Team History (Part 1)
Rob Dyson’s fascination with automobiles and racing started early. When he was 13 he bought a derelict Ford Model A coupe – and slept in it the first night he got it back to the family’s farm in Millbrook, NY. He fixed up that Model A, but it was several years before he could drive it on the highways. After getting his license Rob used it to get to school. And he still owns it today.
Rob’s interest in racing was fired as a teenager while on a 1961 family trip to Indianapolis. “It was a business trip for my dad,” Rob recalled. “A business associate of my dad’s said, ‘Come on boys, I will take you out to the Speedway.’ We got on one of those little buses that goes around the Speedway and he would say ‘this is where Wilbur Shaw use to pit’ and ‘this is where Roger Ward started a wreck’. And you would see these big beautiful facilities – it was really something! It was like nothing I had ever seen in my life before.
The Speedway Museum, where today Dyson is the chairman of the board of directors, made a big impression on him. “They had the Marmon Wasp, which won the first 500, and all these other cars there were part of the history of the Speedway and the race. It was an epiphany. I said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ The next year we went to the Indy 500 again and stayed at a downtown hotel and there was a souvenir flag stand in our room. I took it home and I still have it on my bookcase.”
Dyson’s interest in racing expanded to include road racing. “It was very interesting to see the different roster of people in the Ferraris, Maseratis, Coopers and Porsches, and later, the Ford GT,” Dyson said. “Plus you had Formula One guys stopping by and doing races and that just added to the mystique. It struck me that a lot of the people in road racing were businessmen who had interests outside of racing. I followed Champ Car racing with all the guys who ran in the 50’s and 60’s – they were full time racers – I couldn’t do what they did, but I always had in the back of my mind that I could do road racing sometime in the future. So when I finished graduate school at Cornell, I said, ‘why don’t I do it for a year see what it is like.’”
“I decided the best way to start was to get a car that was simple to work on and get parts for,” Dyson said. He bought a half-completed Datsun 510 sedan, and working with his friend Pat Smith, completed that first Dyson Racing car. “The first time Pat came over to look at the 510, he said, ‘You better get some sandwiches; we are going to be here for a while.’”
Rob and Pat worked on the car at night, after work. Pat was good at transmissions and Rob was good at fabrication. Except for some body work, they did all their own work. Rob took the car to a Sports Car Club of America Regional race at Watkins Glen – “I thought it would be neat to race at the track where the Formula One guys did” – and came home the winner of his first race. Rob ran SCCA Regionals in the Northeast in 1974 and ’75 and ran his first SCCA National in 1977. That was a real step up, because they were racing against the factory teams of Bob Sharp, Bob Tullius and Joe Huffaker.
Rob remembers racing against Bob Leitzinger, the father of Butch Leitzinger who later drove for Dyson Racing for fifteen years. “Bob was a well-established club racer, who had been racing and winning since the mid-‘60s. So when I showed up running SCCA Nationals, Bob was one of the standards I had to measure myself against. His cars were impeccably prepared.
Rob recalled an important learning experience that took place at Ohio’s Nelson Ledges circuit. “Bob Leitzinger was in the car in front of me. We both used the same engine builder, John Caldwell, and I said to myself, ‘Well Rob, you have the same stuff he’s got. This guy is the standard and you just have to meet it.’ So I put the nose of my car right on his rear bumper and anything Bob Leitzinger did, I did. I just followed him around, lap after lap, emulating his every move. I have mentioned this to Bob a couple of times, of how those laps at Nelsons Ledges taught me more about race car driving, and more about race craft, than anything else before or since. I don’t know how long it lasted, maybe 15 minutes, but it was the most important single experience I had in racing, parking my nose right under the bumper of his car and just going for it.”
“Club racing was an interesting time. It was up all night driving Friday after work, than get two hours of sleep in the truck before they open the gates on Saturday morning, than unload the car and off you went. Then drive all Sunday night so we could be back at work on Monday morning. You did sleep pretty well on Monday night! But that was kind of fun when I look back. I smile when I think about how much we did not know and how much we were learning every weekend. I remember lying underneath my race car, sucking dirt, putting a gear box together in the sand. Or being in the middle of nowhere, working a block and tackle off a tree limb to get an engine in. Or it is the middle of the night, and you are taking an engine out and pulling the bottom end off to check to see if any bearings are gone as a result of an oil pump failing. Here it is midnight in Palm Beach, Florida, 90 degrees and you are a buffet table for the mosquitoes!”
The zenith of Rob’s SCCA amateur club-racing came in 1981, when he won a National Championship aboard a Datsun 200 SX, a car he also campaigned the following season.