by Parnelli Jones, Forbes (Nov 21, 1994)
LIKE ANYBODY WHO has been around cars and racing for a while, I am impressed by people who can do something with an engine. I'm not talking about somebody who just tunes an engine a little bit so it runs a little better, or something obvious like that. What I have in mind is the kind of person who takes what is already a pretty good engine and looks at it, and sees something that is so different and, usually, so much more powerful, that by the time he gets through what you have is something that isn't just improved but totally new.
Back when I had my own racing team, we did that with the Cosworth Formula One engine that we brought over from England. I had a great engine man, named Chickie Hirashima, who is dead now, and he reworked that thing entirely. We got about 800 horsepower out of that engine. Called it the Parnelli Cosworth and we won a fair number of races with it.
So I like engine men, and for the last couple of years, I'd been hearing a lot about Reeves Callaway and the things he was doing to Corvette engines back East in a place called Old Lyme, Connecticut. The talk about Callaway was all good and, then, last summer, when I heard he'd run one of his cars at Le Mans, I decided to go take a look.
I'm glad I did, and I would recommend the trip. Especially if you are thinking about buying a new Corvette or the z28 Camaro.
I MET REEVES FOR DINNER AT THE Old Lyme Inn, one of those old, friendly, comfortable places like they don't have anyplace outside of New England. He is a friendly man with a good, quick smile, and he had a way of making me feel like he appreciated my coming out to talk to him. When I asked Reeves how he'd done at Le Mans, he lit up like I'd hit a switch. They'd gone over there, he said, just hoping to qualify and run a good race. They didn't want to embarrass themselves. Turned out they qualified first in their class, even though Honda was there in force. They were leading the race after nine hours, when their driver got his instructions from the pit wrong and ran out of gas.
In racing, just about anything can go wrong and usually will. You can even run out of gas. You just go back out and run again, which Reeves Callaway is planning to do next year, at Le Mans.
"Same engine?" I asked him.
"Yes. The same one you'll be driving in the morning. The engine is our strength. What we don't know about that engine can't be learned."
The office and garage were just a few minutes from the inn and when I got there, just after breakfast, they had a Callaway Corvette waiting for me. It was bright red, perfect for attracting the attention of every trooper on the highway.
"Take this little puppy out and work him," Reeves said. "Let me know what you think."
THE CORVETTE, AS EVERYONE knows, is America's one true sports car. It has a lot of fans, and it is plenty of fun to drive. But it is still a production car. The Callaway Corvette, however, does not drive like a production car. It doesn't look exactly like one, either. The Callaway conversion includes some reskinning, for cleaner lines, better aerodynamics, and more airflow up under the hood. But the external changes are nothing compared to what they have done to the engine, the suspension and the brakes. I took the car around the back roads of the Connecticut coast for a couple of hours, and I never found a place where I could stand on it.
I did push it a little when I thought nobody was looking, and it was easy to tell that the car had a lot more power than a production Corvette ... or a production anything. The engine produces more than 400 hp and 400 lbs. of torque, so you can keep it in third gear all around town and then shake it out a little when you get on the highway. I'm just guessing, of course, but I'll bet it would feel real smooth and stable at 140. The Callaway has a Brembo brake system, instead of the factory jobs, and they will bring you right back down to earth. The CoilOver suspension is a lot more responsive and sensitive than the factory leaf springs, so the whole ride feels both smooth and powerful, which is a nice combination and makes the car just a lot of fun to drive.
I said the same thing to Reeves Callaway when I got back to the shop, and he liked hearing it. I also told him I was interested in seeing just what he did to the Corvette to give it so much extra juice. So he gave the nickel tour and, while we were at it, told me the story of how he got into the business.
As somebody who has spent a little time around places where people work on engines, I was impressed by a couple of things at the Callaway shop. One was the CNC machinery. CNC stands for "Computer Numerically Controlled." With those machines, you write a computer program, and the machine follows it every single time. So once you get the operation you want, you can repeat it over and over, exactly, which was something that the best people in the world, using the best machine tools, couldn't do 20 years ago. You can make each port perfect, every single time, and that gets you more efficient, cleaner combustion. In the old days, more power meant more dirty exhaust, but the Callaways are actually cleaner than the stock engines that they start from. And finally, with CNC you can perform in one hour an operation it would have once taken a couple of days to do. Which means you can make a lot o engines.
Three hundred a year, in the case of Reeves Callaway. A very long way from the when he was turbocharging BMW engines in his garage. He got into it, he told me, after he'd done some racing in Formula Vee and been one of Bob Bondurant's first instructors at his driving school. He had always been a little crazy about cars. When he was in college, studying fine arts, his senior project had been restoring a Ferrari.
The business just kind of grew, and so did his reputation as someone who could get a little more out of an engine than the people who built it thought was there. And in 1986, the Chevrolet people came to him and proposed a project where he would put some extra boost on what was then the standard Corvette engine.
He jumped on it with both feet, and his twin turbos became every Corvette owner's dream. He is on his third Corvette engine family now. This one is normally aspirated--no turbo charger at all--but that doesn't seem to hold him back. You can buy a Corvette and make an engine swap with him, if you don't want the entire package with trim, brakes and suspension. It will cost you about $10,000 for an engine similar to the one that led Le Mans for nine hours and I think that is a pretty good deal. Especially when you consider that the engine will meet emission standards in every state and comes with a lifetime guarantee.
If you go for the whole Callaway package, that will cost you about $25,000. This year, Callaway has just started doing Camaro conversions. I tested the new Z28 when it was introduced as the pace car at the '93 Indy 500, and it was pretty hot. But the one that I drove around Connecticut, with the Callaway engine, was something else again. Real quick and a lot of fun to drive.
It is a funny thing about cars, that way. No matter how powerful or fast you make one, somebody will look at it and figure that he could squeeze another couple of horsepower and another couple of miles an hour out of the same plant. It is why cars keep getting faster and better all the time. Now that I've been to the plant and driven the cars, I can understand why people think Reeves Callaway might be one of the great innovators. And I also think that the competition at Le Mans needs to watch out. He is coming back next year, and this time it will be with a brand new car, built from the ground up but running the same engine. He is calling the car the C-7, and it will be state of the art. Reeves says he is looking at something like a 7:1 weight-to-power ratio, which is pretty impressive when you consider that an F-40 Ferrari comes in at about 7:1. I think Caraway and his new car will make a statement next year, and I don't believe the other teams can count on his car running out of gas two years in a row.
(Reeves Callaway, Callaway Cars, 3 High Street, Old Lyme, CT 16371. 203-434-9002.)