Transmission builder gets respect
By Marty Smith - NASCAR Online
MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Dale Earnhardt is widely known for his intimidating demeanor, but when he unveiled his trademark tactics on youngster Gordy Arbitter, it was Earnhardt who was quickly taken aback.
"Dale walked in the door and said, 'Hey, who are you,'" said Arbitter, now in his fourth season as gear specialist at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "(Ron) Hornaday spoke up and told him I was his buddy from California, and Dale said, 'Well, what do you do?'
"I said, 'Well, not a whole lot of anything.' He goes, 'Oh really, a little bit cocky aren't you?' So, I said 'Well, I build transmissions.' He says, 'You want a job?' Just like that, I was working at Dale Earnhardt, Inc."
Cocky or not, Arbitter can build transmissions with the best of them. The California native began constructing transmissions in his father's self-owned business at age 12, and a quarter century later has evolved into one of the finest craftsmen in his trade in the entire world.
"My father has a transmission building business on the West Coast, and I've been building transmissions forever," Arbitter said. "I started building NASCAR Winston West transmissions. That's where I got my start, building stuff for those guys. They never knew where their stuff came from, they just figured they'd take it to Gordy. I got to doing that and got to liking it a little bit and figured I could always fall back on it if I couldn't do anything else. It's making me a pretty good living, so I'm pretty happy doing it."
Arbitter's tireless work ethic has Earnhardt in a 'peachy keen' mood as well. During his tenure at DEI, Arbitter has single-handedly spear headed an exponential growth in the transmission department.
"When I started here, they had a bunch of different guys doing their stuff and it was really inconsistent -- It wasn't breaking, it was just really inconsistent," Arbitter said. "They never knew what they had. So, Dale hired me and told me to maintain his stuff and take it to another level.
"When I was hired they had roughly 35 ring and pinions and seven transmissions. Now, I've built the inventory up to 390 ring and pinions and 60 transmissions in four years."
Although Arbitter had unmistakably rare talent in the realm of mechanics, he opted to try his hand at a college education after high school rather than immediately follow in his father's footsteps. Although an accomplished student in high school - he graduated with a 3.8 grade point average - Arbitter was bored with tedious schoolwork, thus, the college experience didn't quite work out.
"I graduated in '90, and just kinda hung out for the whole summer trying to decide what I wanted to do," he said. "So, I said hell, let's just give college a try. So I went to San Diego State, but that didn't work out too good. I majored in beer and minored in liquor. The party ended and it was time to go back to work. I went back to working for my Dad, but one day in '93 I decided I was gonna give racing on the East Coast a try."
So, Arbitter got in his car and drove to North Carolina, and quickly caught on with two-time ARCA champion Bill Venturini.
"I learned so much from him, we grew a lot as a team and as a family, but once his money ran out he couldn't afford to keep any help, so I decided to go work for Jerico (a transmission manufacturer)," Arbitter said.
While at Jerico, Arbitter was offered a job as a tire changer at Melling Racing. It was then that the opportunity to show his true talent unfolded.
"I went over there to help them tire change and that was about it," Arbitter said. "Then we went to Watkins Glen and they knew I could build transmissions, so they said how about we just hire you. I was like, whatever, okay. So I went to the track with them a little bit. I worked for Peter Sospenzo and Mike McSwaim.
"They're two really good guys who showed me the ropes in Winston Cup racing. Winston Cup's not much different than what I'd done my whole life, you've got demands, you've got pressure, the only difference is we've got a whole lot more stuff."
After a short period with Melling, Arbitter wanted a change, so he sought out Hornaday for advice.
"The 9 car just didn't seem like the place to be, and Hornaday was driving the truck here for Dale Earnhardt, so I knew I had a way in the door," Arbitter said. "I came over to see him one day to find out the deal on what I should do. I didn't even come here looking for a job, I really didn't care about getting one. Then he said, 'Why don't you just work here.' I said, 'Man, these guys won't hire me, this is Dale Earnhardt, Inc., this is the place."
Moments later, Earnhardt walked in and handed Arbitter the offer of a lifetime -- come to work at DEI. He's been there ever since, building one of the finest transmission shops in all of racing. This weekend, Arbitter and his No. 1 Pennzoil cohorts venture to Martinsville, arguably the most difficult track on the circuit for gear specialists.
"When I think about Martinsville I think of what it would be like to be unemployed," he said. "That's how much most gear specialists fear that place. If you are ever going to have nightmares about a track it's Martinsville."
Even so, after a good night's sleep he has a solid idea of what to run at the torturous .526-mile bullring.
"I woke up this morning and decided what I wanted to run at Martinsville, looked at my computer program that tells me if what I think is gonna be decent or bad, and it told me the ratio I had in mind was gonna be pretty close to what would work there," he said. "I decided this morning at 9 o'clock to run that thing and it's 2 o'clock and it's ready to be shipped. That's actually really slow cause I had to build a shifter for it cause I'm trying a different combination.
"I'm allowed to do what I want, they give me free reign to do what I want. I'll tell (crew chief) Paul Andrews what it's got in it, and he's got a selection of gears to go through. At Martinsville, you pretty much throw a 633 gear in there an let her eat. At Charlotte next week, it'll be 180 percent different from what's sitting right there."
Arbitter goes to great lengths to maintain a properly organized shop, and his philosophy in doing so is all but ingenious.
"You try to make everything the same," he said. "You want all your bolts the same, you want to walk in and say, wow, everything here looks identical. We have a finished look to our stuff. Everything that touches the racetrack is either fresh or brand new. We take a lot of pride in that. A lot of people say that's overkill, but these races pay about $120-$150,000 to win, and a 50 cent part can take you out of a race. So, we try and make everything perfect."
Right now, everything is perfect for Arbitter. At age 26, he has already reached the pinnacle of his trade in one of the finest organizations in professional sports.
"I love it here," he said. "I want for nothing. I have a nice house, a great job and I'm really happy. Once the happiness goes or I get married or something, that's when it'll be time to reevaluate what I'm doing here. But for now, I'm just concentrating on making sure nothing breaks."
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