Justin Carven races the company car – a turbo diesel VW Rabbit converted to run on used vegetable oil (WVO). Take a minute and get to know Justin and his (veggie) oil burning Vee-dub.
What’s your name? Where are you located? What do you do for a living?
My name is Justin Carven and I’m located in Holyoke MA, out near Springfield, MA, and Hartford, CT. I am the founder and owner of Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems where we design, manufacture and sell retro-fit kits to convert diesel vehicles to be able to run on straight vegetable oil. Most of our customers collect used cooking oil from local restaurants and filter it in their garage for use as their fuel.
What got you interested in rally?
About 5 years ago it had become clear to me that much of my advertising budget was being wasted on print ad and trade show campaigns that had little return on investment. As a result, I made the decision that I would rather spend that money on projects that, even if unsuccessful, would provide some reward to my staff or others.
In late 2007 I was approached by members of a SCORE Baja racing team who had expressed interest in building a diesel powered desert racing bug and were looking for sponsorship. This project piqued my interest and that of the gear-heads in the office and we made the decision to get involved. We spent 2008 working with the team to build the Class 5 Unlimited bug with a MK4 VW TDI engine. The car was completed at the last minute to compete in the 2008 Baja 1000 but unfortunately lacked development and only completed the first leg due to ECU problems. I co-drove on that first leg and came down with a full blown race addiction. I renewed our sponsorship for the 2009 SCORE season during which we had mixed results ranging from 2nd in class finishes to several DNFs.
Since I am based on the east coast and the Baja team was out of El Cajon, it became pretty clear that I would need to find my racing fix somewhere back east. Right after the 1000 in 2008, I started looking into the northeast rally scene which I had been aware of but had yet to check out first hand. I participated in some Rally-X events, volunteered at Rally NY and took a course at Team O’Neil.
Tell us about your rally car/truck. How long have you had it?
Did you buy your rally car or build it? What challenges did this cause? What benefits did you realize as a result?
In early 2009 I purchased a ’79 VW Rabbit shell originally built and campaigned by Pete Van Bogart of Cascade Motorsports and started to build it back to be stage ready. A friend who had briefly owned the car let me know that it was for sale once again, having changed hands several times over the previous few years, but hadn’t seen competition since 2002.
The car was basically a rolling shell with a pedal box, cage and logbook but was the perfect starting point for a diesel rally build. I have owned and tinkered with VWs for years so I know Rabbits well, and have access to all sorts of spares, but the first season was a big learning experience. The initial build up of the car was relatively quick and I was able to run some tests at O’Neils and a couple of SCCA RallyX events by April and had the car in complete rally prep in time for the NY Rallysprint that June.
My first stage rally was the NE Forest Rally and it was a real eye opener to the importance of suspension and re-enforcing. We smashed our oil pan and broke the side and rear engine mounts on the rough stages during day two and were forced to retire. We made repairs and were allowed to run the last stage for fun right before sweep.
On the drive back to rally HQ, I started the long list of improvements that needed to be made. The later model engine and transmission I installed were heavier and dimensionally larger that original equipment and created some ground clearance problems. It took a few events to get the suspension beefed up for the car and to build under car protection to deal with our rough New England stages.
Over the next year many improvements were made to the car and it was competitive in 2010 with many top 3 in class finishes allowing me to secure the RallyAmerica Eastern G5 championship and 2nd in Rally NY 2WD. I certainly learned a lot about building cars for durability and hope to use this experience on my next build.
By the end of 2010 I have put over a dozen stage rallies as well as some hillclimb and one EuroRallycross event on the car. The car has served me well but has proven to be a bit on the delicate side given the abuse and speeds it has been subjected to. I am currently re-prepping the car for 2011 but hope to finish the MK4 Golf that I have been working on for the last year and start developing the car this season.
Tell us about the reasoning behind the Greasecar conversion on the rally car. Pros/cons?
