Friday, April 8, 2011

The Passing of a Legend

We recently lost one of the true legends of the motor sports industry. On Wednesday, April 6th, Joe Mondello succumbed to complications from surgery. He was 74 years old.

If you set out to name someone who had a bigger influence on the entire spectrum of racing and high performance, you would have a tough time coming up with anyone to rival Joe Mondello, and yet for the most part the level of name recognition does not match his achievements. Throw out the name Joe Mondello in front of a group of ten racing enthusiasts and my guess is that one person would know about Joe, and maybe one more would say the name is familiar. Ah, but start tossing out the name of racers the Joe ported heads for over the years, and each and every one of the group would recognize multiple names.

Just a few of the more well known names in motor sports who have used Joe's porting include A.J. Foyt, Andy Granatelli, Walt Austin, Mickey Thompson, Ak Miller, Carrol Shelby, Tony Nancy, Chris Karamesines, Roland Leong, Shirley Muldowny, Don Garlits, Stone Woods & Cook, Connie Kalleta, Don Prudhomme, Ed Pink, Grumpy Jenkins, Tommy Ivo, John Force, Eddie Hill, Hollman & Moody, Gary Ormsby, Jungle Jim Liberman, Smokey Yunick, Tom McEwen, Junior Johnson, Keith Black, John Mazmanian, Joe Hunt, ....and the list goes on and on.

Not only did Joe Mondello port heads for winning racers, he ported record setting heads for them. The first 7, 6, and 5-second Top Fuel runs and the first 200 mph runs in Top Gas, Top Fuel, Injected Fuel and Fuel Altered were all accomplished using Mondello cylinder heads.

When I first met Joe Mondello, it was via a lecture that he was giving at a Performance and Racing Industry trade show years ago. At the time he was promoting his cylinder head porting school. I looked into attending, but just wasn't sure I should spend the time and money, because after all, he was a car guy and I port Harley heads. Boy did I miss the boat there.

More years passed and I heard him speak at another trade show. By then it seemed that Joe was doing a lot more with Harley heads; a little late to the game, I thought, but this time I decided that I really needed to take the time to attend his school. So, in November of 2007 I made the trip to Joe's new facility in Tennessee for a 3 day, one on one, advanced cylinder head porting course. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but despite having ported over 750 sets of Harley heads before studying under Joe, I came away with better cylinder head porting skills.

I also finally came to the realization that Joe was not just a "car guy." Not only have major automobile OEMs like Ford sent their people through Joe's porting school, so have Harley Davidson and S&S. But here is another not so well known fact, Joe Mondello was porting Harley heads since way back when. And when Joe Mondello ported a head, it was likely to be a winner. His Harley head porting was no different. Another legendary racer to add to the above list of winners using Mondello heads is Joe Smith. Granddaddy Joe Smith was the Harley racer who accomplished most of the "firsts" in motorcycle drag racing throughout the '60s and ''70s. First 8 second motorcycle, first 7 second Harley Davidson, first 180mph motorcycle: and of course Joe Mondello's porting expertise played its part in all of that history.

One of the things that sticks out in my mind is that, as he stood by my side in the porting room at the Mondello Tech Center teaching me the fine points of proper shaping , Joe told me that even after 50 years of it, he still loved to port heads! That is a testimony as to how blessed we are when we are able to make a living doing the work we enjoy. Of course now Joe Mondello's legacy will continue on because of his foresight in opening a school to teach his techniques. Each of Joe's former students will in effect, extend that legacy.

There can be no doubt that the motor sports industry has lost one of the great ones with the passing of Joe Mondello. My condolences go out to his wife Mary, the rest of Joe's family, and the crew down at Mondello Technical Center. Joe will be sorely missed.


Greg said...

I can think of no more fitting place to ask you about Mr.Joe Mondello's freely shared,and I am sure hard earned,recommendations he gave during a magazine interview. This is the right link might have to just go to to locate article if link doesn't work.
You may recall being gracious enough to answer a few emails I sent early in the year.I am in hopes through you an Mr. Mondello's relationship before his unfortunate passing he may have taught,or advised you on the following.
I am building another KHK and more then I can express interested in what information he shared in this article you think most productive.I ask as I find to this day I do as taught to a large extent in the machine shop.
To lightly touch over some points from the article,for my KHK cylinders do feel I should go with an 80 grit finish on the intake ports?He states "I want that exhaust port highly finished" then as article states use progressive grit handy roll paper 60-80-100-120-150-then 180 grit with final finish with very fine cross buff from Standard abrasives.
Mr. Mondello favored 5/16" stem intake and 11/32" stem exhaust manley valves and guides in article.Also any thoughts on valve job seat widths etc.
My intake valves have 1.8125 diameter heads and my exhaust valves have 1.56" diameter heads.

I would just add in closing that I followed Mr. Mondello from my early years when I was stupid enough to street race in a low 12 second 1968 Barracuda that I paid $4500.00 to have the engine built for,and that was in 1970's dollars .I witnessed many a car at sanctioned event's with Mr.Joe Mondello's name proudly displayed full length on front fenders of some of the fastest cars at the event.
I must admit my choosing to post here is a lot to do with my memory of youth.............

St. Lee said...

Hi Greg, thanks for the link. I had not read that before.

When I attended his school, we concentrated on Twin Cam heads. Although he states in the article that all the info applies to both aluminum and cast iron,I think Mr. Mondello might have modified that statement somewhat in regards to cast iron intake ports. Cast iron, being quite a bit harder than aluminum, does not seem to acquire the same finish when using the same grits. It seems to take more of a polish even with a coarser grit. For that reason, I go no finer than a 50 grit on cast iron intake ports. With the 50 grit they still give the appearance of being as smooth as an 80 grit finish on aluminum.

Likewise, I think you will find that the exhausts respond in a similar fashion, gaining a mirror like finish before you even get to the fine grits and cross buffs.

My thoughts on seat widths agree with Joe's, however on an engine known for running hot (such as a Knuckle or Flathead) I use a wider exhaust seat (like .100") to help with heat transfer. The advantages to the smaller stem diameters is in a slightly larger flow area, and slightly less valve train weight.

Good luck with your current project.