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June 12-13, 2010

We started building our ITA Mazda Miata in 2007. Little did we know it would be more than three years later, on June 12, 2010, before the car would claim an SCCA Club Racing win. The following day, the car took home its second victory.

Neither race was easy. Local ITA competitor in a first gen Mazda RX-7 usually destroys our little Miata. In the past, we’ve been competitive in the braking zones and through the turns, but we always found the Miata’s acceleration a little lacking. The acceleration issue – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – is usually amplified at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., due to the speedway’s long front straight. Ironically, Auto Club Speedway was the location of our Miata’s first two wins.

Did we add more power? Nope.

In a previous installment, we covered the addition of a front spoiler, under tray and the removal of the Miata’s side mirrors. Those all aided in making the Miata slip through the air with more efficiency, but we didn’t think that would be enough to get the job done. So with a week to go, we decided to re-gear the car.

Per the Improved Touring rules, cars may install any ring and pinion as long as the gears fit in the factory housing. Our 1996 Miata came with a 4.10, but we changed to a 4.30 when we installed a Torsen diff. At auto Club Speedway, however, the 4.30 would top out at between 116 mph and 118 mph, usually in fourth gear – fifth gear would result in a speed decrease. Swapping to a shorter final drive would lower the theoretical top speed, but increase the car’s ability to get there.

A popular gear set to use for Miatas is the Mazdaspeed 4.8 ring and pinion. The cost for that gear set is just under $400 through Mazdaspeed’s parts program. Unfortunately, the part was backordered. Then we got lucky.

While perusing a forum, we found someone selling a 4.77 ring and pinion out of a Kia Sportage. Apparently, a hot modification in the Honda S2000 world is to install the Kia gears into their Hondas. A little more research revealed that the 4.77 was also used in some Mazda RX-8s, and we knew from experience that the RX-8 ring and pinion was a direct bolt in to a first and second generation Miata. If “A” equals “B” and “B” equals “C,” then by our calculation the 4.77 should fit our ITA Miata. We bought the gear for $250 shipped and gave it a shot. And wouldn’t you know, the 4.77 fits perfectly.

While we haven’t tried them, we did discover that the Kia Sportage has a variety of aftermarket gears available to replace its 4.77, including a 4.87, 5.13 and a 5.38.

With the 4.77 installed, we could now hit 118 mph to 120 mph in fifth gear, spinning the motor to just over 7,000 rpm. The 4.87 gear might be usable in our Miata, but we know the 5.13 and 5.38 would be too short.

Because a weekend wouldn’t be complete without completely changing the car’s setup setup, we decided to test some new tires, so we ordered a set of new Goodyear RS R-compound tires. In fact we ordered two sets: 205/50-15 and 225/45-15. Not a lot of people are racing on these, but we’ve heard they’re as sticky as a Hoosier R6.

We also removed the Racing Beat rear swaybar and installed the 11mm stock rear swaybar.

By the end of the weekend, we’d won two races, one on the 205s and one on the 225s. As of this writing, we’re still sifting through the data to find the advantages and disadvantages of the two tire sizes – but the reality is, the car was fast, both races were won handily and we were very happy with the tires, the gearing, and the front splitter.

Our Miata is now going to sit dormant until the 2011 season, where it may reappear with “STL” decals rather than the familiar “ITA” ones.

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May 2, 2010

For the first time in about a year, SportsCar mag’s ITA Miata emerged from its cave in preparation for the June 12-13 SCCA road race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. It’s one thing to prep a car in the garage, but actually putting the car in a performance environment really tells the tale of if there’s anything wrong – so we loaded the car on the trailer and towed it to El Toro for the Cal Club Region Solo event on May 2.

The weekend went well. Sure, we finished fourth out of five in C Street Prepared, but the weekend revealed that while our car has been sitting for an extended period of time, it’s still running strong and is ready to tackle the forthcoming road race.

Here’s footage from the final run of the day. This run was good enough to put us 0.1 seconds off third place, which was an honest-to-goodness CSP car driven by someone who knew what he was doing.

