Interview courtesy NHRA Communications


Abel Ibarra


K&N Filters Mazda RX7


"That's (Las Vegas) my race.  I've got to go in there and do well.  I've got to come out of the race in third place in points.  I love racing in hot weather.  The hotter the better, so I'm really looking forward to racing in Vegas."


Abel Ibarra, driver of the K&N Filters Mazda RX-7, is a pioneer of sport compact/import drag racing.  The Los Angeles native, who has earned two NHRA sport compact victories, got his first car as a gift when he was 14 years old.  After continually getting beaten by a Mazda, Ibarra became a Mazda loyalist.  He built his well-known Mazda R-100 in 1996 before building the current RX-7.  Later this season, he will debut the new Mazda RX-8.  In this Q&A session, the former street racer talks about the ills of illegal street racing, the future of sport compact racing, his frustrating 2002 season and the importance of devoted sponsors. 


Q: How long have you been involved in sport compact racing?

IBARRA: I've been racing sport compacts since about 1983 or '84 when I started off street racing in L.A.  When I was little it came from 'The Dukes of Hazard' and 'Smokey and the Bandit' and watching those TV programs and other shows on TV with race cars.  My uncle gave me a ride in his car one time and we went fast and it felt good.  It kind of all started from there.  Just the speed, I liked the speed.


Q: Have you always been racing imports?

IBARRA: Actually no.  My very first car was a Mercury Capri that my mom and uncle gave me for my 14th

birthday.  I fixed it up and did a couple of modifications to it and it got smoked by a Mazda like five days in a row leaving school and I said I have to get me one of those things.  So, ever since then that's what I've had, nothing but Mazdas.


Q: You started out racing on the streets of Southern California.  What would you tell the kids that are out there street racing?

IBARRA: I would tell them that back then when we were doing it that it was different.  Plus, there weren't as many cars and we didn't have any tracks to go to.  Pomona was the only local track to go to, and Palmdale, but they really didn't let anybody go to Palmdale.  I think they were open maybe once every two weeks.  So now there's California Speedway, there's Irwindale, there's Pomona, we've got all these tracks now.  I don't feel there's a need to street race.  It's not worth it.  A lot of these kids have professions or they're going to school and all it takes is for one of them to get in a wreck and hurt someone and there goes their whole career and the effort of their parents, down the drain.  Why, when there's tracks open?  So, I don't suggest it.  I don't think that's the way to go. 


Q: When did you get involved in competitive racing?

IBARRA: I started racing competitively right around 1997.  We built the Mazda R-100 in 1996 and took it to a couple of races and we were the fastest runner in the country for about two, three years, but the little car is so small it's outclassed now, but it held its own in the beginning.


Q: How has the sport compact arena changed since then?

IBARRA: It's fantastic.  It's really gotten a lot bigger.  It's gotten to a much higher level then I ever thought it would, especially with these cars being so fast and competitive.  And I think it's just as much if not more work than NHRA Pro Stock racing.  Yeah, those guys have a really, really tight field, but they already know the stuff they're working with.  The motor combinations out here are so diverse.  We have to worry about what turbos, what fuel injection.  It's really hard.  It's a lot of work to get the power that we need to get.


Q: Is that a goal of yours, to race Pro Stock?

IBARRA: No, this is my thing.  I like Mazdas and if I can't race a Mazda, then I'm done.  I've got a big strong fan base and I don't think that would go over well with them and I think most of my success is due to the fans and the way they ask for me and the demand they bring.  I'm out here for my sponsors, K&N Filters and Toyo Tires, but the main thing is for the fans because with out the fans, Toyo wouldn't be successful.  K&N wouldn't be successful.  NHRA wouldn't be successful.  I just don't think that would go over well with my fans, to jump into a piston-motored car.  So, if I can't race a rotary or do this, I just won't race at all.


Q: Do you feel that the sport compact industry has hit its peak or will it continue to grow?

IBARRA: I think it's going to get a lot bigger.  As you see, there's a lot more rigs coming to the races, a lot more Pro cars.  I think it's growing with each race.  I think we're in real good shape.  I think by, well I'm not going to say next year, but in four or five years it's going to start paying off for some people.  I think it's going to take a while, but I think it's heading in the right direction.


Q: What are your goals for this season?

IBARRA: My goal is to do well and get over all those gremlins that I had last year.  You know, maybe contend for the championship.  I know that's going to be really hard, but if I can do well and stay on top and gain points and be consistent, I think we'll be alright.  I'm doing my best with the engine and the tune-up and I think I'm really on it, but sometimes things happen.


Q: How frustrating was the 2002 season for you?

IBARRA: Last year was very, very, very frustrating.  We had so many things that went wrong.  We'd fix one thing, then another.  I shouldn't say wrong, they just weren't working together right.  For what we were demanding out of the engine - the three-rotor is a whole different animal from the two-rotor - it was extremely frustrating.  We'd fix one thing, then there would come another problem.  Slowly I tried to make things better and at one point I ran out of three-rotor parts and we had to stick the two-rotor back in, but regardless of what happened I feel real strong about this season and the engine's performance and the reliability.  It's just that we're dealing with high-end parts that really are not fully proven and we have to learn how long they can last with these horsepower levels.  I guess we have to do a little more maintenance and switch parts out sooner than we were.  This is a learning lesson.  I know now that certain things have to get replaced more often. 


Q: How important is it to have a dedicated sponsor like K&N?

IBARRA: It is very important.  The way this sport is, I owe everything to K&N, Toyo Tires, Mazda, Extrudhone and all the people that help me like Moroso, G-Force and Red Line Oil.  If it wasn't for them I couldn't do this.  There's just no way you can afford this unless you're a natural born millionaire, you just can't do it anymore.  And even with money it's tough.  Money isn't everything.  What helps out so much with K&N is that they do so much for you.  By being a big company, they do advertising and they let you be seen and known and that brings the fans to the track.