Those who attended the 2006 Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals were treated to a very special display. It was a reunion of some of the surviving cars and people behind the successful Knafel Pontiac "Tin Indians," raced out of Knafel Pontiac in Akron, Ohio, from 1959 to 1970. The head "Tin Indian," William J. "Bill" Knafel, passed away on February 1, 2006 at the age of 79 after a long history of health problems. The display paid tribute to Mr. Knafel in a way that he no doubt would have enjoyed.
The Knafel "Tin Indians" helped shape Pontiac's performance image through a long line of racecars over an 11-year period and a longer string of victories. As a personal friend of Pontiac General Managers Elliott M. "Pete" Estes and John Z. DeLorean, Bill Knafel was one of a few Pontiac dealers across the country chosen to act as a "backdoor outlet" for racing activities. GM was officially out of racing, but the automaker did help a few select dealers and privateer racers on a "don't tell anyone" basis.
Knafel Pontiac fielded the most successful stock class drag racing effort of the era, setting more stock class records than any other General Motors, Ford or Chrysler drag racing team.
In 1966 alone, the team racked up an astounding 27 victories in one season with the GTO featured here. This "Tin Indian" ran consistent mid to high 12s in the 112 to 115 mph range (best of 12.22, according to Arlen Vanke) and competed in C/Stock in NHRA and BB/Stock in NASCAR. It also earned major national Stock Eliminator wins at the NASCAR Winter Nationals in Florida and the NHRA Spring Nationals in Bristol, Tennessee.
Those were the kind of results that a success-oriented enterprise like the "Tin Indians" were capable of, and the full factory-sponsored teams just couldn't keep up.
After more than a decade of racing successes, the Knafel Pontiac drag racing swan song was the setting of three different AHRA national records with Norm "Sonny" Tanner behind the wheel of the '70 "Tin Indian" Judge. The changing of carburetors (2-barrel, 4-barrel and Tri-Power) between rounds made the Goat legal in three different classes.
The Knafel Racing family reunion portrait: Mike Guarise's '70 "Tin Indian" Judge is framed
Over its one-year career, the Judge competed mostly in AHRA's GT-2 and GT-3, and F2 FA classes. Its best pass was an 11.61 at 119 mph in GT-2 class trim. Among other wins on its way to the national championship, it also garnered two major victories, including the 1970 Nationals in Bristol, Tennessee, and Pro Am Nationals in Rockingham, North Carolina.
Merle Green, a longtime Pontiac aficionado and owner of the '66 "Tin Indian" GTO, arranged the reunion of the cars not only as a tribute to Mr. Knafel, but also to introduce the Pontiac world to the cars and drivers that made the "Tin Indians" so successful. "We didn't know until the last minute if it was going to come together," Green said in a recent phone interview. "Even though Pete Woodruff wasn't given much time to promote the reunion, it came together quite nicely."
The drivers in attendance were "Akron Arlen" Vanke, Larry "Doc" Dixon and Norm "Sonny" Tanner, and the cars were Mike Guarise's '70 "Tin Indian" Judge, Merle Green's '66 "Tin Indian" GTO, Tim Benko's '63 421 SD Tempest coupe, Paul Glasgo's '70 Magnum 400 replica and Chuck Tonge's replica of "Mrs. B's Grocery Getter," built a few years back by Wally Abela. The two cars we are focusing on here are the two "Tin Indian" racecars, the '66 GTO and the '70 Judge.
After years of seeing images of this car in grainy black and white stop-action photos in S
After decades of obscurity, the first of the two '66 "Tin Indian" GTOs was located.
Current owner Merle Green figured out what his GTO was after checking with PMD's Fred Simm
'66 "Tin Indian" GTO
When Merle Green bought his '66 GTO for $150 back in 1979, his friends thought he was crazy to buy such a beat-up car. Even back then, $150 didn't buy much, but he knew what he was doing. "I was looking for a solid '66 GTO to build a high-option car out of," Green recalled. "It was in need of a lot of work, but it was definitely worth saving."
Although the car was pretty shabby, Merle saw its potential. Back then, there was nothing in the way of reproduction parts, so restoring a GTO required searching dealer parts departments for NOS pieces, and swap meets and wrecking yards for serviceable used parts.
Nevertheless, Merle restored the GTO, adding a variety of optional equipment and painting it Marina Turquoise. He then gave it to his wife Janice and she used it as a daily driver for a few years. Merle took it off the road to treat it to a more thorough restoration in 1984 and was planning to add more optional equipment.
Several years passed and in that time a very interesting thing happened. In the late '80s, Fred Simmonds, current Manager of GM Drag Racing, who was then Manager of Focused Marketing at Pontiac, was able to uncover shipping manifests for Pontiacs dating back to 1961. Simmonds began searching for the shipping manifests for the Super Duty-era Pontiacs and also ran the VINs for people in the hobby he knew.
This is the view that most competitors saw of the Knafel Pontiac "Tin Indians." The phrase
It was then that Merle Green learned of his GTO's storied past. He had Fred look for the shipping manifest for his GTO and it came back as a white '66 GTO, radio and heater-delete with Tri-Power, four-speed and 4.33 gears-tagged to Knafel Pontiac.
Further research confirmed it was the four-speed Knafel "Tin Indian," the car with which Arlen Vanke and Doc Dixon had racked up 27 local and regional "stock eliminator" wins during the '66 season (a second car was added later in the season but was not raced, according to Vanke). To say he was surprised was an understatement and it prompted him to rethink the restoration. "I immediately changed course and began collecting parts for a proper restoration to its race configuration," Green said. "It deserved to be put back to the way it was originally raced."
Newly-inspired, Merle set out to get the parts he would need. A correctly date-coded block, heads and intake were located in Ohio through the Glasgo family and became the basis for the engine restoration. The GTO was an early-build car delivered in late 1965, and came from the factory with a WS-code Tri-Power 389.
That meant that the late-season XS package was not available, but could legally be added with over-the-counter parts. That is what Knafel did back then and that is what Merle did as well. The engine was rebuilt by Indian Adventures to XS specs, which included the 9785744 (H) camshaft. A set of 1.75-inch primary 4-tube Doug's headers with 3-inch collectors were installed, which were legal for racing, as was an electric fuel pump.
The late '66 XS option added the Ram Air pan and a hotter 301/313-degree camshaft. Earlier
Incidentally, the XS package included a functional Ram Air system with an opened-up hood scoop, pan and seal, which were also added. A Muncie M-21 close-ratio four-speed transmission was rebuilt for the "Tin Indian" and mounted behind a Centerforce clutch and pressure plate. Finishing off the tranny components was a Hurst Competition Plus shifter and Line-Loc, like the GTO had in its racing days.
The GTO's chassis was restored to stock by Ed Centofonte, and the only deviations from factory were the pieces used in its preparation for racing. They included rear air bags, Monroe 90/10 front racing shocks and the Hurst 14x6 wheels, shod with 8.00/8.50x14 M&H Racemaster slicks in the rear and 205/75 R15 Firestone whitewalls up front. The stock 10-bolt rearend was rebuilt with a 2-pinion Safe-T-Track differential and 4.33:1 gears, just like when it was raced.
Inside, the original black Morrokide bucket seat interior was restored by Merle, with the help of American Auto Seat Upholstery, who installed the ACME headliner. Since the GTO was a radio and heater-delete car, optional equipment was very sparse, except for the wood wheel, which was retained for the restoration. Merle used PUI door panels and carpeting from ACC, giving a correct and factory-fresh appearance.
