|The Pink Pig stands out in a pack of cars at the soggy 2011 24 Hours of LeMons race at Infineon Raceway. (Murilee Martin photo)|
Leftover Parts campaigns a tired-but-still-sprite first-generation Mazda RX-7 that logged well over 200,000 miles in its days as a street car. Rather than swapping on countless go-fast parts, the team kept the car very close to its original status, opting to to use their broad base of RX-7 knowledge to make the car reliable rather than a rocket. The result has been a car that, while not breaking any series' lap records, has been immensely successful through 11 races over seven race weekends.
Several current and ex-SCCA Spec RX-7 drivers formed Leftover Parts Racing to campaign their beloved rotary-powered sportscar in the unforgiving world of crapcan endurance racing. Co-captains Michael Chiappetta and Carl Johnk head the group, which has a roster of both Spec RX-7 drivers and other racers of varying experience that has so far included Henry Botkin, Gary Boyle, T.K. Bryson, Troy Daniels, Chris Johnk, Joey Jordan, Dave LeCren, Bob Lehmann, Rod Metz, John Simpson, Brett Tiano, and Ted Tietge. Crew chief Wally Partridge keeps the car moving under its own power and the team has also garnered crew help from Sal Chiappetta and Ian Moore.
Leftover Parts added a second RX-7 crapcan to its stable for the 2012 season and is looking forward to running ChumpCar races at Buttonwillow Raceway, Auto Club Speedway, Willow Springs, and Sears Point/Infineon. The Rusty Hub spoked with co-captain Michael Chiappetta recently about crapcan success, knowing your ride inside and out, pit stops, and Pink Pigs.
The Rusty Hub: By my count, you guys have run--Leftover Parts has run--11 races in total and you've been on the podium six times including two wins.
Michael Chiappetta: Sounds about right, yeah. We've been running a lot of the races here in the West. We've been lucky. I think it was...even our first race we did really well; we placed, I think, fifth and sixth in a Double-7 that weekend. And then in our next race, we were able to win that.
But it's really combination of factors. The first is the core of the team is guys who've been racing first-generation Mazda RX-7s for about 10 years or more. So I put a team together of ex-SCCA or even current SCCA drivers who came from the Spec RX-7 world. It's a very lightly modified street car, the Mazda RX-7 first generation. It's pretty much the exact same car we run at either ChumpCar or LeMons.
So you're very familiar with the ins and outs of the car then.
Everybody's owned one of these for 10 years, they've raced them for 10 years, they all know how to fix it instantly. They're all better mechanics than I am. And what's great about it is everybody's developed their own little tricks over the years, so now we've been able to pull together kind of all the tricks we had and put them together in one car [Laughs].
And obviously there's no weight limit like there is in SCCA or in other classes of racing, so we can strip out as much weight as we can in this car and get the car as light as possible. It handles really well. We are never the fastest car on the track, but we usually do fairly well through good handling. Just fairly--not driving-to-the-limits kind of racing--just basically put in a really good pace and get some good pit stops in, it seems like, when we really do well.
Obviously try not to overdrive, which we had happen when we went to the [2011 ChumpCar] National Championship. We had two problems there: We overdrove the car in the rain, so we had some problems because of that. And our car wasn't set up for an oval, since we obviously haven't ever run an oval track before. None of us ever, in a combined 50 years of racing. [Laughs] And the car was geared too low, so we were spinning the driveshaft too fast and we ended up blowing two transmissions as a result. And that was all we had with us was one spare. So the day was over pretty early at the beginning of that race.
Other than that, we're able to do fairly well; we usually do OK...by OK, I mean we don't embarrass ourselves.
That's what it's all about, isn't it? You mentioned the weekend in Iowa--that was the Chumpionship--that sounds like it was a rough weekend. You guys drove from...
I think we had the longest tow of anybody; I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure. From San Diego to Iowa is a pretty long way to go. It took us three solid days of towing to get there. It was a pretty big disappointment, at least for me, when I couldn't keep the car running for the guys who had gone out there. You know, that's racing. We're all pretty mature, experienced racers, so we know that's what happens sometimes.
That's a long tow back, I'd imagine, after that weekend.
[Laughs] It sure was.
Were you guys able to have a good time out there anyway?
