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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Ralph Firman's new F2000 car

by Gordon Kirby
I enjoyed a special pleasure last week as the guest speaker at a fund-raising dinner at Siebken's Resort in Elkhart Lake for Paul Newman's Victory Junction 'Hole in the Wall Gang' camps. To read more about this fine event read my blog 'Paul Newman's enduring legacy' posted last Friday at Motor Sport's website www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk.

The dinner was a prelude to the SCCA's annual Run-Offs at Road America, an event I last attended back in 1977 during its many years at Road Atlanta. I wasn't able to stay for the entire weekend but I did spend a pleasant day at the track where I bumped into an old friend, Ralph Firman, the father of the Van Diemen racing car and without doubt the most successful car builder in the history of Formula Ford and F2000.

I first met Ralph back in 1972 when I spent most of the year in the UK with my friend David Loring who was just 21 at the time and intent on carving out a career in racing with his eyes set firmly on Formula One. The previous year David had won four FF1600 championships in Canada and the United States and we aimed for England in '72 with hopes of racing in Formula 3. Unfortunately financial realities meant we couldn't afford F3 and had to settle for another season in FF1600 racing a factory Merlyn mk 20A.

For the first six weeks of the season we employed Ralph to prepare David's car but it soon became clear we couldn't afford Ralph's excellent services. David had to revert to preparing the car himself with me serving as team manager and go-fer. Without the money to do the job right we endured a tough year but David showed his talent by winning five British championship races and setting a track record at Mallory Park that stood for five years.

Although he never made it to F1, David went on to win the SCCA's FF1600 title in 1978 aboard Dan Gurney's factory Eagle which he built and prepared almost single-handedly. Later, David won a string of IMSA Camel Light races and scored four Sebring 12 Hours class wins in the GTU and GTO categories.

© Gordon Kirby
Meanwhile, Ralph went on to found the Van Diemen marque which become one of the most renowned small formula car brands in racing history. Starting in 1973 Van Diemen built somewhere between 4,500-5,000 cars at its base in Norfolk near the Snetterton circuit and more than ten years after their creation the 1998 and '99 Van Diemen remain as the cars of choice in the F2000 category.

Firman believes the key to his success was hiring former Lotus designer Dave Baldwin who designed the Lotus 59 and 69 F2/FB/F3/FF1600 cars. Baldwin also designed the first Ensign Formula One car and one of the Copersucar F1 cars as well as spending some time at McLaren in the late seventies.

"I loved Dave's designs," Firman remarks. "Every competitive Van Diemen built from 1973 on was David Baldwin's design. The first car was my version of a copy of the Lotus 59. We've had a fanstastic relationship and I wouldn't have done anything new unless he said he'd be involved. I have so much confidence in him and just love his engineering.

"We got off to a good start and then we tailed off a bit. Then I changed things around and got David involved. He joined the company full-time as a director and shareholder in 1979 or '80 but I got him involved a little earlier when he was working elsewhere to build me a brand new car for '77 and from '77 onwards the company just grew and grew.

"I was producing eighty percent of the world market in one-make formulas through the late eighties through the mid to late nineties at this level that we've specialized in. We had sixty-odd people turning those cars out."

As the twentieth century came to a close Firman decided it was time to sell his thriving little company.

"In fact, I had three individuals who wanted to buy the company. Van Diemen had built a bit of high profile in Formula Ford-type racing and developed a good brand name. But I could see a change coming. I didn't see us doing the same volume we'd been doing so that we had to change things and invest in a new line of thinking. I thought by the time we'd done that another ten years would have gone by and I wasn't sure that I wanted to do that. In '99 Dave was coming up to retirement age so it suited him and we sold the company."

Firman sold Van Diemen in 1999 to Don Panoz and Elan Motorsports Technology.

"When Don bought the company he wanted me to run the operation and work for him for a minimum period of three years. So I became the managing director of GForce and spent a lot of time in Atlanta, flying back and forth. After my three years I said to Don I don't think I can do this anymore. It was too much traveling back and forth. I needed to move to America if I was going to continue and I didn't want to do that.

"So I said I'll continue to do some Van Diemen work but I prefer not to work on the whole GForce/EMT business. It carried on for another year and a half but I wasn't comfortable with the situation and didn't agree with a lot of the management decisions. Rather than fight I said, 'Look, you guys might be right.' But unfortunately they were wrong and the company went down. But that's the way business is."

Firman had a brief spell in 2005 and '06 as a consultant to Lola.

"They're a fantastic engineering company and that was a great experience. It gave me another look at how other people do things. I enjoyed it. It helped me keep an open mind. I met some lovely and very clever people. It was a great experience.

© Gordon Kirby
"But there's nothing like doing your own thing. I loved building the cars and taking them across to Snetterton and testing them. That's one of the things that got me to thinking that I should build another car."

During this time Firman moved beyond racing.

"I've spent four years building some houses and new factories. I bought some land where the old factory was and I lease the old factory and machine shop. I lease units. That's my main business these days."

Ralph convinced Dave Baldwin to come out of retirement to help start Ralph Firman Racing. His new cars are called Firmans.

"I talked to David and he said he'd be pleased to do it. I rented a small shop on the side and we had good subcontractors for the bodywork that we had used for many, many years. That was no problem at all. So basically we got the old team together and it's a good little company. We wanted to bring some new product and have fun.

"We've got a brand new small workshop. There was nothing in it when we started. We have a very small workforce. We outsource just about everything which is good because we've got many friends and suppliers around the area. With Van Diemen we basically produced the cars in-house and there was so much volume that we could invest in nice machinery and use it year 'round. We produced eighty-five percent of the car and components but at the low volume level we're at and which we intend to stay we'll continue to outsource. We'll just see how the future goes."