Restored interior sports a wood wheel that dresses up the otherwise spartan accommodations
Obviously, in order to return the "Tin Indian" to its race appearance, Merle had to be meticulous in the duplication of its 1966 paint scheme, but there are some notable changes. Using photographs from the era and consulting with the Knafel family, Merle had Buddy Healy lay down the urethane enamel in black and white mixed with clear. John Cloutier applied the gold and silver mylar and replicated all the lettering and decals. The overall paint scheme is representative of later in the '66 season, when Quaker State came on as a sponsor. Earlier in the year, the GTO was raced with a white body and black lettering. Also, note the driver's side is painted to match how the scheme would have looked if Arlen drove the GTO, and the passenger side represents how it was lettered later when Doc Dixon drove it.
In the years since Merle Green's '66 "Tin Indian" GTO was completed, it has become a regular fixture at various Pontiac shows, particularly the Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals.
It's really tough to argue with the styling of the '70 GTO but to see the actual Knafel "T
'70 "Tin Indian" GTO Judge
The Pontiac world was reintroduced to the Knafel '70 "Tin Indian" Judge at the 2006 Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals, and owner Mike Guarise was thrilled to have it out for the Pontiac faithful. Mike is a collector whose area of interest is historic drag cars; Pontiac or otherwise. In addition to the Knafel Judge, Mike has also held title to many other famous drag cars, including Arnie Beswick's '69 D/Stock Judge and Arnie's '61 389 SD Ventura, as well as Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins' '70 Pro Stock Camaro and the '71 Sox & Martin Pro Stock Hemi 'Cuda.
The road to recovery was a long one for this particular Judge. After its racing career was over, it spent 23 years in Virginia, where it remained with most of its original race componentry intact and a scant 88 miles on the odometer. The car was built to run, featuring radio, heater, seam sealer and insulation deletes. If it didn't make the car go faster, it was left off.
In the early '90s, Arlen Vanke located and purchased it, bringing the GTO back to Michigan, where he had moved. He kept the car with the intent to restore it but before he could get started, Mike heard about the Judge. We'll let him tell the story:
"One day in 2000, I received a call from my friend Fred Engelhart. He had just hung up from a call with Arlen Vanke and thought I might be interested in an old drag car that Arlen had found in Virginia. Since old drag cars are one of my collecting passions, I of course wanted to hear more. I had recently become aware of Merle Green's restoration of the Knafel "Tin Indian" '66 GTO, so when I heard that the Knafel '70 Ram Air IV racecar was available, I asked Fred to arrange the deal as soon as possible. A call was made to Arlen, a price was agreed upon and, in short order, the car was in my garage awaiting restoration."
Having seen some of the work that Micky Hale performed for collector Dick Bridges, Mike called Hale to see if there was an opening for his Pontiac. By March of 2001, the Judge was on its way to Micky Hale Restorations in Ashtabula, Ohio, and its engine went back to the man who originally built it, one "Akron Arlen" Vanke.
The '70 "Tin Indian" Judge was raced with an R/A-IV headed R/A-V, and that same engine is
The engine was one of those "never supposed to have happened" situations. As GM was still officially out of racing, things like the Super Duty program were only distant memories. Still, Knafel had been the recipient of special cars and support in the past, and the Judge had a unique engine.
Seeing that the Ram Air V cylinder heads were just too much for the 400 engine, a short-lived proposal was hatched in 1970. The idea was to take the severe-duty Ram Air V short-block and mate it to the top end of the Ram Air IV, taking the best attributes of both engines and curing both of their problems-the low-velocity heads of the R/A-V and the cast bottom end of the R/A-IV.
The result was a durable and rev-happy round-port Pontiac V-8 to be called the 400 Super Duty. It would have been released with engine code LS1, slated for use in the '70 1/2 Trans Am. Though never released for production, there were a few examples built by Pontiac Engineering. They looked externally identical to a regular Ram Air IV and, after a quick stop at the Engineering Garage before its delivery, the Knafel Judge had one sitting in its engine bay.