April 24-25, 2010

What a difference a weekend makes. Heading into the SCCA Double National hosted by Cal Club Region at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Buttonwillow, Ca., the SportsCar staff had one goal: finish. That may not be flashy, but to get an SCCA National Championship Runoffs invitation, you have to complete four National races. Entering this weekend, SportsCar’s Associate Editor Jason Isley had three races logged in the magazine’s H Production Toyota Yaris, and Editor Philip Royle had two finishes in the Showroom Stock C Nissan Sentra.

As usual, the Yaris attracted attention from the moment we rolled into the track. Sporting its new, Dan Gurney- inspired Toyota Eagle graphics, the car was a looker.

Saturday’s qualifying session found Isley starting second in HP with Royle third in SSC. When the green flag dropped on the 34 car field, both Isley and Royle, along with a number of other cars, found themselves trapped behind an American Sedan car. After a couple of laps and many attempts, Royle made the pass stick, and he set to running down Ali Naimi and Brian Husting, who were running first and second in SSC. Unfortunately, Naimi and Husting had managed an insurmountable lead, so Royle maintained the gap between himself and fourth place SSC competitor Carl Young and brought home a third place finish.

For Isley, Saturday’s race would come to an end three laps in when a mechanical failure caused the Yaris to make contact with a tire barrier. The front of the Yaris was damaged, although most of it is easily repairable. Isley reported that when he made contact with the tire barrier, he felt his Hutchens Hybrid Pro head and neck restraint work, limiting the forward movement of his HJC helmet during the impact.

With one car now in need of repair, Sunday’s race plan was to take it easy in the Nissan – qualify for the Runoffs then get to work repairing the Yaris for the next National race. However, Husting was struggling with transmission problems, and as soon as the green flag flew, Royle saw an opening and went for it. After a few laps of hounding Husting, Royle made the pass for second and set to pounding down solid laps, hoping first place Naimi would misstep. Three laps in, Husting and Young tangled in the esses while battling for third, and Young’s car flipped, coming to rest on its side. A full course caution bunched the pack. After the restart, Royle kept Naimi in his sights, but Naimi maintained the lead to the checker. Royle’s second place finish continued the SSC Nissan’s record of never finishing off the podium.

We learned many things from this race weekend. First and foremost, safety equipment should not be taken lightly – even when your goal is simply to log a finish, you never know what will happen. For the Sentra, the BFGoodrich R1 tires worked great in 80 degree F heat. They were consistent, with only minor fade by the end of the races. The Hawk DTC-70 brake pads performed admirably and are undoubtedly the correct compound, but on a 3,100 pound car, the life of the pads is limited to two or three races.

With the close of this weekend, Royle locked in his Runoffs invitation. Isley, however, will be heading to another SCCA National to cement not only his Runoffs invite, but also hopefully a Southern Pacific Division HP points championship.

And finally, we’d like to thank the Team Honda Research crew for their help at the track – without their assistance, the Nissan’s weekend would have been a struggle. Also, we’d like to thank John Coffey for his assistance with the Yaris, as well as the kindness of strangers who helped push the Yaris onto the trailer on Saturday evening. We’d also like to offer a massive thank you to the Cal Club Region workers and safety crew for their excellent help rescuing not only our Yaris, but also the suddenly stranded Isley.

Highlight video from the Sentra.

By Philip Royle

It’s possible to make a racecar faster without adding power. How? Aerodynamics. Over time, SCCA’s General Competition Rules (GCR) changes. In the case of our project ITA Miata, one somewhat recent rule change meant that we could add a front airdam to the car. In a large (although still abridged) nutshell, is what the GCR’s 9.1.3.8.b says on the topic:

A front spoiler/air dam is permitted. It shall not protrude beyond the overall outline of the body when viewed from above perpendicular to the ground, or aft of the forward most part of the front fender opening. This body outline does not include bumpers or bumper mounts. The spoiler/air dam shall be mounted to the body, and may extend no higher than four (4) inches above the horizontal centerline of the front wheel hubs. It shall not cover the normal grille opening(s) at the front of the car. Openings are permitted for the purposes of ducting air to the brakes, cooler, and radiator. Dealer installed or limited production front/rear spoilers/air dams/wings are prohibited. The spoiler shall have no support or reinforcement extending aft of the forward most part of the front fender wheel opening.

