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Randy Pobst Interview - The Rocket

Randy Pobst: Getting personal with the championship-winning Honda driver

Aaron Bonk
Sep 25, 2013

With nearly 30 years of seat time and almost 100 professional wins, the story of one of America's most successful sports car drivers isn't a condensed one. Randy Pobst's racing career humbly began behind the wheel of a modestly equipped Datsun 510 with stints in all manner of Toyotas, Mazdas, Porsches, Audis, Volvos, and others to follow. Pobst's love for Honda has made itself obvious throughout his career, though, beginning in the late 1980s when he fulfilled his first hired-gun Honda assignment in an '89 Civic Si and culminating in 2009 when he helped secure the Grand-Am Koni Sports Car Challenge championship along with Compass360 Racing. Pobst's story begins not on the road course but on the autocross track where he honed his skills before partnering up with legendary Honda racing team T.C. Kline Racing and, ultimately, making history driving the now fabled North American Touring Car Championship Neuspeed Accord and securing the championship in 1996. Pobst's accomplishments hardly end there, though, nor does his love affair with Honda. This is the story of Randy Pobst, straight from the Honda history books.

HT: How did you first get involved in motorsports?

RP: I started off autocrossing when I was 19 years old. I knew I liked driving around corners, and I rode a lot of motorcycles when I was in high school. I wasn't a big horsepower guy; I liked the corners. The first time I did a fun run I said, "Man, this is for me."

HT: Tell us about that first experience on the track and the events that led up to it.

RP: When I was 19 years old I saw an ad in Shopping News--one of those little classified ads papers that they had before Craigslist [laughs]. It said, "Race your own car. Five bucks. All you need is a helmet." I thought: That sounds interesting. I had a Datsun 510 two-door at the time--a cool little car. The only reason I bought it was because it looked cool. It was lowered, it had mag wheels, a header, sway bars, springs, and shocks. Anyway, it handled pretty darn well. My brother and I went to watch the event. I watched two before I entered a fun run [myself] behind a shopping center in Melbourne, Florida, where I lived. I didn't know much but, fortunately, the car was pretty well set up. It was like a great beast walked in, grabbed me by the neck and said, "You must race." I just knew it was for me. I'd found my calling. [After] the fun run, I entered the next event and beat the last year's class champion. That was where it all started. The experience brought a high to me. It was like a drug. It just felt so good to drive as fast as I could. It didn't matter that I was only going 35 to 40 mph. [I was] at the limit of the tires, screaming through those corners, just working. It was really fun. I'm still addicted, ever since that first run in March of 1977.

HT: Tell us about your nickname, Randy the Rocket. Where did that come from?

RP: That's what the boys began calling me at Alex Job Racing when I started driving Porsches with them in 1998. It just hung around. It's phonetically correct: Randy the Rocket [laughs]. At the time, I had a lot of success and a great relationship with Alex Job Racing. I still do, frankly, although I'm not currently driving for him. Some of the crew guys were old friends of mine from Florida, where the team is from. I'd actually met some of them autocrossing, so when I was hanging around looking for a ride in a race, one of [them] called me over and said, "Hey, we might need a driver." It went really well. We won the first race I did with them, and I got a couple of poles at Sebring, which led me to my Porsche factory contract. It was all a great thing. It was those guys who started calling me Randy the Rocket because I was so fast.

HT: How did autocrossing help prepare you for endurance racing and the dozens of wins you've secured?

RP: Autocrossing is the best way to learn how to drive fast. Number one: it's low risk. If you make a mistake, you're not going to wreck your car. I love track events, but you can't push the limit because if something goes wrong, you could very well crash your car. Number two: autocrossing teaches you car control. [Since] you're throwing the car around so much, you're always sliding, so you've got to learn how to control that, and you've got the instant feedback from the time that you turn. An impartial judge immediately tells you whether or not you're fast. Autocrossing also teaches you patience on the throttle. The corners are tight, so you have to learn to think ahead and wait until the car gets pointed properly before you go to the cone. That's one of the biggest problems that drivers have. When they're trying to go faster, they get the power before the car gets properly turned. Autocrossing teaches you that patience. An autocrosser is always a better prepared and better road racer.

HT: Let's talk about your first experience behind the wheel of a Honda. What was that like?

RP: The very first Honda I ever drove was a motorcycle [laughs]. I had a bunch of them. I'm 55 years old, so I was a teenager in the early '70s. In high school I had CB350s and CB750s. My sister, who is 10 years older, had a Triumph chopper and then a Harley Sportster that she bought new when she was 18 years old. Well, I could look at those bikes and look at those Hondas and it was obvious: the Hondas were far better built! Immediately, I had respect for Honda, especially its engines in those days. They were far superior to American or European motorcycles.

HT: What about Honda cars? Which was your first?

RP: The first Honda car I ever drove was my girlfriend's 1976 Accord. She bought it with inheritance money right after she graduated high school. Again, compared to my dad's Dodge Volare station wagon, the Accord was so well built. The air conditioning controls were so good, and the seat materials...everything, the shifter was so light and quick. Everything worked so well. I knew that Honda was setting a whole new standard for motor vehicles.

HT: Let's talk about the first Honda you'd ever raced. Was that the T.C. Kline Racing CRX?

RP: Let me think about that...[laughs]. No, that was the second one. I raced another [one] for a Honda dealer in Maryland. It was a 1989 Honda Civic Si. It was raining bloody murder. My co-driver was Andy Pilgrim, and my team was my wife and family. We won. It was the greatest win in my entire career. It'd come after a long drought, so it was ironic that it was raining. We actually crashed in the middle of the race. I hydroplaned and went off the road [laughs]. I learned that with a FWD car, if you hydroplane and the front wheels lock, you can let off the brake all you want--it's FWD and the engine will keep them locked--so put the clutch in. Anyways, I bounced off the tires, the SCCA workers pushed me back out, I went back on track and started driving as fast as I could. Near the end of the race they came on the radio--a CB radio, by the way [laughs]-and they said, "Randy, you're 30 seconds behind the leader, you're going two seconds a lap faster than him, and there are 15 laps to go. You can catch him." They kept giving me the intervals as I got closer. On the last lap, three corners from the end, I dive-bombed under this VW GTI 16-valve and won the race.

HT: Was that one of your first road racing wins?

RP: Yes, it was my first endurance racing win. T.C. Kline hired me for the next race, the 24 Hours of Watkins Glen, and we won that. I won my first two road races in Hondas.

HT: What did you think about the CRX that you raced back when you teamed up with T.C. Kline Racing? How did it compare to other cars you'd driven?

RP: Those old CRXs had that sophisticated front suspension with the upper and lower control arms, and they were very light, which made them great race cars. They still are. That gave the front suspension a really good camber curve. When [it] was loaded it would gain negative camber, which made it very effective with the radial tires we were running in those days. Over the years, I've raced a lot of different cars. I went from Volkswagen to Toyota to Honda. The CRXs were quite a bit lighter than the VWs. They had a smaller engine and less power, but they ended up [making for] a really good race. They cornered better but the Volkswagens were a little bit faster. The Volkswagens actually stopped well; they had a little bit bigger brakes than the CRXs came with in those days. [The CRX] had tiny brakes, but what a great running engine.

The first time I drove a new-at-the-time '88 CRX was for a Grassroots Motorsports [magazine] road test. Actually, they called it Auto-X magazine in those days. Holy cow! That little engine was wide awake. It was like it was on a double dose of caffeine. It revved so quickly and easily and it had a lot of midrange torque. It didn't have any real high-rpm power, but it had a fat little torque curve, very low rotating mass, and it revved up quickly. It felt so good. Nothing ever idled better than those engines. The '88-'91 [CRX] was a much more neutral car [when compared to the previous CRX]. It had a bit of rear steer built into its rear suspension--really trick! Since they were so short, it made it a very tricky car to drive at the limit. They [also] had this toe curve that helped reduce understeer. It was a very fast car but tricky to drive because it didn't have much understeer.

