17 July 2015

Friends mourn death of VW drag racing ‘pioneer’

It seemed like Ray Vallero was always at Vallero’s VW Werks, rebuilding Volkswagen engines, building race cars or just talking about cars. But his machine shop on Lincoln Way in Auburn, Calif., is strangely silent these days.

Vallero was well-known among VW aficionados and drag racers, especially those on the West Coast. His cars, particularly a 1966 Porsche 912-bodied drag car with VW running gear and engine, set records and made headlines. But friends say Vallero always enjoyed the solitude of the shop, particularly in the early morning hours when it seemed he did his best work. It was there, early on July 3, that Vallero suffered a heart attack. He died five days later at the age of 68.

“It’s a shock,” said Dawn Kerr, a friend of Vallero’s for more than 30 years. “He was extremely healthy. He drank veggie smoothies for breakfast, quit smoking 17 years ago, was incredibly built for his age... He was like Jack LaLanne.

“It was definitely sudden and completely unexpected. But he went out doing what he loved, and for that we’re all truly thankful.”

Vallero began working on cars as a high school student in Sacramento, and he enjoyed it so much that he decided to become a mechanic.

“I went to several car dealers, and the ones that seemed interested I kept going back to,” Vallero said in an interview last month with Hagerty Classic Cars. “I kept weeding it down, and (Neillo) Volkswagen seemed to be the only one interested in hiring me – maybe – and so I went in there every day … every day ... every day. They finally got sick of seeing me.”

Vallero’s hiring ignited a VW-focused career that spanned more than five decades. He left the dealership to start his own business, R&S Machine Shop, with his buddy Sandy Braden in 1976. Three years later, they dissolved their partnership, and Vallero went to work for Bart Finning (formerly Placer Motor Parts). In 1981, Vallero opened Vallero's VW Werks with his two children, Ray Jr. and Lynda, and his former wife Peggy.

On the racing side, Vallero’s first street rod was a 1951 Chevy Club Coupe with a Chrysler Hemi. He later pulled the Hemi and installed a “fuel-altered (engine) that went 160 mph.”

“I was young and I didn’t know what I was doing with that car. I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself in that one,” he said. “I sold that car because a friend of mine had a Volkswagen that was a fast street car, and I got interested in it. So I built a racing Bug that went 120 mph in the quarter – 11.40 (seconds) – which at the time was near a national record.”

Kerr said Vallero became a SoCal legend in that Bug. “He was a pioneer. He was drag racing VWs in the ’60s when nobody was, back when muscle cars were big. He was getting 10s and 11s in the quarter mile in the NHRA when there wasn’t even a VW class. He was going against the big boys.”

Vallero eventually turned to the 1966 Porsche 912 because he wanted a “more streamlined body.” The Porsche – equipped with a 1,915cc VW engine – was clocked in 10.98 seconds in the quarter, topping out at 121.30 mph.

Vallero sold the car in the 1990s to focus on his business and his family, and he thought he would never see it again. He was wrong.

Kerr and Vallero met in the early 1980s. She purchased a 1963 VW Beetle at 16 that she named “Hugo.” Three years later, after Kerr blew the engine, her path would cross Vallero’s.

“I was a 16-year-old kid and worked on it myself, which is the great thing about VWs – I learned the hard way and figured it out,” she said. “But I burned up my first motor and took it to Vallero’s VW Werks. They rebuilt it, and I got to know them. We all became friends.”

Kerr delighted in Vallero’s drag-racing exploits – he was racing the Porsche at the time – and she began competing on the track too. She even raced on her wedding day and would have been late to the ceremony if she hadn’t lost in the semifinals. Kerr definitely knew just how much racing – and the Porsche, in particular – meant to Vallero.

“He broke records in it; it was in all the magazines in the ’80s and became quite famous,” she said. “I have a ‘build thread’ on the internet and have an international audience, and about three years ago somebody in Europe said they’d seen that car.”

Without telling Vallero, Kerr and her husband, Tommy, bought the car from a collector in France and arranged to have it shipped back to the U.S. Last July, under the guise of a casual get-together at another shop, Kerr and friend Tony Klink surprised Vallero by revealing the Porsche. Vallero couldn’t hold back the tears.

“She (had) asked me if I would like to have the car back someday, and I said, ‘Sure, I would love to have the car back someday, but I can’t see that ever happening,’” Vallero said last month. “But she made all the arrangements without me knowing it … it was quite moving.”

Kerr said that amazingly enough, the Porsche looked much like it did when Vallero sold it. “It doesn’t have any running gear – Ray took it out when he sold it – but it was like a museum piece. The collectors didn’t change a thing because they were fans of Ray Vallero’s. It has his stickers, the NHRA number and the body work that he did. Everything was all built by Ray. They raced it a couple of times, but it hadn’t been altered. Thank God they didn’t wreck it.”

Vallero had big plans for the car.

“It’ll be back on the track again,” he said in June. “I’ve already started on a different transmission for it than I used to run in the old days. It was extremely difficult to keep a transmission in that car… It just didn’t have the quality of gears. Now there’s a different transmission out of a late-model VW van that I can plug into it, and it can just run forever. You don’t have to worry about it breaking. That’s what I’m looking forward to. It’ll be a fun car then instead of a financial burden.”

Vallero said his first priority was to finish work on the Beetle that belongs to his girlfriend, Joanne Lowry, “so she can enjoy racing too.” But Vallero never finished either project. Tony Klink, who is the national record holder in the Pro Gas class of the Bugorama Racing Series (in a Vallero-sponsored race car), plans to finish Lowry’s car. For now, the Kerrs are hanging onto the Porsche; it may end up in a museum.

Vallero’s VW Works has already been cleared out. Kerr said there weren’t any other viable options. “The only people that really have Ray's talent, experience and insight are his son and daughter, but they both have families and careers of their own, and it’s too big of a decision to make overnight.” Ray Vallero Jr. and Lynda (Vallero) Brouhard are keeping the equipment in case they decide to continue Vallero’s legacy at some point in the future, but as Kerr said, “It's truly the end of an era.”

“No more build threads, no more Vallero’s VW Werks to promote, no more rat rod to drive, no more mechanic,” Kerr wrote on Facebook shortly after Ray’s death. “We are missing a good friend that was the lifeline for my car. As we drove up Lincoln Way to the shop to help the family clean it out, Tom said sadly, ‘We won’t be coming here anymore.’ (He and I have) gone there weekly since we met. And I’ve been going there 32 years.”

A memorial service for Vallero will be held in the fall, along with a memorial cruise that the Kerrs hope to make an annual event.

“Ray’s death has definitely made us all reconsider our own lives,” Kerr said. “Live each moment like it’s your last.”

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