NOTE: Integrated bumper assemblies are defined as those designs where an external non-metallic bumper cover completely encloses the primary energy-absorbing bumper and where this cover could be installed in its normal position with the underlying bumper removed. On cars with integrated bumpers, the front spoiler or airdam may be attached to the bumper cover.

Where an air dam/spoiler is used, two total openings may be cut in the front valance to allow the passage of up to a three (3) inch diameter duct leading to each front brake/rotor assembly.

9.1.3.8.c also plays a role in the airdam design:

No part of the car, except for the exhaust system and suspension components, shall be lower than the lowest part of the wheel rims.

Conclusion? We can use almost any airdam that cannot be seen when viewed from above the car, and as long as it doesn’t extend below the bottom of the wheel rim, we’re golden. However, since our ITA Miata has no brake issues, we’d prefer to go with a more aerodynamic airdam than one with brake ducting.

Why do we need an airdam? The less air that goes under the car, the faster the car will go. How much faster? It really doesn’t matter – any amount of “faster” is what we’re looking for, and airdams are a fairly tried and true solution to cutting through the air more efficiently.

Our search for an aggressive airdam led us down two roads. One road required us to fabricate an airdam to mimic the airdams that are currently being run on F and E Production Miatas, and the other road had us shopping for a more turnkey solution. We started researching the Production-class airdams, but one issue we were coming across was front tire clearance. Production allows for a wide body, where Improved Touring doesn’t. The end result is the Production-style airdams on an IT car wouldn’t allow the car’s tires to turn without hitting the airdam. The airdam could be adapted to work, and maybe one day we’ll give it a shot.

The second road involved searching for something that was already on the market. We soon came across the G-Style front lip from Tougerun. This lip is made from durable and flexible polyurethane, and looks like the factory Miata front lip, but on steroids. It also has two openings in the front for brake ducting, should you need it – we don’t. The G-Style lip cost $199 and comes with all the hardware you need. However, the hardware it came with was mostly self-tapping screws, so we purchased 3/4-inch bolts so we could remove the lip should the need arise.

With the unit installed, we broke out some 0.060-inch black plastic, trimmed it to fit the brake ducts, and bolted it into place, using silicone to seal any openings. We also cut a large piece of the plastic to fit under the car and used aluminum to sturdy the tail end of the under tray. It’s important to note that, per the GCR, the airdam can’t extend beyond the front of the fender opening, and the airdam can only connect to the bumper, so when you’re fabricating the under tray, be sure you stay true to the rules.

What’s behind us doesn’t matter

With the airdam attached, we tackled the next issue: making the car narrow. 9.1.3.9.c in the GCR says: Any interior or exterior mirrors may be used. To us, this means no exterior mirrors are needed. Consequently, we ordered up a set of Longacre clamp on spot mirrors from SafeRacer. These mirrors are designed to clamp onto the cage inside the car and offer a convex view of the world, allowing you to remove the side mirrors, smoothing the airflow around the car.

Unfortunately, the clamp on design of the Longacre mirrors didn’t work in our Miata. To solve the problem, we adapted the stock side mirror mounts to hold the Longacre mirrors by drilling holes on the inside of the doors and stripping the Longacre mirrors of their roll cage clamps. We then used the same black plastic to manufacturer covers for the holes that removing the exterior mirrors left.

Did any of these mods make the car faster? We’ll find out in June 2010 when we take the car to Auto Club Speedway and run it in an SCCA Double Regional with SCCA’s Cal Club Region. But for now, we know it made the car look meaner – more like a racecar.

