Larry O'Brien - The Hemi-Head Master

By Jim Luikens

Late in the 2003 season Larry O’Brien debuted one of the most beautiful Pro Stock race cars ever built, a stunning Dodge Stratus, which was created by Rick Jones and his RJ Race Cars firm. The Stratus was powered by 814 cubic inches of Jon Kaase hemi power and the engine was topped by a pair of O’Brien-created hemi cylinder heads, one of only two such pairs in existence. This is the story of Larry O’Brien and how he came to manufacture his own hemi cylinder heads.

Larry has been drag racing for more than 30 years. He began years ago, as most racers do, by bracket racing. In the mid 1980s he advanced to the Canadian Outlaw Pro Stock series. There he regularly raced against such well-known racers as Mike Janis, Fred Hahn, Al Billes and Tony Pontieri.

In 1987 Larry began racing a Dodge Daytona that was powered by one of Dave Koffel’s B1 engines. The Daytona regularly turned times in the 7.90-second range and when Larry added nitrous the times dropped into the low 7.00 range. In spite of racing against a quite a field of renowned drivers, Larry earned the 1989 season championship in the Canadian series.

Looking to continue his advancement, Larry began campaigning a Jerry Bickel built Dodge Daytona during the early 90s that was powered by an 815 cubic inch B1 engine. It was with this car and engine combination that he became the last driver to join the Sonny’s 200 Mile-per-Hour Club when he ran 200.93. That same engine also earned him a spot in the Holley Six-Second Club when he recorded a 6.93 second elapsed time at Budd’s Creek, Maryland.

Continuing his Dodge brand loyalty he next moved to a Jerry Haas Dodge Avenger that he raced during the mid 90s. Despite being a good car it just wasn’t powerful enough to compete in the successful manner that Larry had become accustomed to with his previous race cars. In an effort to regain the competitiveness that was his hallmark he switched to a Ford Probe built by RJ Race Cars and powered by a Jon Kaase engine for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.

The reality of racing a Ford was counter to everything that this true-blue Mopar lover stood for. After growing up in a Mopar family, Larry’s heart was squarely with running a Dodge. The Probe’s chief redeeming quality was that it caused him to begin working with two individuals, Jon Kaase and Rick Jones, who he continues a close affiliation with to this day.

In 1999 Larry returned to the Mopar fold with a Hemi-powered Dodge Avenger that was built by RJ Race Cars. After four years of competing with this car he made the decision at last year’s Sunoco World Nationals that if he was going to reach the next level of competitiveness he was going to have to begin his own research and development program on the new-style Chrysler Hemi engine. As a hands-on guy he began the R & D program by designing his own hemi cylinder head.

When questioned as to why he would undertake such a Herculean task, Larry simply states that he loves IHRA racing and that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to be a force in that sanctioning body. As a die-hard Dodge guy he prefers to be that force with a Dodge, even if he has to develop his own components where none exist. Amazingly, despite his devotion to the Dodge brand he receives no help from them.

After nearly six months and 2000 man hours the first pair of O’Brien hemi heads were completed. Interestingly, they were not a copy of the hemi heads that NHRA racers use. Larry’s heads are designed on a 5.00-inch bore center as opposed to the smaller 4.90 bore centers that the NHRA heads utilize. Obviously the larger bore center is designed to accommodate the kind of mountain-motor cylinder bores that are found in IHRA racing.

Each of the O’Brien heads has 25 pounds of aluminum in it and took 62 hours of welding to compete. Currently four heads have been finished with 4 more in the pipeline. In addition to the two that are on Larry’s car the other two can be found on Rick Jones IHRA event-winning Dodge Neon. The four heads that are in the pipeline are intended to give both Larry and Rick a spare set of heads each.

The current plan is that the O’Brien hemi head will be available for sale to the general public by July of 2004. Larry is quick to state that he has had lots of inquiries and looks forward to making his heads available to any interested party. Despite not receiving any factory support, Larry doesn’t lack for a support system. The other half of the O’Brien Brothers Pro Stock Team is his brother Wayne, who serves as the team’s crew chief.

Larry’s company, Bear’s, and its employees are also supportive. In addition to manufacturing all of the Strange Engineering components for the Canadian market it serves as a CNC production machine shop for its own line of aftermarket performance parts. The company employs 21 people and covers 15,000 square feet.

Not only did Larry take a sabbatical from his business to develop his cylinder head, he also took one from life. He worked 12 to 16 hours every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving, on his project. Bob Frattarolli, his plant manager, assisted him with the CAD programming and worked right alongside him most days.

At this point you might be asking yourself why Larry would undertake such an all-consuming project when he has a successful business to manage. One answer is simple: He loves IHRA racing and the parity that exists between the General Motors, Ford and Dodge brands in Pro Stock eliminator.

Another answer can be found in Larry himself. He is doing what he loves with the automotive brand he loves and that makes life good.