Need we say more? Mike Guarise would like to thank Arlen Vanke, Bill and Janet Knafel, Mic
This particular engine received a few extras, though. At the time, Pontiac was working with Warren Brownfield at Air Flow Research. The majority of the work on the heads was for the R/A-IV version of the 303 Pontiac used in the '70 SCCA Trans Am season. These heads were ported in a similar fashion to the 303 versions. Their flow potential was also augmented by an angle plug conversion that put the spark plug in a more advantageous position for the combustion event. Even by today's standards, these were pretty trick pieces.
The camshaft was also a non-stock piece. As the Ram Air V used a larger cam gear than other Pontiac engines as a means to reduce spark scatter, a special camshaft was needed to retain this feature and also provide for the standard Pontiac valve location of EIIEEIIE, as opposed to the RAV's EIEIIEIE. Though we do not know the specifications of the flat-tappet camshaft used, the grind was probably developed as part of the "Latin Squares" program for the 303.
Though the Judge striping was not used, the spoiler was retained. The stance clearly refle
A prototype intake manifold mounted a 1,050 cfm Carter Thermoquad. Like the stock Rochester Q-Jet used on production Pontiac V-8s, the TQ was a spreadbore design but featured a phenolic resin main body to insulate heat and was able to flow more air in stock form.
Arlen was fortunate in that all of the exotic pieces that made the engine so rare were still with the car, making the rebuild a fairly simple exercise. The engine was rebuilt using as much of the original componentry as possible, including the 11.5:1 forged R/A-V pistons, augmented with new Sealed Power rings and the forged R/A-V crankshaft, treated to a new set of Clevite 77 bearings.
Pristine interior retains its factory appearance, except for a pair of underdash Stewart-W
Retained were the original camshaft, valves, roller rockers and all the major castings and bottom end parts. The Thermoquad still uses the 0.087 primary and 0.113 secondary jets it raced with, and an ACCEL distributor and wires fire the AC sparkplugs. A new set of Hooker Super Comp headers with 2-inch primaries and 3.5-inch collectors replaced the badly weathered originals and, with that, the engine restoration was complete.
Moving to the transmission, which is the original M-40 Turbo 400, Vanke retained the custom pieces it originally was built with, including the 4500 rpm stall, 9-inch Vitar torque converter, manual valve body, shift kit and Hurst Dual Gate shifter. Power is transferred to a 10-bolt rearend with Safe-T-Track and a set of 4.56:1 Shiefer gears.
All those years in Virginia were fairly kind to the Judge. Although it had been neglected for most of the time down there, the absence of salt saved the body and frame from major corrosion damage. As a result, the restoration of the car itself also proved to be a fairly straightforward affair, with no major surprises.
"It spent a lot of time outside with the hood off, so there was quite a bit of rust in the engine compartment," said Micky Hale in a recent phone interview. "We replaced the front fenders and inner fenders with NOS pieces, as there was some damage from a towing mishap. The rear quarters were in good shape and only needed some minor patching. There were a lot of drill holes in the trunk due to different electric fuel pump configurations. We fixed all of that, of course."
The chassis received the same sort of treatment. Hale and his team retained as much as they could, such as the original boxed control arms. Hurst 90/10 drag shocks were installed up front and 50/50s in the rear, and vintage Keystone Klassic 15x6 wheels shod with Firestone Drag 500 front tires and 8.00/8.50x15-inch Drag 500 rear slicks.
Period-correct restoration details include Keystone Classic wheels shod with Firestone Dra
Due to its pretty rough shape, the interior had to be replaced. Hale used PUI components, including the Comfort-Weave seat covers, to recapture that new-car appearance. Race-spec Stewart-Warner oil and water gauges were reinstalled, as were the radio and heater delete plates.
Fortunately, much of the Judge's original livery was still on the car, albeit in very weathered condition, right down to the sponsor decals and the mylar Knafel lettering, making the duplication a relatively simple task. The lightweight fiberglass nose originally used was retained and, after the bodywork was completed, the vintage colors of Polar White and Lucerne Blue were resprayed in a modern PPG basecoat clearcoat system.
