Fred Carillo

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Land Speed Racing America
Land Speed Racing America

Connecting rod king exemplifies value of asking friends what they need

Hemmings Muscle Machines / September, 2008 - Daniel Strohl

One would have assumed some progress was made in connecting rod design before 1963. After all, the only part transferring the force of thousands of explosions from the piston to the otherwise nearly immobile crankshaft (and then reciprocating that force on the compression stroke) is that thin piece of steel or iron. As compression ratios increased through the middle of the century, both in race cars and in the average commuter car, pistons and crankshafts correspondingly increased in strength. But the connecting rod still represented the weakest link. No surprise, then, that the phrase "threw a rod" became a euphemism for a busted engine, regardless of the point of failure.

Enter Fred Carrillo, who said it was actually "kind of a fluke" that he became the largest connecting rod supplier to the automotive aftermarket.

Like many American performance pioneers, Carrillo, born in Los Angeles in 1926, traced his gearhead tendencies to the Model T roadster he bought for $5 toward the end of the Depression. Also like many American performance pioneers, he soon afterward enlisted to fight in World War II, ending up in the Army Air Corps as a radar operator with a wealth of technical training. That training served him well when he returned to civilian life and found a job as a mechanic rebuilding Ford flathead V-8s for eventual resale in the Sears catalog.

After hours, though, he built another Model T, a 1927, with a Winfield-equipped flathead for time trials at El Mirage, where he attained speeds as high as 123 mph. He followed the hot rodders from the dry lakes of Southern California to the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah, in 1949, and successfully raced there until 1953, when a failure in one of his magnesium wheels at nearly 300 mph destroyed his race car and forced the amputation of his left leg below the knee. Down, but not out, Carrillo enrolled first at Pasadena City College to study mechanical engineering and metallurgy. "After the crash, I found out I wasn't as smart as I thought I was," he said. "I found out there was a lot more to learn than just about going fast." He soon signed up with Aerojet for its 20-20 program--20 hours of study and 20 hours of working for the company per week--and later finished his studies at UCLA.

Though he worked as an engineer for Aerojet for the next several years, in his spare time, he developed and patented a small two-cycle engine that incorporated a positive displacement supercharger in its bottom end. "I quit my job and built 10 of these little engines and raced them in go-karts, but they were a little too expensive," Carrillo said. In the process of trying to sell the engines, he went broke, so to feed his four children, he went back to his old racing and hot rod buddies and asked them what they needed.

"They all said they needed a good steel connecting rod," Carrillo said.

Only one other company was offering a stronger-than-stock connecting rod at the time, though that company had simply made patterns from OEM I-beam rods and cast new ones in 4130 steel. Carrillo figured he could develop a stronger rod not only by using better alloys based on 4340 steel, but by using a forged H-beam pattern for the rods. So in 1963, he formed Carrillo Industries to produce the rods.

According to Carrillo, one of his first connecting rods appeared to fail, but he later discovered that a wrist pin broke instead, leaving the intact rod to spin on the crankshaft journal and slice through the engine block. That incident alone was enough to secure Carrillo's reputation.

Carrillo, however, attributed more of his success to his old racing buddies. "(Founding the company) was enough to get me started, keep us from starving," he said. "My friends, guys like Dan Gurney, were the ones who took the rods all over the world and promoted them. They then got my rods into NASCAR and Indy, which was a real big boon to me." Carrillo himself went on to own several Indy cars during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and remained with Carrillo Industries until he sold the company to Performance Motors Incorporated in 2001. Earlier this year, Pankl Racing Systems, another company that produces connecting rods for the performance and racing industries bought Carrillo from PMI. According to a news release announcing the latest purchase, Carrillo Industries employed just 65 people, but had revenues of $10.7 million in 2007.

Carrillo remained a consultant for PMI for five years after the sale of the company and now considers himself retired, though he still occasionally visits his son's machine shop, located in Oceanside, California.

This article originally appeared in the September, 2008 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.