Jon Kaase is an engine builder of a different sort. He bucks convention on a daily basis, motivated only by results, innovation, and pushing the limits of internal combustion. He’s the sort of guy who will stick his finger in an intake port at 7,000 rpm just to feel what the engine feels and garner a tactile take on a phenomenon previously intangible.
He cut his teeth on drag racing in the 1960s, rubbed shoulders with the greats in the early days of Pro Stock, and his engines have competed in just about every form of motorsports available. From NASCAR to Mountain Motor Pro Stock and, most recently, offshore boat racing, he’s built it all. However, for all of his motorsports conquests, if you’ve heard his name, there’s a good chance it was surrounding an AMSOIL Engine Masters Challenge competition, where he is the winningest competitor to date. From a modular Ford motor with 16 exhaust tubes to a Mercury Edsel Lincoln (MEL) platform with an inch-thick head gasket and extended “valve seats,” Kaase’s wild builds and epically creative interpretation of the rulebook have earned him quite the following.
When he pushes an engine-laden cart into the dyno cell at AMSOIL Engine Masters competition, the rest of the competitors can usually be found silent, noses squished against the dyno window, eyes craning for a look at Kaase’s latest creation. Splash in the fact that he machines his own of Boss 429 cylinders heads, and you have a guy who will catch any engine enthusiast’s attention.
HRM] How did you cut your teeth on cars and engine building?
JK] My dad was a dentist, so it wasn’t like I grew up around cars. I guess I somehow got interested on my own. When you’ve got the craving for it, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. When I was 13, I had my first car—it was a drive-it-up-and-down-the-driveway sort of deal. I took it all apart and put it back together. There were a lot of times I took things apart knowing I’d never get them back together. I just wanted to know how they worked.
HRM] How did a generic interest in how things work segue into a career professionally building race engines?
JK] By the time I was 16, I had a ’66 Comet with a 427ci Ford that I drove to high school in 1968. It was an 11-second drag car, but I still drove it to school. I took a part-time job with a guy who lived around the corner from me, Bill Rolf, building engines and that really gave me a head start. I learned all my engine building originally from him. The little bit of money I made, I put into my race car. Every time the dragstrip was open, I was out racing my Comet.
About 1975, I stopped working on my own cars. I partnered up with another guy, and we had a homebuilt Pro Stock car for a couple years. Through that, and being at the racetrack, I met “Dyno Don” Nicholson. Once we stopped racing our own car, I went to work for Dyno Don, and that’s what really set everything off. I moved to California. I lived there in the winters and Atlanta in the summers. During that time, I think I really met everyone there was to meet. I got a really great head start.
HRM] What was it like to work with Dyno Don Nicholson?
JK] I knew him pretty well before I went to work for him in 1977. We were racing against him, and I didn’t have any problem going up and asking him about his motors. He was very approachable. He was an easy guy to get along with and work for. He was just the best—completely unique.
He was one of the single best guys I’ve ever seen with his fans. He didn’t ever have a problem stopping what he was doing and talking to anybody who wanted to ask him a question or get a shirt or hero card signed. It didn’t matter if the guy didn’t have shoes or teeth, he’d stand there and talk to him. He was a truly unique individual. There’s a lot of times today I’ll see something new, like a CNC machine porting heads and think, Boy, Nicholson would have loved to see that.
HRM] What came next? When did you start Jon Kaase Racing Engines?
JK] When I was done working for Nicholson in 1980, I started on my own business. It’s pretty much been that ever since. I’ve been in the engine-building business for 38 years, building whatever kind of engines people needed.
HRM] Is it true you own the patent for the Boss 429 head?
JK] No [laughing]. I don’t know where that came from! We build an aftermarket Boss 429 head. We’ve made a lot of improvements on the design, and we own our own patterns. We don’t have a patent, but I’m sure we’ve built more of them than anyone in the world. We’re pretty much ground zero for anything Boss 429.
HRM] That’s sort of an oddball motor in the grand scheme of things. What led you to specialize in that engine?
JK] In 2008, I was really wanting to run a Boss 429 in the Engine Masters competition. I started looking at the original stuff, and it was really weak. It was a nice design, but they just weren’t strong enough. I knew it wasn’t usable for all of the punishment I was going to give it, so we decided to build an improved version. If it wasn’t for Engine Masters, I don’t know that we ever would have built that head. I thought, just maybe we could sell enough of them to pay for the patterns. At this point, we’ve sold something like 1,400 heads. Who could’ve guessed?
HRM] So the cylinder-head business was an immediate success?
JK] We started casting those heads in 2007, and right in 2008, that’s when the economy dropped out from under us. All those banks were getting bailouts, and General Motors took that loan from the government. You’d go out to dinner and there’d be no one in the restaurant. We really didn’t know how bad it was going to get. If we had waited six months to start the project, we would have never done it. Fortunately, everything worked out.
