This story languished for a month, at least; materials revealing the timeless technique of racing camshaft development seemed obscure and far away. Then Californian Lyle Larson, the accomplished former drag racer, emerged with illuminating experiences from the nineteen-sixties and -seventies that we feared had been lost. Two weeks later, we found Steve Tanzi near Lake Tahoe with a further treasure trove of material, turning possibility into reality, especially during the 1990s and early years of this century. More recently, Erson’s Jack McInnis discovered some wonderfully evocative printed materials and photographs that illustrate much of what has long been relevant to hot rodders and motor racers and like-minded persons.
By Sam Logan.
Five and a half decades ago, in 1963, the shop foreman at Isky Racing Cams in Los Angeles departed to form his own camshaft company. He called it Sig Erson Racing Cams.
He orchestrated its agenda, and he led its pursuits until he sold it in 1982. In business, his central aim was inseparably linked to the tricky concept of keeping his customers and distributors happy.
In outdoor activities, Erson was unusually adventurous and in practical terms, particularly in surviving the austerity of desert life, he was unsurpassed. In his youth, there were periods when he lived on the beach by himself and could readily sleep beneath the night skies unperturbed.
In Mexico’s austere landscapes, both mountainous and arid, he would embark alone on an entire Baja 1000 pre-race reconnaissance. In spending his nights in the barren wilderness, he was undismayed by the threat of being stranded or perishing on the vast, silent desert soil or alarmed by the unknown.
Sigurd Harald Erson was born in Los Angeles in 1930 and enlisted in the Army at 16. He was engaged in the aftermath of WWII in Tokyo, Japan, and spent the Korean War at Ft. Lewis in Washington. A keen off-road racer, he was the first to acquire a Chenoweth tube chassis off-road car—a significant departure from Volkswagen’s stock floor pan convention.
Appropriately, high performance camshafts for Volkswagen engines became the foundation of Erson’s early success. Hugely popular in this market and with few competitors, Erson also increased the engine’s valve openings by extending the stock rocker ratio from 1.1:1 to 1.5:1. So successful were they, he also sold them under private label. Former employee, Lyle Larson says that you could pop the valve covers off, install the 1.5:1 rocker arms and increase the horsepower right there in the parking lot!
But it was Erson’s racing camshaft for the Chevrolet 409 that initially elevated the company’s stature. Chevrolet-sponsored Tom Jacobson and most of the 409 racers that monopolized the winner’s circle at California’s Lion’s Drag Strip did so with a Sig Erson camshaft. Though Erson had succeeded in hitting the magic numbers that provided a competitive advantage, it didn’t hurt that the news was routinely distributed throughout the country by Drag News magazine, which conveniently illustrated an Erson decal on Jacobson’s front fender.
Founding a business and assuming the responsibilities of running it at a profit is arduous. Sig had stepped onto the roller coaster of self-employment and thus became exposed to all the familiar burdens that inevitably alter an entrepreneur’s temperament. Some of his staff would confide that they were never quite sure which version of Sig might appear on a Monday morning. Though not always remarkable for his early morning tact, any remaining discord was diplomatically put right by afternoon.
Erson was also known for his intelligent observations, valuable insight and shrewd knack for moving the company in a productive direction. ”His commercial efforts continued to blossom in the Chevrolet encampment,” explains Lyle Larson. “We had a cam called the Tri-flow, which was designed for un-ported big-block Chevrolet cylinder heads. It’s important to remember that the big-block cylinder head has intake ports with three different lengths and turns and similarly two differing exhaust ports. Those cams dominated.”
Though motivated by his adventures into racing camshafts, he harbored no desire to become the company’s design brains. Instead he preferred to recruit the best specialists he could find and remain the entrepreneurial spirit that generated the company’s growing presence. “I don’t think becoming a camshaft design engineer,” speculates Larson, “was as much Sig’s passion as it was for Ed Winfield or Don Teweles or Mark Heffington or Harvey Crane. He relied on his brother, Babe, and for much of his innovative research, C.R. Axtell.”