HT: While you were racing with T.C. Kline, American Honda took an interest in the team. Tell us about that.

RP: T.C. Kline Racing had a direct relationship with American Honda. [Honda] would help teams with cars sometimes--bodies in white--inexpensive parts, and a really strong contingency. At the time, you could win a lot of money in street stock racing, which would be the equivalent of the [Grand-Am] Continental [Tire Sports Car Challenge] series today or the [Pirelli] World Challenge. It was a lot of money.

The closest relationship I had with Honda was when they hired me a few times to drive endurance races, like in the Escort [Endurance Championship] series. I won the 24 Hours with Peter Cunningham back in '89 or '90, and I won a couple of races in World Challenge. I was kind of a hired gun for American Honda. There were a couple of special guys back in those days. Dix Erickson was running [what Honda] called its Special Projects. Dix was a really interesting character. He seemed like a grown-up surfer to me [laughs]. He kind of had that "hey, dude" kind of attitude, but he was really sharp about racing and about business. His right-hand man was Charlie Curnutt. Shocks were his specialty. Really sharp guy. Charlie was always building tricked-out shocks--more for Peter Cunningham and his racing team, which I don't think was called Realtime yet. Those two guys were instrumental in helping all of the little Honda teams of the day.

TC kline racing CRX 02 Photo 2/3   |  
Pobst behind the wheel of the T.C. Kline Racing CRX after a brutal session.

HT: You were considered a FWD specialist for some time. Do you think that ever hurt you professionally or career-wise?

RP: I didn't have a really good awareness of what other people thought of me. I still don't, frankly, and I think that's a gift [laughs]. I think it may have been an issue at one point in my career, but I've always been kind of a late bloomer. In those days, I was in my early 30s, and I was still getting my first pro rides. For me, I wasn't worried about those aspects of it; I just wanted to race something. I didn't care what it was. I've always been good at driving whatever I got my hands on. It doesn't matter what it is.

Maybe some other guys were less likely to ask me to drive. I never asked people for rides. I still don't like that. I'm not an aggressive guy outside of the car. Inside of the car I'm a different animal. I'm more war-like, but I still play by the rules and I work very hard not to stab anybody in the back. One thing that probably did help me was a lot of the guys at the street stock racing level didn't know a lot of the guys at the GT racing level. In those days especially there was not much crossover. The step was very difficult to make. It still kind of is, to go from a street stock car to a GT car. You've got to push for it. Me, I just got lucky. I stumbled into things, and when I finally got in a seat, I would normally do very well and make true believers out of another group of guys. You've got to get in the car and then turn them into true believers.

HT: The North American Touring Car Championship series was a short-lived but exciting one, especially for Honda enthusiasts. Can you tell us about that series from your perspective?

RP: The North American Touring Car Championship was directly related to the European touring car championships, like the British, German, and French [series], based on 2.0L sedans. In the early and mid-'90s it was extremely popular in Europe, especially for the British. IndyCar investors brought it here as a backup to the IndyCar series. That was a big step for T.C. Kline Racing and for me. T.C. got a sponsorship through Neuspeed and got a car from the British Touring Car Championship. The Accord was a European-style Accord, which is more like a Civic. We showed up at the first race with almost no testing--RHD with a sequential-shifter when nobody had sequential shifters. I just figured it out from there. We were really excited. It was a big step, a big investment. T.C. really went out on a limb for it, and so did Neuspeed.

The series was built for factories and needed factory team involvement. The first year, the only team that came in was Chrysler, and they [were really strong]. Fortunately, we had a really strong engine. The Honda had way more horsepower than the Dodge did, but [the Dodge] handled way better. We couldn't really sort ours out because we didn't have the budget for testing. We ran the whole season on one engine. One. It was really a masterful strategy, to do it on so little money and to win the championship. That was T.C. Kline and our crew chief, Alan Jenkins. We couldn't afford to screw anything up, and he did a great job managing that.

