santa Ana, he was fitting an air scoop to a carbon-fiber rear brake on the latest Eagle GTP car. The new configuration of the redesigned rear suspension was making things difficult. The hours passed without much in the way of discernible progress, but Remington remained imperturbable, jaw set, eyes steely, face impassive. The man looked implacable, and it was clear that the air scoop was going to break before he did.
There was no wasted motion while he worked, no tapping his feet to the rock 'n' roll playing on the radio, no breaks for coffee, no time devoted to gossip. Hour after hour, he trimmed and eyeballed and cut and massaged and measured and did whatever it took to get the damn air scoop to fit. "Phil's like a machine," says one former coworker. Says another, ex-Shelby team manager Al Dowd: "We called him Super-Twitchy Phil. He was a little hyper. He couldn't sit still at all. He'd work so hard and so fast, but he always got it right."
The roster of people Remington has worked with during his career reads like an Automobile Racing Hall of Fame. Naturally, some of them shared their expertise with the young Remington, but mostly, he mastered his trade the hard way. " I learned to do metal work on my own," he says. 'Well, I'll build my own car,' and I just started building it. I learned to weld by trading an intake manifold for a welding outfit when I was 17. I guess I'd have to say my expertise is being able to do a lot of things that other people can't do."
Born in 1921 in Santa Monica, Rem - as he's known in the trade – grew up in the cradle of hot rod civilization. As a teenager, he was a member of the Santa Monica Low Flyers, and rival hot rod clubs, he became acquainted with many of the people who would dominate the post war west coast scene – Phil Hill, Ritchie Ginther, Jim Travers, Frank Coons, Stu Hilborn, and Vic Edlebrock, just to name a few.
After serving as a B-24 flight engineer in the South Pacific, Remington returned home after World War II and headed straight to the dry lakes of California. With an ultra-modified Model A fitted with a flathead V8 Ford, he set a class record by running 136 mph and change at El Mirage. "He was always a little bit ahead of everybody," Travers recalls. A blown-up photograph of Remington in his car is one of the few racing mementos displayed in his house.
Remington later hooked up with Travers to work for millionaire sportsman Howard Keck, who was running a trio of midgets at the time. Unfortunately, Remington was hit by a truck while riding a Triumph Tiger motorcycle, and he spent a year in the hospital. "The left leg was terribly damaged," he says. "They were going to take it off at one point, so I called my mother and got her to bring me some clothes, and I bailed out." Although he walks with a slight limp, he still has his leg.
When Remington got back on his feet, he joined well-known Indy car builders Emil Diedt and Lujie Lesovsky in their shop in Los Angeles. Their so-called Flexible Flyer proved to be a fiasco, but the team produced a bunch of successful specials. The most notable was a tube-frame, fully independent Ford 60 one-off for Sterling Edwards, who used to win at Palm Springs in 1950, generally considered to be the first official sports car race held on the west coast.
After building intake manifolds for Eddie Meyer, Louis' brother, Remington moved to San Francisco to help Edwards in his quest to get his attractive sports car into production. Besides building a few prototypes for the young millionaire (and making what he believes may have been the first fiberglass automobile body), Remington ran Edwards' racing program. When he could find the time, he also did a little racing of his own, at least until he totaled a C-Type Jaguar at Pebble Beach after clouting a Jowett Jaguar. After he became convinced that Edwards wasn't going to get his sports car off the ground, Remington returned to LA and did a stint with Stu Hilborn. Like we said, the man was everywhere.
More to the point, he was wherever the action was the hottest. In 1957, he contracted with former Indy winner Pete DePaolo, who ran Ford Motor Company's quasi-factory racing program, to make an around-the-world trip with the '58 trucks. By the time he returned, Ford had quit racing, so he rejoined Lesovsky and worked on Indy roadsters, midgets, and dirt cars. And then, in 1958, he got the call to work for Lance Reventlow in building his fearsome Scarab sports cars.
Remington arrived too late to work on the prototype, but he helped build the second and third sports cars and was in the inception of the Formula One car that appeared in 1960. Later, he was primarily responsible for the last of the Scarabs – a trim and neat rear-engined sports car that remained competitive for over three years.
Although it achieved its greatest success with a small block Chevy in the engine bay (and A.J. Foyt in the cockpit), the rear-engined Scarab was originally equipped with a small Oldsmobile V8. To pump some extra power out of the motor, Remington fabricated a series of ever-more-elaborate crossover manifolds that not only worked effectively, but looked extraordinary. "I'd love to have one of the manifolds just to look at," says Warren Olson, who was the general of the Scarab operation. "It was just a work of art."
Remington doesn't often brag on his own work, but he can't resist crowing just a little about those manifolds. "First, I built one with 40 millimeters on it, " he says. "Then I built one with 48 sidedrafts, and that ran pretty good, so I built them another one with 58 millimeter Webers. I started off with 1.75 in. tube and I hand-bent it into an Ess shape. Then I took the big end and put two wedges in it and made it out to be about two-and-three-eighths for the Weber. The Esses interlaced both ways and went into two flanges. Boy, it was a lot of work making those things, but it put out some real good power on the top end." In fact, the 298-pound engine was rated at 300 horsepower.
If you look hard enough, you can find former coworkers who aren't members of the Phil Remington Fan Club. After all, he tends to be stubborn when he thinks he's right, and he's stepped on more than a couple of toes over the years. But nobody - not even his worst detractors – criticizes his work. And when your craftsmanship is as exquisite as Remington's has always been, there's never any shortage needy of people clamoring for your help.
As soon as the Scarab operation folded in 1962, for instance, Remington landed on his feet with the Cobra program. In fact, when Shelby started leasing shop space in Venice from Reventlow, Remington more or less went with the building. As he puts it, "I just changed payrolls, I guess you could say." A few weeks later, when Billy Krause broke a rear hub carrier while leading at race at Riverside in the Cobra's maiden race, Remington was the guy who picked up some forging blanks from his friend Ted Halibrand and made a set of new ones. These served as the prototypes for all future rear hub carriers which, by the way, never broke again.
LE MANS WORK
From Cobras, Shelby and Remington together segued into the Ford LeMans program. Although these years have been the subject of countless books and articles, the full extent of Remington's exploits will never known. This much is clear: Remington solved the coupe's recurring brake-cooling problems by stealing the intakes off a C-47 he saw taxiing outside his office window. And he's the guy who chopped the long tail off the experimental J-Car at 2 o'clock one morning to turn the slow-moving breadvan into the invincible Mark IV.
"Without him, it would have been an unbelievable failure," says Pete Weismann, who worked as a Kar Kraft engineer on the Ford project before becoming the nation's leading authority on racing transmissions. "He's the master. Whatever the engineers dreamed up, he was the one who made it work for them."
Remington's last job for Shelby was preparing the unsuccessful car raced by Peter Revson. After a brief stint in Charlotte, N.C., building Ford Talladega Grand National stockers for Holman and Moody, he returned to LA in time to help get Gurney's McLeagle Can Am car off the ground. Since then, Remington's had a hand in virtually everything to come out of the All American Racers shop. And at the age of 68 – he could pass for about 50 – he still puts in 60 hour weeks in Santa Ana and then accompanies the team whenever and wherever it goes racing.
"It gets a little old," he admits, not sounding entirely convincing, "but everything on the car is kind of a prototype and you have to keep changing things at the racetrack all the time. The crew is busy doing their mechanical stuff, and they need a lot of advice sometimes if they think that something's wrong or something's cracked.
"I'm thinking about retiring more and more," he says. But don't expect him to disappear anytime soon. When an Eagle finally wins a GTP race, Remington will probably be there, too.