Friday, February 29, 2008

SCCA RallyCross no special license needed

All you really need is a driver’s license, a pulse, a small sum of cash, and access to a tin-top car to experience off-road rally thrills in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) RallyCross.

The format is straightforward – like autocross. Transplanted into a field it’s called RallyCross. Like autocrossing, each competitor completes multiple runs as quickly as possible without knocking down the course marking cones. The formats diverge in scoring – at an autocross, only the best recorded run counts. RallyCross mimics stage rally. All of the runs count towards a cumulative time, so you can be leading your class, make a mistake on your final run and hurt your overall position. Steady and smooth driving can really pay off at the end of the day.

SCCA’s San Francisco Region owns and operates Thunderhill Raceway Park, just west of Willows California. A gradually sloped field near the track’s access road serves as the region’s home site. I talked with (at the time) RallyCross Chief Skylar a couple of years ago. Stein got involved at its inception in Northern California. “I bought a Subaru WRX in March of 2002, and I wanted to do something fun. I started to autocross, because that’s all there was to do. The first RallyCross in this region was in July of ‘02. I came out to that, and came away saying – damn, this car just wants to be in the dirt.”

Compared to other events under the SCCA umbrella, RallyCross is its own animal. A set of national rules recently appeared, and there’s been talk of a national runoff, but it hasn’t advanced past that. Stein explained, “We actually run the California Rally Series (CRS) classes. They’ve been around a long time – running events out of Southern California. Several of our events even pay points into the CRS championship.”

There’s no need to flip through a two-inch-thick car-classification book, as the CRS rules are pleasantly simple. Essentially three classes are split into two and four wheel drive categories. Street Stock, Street Modified, and Open. Put rally tires on the car and it’s in the open class. Period. Street tires are defined by a measurement of the non-circumferential sipes (cuts) between tread blocks. Roll bars and cages are encouraged, but not required, except on trucks. My STI (well it actually belonged to Subaru) with its sticky (on tarmac) Bridgestone RE 70’s slotted into Street Stock 4.

Registration was a breeze; hand over some money, show them your helmet, (loaners are available also) and pick up a tech card. The inspection was a self-performed checklist of common sense items like battery hold-downs, wheel play, and loose items in the car. Before things get started, competitors walk the course to learn the sequence of turns and speculate how bumps, ruts, and irregularities might influence potential fast lines. While walking, I ran into Mark Anton and Mike “Boomer” Malsed. They became friends years ago racing remote control cars. “I was spending more than $4k a year on R/C cars.” Boomer said. “Mark tried RallyCross with his Ford Probe and was hooked - told me about it – so I went out and bought a Honda Civic for a grand.” Sounds like a good thing to do with a $1k car to me.

A brief driver’s meeting explained the running order and the rules. Timing is recorded on a rally clock in hundredths of a minute. Each cone toppled adds two hundredths to your time, and if you DNF a run – by going off course and rejoining somewhere else- the slowest run of the group plus two-tenths is recorded. Jump the start and expect a .1 penalty. All drivers must share the workload; shagging cones, manning flags, or working the timing equipment or face disqualification. Each run group starts with a parade lap of all the cars, to give drivers a chance to see the course from behind the wheel, and if there’s time at the end of the day, fun runs are a buck each.

Looking across the impromptu paddock, it was a sea of Subarus. Roughly half of the cars were “Subies” several of which were fitted with full WRC (World Rally Championship) replica roll cages. The balance of cars ranged from a stock Ford Focus and Dodge Neon to a rally-tire shod 1973 Mini Cooper all the way up to full-blown stage rally cars like the Volkswagen Corrado of Viet-Tam-Luu. Luu started out rallycrossing last year in a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO, and switched to the fully prepped VW earlier this year.

RallyCross regular Pete Cowan designed the course. He laid it out on a giant sheet of paper with a scale model car, and spent Friday afternoon setting up the real course for Saturday’s event. “I tried to mix it up with technical sections and some longer straights to equalize the cars.” Pete’s technical section referred to back-to-back u-turns that looked tighter than our STI’s turning radius. (That’s tight.) Ultimately, Cowan took top time of day with his own open class Subaru STI.