HT: Can you tell us more about the Accord you raced in that series? Its engine was certainly unique with its reversed cylinder head orientation. Are there any technical details about the car that you can share?

RP: Well, it was a Prelude engine, but a 2.0L version. It was a revvy engine--definitely all high-rpm. Not a lot of torque. Kind of like a VTEC engine but without VTEC. If you had VTEC on all the time, it ran sort of like that. It had a close-ratio six-speed. The car was light--only about 2,000 pounds. It was low, and it looked so cool because the body hung over the big 19-inch wheels back when nobody had 19-inch wheels. On the front, we had a weird and interesting brake setup with two calipers per wheel. I'm not real sure what the advantage was, but that was what we had-two small calipers instead of one big one. The engine lasted all year, like I said. Alan Jenkins refreshed it. Even though he didn't know Hondas, he knew engines. He took it apart, ringed it, and lapped in the valves. That engine was the key to our success because it made such good power and was so reliable.

HT: Was the engine sold with the car?

RP: It came with the car. The car was from one of the top teams. I'll tell you something else, too, that car was stiff. The springs and the bars, holy cow! I don't know if they actually raced it that way, but that's the way they sold it. It was a dicey car to drive. It actually handled a little bit like an '88 CRX with really stiff springs in it [laughs]. The tail was kind of drifty but not in a real predictable way. And the car had no power steering, about seven degrees of caster, racing slicks, and a very tight limited-slip differential. Let me tell you, driving that car was a workout for my skinny little arms. Thank goodness the races were only 20-minute sprints. Oh, misery trying to drive that car with no power steering.

HT: In 2009, you joined Compass360 Racing and drove its Civic Si in the Grand-Am Koni Sports Car Challenge ST class. You experienced a number of wins and podium finishes with the team and won the championship that season. Can you tell us about that experience? What was it like driving those Civics?

RP: I'm trying to remember how I got hooked up with Compass. I met their crew chief, Ray Lee, and we hit it off pretty well. My co-driver was Christian Miller, who I knew from World Challenge. When I was racing a Mazda, Christian had his own VW Jetta that he was running. Christian and I had some really good races. Christian did very well for being a privateer running his own car. Amazingly well. He actually beat me in the rain at Mosport in a really close finish where he pulled past me at the finish line. I think that was how I got hooked up with Compass. I'm not real sure. Maybe Christian suggested they call me.

HT: What about the cars. What were those Civics like?

RP: From the very first race, I could tell that those cars were set up well. I was amazed at the front grip from a MacPherson strut car. Ray had already been running the Civics before I came along, and he had a good setup on them. I loved those motors, the way the engines revved out. They sounded like such race engines at high rpm. The brakes were kind of minimal, again; we always had to be a little careful with the brakes. A lot of the cars that we were racing against didn't have to. The gearbox was great. The shifter, I remember, it was almost like it came out of the dash. It was easy to get into the wrong gear until you got used to it. It was very light. You had to be really careful with that shifter. But Ray had that car really well balanced for a FWD, especially with MacPherson struts.

HT: Does any particular race or experience stand out for you when racing with Compass360?

RP: Christian was a heck of a good driver, and he earned that [2009] championship. The high point of that season was the race in New Jersey. Compass used to run three cars at every race, and in New Jersey, the Compass cars were one, two, three. As we came out on the straightaway, second was catching first and third was catching second. We ended up going by in front of the pits three wide right at the end of the race. I was third going down into one but I was on the inside and we swapped, so we went from one, two, three to three, two, one, and we won the race. It was incredible. It was a great finish.

TC kline neuspeed accord 03 Photo 3/3   |  
T.C. Kline Racing’s Neuspeed Accord touring car driven by Pobst, which was originally sourced from the British Touring Car Championship.

HT: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to get involved in racing?