SOURCES:
Longacre, www.longacreracing.com
SafeRacer, www.saferacer.com
Tougerun, www.trougerun.com

(This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Jason Isley

No one ever said racing was cheap, but it certainly can be affordable. Typically, the least expensive entry into the realm of Club Racing is learning from someone else’s mistakes. On any given month, the classified ads in SportsCar show pages of used racecars for sale – cars that can often be had for a fraction of what they cost to build. Not only do you stand to save money by buying a used racecar, but you will also cut down on the amount of time spent with a wrench in your hand.

Like any used car, a used racecar can come with its own set of challenges and issues, particularly if the car does not have a clear history. If you are looking at a used racecar and its logbook has vanished, you might want to be cautious; that logbook could be missing because there was something the owner did not want you to see.

But perhaps you can’t find the pre-owned racecar you want, or what you have seen does not meet your expectations. This leaves a number of options. Salvage auctions are popular places to find cars – often what an insurance company writes off as a totaled car is a great start for a racecar. Theft recoveries can be a great starting point, as thieves often go after valuable airbags, seats and stereos – items that are not needed in a racecar.

We chose a different route. Like many of you, we have an older, but still useful car sitting in our driveway. Our 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V has served us well as a trusty daily driver, occasional autocrosser and we have even picked up a National RallyCross event win with the car. It was time for it to start its next phase of life as a Showroom Stock C Club Racing car.

There are a number of advantages in using a car you already own – most notably, you know the car’s history and you probably already know how to work on it.

The problem for us was, we had next to no money available – but did we let that stop us? No we did not. Over the course of a few weeks, a plan was made and parts were ordered, and before we knew it, we were racing on a dime.

Getting started

The premise of the Showroom Stock category is it’s a place for members to race street stock, legal automobiles. Essentially, with a few exceptions, you are racing a car as it was delivered from the factory, so it can still be driven on the street. A few wear items will need to be replaced, like tires and brake pads, but for the most part the modifications to the cars are safety related. Passive restraints like the airbags must be disarmed and may be removed. Aside from that, you are mostly installing the required safety gear – this is an ideal class to build for when you already own the car.

To keep the motor running cool, the factory air conditioning system can be removed. For some cars, this is not as easy as it sounds. Many cars that are Showroom Stock legal come standard with a/c, and no provisions were ever made to route the accessory drive belts without an a/c compressor – this generally means custom fabrication.

For our SSC Sentra, the Nissan Motorsports support program offered pieces from another car in the Nissan family that did not have standard a/c, making for a simple and clean removal. Once removed from the car, selling or trading some of the items like the a/c and audio equipment that you are allowed to remove is also a great way to reduce costs on your build.

Another open area is fluids. Using the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” method, we went to the top of the line. Royal Purple has a complete line of fluids to lubricate every moving part on your car, and its great reputation has been earned on the track. We treated the engine, transaxle and power steering with the appropriate Royal Purple lubes, and after flushing the coolant from our radiator, we poured in some Purple Ice.

To keep the bad stuff out of the engine, we replaced the original paper air filter with a reusable one from K&N engineering. While we were at it, we installed a K&N oil filter to trap any impurities. The handy nut that is integrated into the oil filter also makes changing the filter a snap.

One final step under the hood was to find an acceptable home for our AMB transponder. Most tracks do offer AMB transponders for rent and, in our area, it is about $60 a weekend. Rather than renting, however, we opted to get our own, as this is the kind of item that pays for itself in the long run. Also, owning your own transponder allows you to take advantage of MyLaps.com, where you can pull up race results and personal lap times – something that’s an incredible reference, allowing you to compare your lap times to those of your competitors.

We found a great transponder mounting point off the radiator core support. This position was the optimum height, which Bill Skibby of AMB tells us is around 18 inches. It was also near the front of the car but still behind the main bumper structure, so the transponder remains protected.

The roll cage

If you are building one of the more popular cars, a roll cage can is easy to find – this was not the case with our Sentra. As it turns out, relatively few B15 Sentras have been prepared for Club Racing. Fortunately for us, it seems that no matter how obscure the car, Kirk Racing Products has a roll cage for it. In the case of the Sentra, Kirk offers both a bolt-in and a you-weld kit – the company will even build you a custom cage if you can get your car to Kirk’s shop.

