Fallbrook, California, 1986. NHRA Super Stock champion Paul Rossi has abruptly decided to quit drag racing after 20 successful years. Crazy as a loon or crazy like a fox? Faced with a lack of V8 performance options from Mother Mopar, Rossi decided to start a road racing team from the ground up, enabling him to maintain his insider status and sponsorship dollars from Chrysler. With no experience in going around corners, he realized that this would be the best way to represent the Dodge Charger 2.2 and other small four cylinder cars that the factory was now building. After conquering the initial learning curve, Rossi decided to make an all-out assault on the International Motor Sport Association (IMSA) showroom stock circuit. Not many racers have been successful in making the transition from drag racing to road racing, but Rossi was intent on joining the likes of Danny Ongais, Jack Roush and Paul Gentilozzi.
First up was the task of converting an armada of brand new, front-wheel-drive Dodge Chargers to compete in IMSA’s Firehawk series, which showcased showroom-fresh cars with modest improvements, such as exhaust, shocks and tires. The rules were so strict that there was not much you could do, but Rossi incorporated his drag racing tricks of streamlining, stance and relocating weight. Turbocharging was introduced into the Dodge program in 1987, but the result was worn out brakes at every fuel stop and blown head gaskets. The gasket was so fragile on the 2.2, that after repeated on-track failures, Rossi learned to swap it out in only twelve minutes. That would definitely keep you in the game during the occasional twenty four hour race, which can accumulate 100,000 miles of hard wear in a single day. Further experience would yield that after the head gasket was installed, the engine should be warmed up first, then torqued, and if the engine was kept warm it would hold. Eventually, when other teams were confounded by a mechanical issue, someone would invariably recommend “Go see the drag racer.”
The brakes were another story. The rationale was that the turbo cars had more speed during hard and steady racing, therefore they had more energy to dissipate, therefore more heat. Rossi wasn’t buying it, especially with the tach following the temperature gauge during a race. A few months after they started with the turbo cars, Rossi heads to a Dodge dealership in Westlake, California to pick up another race car candidate. While driving the showroom new Shelby Charger back to Los Angeles, he notices that the engine does not immediately drop to idle when the clutch is depressed. After a few sleepless nights, it’s determined that the cars computer is not allowing the Automatic Idle System (AIS) to function properly. When the findings were presented to Chrysler’s head racing engineer, Pete Gladys, he dismissed the notion as “non-engineer input.” Undaunted, Rossi called his factory buddies back in Detroit, explained the problem and had them burn a new ECU on the sly. Problem solved. Gladys is still pissed, but the result was a Firehawk Championship for Dodge in the first full year of competition.
While contemplating how to further incorporate the Shelby brand into the IMSA venture for 1988, Dodge Motorsports Manager Dick Maxwell reached out to Rossi with an assignment to take a meeting with the President of Thrifty Rental Car, which at the time was a Chrysler entity. The Dodge Shadow, a staple of the rental business, had maxed itself out in sales and was facing a grim future. “Breath some life into this turd,” was the edict. During the sit-down, Rossi was asked if he ever rented from Thrifty, to which he answered in the negative. “Uh, why not? You travel all the time.” Rossi replied “I’m here to have fun. Your name is Thrifty and, to me, that doesn’t sell fun. By the way, do you remember the Hertz Shelby Mustangs?” And so it goes. Rossi proposes 500 sporty versions of the Shadow; a Shelby CSX with a little less horsepower, painted white and blue (Thrifty colors), and called the CSX-T (for Thrifty.) “Hook us up!”
The next stop is the office of John Fernandez at Shelby. “What if I brought you an order for 500 new cars?” Rossi quizzed. Barely able to contain his excitement, Fernandez wonders aloud what it’s going to cost. So a deal is struck to award Team Rossi the IMSA program for the CSX-T and all the money needed to make it competitive. After the players are introduced, but before the champagne has a chance to stop flowing, Fernandez calls to say he changed his mind and that Shelby will do the race deal in-house. So Rossi instead augmented a trio of front-wheel-drive Dodge Daytona Zs to his fleet. Screwed by the Man, Part IX.
In the middle of the 1989 season, the team was encouraged to try a new platform, the Mitsubishi Eagle Talon, a byproduct of Chrysler’s American Motors Corporation buyout. You see, Chrysler was only interested in purchasing the Jeep brand, which was owned by AMC at the time, but the deal required them to maintain and sell existing AMC products for a certain number of years. Since AMC’s cars were shit, or rebadged French Renaults, Ma Mopar decided to re-brand American Motors as “Eagle” and use it as a halo for their Diamond-Star products. French and Japanese cars. American Motors. Get it?
While continuing with the turbo Dodge Daytonas, Rossi’s first Talon was ready mid-season at the D-S plant in Normal, Illinois, but it wasn’t a Talon, it was a Plymouth Laser. The Plymouth was introduced six months before the Eagle or Mitsubishi Eclipse and was the only model in production, so when it was shipped back to Cali for the necessary chassis and safety modifications, it was sent along with an updated Eagle front fascia and taillights. Thrashing to make the car’s first race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, there was no time for testing or adjustments, so the virgin ride was loaded on the transporter and headed to Columbus. As is typical in Rossi World, the truck took a crap in route with no chance of a timely repair, so the driver was instructed to off-load the Talon and drive it the rest of the way to the track. Not an easy thing to do if Rossi were still running NHRA Super Stock. With no time to spare, the stock appearing racer was masked off in a nearby field, and quickly spray-bombed with the team’s pink and blue stripes. Consequently this delay resulted in the team missing all of their qualifying sessions and starting the race in the dead last position out of 39 cars. In what turned out to be a stroke of luck, the delay also did not allow time for removal of the car’s production wipers and defroster. The talents of drivers Terry Earwood and Joe Varde, along with the fact that it started raining during the race, resulted in the car consistently moving through the pack until the checkered flag fell three hours later. Team Rossi had not only won the car’s first event, but would continue the winning streak to a second series championship that year.
For 1990, Rossi would expand the team’s effort to include the IMSA Luk Clutch Challenge for International Sedans, a big money, treaded tire series geared towards race cars with fuel cells, modified suspensions and gutted interiors. One year after his factory fresh Talon won its first Firehawk race, his other new (and untried) Talon won its first International Sedan (I/S) race. With driver Garth Ullom at the wheel, that win earned Team Rossi the distinction of being the only team in IMSA history to win its inaugural event in a new race series with a new car and a new driver (to that series). Reminiscent of the NHRA days, IMSA began adding weight to the winning Talons and by the end of the year they were 550 pounds heavier than the ultra-competitive Oldsmobiles, which made roughly the same horsepower. Nonetheless, the IMSA historians were quickly developing writer’s cramp, because when the 1990 season was over, Ullom had won the I/S Manufacturer’s Championship for Eagle and the Driver’s Championship for himself, while teammate Joe Pezza was named Driver’s Champion of the Firehawk Series and Eagle was bestowed with the Firehawk Manufacturer’s Championship as well.
Afterwards Carroll Shelby personally calls Rossi to offer his congratulations, hat in hand. Not only did Shelby’s three car CSX I/S team never win an event, it never placed in the top five, and on top of that, Shelby was never told about the Thrifty deal. “These guys are ruining my company. There’s nobody here; they’re all out racing. I spent a million dollars and have nothing to show for it. I should have hired you,” Shelby lamented. Of course that was an ego boost for Rossi, especially when last year’s I/S champ, Acura, spent well over a million dollars, while Rossi’s championship budget was only $350,000.
If all of this wasn’t enough satisfaction, at the end of July during the IMSA Firehawk and I/S race in Portland, Oregon, Rossi decided to enter another team of Eagle Talons in the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb. He figured the all-wheel drive pocket rockets would be a natural for the 12.5 mile, 9000 foot to 14,000 foot elevation challenge. Incorporating yet another drag racing trick, a liquid-to-air intercooler was plumbed through an ice chest packed with dry ice, creating cool, dense air to combat the high altitude. What resulted was off-road racing champ Don Adams capturing the Division C, Production class championship (13 minutes, 50.46 seconds,) while Dick Dodge, Jr. took home the Division D, Open class title (13 minutes, 08.86 seconds.)
Was all of this just luck? Hardly. Along the way, Rossi earned a TRW Mechanic of the Year award, was now working out of his own 30,000 square foot shop, and had replaced the good old Dodge Oleynik transporters with a pair of shiny new tractor trailers. With a total of nine race-ready Talons at the wings, his champion drivers have included Garth Ullom, Alfredo Carbonell, Terry Earwood (another drag racer), Don Harple, Don Knowles, Ian O’Flaherty, Roberto Lorenzutti, Joe Pezza, Dorsey Schroeder and Jeremy Dale among others. For 1991, Rossi’s final season in IMSA, he would debut two twin turbocharged 300 horsepower Dodge Stealth R/Ts, which would be placed into the new Bridgestone/Potenza Supercar Challenge.
His marketing prowess continued to prove invaluable, as he secured Walker mufflers, Monroe shocks, BFGoodrich, Auto Meter and Mobil 1 as major, longtime sponsors. Rossi delivered with 55 IMSA wins, 4 Firehawk Championships, 1 International Sedan Championship, and 2 Pikes Peak wins. When it was all said and done, Paul Rossi Performance would win more races, sit on more poles, and capture more fastest lap times than any other team in the IMSA series.
Next issue: When does it end for Paul Rossi?
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