Racing ahead : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Racing ahead

Nate King’s background in racing provides the patience, persistence and pursuit of perfection needed to become a top-level pipemaker

By Stephen A. Ross

On the surface, there couldn’t be two subjects more vastly different than IndyCar racing and pipe smoking. One consists of specialized open-wheel, open-cockpit cars powered by fire-breathing 900-plus horsepower engines roaring around a track. At its most famous venue, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the official single lap record stands at nearly 237.5 mph—that’s 2.5 miles in less than 38 seconds—talk about adrenaline! The other often consists of a simple spark and a tamp, giving the chosen pipe tobacco time to slowly warm and release the characteristics of the tobacco, while the pipe smoker settles in for an hour of quiet contemplation over a good book and perhaps a fine beverage.

king3 Yet, for those who pursue racing and for those who take up pipemaking, there’s more in common than initially apparent. To achieve success at the top levels of both the sport and the craft requires momentous quantities of patience, persistence and the pursuit of perfection. Design is everything when it comes to building a car that hugs the track while speeding through a turn at more than 200 mph, while allowing a driver to maximize its capabilities. Design also is a make-or-break situation when it comes to creating a pipe that is going to allow the tobacco to burn properly, prevent the buildup of excess moisture in the chamber and stem, and to make sure that each smoke lives up to the expectations of its user.

Commitment is also something both professions share. Countless hours go into building the “perfect beast” for performance on the race circuit. Both the design team and the drivers work endlessly to make sure everything is perfect on race day. Similarly, pipemakers devote much time to creating something that is a piece of art on the outside while crafting the inner workings to perform perfectly for the smoker, who also devotes time to developing an art to the perfect smoking experience.

When done right, success in both pursuits looks easy.

At 33 years of age, Nate King is rking1elatively new to pipemaking. But with 12 years of experience working in racing and being raised in the sport, he’s already familiar with the dedication it takes to pursue success on the racetrack and in the workshop.

As a gearbox and transmission specialist, King was basically responsible for the entire rear end of the car—how the engine, drive train and transmission provide the power to the rear-wheel drive cars to make them go fast. It wasn’t enough to ordera new gearbox and transmission and just plug it into the car. No, when a new piece of equipment arrived, King tore it apart to examine each piece and perform the necessary adjustments to get the most out of the new transmission.

“You get a new transmission and you completely tear it down to the bare casing,” says King, wearing a blue jacketwith a red logo reading “Emco,” one of his racing employers. “You check out the casing and get rid of everything you can to save weight, but still allow the gearbox to work. Make sure there’s nothing that will bite you later. You clean up all the bearings. Sometimes you get a case that has shavings inside of it that could cause you big trouble at the racetrack. You go through and electrosonically clean the bearings. All that king-4work makes the transmission much more bulletproof. Gearbox guys are very focused, and they systematically get the job done. A lot of gear-box guys are fabricators, too. You sit on a surface grinder for hours kicking a half-a-thousandth of an inch off the surface at a time. People think it’s always fame and fortune, but no, it is anguishing. So I learned all kinds of stuff from the world’s best fabricators. I still have a lot to learn, but I have a good base. It was a matter of life or death in racing, and you want to make sure everything is perfect, and the competition is so intense that it causes you to think of doing everything you can think of doing to the nth degree. Everything was done to shave that thousandth of a second off your time to beat the competition. The care you had to take with those parts translates wonderfully into pipes.”

With Emco Gears, King helped develop a new gearbox for NASCAR. The Indianapolis native spent a month in North Carolina, where most of the NASCAR teams are based, helping the teams make the necessary changes to their cars.

At the same time, he was a fully contracted transmission specialist for IndyCar teams that did not want to build their own transmissions. For a fee, his company would build the transmissions at the shop and give them to the teams who hired him. He would also travel to the racetracks to change gearboxes.

“I don’t have any rings to show for it, but my transmissions have been part of Indy 500-winning cars,” he says. “Our gearboxes won the 500 with Buddy Rice in 2004 and with Eddie Cheever in 1998.”

King also worked directly for several teams. There were stints with Champ Car’s Minardi Team U.S.A. and Morris Nunn Racing, where, in addition to his normal transmission duties, he experienced the thrill and the danger of being an over-the-wall pit crewman, operating the airjack to lift the car and assist the right-rear tire changer. With so much cut-throat competition on and off the racetrack, and in the midst of a terrible 12-year civil war within Indy-style racing between the Indy Racing League and Champ Car that confused the general public, dried up sponsorship dollars and subsequently meant fewer jobs, King found working in racing increasingly difficult. He also tired of the travel demands and the long hours. At 26 and with a lifetime in the sport, he was burnt out and left racing altogether to get into aviation maintenance.

“I went from one job that required attention to detail to an even bigger res-ponsibility in aviation maintenance,” King comments.

It was while he made the transition from racing to aviation that King first took up pipe smoking. A friend from church was to be married, and for the bachelor party, King and several friends went to Randy’s Tobacco Shop on Indianapolis’ west side. They got cigars, and King bought a pipe.

“I thought pipe smoking was a gentlemanly thing to do,” King explains. “I kind of look back at simpler times in life, and pipe smoking seemed, to me, to be one of those simpler things.”

Working at the airport, King smoked his pipe during breaks from his job. There were few people around, it was a big hanger, and Indiana had yet to pass an indoor smoking ban. He enjoyed pipe smoking immensely and saved money to buy pipes that caught his eye—he found himself particularly drawn to the style of pipes that Bing Crosby smoked.

“I got the bug,” he says while a huge grin crosses his heavily bearded face. “I saved up for a Savinelli Bing’s Favorite. The thought of spending close to $100 for a pipe was painful at first. I went after only smooths and Dublins—sandblasts and rusticated pipes were beneath me at the time. Now that I’ve become a pipemaker, I see the beauty in all of it. Then there was a 1964 Dunhill pot that I wanted that cost $150.”

king2That was when the aircraft mechanic discovered eBay.

“I’d see one pipe I liked in a lot of three or more that I didn’t want, but I’d buy them all, clean them up and then sell the pipes I didn’t want on eBay again. I bought, cleaned and sold about 1,200 pipes in four years. It was great training because I got to see so many pipes and study them to see what worked and examine what didn’t. That’s how I got into understanding what went into making an artisan pipe.”

With his background of working in race shops and aircraft hangers, it wasn’t long before King took up the challenge of making his first pipe. He bought a pipemaking kit from Pipe Puffer Smoke Shop in Greenwood, Ind. Pipemaker Wayne Teipen, who King had met at Pipe Puffer and through the online forum, invited him to drive up to Teipen’s home in Cloverdale, Ind., to check out his collection and discuss pipemaking.

“Wayne and I talked about design and the dos and don’ts,” King explains. “I had a little disc and belt sander at the aviation center, and I would go in during the break and work on the pipe 15 minutes at a time. We had a sandblaster, too. I came across a few sandpits in that block so I masked it off and did a little sandblasting as well. It had a little racing stripe and a grill on it. It was about a quarter-bent-or-so poker. It was atrocious, and no one will ever see it again.”

While the result may not have been to King’s liking, he really enjoyed the process of pipemaking. He bought some briar from Teipen and set about making pipes in his spare time.

“It was a hobby for me at the time,” King says. “I thought if I could do it someday as a profession it would be great. I just wanted to be a good pipemaker. Wayne was a good teacher. His engineering was systematic. He could have been a racecar guy. He taught me the baseline.”

And like many teacher/student relationships, the pupil could teach the mentor a thing or two.

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