For a man whose passion in life was speed, Larry Liu could certainly take his time.
Liu, a nationally acclaimed whiz under the hood of drag cars who also operated a Minneapolis auto repair shop for 30 years, died Friday after a brief battle with bile duct cancer. He was 52.
Liu was a master at repairing car engines, "taking them apart, putting them together and making them go fast," said Jill Wilson, who met her love about two years ago. "But I told him he drove like an old lady."
Wilson said she was "the yin to his yang, and vice versa. I did everything left and fast, and he did everything right and slow."
But it was speed where Liu found his calling, culminating in 1995, when he and his fellow crew members pushed Al Hofmann's drag racer comfortably above 300 miles per hour. That victory in Englishtown, N.J., also made Hofmann just the third member of the coveted "Four Second Club" with a time of 4.992 seconds.
"We became the only car to run under five seconds and over 300 [mph] on the same run, and we did it twice," Liu said in a Star Tribune interview that summer. "We ran 4.99 at 306.12, and 4.97 at 306.33. On the first 306, we were flabbergasted that we didn't hurt anything. On the second 306, we pretty much destroyed the whole thing -- the pistons, rods and crank were all junk."
Liu "was very, very meticulous," crew partner and best friend Dwayne "Duey" Hirsch said, "as he was with anything he did. He didn't cut corners."
Specifically, Liu's genius homed in on the engine's cylinder heads, which would take a beating with every trip down the strip as he worked the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) circuit.
"It's a huge sense of accomplishment" to keep these complicated machines in tip-top shape, said Hirsch, who was known as the "bottom end guy," while Liu was above him "dropping parts on me. He was in the clean position."
Hirsch spoke of the bond among a crew that could "rebuild a complete engine, sometimes in less than 60 minutes, four of us."
Fluent in French
Wilson said Liu's upbringing seemingly made him an unlikely candidate for a life building and fixing engines.
"He was kind of a renaissance man," she said, noting his education at Breck School along with having a father who was a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. His mother served on the board for the Guthrie Theater.
"Larry was an only child and was born with a tremendous sense of order," Wilson said. His parents "took him on trips around the world. He spent five summers in Paris and spoke French fluently."
And while he applied his hands to the piano for 12 years, they ultimately made him his living and reputation working on cars, particularly NHRA hot rods.
"There was a conflict in his own head" about his upbringing vs. what became his life's work and passion, Wilson said.
When Liu learned of his cancer in late January, he immediately closed ACS Auto Service & Riverside Imports on Riverside Avenue and "drove his Corvette home and put in the garage," Hirsch said. "That was the last time he drove it."
Along with Wilson, Liu is survived by his parents, Benjamin and Helen Liu. Services were held Tuesday.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482
Poll: Who should be the next Twins starting pitcher to lose his job?