JON ROOD’S RALLY-PREPPED RA64 TOYOTA CELICA
WORDS Mike Burroughs IMAGES Patrick Ernzen
Toyota isn't usually the first marque that comes to mind when discussing the cars of Group B rally fame. Though Toyota saw several wins in its career, it's been vastly overshadowed by the likes of the infamous giants: the Audi S1, the Ford RS200, the Lancia Delta, and the Peugeot 205, among others. But with all that success, even the base model road versions of those cars have skyrocketed in value, leaving little in the way of enjoyment for those of us with an appetite for the rally legends but with smaller bank rolls. So Jon Rood took the road less traveled, passing up the icons in favor of an underdog: the RA64 Celica.
John's beginnings with predominantly off-road motorsports were rather humble. A fellow enthusiast and friend asked if Jon had interest in helping crew at the Prescott Rally, the next-to-last stage in the NASA National Rally Championship in Prescott, AZ. Jon's curiosity was piqued. Despite his talents with a wrench and his passion for cars, he was unaware that the sport of rallying had a presence in the United States. That was 15 years ago. Today, Jon is quite the Rally enthusiast. He now stands as Chairman and co-organizer of the Prescott Rally, suggesting that his passion for the sport is among the most emphatic.
Witnessing the perils of rallying firsthand is what cemented the passion for Jon. Watching an opponent's VW Golf pull in for service missing its left-rear wheel, spindle, and carrier, only to return to the next stage in just 30 minutes after a trackside repair, pushed his excitement as a crewman, and it's been downhill ever since. Shortly after his first race, Jon found himself crewing for a friend's Mazda 323 GTX. His hard work and efforts there earned him a reputation as a competent crewman, moving him up in the ranks to help crew for a Toyota FX-16, VW Golf, Subaru Impreza, and Subaru Legacy over the following couple of years.
Jon Rood took the road less traveled, passing up the icons in favor of an underdog: the RA64 Celica.
"I loved the challenge of fixing a broken car in under an hour, or performing major work overnight for the next day of racing. I'm good at thinking quick and coming up with innovative solutions quickly to keep cars going," he says.
Three years after that first race, crewing for a regular team began to fade out, and the itch to build a car of his own grabbed hold. Jon's first build came in the form of the light yet strong, budget-conscious Ford Festiva. His next build took things a serious step further – a Ford Escort GT with a punched out race motor, built transmission, and proper suspension. The change was enough to take Jon from finishing rallies – an accomplishment of its own – to podium placement at most races he entered.
Jon moved on once more, this time landing at the RA64 Toyota Celica. It began as Jon dreaming up a project to kill off some newfound spare time. Jon wanted something "atypical." At the top of the list was the RA64, which had captured Jon's interest thanks to its Group B Safari configuration which had raced in the early '80s. With the Celica so high on the list, and fairly easy to find in 2009, Jon searched far and wide for the right car, eventually landing on a $400 rust-free example that "only needed a fuel pump."
The Celica needed more than just a fuel pump; a full 1/4" of crankshaft play was reason enough for a fresh engine. Jon built a replacement 22RE to stock spec, with the only change being an OEM-style K&N air filter. Reliability is paramount in the sport of rallying, and while power plays a crucial role, Jon focused on other aspects of the car to maximize performance, namely the suspension.
"Where to start?..," Jon jests, hinting that little remains in the way of factory components.
Among many other things, fifteen-inch race springs perch the rear of the hatchback high above the 27" tires, giving the car ample ability to clear most obstacles rallying may throw its way. Up front are Bilstein mono-tube struts. The front subframe was dropped 3" on each side. The tie rods were relocated to above the steering arms. The chassis has been modified as well, slotting into the floor where the rear seats used to be. The exterior oozes style from every angle while embracing the entirely functional aspect of the build. The most obvious change to the car is the lack of pop-up headlamps that came with the 3rd-generation Celica. The front-end conversion was an important factor for Jon in making the car unique. The swap took several years of research, skill, and a bit of luck. A Mazda truck grille was chopped up and fitted to replace the factory front. Custom corner-light caps blend the grille into the fenders, and a custom-made valence was fabricated from scratch to polish out the front end, giving the Celica a one-of-a-kind face that brings the rally aesthetic into full force. The tubular bumpers were pulled from Safari Group B at the nose, and off-road double-tube style out back.
The car is primarily used as a Lead Car or Course Closing Car, both of which are vital in operating successful events. Compared to most club-level racers, Jon says the car runs mid-pack: fast enough to open a stage, and fast enough to chase down the back car and ensure everyone gets through the stage safely.
"It can be important to get someone to the scene of an accident," he says, "or give a car a quick tug out of a soft spot they've gotten stuck in." It's with that mindset that the car has been built, following Jon's roots as a crewman and his inherent desire to help others race.
When Jon was introduced to the sport 15 years ago, it took little time for his reputation to take hold. Since then, he's established himself as someone involved not only for the love of the sport, but for his fellow racer. With his talents and imagination, he's built a car that is unique in all respects – from engineering and design focused on making a road car handle the trials of mud and dirt, to sinking time and effort into creating an aesthetic that follows his dream. "Carlos," the Celica, covers it all. If Jon's efforts in crewing for teams, managing events, and closing courses wasn't enough for the sport, such a build is sure to bring others into the incredible world of rally racing.