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Q&A: NMRA Hot Street racer and Ford Racing dealer Rick Riccardi

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It’s good to be Rick Riccardi. When he’s not up to his ears in high performance parts while earning his keep as Manager of the Motorsports Division at Downs Ford in Toms River, NJ – a career any Ford buff would be jealous of – he’s having the time of his life rowing the gears on his high-winding 1981 Capri in the NMRA’s popular Hot Street category.

Riccardi has been a mainstay in the Hot Street category for a handful of years now with his familiar black and blue Capri, steadily learning and advancing in performance in a category that Riccardi – and any of his competitors – will admit isn’t for the faint of heart or those light in the pocketbook. After an offseason of changes that included the complete overhaul of the car he has owned for more than 15 years and tuning advice from friend and former class champion Charlie Booze Jr., Riccardi has stepped up his game substantially in 2010.  At the recent NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl in Joliet, IL, he advanced all the way to the first final round of his career in Hot Street, where he gave the always tough Robbie Blankenship a run for his money, coming up just a couple hundredths short of earning his breakthrough win.

STANG TV sat down with Riccardi to discuss the evolution of his racing program, his thoughts on the current state of the category and the NMRA, and his role in the family-owned Ford dealership.

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Rick Riccardi. Image courtesy: Jason Reiss/NMRA

PowerTV: Tell us a little about your history and background in the sport.

Rick Riccardi: I was born and raised into the automotive world. My dad had a service station and my grandfather was the actual service manager here at Downs Ford before he purchased the business in the early 1980’s. My father and my uncle had a front engine, slingshot dragster they raced and so I’ve been around the race track since I was seven or eight years old. They got me into racing, and so I’ve always been around engines and cars – it’s kind of in my blood.

I went through automotive school, Ford training, vocational school for automotive. I have all of my SAE and Ford certifications, and worked in a shop turning wrenches for 14 years before coming over to the motorsports division here. I’ve had my car for close to 15 years and made the jump to Hot Street about four years ago with my buddy Dennis Varga, who is the crew chief and my only crew on the car. I got this car when it was just about to hit the scrap heap from a buddy of mine, because it’s rare to find a Capri that’s actually in decent shape, so we yanked that car and took it to the track to screw around with it a little bit and after six or seven years, we got into the NMRA running Open Comp and brackets before making the step up. The sport is a drug that my father got me hooked on.

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Riccardi advanced to the first final round of his career at the most recent NMRA event in Joliet, where he came up short in a close matchup with Robbie Blankenship.

PowerTV: Tell us your thoughts about the current state of Hot Street and the NMRA.

Rick Riccardi: The NMRA is a great place to come and race. We’re a sponsor every year at the Atco event, and hopefully it keeps going. Due to some rules changes that have come out and the way the class has progressed, it’s very hard to keep up with the Joneses. You’re running with Don Bowles and the Blankenship’s, and the Roush teams; it’s kind of hard to compete with that kind of money. But we’re trying and that’s all we can do.

PowerTV: Are the costs of competing in the class as high as one might believe?

Rick Riccardi: Well, obviously you’ve got your travel and entry expenses for every event that probably average between $1,000 and $1,300 just to go racing. Then you’ve got the maintenance on the car, from pulling and checking the valve springs after every run. You basically have to run these things on the ragged edge to be competitive and keep your parts up to par, because we’re spinning these engines over 9,000 RPM. In this class, you’re running between .800”and 1” of lift, which is where the valve train becomes crucial and it gets expensive – two sets of springs is almost $1000.

An average motor to get into this class will cost you between $40,000 and $60,000, and the chassis you’re looking at anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 just on the low side. If you’ve got $75,000 or so to put into a car, you may be able to jump into this class and try to start being competitive.

PowerTV: You were absent from a couple of events last season as well as the opener in Bradenton this year in order to make some adjustments to the car. What led to that decision?

Rick Riccardi: Last year we stopped racing for a short time because the chassis that we were using – when they came out with the rules change for the class – kind of put us behind the curve and we needed to strip the whole car down and start from scratch again. We missed Bradenton this year because the car was still being updated to a 7.50 certification at Hellbent Race Cars. We’re planning on making the rest of the races this season and coming back out next year and doing the same thing.

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PowerTV: Did you make any other adjustments to your program upon returning to competition this season?

Rick Riccardi: Basically, we’ve just made some little tweaks here and there on the engine, which is the same motor as last year, just freshened up. The chassis is completely new. We’ve been working with Charlie Booze Jr., getting some information from him and applying it to the car and its been working. The fastest pass to date with the new car is an 8.64, and out at Milan we were the number two qualifier for the first time ever. Joliet was the first time we’d ever made it to a final round.


