An Interview With Jim Downing

Text copyright Michael J. Fuller

Notes from an interview with Jim Downing as part of my senior design project...January 20, 1996...  As a note, the sound quality was very poor for the entire interview, notably so in the first half.  So for the first half dictation I reconstructed what Mr. Downing said from my notes and tried to decipher what was said over the tape, so it is by no means an exact duplicate of the conversation.  As for the second half, it is a near precise dictation of how the interview unfolded. 
 
 

-Education background...
Graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Industrial Management
 

-How did you get into racing...
Been racing soapbox derbies since he was 11, raced those for several years, won a local downhill slalom event when he was 16, basically grew up around cars and racing, his father was a major foreign car dealer in the Atlanta area
 

-Did you start out with Mazda...
No, when he first started racing (in the '60s), Mazda wasn't even around, when he started in I.M.S.A. in '74, he ran a Mazda RX-2....(note:  Jim's car number, #63, is the year he started racing)

Mazda Kudzu DLM, Daytona Octoberfest race, 1996, Copyright, Mike Fuller 1998
-When did you join forces with Rick Engeman...
Rick Engeman is Downing's engine builder and is the most experienced rotary engine builder in the United States.  Rick started building them for Taber-Mazda, Downing met Engeman in '74, and by 1976 they had a mutual agreement that Rick would come and work with Downing.  That year they were running Mazda RX-3s, the first RX-7s didn't come out until '78.
 

-What was your role in the development of the Camel Lights series...
Downing won the RS championship in '81, in '82 Downing won the GTU championship, at that point the Mazda competition department in Irvine, Ca. had been supporting him for several years in a relatively small way, decided they wanted to run for overall, the Mazda competition department gave Downing a choice of running a GTO car or running a GTP car and competing for overall spoils.  Downing chose to run a GTP car,  there was no Camel Lights series yet.  They were going to run a 2-rotor Mazda engine, the 3-rotor engines didn't exist as a racing unit at this time (Downing goes on to explain that Mazda was experimenting heavily with the rotary units, and a 3-rotor might have existed, but it was years from being race ready).  In '83 Downing did his homework and  bought an Argo chassis to run in the GTP championship in '84.  In '83 Downing was still competing in the GTU championship, all be it not as seriously as in '82 (apparently was concentrating on getting the GTP program together and settled), and ended up finishing second in the championship.  The GTP car was ready to go in '84, there still was no Camel Lights series, but by the time the Mazda GTP car was ready to run, the car was outclassed by the other competitors (people like Al Holbert in the Porsche powered March) in terms of horsepower.  Downing goes on to explain that when the idea was initiated to run a Mazda GTP car, the rotary engine was already so reliable that it could have won the Daytona 24 hour race outright.  What it lacked in horsepower, it made up for with unmatched reliability.  But by the time the program had evolved to a car actually being prepared, the competitors had increased their reliability through development and evolution, and that combined with superior horsepower, made the Mazda-Argo outclassed even before it ever turned a wheel.  Downing suggested to John Bishop (I.M.S.A. founder and owner) that a class needed to be created for smaller, less powerful GTP cars, John Bishop understood and recognized this, and the Camel Light series was born.  Downing vehemetly denies credit for the creation of the Camel Lights series for if it wasn't for John Bishop's fore sight in recognizing the need for such a series, it wouldn't have happened anyway.
 

-How did you decide upon choosing to run the Argo chassis in the Camel Lights series...  What other options were there...
Fabcar wasn't a choice, they didn't have a car at that point, Spice did not exists, Lola was a possibility, Osella, Tiga wasn't even thinking of coming out with a car for a couple of years.  A man by the name Hugh Klienpeter from north Georgia got together and financed Argo and Jim Downing was the first customer.  The first car was the Argo JM-16 designed by Jo Marquart (the JM in JM-16).
 

-The Argo cars...how successful...Did you do any modifications to improve the car yourself...
The car (Mazda-Argo JM-16) was pretty successful, had a good finish in '84 in the Camel GTP series, good overall finishes...When the Lights series started in '85, Downing won the championship with the JM-16, then the JM-19, which Downing had commissioned Argo to build, came out in '86, was a beautiful car, but Jo Marquart had designed a full fledged Group C car with the JM-19, much to Downing's disappointment.  It was really a car built for Le Mans, but Downing needed a car designed to take advantage of the Camel Lights rules to the fullest extent, and the JM-19 was not that car.  The JM-19 was somewhat of a disaster, Downing won the Camel Light championship that year on superior reliability and preparation,  but won only 2 races that season...Downing went to work on modifying the JM-19 to fit his need, he took the Argo and down sized it, building a completely new body for the car, and in the end he had a 7/8 scale Mazda-Argo JM-19 (called the JM-19B).  Downing managed to win the championship in '87 winning only one race, but accumulating lots of seconds and thirds, always finishing, superior preparation goes a long way in racing...Lost confidence in Argo, felt they had very little control over the design of the car, and that  Argo had "fooled" them with the JM-19 which really hurt them competitively.  This was the catalyst that convinced Downing to try his hand at building a car to his needs and specifications.  In '88 they built a completely new chassis and combined it with the 7/8 scale Argo body work and they had the first Mazda-Kudzu, the DG-1 (Jim Downing, Sam Garrett,-1)
 

-What were the priorities in designing the Mazda-Kudzu DG-1...
Lightweight, small frontal area, streamlined, looked a lot like a 7/8 scale Argo JM-19 combined with Downing's own tub, suspension, trying to improve on all those things that were vastly overbuilt on the JM-19, which was designed to handle 600-700 horsepower, while they were only running 330 horsepower in the Mazda 2-rotor engine...
 

-Did you do any initial wind tunnel studies on the Kudzu DG-1...Where...
Took the Argo to a wind tunnel in Ottawa, Canada and came out with a notebook of data on the car which became reference material for the Kudzu
 

-How much did the aerodynamics change from the Argo JM-19 to the DG-1...
Less frontal area, reshaped air intakes on the front for less drag, different ducting for less drag, had been chopping up the Argo with shorter tails to reduce the high polar moment (with the longtail Argo JM-19, the rear wing stuck out so much that it effected the load moments in a dramatic way, by chopping off and making the tail shorter, you could move the rear wing in closer and reduce the distance in which the load had to act through, but more importantly you could reduce the amount of weight hanging out at the rear, and therefore reduce the polar moment), less concerned with downforce than drag, reprofiled the underbody tunnels so as to move the center of pressure forward, started the tunnels farther forward so that the contour angle of the tunnels was more gradual and the air was convinced to stay attached.  The tub had to be modified  to incorporate the new tunnel shape that started farther forward.  In this way, Downing optimized  his car to run under the I.M.S.A. Camel Lights rules as far as the aerodynamics were concerned.  Other competitors had optimized their cars to be legal under Group C rules so that they could run at Le Mans if they wanted to, but the Group C rules mandated a flat bottom area under the tub which restricted how far forward the tunnels could start, the Group C rules also restricted the size of the tunnels. This reduced the effectiveness of the tunnels.  If your car was legal at Le Mans, it was legal in the U.S., but if the car was legal in the U.S., it didn't mean the car was legal at Le Mans because I.M.S.A. allowed more freedom in the design of the underbody tunnels. The sacrifice was that the car wasn't legal at Le Mans, but Downing was concentrating solely in the U.S. on the I.M.S.A. Camel Lights series.
 

-How competitive was the Kudzu DG-1 in its first season...
Very competitive out of the box, didn't actually win any races, but led races which they were unable to do the previous year.  Unfortunately,  the first year was plagued by basic new car problems, mufflers falling off, etc...
 

-The transition from the DG-1 to the DG-2, what new ideas did the DG-2 incorporate...What were the DG-1's shortcomings...How different was the DG-2 over the DG-1...
The DG-2 was meant to be a more versatile car, Downing wanted to sell these cars to customers, so they made sure the car would take a V6.  Tried to optimize the car even further as a Camel Lights car, lightened it up, etc...tried to create more top side downforce, continued with the same underbody tunnels as the DG-1, trying to optimize the whole package...ran a number of full scale wind tunnel tests out at the Lockheed full-size wind tunnel in Marietta, Georgia.
 