C.R. Axtell or “Axe” as he was known, who was also from Los Angeles and a contemporary of Sig’s, was an acclaimed race engine builder of the 1960s and ‘70s and a motorcycle Hall of Famer. He attributed his success to the hours he spent on the dynamometer and flow bench, modifying combustion chamber shapes and experimenting with camshaft designs. Despite Axtell’s abundant knowledge of racing engines, both motorcycles and cars, and instrumental in shaping the design of so many successful racing camshafts, Erson never pressed him to pursue the NHRA Pro Stock market. Don Teweles of General Kinetics had heralded the dawn of Pro Stock camshaft development and Sig judged this a distraction and not in his firm’s best interest.
“Back then we knew what we wanted from the camshaft,” says Larson, “but we were unable to make the valve train reliable. There were no springs available then that could generate an inch or more of valve-lift dependably. So we identified the application (drag race car or drag race car with blower, etc.), determined the cylinder head’s flow rate, and developed the camshaft for the best springs available.”
Not one for half measures, Sig hired Mr. Phone to promote the company and also engaged them as a manufacturer’s rep. “In addition to Mr. Phone’s arrival, we switched to orange packaging with the word “California” displayed prominently on the box and our sales catapulted,” recalls Larson. (Though Detroit had an abundance of highly qualified engineers, California was the wellspring of hot rods.) “Plus we had tremendous sales of our 409 camshafts and even more with our VW designs. Sig raced what we made.”
In his off-road racing exploits, he was regarded as a tough old bird and had the vital ingredients of a winner. He loved Mexico, loved the desert, and possessed tremendous stamina. But because of racing breakages, we’ll never know how good a racer he could have been.
Erson and 13 national championships with Force
Super Shops purchased Erson Cams in 1983, according to Steve Tanzi, and they located it within the Mallory manufacturing facility in Carson City, Nevada.
Tanzi was hired as Erson’s General Manager, and his tenure was no brief excursion. In fact, he managed the company longer than did Sig, presiding over the operation for twenty-five years: 1987 to 2012. Moreover, he brought it immense success at the highest echelons of NHRA drag racing.
A graduate student from Northern Arizona University with a mechanical engineering degree, Tanzi had an aptitude for the challenge ahead and a capacity for original thought. He also operated at the core of the racing fraternity; he had worked on the Mallory race trailer as a magneto and ignition specialist since 1975. With Sig’s recent departure, Steve Tanzi’s arrival was the transfusion of young talent the company needed.
Pioneering the large-core Hemi camshaft marked Tanzi’s tenure at Erson. He had penetrated what others often ignored—the obvious—as well as weaknesses in roller tappets and other valve train paraphernalia. “In the early nineteen-nineties,” he explains, “engines began exploding due to camshaft breakages.”
Initially, he discussed increasing the camshaft’s rigidity with John Force’s chief engineer, Austin Coil. “It seemed unfathomable,” he remembers, “that we were running the most powerful category of racing engine using a camshaft with small-block Chevrolet journals.” So, he proposed increasing the journals from 1.950in to 2.125in, and the leading engine builders approved, accepting the necessary architectural changes. The new camshaft designs featured uniform journal dimensions, replacing the previous stepped journals of decreasing diameters, except for the tail journal which measured 1.750in.
“Then I had a meeting with Ed Morel of Morel lifters, who subsequently discussed our thoughts with Austin Coil.” The objective was to furnish the new camshaft with superior lifters. Consequently, the traditional 0.750in lifter wheel was replaced by a larger 0.920in wheel. “This was the turning point,” continues Tanzi. “At the peak of our involvement in the nitro methane classes, Erson supplied camshafts to 8 of the top 10 qualifiers in the NHRA premiere categories.”
In fact, Tanzi and his team shaped the record books of NHRA history:
Eddie Hill: The first Top Fuel Dragster to break the four-second barrier.
Kenny Bernstein: The first Top Fuel Dragster to run 300mph.
Chuck Etchells: The first Top Fuel Funny Car to break the four-second barrier.
Jim Epler: The first Top Fuel Funny Car to run 300mph.
John Force: Thirteen NHRA Championships, and 100-plus National Event wins with Erson Cams.
