Power Brokers – Building American V8 Power at Ross Racing Engines
You can debate all you want about it being “rocket science” or not, but there’s no denying the precision, skill, and ingenuity that goes into the highly regarded Olds Rocket V8s and other vintage performance power plants that come from the Niles, Ohio-based shop known as Ross Racing Engines.
Shop owner Tony Lombardi is carrying on an engine-building legacy started by his father, Ross Lombardi, in the 1960s and ’70s. Ross began racing Oldsmobiles around Ohio’s drag strips in the 1960s, winning more than he lost. He soon became known for his engine building skills and quickly built a following of both drag and oval-track racers, not to mention serious street performance enthusiasts.
What started out as a home business moved into a shop and the official opening of Ross Racing Engines in 1975. The elder Lombardi moved the shop to its current location – just a couple miles from the original building – in 1978.
RAISED ON RACING
Growing up around the shop and around racing, young Tony Lombardi naturally gravitated toward a go-fast life. “I hate to say it, but I was forced,” Tony said. “I grew up in this building and was working here since I could push a broom.”
Tony’s penchant for mechanics was demonstrated early when he rebuilt a Quadrajet carburetor in 10th grade power mechanics class, snuck out of school during lunch, went up to his buddy’s house, installed the carb on a ’76 Pontiac Bonneville, and drove that car back after lunch. He did this before having a driver’s license. He built his first complete and functioning engine – for his buddy’s ’55 Chevy – during his junior year of high school. He did it all by himself; every piece of the engine from start to finish.
It wasn’t just engine building – Tony inherited the racing bug, too. “I can remember a time when I wasn’t old enough to be in the pits,” Tony said. “Standing outside the track, leaning against the fence, I watched the cars and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to do that; I’m going to go racing.’
“We didn’t play sports, we went to the races,” Tony continued, “and I hate to say it, but I remember a time when I hated going to the races. Once I had my driver’s license there were a couple years I didn’t go because I didn’t have to anymore. The reason I started going again was my dad used to send me to deliver engines and I’d meet the guy at the race track.”
“Since we had just driven hours to the track, we would hang on the fence and watch the race, and we’d say, ‘hell, let’s go do that!’ And so, we did! Two weeks later we had a car. The first year I turned a lap in a dirt car was the same year I graduated high school. I got bit by the bug again.”
EXPERIENCE BREEDS EXCELLENCE
Tony spent the next 25 years dirt track racing, finally hanging up his helmet in 2009. His on-track experience undoubtedly helped Ross Racing Engines build on its reputation for assembling performance power plants that could deliver on-track wins.
Ask Tony about his business philosophy and he’s quick to reply that it all boils down to delivering quality, precision work. “We go over and above to supply quality,” Tony said, “because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We’re the best at what we do – well, one of the best. I don’t want to sound too arrogant!”
Tony stressed that the goal is the same whether the shop is building a Saturday-night short-track engine, a NASCAR power plant, or a hard-core hot rod engine. “We treat them all with the same care and attention to detail,” he said. “We strive for the same quality. Our engines have been endurance tested on dyno’s, racetracks and highways.”
Like so many things that require precision craftsmanship, Tony said he believes the quality of the work that comes from Ross Racing Engines is a reflection of his personality and the traits he learned from his father. “I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “It’s the same reason as when I was dirt racing, the car and engine had to be straight and spotless when it rolled out of the trailer, even though we knew it was just going to be thrown in the mud and bent up again that night.”
DRAG STRIPS AND HOT RODS
Since getting out of driving a dirt track car, Tony has found his way back to the roots of Ross Racing Engines: drag racing. In 2011, he built a front-engine dragster with blown ’57 Olds V8 running on alcohol and aimed at the 7.0 Pro class. Though updated in 2015, he still campaigns the car using the same engine. He also built a nitro-burning big block Chevy for the Hilton family’s Great Expectations III dragster, which has traveled all over the country for races and Nitro Thunderfest exhibitions.
Speaking of the Hilton family, Bobby Hilton – owner of Hilton Hot Rods – had also commissioned Ross Racing Engines to build some high-profile vintage engines for a series of killer hot rods, including a blown Olds in Tony’s personal Model A coupe, which won the Goodguys 2014 Tanks Inc. Hot Rod of the Year title, and a blown Hemi in the 2017 Tanks Inc. Hot Rod of the Year, Ralph and Linda Miller’s panel-painted Model A sedan.
In addition to the full scope of engine-building services, Ross Racing Engines performs in-house dyno testing and tuning and offers an expansive line of speed equipment for vintage engines. It’s still essentially a one-man show, with Tony working full time and father Ross coming in a few days a week to help and offer his time and expertise. Together, they carry on a legacy spanning more than five decades, one of building big-time V8 power for classic American hot rods and race cars.
Ross Racing Engines
1763 N. Main Street
Niles, OH, 44446
Photos by Julia Lombardi