-How successful was the DG-2...
Reasonably successful.  Sold one to Andy Evans (Scandia racing) , sold one to Mike Gue (Essex racing) who won the first race with it.  Won Sebring with Charles Morgan driving, didn't win the series partly because of the onslaught of Comtech racing and the Acura (Honda) engined Spice driven by Parker Johnstone.  Comtech basically just had a better package than everyone else, wasn't just a better car, better preparation, managing, driving, financing, just plain did a better job than everyone else, and that's the guy who usually wins.  Honda was willing to spend a lot of money in engine development while Downing really was the engine developer for Mazda.  So, the DG-2 was successful, but it didn't win a series.  The DG-2s were run by customers in '91, '92, '93, all were converted and are being run as World Sports Cars, basically the none of the DG-2s exist anymore as originally conceived(one is currently racing in HSR[Historic Sports Car Racing], the ex-Scanida Buick DG-2).
 

-Any mentionable aerodynamic improvements incorporated into the DG-2...
Completely different body, trying to make topside downforce with out sacrificing drag, did full size wind tunnel testing out at the Lockheed facility(Marrietta Georgia).
 

-How different was the DG-3 over the DG-2...
Dramatically different, only ran a Mazda engine, the Camel Lights Car was converted into a World Sports Car, new body, transmission, suspension, almost a clean sheet of paper, the tub was basically the same, there wasn't much left to do to the tub except make it totally flat bottom(*see story from Dave Lynn regarding the DG-3 and its optimization from the start as a WSC).
 

-What were the keys to success with Wayne Taylor and the Kudzu DG-3 WSC in '94...
Good reliability, a head start on  the Ferraris (the Ferrari 333SP didn't debut until round 3 of the I.M.S.A. championship at Road Atlanta and missed the high points paying endurance races at Daytona and Sebring), good finishes at the Florida endurance race getting second at both Daytona and Sebring, good consistent finishes throughout the year.
 

-The Kudzu DLM, evolutionary or revolutionary...
A little of both, you can't say that its totally a new concept, the tub is somewhat similar, but nothing would interchange with the old tub, the tub is 45 lbs. lighter, somewhat simpler, all the rear is completely new, the uprights in the rear are completely new, the front uprights are very similar, if not exactly the same as the best we've built, completely new body, its a clean sheet of paper car, its as clean a sheet of paper car as we've ever built.
 

-What new ideas does the Kudzu DLM incorporate...
The truth is there are almost no new ideas in racing, if you look back you see every one of them back sometime, and they can go waaaay back, somebody realized that this works or that worked, its just kind of putting the package together that fits the current situation of the sanctioning body rules...we certainly are going for more wing efficiency, thats one of the things, I guess, is pretty new about it, with the rule now, the wing is very limited in size, you know, has to fit into a box 16 inches by 6 inches tall, so how do you make something in there more efficient?  Well, it can be any shape you want, so you make the most efficient shape, then you get as much clean air to it as you can, so that you can get the same downforce for running it at a lesser angle of attack...
 

-What do you hope to achieve with the Mazda-Kudzu DLM...I.M.S.A. series...Le Mans...
(To run strong at the endurance races?) Its about all we can do.  You can see as clear as I can, there are no secrets here, the 400 and what ever horsepower we have is not going to beat a 680 horsepower Ferrari, so we have to go with endurance where perhaps we can run at a higher percentage of our ultimate speed than an piston engine can and hope to survive, and thats why Le Mans comes back into the picture, there's another place, a chance,  where we can do well...
 

-Did you initially intend for the Kudzu to become a customer car...Did this compromise the design any...
Yeah, we would have like to sold more, we began to think we could sell cars, it actually came to a head with the DG-2, we realized we had to have a completely new look, and the DG-1 was successful and we were able to lead races and be right there, so we thought we had something we could sell and we learned enough from there to make a car with a new look to it...
 

-Origin of the Kudzu name...What other names were you considering...
We had a long list of names, my wife Connie finally suggested we use Kudzu, it grows all over the south, you could make decent jokes about it: creeps up on you, overwhelms the competition...my father actually helped spread Kudzu around during World War II, he was with the Department of Agriculture in Georgia and thought to bring it back as erosion control, cattle feed, unfortunately it got out of hand.  It had been in Georgia since 1878, but he helped get the idea that it was good stuff, turned out he was totally wrong...
 