The actual seat time is fleeting, but it’s adrenaline packed. Typical times hovered around a minute and a half – giving most competitors about five minutes behind the wheel. Even though you’re only in first and second gear, relative to the size of the course, you’re covering loose ground quickly. It’s busy behind the wheel, as you toss the car with opposite lock from side to side, and maybe a dash of e-brake to initiate rotation on the tighter stuff. My first runs were pretty clean, and I felt like I was sliding the car a bit. I tried different settings on the adjustable center differential to get a sense of nuances in power delivery when it was doled out at varying percentages front-to-rear. For my last run, Travis Brock hopped into the car and said, “Hey can I ride along?” Brock is a member of the “Gravel Crew”, a group of rallycrossers from Southern California who compete for points in CRS and put on their own CRS sanctioned rallycrosses. (you may be familiar with his father, sports car and Datsun 510 legend Peter Brock.) My own rear wheel drive road racing style became apparent as Brock instructed me how to use the throttle and four-wheel drive to pivot the car around the tight corners. His instruction to “Hit the throttle” would come as I was just gathering the car into the corner. I obliged, and the STI rotated itself sideways and leapt forward as if it instinctively knew where to go.

I rode along with Brock in his own normally aspirated Subaru 2.5RS for a humbling ride with an experienced driver on Pirelli P Zero Gravel rally tires. Despite a general lack of interior and full WRC style cage, it serves as his daily street driver. He tapped his right foot until the last few hundredths of the start countdown and we were off in a hail of spinning tires and shooting rocks. Aside from the phenomenally improved grip afforded by the rally tires, I was impressed at how much he used weight transfer to pivot the car in the tightest corners – even before using the hand brake, it felt like the back of the car was up in the air, and the fronts were hunkered down grabbing the dirt. Brock finished second in class and overall.

Most of the competitors I talked with had been involved with RallyCross between 1-3 years. Some were hooked by rally video games. Others found out about it through the SCCA memberships that came with their new Subarus. The CRS contingent from the south had a heavy influence from off-road desert truck racing. Brock’s buddy John Jimison sold his full-blown rally car when SCCA pulled out of sanctioning special stage rally events at the end of 2004. “I’m one of the guys that freaked out, before we found out the events would continue under new sanctioning bodies.” He’s also got a D1 drift license to fall back on. While some were set on RallyCross as the destination, many are looking to hone dirt skills they could take into performance rallying.

It’s also a great place to shake a rally car down without getting stuck in the woods. Jack Maranto was into SCORE off-road trucks before he got involved three years ago through a friend at the Ridgecrest Rally School. “The first year we ran the whole season in rental cars – a different car each event. Last year I ran the first ¼ of the season in rental cars, and won my class.” He was running an STI that was piece by piece evolving into a fully prepped rally car. It’s backdated with 15” wheels and gravel tires, a steering rack with fewer turns lock-to-lock, and a giant hand brake right next to the steering wheel that simultaneously cuts power to the rear diff. “Sometimes rally guys like Leon Styles and Rhys Millen come out to our events, and we can beat them. It’s all about the cleanest line, smooth is fast. You’ve got to remember – in like a lamb, out like a lion.”

On average, turnouts hover between 40 and 60 cars as the program continues to gain momentum. The atmosphere carries over from rally - it’s low key and competitors are friendly and eager to help newcomers. “It turns out that not everyone wants to get their cars dirty.” Stein said, but for those who are willing, playing in the dirt has a whole new meaning.

Nissan 350Z - street vs. T2 racer on track

Cheap racing. It’s a bit of an oxymoronic term, but once in a while someone gets it right by doing their homework and finding enthusiastic partners. David Ray is a long time Sports Car Club of America road racer and the organizer of Hooked on Driving, a track day program for beginners with high performance road cars. Back in ‘06 he put together a program for SCCA’s T2 category with a local Nissan dealer and as racing budgets go, he’s running a competitive car on the cheap. Why not put the T2 racer and the stock counterpart on the track to see how some fairly simple modifications transform its’ character? Well that’s just what we did at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows CA.

The 350Z is an axiom in the two-seat sports car market, praised for smooth power, crisp handling, and controversial door handles. Our 35th Anniversary edition ‘05 model is a healthy base for an enjoyable track-day car with 300hp, front and rear spoilers, “track-option” Brembo brakes, all riding on 18” diameter wheels: 7.5” wide up front and 8.5” in the rear shod with 45 series Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires.

The T2 class follows a street legal format and attempts to level the playing field with specific suspension and engine modifications tailored to each car. Safety regulations mandate a full roll cage, fire system, removed air bags, and each car is prescribed a minimum weight – 3268lbs with driver in the case of the 350Z. Across the board limited slip differentials and aftermarket shocks are allowed. Competition comes from a host of rivals you’d find roaming the streets: Mitsubishi EVO, BMW M3, Subaru STi, RX8, S2000, F-bodied Camaro, even Cadillac CTS-V and Porsche Boxter. As a testament to the tuning rules, the cars are fairly close on the track.

Ray’s 350Z makes the most of the rules while conforming to a reasonable budget. The class allows updating and backdating of specific parts on the Z as well as a host of NISMO (Nissan Motorsports) upgrades. Ultra-competitive Nationals competitors blueprint engines and take things to the exact limit of the rules, but Ray started with a 2003 lease turn-in with 30,000 miles on the clock. The motor hasn’t been touched – although that may change for next year, as he’s allowed to update to a newer cam profile from the ’05. Under the hood, the only visible difference is a large oil cooler. A K&N filter resides in the stock airbox, and the exhaust flows through a nine-pound lighter Nismo cat-back piece. Ray estimates he’s making around 300hp, putting it on par with the 35th Anniversary model. From the outside, there’s no mistaking the T2 version. It’s set down 2” on stiffer Nismo springs, and 8.5” front and rear BBS wheels are wrapped in aggressive 245/40 ZR18 DOT approved Hoosier R3S04 racing rubber that fill the wheel wells nicely. Inside, a welded roll cage, cut door panels (and missing side windows due to the NASCAR inspired door-bars) Sparco racing seat, and an airbag-free MOMO steering wheel remind us what we’re not driving to the grocery store. Adjustable (36mm front and 22mm rear) Nismo swaybars and aftermarket shocks are the only suspension modifications allowed. Ray chose Konis with separate bump and rebound adjustment. Aside from disabling the ABS, the only mods to the “track option” Brembos are the Hawk Blue racing pads, stainless lines, and high temp ATE Blue racing brake fluid.

We hit the track in the Anniversary Edition first. Bringing it up to speed, it turns in well, feels neutrally balanced, and makes a nice six cylinder howl as it pulls to the 6800 RPM rev limiter. When pressed harder the street focus becomes more apparent. It’s time to push the VDC button on the dash and disable Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control. VDC uses the ABS wheel speed sensors to identify slipping and reacts with reduced engine torque or individual wheel braking if necessary to keep the Z in line. On the track, the car essentially shutters and shuts off with any appreciable rotation – great for a rain soaked street, but unsettling across the apex of a third-gear corner. With the safety net down, it’s possible to work the car harder into the entry of medium and fast paced corners only to find a fair dose of understeer.