Yeah, it was just a great experience to meet some people and see some of the top teams in the country and learn a thing or two.
|Sal Chiappetta (l.) refuels Leftover Parts' Pink Pig Mazda RX-7 while John Simpson gets prepared to take the wheel at the team's most recent race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. (Leftover Parts photo)|
In going over some of your race history on the site, you guys ran the Mexicali races last year. It seems like it's kind of a wild event; can you talk about that a little bit?
Sure, that was one I ran; there were only two drivers for that event. So I ran that with another gentleman from northern California who isn't one of our regular racers. But he runs another team and he was excited about it so he and I ran that. They were actually three separate three-hour races so we just alternated hour-and-a-half shifts or hour shifts, I can't quite remember exactly. [Editor's Note: The other driver was Rod Metz of Rascally Rabbit Racing in NorCal and soon to join the team formerly known as Black Knight Racing in Texas.]
We did pretty well. It was very hot and a very small field, so it sort of inflated our performance results there. But overall, it was a blast. I tell you, part of the reason I wanted to do it was sort of the history of road racing was to race on roads, right? That's how the whole thing got started. So I figured pretty much my entire lifetime, I'll never get a chance to race on a road course for the simple reason that the great road courses in the U.S.--I live in San Diego--they used to close down the road here and race in Del Mar and Torrey Pines' course and people used to race up the hill to Torrey Pines. But they don't do that anymore for lots of legal reasons and safety reasons, I'm sure.
But I think in Mexico, the city is way more behind it than I would say cities are in the U.S. They closed down the road; it was a very safe road course setup. It was a good experience overall as far as officiating, so we were pretty happy to do it. I would do it again if I could put the people together to do it. It was fun.
It's not on your guys' schedule this year. Is it--Chump's doing it again, aren't they? [Editor's note: No, they're not. ChumpCar canceled both this year's Ensenada race and the Mexicali race. The Rusty Hub missed that.]
Yeah, I think they're doing Mexicali and they're also doing Ensenada. We're just not going to be able to do those this year. We've been working on building up a second car--again, a first-generation RX-7. One of the guys on the team donated it; it's his old Spec RX-7 race car and we're building that up for the Buttonwillow race: the Pink Pig and then our new car.
Our plan longer term is to build one of the cars to be very good for tight little tracks for fairly low horsepower, good handling cars. So we do really well at Fontana's interior road course; we run on a tight little course on the interior of the Fontana oval. That car is pretty good for that.
And then our goal is to build up a different car that has better properties--aerodynamic and power--for running larger tracks. Our goal is ultimately to have two cars that are a little more specialized for different types of tracks.
Are you going to run them both at races? Or one or the other?
Well, we'll run both. If we have enough guys, we'd love to run both of them every time. We are going to run both of them at Buttonwillow. And then shortly after Buttonwillow, there's another race at Streets of Willow, again another tight little course. We have enough guys to run one car; if we have enough guys to run two cars, we'll run them both.
You mentioned that they're good handling cars, but what are some of the concerns that come with the "Spinning Magic Triangles?"
[Laughs] We've been lucky. We're running a total junkyard engine. You know, I bought this car--really--for $500 and we're running the stock motor that was in it when I bought it. And we haven't done anything to motor, absolutely nothing. Except that the--in the extreme heat of Mexicali--I did overheat the motor a little bit and caused an oil seal to begin leaking internally. You know, we were actually leaking where it was coming out of the motor as well. One of my teammates fixed it by--this is unbelievably hokey--he just drilled a hole in the motor from the outside and we shot some epoxy glue in there and put a screw in it. And we've raced on it four times since and it hasn't leaked anything.
[Laughs] So they're pretty durable, but when they go, they go big and you've got a complete rebuild ahead of you. But there's a great history of endurance racing with rotary motors; the first Japanese car to ever win 24 Hours of Le Mans was a rotary. And they're very well suited for racing; the emissions are terrible for street cars, but, as far as racing goes, you can spin them 7000 RPM all day long. And we didn't do anything special to the motor; we have absolutely zero engine modifications. The Pink Pig runs stock carburetor, stock motor, everything is stock. We have put a header on it, but that's it.
Absolutely nothing. We run everything stock. It has better longevity that way. If we start stepping up the performance--start porting it and those kinds of things--it's going to run hotter. We also like the fact that we can almost run a full two-hour stint on a tank of gas, which is good. The more we modify it, the worse gas mileage we'd get and the sooner we'd have to pit. We're happy with it the way it is.