HRM] Speaking of Engine Masters, you’ve had some tremendous success in that competition. Are you the winningest competitor to date?
JK] Yeah, I think so. Tony Bischoff has won a lot, too, but I think we’ve won one or two more than him. I really have to dig deep to find the exact number, but I think with all of our wins and Second Place finishes, I’m up to about $360,000 in winnings. You wouldn’t think so, but I’ve been doing it for 13 years.
HRM] You’ve got a reputation for bringing something “interesting” to these competitions. What inspires your, shall we say, “creative” interpretation of the rulebook?
JK] I look at the rules and the rpm and really try to start there. In 2013, I had a four-valve mod motor. I decided to build a header with 16 tubes instead of 8. I don’t know if they really did anything or not, but I had so much time in them and they were so scary-looking. I had to run them!
The Edsel motor we brought in 2017 and 2018 with the extended chamber, that was something I just always wanted to do. When I started looking at all of those parts, the heads were flat with no combustion chamber, I said, “If I’m ever going to do this, it’s going to be on this one.” I really enjoyed that build. [Laughing] I can’t do it again, though, because they made a rule against it! “No part of the valve-sealing surface can extend down into the bore”—I think that’s pretty well aimed at me!
HRM] What’s your takeaway from all of your years building Engine Masters mills?
JK] Engine Masters is a mind/engineering contest. It’s usually not who’s got the best cylinder head. You’re not even concerned with making big power, but you have to look at all the rules and the rpm range. It’s an average of power, so you have to have power everywhere. We really learned a lot about engines just doing that contest. More people know about our shop from Engine Masters than from all the Pro Stock stuff we’ve done. We have 14 world championships on the big-inch [mountain motor] Pro Stock cars, but not too many people know about that. Engine Masters is huge because of the magazines.
HRM] Speaking of Pro Stock, what was it like to build those engines in the early days of drag racing?
JK] Really, it was just [Dyno Don] and me. We didn’t have a complete machine shop, so we’d borrow machines from Sonny Bryant and Lamar Walden just to get stuff done. All of [Don’s] stuff ran pretty good, it just didn’t run too long. My job was to make sure everything stayed together and didn’t blow up. We ran a lot of factory parts back then, because the aftermarket just wasn’t where it is now. We never actually dyno’d anything, so if you tried something, you didn’t know what it would do until you went racing. If you made a bad call, you were stuck with it all weekend.
HRM] How has the engine-building game changed over the years?
JK] It’s a lot easier to get information now. If you wanted to build a 500-inch Pro Stock motor, you could probably Google it and see a picture of somebody’s cylinder head. That could have never happened back in the day. We had to work really hard for all of the information we learned about motors, and it’s just a lot easier to find today than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The parts today are so much better, too!
HRM] “Smokey” Yunick had his book, “Smokey Yunick’s Power Secrets.” What would you say are Jon Kaase’s power secrets?
JK] One of the huge things is knowing what’s important and what isn’t. You only have so much time to work on things. You do the best you can on each little piece of a motor, but once you start running it, the odd thing is some things just don’t mean a lot. For example, leaking valve seats: I can never think of one time we pulled the heads and fixed the seats and it made more power. Not one time! When the engine is running, the cylinder pressure closes them anyway. Spending a ton of time on the flow bench is a waste for me, too. I know what the port needs to look like after doing them this long. I also see guys try to match the head to the cam, and that’s a load. The head doesn’t care. You should be matching the cam to the engine: how big it is, how much compression it’s got, what rpm it’ll turn. The engine doesn’t do the same thing when it’s running as you might think it does.
HRM] What do you think is important or overlooked in an engine?
JK] Well, I’ll tell you one thing that gets overlooked too much, and that’s the oil pan. If you run any engine out of oil, you’re left with a big, smoking piece of trash. If you change the bore size or the crankshaft, the old oil pan may not work. Things like windage or uncovering the sump can really get you in trouble. The oil pan is a really important part of the motor. It’s a big deal, and you can’t ignore it.
HRM] There’s a video of you sticking your finger in an intake port on the dyno. Why did you do that? Did you have an idea what would happen?
JK] There’s only probably 5 or 10 people in the world that have had their finger in a port at 7,000 rpm, and most of them were in my shop. I used this for my presentation at AETC [Advanced Engine Technology Conference]. The pulses in that port going up and down are so brutal. It almost breaks your finger. The flow bench doesn’t do anything like that!
HRM] What can we expect at the next Engine Masters Challenge?
JK] This coming year, I’m doing a 427ci big-block Chevy with a closed chamber head. I’m still thinking about what I’m going to do with that one! I’ll get going pretty soon, but I’ve got a few ideas.
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