RFR's first car was a one-liter Formula D car.

"We decided to do the little motorcycle-powered car and then decided to do the F2000 car," Ralph says. "There may or may not be a good future for more cost-effective motor racing. We'll have to see. Nick Coehlo has been driving and racing the motorcycle-powered car for a couple of years. We've sold a few in America. It's called the F1000 or FD. It's got a 1,000 cc motorcycle engine. It's an interesting little car and it's actually quicker than the FCs. It's cheap and the engines don't blow up."

Ralph commented on the genesis of his new F2000 car.

"It's a development of the last Van Diemen from 1999. We took a long, hard look at it. We obviously had ideas on how to improve on what we'd built in '99. We looked at it very carefully and we've done a fair bit of aero work to improve the aerodynamics. A lot of it came from the little F1000 car we produced."

The F2000 car features a fashionably modern high nose.

"From a design point of view there are pros and cons to the high nose," Firman says. "Compared with a big single-seater we don't carry that much downforce so it's a toss-up between putting the center of gravity up with the legs up. You suffer a little bit mechanically that way but you improve on the aero."

There have been some grumbles from other competitors that the high nose is illegal.

"One of the bones of contentions with this car is the high nose. But it conforms in every respect to the current regulations. I'm sure once everyone has thought through what we've done the silly talk will die down from certain individuals who perhaps are looking after their own interests as is typical in motor racing."

© Gordon Kirby
The Firman F2000 car conforms to all the FIA's latest safety regulations.

"We've concentrated on making a very rigid chassis which has always been my big thing. I think we've done a good job in making it legal to the FIA cockpit and safety headrest regulations and with a collapsible steering column. We've actually suffered a little bit from meeting the cockpit regulations which have to be wider than the existing car but we figure that was worth it because we've always been concerned about safety. In the past we produced 150 cars a year and I really like to sleep at night. So we do everything possible to make a much safer car."

Firman has no interest in his home UK market.

"We've sold fifteen cars to Saudi Arabia," he relates. "We're not even looking at the UK because I don't think there's a market there other than at the club level where you might sell two or three cars.

"We're very interested in the US market. Obviously, it's a shadow of itself from say ten years ago. We could see there was no new product being produced and I thought it was a shame that there had been no follow-on. If SCCA club racing is going to survive it needs new cars. F2000 is an open formula as opposed to most of the one-make stuff that's going on these days and that's attractive to me.

"We'll see how it goes. We'll take our time and see how the market develops. We only want to build about twenty or twenty-five cars a year. We don't want to take over the world. I've had all that pressure of keeping up the volume and having to worry about feeding fifty or sixty plus subcontractors and their families every week. We just want to keep it small and have some fun."

The first Firman F2000 car was bought by veteran SCCA racer Jim Victor and is being run and developed by Armsup Racing.

"Jim Victor is a very enthusiastic club driver and he bought the car and is prepared to go out there and shake it down and take the time to sort it out. The guys at Armsup have worked their butt off and done a fantastic job of getting the car together in a very short time. They've got so much enthusiasm and it was nice to see it running around the circuit."

Armsup Motorsports is based in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin just south of Road America. Armsup is owned and operated by former Skip Barber racer and mechanic Gregg Borland. Armsup owns a fleet of Formula Continental cars, mostly 1998 or '99 Van Diemen F2000 cars, plus a handful of Atlantic cars and sports/racers that Borland leases for club racing.

"The Armsup guys saw the new car and Jim Victor and Gregg Borland had seen the F1000 car and they've taken an early start with us," Firman says. "So that's fantastic. They know the history of the people involved with this company which I suppose gave them a bit of confidence. They seem very pleased with the car."

Former Forsythe Racing engineer Kent Boyer joined Armsup in 2005 after becoming disillusioned with the direction that CART and then Champ Car was heading. Borland and Boyer hope to expand next year into Mike Rand's pro F2000 series. Meanwhile, Firman shakes his head in disbelief about the dominance of spec car formulae in modern racing.

"In my opinion all these different one-make formulas are just so wrong," Ralph declares. "They're killing the sport. I don't think one-make formula are good for the manufacturer. You need competition. That's what drives manufacturers. If you have two or three different manufacturers competing against each other it keeps everybody honest. It's the free market at work and that's the society we live in.

"There's a perception that a one-make formula shows who the best drivers are. But that's a load of bollocks because it's down to the teams and all their little ways and means of making the car a little bit better. The cars are never equal. It's like any formula. The teams make the difference much more than the driver."

Firman believes the proliferation of so many spec-car categories prevents young drivers from developing both their technical and racing skills to the maximum.

"I've been involved with so many young drivers over the years," Ralph reflects. "When I started I was more like an older friend but as time moves on you're more like a father figure because the drivers stay the same age and you get older. So now I'm like a bloody grandfather!

"I've always said to them that they need to be in a formula that compels them to be at the top level of their game. Years ago it used to be so clearly defined. You went from Formula Ford to Formula 3 and maybe Formula 2 and then F1 and you raced against the best of the young talent out there. If you showed great promise you could jump straight from Formula 3 to F1 but that's all got dissipated.

"Now you've got GP2, GP3, Formula Renault, Super Renault and a whole range of other formula. It's completely confusing. You can't tell whether a guy is good, bad or indifferent, and to be honest about it as long as he's pretty good and he's got a few million dollars to spend he can go to Formula 1."

So again, it was a great pleasure to bump into Ralph Firman at Road America last week. His energy and enthusiasm belies his post-retirement age.

"I always considered myself very fortunate that I've been able to find something to work at and be involved in as a businessman that you love doing," Ralph remarks. "There are very few people who are able to do that."

Firman is a true racer who's contributed hugely to the sport and is not about to go quietly into that good night. I wish him the best of luck on his latest venture.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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