Arlen Vanke poses with the "Tin Indian" '66 GTO at the 2006 Ames Performance Pontiac Natio
Driver: Arlen Vanke
On Racing with Knafel: "I started out racing a '62 Super Duty Catalina for Knafel, along with the Black Whirlwind '62 Catalina convertible. For 1963, I raced an SD Catalina and the Papoose 1 Tempest wagon. I left in '63 and Knafel Pontiac sponsored Arnie Beswick's 'Grocery Getter.' I didn't like the transaxle in those cars. The development was halted by the racing ban so they never really ironed out the bugs. I thought that a conventional drivetrain would be better, so I ordered a '63 326 Tempest coupe and I converted it to a racecar with a 421 SD and Big-Car rearend. Bill Klinger took care of me on parts like the aluminum front end. That was the 'Running Bear' that Tim Benko now has. I came back into Knafel and raced part of '66 with the 'Tin Indian' GTO that Merle Green now has. I raced that '66 GTO at the NASCAR Winternationals at Daytona. It came down to Bill Abraham in my '63 Plymouth wagon and me in the GTO and I took the win.
"Then in 1970, out of the blue, Bill Knafel called me and said, 'I've got a problem that I hope you can help me with. There's a guy with a '66 Dart that is running in AHRA and holds the national record. He called us out for a best-of-three match race at a Dragway 42 national event and he can probably dust us. Can you help?' I came up with the idea of running in three classes with the Judge: 2-barrel, 4-barrel and Tri-Power. With Sonny Tanner driving, we set national records in all three classes and, strangely enough, we never heard from that Dodge Dart guy anymore!
"I have to give Bill Knafel credit for doing this at a time where there was little in the way of sponsorship money out there. I'm as hard-headed as they come and we didn't always see eye-to-eye on things (laughs), but he made it possible for me to do things that I could never have done myself."
On the Reunion in Norwalk: "To have three of my old cars in one place, well, who could ask for anything else? I was tickled pink. Merle really stepped up; he was the guy who made the reunion happen."
Larry "Doc" Dixon was also at the 2006 Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals. He posed with t
Driver: Doc Dixon
On Racing with Knafel: "I raced with Knafel Pontiac from 1966 to 1968. The team first noticed me back in '63 at Dragway 42, when I was racing a Z-11 Chevy and I beat Arlen in his '63 Tempest. [The Z-11 was in a quicker class.] After Arlen left in '66, I came on board.
"It was a good deal racing with them. Al Pierce from Pontiac put on a 'Beat the Champ' promotion with Quaker State and we took two cars, and the tracks would choose a local driver to compete. It was a lot of travel but a lot of fun. Knafel had as good a deal as there was out there. He was pretty shrewd and got Hurst, Firestone and Quaker State involved as sponsors-he was ahead of his time in that respect.
"I was racing mostly Mopars before joining up with Knafel Pontiac and I went back to them after that. In 1987, I returned to Pontiac running for the Rod Shop in a Firebird and took five class wins. I moved on to circle track and have only been out of it for a few years."
On Moving on to New Racecars: "I never was really emotional about the cars-we sold them for the next one. We never really looked back. That being said, I really admire what Merle has done with his '66 GTO."
On the Reunion in Norwalk: "I had a really great time. It was nice to see the old stuff again-I really respect what they do to restore the cars. It's a tough job to research everything to get them right."
Knafel Pontiac team driver Norm Tanner was also on hand at Norwalk, signing autographs and
Driver: Norm "Sonny" Tanner
On the Reunion: "Even though I wasn't able to be there for the entire weekend, I had a great time. Seeing the cars and the drivers after all these years was a thrill and boy, were there a lot of people!"
Merle Green intends to continue his Knafel Pontiac reunion with plans to bring it back to the Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals in the future. With any luck, more cars and personalities from the era will be appearing. We hope the restoration of a Knafel '62 421 SD Catalina will be completed in time for this year's show season. Ol' Bill would definitely be proud...