Feature Article from Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car
April, 2016 – Jim Donnelly
Let’s face it, competition between small-bore sports cars is the very foundation of road racing, and has been from the beginning. And when it comes to those cars, some of the most sacred are the little early roadsters and coupes from Porsche, the pioneering 356 series. Despite their advanced age, they still kick it hard in the lower-displacement classes of both SCCA and vintage racing. Vic Skirmants is an acknowledged master at wringing maximum, reliable horsepower out of their diminutive pushrod engines. He can build you a winning engine, put together a very trick transaxle, sell you a fully prepped car or even rent you one for a weekend at the track. He’s a hero among Porschephiles, having done it all as a driver, mechanic and inveterate experimenter into how to make 356s both quick and reliable.
That’s not bad for a guy who escaped from a war zone in the Baltics before he was even born. His pregnant mother fled from Latvia while her husband stayed behind to battle the advancing Soviet army during World War II. Vic was born as Viktors Kaupusz in a displaced-persons camp in Wiesbaden, Germany, where he lived for five years until the man who would become his stepfather sponsored him and his mother to come to the United States. Vic grew up near Chicago, and first drove an MGA en route to studying at the General Motors Institute, where he became hooked hard on a professor’s 356A coupe.Vic bought it, then doubled down by paying about $500 for a well-used Speedster. He removed their engines, tore them down and combined the usable components into a single working powerplant, then went racing in 1965, starting a side business of competition tuning, fabrication and maintenance.
Today, he enjoys a national, and even international, reputation for quality work, especially on transmissions, although he also does work on race engine buildups and cylinder head work. As a driver, he’s run more than 700 races, capped by a first place in G Production during the 1994 SCCA Runoffs, thus earning a national championship, usually driving Porsches finished in red and white, the Latvian national colors. We caught up with Vic at his shop in North Branch, Michigan, and he discussed the specialized work that he performs on some very bad-news bathtub Porsches.
HS&EC: Take us through the design and preparation of a racing 356 transmission.
VS: We still do a lot of street transmissions; they’re kind of a specialty, but doing a race transmission is different. There’s quite a bit involved in it. Basically, first gear is useless for racing; it’s too low. So we machine first gear off the input shaft and move second gear into that spot. We use a short third gear for second, a regular third gear for third, and a short fourth for fourth. In effect, you’ve got a close-ratio, racing five-speed gearbox without a first gear. They’re nicely spaced to keep the engine on the cam, which is what you need to do. When you’re getting 165 hp out of a 1,600-cc, you’ve obviously got to keep it in a pretty narrow rev band. The other thing is that with a lot of horsepower and a lot of negative camber, we used to chew up axles and fulcrum plates like crazy, just like a Volkswagen. With a lot of speed and thrust, they can try to weld themselves together. So what we do is machine some oil passages into the fulcrum plates so it can slosh around in there. With the limited slip, the tolerances are so tight that you couldn’t get proper oiling in there otherwise. It’s helped tremendously. We then went with standard steel fulcrum plates, only cross-hatched and grooved, with special two-stage nickel plating so you don’t have the steel-on-steel contact that causes welding. That pretty much eliminated the problem.
HS&EC: How many cars will you typically maintain during the year?
VS: I’ve got my own race car, plus our small fleet of rental cars, although we’ve sold a couple of them recently. I have a couple of customer cars that I take care of and haul to the track. So it’s typically my car, the rentals, and three or four customer cars that we maintain in the shop and take to the track. Then there are other guys around the country who’ll send us the engine or sometimes, the whole car. We set the whole thing up, chassis, corner weight and alignment.
HS&EC: About that fleet of rental cars: What kinds of cars do you rent, and what’s involved for a customer looking to rent one?
VS: They’re 356 coupes, which are a little less expensive than the roadsters. They’re all set up identically, and by identically, I mean exactly the same as my own roadster. They all have the same horsepower and racing transmissions. As an example, when my own racing engine needs to be rebuilt, I’ll generally pull it out and install one of the engines from the rental cars, then go racing. They’re no-excuses cars. It’s generally $4,000 to $5,000 for the whole weekend, depending on how much practice time you need, plus the customer pays for the fuel, now that it’s gone up to about $10 a gallon. I take care of the car, supply it with tires and oil, plus maintenance and transportation. The renter is responsible for any damage, whether he causes it or someone else does. There’s no contract, no lawyers, it’s just a gentleman’s agreement. If something breaks on the car that’s my fault, depending on how much of the weekend they missed, the renter gets a refund. I’ve had no problems with this arrangement. I’ve had maybe three engine failures, two of which were the driver’s fault.
HS&EC: Can you reflect on your own career as a driver?
VS: I’m no longer running in SCCA. I did the Runoffs for 20 years and finally got my national championship with my 1300 in 1994, and placed on the podium several times in both E and G Production. But I left the SCCA after a good friend of ours was killed at the June Sprints at Road America in 1997, due to incredibly stupid car groupings in her race, which I’d been complaining about for six weeks since I first saw the entry form. In her race, they had Camaros on radial tires in the same field as her Mini. She got turned sideways and the Camaro couldn’t miss her in time. So I quit. It wasn’t the fun that it used to be, but vintage racing is all fun, because every race stands on its own, is its own happening. I’m having more good times now.
HS&EC: Tell us what’s in the future for 356 Enterprises?
VS: We’ll, I’ve stopped super-lightening flywheels because they then will eventually crack and break. I keep on with the basics, like using good valve springs, and a lot of things we’re doing now are still applicable. A good pushrod engine will always be able to match up against a Carrera or four-cam engine, because the Carrera is heavy and complex. I’m going to be 71 this week, and I’m trying to cut back to six days a week by taking Sundays off. But I still love the cars. I have no interest in golf or any of that stuff. It gets a little stressful at times, but whatever’s going to happen tomorrow is going to happen, so we’ll just keep keeping on, maybe just slow down a little bit.
North Branch, Michigan
This article originally appeared in the April, 2016 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.