The primary reason for running a Greasecar conversion in the rally car is because I’m writing off rally as a business/promotional expense and trying to demonstrate that our products do not affect performance or durability. With that said however, I do like to be doing something different in any arena and enjoy the challenge that comes with it.
It is still unclear as to the performance handicap, if any, since running a diesel is my only rally experience and there is only one other diesel in rally competition in North America. Next year should be interesting though if the Wimpeys get their TDI finished and some comparisons can be made. Running a diesel certainly requires a different approach compared to a gasoline car, but offers great low end torque and fuel economy. I think that, in the right hands, diesel can be competitive with any of the top cars out there.
The only challenges we’ve really had in terms of the alternative fuel involved the freezing of our fuel jugs at a winter event which almost led to running out of fuel until we were able to get a hold of some diesel.
Tell us about a time when you stuffed/crashed the rally car (or maybe had a nasty off).
I’ve been very fortunate so far with keeping the car on the road. The last event I ran was the Autumn Rallysprint in NY with my wife in the co-driver’s seat for the first time. Near the end of the first stage, I came in too hot to a R3 which turned out to be a lot looser than expected and slid off into a gate post. The damage was largely cosmetic though I did bend the rear axle beam. We were able to get the car back together at service and continue the day but lost too much time to be competitive. Since I do all of my car prep myself and operate on a limited grassroots budget, even simple offs like this one can take me months of evenings after work to straighten out and that has been the biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with.
This situation can also make me more tentative than I would like especially during the summer when I know I will have little opportunity to straighten the car out between events. It will be a mixed blessing to have two cars at my disposal by the end of the year, fortunate to have a back up, unfortunate to have two carts to fix and prep.
Tell us about a time when you narrowly avoided a DNF. How did you press on regardless?
In addition to the off at the NY Rallysprint, Geoff Clark and I had a pretty close call at Black River this year when we hit a large rock on the inside of a turn which kicked the car and almost flipped us. The impact tore the 1/4” aluminum skidplate like paper, cracked a wheel in half and pushed the control arm back several inches. For the first few seconds after the car was back on 4 wheels it sounded the car was coming apart and we looked for a place to put over and retire. But as we drove I realized we could steer and the brakes were working so we limped out the rest of the stage. We were running that weekend without a crew but were able to get some help from the Saab rally guys at the next service, bashed the fender back for clearance, replaced the wheel and did our best to correct the alignment. We finished the weekend with a respectable 3rd in 2WD and 7th overall.
What’s the most rewarding part of being involved in rally? The most challenging?
Rally appeals and satisfies me on a number of levels. As a mechanical designer and fabricator, I find building and developing a car very exciting and fulfilling. At the same time, I really enjoy the thrill and challenge of competition. Since often you don’t know exactly where you stand during competition you really need to run your own race and know where your limits are and how far to push them; that type of calculated strategy is right up my alley. Then of course there is the driver/co-driver teamwork and the general camaraderie of the entire rally community. So I guess you could say, overall, I enjoy everything about rally.
The most challenging things are coming up with time, money and crew support. I have been fortunate over the last several years to have funds available through my business to support my habit but like everyone in the current economy, rally funds are becoming tighter.
How many events did you enter last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
I was fortunate to run 6 stage rallies, 2 hillclimbs, 1 rallysprint and 1 Eurorallycross in 2010. 2009 was my first year in competition and I ran 3 stage rallies, 4 hillclimbs and 2 rallysprints so the trend was up in 2010. I hope to run at least 6 events in 2011 but will need to be far more budget conscious to meet that goal.
What kind of cash prize structure would entice you to enter more rallies or push the car harder?
Between car prep, travel costs and entry fees, it would be hard for a prize structure to make any significant impact on my event choices. MaxAttack is certainly the only real prize fund out there and it is fun to run for the money, but more for the competition the events bring out than the few hundred dollars it can earn. I was a bit disappointed that a National 2WD podium at NEFR doesn’t even earn a plastic trophy but generally I have very low expectations for “rally-riches.”