RP: Well, here's the short story: Racing is expensive. It takes a lot of money. It's either got to be your money or someone else's money. If you have a lot of money, it's easy: just go buy a good car, pick a good team, and go run a series. Anybody can benefit from a professional school, like Bondurant or Skip Barber. I didn't do that because I didn't have enough money for that. It took everything I had to get my first car and go to that first race. I started autocrossing because it's very inexpensive, very low risk, and you quickly learn what's fast. Autocross is a great way to go. Do that first so you get some experience with car control and controlling slides. Also, lemons and junk racing is a very inexpensive way to go out and get some track time. I think those races are great, and I do some of them sometimes with my buddies. They're very inexpensive and they're a good time and laid-back. Move to SCCA regional racing next; that's very competitive with more race preparation. To go pro, you might want to start with a B-spec car, do World Challenge, or maybe the MX-5 Cup. We need to get on Honda to start a Civic Si Cup or a Fit Cup. You could build a Fit for B-spec. That's a good car.

HT: That would be a great series. How many professional wins do you have to date?

RP: I don't know. I think I'm approaching 100. Two years ago it was 70, and I think I've added another 20 by now [laughs]. I've been racing 28 years.

HT: Word is that you follow a strict vegetarian diet. Is that a part of conditioning yourself for racing?

RP: It's pretty much unrelated, but it was a part of my race conditioning. I've been a vegetarian since the early '90s, so probably about 23 years. About five or six years ago I became really focused on eating a lot of raw, fresh foods--especially greens. I still make green smoothies every day at home. They're really good for you and cure a lot of ailments, let me tell you. They reduce your allergies, you're less likely to get colds, they got rid of my acid reflux--there are just so many good things. I was almost vegan for several years--and I still am mostly vegan--but I eat a little salmon and I eat some eggs once in a while, so I'm not a pure religious vegan by any means.

HT: Besides the T.C. Kline Racing CRX, NATCC Accord, and Compass360 Racing Civic Si, what other Hondas did you race?

RP: I remember a story from 1992 when the Honda guys wanted us to race the new Civic at the time-that little coupe with the tailgate. I didn't like it very much. It didn't have any torque. The cars that we were racing against were quite a bit more powerful. It was a difficult car to win with, but T.C., to his credit, he got a Prelude Si on his own that he bought with his own money. He thought it would be a better car, but Honda didn't really want to race [it]. I remember this first test at Roebling Road in Savannah. We had the Civics there, and they revved like crazy but they just weren't making much power. T.C. had the Prelude there, so we pulled [it] out and I did one lap in it. He had already lowered it a lot, [which caused it to] bottom [out] and understeer badly, so I brought it in because I thought I had a flat tire. Well, I didn't know that the suspension was bottoming, and you could see where the upper control arm was hitting the inner fender well. I still went faster than I did in the Civics, which we'd been testing for days.

That 2.3L Si was a torque monster, and torque wins races. It was only 160 hp, but it had a broad torque curve. It was a lot heavier than the Civic, but it had so much torque and it had a lot better brakes that it made a better race car. I got out of that Prelude and I looked at T.C. and pointed at that car and I said, "That's the car" [laughs]. For two or three years we raced the Prelude Si, then the VTEC, and won a ton of races. Those old Preludes, and especially the Civics, they had very flexible body structures, but their suspensions were so good that they handled well anyway. They were fast race cars. That was a great car. I've got a real soft spot in my heart for those '93-'96 Prelude VTECs.

HT: Wrapping up, what impresses you from Honda's current lineup? Is there anything in particular you'd like to get behind the wheel of?

RP: The new NSX. I've spent some time in some NSXs recently. What an amazing car that is. I've just always wished that it had a 5.0L instead of a 3.0L [laughs]. After it had been out for about five years, it needed some cubic inches. The other car that I really love is the S2000. I'd also love to see a CRX. Honda's always built really great engines and cool cars, but right now they're being awfully conservative. I'd like to see something more out of them, like the Prelude, the CRX, and the Civic Si.

By Aaron Bonk
408 Articles

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