Photos courtesy of LME, Roush-Yates, and SAM
Real jobs suck. Why suffer through the 9-5 grind every day when you can do what you love and love what you do? For many race fans, building race engines for a living is the ultimate gig. Sitting in a dimly lit cubicle and pretending like you’re working isn’t quite the same as watching the engine you built cross the finish line first on race day. Three men living the dream are Scott McCormick, Bryan Neelen, and Pecos Loughlin. For the past 20 years, Scott has been instrumental in developing championship-winning NASCAR Sprint Cup motors at Roush-Yates Engines. Likewise, Bryan Neelen and Pecos Loughlin quickly established themselves as some of the best LSX builders in the world after opening up Late Model Engines in 2003. So how did they do it?
What the trio shares in common is passion, an unwavering work ethic, and a solid education that laid the foundation for their future success. Although the School of Automotive Machinists is best known to NMCA racers for its infamous ’99 Camaro SS— a car that’s won five All-Motor championships in the Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series (Formerly the LSX Challenge Series)—the school’s primary mission is educating the next generation of professional engine builders. Back in 1986, Judson and Linda Massingill founded The School of Automotive Machinists (SAM) to address the shortage of qualified machinists and engine builders in the racing industry. Three decades later, SAM graduates walk out of the classroom and straight into the engine rooms of the top Pro Stock, Top Fuel, IndyCar, and NASCAR Sprint Cup teams in the country. Others make their mark by starting their own shops. Scott McCormick, Bryan Neelen, and Pecos Loughlin are among SAM’s brightest success stories. Through hard work and determination, they’re living the dream. Here’s how they did it.
Scott McCormick: Roush-Yates Engines
As a kid who had a need for speed but no driver’s license, Scott started racing dirt bikes in middle school. With dreams of racing motocross professionally, Scott competed all through high school until a back injury sidelined his progress. The long hours spent working on his dirt bike helped spark an interest in rebuilding engines. After attending the American Motorcycle Institute, he worked at various motorcycle shops for the next eight years. He eventually ended up at a shop that catered to the motorsports industry, and he suddenly realized how much he missed building race engines.
While flipping through a magazine one day, he spotted an ad for the School of Automotive Machinists. “I knew right away that building race engines for a living is what I wanted to do. Within 30 days, I packed up everything and headed out to Houston to go to school,” Scott recalls. It’s a decision that would literally change his life. “I was a single parent with a very young child at the time, so my dad helped me sell my house, and looked after my daughter until I got settled in at school. As difficult as it was to raise a family and go to school, overall it was an awesome experience. I realized how much I missed racing, and going to SAM gave me the motivation I needed to get focused on the right path.”
Although learning the technical side of machining blocks and balancing rotating assemblies taught Scott how to turn wrenches like an engine builder, learning the theoretical side of airflow dynamics taught him how to think like an engine builder.
“Having a solid understanding or airflow theory as it relates to race engines really helped me stand out once I got out of school. I realized that lots of engine builders out there were stuck in a rut, and going through the motions without really thinking about why they did things a certain way,” he explains. “Judson always emphasized the importance of airflow, and provided real-world examples of what works and what doesn’t. Back in 1993, he had the foresight to see how computers were going to impact our industry, and stressed the importance of becoming computer literate. I went out to Sears that same week and bought my first computer.”
After working as a machinist and cylinder head engineer for C.J. Batten, Scott leveraged his experience to land a position at Roush-Yates Engines. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Scott’s strong background in airflow dynamics and computer programming would help lay the groundwork for establishing Roush-Yates’ CNC program. Initially, he was tasked with designing cylinder heads and intake manifolds for the team’s Trans Am and NASCAR Grand National Series engines, but Scott’s ability to analyze his surroundings allowed him to improve the overall efficiency of the entire shop.
“By 1999, we had so many customer engines to build that we had a hard time keeping up with the volume. I took it upon myself to figure out why we were struggling, and realized that porting everything by hand was the bottleneck,” he recalls.
Utilizing CNC machines was just starting to become more mainstream, and Scott recognized the potential advantages it provided to Roush-Yates’ supply chain.
“I took a two-day crash course in CNC programming over a weekend. That Monday, I took a crack at scanning my first port, and by Tuesday we had the heads fully ported and on the dyno,” Scott remembers. “The CNC heads made just as much power as our prototype heads, so it was a huge success. After that, I started specializing in scanning and modeling cylinder heads and intake manifolds, as well as writing the tool paths for the CNC machines. I’m also involved in the engineering, production, and airflow development of our cylinder heads and intake manifolds.” Needless to say, Scott’s ambition, work ethic, and education have taken him a very long way.
Bryan Neelen and Pecos Loughlin: Late Model Engines
Even as a young college student, Bryan Neelen figured out that following the flock wasn’t for him. During high school, swapping out headers and camshafts on his friend’s Camaro fueled his interest in building performance cars. Like many kids, he enrolled in college, but soon realized that his true calling in life laid elsewhere. “A friend of mine said he was moving to Houston to attend the School of Automotive Machinists. I realized that I was much more interested in learning how to build race engines than I was in going to college like everyone else,” Bryan recalls. “Going to SAM was an excellent experience. I went in with a thirst for knowledge and an open mind. I was very green and I didn’t have many preconceived notions of how engines should be built, so that made it easy to learn the theory and process of building race engines the right way.”
While attending SAM, Bryan crossed paths with Pecos Loughlin, and the two quickly hit it off. “There was a group of us that stayed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday. We took everything we learned to heart, and we loved working on engines,” says Bryan. During their time at SAM, Bryan and Pecos absorbed tremendous volumes of data and received countless hours of hands-on training while completing the program’s engine block machining and cylinder head porting courses. Although these are skills that they both rely on every day, and Bryan says that the extra-curricular advice he received has proven to be equally important.
“Half of what Judson teaches is engine theory, and the other half is life lessons. He taught us what it takes to be successful, and trying to emulate the characteristics that successful people have in common has been very influential to me. The concept of delayed gratification is the one thing Judson taught us that’s stuck with me the most. Owning your own business has its ups and downs. One day it sucks, and the next day it’s great. We struggled to get Late Model Engines off the ground at first, but knowing that there would be gratification in the future kept us going, and now we’re reaping the rewards.”
After graduating from SAM, both Bryan and Pecos got jobs at local engine shops. Since demand for quality LS cylinder heads was so high, the duo started porting heads on the side to supplement their income.
“We were so passionate about building engines that we were happy to do it all day and all night. We built engines at our day jobs, then ported heads at our own warehouse at night,” Bryan recalls. “After three years, our customer base grew large enough to where we were able to quit our day jobs, so we opened up Late Model Engines in 2003. We started our shop with little to no capital. As business picked up, we reinvested our resources back into the business by purchasing one piece of equipment at a time.
Our former employers weren’t interested in investing in CNC equipment, which played a huge factor into why we wanted to venture out on our own. Pecos and I realized that in order to meet the demands of the industry, the ability to CNC-machine cylinder heads, blocks, and one-off parts was crucial to sustaining our business in the future. We saved up money, retrofitted our first CNC machine ourselves, and that got our foot in the door. We now have multiple four- and five-axis CNC machining centers.”
Today, LME builds race-winning engines for everything from 6-second drag cars to 244mph standing-mile record setters. Ronnie Hackelton and the ARH/Farks Supercars Camaro are just a few of the many NMCA racers that rely on LME power as well. Building one of the most well-respected engine shops in the LS market isn’t too bad at all for two kids that started out with nothing more than a dream and an appetite for knowledge.