For the ultimate in safety and driver comfort, it is hard to beat a custom cage. Tricks like running the front down tubes through the dash can give the driver a little extra space and help spread the load over the chassis, helping with both safety and stiffening the car. A set of NASCAR-style door bars can help your ingress and egress, as well as offer added protection in a side impact. However, these custom features are optional per the General Competition Rules, and they also come at a price – when you’re building on a budget, you never want to skimp on safety, but sometimes you must give up a little when it comes to convenience.

As a side note, we would never suggest anyone sidestep safety, but luckily the GCR has safety standards in place to prevent you from cutting corners. These standards should always be adhered to or exceeded.

Since our project was very budget sensitive, we elected to forego a custom-built cage in lieu of one of the bolt in variety. We ordered a bolt-in cage from Kirk Racing Products. This cage would get us on track for the least amount of cost while still meeting the GCR’s requirements.

The basic cage kit cost $725, but there was an extra $45 fee for the second pair of SCCA mandated door bars. At the same time, we ordered the optional dash bar for $35. The weld-in kit is actually $50 less, at $675, but the big cost difference comes in labor and installation time – expect to spend twice as much time installing a weld-in, or paying a welder to do it for you.

Since the bolt-in kit shares the same structure and design as the weld-in kit, the fit and level of protection are similar. According to Mark Stewart of Kirk Racing Products, there is not a measurable difference in safety between his two kits. “The weld-in kit has the advantage of helping stiffen up the chassis,” says Stewart.

Certainly, stiffening up the chassis can help in handling and, to some extent, protection in an impact, but the bolt-in kit meets every requirement of the GCR so we knew it was still a safe choice.

With the roll cage kit in hand, we set about removing the seats and pulling up the carpet to prepare for the installation. Or goal was to complete the installation in one day, which Stewart says is about right for the kit we ordered.

The installation starts with placing the main hoop, front down tubes and rear braces in the car. The fit and finish of the Kirk cage was second to none. In particular, the main hoop fit could not have been better – it was snug against the roof and fit perfectly between the sunroof and dome light. Other than a little trimming on some of the interior plastic panels to pass the tubes to the car’s tub, the main cage installation was simple and quick.

One small thing Kirk does that really helps speed up installation and make your life easier is the company pre-drills all of the holes for the telescoping, bolt-together joints. Drilling a few holes may not sound like a big deal, but trying to drill the tube and sleeve with the cage up against the headliner could quickly turn into an act of frustration.

Not having to grind away paint and undercoating to weld the base plates is where you save a lot of time with the bolt-in installation. However, you’re not completely off the hook – the door bars and dash bar still have to be welded in place. The race seat, your door panels and the height at which you run the dash bar, all affect where they are attached, so it can’t be done ahead of time. The great thing is Kirk already has the proper contours cut into the tubes, and they have the GCR-approved slip joints installed, so once you weld them in place they will be removable.

Welding in the dash and door bars is a point where if you have any doubts about your ability, you should hire a professional. You may have to pay to get these bars welded in, but that is a fraction of what it would cost to have the entire cage welded for you. The GCR requires that all welds meet the Structural Welding Code set by the American Welding Society – if you don’t know what that means, you should definitely not attempt to weld the additional bars yourself.

We evaluated our options for installing the dash and door bars and decided to blow our budget in the hopes of saving money in the long run. Instead of paying someone to weld in the bars, which would have been a few hundred dollars, we decided to invest in a welding machine.

We decided to pick up an HTP America MIG 140. The MIG 140 can handle up to 1/4-inch thick material, and is small enough we can transport it for emergency repairs to our racecars. At $749, the MIG 140 was a great value, but this did nearly double the cost of our cage. However, having this on hand means we won’t have to pay for welding in the future, and the convenience of being able to fire it up at any time we need to, to make repairs or fabricate a small item is a big bonus.

It is vitally important to emphasize once more that if your welding skills are not up to par, you may be endangering yourself on the track in the event of any on-track contact. A roll cage is not an item you should learn to weld on.

