by Geoff Gehman; photos by Carlo Acerra
July 24, 2014
Don Knoblick spends a good chunk of every drag race steering to the sky. Tremendous forces -- 700 to 800 horsepower, 6,000 to 7,000 RPM -- force the front wheels of his '72 Vega truck into the air, which forces him to lose track of the track, which forces him to navigate with the clouds. For 1.5 to 2.5 seconds he gets to be an auto-pilot.
Auto-piloting is one of the wilder adventures of Knoblick's hemi-powered career as a hot-rodding mechanic for hot rodders. He repairs and rebuilds high-performance vehicles -- muscle cars, monster trucks, dragsters driven by his rivals -- at Silfies Automotive, an Easton garage he owns with Bob Silfies, a fellow racer and former mentor. There, in a cramped shop by an intersection of cramped alleys, he makes the impossible pretty possible with his hands, imagination and uncommon common sense.
Knoblick was born to machine. He grew up helping his father Don '74, a postmaster, restore classic sports cars like a '63 split-window Corvette Stingray. At 10 he was racing quarter-midgets; at 13 he was crewing drag races. Silfies tutored him in engineering the '72 Vega, then owned and raced by a former NCC automotive student of Ken Irvine, Knoblick's grandfather.
Knoblick's education continued at Bethlehem Area Vo-Tech, where he was graded by Silfies, his boss at an auto-parts store. In NCC's General Motors ASAP program, a school/dealership deal, he was trained by George Gerstenberg, one of his customers. An NCC teacher from 1974 to 2004, Gerstenberg recalls Knoblick as "always dependable," whether he worked on an engine, a drivetrain or an electronic fuel-injection system.
Gerstenberg was impressed enough to offer Knoblick a part-time teaching job. Knoblick turned down the proposal because he was too busy making himself a one-stop shop. He ended up holding virtually every major dealership position: mechanic, auto-parts supervisor, service manager, adjustor, customer-relations specialist.
Thanks to this back-and-front background, Knoblick has a superior set of physical skills and mental tools. Since Silfies Automotive is a full-service garage, he gets to play psychologist/mind reader with family-car owners perplexed by problems. He'll take them through a full lineup of situations, actual and hypothetical, until he pinpoints the exact cause of, say, a rattling suspension. "An airplane doesn't just fall out of the sky," he likes to remind customers. "The events that led up to the fall were just missed."
Knoblick shifts into higher gears with gear heads. He's amused and captivated by high-performance fanatics "fatally into" their serious toys. One of his current toys is a '67 Firebird that came to him as a shell with a seriously gorgeous new paint job. One of his future toys is an original hemi-powered motor orphaned in a garage for 25 years. Knoblick predicts the owner will spend around $50,000 before the engine is ready to power a '60s-style street dragster.
Knoblick is tickled, too, by low-fi, funky vehicles. He relishes the tale of restoring a 1948 tractor, then breaking it in in an Easton alley so the owner wouldn't be broken by a Nantucket sleigh ride back on the farm. He savors the story of a negotiation with a co-owner of a 27-foot-long Cadillac limousine that once carried Kenny Rogers, the star singer. Knoblick rejected the customer's plea for a price break for "sentimental" reasons. "Well, it doesn't mean heads or tails to me," he replied. "I mean, it's not like Kenny Rogers wants me to put in new gaskets or a new engine."
This combination of diplomacy, humor and knowledge has made Knoblick a popular go-to guy. He became so popular, in fact, that last summer he became a full-time mechanic for the first time. Now he can work overtime and a half for clients who tell him "I want 500 horsepower and [fill in the blank] cubic inches"; to go that extra step to get that "Oh, my gosh"; to impress his former NCC teacher George Gerstenberg, who likes to "nut around" the shop, with his installation of a vintage AC system in that '67 Firebird. His fiancée, Kelli Barbato, doesn't mind him indulging in "after-hours extracurricular activities" -- after all, she drag races, too.
Drag racing satisfies Knoblick's hunger for precision, power and pride. He enjoys standardizing everything from oil temperature to tire pressure to an RPM-setting electronic throttle stop. He enjoys turning small changes into big advantages. This year he installed new windows in the '72 Vega to eliminate scratches that could distract him while watching his rival, or steering with the sky.
What Knoblick really enjoys is making the Vega travel 1,320 feet, or a quarter mile, to cross, or pass, the finish line first in 9.90 seconds, the goal of his Super Gas class. What he really, really enjoys is knowing that victory is all his.
"I'm the engineer, the crew chief, the driver, the truck driver; I even wash my own uniform," says Knoblick, who one year finished third in his wide-open, ultra-competitive division. "I'm completely hands-on; I'm not just thinking or sketching. That's incredibly gratifying; that's why victory tastes better."
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