Sarmento Race Cars: Perfection with Tubing, Torch, and Tin
“I learned all of the skills, techniques, and fine points of building race cars from Dennis Sarmento”-Wade Ramsey
It’s all there in a small, red, spiral notebook; meticulously, handwritten entries numerically chronicling every race car ever to leave the Sarmento shop, complete with date, customer name, type of car, and tag number. Consider entry number 001: Jim Frazier; S/C dragster; 4/93. Or, a name synonymous with fuel altered racing—Harry Burkholder; AA/FA; 6/17. There are 149 race cars neatly penned in this log book including a junior dragster for Gary Densham (2/96), Gary Reinero’s ’40 Austin AA/GS (6/97), a top fuel dragster for David Baca (7/06), and Les Davenport’s Nostalgia A/Fuel dragster (3/10). There’s even Dennis Sarmento’s own Top Sportsman Mustang (#109/12/07). The sweep of the variety of race cars recorded therein is impressive, too: dragsters, roadsters, altereds, left-steer coupes and sedans constructed for the strip or street; built for the well-known and the lesser known; a complete catalogue tediously recorded for posterity. Soon number 150 will start to take shape on the jig.
Tucked away “Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife”, (1) on a bucolic rural lane in southern Yuba City, California, Sarmento Race Cars unobtrusively goes about the business of building race cars. It has done so for 25 years in the same location, a 4000-square foot Disneyland of tools and machines, containing virtually everything necessary to design, fabricate, and build a race car: chassis tables; drill presses; welders; tubing and sheet metal benders; saws; mills; lathes; and on and on. The proprietary domain of original owner Dennis Sarmento until his retirement from the business at the end of 2015, current owner Wade Ramsey is optimistic about the future of the enterprise. Originally known as Sarmento Fabrication, Ramsey changed the name to Sarmento Race Cars when he purchased the land, shop, and inventory from Dennis. As sole owner and craftsman, Ramsey is no neophyte when it comes to constructing a race car. As Wade tells it, “I worked for Dennis for 24 years, and before that, a couple years with Davey Uyehara (URC). I got into the industry right out of high school working at a local machine shop in Yuba City. One of the clients was Uyehara, who would routinely send us work for repairs on parts like magnafluxing crankshafts and other components for his customers. During this time, I got into an automobile accident which kept me out of work for a few months. I would spend the free time hanging out at Davey’s shop and eventually landed a job there. I worked for Davey Uyehara from 1992-1994, and did side jobs for Dennis on the weekends. Soon I had to make a choice between the two businesses, and I went with Sarmento. And, as they say, the rest is history.”
Sarmento Race Cars is packed with a variety of vehicles as diverse as Robert Jones’ ’66 Chevelle being built for the street to a 260-inch blown BBC Top Dragster for John Richardson. Literally, there is no room for new projects until one goes out the door. Currently, the big push is to complete Harry Burkholder’s AA/FA for an anticipated debut at the 2017 CHRR. Wade elaborates, “I just need to build the oil, fuel, and puke tanks, mount the fire bottles and fresh air intake, and she will be ready for Harry’s partner, Mike Patterson, to pick up.” Note: Patterson is a long-time veteran of the nostalgia top fuel dragster class, who in the past paired with Bill Botelho for a number of years with a late model hemi engine for power. Harry and Mike will have none other than NHRA pro Ron Capps in the driver’s seat once testing has been completed.
The popularity of the Sarmento Race Car brand was on display at recent NHRA events held at Sonoma Raceway. Case in point: of the 47 participants entered in the Top Dragster class at the Division 7 race, twelve were dragsters built by Dennis and Wade; the next closest chassis builder had six race cars. An even more impressive statistic was the seven Sarmento race cars in the top 16 qualifiers in Top Dragster the following week at the Sonoma Nationals. Why is it the choice of so many racers? Wade explains the Sarmento Race Car approach, “It’s a combination of planning, attention to detail, a fetish for perfection, and knowledge of the craft. We like to stay with a project until it is finished as opposed to jumping around from job to job. Dennis and I used to complete a Top Dragster in six weeks. If I could do nothing but dragsters, that is what I would do. But, I will take what I can get; that is why this Studebaker restoration project is over there in the shop right now.” But, this is by far anything close to resembling a cookie cutter business. Wade tells more, “The first car I built completely on my own was Rick Ewens’ Nostalgia A/Fuel Dragster, and that job took me six months. Constructing the chassis is the easy part, although the jig I inherited required me to weld up the front and back halves separately. But, now that I have a 33’ jig (purchased from Brad Hadman), welding up a chassis will be a much more streamlined process. The time-consuming part is the bending and shaping of the tin work.”
This narrative may suggest that Wade Ramsey has little extra time to get out to the drag strip to see his creations in action. It has not always been that way. Wade answers, “Before I became sole owner of this business, I crewed on the Kaplan (Jirka)-Davenport AA/GS. Dennis and I built that Corvette in 2010. Jirka was the first racer to ask me to crew a race car. I stayed with the Kaplan-Davenport team through a series of cars including a very successful AA/A that won Comp. Eliminator at the NHRA Nationals in 2011 at Indy, and later, their NHRA Alcohol Funny Car. Now that it is just me in the shop, I will go out to watch a new car the first time out or so.”
Sarmento Race Cars is as busy as ever. With the new jig now leveled and ready to go, race car #150, a Pro-charged BBC altered tabbed for Top Dragster, will soon add its name into that little red notebook.
(1) Thomas Gray Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard