Ken Scheepers Team
Over the past handful of years, sport compact drag racing and
its predecessor – import drag racing – have changed the face of professional
drag racing. For the five decades since the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA)
became organized as the first professional drag races in the world, drag racing
has become associated with racing between domestic branded rear-wheel-driven
dragsters powered by traditional large displacement V8 engines.
It's no secret that sport compact drag racing has attracted
great popularity partly because of the high variety of makes and models of
production based racecars involved in the sport as well as their relatively
high-tech nature. In fact, the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) Summit
Sport Compact Drag Series’ five 2003 class champions each drove a different make
to the winners circle. Naturally, the variety and amount of competitors have
made sport compact drag racing one of the most competitive Motor sports in the
There is no better example of this than the NHRA’s Sport Compact Series’
All Motor Class. Designed to highlight competition between naturally aspirated
(no turbochargers, superchargers, or other “power adders” allowed) small
displacement sport compacts, the competition is made even more difficult because
it is the only class in the series that still allows both front and rear wheel
drive competitors. Throw in eligibility of both 4-cylinder piston engines and
2-rotor rotary engines and you’ll have a potent mix of racers competing for the
same single trophy at every event of the series’ ten-event championship.
For rotary fans, Ken Scheepers and his 1985 Mazda RX-7,
and recently changing over to his brand new 2005 Mazda RX-8 were the torch
holders in the All Motor Class. Scheepers was able to clock record
setting times in the 1.3-liter, 2-rotor RX-7 with a best ever E.T. of 10.21
seconds and best MPH of 130.62 in the quarter-mile. After finishing second in
the All Motor Championship by the closest of margins – eight points - in the
semifinal round of the last race of the season, Scheepers is ready to lead the
rotary attack again in the Modified Class with a renewed vigor and a new RX-8
Although Scheepers was considered a top contender in the class for the past
couple of years (he finished third in points in 2002), his drag racing career
has been brief - having began a few years earlier in 2000 and at the age of 48.
Scheepers, originally from South Africa, found himself hooked on drag
racing after attending a local drag race near his current hometown of Flower
Mound, Texas at the prodding of Chris Ott and Ari Yallon, rotary drag racers and
owners of a Rotary Performance shop called RX7.Com. Campaigning a third
generation RX-7, Yallon was the first NHRA Street Tire Class Champion in 2001.
Scheepers had started racing in the NHRA Street Tire Class as well, driving a
Mazda RX-7 Turbo II in seven of eight events in 2001 and finishing third in
season points. Prior to this, his only motor sport experience was racing
motorcycles as a young boy in South Africa. In fact, racing aspirations were
furthest from the mind of Scheepers, who once sold all his belongings so that he
could sail the world.
"I raced motocross in South Africa while in high school all the way through
the early 1980s," recalled Scheepers. "I moved to the United States in 1985. I
took off sailing for two and a half years when I was 28 before that. This is
keeping me young, I love it. It’s exhilarating to me. The people here are all so
nice. They really like helping out. It’s a great environment."
Encouraged by his rookie drag racing efforts though, Scheepers decided to
jump into the series with two feet in 2002 with a purpose-built 1985 RX-7 for
the ultra competitive NHRA All-Motor Class. Teamed with Crew Chief Anthony
Bulger, Scheepers attended every one of the 10 events across the country and
became an instant contender. However, it was eventual friend and tuner Jesus
Padilla that won the 2002 All Motor title. Padilla used a displacement advantage
in his 20B, 3-rotor powered RX-7 to dominate the season – which led to a rules
change banning the 3-rotor power plant the next season. After using the lessons
learned from 2002 to make key chassis and engine tuning changes, Scheepers came
out swinging in 2003 and won his first NHRA race and three of the first four
races of the season. Part of the success was tied into an engine built by
Padilla’s Kilo Racing Shop – who, despite remaining a fierce competitor in the
same category, freely shared all of his racing innovations on Scheepers’ motor.
"The only rivalry we have is when we’re at the light together," said
Scheepers about his relationship with Padilla. "That’s the only time. I’ll call
and speak to him on a very regular basis. We share information. We share what
we’re doing, very, very detailed stuff that most racers would never do. I can’t
tell you how wonderful it feels to be able to have a fierce competitor as he is
and still build a motor for me, help me out, tell me how to tune it and then
apply the new technology. That’s really what’s done it."
The early success in the face of better-funded and more experienced
competitors was encouraging but a midseason rule change quickly changed the
competitive landscape. Fearing another runaway season by a rear wheel drive
competitor, series officials added weight to the rear-wheel drive competitors
while removing weight from front-drive competitors. The changes forced Scheepers
to deal with 50 pounds of additional weight and competitors weighing as much as
500 pounds lighter.
Expectedly, the front-drive racers began winning events while Scheepers had
to regroup. The season came down to a razor-thin points battle between
Scheepers’ RX-7 and the front wheel drive Dodge Neon of Scott Mohler at the
Mazda NHRA Sport Compact World Finals in Pomona, the last race of the season.
Scheepers needed to only go one round further in the competition than Mohler to
grab the championship and he had his chance when Mohler fell in the semifinal
round of competition. Unfortunately, a broken 35-cent part and the very quick
Volkswagen Beetle of Jack Sacchette ended his bid.
"I was disappointed, yet I had a sense of great accomplishment," said
Scheepers later. "We proved how tough we were until the mid-season rule changes,
so it was out of my hands. There was nothing I could have done about it because
I felt that the rule changes were unfair."
For 2004 though, the rules changed again – but to Scheepers’ advantage this
time. "Next year [the NHRA] will let me take 100 pounds out of my car and some
other All Motor guys are going to have to add some weight, so it’s going to be a
lot more competitive next season. If I get a two or three-tenths hole-shot like
I did at many races last year, I’ll be able to win the race. Sometimes I had
really a good hole-shot and still got beat by three-tenths."
Scheepers was excited about the prospects for the 2004 season, which he
again planning to run the full NHRA Sport Compact schedule. "With just two
changes during the off season, the roll cage was modified so that it can be
certified to run in the 9's and 100 pounds lighter; we were ready to compete.
"We will run 9's this year. You can count on it." But the weight change will not
matter long for his 1985 RX-7 - during the off-season, Scheepers began building
a new Mazda RX-8 racecar, the car that is jumpstarting the rotary revolution
once again, to attack the All-Motor class. "This car is going to be a great
racecar. Just you all wait and see," said Scheepers. The team plans to run the
RX-7 for the first few races of the year until work on the RX-8 is complete.
Unfortunately, the teams 2004 season would end prematurely. Starting the
season off with a #1 qualifier followed by a mechanical failure and after
competing in just 3 events, the season would end in Englishtown, NJ after an
accident where the car hit the wall at the top end of the track. The damage to
the right front was severe so consequently the care had to be totaled.
The vaunted 1985 Mazda RX-7
Having taken delivery on the new RX-8 body from Mazda in February, the
team plan was to build the new car over the coarse of the year and possibly
complete with the new RX-8 by mid season to compete in the All Motor Class. As
most of the parts could have been transferred to new car, this would have cut
our build time down dramatically but due to the NHRA rules, we were unable to
convert the RX-8 independent rear suspension to a solid axle. This was a
tremendous blow to the team. We had this new car and we could not race in the
class as planned.
After weeks of "regrouping" and speaking with Mazda, we decided to build
the purpose built Modified Class RX-8 to compete in the NHRA's Sport Compact
Drag Racing Series. The car was built in record time, ready to compete at the
2005 season opener in Florida.
The entire build from beginning to completion can be viewed on the
During the final months of 2004,
the new RX-8 was completed and due to the cold weather in Texas, testing was not
possible. That had to wait until just 4 weeks prior to the season opener.
However, tuning on the chassis dyno at Rotary Performance had provided us
with results that were surprising and exciting. Following the few 1/8th mile
test sessions, reality struck and we soon realized this new car was going to a
completely new experience and learning curve. Other than the 13B 2-Rotor
engine and the same transmission, that's where the similarities ended.
The team's 2005 season was a challenge to say the least,
said Scheepers. "Due to a lack of experience, we got off to a rocky start. The
additional 600 plus horsepower compared to the All Motor car, the huge ET and
MPH difference, the level of competition etc. was a surprise". However, we were
able to learn a tremendous amount, keep the car in one piece and stay focused
and by seasons end, we were able to win Moroso-2 in August, #2 qualifier and be
in the final round at the season final in Pomona. Our rookie efforts secured the
team a 4th place standing in the 2005 NHRA Sport Compact Drag Racing
Finally said Scheepers, "We started off with 1/4-mile performance goals posted
inside the trailer. While only one was reached (a 1.1 60-foot ET), we did a 1.15
second 60' and we were very close to our 1/8th mile goal of 4.9 second ET.
We did a 5.0 at 142 MPH. That said, we are extremely excited and optimistic
about the upcoming 2006 season and look forward to contending for the