Do you run stock exhaust? I know noise is a big concern with the RX-7.
Yeah, the stock exhaust, you can't do that for racing. It just gets too hot; you'll burn it up. We do have a header on there and a couple of mufflers afterward to muffle it. On our second car, we're even running the stock manifold. We're pretty much running a street exhaust. If you use a stock manifold, it already quiets the engine down quite a bit. I mean, these cars are so close to stock, it's unbelievable.
I've heard unmuffled Wankels and it's pretty much unbearable.
How did you guys decide to get into crapcan racing?
I think a number of us had been RX-7 racers and the fields were getting smaller and I was looking at endurance racing because I thought it might be fun. And then I stumbled onto these crapcan races. I bought a car, really, for two reasons. One is I thought it would be fun and had an extra cage laying around, so I thought I'd build a car out of it. Secondly, I needed a bunch of good body panels for my other race car--my SCCA car--because they actually care what the body looks like. I found a car that was running and had bunch of good body panels, so I thought, "Well, heck, I can buy this car. I'll use the body panels on my good car and put all the junky body panels on this car and it'll turn into one of these crapcans."
So we did and it truly is--you know the name of the team is Leftover Parts--it really truly is a lot of the leftover parts from the other team members that were laying around. Just garbage, basically. Like an old, beat-up junky bumper that wasn't good enough for a race car in SCCA is perfect for this class. That's what we use.
|Bob Lehmann (left) shows John Simpson the way around Willow Springs on test day. Simpson had never been on a race track before but helped the team capture a win that weekend. (Leftover Parts racing)|
"Class" is used loosely in that instance. Your first race was in LeMons and you dynamited the differential, if I understand that situation. Can you explain that a bit?
[Laughs] We had a little fire, actually. The problem was when we got the car, we didn't change the axle seals. For whatever reason, they weren't leaking and they didn't start leaking until I put some really good Redline fluid in, which was a lot more slippery than whatever sludge was in there. Once I put the good fluid in, it just leaked so much that (A) we had a wheel fire from a hot rear brake and (B) we just couldn't keep fluid in it and the diff blew apart and we didn't have a spare.
We learned our lesson and we now travel with a spare diff, a spare axle, spare wheel seals, transmissions, driveshafts, and just about anything that could break, including a motor. We've learned our lesson and travel with a lot of junk now.
So you basically have a whole spare car with you, more or less?
Yeah, pretty much a whole car minus the chassis, the seat, and the rollcage.
You guys won in your third race ever. Can you talk about how that came together?
Luck. [Laughs] I think we were the seventh-fastest car on the track. For most of us on the team--I think maybe all of us on the team--none of us had done any night racing and this race was a 12-hour race so the last few hours were in the dark. And that's where we really got lucky. We were doing fairly well, but then a lot of the competitors didn't have too much experience racing at night either. Some of them had problems with the lights, keeping the lights on and getting the lights aimed. We had those problems, too, but we were able to quickly overcome them. They'd pull in the pits and we'd jump in with a wrench and realign the lights. The first guy went out and came back and said, "I can't see anything." [Laughs] After one lap, he said, "It's terrible, I can't see anything."
And we've upgraded the lights since then. We put in the high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs and they're a lot better now. I think we'll find out how good they are when we do the Streets of Willow race, which is an all-night race. It's coming up in August; I think it's 7 p.m. to 9 a.m., so pretty much the entire race is in the dark. We'll find out just how good they are when we do that race. Again, the Buttonwillow race coming up soon is similar with the last couple hours in the dark. We cut down the drivers' shift times to about one hour so nobody's trying to drive in the dark for two hours.
It's just a little luck; the conditions played a big part there. Some of the teams that were a lot faster than us had some bad luck with the lights. It is hard to drive at these tracks in California; you're just out in the middle of the desert. There's no lights, there's nothing. It's just your headlights and that's it. It's not like we're racing on a big oval track that has lights around it or anything.
|(l. to r.) John Simpson, Michael Chiappetta, Sal Chiappetta, Dave LeCren, and T.K. Bryson earned two third-place finishes at ChumpCar's Double-7 weekend at Fontana in 2011. (Leftover Parts photo)|
What's the difference between driving the same track in the day and at night? How long does it take to acclimated to that?
