Talking Roadkill with Randy Pobst

This is Randy Pobst. You probably know him as the professional race driver we hired for an episode or two of Roadkill, not to mention his frequent appearances on other MotorTrend programs, including his own show The Racing Line. Randy is the genuine article, a self-made racer who graduated from autocrossing to club racing before making his way to professional racing. He’s touring car championships, GT championships, and twice won taken class wins in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

Randy will drive just about anything anywhere, including numerous appearances at 24 Hours of LeMons and other grassroots endurance events. We bumped into him at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in December and took a few minutes of his time to talk about his first car,  recognition in weird places, and Roadkill-style road trips.

Roadkill: You’ve driven some of the Roadkill cars. Is there one that really stands out?

Randy Pobst: I haven’t driven a lot of them. I was on the show with the Draguar and we were gonna have the Rotsun, too, but it broke. Imagine that. It was very broken, the engine was not happy so it was not something that could have been easily fixed or they’d have done it.

The Draguar was unbelievable because it had this fabulous engine and the rest of it was a Jaguar. It felt a lot like a motorboat to me; when you gassed it, it would stand up its nose. It had a drag-racing transmission so it slipped a lot. The revs would come up and then it would accelerate, almost like a continuously variable transmission [This is a nice way of Randy saying the convertor and rear gears are all wrong in that car]. The brakes were…[pause]…The car was scary. The wheels were actually being machined by the brakes; it all fit by the time we were done. I could see the aluminum peeling off out of the corner of my eye and was like “What’s the aluminum coming off?”

I love doing the show, though. I’ve always been a CraigsList fanatic and the idea that they bought this other car, a Jaguar, on CraigsList, that was something that appealed to me.

RK: What’s something you bought on CraigsList that people would never have guessed? Keep it clean, of course.

Pobst: I do a lot of motorcycles. What I did recently was I took a friend of mine and did a CraigsList adventure. We looked up about a ride’s distance from Atlanta and that ended up being Philadelphia. We flew in with cash on a Saturday, bought bikes, and rode them home by Monday. That was cool.

RK: And it went well?

Pobst: It went well!

RK: It wasn’t very Roadkill then?

Pobst: No, these were nice bikes. We didn’t have time to risk the repair side of it, but I’m all for it. I’d love to. Let me think of my CraigsList adventures…One of them I have is actually a 24 Hours of LeMons car, a Volvo 740 Turbo that I just discovered on CraigsList. At the time, I was racing for Volvo and I’ve always liked them anyway. The old rear-drive Volvos are just solid cars; they handle well and they’re better than they look.

I bought this 740 Turbo and it had a five-speed in it, which was very unusual, and it was cheap so I turned it into a race car. And it had all kinds of problems because it was a straight-from-CraigsList old car. Things went wrong, sometimes of our own making. I still have that car.

RK: Will it race again?

Pobst: Oh, yeah. We’ve raced it seven or eight times. Last time we did it, we finally rebuilt the short block. I love that car, but I just haven’t had time to race it.

What I fantasize about it was on an early Roadkill show where they flew to Arizona and they bought an old car [above]. It was a Pontiac, I think, from the early ‘70s. They just bought it and drove it back. And on the way, they put it on CraigsList to sell it when they got back. And they did the same thing with that crazy Jeep they had; they sold it while they were on their trip. I’d like to fly into somewhere 1,000 miles away, buy a car for $800, and see if we can make it back.

[Fans stop by to say hi]

I get a big kick out of that.

RK: Getting recognized?

Pobst: Yeah, especially here. It happens in random places, too.

Randy_Pobst_PRI

RK: What’s the weirdest place you’ve been recognized?

Pobst: The bathroom. [Laughs] I’ve had recognition in the bathroom and I’ve had a waitress come up and say, “The guy at my table doesn’t want to bother you, but he wants to know if he can get your autograph.”

RK: What was your first car?

Pobst: A Fiat 850 Spider. I traded a motorcycle for it because my first car was a motorcycle, really. In Florida, when you were 15, you could ride a motorcycle on the road by yourself if it was under five horsepower. Somebody at Kawasaki lied and you could get a Kawasaki 100 with 11 horsepower, which is a lot when it’s suppose to be five.

But I had a Honda CB450 that I traded for this Fiat 850 when I was 16 years old. And that car taught me that you should always look underneath a car before you buy it.

This was in ‘73 and the car was a ‘70. It wasn’t that old, but underneath, it was rusted. Gone. It had a rear crossmember, the whole back half of that was gone. The way I figured this out was going through a puddle and a wave of water came up inside the car. What was left of the floor was a scoop and it threw the water over my shoulder. I remember thinking “What the hell just happened?” There had been just a piece of plywood laying on what was left of the floor.

That car would have been a great Roadkill car. It has my record for the most things wrong with it that I actually drove. It had no brakes, I was stopping with the handbrake and was using the brake pedal to turn on the brake lights. It wouldn’t idle and there was no muffler. At stop lights, I was revving the engine to keep it from dying and the guys next to me always thought I wanted to race. The top was minimal; it just hung down and you couldn’t see out the back window so I just ran with the top down all the time. This was in Florida, mind you.  The clutch slipped so when I would go to pull away, I had to be really careful not to slip it too much. It makes you good mechanically to know all this stuff.

I think those were the major things; the engine was healthy and the gearbox was fine. I like corners and it was good at corners, but it had so little power that I had to floor it just to keep from losing speed in corners.

RK: So the “850” was 850 cc, right?

Pobst: They were actually 903 [cc] the year I had, but they called it the 850. It was only a couple years old and it was rusted out. The floor was completely non-existent on the driver’s side.

The other cool thing about the 850 Spider was that it had a metal tonneau cover over where the top folded. If you stood that up and left the top up, you could get two of your buddies in the back. Another thing you could get in there was a motorcycle. I had a dirt bike and I carried it in the Fiat 850 Spider. I wish I had a picture. I’d put a 2×4 on the side of the car, roll the bike up, and put the front wheel in behind the passenger seat. The engine sat on the side of the car and the rear wheel hung off the side.

RK: That’s fantastic.

Pobst: I can’t imagine how I did that, but I did. I’d take it out to the dirt and ride my dirt bike. Later, I put a motorcycle carrier on it. Have you ever seen…they’re like a basket. I put one on it sticking straight out the back. You could put the bike on it, take the chain off, strap it down, and pull the bike.

Randy_Trophy

RK: How does someone get your job? How do you get to be a professional racer?

Pobst: Dumb luck.

RK: Right place at the right time?

Well, one part is persistence. And the way you get to be at the right place at the right time is by starting at the right place, which is at the races, the race shops, the PRI shows, or wherever. That’s something I did.

When I started racing, I got my own car, which was the only thing I could afford that could actually race and I started that way. By the time I ran out of money, I had to ask somebody and it ended up being a really good experience. But I had raced a while with some of these people so they knew me. Every time I called somebody, they knew why I called: I was looking for a ride. I didn’t have to really ask for a ride; if there was anything brewing, they’d bring it up. And it worked; it got me a little bit to keep me rolling.

One of the things that has helped me in my career is that people hired me because I worked to be easy to work with: Be a team player and make it easy. Don’t crash very much. Be demanding when you really need it, but don’t be too demanding all the time. Kind of a pick your battles. Don’t burn bridges; I learned my lesson a couple of times about saying negative things, even when it was richly deserved. Long term, that doesn’t pay off. Racing is a small world; everybody knows everybody.

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover