"I've Never Had A Vacation": Ron Rhodes Story
Written By: Doug Cook
Photos by: Mike Pryka
Been around the small tire racing world for more than 10 minutes? If yes, the topic of conversation needs no introduction here. For the other 3 of you, let me introduce a staple, an inspiration, and just a great ambassador of small tire racing for the last several decades, Ron Rhodes. Me personally, before I started Motion Raceworks out of my basement, I watched in awe of this beautiful 68 Camaro as it flew down the track on Leaf Springs looking like a Prostock car of the 70s with the attitude and technology of present day. Since then I have been lucky enough to get to know Ron and become friends, afterall we both share a love for leaf spring muscle cars and love Busch Light. But enough of the compliments, Ron is a humble guy and he wouldn't appreciate all this bragging. I recently sat down with Ron and did some Q&A to dig into his and this legendary car's past, learn about what he does between races, and to talk about the future as well.
The History of the Leaf Spring Monster
Ron bought this 1968 Camaro when he was 14 years old from a family friend using money earned mowing grass and saving his pennies. Originally a dark green, 6 cylinder 3 speed, Ron claims "it was pretty rough", but it was his, and from day one he had plans for it.
The first engine combo was a 400 small block, N/A power plant. Believe it or not, Ron used to not like Nitrous says his long time friend Ken Nickel. Since then it has done literally about everything you can think of. From Power Tour, about every form of small tire and drag radial racing from NMCA to Drag Radial X275 and most recently a switch back to the "floppy tires" slicks racing in the PDRA Super Street series. Regardless of the class, this car has always been an iconic Leaf Spring, Small Block, Nitrous Powered car with steel roof and quarters. If you have seen this car in person, it is always in show car condition. It often undergoes massive changes in and out of the engine bay, but comes shined up and ready to win car shows. The detail work and the extent he has gone to get this thing to around 2400 lb race weight without sacrificing quality will blow your mind.
What is interesting is that the roof and quarters still have the same original heritage. "The roof and quarters have not been painted since 1989. I can’t repaint it, that part of the car has come so far. It has character. It’s got the 90s pinstripe. It’s part of that car. I couldn’t write a better story.."
I asked Ron, when you started out with the car did you ever think it would go 4.15 on leaf springs and a small block?! "Hell no, absolutely not. When we went 4.98 it was like that’s it. And then it just kept going. Bischoff (BES Racing Engines) kept coming up with stuff, and I just can’t believe it has progressed to teens. If you even woulda told me 3 years ago even that we went 4.15, I woulda said you’re crazy. "
The even more interesting part of Ron's and SBNOS (Small Block Nitrous) story is that they have almost exclusively been an underdog in the class. However, it has never stifled the Rhodes camp and that left me wondering how it has never gotten to them. Ron says "I am too stupid to quit, that’s about It in a nutshell. I can’t stop. I can’t fail." Ron not only carries this philosophy in racing but also in business.
But how much money does it take to build and maintain a car not only for one or two seasons like commonly seen, Ron has been at or near the top for atleast a decade! So I asked him, how much of your money goes into your racing program? "Whatever it takes, dude I will spend all it takes. I’ll figure it out. I buy it and then I figure out how to pay for it. That’s why Kimmy (his girlfriend) went to school. I don’t do anything else. You don’t ever see me on Facebook going on vacation. I’m almost afraid to go now at 52 I might like it."
Thankfully Ron is his own boss, which means there is no shortage of overtime for him, only a shortage of hours in the day.
Rhodes Custom Auto
Nearly as interesting as the car itself is Ron's story about his shop. Again humble like Ron himself, this shop has pumped out some of the OG and some of the nicest small tire cars that you see on the track. These guys built Mean Dean Marinis iconic orange Mustang originally, Ron and Ronny's Camaros, Andrew Gonzo's Pewter Ultra Street Car, and so many more. Ron is old school, he is humble, so I am assuming most of us have not even seen some of his finest work. Recently, however, I gave Ron a crash course on social media and I think we will all benefit from seeing all of this beauty in metal unfold as he shares more of his products and builds!
Ron says when he got started building cars he was a Honda automotive tech by day. He says he would install roll cages for $200 at nights and on weekends for racing money saying "I was trying to make a name for myself." At nearly the same time his father retired and started building hot rods in his spare time. This created the perfect storm with him and his father working side by side in the same old collision shop that they purchased from a family friend who was retiring from the business. Ron's father would do the collision and body work, Ron would do the chassis work. "It kept growing with my racing success and now we exclusively build custom cars".
Today they are transitioning into building their own parts line. From seat mounts to lightweight front radiator supports, door hinges, and a huge line of things to come. You can now have the Ron Rhodes spec parts, quality, and magic on your car without having to reserve a spot or take your car across the country. As a fellow racer and parts manufacturer I think it is about the coolest thing ever. With Ron and Rhodes Custom Auto attention to detail, you know when you're getting one of their signature parts that it is going to be good stuff. "It goes along with racecar stuff. I’m seeing things that are needed and building parts to fill it." Ron says. "It’s so exciting seeing new parts come to life, there is nothing better than people buying my parts."