How important are car classes? What class/region do you race in? How many competitors in your class at each event?
I understand the reasoning behind classes but generally feel like I’m competing against all 2WD vehicles and like comparing times even when divided by G2/G5. I am running G5 and it has been a bit disappointing to have fewer class competitors than the G2 crowd, that’s another reason MaxAttack is so fun.
What do you think about recce vs pacenotes vs blind rally?
I’ve never run a blind rally, unless you count co-drivers losing their place, so I can’t really comment. Recce is great when there is time for it and really helps me feel more confident going into an event, with some sense of the roads and their conditions. Generally, I like to keep my stage notes simple since I usually can’t focus when I’m fed too much information at one time. I certainly think that stage notes are very valuable when there is good driver/co-driver communication.
Spectators: How would you like to see them addressed?
I love seeing spectators at the events and on stage. There have been a few scary moments when spectators are a bit too close or rowdy for comfort on stage but for the most part, as long as there is good marshalling and spectator areas, the more the better. I was really impressed with the spectators in Canada. In general they seem more enthusiastic and appear to require less marshalling.
How do you get local gearheads involved in rally?
I’d like the answer to this question myself since I have no local rally friends or helpers. Often, I’ll park my rally car in front of my business or drive it on errands around town, people are intrigued, but often it is hard to explain exactly what rally is to those who are interested.
Often, I’ll park my rally car in front of my business or drive it on errands around town, people are intrigued.
What do you see is the most critical issue needing addressed by the rally community today?
How would you address that issue if you were in charge?
I don’t know that I have a well rounded enough perspective of the rally community on a whole to be able to identify the most critical issue it faces. However, like most, I do feel that US rally does not get the public and media attention it deserves and this fact does affect the level of monetary support available to the event promoters and competitors alike. It is certainly possible to maintain events on a club level simply through entry fees as demonstrated by NASA and Rally NY, but this means a lot of hard work from a small, dedicated (mostly volunteer) crew and it is not necessarily sustainable in the long run.
A significant challenge to exposure is event coverage. Since rally spectating is not as convenient as it is for other motorsports, media coverage seems to be the best way to present rally to the masses and create opportunities for sponsor exposure. The technology that has been developed over the last few years has really helped to present rally coverage quickly and on a reasonable budget as demonstrated by NoCoast Productions, RAM TV, Driving Sports and others. However it is still a challenge to get that material in front of a national audience as ESPN had done in the past and TSN currently does in Canada. I certainly don’t have the answers as to how this wider exposure can be achieved but I do think interested viewers and potential fans exist.
How do you help out at rallies when you aren’t racing?
Unfortunately, I rarely get the opportunity to attend rallies that I am not running, but when I have I have done corner marshalling, time control and have thought about helping out with crew support if I get the chance.
If you could enter any WRC event, which rally would that be? Why?
To be honest I don’t follow WRC closely but any event of that caliber would be amazing to run, hopefully I can get the chance to run WRC Mexico one of these years.
We’ve all got a rally hero. Who’s yours?
There are a lot of rally folks who I admire for a variety of reasons, but Chris Duplessis has really stood out to me, not only as a strong competitor, but also for his positive attitude and helpful nature to other rallyists.
How often do you get together with other rallyistas to talk shop?
Unfortunately, there aren’t many rallyists in my area to get together with, but I do exchange emails and phone calls with a few to talk shop from time to time, though I wish it was more often.
Tell us about some people who have made your rally dream a reality.
Thank a volunteer (or group of them) here.
I think we can all agree that there are so many volunteers to thank that one would never be able to make a complete list. A few who come right to mind however that I have really stood out to me are Kathy Moody, Fran Gager, Jim Blumenfeld, Don Taylor, Walt Clark and the list could go on for pages.
Gearbox Magazine would like to thank Justin for taking the time to share his thoughts with the world rally community, and the photographers who hauled their gear out into the wilderness to capture this wild hare in action.