Tony Pedregon: 2007 NHRA Funny Car World Champion and ET record holder
In addition, Tanzi’s efforts helped capture countless land speed records at both El Mirage and Bonneville Salt Flats , and in Circle Track, both on dirt and asphalt, Erson supplied the cams that powered many prominent race teams.
By force of logic and energy Steve Tanzi and Sig Erson made things happen. Now in its fifty-sixth year and based in Louisville, Kentucky, and running under the banner of PBM-Erson-World Products, a resourceful Russ Yoder has assumed the top responsibilities.
Race engine builders requiring a custom camshaft in two days
Russ Yoder, a former race engine builder and renowned for his grasp of camshaft materials, processes, strengths and weaknesses, added a further contribution to the Erson narrative; in addition to traditional shelf-stock camshaft supplies, he created a two-day custom grind service. So, what purpose does this serve? All race engine builders, particularly those engaged in active development programs, encounter last-minute changes, and Yoder identified this pattern of behavior and introduced his solution.
John Erson, the youngest of Sig’s sons, was the first knowledgeable camshaft person I’d met, and I knew him well. On reflection, I was blessed to have shared a shop across from John’s in Huntington Beach, California.
Next I met his older brother, Babe, a man of immense knowledge in this specialist field. I had great respect for him not only for his extensive experience but also his willingness to share it. Rest in peace Sig and Babe.
I remember a guy that lived on Kauai, Hawaii that we called Imi Erson. We had some fun times and was wondering whatever happened to him.
John Erson (Imi) still lives in Hawaii. I’m his older sister.
How are you? It’s your cousin, Terry. What a coincidence that I was looking at your dad’s article and noticed in the comments you had replied on May 7th. It’s been a long time huh? Yesterday, while talking to Sue, we spoke of your Mom. Let’s keep talking…
It’s Nice to hear from you. My email is as follows: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am his sister… he is still in Hawaii.
I was at Rancho Vista and Dapplegrey with your sister Linda. For my 10th birthday, my dad brought me the mini bike your dad built. I wish I still had it!
Barbara, my name is Dennis and I went to school with Steve Bromley. Shortly after your marriage I was drafted, serving two tours in Vietnam. When I returned I was in a pretty dark place. The only person I saw was a guy named Mike Morales who was a close friend of Steve’s also. Is there any way of getting in touch with Steve?
Respectfully Dennis Murillo
I went to Palos Verdes Continuation School (later named Mar Vista HS) with a guy named John Erson who claimed to be Sig’s son. We didn’t talk cars much, just played cards and got high all day.
In fact, a relative of Sig’s, perhaps a brother or son, did live in Hawaii. The circumstances were unusual though–something bizarre like residing in a tree house. Sorry those details have faded from the memory.
Yes, Uncle John did live in a tree house… Grandpa Sig lived on Kona for a while.
Hi, my name is Rick Keller, the owner of Pro Built Engines and Keller Racing Engines. Now 71 (and still building engines), I met Sig and Babe in the mid-nineteen-sixties and I still miss them. Later, I went to work with Steve Tanzi in the circle world in Las Vegas where we set the track record. Knowing and working with the Ersons and with Steve was a great privilege and their camshafts made my engines unbeatable.
Sig was more of a mentor at work than the public knew. In the spring of 1968, he trained two high-school students to grind prototypes and custom grinds. Two teenage motorheads, he couldn’t persuade us to leave, so he coached us and put us to work.
Sig pioneered valve stem tipping, adding material to extend the valve stem length to promote higher lift. It was a real challenge to keep the added material from separating, especially when an overhead cam was employed.
Sig made us both feel like family.
Hi, my name is Mike. I worked for Mallory Electric when Super Shops bought Sig Erson Cams. I was sent down to Huntington Beach to learn how to grind camshafts and help move the company back to Nevada.
I just finished restoring Sig’s oak tool chest that he gave me when I was there. I started to restore it back in the nineteen-eighties, but then set it aside. I am now retired and decided to pick up where I left off. Forty years later it is finished! If anyone is interested in my story, would like to see pictures, and hear more about the tool box, just let me know.
I’m going to a car show in Onyx near Weldon in California’s Kern County in the morning celebrating Sig’s 101st birthday.