You can check out their offering at www.rhodescustomauto.com
Even better yet it is now a three generation business and I think that is about the coolest thing ever. Every morning Ron's father still shows up to help out, and now his son Ronny is a full time employee. "It is the best thing ever to have my son work here. You can count on him. I couldn’t be anymore proud as a father."
Ronny Rhodes: Carrying on the Legacy of Camaros and Rhodes Custom Auto!
Ronny is literally a spitting image of Ron in so many ways. As a 28 year old fabricator, father, and family man he has much the same ambitions! Some years ago Ronny was building a silver 68 Camaro when his Grandpa decided to pass the reigns on his N/A 10.5 car he was racing in NMCA. Many of you have seen or known this Ultra Street many time top qualifier/contender, but I'll post this picture anyways because its hard to get enough of it! "There was never any talk about me having his car but he stopped racing and we thought it might be easier to revive this car than finish the other one. So we put leaf springs back on it as it had ladder bars at the time and the rest is history." Fun fact, this was an original Gold on Gold 19,000 mile car bought originally in their home town of Townsend Delaware.
Now a days many sons choose not to follow in their fathers footsteps, Ronny did not resist the urge, however. "It all fell in place. I’m the same way as my dad, I love this stuff and it’s all I think about. I originally tried to push myself away from it but its what I love."
While most would assume Ron helps out extensively in Ronny's car, they both agree that Ronny busts his butt to not only get the car together and running but to events and to field the car. With balancing a family at home, Ronny says this can be tough as you might imagine. "Honestly yeah, it’s just been me. It’s all me. It kind of sucks but I can’t afford to spend money to go to all these big events. Dad gives me his input. But I do the work and spend the money."
Now for the part many of you want to hear about... Why slicks?
Since these pictures were taken, Ron made the leap into racing on slicks in PDRA Super Street. A site many never thought they would see as Ron has been an exclusive drag radial racer basically since the beginning.
"I’m having fun, it filled that rut that I was in. I’m not saying I am never putting radials back on the car again." Ron claims that they were down to shaving thousandths and it just lost its luster as every single part of the car was on the ragged edge to accomplish this. While he is having fun, Ron claims it's not necessarily a permanent switch and that he is keeping his radial setup and can switch back whenever necessary.
Back to the slicks though. The interesting part about this story is that Ron is having fun, meanwhile his car is going over .4 slower in the 1/8 mile!!! "I have never had so much fun slowing down" says Ron. He noted several times that he loves the fact that you can race morning noon and night, and you aren't waiting for the perfect time of day or for glue paper prep.
Soooo what did you have to change Ron? was my next question."Basically everything but the engine, the driver, and the body. Front and rear suspension, shocks, tuneup, weight, it all had to change to make slicks work". Ron explains that leaf springs like to separate, slicks traditionally don't like to separate, so it has been a monumental task. "But we did get a handle on it. It is still separating, you can’t stop it."
This led me to my next question, why leaf springs from day one, afterall Ron did make leaf springs cool, but will this ever change? I mean it is part of this cars identity right?
"It was just one of them things where it just kept progressing and I never really considered and never really thought about doing anything different. All the sudden it became cool. It started my legacy. Small block with leaf springs is what I developed my legacy on, and I can’t bail now. If I had a mustang I wouldn’t be who I am today. A 68 Camaro with Leafsprings that’s too cool, so many people can relate to it" said Ron.
But will the Leafsprings fight him to the finish with slicks? Only time will tell. "4 link has been on the table more lately, but I just can’t do it but it has been talked about." said Ron.
As I mentioned earlier, the car slowed down considerably going back to slicks. However, it seems to be a challenge that Ron has embraced. "After the slicks, people looked at me and go you should put radials back on. I won’t quit til I figure it out. We had 15 failed attempts on slicks. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, but I just can’t quit. Sadly, it is all I know and I like the challenge."
Even with his struggles, it seems Ron has obviously started getting the hang of it taking the win in Super Street at PDRA at Virginia Motorsports Park last month.
Regardless we are excited to watch the journey. While we love slicks and radials alike, we think its exciting to think about guys like Ron racing more and being able to show up and run down any track any day! That is good for the sport and good for racing.
-So the last question is, will you pass your car on to a grand kid?
"No, I don’t see that happening. My goal is to get the car into the Smithsonian somehow! When I’m dead and gone someone gotta pull some strings to get it there. I think I’ll race it til I can’t race it anymore."
One thing I have learned about Ron over the years is that he is a bit of a living nostalgia, sentimental type. The life he is living is not lost on him, and none of it is on accident.
Until next time, enjoy these pictures by our very own Mike Pryka!