Turns 1,2, and 3 at Thunderhill were made to punish the front of a car three different ways. One is a fast 4th gear slightly uphill left-hander at the end of the front straight, two is a moderately banked 180° 3rd gear left with a long apex, immediately followed by the long off-camber turn three sending you in the opposite direction. On street rubber, it’s a given that three will be a screecher all the way around. With the Z up to speed, the initial turn-in still points it in the right direction. Soon thereafter, the front tires began to howl as they’re asked to do more than the combination of compound and width can deliver – after all it’s a 3200 lb car. Slower corners involve enough weight transfer to effectively combat the understeer. When combined with an early application of throttle, it’s possible to hang the back end out – not the quickest way around, but it looks impressive. With a little practice, and a conscious driving style change, (adjusting the entry speed in fast corners) the chassis demonstrates its balance by rotating in a nearly neutral drift across the apex of turn one. The Brembos work well for less than five lap runs, but the street pads and fluid begin to heat up and loose some bite when asked to go longer.

Entering the #77 Z requires stepping over the cage and falling into the non-adjustable seat. Inside it looks familiar, barring harness, and lap timer equipment. The Nismo exhaust is nearly as quiet as stock, and the clutch pedal is actually marginally lighter than the yellow Z. Idling through the pits, the car’s stiffer springs are immediately noticeable as the poly bushings squeak and complain. Turn the wheel full lock at slow speed and the Nismo limited slip scuffs the inside rear tire like a welded diff.

First lap out, the turn in is crisp, and before the tires get enough heat it’s actually a bit loose. As the temperature (and pressure) increase, the grip increases logarithmically; the rear of the car calms down, and even though this set of Hoosiers is pretty cooked from more than two events, it’s a different world from the stock Potenzas. The overall balance is good. The most noticeable difference comes from those wider front wheels and tires. It points in and takes a set, allowing a more aggressive driving style into the corners. With the slightly shorter rear tire circumference and the Nismo diff, the shift points on the track came up quicker than with the yellow Z, forcing extra shifts, and more speed. The racing compound brake pads took a lap build heat and were a bit grabby at the rear before the rear tires heated up, but hauled the car down consistently without fade. Ray mentioned that at the end of a full race distance he might have to give the brakes a pump, but a recently allowed brake duct should help that.

The numbers on the stopwatch tell the story. At the time, Ray held the T2 qualifying lap record at Thunderhill at 2:06.6, and my time in 8 laps was 1.5 adrift at a 2:08.1. Given the tires and a stiff headwind, I was pretty happy. I saw 122mph at the end of the front straight in the # 77 car. Our yellow Z hit 116mph in the same spot, and screeched the tires for an additional five seconds, for a 2:13.7 lap. The front straight speed difference was attributable to a higher corner exit speed onto the straight, as both cars felt strong on the throttle.

One of the key elements for both driver and sponsor is the involvement of the Dirito Brothers’ service department. Ray explained how it came together; “When I finally did the pitch to the last guy, he was going to say no to me. I proposed that converting the car to T2 specs should be done by the dealership, and hopefully we could talk to the service department and there would be some guys that would volunteer some labor off the clock. The manager went straight to service department manager Aaron Larkin. He got fired up about it, and talked four guys into helping. I think that was a key to making this thing happen. The dealership said – there’s no way I’m going to pay $100 an hour to work on my own car. Aaron stepped up.” The crew is made entirely of service technicians, and they prepare it between events at the dealership. Ray explained, “There’s a lot of pride in the service department. They’ve got all of my plaques and winnings right there on the service department wall. Customers can see that they maintain it, and the Dirito Brothers are establishing a reputation as a performance dealer.”

Crew chief Larkin gave us some insight into how difficult (for a room full of Nissan mechanics) it was to convert the car to SCCA T2 specifications. “It was gone for a week and a day for the roll cage fabrication. It took us about four and a half hours a day for three days to do the rest of the mechanical conversions.” Maintenance between events, in racecar terms has been a sweet deal. “It’s pretty much just fluids. We change brake pads and differential fluid every other event, and in four events we changed the oil once.” They’ve also found out what stands up to the abuses of racing, and what doesn’t. It turns out that newer model transmissions are a bit stronger, and the stock viscous coupling limited slip diff definitely has a lifecycle when aggressively raced. The Nismo LSD was a recent addition, as was an updated transmission. “We work on the car on off hours, and we’re having fun with it. It took a little convincing to get the other techs to give up some off time, but once we started talking about it, I took two of them to a race, and that helped a lot.”

Ready to write the check, or convince your local dealer to blow off a few ads and go racing? Some quick snooping around produced the following rough numbers. Let’s say a run of the mill used “track option” equipped Z is going run in the neighborhood of $20k. A bolt-in roll cage runs in the $800 ballpark. Budget around $3650 for the bolt-on items responsible for the well-behaved personality on track. Other safety items will quickly add up, as will the wider front wheels. On the consumables front, every other weekend will set you back $1000 in tires and $300 in brake pads. When the stock diff begins to complain, the Nismo unit averages about $1100. Ray’s program is golden when you contemplate the labor involved in both installation and maintenance.

Driving Ray’s T2 350Z illustrates that with minimal tweaking and some bolt-on goodies we can make an enjoyable road car even more fun and potent on the track and the backroads. And it makes us want to get out on track again… soon.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Redline Time Attack!

Time Attack competition slots in somewhere between Auto-X and Club/Pro racing – sort of. Popular in Japan as a venue for tuners to show their stuff, it’s just catching on here in the States. I say sort-of because the drivers vary in experience from those fresh off the auto-x course to pro-racer/drifters like Tyler McQuarrie with his Hankook sponsored RHD Nissan Sylvia S15. At the Laguna Seca event, he was the only one with an 18- wheeler support truck and all the trappings of his Formula Drift team – (running a Porsche in that series). There were more than a few serious teams from all over the country that had towed out to Laguna Seca, like the AMS Lancer Evo from Chicago with just as many hands on the car as the guys with the rig. But then there were also the first timers with minimal modifications, just getting used to track driving. The atmosphere was test day with Linkin Park blaring over the loudspeaker system – with friends and crewmembers making up the majority of the crowd. Many of the events take place during the week, so it’s not designed to be totally spectator friendly – but the competition looks fairly low key. The only weird thing I experienced asking questions about the cars was a reluctance to give up any “tuning secrets.” “I can’t tell you what we’re doing with the turbo system on this NSX…” That’s OK, I’m not going to turbocharge my S2000 powered English Ford for a while anyway. The Redline series started in November of 2005, ran four events in ’06, and six in ’07. It’s definitely a great alternative to street racing your 450hp EVO, carbon bodied Miata, or Crazy Rotary 510…

Monday, February 25, 2008

Meyers' Mazda - A Premonition of the RX7

Dick Meyers, a freight company executive attended the LA Autoshow in 1972 and was smitten with a showcar designed by Sergio Coggiola based on the Volvo 1800ES Coupe. Meyers was an RX2 fan – he bought one of the first ‘71’s when it came out and liked everything about the car. He commissioned Chuck Porter to build a car based on the RX2 with a shape similar to the Volvo 1800ESC showcar. Porter, known for race cars, show cars and movie cars put about 2000 hours into the project. Everything on the car was made from scratch or modified, bar the dash, motor, and tranny. These shots were taken by Joe Rusz (still with R&T magazine) in 1973, when the car was first finished. Little did Meyers know that the RX7 was just around the corner, but I’m sure he liked his Mazda sports car better anyway.

Below, the Coggiola styled Volvo prototype Meyers saw in at the show.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Japanese Iron at Chuck's Trucks

Highway 70 snakes along the bucolic Feather River canyon on the west side of the California Sierras. On last year’s Alpine 500 rally (the successor will be run this year as the Snowball Rally) the route passed Chuck’s Trucks. It could be Arkansas, or the rural California mountains – but some of the inventory strongly suggested we were closer to foreign car country. It was Sunday, and Chuck wasn’t around but most of the rally participants stopped to take a peak. Among the American iron, and a corner of Citroens representing France, were several Datsun 411’s and others from the land of the rising sun. Enjoy… and if you see something you like, everything is for sale. Just don’t open the doors without Chuck’s permission.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Hot rodded Toyota FJ's

A couple of years ago the theme for the 2006 SEMA show (the show’s 40th anniversary) was American Muscle, but Toyota joined in on the retro-muscle bandwagon with hot rodded truck of their own.

The FJ45 Hot Rod theme coincided with the arrival of the FJ Cruiser 4X4. Mark Amstock (the National SUV and Minivan Market Planning Manager at Toyota Motor Sales at the time) led the team that developed Toyota’s ’06 SEMA show cars. For the FJ45 Hot Rod, Amstock located the FJ45 pickup and gave it to hot rodder Richard Graves.

Graves chopped the top, narrowed the body, channeled it, coated it in satin black (with the signature white roof) and set it on red steel wheels. Amstock also talked TRD out of a NASCAR Toyota Camry V8 motor and had it detuned to 600 horsepower for the hot rodded truck.

Toyota’s North American sales guys didn’t start a trend by modifying an FJ series truck, they merely tapped into a scene that’s been rolling along for a long time with companies like TLC (Toyota Land Cruisers) of Van Nuys California.

TLC has been restoring and tastefully modifying the FJ series and all Land Cruisers for years. The original FJ series was available in the US between 1963 and 1967 as a shortbed pickup with a fixed or removable roof, and as a four door wagon. TLC’s full blown (to use a Mustang term) “resto-mod” restorations put modern 6 liter V8’s into the FJ and other Landcruisers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Baja B210's

Some 907 miles south of Tijuana lies the capital city of Baja California, La Paz and the ending point of the grueling Baja 1000 off road race. While on a random trip a number of years ago, we couldn’t help but notice that La Paz with its desert climate was a hotbed of Datsun B210 survivors. Most were faded, dented and well worn but still running strong. Or running at least, as no one drove particularly quickly in the city. The entire collection is here, and below are a few of the standouts.

Good times indeed in the Datsun Sunny!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Clean Stock Celica ST on ebAY

There's only 13 hours left on this fairly clean and stock 1971 Celica ST on eBay -
The buy it now price is 6,500. It will be interesting to watch - it's not as desirable as a GT version, but it does have the manual transmission and doesn't appear to have suffered from the advances of rust. Judging by the multiple Celicas in the background, the seller probably knows the cars well.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tired of your Miata? Throw a kit on that whip!

The world of bodykits and aftermarket aerodynamics is a weird and wonderful world of automotive personalization. On the quality side there’s decent stuff, and there’s shlock. Companies like Dobi and Zender came up in the seventies with spoilers and the first aero sideskirts for mass production – before that people did their own flares and spoilers. On modern imports "Combat" and other aggressive kits add gaping radiator intakes, wings, spoilers, side skirts, vents, and flares in occasionally cartoonish proportions. Retro-inspired kits have traditionally been more popular in Japan than US, and the Miata is a popular basis for a total makeover. Here are some examples – with varying degrees of sacrilege. Below Pit Crew Racing takes a Speedwell Sprite front end theme and molds it with a Datsun Roadster rear end taillight treatment – I kind of like it.

The Hiroshi 2000GT kit attempts to capture the glory of the Toyota 2000GT roadster (from Bond film fame) and the detailing is impressive. The rear end overhang proportions leave a little to be desired when compared to the black and white image of the real thing.

The Manta (below) is a generically Italian themed bodystyle – sort of a shrunken Iso Grifo front end.

Miata based Cobra gets it all wrong. Cobras were also copied on MGA’s and MGB’s with similar success.

Ah, the Mustang Miata – this is just weird, but the detailing is disturbingly accurate. Who’s to say there isn’t a Monster Miata 5 liter Ford underneath.

The Aston Martin is a little difficult to pull off, but it looks better than the Cobra.

Miami Vice light – a small reproduction of the Corvette based 365 Daytona Spider replicas. Brilliant!

Perhaps this is the worst, the 1955 MGTF Miata… You could park it next to your Mitsuoka Galue in the garage…