Seven-Time SCCA Solo II National Champion Danny Popp Talks Corvettes, LS Motors and How to be Successful
Mon, 2017-02-06 06:00
If you’re at all familiar with the grassroots autocross and time attack scene, chances are, you’ve heard of Danny Popp. He’s the guy that seems to always be holding giant trophies on Sundays at premier events around the U.S. and drives nothing but blue Corvettes. Well, it was high time we chatted with Mr. Popp to get his thoughts on just why he likes those blue Corvettes so much, why he races and see if there was any wisdom he could impart upon us.
Danny grew up in an essentially Chevrolet-dedicated family. Both his mother and father were NCCC (National Council of Corvette Clubs) and SCCA members. Danny’s father was an engineer at General Electric and had a passion for all things mechanical, which he instilled upon little Danny at an early stage. Danny grew up around a couple Corvettes (‘65 327/350 coupe and ‘72 LT-1 coupe), 70 1/2 Z28 and even a Corvair. On weekends, Danny said he would attend autocrosses with his mother and father where they became a bit of local legends.
Years later, and now Danny is a seven-time SCCA Solo II national champion (amongst many other wins) and is also a full-time certified Corvette specialist/technician at McCluskey Chevrolet in Cincinnati, Ohio. Danny tells us he also night-shadows as the Owner, proprietor and sole employee of RAFT Motorsports, Inc., a consulting firm for several national racers.
Photo courtesy of ABI-photo.com
In addition to his autocrossing pedigree, Danny now attends several time attack-based races around the U.S. like the OPTIMA ® Ultimate Street Car Invitational, which he’s won four times, three of those were consecutive in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Danny also took home five NASA Championships (2007,2008,2009), three Goodguys’ “Autocrosser of the Year” Championships (2013,2015,2016) and two LS Fest Grand Championships (2013, 2015)
So, we wanted to talk to Danny about his love of Chevrolets, especially blue Corvettes, LS/LT engines and if he had any advice for aspiring racers.
The BLOCK: How long have you been at McCluskey Chevrolet? What do you do there?
Danny: Twenty-three years. I really do a lot of performance work there. I mostly deal with Corvettes, which is great because I love Corvettes. I was born and raised in a Corvette family.
The BLOCK: Tell us a little about your dad and your upbringing.
Danny: My dad bought his first Corvette brand new when he was only 29-years-old. In 1960, he took delivery of a brand new black-on-red 270-horse 1960 Corvette. He eventually decided to go racing in that car, and long story short, started bringing home trophies. He later bought a 327/350 silver coupe in 1965. He continued winning trophies in that car for seven years. This is around the time I was born and received my first plastic toy for Christmas at age 2 and it was a Corvette. That’s really my earliest memory of when I truly latched (quite literally) onto Corvettes.
In 1972, dad bought another Corvette, the dark blue ‘72 coupe equipped with the high-revving LT1 small-block. I eventually became his pit crew, and later we actually got behind the wheel of that car. That’s one of the cars I still race to this day, and dad comes out and now works as part of the pit crew for Adam and I. Funny how we’ve managed to keep it all in the family.
The BLOCK: So, that pretty much explains your passion for Chevrolets and Corvettes to this day.
Danny: Yea, I was born into a Bowtie family. Dad had nothing but Chevys when I was younger and I immediately loved Corvettes. When I was a kid, we didn’t have tech like kids these days growing up. We gravitated towards the simpler things in life - what was close to us, and that was Chevys for me.
The BLOCK: What’s your main current car/setup?
Danny: Well, there are actually four cars we play with, and all the Corvettes are blue (laughs). I have a 2003 C5 Z06 I bought brand new. That particular car is the one you see in all the Ultimate Street Car photography and video. We’ve won three consecutive events in that car with the OPTIMA® Ultimate Street Car Invitational. It was originally an autocross car but it eventually evolved into a car very capable on a road course. I also have an ‘02 C5 Z06 that is a dedicated road race car.
My 16-year-old son is also an aspiring driver and enthusiast. We wanted to give him a reasonable platform to jumpstart his potential career. And well, it was another Electron Blue 2003 C5 Z06! It’s pretty much stock except for some nice shocks and wheels. He’s been to LS Fest, some SCCA autocrosses and more in it. So, yea, that’s three C5 Z06s.
The fourth car is the aforementioned ‘72 LT-1 Corvette - that’s the family heirloom my father bought when I was 3-years-old. My dad is the one responsible for my affection for not only Corvettes, but blue ones. So, those four cars are the ones we currently campaign at Goodguys, SCCA, OPTIMA® and so forth.
We also have a ‘95 Z/28 we’re putting together to have some more fun in, and guess what, it’s also blue. We plan to take it to OPTIMA® events and SCCA races in the American Muscle classes. My son has gone to events with me for several years and he’ll be driving that car. We plan to do an LS swap and install a bunch of Z06 parts like brakes and suspension.
The BLOCK: Talk to us a little about LS Fest - one of the stops in the Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series.
Danny: Well, this past event was really cool. We generally love attending and competing in these events, but 2016 was extra special. I drove my buddy Todd Rumpke’s car who had just passed away days before the competition and actually won the autocross competition in the car, dedicating the win to Todd. I would have won the Grand Champion award again but Holley doesn’t allow returning Grand Champions to win 2 years in a row. Mike DuSold, the guy that won Grand Champion this past year and a good friend, insisted Todd’s car make it on next year’s LS Fest t-shirt as well as his car, which was really cool of him.
The BLOCK: What a great story. So, you drove Todd’s car, which is a C6 Z06, but you seem to have a fascination with C5 Z06s.
Danny: Yea, I mean, at the time they came out I was still running the ‘72 Corvette and still winning championships in that old car. During the 2002 season, I had a friend that wanted me to build him a car for One Lap of America. We agreed I would run it in SCCA and he would run One Lap of America. I was so amazed by the performance of that relatively stock Z06 that I bought one the next year.
I’ve seen a lot of converts from other manufacturers getting in them. In my opinion, for the money, you just can’t beat the performance of that car. We’re running with the best sports cars in the word during the OPTIMA® events, even full-tube-chassis cars, and our past three championships are a testament to that car. And you know, the architecture of the C7 is very similar to the C5 - I wish I could buy one! I’ve got my eye on a Grand Sport.
Photos courtesy of ABI-photo.com
The BLOCK: Speaking of Grand Sport, are you seeing more C7s make it out on track?
Danny: You know, they are becoming more prominent. I remember when the C5s and C6s first came out, droves of them came out to events. I expect the same to happen with the C7.
The BLOCK: The C7s are powered by the new LT line of engines, but pretty much all your late model race cars are powered by LS motors. What are your thoughts on them?
Danny: You know, I was really concerned when the LS motor first came out. The all-aluminum part worried me. But contrary to my comprehension, they were a God-send. Their popularity is based on their simplicity. They’re easy, cheap and package well, and make incredible amounts of power for their package size. I’m interested to see what the future brings. I’m an engine speed freak, so I’m intrigued by all that.
The BLOCK: What do you mean by “engine speed”?
Danny: Well, I love my engines that rev. We actually tune for horsepower, not torque. It’s like mechanical traction control. Instead of having instant torque coming out of a corner that causes wheel spin, we move that power band up so the power builds gradually and the majority of that power makes it to the ground. I normally like big bore, short stroke motors that can turn 9,000 RPM. If people hear it run, I want it to make the hair on their necks stand up. That’s how I like it - a little unorthodox. I’m a huge fan of compression and cam timing.
The BLOCK: What would a dream car build look like for you? And it doesn’t have to be a race car.
Danny: I’m a corvette guy through and through. It would be an older Corvette. I love the ‘70-’72 Vettes. I’d probably build another one of those without the legacy and heritage of my car, because it limits what i could do with it. It would have an alternate frame with a big LS motor with L88 flares - make it a little more modern. My ‘72 is a bolt-on car with original frame - we want it that way, but it limits its performance.
I’ve been thinking about actually pursuing this - something the kid could run also. Cars are a great father-son bonding project - it worked for my father and I and it’s working for my son and I. And it’s not just us, I hear it from all sorts of other fathers.
As I mentioned, I love engine speed - I’d build the LS to climb in the revs. The Chevrolet Performance 525 horsepower crate 6.2L is a no-brainer. It’s basically an LS3 with a “Hot Cam” and a lot of the necessities to get it in a car. We use that motor at the shop if we blow the LS6 in a Z06 since it’s hard to get an original engine. So, the LS3 is a great fit for that car. The LS engine goes right in, it’s affordable and makes great power. It’s like hitting the “Easy Button”! I would like to do this soon - build another engine using new CT heads or DR heads as a baseline and build something around that. It should make really big power. Big bore, short stroke that turns 9,000 RPM.
The BLOCK: What does 2017 look like for you?
Danny: Basically the same things we’ve been up to. We’ll again be heavily involved with the Ultimate OPTIMA ® Ultimate Street Car Invitational events, Goodguys, SCCA events and this year, we’re going to get into more time attack with #GRIDLIFE and potentially Redline.
We’ll also start running the Camaro in these events. If that’s not enough, NASA road racing like we used to do a decade ago. We’ll run ST1 Super Touring or Super Unlimited. It’s the fastest class and is really no holds barred.
Also, my buddy Todd Rumpke that passed away was building a ‘64 Vette to be a pro-tourer. His dying wish was to get that car completed, so that’s what we’re going to do. It will have a different frame and C6 underpinnings. I will debut that car this year and run it in his memory. There should be big buzz surrounding that car - it too will be completely unorthodox, but retain the clean lines of a ‘64. Look for it to come to a racetrack near you.
The BLOCK: We can’t wait to see that. I’m sure we’ll see you soon and we may just have to feature that car. For up-and-coming and aspiring racers, what advice would you give them?
Danny: I come from an autocross background. I learned car control in low consequence areas. Seat time is always better than any performance mod you can make to your car. In autocross, you learn to dissect how to approach each corner. Road courses are the same. You have to learn to really mentally prepare first. Autocross rewards patience over aggression.
I think all these learnings at autocross translate seamlessly to the road course. I autocrossed for 16 years before I ever raced on a road course. And get this, my first time out, I was 3 seconds under the track record. That’s why I’m a firm believer in learning basic car control and competition in low consequence areas like autocross. In short, keep it simple, and seat time, seat time, seat time. That’s true for both autocross and road racing.
Be sure to keep it locked on The BLOCK, we’re not done with Mr. Popp. We hope to keep checking in with him periodically throughout the year on his latest builds, as well as his racing season. Like Danny said, keep it simple. If you don’t have a complete car ready to race, check out what Chevrolet Performance has to offer to help get your project race car out on the course this year. From crate engines, to transmissions, to full Connect & Cruise systems pretty much ready to drop in, Chevrolet Performance offers it. Click here to learn more.