Well, it's different certainly in the lap times. I wasn't one of the drivers who raced in the dark, but I'll certainly find out this time. I know the dust is a giant problem, because people are dropping wheels off all over the place and it kicks up a lot of dust. Then the lights just reflect the dust back so really you couldn't see the track at all. That's why people were having such a hard time. Hopefully, we'll all be a little better--all the teams--and everything will work as it's supposed to.
One thing I read on the site again was that you credited a lot of your success to good pit stops. Can you walk me through what a typical pit stop is and how you're efficient about it?
Sure, we've had our best pit stops at the last race; we finally got down to five minutes to refuel and driver change. You know, it's really...we don't physically rehearse it, but we rehearse everybody's role, talking about it ahead of time and what everybody's got to do. Also, that last race, my father was crewing for us and he was the dedicated fuel man, which made it a lot easier. One guy is going to be in charge of the fuel; he can just concentrate on getting that done as quickly as possible. That helped a lot. And then we've got a system of what everybody knows their role: what the incoming driver is supposed to do, what the outgoing driver is supposed to do, what the helper is supposed to do to get the next driver in the car.
Rules are new this year where everybody has to be fireproof gear while you're fueling. That will pose a challenge and I'm sure we'll be slow until we get used to it, because it's a little bit harder to help somebody get bolted in the car and get situated while--if you're the helper--you've got a suit and you're wearing a helmet and gloves and all that. We'll adjust. Rules, I think, it's good to go in the direction of making things safer over time. But, you know, our system will have to change; that's just how racing is: Rules change and you have to change the system a little bit. We're not sure how yet, but we're going to work really hard to get back down to five minutes.
That's something that's interesting to me: How good pit stops go and how you coordinate it.
Yeah, an extra minute-and-a-half in the pit is a whole lap. If you have even a short race, you're going to have four or five pit stops, right? In a seven-hour race, if we have four drivers, that's three pit stops minimum. So if go an extra minute-and-a-half each time, that's three laps. And, you know, the margin of victory--these races are close. We're not winning by three, four, five laps; nobody is usually. We finished third, I think, by one lap last time we raced. It's really close.
I'm going to change gears completely here. So why the Pink Pig livery? That seems like a strange choice for a Mazda.
One of the guys who's a founding member of the team is a really Porsche-phile, Porsche Club member. We were kind of thinking what would be a cool race car theme to do. Also, I live on a property that was previously inhabited by archery hunters and they have a number of foam targets around the property and one of them was a big pink pig. So I have this big pig--pinkish-brownish--pig head that is kind of lying around the shop.
And it just seemed like--T.K. [Bryson], one of our drivers, the Porsche-phile--he thought it might be a good idea. It's a famous car and it's a pretty good looking car. We liked the idea and it seemed to fit the car. We built the wings out of surfboard parts. Carl [Johnk], one of our founding members, did that with his son Chris. And people seem to like it; we usually get a smile wherever we go.
Awesome. I think I saw that right when you guys debuted it, I saw it on some of the LeMons coverage and I chuckled. You guys have had some bad luck at LeMons, also.
[Laughs] Yeah, we noticed.
Obviously, the diff problem and the only other race you guys did, at Sears Point, you finished 108th out of 170.
Yeah, we went home early on the second day. That was at the request of the organizers actually.
I had earned a black flag early in the day on Sunday. I fell off the track; it was pretty wet and slippery and I couldn't get back on it, it was just so muddy and slippery. And then another driver, he had a stuck throttle problem. So what happened was the throttle stuck, I think he went off, and then he just wiggled the throttle until it came loose. He was trying to drive back to have us look at it and figure out what was wrong and the throttle stuck again. And he got penalized for two black flags in one lap. So we abused the three black flags rule and our day was over on Sunday unfortunately. [Editor's Note: Per LeMons' Rule 6.0, three black flags in a day means a three-hour impound, which frequently ends teams' days if there are only a few hours remaining.]
|The Leftover Parts' RX-7 runs in its initial livery at its first race at Thunderhill Raceway in 2009. (Murilee Martin photo)|
You're referred to as the "black flags leader" several time on the site. Did that overcome the gap?
