Former Indy car mechanic restores former Indy cars 

Old racecars don’t die; they go vintage racing. Vintage race preparation doesn’t differ much from any other kind of race prep, although working with older cars for which parts aren’t readily available isn’t always easy.

Finding older parts is one challenge; making sure they’re still viable is another. “The first thing I do,” says Greg Elliff, owner of G.E. Autosports, LLC, in Avon, “is take a [vintage] car apart. Everything is crack checked — just like on a race team.”

Crack checking, or magnafluxing, is a process performed by race teams to look for cracks in metal parts. Different methods apply to different kinds of metal. Magnafluxing is done on parts that can be magnetized, such as steel. A metal powder is sprayed on the part to detect cracks. Zyglow is performed on aluminum and magnesium parts. A penetrant dye is sprayed on the part after it has been thoroughly cleaned to remove the carbon. The part is wiped off after soaking for a few minutes. A light coat of developer will highlight cracks.

“Safety is No. 1,” Elliff insists. “Some of my customers wonder why I’m so meticulous, but I won’t prepare a car I wouldn’t drive myself. I wouldn’t drive a car into a corner without crack checking the parts; you don’t want the wheels breaking when you hit the apex. Old cars are often rebuilt with older parts, so it’s especially important to crack check them.”

Schooled in racing

Elliff’s background in motor racing led to the establishment of standard practices like crack checking and, as he believes, has been “a phenomenal benefit” to him as the owner of a vintage race car restoration company. “I do everything: restoration; rebuilding; engineering of springs, shocks and ride heights; fabricating and some machining. I used to do motors, but now I sub those out. Fortunately, I’ve got a good relationship with Cosworth from my racing days.”

His racing days began early. Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Elliff drove go-karts and motorbikes. Chuckling over the memory, he recalls being confined to the driveway when his parents weren’t home. “My dad joked that I wore out the driveway because I drove my kart in circles so much.” What he did wear out was the motor. When it blew, he rebuilt it, thus laying the foundation for a lifetime career.

“I was intrigued with anything that went fast and made noise.” Neighbors weren’t so enamored of the noise when Elliff and his friends modified exhaust pipes, but it didn’t stop them. In fact, it was only a launching pad. Elliff was working for a VW and Porsche repair business while still in junior high school.

The Porsche experience served as an unofficial apprenticeship that enabled him to join an IMSA GT team. “I knew I wanted to return to the vintage cars some day, but the racing door opened, so I went that route.” He joined A.J. Foyt’s Indy car team in 1985, adding other series, types of cars and experience to his resume along the way.

By 1990 he was burned out from the racing schedule. He joined MotorKraft, Ltd., an exotic sports and race car repair and restoration shop in Noblesville. One year later, he borrowed $5,000 to start his own race car restoration shop. “I wanted to control my own destiny. When I was on a race team, we used to spend about 180 days a year in a Days Inn. Now, I travel 10-15 weekends a year.” More importantly, by being the boss, Elliff is involved in every aspect of the car’s performance. “On the big race teams, everyone’s a specialist; you keep to your area on the car. I enjoy being more involved and doing everything.”

Arrive and drive

Elliff will do as much as the customer wants, from locating vintage cars and hard-to-find parts for them to repairing a single part, rebuilding a single system or completely restoring a car to complete trackside engineering and support.

Complete trackside support — arrive and drive — includes transporting the cars to the track, engineering, support crew and hospitality service. It typically costs $10,000-$15,000 per weekend for the newer cars, but Elliff says it can be done on a “lower scale, too.”

For some customers, it’s a bargain. Duncan Dayton, Elliff’s first customer who owns a couple GEA-prepared vintage race cars, has set three track records with the 1995 Reynard driven to an Indy 500 victory by Jacques Villeneuve. “It’s as fun as real racing,” Elliff says, “but vintage racers enjoy the cars more than the battles on the track.” Part of that is by design, as all vintage racing sanctioning bodies have strict rules about contact.

The popularity of vintage racing continues to increase, and as it does, so too does competition for GEA. “There are a lot of competitors, but not many do Indy cars. Not a lot know about methanol-powered Indy cars.” That’s where Elliff’s Indy car experience gives him an edge. Another edge comes from his racing connections. “I have a lot of resources from racing; there are so many cottage industries in Indy. Most in historics don’t have those connections. I use all my racing knowledge throughout the entire operation.”

His knowledge and connections are paying off. Business is building as GEA solidifies a reputation in the historic/vintage world. “We’ve become a niche shop for complex cars, but we work on any race car: Can-Am, Indy cars, roadsters, Formula One …”

It is, in fact, a Formula One car that remains his favorite project. Elliff restored the Lotus 79 Mario Andretti drove to the 1978 F1 World Championship. “I was at the Spanish Grand Prix when Mario won that year,” he reminisces. “I had no idea I’d be restoring that car one day.” Elliff’s passion for racing remains strong, his obvious pride in a well-prepared car unchanged from his team days.

For more information, call 317-272-8119.

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Lori Lovely

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Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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