IN FORREST COUNTY — Fire-spitting, pavement-shaking power — that would seem the whole story of Klarr Racing Engines, maker of high-performance motors for professional racers and serious-minded speed demons. And, indeed, about 30 years worth of trophies, photographs featuring trophies and press clippings announcing trophies fill the complex just north of Hattiesburg and attest to the company’s success.
But the real story is not the engines but the man — Ricky Klarr. A child prodigy, Klarr, 45, has overcome a physical disability and created a reputation of being one of the best drivers and engine-builders in professional racing by parlaying innate talent and ability with tremendous family support.
“I was born with a bad hearing impairment, but God gave me the talent of being able to look at something, understand how it works and how it could work better,” Klarr said. “My father realized it, saw something in me, and encouraged and supported me.”
His father, Leo, was originally a row crop farmer who converted to sod, the operation today known as Mississippi Grass Nursery. Truly a family operation, all members chipped in.
At the age of seven, Klarr was operating a combine. His driving skills were exceeded only by his mechanical and analytical ability. He recalled as a child opening automobile models, scanning the instructions and then throwing them away.
When Leo switched to sod farming and new machines and technology were introduced, the mechanic’s duties fell more and more to Ricky. One day, Leo told Ricky to fix a Jeep that was parked at the farm. The engine was totally seized. Ricky completely diassembled the motor and put it back together — first time, no instructions. He was 10-years-old.
His race car building and driving began in the early 1960s on a small scale indeed — slot cars. Klarr built these serious toys from wheels up. He dominated area tracks.
“The rule was that if your car left the track, you had to go get it and put it back on the track. There were many times that I was so far ahead that I left the track and still won,” Klarr said with a wry smile.
As soon as he turned 15 and got his driver’s license, Klarr was off and racing with his father. He originally competed in the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) superstock category. The category judges the winner of each race by the car that comes closer to a pre-established time, a system Klarr never liked. So, he decided to jump up to competition eliminator where the first across the finish line is the winner.
His rookie year in the new category in 1979, Klarr and his team (which included Leo) won best engineered car in class. In 1981, Klarr was named driver of the year. He was fast, but his competitors never knew how fast he really was.
“We sandbagged,” Klarr said, grinning. “We didn’t show them everything we had. We had a competitive advantage, and I wanted it to last a l-o-n-g time.”
By 1984, Klarr’s racing operation had outgrown Leo’s facilities on the farm. So, they built a new complex next door. Ricky, with no previous experience and no instruction, did the entire interior — walls, wiring, everything.
A spat with the NHRA over a Klarr-made device soured him to the organization, and he left in the early 1990s. He briefly competed on dirt oval tracks in the late model division. According to Klarr, his car finished first in 85% of the races he ran over about a two-year period. He quit out of sheer boredom.
Today, Klarr has completely retired from driving. But in 1997 he did return to the NHRA scene as a builder, and he continues to build and work on engines with price tags that can range from $20,000-$150,000 or more.
A major project at interview time is a prime example. It is a huge, 650-cubic-inch, nitro-burning engine for a customer in Chicago. When finished, Klarr said it should develop a knuckle-whitening 1,700 horsepower.
In this day and age when technology is supposedly making work easier, Klarr said computers are actually making engine-building harder.
“When I first started, where you could get a competitive advantage was in the clutch,” he said. “That’s what transfers the engine’s power to the wheels. If you knew how to set up a clutch where the tires wouldn’t lose traction, you had a big advantage.
“Today, everybody has computers to adjust their clutches. It’s all an even playing field. So, if you want to get that something extra, get there that split second quicker, you’re going to have to get it from the engine.”
For Klarr, it’s still the competition and striving for perfection that keeps his blood up.
“I see these guys come from nowhere, land some sponsor, stick about $500,000 in the bank for themselves, then go out and not even try. Hey, they’re set up, but the sponsor has just gotten taken. That makes me sick.
“I’m not going into a project unless I feel good about it — that we’ll be competitive. I don’t do this for the money. And I don’t race for second. I race to win.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.