Fidanza Performance: Performance Flywheels Born Against All Odds

Sponsored article presented by Fidanza Performance.

Fidanza Performance doesn’t enjoy the support of a multinational conglomerate, venture capitalists and a fleet of corporate jets. As an independent company solely dedicated to lightweight flywheels, it’s an underdog in today’s automotive world. 

This industry was built by the small guy that just loved to figure out how to make the vehicles of the day faster and better than they were designed to be,” explains Jeff Jenkins, owner of Fidanza Performance. He joined the company as an independent sales associate before rising through the ranks to purchase the firm in 2013.

That is our spirit and what makes the industry as great as it is,” he continues. “I am fighting the battle the way it used to be fought and have to compete head to head with the better-funded and larger entities, just like Lou Fidanza did.”

Jenkins draws similarities between Lou Fidanza’s championship race effort—the one that outran Nissan’s factory program with an aged Jaguar—and today’s company that bears the Fidanza name: both constantly striving to outperform those with deeper pockets and the privileges that they bring, including more resources, manpower and marketing reach.

As an independent, Lou had to fight a lot of adversity to overcome the challenges that he faced when he was competing against the large race teams in his world. That was also the culture that he embodied here in business. We, as a small, independent company, are doing the same things today.”

A chat with company founder Lou Fidanza shows how that David-and-Goliath struggle goes back to the ’70s:

Q: After you got out of the Air Force in 1966, when did you open Gran Turismo Jaguar?
Lou Fidanza: I got a job working for a Cleveland Jaguar dealer as a mechanic and then, after one year, started on my own Jaguar repair shop called The Sports & Racing Car Stable. In 1969, I partnered up with a body man from that same Jaguar dealership I was a mechanic at to start up Gran Turismo Jaguar, and we actually became an official Jaguar dealer on January 1, 1970, selling and servicing new and used Jaguars. 

Q: How did you get involved in motorsports?
Lou Fidanza: Very early in the 1970s we decided to start road racing with the E-type that I had brought home from France. I had already converted this car to a hot street car, so it was on its way. I thought that the E-type Jaguar was one of the best-engineered sports cars ever built up until that time—and still today unexcelled. The driver was Roger Bighouse, also the most successful independent driver in the famed old Formula 5000 racing series.

We had tons of growing pains that we thought would never end, but finally we won the first-ever National win of a Jaguar E-type in Runoff rules at Nelson Ledges in 1974.

Shortly into our Jaguar E-type’s development, one of the very first things we decided was that our race car needed an improvement to the flywheel clutch system. 

I knew from my math background that the moment of inertia of the flywheel and clutch should be the very lightest possible for quicker acceleration and reduced weight to the whole car. The rules specified that the original ring gear diameter remain the same, but otherwise the materials and design of the flywheel could be virtually anything. 

With experiments and changes time after time, we first attached a very small-diameter—7¼-inch-diameter—triple-disc clutch setup to an aluminum center section of about 8 inches in diameter. Then we attached a thin, high-strength steel plate to the ring gear. 

This worked but required changing the steel plate too often, as the high rpm and dramatic changing of revs up and down caused early damage. Then we finally ended up with a one-piece, all-aluminum flywheel—becoming thinner and thinner until attaching to the steel ring gear and, of course, a long-wearing special steel friction surface for the clutch. These became virtually indestructible, and we never even needed to change the friction surface even once during all of our racing history.

For the 1975 season, we put the E-type that won that first major SCCA National race into storage and built a new one that was donated to us from a Cleveland, Ohio, Jaguar club. This gave us the opportunity to start out with an almost perfect E-type, down to one piece, and keep the weight as low as possible as we assembled it into a race car.

This new car is the same car that ran from 1975 through to our last victories in 1982. We won more races in 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1978, constantly getting faster and faster and more reliable.

Besides lots of National wins, one of Roger’s best accomplishments with our car was that he took a third overall in the Group I class at the Trans-Am race at Nelson Ledges in 1977.

In middle of 1977, Roger’s Formula 5000 commitments forced us to look for another driver. One Porsche competitor, Freddy Baker, was chosen. Besides being a top driver, he added the benefit of giving us lots of technical feedback, as his background was as an auto mechanic. 