Riccardi banging the gears on his Hot Street ’81 Mercury Capri during the Friday evening qualifying session in Joliet

PowerTV: Why Hot Street?

Rick Riccardi: I’m really not into the nitrous and power adder type of thing. I like to see how fast you can go on a naturally-aspirated race car. I’ve never dealt with anything with blowers and superchargers except for selling them to my customers. I’ve never even had the ambition to swap over to a nitrous bottle in my car – I’m just a carburetor kind of guy. You can certainly go a lot faster with power adders, but I get more satisfaction out of seeing how fast you can go on the motor only.

PowerTV: Why do you think small tire, all-motor style racing hasn’t taken off outside of its small mainstay arenas?

Rick Riccardi: Probably because of the costs. The first three years that we were in this class we were so far behind the curve and we had to learn by coming to the events and running with the guys that started the class. Charlie Booze Jr. is one of the pioneers of the class, so learning a lot from him has worked its way down to a lot of the guys. Many people don’t have the ambition to do it – it’s a hard class and you have to be on your game. If you’re not in it for the long haul, this isn’t a class that you’ll want to get into. They can go into a class where they can slap a blower or turbo on there and have someone come tune the car and go. You can find horsepower just by tuning it. But in Hot Street, it is what it is – if it’s not there it’s not there.

PowerTV: You recently experienced an incident involving your trailer while towing for an event. What happened there?

Rick Riccardi: After we left the Milan race, we got right between Toledo and Cleveland, OH and I decided to pull over because it was pouring out and thought, “You know what I’m tired”, and woke up the next morning and the axle was gone. We didn’t even realize that we’d lost an axle on the trailer on our way home. We walked down the side of the trailer and we’re looking for the second tire and we only see one, and thought, “Whoa, where’s the second one?” before realizing the axle was gone. Luckily Charlie [Booze Jr.] was a couple hours behind us and he came and we unloaded everything out of my trailer into the bed of my truck and Charlie limped our trailer back to his place with his truck. Milan was a very long and very expensive weekend. You can add that into the costs as well [laughs].

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PowerTV: It’s not very common these days for an automotive dealership to house a motorsports division. Tell us more about that division and what it entails.

Rick Riccardi: We’ve been involved with Ford Racing since 1990, and over the last 20 years, we’ve been in the top ten and the top three in the last five years among Ford Racing dealers. The nice thing about having a Ford Motorsport franchise within a Ford dealership is that Ford Motor Company offers their full three year, 36,000 mile warranty on Ford Racing parts installed on a newly purchased vehicle installed by our certified technicians, whereas a Ford Racing dealer outside of an automotive dealership would not have that allowance.

It’s nice having it here because a customer comes down to buy a brand new Ford vehicle and they can take a look through a catalog to see what parts are available and they can have everything done in one place. It makes them feel warm and fuzzy. Ford Racing has a lot to offer, they’ve improved their game a lot over the years, and they have a great tune that is very safe for the average person. They can put a cold air kit in and Ford gives you a Pro-Cal tool, and their engineers back at Ford Racing have a very safe tune that is approved by Ford to be installed on these cars.

We take a handful of the cars that we do and send them over to Dwayne [Gutridge] at Big Daddy Performance and he’ll dyno them for us, check the air/fuel ratio and such, and every one of them we’ve gotten from Ford Racing has been top notch.

PowerTV: What does the future look like for Rick Riccardi and Downs Ford?

Rick Riccardi: We’re looking to be bigger and better than we ever have. We’ve progressed further this year in my racing program than we have in the past, and we’re learning a lot, and we’re taking a lot in. I’ve been able to befriend Charlie, who is the guru of the class, and we’ve filtered a lot of things back and forth between the two cars to help each other. Mostly it filters from him to me [laughs]. But I’m looking to just to get out there and be the best that we can and stay 100% competitive.

As far as the dealership; my program and the dealership are two separate entities. I do all the advertising since it’s a family thing, so I advertise with them for my car, and I do get some perks back from that. They help me with a lot of different things. I’m still responsible for my own program. Our motto is “never quit.” We’re going to keep pushing this place until we can’t push anymore, and try to help everybody out. I’m not here to kill people on stuff, I’m here to provide people with a service where they can call and get anything they need at one stop and feel comfortable with their purchase. We plan to be here as long as Ford Racing is.

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