Over a competitive heads-up drag racing career which spanned a decade, John Kolivas made a mark for himself with three championships in the NMRA’s now-defunct Drag Radial class before moving on to other classes like Street Outlaw and Outlaw Drag radial in his familiar turbocharged 1995 Ford Mustang Cobra. Along with the aforementioned three championships, Kolivas was always in the hunt to take home the winner’s check at every single event he attended during that time span, earning the nickname “The Iceman” due to his lightning-quick reaction times and deadly-consistent performances on the track.
The Iceman in action.
The lessons learned at the keys of his tuning laptop during this time period changed his life; Kolivas sold off the car and stepped back to work with friends and customers as a tuner, joining forces with longtime engine builder Jon Bennett to establish a new business – KBX Performance – to service these customers.
The goal of KBX is to satisfy the needs of these racers who desire to achieve the level of performance Kolivas made look so easy over his racing career, but may not have the knowledge nor time to do so without years of struggles trying to figure out the small details to set themselves apart from the pack.
Today, KBX Performance is known as one of the leading tuners of small-tire racecars on the planet, Bennett one of the builders of the best-performing engines, and their partner Pressurized Solutions as a cutting-edge builder of chassis for these classes. Somehow, Kolivas balances the needs of KBX and Bennett Racing with the needs of Iron Crafters, his other, completely-unrelated business. It’s a fine line, but he’s proven to be adept at traversing the challenging conditions and leading the charge for KBX as they attempt to win every time out – just like he did as a champion.
We recently had the pleasure of distracting him from work for a short time to talk drag racing, business, and life.
John Kolivas (center) and customer Ronnie Diaz (right) discussing tuneups prior to a run at the NMRA’s event at Atlanta Dragway.
Front Street: It’s been an interesting path for you over these last few years. We’re so used to seeing you behind the wheel, and now we see you just hanging out in the pits tapping away on the keyboard, or standing behind your team cars on the starting line. Why the big change?
John Kolivas: I raced competitively from 2005 until November of 2013. Anything that I do I always do 110-percent; it’s either all or nothing, and over the last two or three years that I raced, it just wasn’t the same for me. I’d gotten my fill of it, going to the track, the constant grinding, working on the car between races, spending every night in the garage until midnight. Every race that we went to, we wanted to have a chance to win, be the top car in our class, and be the favorite. For the most part, knock on wood, we did that. Whether we won or not, we always qualified well and were right there. But doing that for so long, I just got burned out.
FS: How do you go from driving for yourself and winning championships, to tuning cars for other people?
JK: Over the last two or three years I was racing, I had more and more guys wanting me to help them with their cars. It got to the point that I was there with my car to race and I had five or six other cars right there with me that I was trying to tune on as well. Well, that’s a recipe for disaster. You just can’t do that. My results suffered tremendously over the last year or two that I raced, because I just simply wasn’t putting the time and effort into my own program. I was working on too many other cars.
NMRA Street Outlaw racer and KBX customer Vinny Palazzolo relies on the company to provide engines and tuning support at the track.
FS: So it was time to sell, sell, sell. That had to be bittersweet; you took the ’95 from a street car to one of – if not the most – feared small-tire radial cars in the world.
JK: It just got to a point where I decided to sell it. I had thought about it for two or three years leading up to that, but you know, you always talk yourself out of it. I finally said enough is enough; I’m either going to have to stop tuning everyone else’s car and get back to concentrating on just my car, or just stop racing. I’d had enough of working in the shop three, four, five nights a week until midnight. Constantly working on the engines, trying to come up with new things – I had just had enough. To be 100 percent honest, I haven’t missed it one time in the last three years. The only thing I regret is not selling it a year or two sooner. I probably sold it for 10 percent of what I had in it over the years.
FS: Even with the car gone, you still couldn’t stay away from the track.
JK: After I sold my car, I’m tuning all these cars and going to all of these races, and people were coming to me looking to buy specific parts, can you build me an engine, things like that. At the time I didn’t own any part of Bennett Racing; Jon was just building these engines for the customers I was tuning for. Jon and I got together just after I sold my car and decided to carry this thing to the next level; we realized we had a product and could provide a service to people looking to build an X275 car or an Ultra Street car, or any other kind of car, really, who maybe didn’t have the time to build it, or the time to go testing and do R&D to figure out how to go fast and run at the front of the pack. That’s how we came up with KBX – it’s a joint venture where we can supply tuning needs, parts, engines, or a complete car. Whatever someone needs, we can do. And shortly after we started KBX, I purchased half of Bennett Racing, so we’re 50 percent partners in each company.
The Bennett racing side of the KBX team can provide an engine to run at the front of any outlaw-style drag racing class in existence.
FS: Going from tuning to building complete cars is a pretty big step. How does Pressurized Solutions figure into the mix?
JK: KBX handles all of the sales for Pressurized Solutions – they work pretty much exclusively for us. They’re a separate company, but we take care of all of the sales, the scheduling, when cars need to be completed or on the dyno, tuned, and getting them to the track for testing. They’re only about a quarter-mile from Bennett Racing in Haleyville, Alabama, so it’s really convenient for us.
FS: How does having each of these businesses targeted to different segments of the market come together to provide synergy for KBX?
JK: If a guy calls us and says he wants to be the fastest car in X275, the first thing I tell him is that he can give me a check with as many zeroes as he wants to put on it; that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the fastest car. You can give me a blank check and I can build you a car exactly like the fastest cars that has the potential to be at the top. You can build a car to run 4.50s easily, but to run 4.40s you have to work, go to the track, and test, test, test. It’s just not quite that easy. That’s what we do – take the guy who doesn’t have all that time and get them into a top-running car, so they don’t show up and embarrass themselves. But to be at the top they have to work at it from there. We provide the total package for them; since these classes are so competitive, everything has to be optimized to the highest degree in order to compete at the top.
Joel Greathouse (foreground, in Jared Johnston’s car) and Charles Hull (rear) prepare for Street Outlaw runs.
FS: You’ve always been known as a turbo guy, but this year you guys put a supercharger onto Joel Greathouse’s KBX Ultra Street car. Why?
JK: We’re trying to branch out and do some stuff with blower combinations. We swapped Joel’s Ultra Street car over to a blower at the beginning of the year; it has a ProCharger F-1A-94 on it. He’s been to four races with the car this season, won three of them, and holds the class record. We wanted to diversify and be the fastest with a blower car, so that’s what we did.
FS: Do you find challenges working with more than one racer in a particular class?
JK: Not really. When we go to NMRA, Justin [McChesney, of KBX] helps me tune on a lot of the cars, and does a lot of the cars by himself, especially when I can’t be there. Take, for example, Columbus. We had Joel there driving Jared Johnston’s car, we had Vinny [Palazzolo], Ronnie [Diaz], and we had Charles Hull’s car there. We’ll divide them up – he’ll take two, and I’ll take two, or we’ll both work on all of them.
Kolivas says making these small-tire cars work on varying tracks is as much art as it is science.
FS: How about when they have to line up against one another? In NMRA this year it seems like Street Outlaw has been full of KBX cars.
JK: It’s the same thought process I’ve always had when I have two or more customers in the same class. We look at the track, try to determine what we think the track will take, and that’s the tuneup we load into the cars. Whoever cuts the best light will win.
FS: Do you ever think that your KBX racers feel like there’s favoritism that you’re giving, say, Joel, a better tuneup than what you’re putting into Charles Hull’s car?
JK: Absolutely, that’s part of it. Hell yes – I hear that all the time. You even hear it from people that just watch. They carry that &*^% onto Facebook all the time – someone will say ‘Oh Charles isn’t running well and Jared wins the race, Charles is never going to get the tuneup that’s in that white car.’ As far as the racers themselves saying it face to face with me – nobody really carries it that far.
Kolivas can almost always be seen in the background when one of his customer cars is running. He says the experience gained from hundreds of track runs and tuning sessions is invaluable.
FS: Along the same lines, let’s say you have three racers in the semifinals at an NMRA event. Does someone take a dive and play blocker? Or since you’re not Don Schumacher footing the bill giving team orders, that doesn’t happen.
JK: No. It hasn’t happened yet, let’s put it like that.
FS: How do you manage to keep a work-life balance between running Iron Crafters, the stresses of running KBX, your wife, your daughter, and the effort each of those require? How do you find time to put your feet up on the couch?
JK: There is no time to put my feet up on the couch. My normal day, I get here to work around 6:00am and I’m here until about 4:30pm. All day I’m running things here at the iron shop, but I’m also taking calls from parts customers, engine customers, and car customers, whatever. They call my cell phone. So I’m basically working both jobs all day long. That’s my day. I leave work at 4:30, then go to the gym four afternoons a week, then eat supper – I usually don’t get home until around 8:00pm. I sit in the recliner for 30 minutes and then go to bed. I can’t stay up late – I’m in bed by 9-9:30 most days. I just have too much going on. One day a week I even get up at 3:30 and go to the gym before I go to work. My wife works here with me, and my dad’s in and out too. I see them pretty much all day on and off anyway. My daughter’s off trying to get into medical school, so she’s a few hours away and we only see her every few weeks.
FS: With all this going on, how do you manage to get the time away to go to the events?
JK: It’s tough to go.
FS: What do you see for the future? What’s the five year plan for KBX?
JK: Dominate the world.
Kolivas and McChesney are ready for anything that comes their way.