Q: How did that 1980 championship season come together?
Lou Fidanza: We had a fantastic 1979 season, with four out of five major wins, with the one second place against Paul Newman at Watkins Glen. We took a sixth at the championship race. 

I figured that if we worked hard enough, we might have a way better car in 1980. And we did. We got in more dyno time and picked up 25 extra horsepower in the entire 5500-7500 rpm range. 

We also revamped the rollover bar to a single hoop—much stronger and lighter and more aerodynamic than the full hoop one used in our prior racing history. Besides, it made the car even more attractive. 

Fidanza’s Gran Turismo Jaguar race car at the first 1982 Mid-Ohio National race defeated the second-fastest car by 59 seconds. This was well over one mile at the end of the race.

I heard that Group 44 was testing a Jaguar XJR5 GTP car at the Air Force wind tunnel in Atlanta, Georgia, for two weeks straight. I called their crew chief, Laughton “Lanky” Foushee, and asked him if there was anything I could do legally to improve the aerodynamics of our car, which had much more conservative rules than they had. 

I was surprised to hear him say, "Yes, there is." He said to get rid of the ambiguous front air dam that everyone uses and go to the very front of the car and drop down straight with aluminum sheet to within 2 inches of the ground. Then add fabric-reinforced, quarter-inch-thick rubber sheet to the bottom of this aluminum air dam until it is actually below the ground. 

Add lightweight spring steel fingers about every 3 inches along the bottom of the aluminum upper setting, aiming down, but with the tip about 1 inch off the ground. These will keep the rubber down and keep it from folding back too easy. He then said to do this every time before the first practice of every race. Then, by the time the race begins, the rubber will have worn enough for the scraping and wearing away of the rubber to have stopped. This creates the optimal air dam that will be better than anyone else’s. It's also optimum for the car, as it keeps air from going under the car and gives more downforce to the car, keeping it glued to the ground better. 

The E-type is one of the best-engineered sports cars in all world history: monocoque tub, center body section, lightweight chrome-moly steel front frames, high side sills—this all gave very high torsional rigidity, not counting the old-technology heavy engine, differential and suspension. Very good moment of inertia—the same basic principle of the lightweight flywheel advantages—and great metallurgy in all metals used.

To understand the better polar moment of inertia inherent in the E-type, go to any large box store. Grab a large, low cart and load it up with cartons of pop and water. 

Then move the cart straight and around corners for about 15 minutes. Notice the effort to turn the cart from straight and through a curve. No need to go fast. 

Now, without adding or removing any of the weight, reassemble the cart with all the cartons in the very center of the cart. Now move the cart straight and around corners for about 15 minutes again. It is much easier to make the turns, and the weight is still the same. 

The E-type has very little weight at its outside edges compared to other sports cars, and with modern technology, Gran Turismo Jaguar is building a carbon-fiber replica of the car, the Ultra Light 19, that makes this polar motion even better with drastically reduced outer-body and total weight.

We developed an extremely strong engine, as we maxed it out far more than the Jaguar factory thought possible. I would always be looking for the best people and technology available, and I never stopped researching for answers, which I still do today. We had to be able to push the engine hard to 8000 rpm at virtually every race in order to be able to compete against the very tough competition.

Q: How did the Jaguar fare after that 1980 championship?
Lou Fidanza: It did not suit the organizers, or Datsun, to have this old car humbling all the opposition. And so it was decided that for the '83 season, 200 pounds had to be added to the E-type because “the car was constantly too fast and too successful for too many years.”

Fidanza’s Gran Turismo Jaguar race car at the second 1982 Mid-Ohio National race defeated the second-fastest driver in the race, Paul Newman, by 21 seconds. This was half a mile at the end of the race and represents five years in a row of resetting the sports car and sedan lap records at Mid-Ohio.

Q: After ending the SCCA program at the end of 1982, was that it for racing? 
Lou Fidanza: In 1988 we decided to go racing again, but this time in a “vintage” racing series that was rather new at the time and very popular today. I had a street car that was a dead-stock 1965 six-cylinder E-type roadster that was Signal Red—a Jaguar color close to what we today call fire engine red.

It was allowed to race without the wider fender flares that our SCCA car had and with basically a standard wheel size—otherwise with normal performance improvements. We would only race the car once or twice a year, but we won almost always against the fastest vintage cars in the U.S.—including defeating an aluminum-block, 454-cubic-inch Corvette roadster at Mid-Ohio in 1990, but it was very, very close, as we won by about 10 feet.