-From a race car builder's standpoint, what are your priorities in design...In a perfect world, what would your priorities be...
This stuff is really kind of  personal, I mean, I like racing, I'm not trying to be a big business man/race car seller, if I had my drothers I wouldn't be building cars for customers, I would just build my own car because I like to build a car just perfect for, for me.  My team.  And its really why we did that (build the Kudzu).  You build them for customers, either because your ego is out of hand and you want to be famous or what ever reason, or to make a living.  So we were trying to make a living and allow us to go racing and have our customers help pay for it just like we were selling Kracker Jacks.  So happens our expertise was in race cars, its what we like to do, so thats the direction we went.  Very few people ever make much money building race cars.  We thought we would give it a try for a while. I don't think much about whether or not I'm a manufacturer of race cars.  I don't want to put a damper on your story or anything, but I don't want to leave you with a false impression striving to become a race car manufacturer...If I was I wouldn't be building these kinds of cars, I would be building something I could get some volume on, like Sports 2000, there's a lot of competition there, but these guys that do want to do that realize that they got to go were they can sell a bunch of cars, its much better to have a wide audience with $40,000 cars than it is with one or two or three at $250,000.  At least thats my view, its just not where I want to race, I want to race here so I'll build something that I can race, and if some other people want to buy it that would be nice because it would help defray the cost some, spread the cost of the development of the initial car...and, and it really hasn't worked very well, we've sold some, we're building our eighth now...I made a lot more money in real estate...
 

-What sort of input does Rick Engeman have when decisions are being made about the construction and design of the chassis...
He doesn't actually stick his nose in too much, but he has a very level head on his shoulder, a very logical one...he comments on all areas of it, but primarily he is concerned with proper cooling which does affect the body shape, proper filtration, proper fuel pickup, all the things that are ultimately related to the powerplant and he has a lot of input in all those area...past that he doesn't try to give aerodynamic advice, he wants the cooler to cool..(Does he ever specify packaging requirements?  Just make access easy for him?) yeah, and he fusses alot if its not easy for him.
 

-What are some of the packaging problems associated with the Mazda engine...Also what are some of the benefits...
Mostly cooling, it takes a lot more cooling than piston people ever realize, especially the oil, oil is used to cool the engine, and you have to get rid of that heat some how, so we have coolers that would cool a 1000 horsepower piston engine, people with Chevys always laugh at us saying, "I have 700 horsepower and I use an oil cooler 1/4 the size!".  Thats fine but it doesn't work for us, that's one reason I couldn't buy a Spice.  Spice always wanted to sell us a car, their cars weren't shaped in a way that you could get any cooling, you just couldn't do it, and they could not understand it, and being English they would not except your explanation...I've always found that true, they know how to do it and you don't...
 

-Throughout the history of the Argo and Kudzu cars, what has been Mazda's input into the project...
Mazda has been very supportive of following our directions, they really gave us a free hand, they said here's the job, here's the budget, do the best you can.  It's been a wonderful relationship.
 

-What has been your primary input for aerodynamics design and development...
Sam Garret was the main designer in all phases of it, as John Greene got his aero. degree, and then went to Boeing, he began to have input, we payed him on a consultant basis, solve this problem, that problem, but primarily Sam did it, and then through the DG-2 and then David Lynn came in and was certainly a help on styling...and for the last couple of years, John has come here to work with us...we've had other people advise us, outside consultants to come in when running full size wind tunnel tests with Sam, we would hire them to come in and do full reports...so, we've gotten it where ever we could, and of course a lot of it is just plain old experience, you learn what works and doesn't work, but it's, as I'm sure you realize, a very demanding discipline, black is white, white is black in that business, what you think it's going to do it doesn't, it does that, it just fools you every time, you got to go try it.  It doesn't mean that some day there won't be enough literature where you can accurately predict what's going to happen, and its tough for us, especially at our level, we don't have the assets...
 