Yeah, I'm also one of the faster drivers, so you've got to take the good with the bad, I guess. Honestly, that was sort of inexcusable that I fell off the track that day. But as a whole, we're pretty clean racers. We're not going to trash our car. We know the fastest away around the track isn't to hit somebody. So we do our best to keep it on the track and not hit anybody. If we ever bump anybody, we're really sorry about it and usually apologize very quickly and get over there if we can figure out who it was.
Fair enough. You guys have run with ChumpCar almost since they started. Has that series changed at all over the time period you've run with them?
I think so. They're definitely more organized. The level of organization...goes up a notch each year. We like that. I think we're getting slightly larger fields at California Speedway, where anytime there's a race, we're there. And it's kind of the closest track to us; we can drive a couple hours there so we're racing there. No matter who's holding the race, we're racing there. So it looks like they're getting slightly larger fields there; we're happy about that, of course. And I think just overall, John [Condren, ChumpCar founder and operator] is a really good guy. We're glad to support him any way we can and we're trying to get two cars together for this next race. We just like racing with him; he's a nice guy. The organization's well-run and that's all we want.
It seems like they've grown a lot, just as an organization.
Well, it's about racing. We love it. We're racers. It fits in well with what we're all about. About half the guys on the team, actually, at this point are ex-Spec RX-7 drivers and the other half are people we knew or good autocrossers. There are a number of them, including the first race that we won, one of the drivers had never driven a track before. And we just got there a day early, we did a test day, and we had three or four other veteran drivers. One of them showed the new guy the line, so we had five drivers total. So we just took him around, showed him the track and showed him how to drive fast. He did a great job.
We're sort of the proof that we can take people who've never raced before and help make them successful in ChumpCar. There's no question in our mind that you can do that. Any team that wants to can. So we strongly encourage new guys, especially now at this race with two cars, we're going to have a couple of people who've never driven in a race again racing with us.
|Rod Metz (l.) and Michael Chiappetta took the Pink Pig to Mexicali for a weekend of three three-hour races in 2011, finishing with a win and two second-places finishes. (Leftover Parts photo)|
Yeah, it seems like you guys have a strong team ethic. Can you maybe talk about teamwork and how all your pieces fit together?
I really, really, really rely on everybody to just do everything. I just kind of say "Here's the stuff that's got to get done. We're going to have a party out here all day Saturday at my place. We're going to be working on one of the cars. We'll be here at eight in the morning and until five at night. I'll make lunch--breakfast and lunch--you know, we're basically going to put four or five guys on the car for eight hours, ten hours, and put a whole man-week onto getting the car built."
And whatever's not done that day, if I can't finish it up, we'll have another work day out here before the race. People come out here and they donate a whole solid day--twice, sometimes--before the race. If we can get 80 hours of man-hours to get it to tip-top shape, that's what we're going to do.
And it's not just that. It's all the ideas people have about what to do. Everything from setting up the suspension to the brake pads we use; there's a lot of knowledge on our team about the RX-7 in particular that we can tap into, so we do. We have little discussion sometimes, "How should we do this? How should we do that?" But everybody on the team pitches in. Some guys can weld, some can't--I can't. Some people know a lot more about suspensions, some know more about electrical. People do what they're specialty is: Work on the lights, work on the brakes, whatever they do best, they can focus on it.
At a recent test day, you had a minor engine fire on one of the cars.
On the new car. We were testing the new car. So, yeah, we caught on fire, so that's good. We got rid of a lot of extra wiring that way.
We actually got it running in about an hour and got it back out onto the track. It's working. You just have to overcome adversity, that's all there is to it. [Laughs]
That's what most of crapcan racing seems like it is: Just overcoming adversity. What happened with the fire? Just an electrical fire?
I think what happened--this car's been a race car for a long time--I think it had a wire that was maybe hanging a little too close to the exhaust. The exhaust got hot and..I'm sure it wasn't touching the exhaust; the exhaust on these rotaries are really hot. We've had hoses just--air hoses--just burn through on the manifold. I think that's what happened here; I think the heat in the manifold cooked the wire, a couple wires that were next to each other and created a little bit of a fire. [Crew Chief Wally Partridge, who was driving at the time,] got out right away and hit it with the foam, patched it up and sent it back out there. It'll be running fine. We'll find out in two weeks.
|The Pink Pig's night vision took some trial and error to get right, but they've opted for the HID lights seen here. (Leftover Parts Racing)|
So what's on the horizon for Leftover Parts Racing this year?
Well, I think this upcoming race will be good. We'll actually have three father-son teams there.
Some of them are going to be father-son both driving, some are going to be son driving and father crewing, and some are going to be the other way around, I think. Or I guess two of them will fathers crewing, sons driving. But that's what it's about. We have a big group of people and it's just a lot of fun. That's what it's all about for us; we never have the fastest car. If we can do well, we can maybe not embarrass ourselves in the end. That's all I'm worried about.
And I just put together that race is on Father's Day weekend, isn't it?
That's right, exactly.
Sorry, I'm a little slow on the uptake...Do you have an advice that you would give to a team that's just starting out?
My advice is to just get a car that you know. Whatever piece of junk car you drove in college will probably be the best one to start with. Any of these cars that people race--we've seen everything from Hondas and Miatas and RX-7s and BMWs--they're all competitive. The car doesn't matter that much. Just get it as light as you can so it handles well and just get out there and have fun.
Learn from the other teams. Talk to the other teams. You know, we're always happy to help anyone who has a question and we go ask people. Our first couple races, we were out walking around, looking at people's tires, seeing what tires they're driving on, how they're wearing, how they're setting them up, watching everybody's pit stops. You learn by going there and doing it.
It seems like the community generally is very helpful to each other, lots of camaraderie there.
Oh, yeah. I'll tell anybody who wants to know exactly what brake pads we use and what compounds and what tires we use...just about anything you want to know. Our car had nothing hidden on it; there's no big trick. We're willing to help anybody.
So what kind of brake pads and tires do you use?
We're actually going to try the Falken Azenis for the first time; we've been using the Dunlop Star Specs pretty much exclusively at this point.
It seems like it's an either/or in these kinds of series.
Yeah, we got a good deal on the Falkens so we're going to try them. And then I like the Raybestos pads; they seem to last well for us.
Doesn't the RX-7 have a unique bolt pattern on the wheels?
It sure does. [Laughs] It's the only car in the world, I think, the only car in the world that uses it: the RX-2, -3, -4, and -7. So yeah, we're never sharing wheels with anybody. But then once you buy a couple sets, you're really sucked in. You made the investment, you may as well keep racing them.
Lightning Round - 5 random questions answered kind of fast
|(l. to r.) Bob Lehmann, John Simpson, Michael Chiappetta, Carl Johnk, and Wally Partridge won the ChumpCar race at Willow Springs in 2010. (Leftover Parts photo)|
The Rusty Hub: (1) What was your first car and was it a lemon- or a crapcan-caliber car?
Michael: [Laughs] It was a 1971 Porsche 914 that we bought for, I think, $1,500. I totaled it in a week. [Laughs]
[Laughs] What happened?
It wasn't my fault. Someone made a left turn right in front of me and I swerved to avoid them. And that was it...that was the end of that car.
That's a bummer of a car to wreck right away, too.
Yeah...probably if I'd a little more wherewithal, I could have had the frame straightened and made the thing run, but just ended up selling it. It wasn't such a bad loss as a car one the money side, but it was a sad car to lose the car from a driving point of view.
(2) How many Japanese Super GT manufacturers' titles has an RX-7 won?
I'm going to guess four.
They've won one in 2006. I thought it would higher, too. Apparently, Nissan dominates.
I guess so.
(3) Can you tell me two truths and a lie about Leftover Parts Racing (but don't tell me which one is a lie)?
1. Both team cars have caught fire while on the track
2. We have yet to finish a LeMons race
3. The Pink Pig has a sausage hidden in the tail fin for corner weighting
(4) The 24 Hours of Nurburgring just took place last weekend. How many hours would your RX-7 have lasted there?
I think it would do all 24 hours, no problem.
Yeah, why not? It's got 200,000 miles already; what's another 24 hours of driving?
The Nurburgring doesn't intimidate the car?
I don't think so, nah.
(5) This is a one-word, fill-in-the-blank answer: The Leftover Parts RX-7 is _______.
A pile of junk.
I'll make that into one word. [Editor's Note: apileofjunk]
Oh, one word, OK. It's a true crapcan. It really is.