Q: How did you transition into the flywheel market?
Lou Fidanza: In 1993 I built a very nice building in peaceful Perry Village, Ohio, to better be able to run Gran Turismo Jaguar closer to home. 

Well, around 1997, I ordered 15 aluminum Jaguar flywheels to fulfill some orders for six-speed transmission kits that I pioneered for virtually every Jaguar model made from 1948 through the XJSs. 

The same supplier who made my first aluminum race car flywheels finally told me that they were deep into other bigger-volume projects and that I might have to make them myself. I started out with 100 Jaguars. 

It was the beginning, so there was a big learning curve, as I paid too much for the aluminum and machining, and there were some final assembly mistakes. But all in all, it worked out better doing the Jaguars ourselves. 

Also, this previous supplier thought that there were 22 versions of Jaguars, as they would make a print for every flywheel that they received but did not compare them to each other. As a longtime Jaguar guy, I figured that number down to just four total Jaguar versions at that time. I think that we are not with more than eight total Jaguar versions now.

So I went home to my wife and said that we have been in big trouble before, so there is no change: I will be risking everything again. I decided that I wanted to own the aftermarket high-performance flywheel business.

So then I needed some money for this new business. I sold the XJR5 to one guy, finished and sold a Group 44 V12 E-type replica I had been working on for several years, and sold my red six-cylinder vintage racer roadster to a Jaguar service customer of mine. The proceeds of these three race cars seeded the start of Fidanza Performance around this time. 

I purchased a $35 paint and draw program for my Macintosh computer, and for the next few years I made around 400 prints for our fledging aftermarket aluminum flywheel company with this primitive computer program. We then became so busy that I could not keep up with the new prints for new products, so we hired in an engineer who was also using a real CAD-CAM print program.

After the success of the Jaguar aluminum flywheels, I decided to do Porsches. This worked out okay, but no super success. Then I did Fords, and this also worked out okay, but no super success. 

Then Chevys, then MGBs and Triumphs—all did okay, but no cigar, as the old saying goes. Then we did Hondas and Toyotas, and soon after we received a phone call saying, “Please send us 1000 Hondas!”

It seemed that that happened overnight, but it did take a while. And all this while, all the other flywheels that we designed slowly picked up speed. We are amazed that we still sell lots and lots of Jaguars every year as well as all the others.

Typically, by the way, a potential customer would call and ask for a special Toyota, or whatever, which we did not have at the time, so we would tell him that if he collected a bunch of buddies to buy one, we would give everyone a special first-time discount. I still thank all those guys who got what they wanted but helped us increase the line. Lots of fun with them. All of this became the start of Fidanza Performance.

Q: How has Fidanza transitioned into today’s world?
Lou Fidanza: Jeff Jenkins, the new owner of Fidanza Performance since January of 2013, has not dropped the ball. In fact, he’s running faster with the ball and is advancing sales and Fidanza’s name brand deeper into the marketplace by constantly doing more models and also making more flywheels for other flywheel manufactures—of course keeping confidentiality when necessary.

Absolutely and on all fronts, Fidanza Performance is advancing forward as it always has, and my current companies are advancing forward as well. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be the best in the world, and Fidanza Performance has, is and will be at the forefront of the market, and my Gran Turismo Jaguar has, is and will be at the forefront of the market. Jeff has fantastic talents in marketing, regular sales, writing contracts, and negotiating to the win-win that is best for everyone concerned.

“When he went to America in the autumn, John Egan [president of Jaguar 1979-1990] presented U.S.-based Englishman Fred Baker with the Jaguar Driver of the Year award. Baker had done a real GIANT-KILLING job with an elderly six-cylinder E-type prepared by dealer [Gran Turismo Jaguar] Lou Fidanza of Eastlake, Ohio; he had won the 1980 SCCA national C Production final at Road Atlanta, beating reigning champion Paul Newman, whose Datsun ZX was one of several highly-fancied runners. Egan could see that the relatively high degree of public exposure gained by an obsolete Jaguar must be multiplied several times over, with a new car, and in a bigger arena [Le Mans].” –Andrew Whyte, Jaguar World Champions, 1988.

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