-Rough seat-of-the-pants comparison of absolute downforce figure between the JM-16, -19, DG-1, -2, and -3...
It increased until we got to the DG-3, well, the DG-3 was the Camel Lights car, and it was probably the best, the DG-2 body...forgetting what I have here, the DG-2 body was really raced in Lights until the end, the -3 (as a WSC chassis) was a flat bottom car, and you could immediately tell you lost a lot of downforce, so, while we are all gaining a little of it back a little at a time as everyone gets better at it, we're not back to the tunnel days, when you had your tunnels right, and you got the car at the right ride height and the right rake, all your little tabs and everything you could go around a corner terrifically fast, significantly faster than your able to do right now, so, from the -16(JM), the -16 was excellent, in fact, I don't know if there was alot of difference  between the -16 and the -19, the -16 was a great car...(phone call interrupts us)...so, anyway, personally, I think we could have stayed with the JM-16 and continued to develop it and we would have been far better off then the work we had to do to turn what was really a big car into a small car with the JM-19...(That just really threw you?) Yeah, it did, it hurt us a lot, we didn't realize it quite at the time it just didn't come into focus...aero wise, by the time we built the first Kudzu, and got the size down to a reasonable size for Lights, we had a car the equal of the -16,  besides from a good looking sleek car that the -19 was, which is that shape right there, in Camel Lights it wasn't any better than that JM-16 right there, which was a wonderful car...short wheel base, a little twitchy, people got a little nervous sometimes at high speed on the braking until they got used to it, from a drivers point of view they thought the wheel base was too short,  they thought they weren't in control, but, I guess we tend to think that those were folks who were  a little out of control anyway, and that pushed them over the edge to where they weren't comfortable, but if you were driving at a professional level, you could drive the car just fine, it reacted very quickly with that short wheelbase, good car in traffic, you had to sort of be a real race car driver...(those that couldn't handle it) just hadn't matured to being a quote sports car race car driver, so, then our car was just wonderful, it was just the best car you ever drove, the Kudzu that Sam Garrett completed...compared to other cars, the lower center of gravity of the Mazda engine was a big deal, you didn't have that roll in the back, the lower weight of the engine allowed you to have a little better front to rear distribution and that helped handling and to tune the car a little better...
 

-How many of the Kudzu cars were built...
(this question simply highlights the confusion over of the Kudzu line chassis history, see separate link for the actual Kudzu chassis history) One DG-1, there must have been four DG-2s, six was the DG-3s, and now we're building the seventh car, which is the present car, the DLM, and now we're going to build another Buick car, that new tub back there, we're building that because we still have alot of Buicks, a couple of engines and the stuff left over from the wrecked car (referring to the car wrecked on the last lap at Sebring last year) last year, and we'll put that together...I actually quite haven't decided what that cars going to look like yet!...(a new body?) we might put this new body on it (referring to the DLM), it's a little awkward because the back is so high with the engine and suspension, so it doesn't fit real well, but there may be a way to make it fit and still have the advantages of the new car, the new look...(also the advantage of less cooling requirement?)oh, yes, it's much simpler to deal with cooling wise, actually, so...(it has a 3.4 litre Buick engine?)4.2, 530 horsepower, I mean, on paper, that car should be able to compete with anything out there, the Buick V6 makes a hell of a lot of power, if you get your weight down to where the sliding scale is...(and what would the weight be for this car?)I haven't looked at the new one but it should be around 1700, 1725, and IF you're able to get it down there, I think this could be kind of a kick-ass car...well, we'll have to see...
 

-What was the motivating force in the development of each of the Kudzu cars...
We just evolved and learned what we thought we could do better, once you finish a design, you have to put a design to bed some time and build it, but even while you're doing that you realize how you could have done it better, there's just no end to it, and if you ever think there's an end then you're just through with being competitive, and of course, then the motivating force is to build a better car, thats all...cars that you can't but, I mean, in truth, its really much cheaper to just go and buy a car, building your own car, you're only doing it because you can't buy it...you don't want to reinvent things, or build things that someone else has already done, that you can use to solve your problems, your problem is to have a car to go race and that you can be competitve in, and if you can buy it, buy it, if you can't then you got to build it. We never felt that the right one was out there that fit us, and we're Mazda people, O.K., so we had some constraints on us, we weren't ready to go buy a $200,000 Ferrari motor, stick it in our car, we're Mazda people...(well you have so much experience with the engines, you know what to expect with them)  Yeah, we have facilities for rebuilding, I don't have $200,000 to set up a engine shop, and I don't want to, Rick doesn't have any interest in doing that, doesn't have any interest in running a piston engine, have you ever noticed what his initials are?...(R.E.?)...(uhhh, hmmmm) think about our engines...(Rotary Engine, there you go!)I have no idea if that has anything to do with it, I honestly don't, some years ago I suddenly realized those were his initials, I can tell you he has no interest in going racing with anything but a rotary engine that's his life work, if you want..(his passion?) Yes...and he's good at it, he's as much part of any success as I've had as anything else...

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ęCopyright 2000, Michael J. Fuller