The door bar installation is straight-forward, just make sure that you have your race seat mounted in its final location, so you can check for interference. Once the bars are tacked in place you can again remove the seats to make the final welding easier. Our MIG 140 made quick work of our four door bars. However, with the clock ticking, we skipped the GCR-optional dash bar for our Sentra’s maiden outing – we will install this at a later date.

Scavenging parts

With our funds running low, it was time to save some money. One great way to do that is with used equipment. This was easy for us as we were able to tap into our pile of inventory from previous projects. I don’t want to say we are packrats, but some stuff is too cool to get rid of. So, a couple of zero-dollar items helped get us back on track.

Left over from our Project MX-5 car (SportsCar, July 2006) we had a nice Sparco fire extinguisher and a Racetech RT 4009 HR seat, which had also spent time in the Sentra during its brush with RallyCross (SportsCar, July 2008). We also had the Impact Racing harness and quick-release steering wheel from our RallyCross efforts.

If you don’t have your own pile of leftovers, scouring Internet forums can reveal a lot of really good buys on used equipment. For example, a quick search on a Nissan Sentra forum revealed stock Sentra wheels for $50 each – so we bought a pair.

Keep in mind that many items have a limited number of years they can be used, and if you have any doubts about an item’s history, you should pass on it. You would not want to install a used race seat that had been involved in a crash – its structure may be compromised and you could pay a bigger price down the road.

Tip: Save on shipping

Moving on, we had a number of items left on our safety checklist. Our friends at I/O Port Racing Supplies make it easy to spend money – almost too easy. Having a huge selection makes it possible to find everything you need, or just want. We also found you can save on shipping by purchasing a lot of items from one place.

We picked up an I/O Port driver’s side window net and mounting hardware. The net is a combination of mesh and webbing, giving a good mixture of strength and visibility. The spring-loaded top rod makes using the net a breeze, and its low profile design means you won’t impale your head on the mount when climbing in and out.

Even though it’s not required, we also picked up a Safety Solutions C5R right side net. Our project ITA Miata has one of these, and we really love how it firms up the seat and adds protection in a side impact.

The last item needed inside the car was adding roll bar padding to areas where the driver could come in contact with the cage. Once again, I/O Port was our one-stop shop, as the company has a variety of approved padding in varying thicknesses. We used the thicker BSCI SFI 45.1-approved padding in areas where we had plenty of room, and the thinner Longacre padding where the confines were tight.

We also ordered a pair of I/O Port tow straps so we can be towed back to the pits. These soft tow straps are super easy to install, as they can be routed around obstructions and through small openings – but most importantly, you will never whack your legs on them as you work on your car in the pits.

Going fast and slow

The Sentra’s original brake rotors looked a little too weathered, and as our car had the smaller standard brakes, we decided to play it safe and order new parts from the Tire Rack. A set of Brembo blank rotors replaced our old ones, and a set of Goodridge G-Stop lines replaced the factory rubber hoses. The final step was a set of Hawk Blues in the front and HP+ pads in the rear – this setup would allow us confidence while pushing it into the braking zone.

A rather porky car by SSC standards, our Sentra has to weigh 3,100lbs in full race trim, so we knew we needed a durable tire – but it still needed to be fast. Inspired by Lee Niffenegger’s SSB National Championship title at last year’s Runoffs, we decided to outfit our Sentra with the same BFGoodrich G-Force R1 tires he used. The R1s are already a proven winner and have a reputation for being very durable – something we will put to the test.

Once we were outfitted with new rolling stock and brakes, we pulled the Sentra on to our Longacre scales. While our car is not equipped with any ability to adjust corner weights, we were able to affix our ballast within the limits of the rules to help spread things out – more importantly, we knew heading to our first race that we would not be under weight.

The Longacre scales also provide a nice platform for checking our alignment. Using our Smart Strings and Smart Camber gauge, checking the alignment was an easy task, and they are small enough we can bring them to the track for fine-tuning. Over time, these items (which we obtained for past projects) have really paid for themselves by avoiding costly trips to the alignment shop. It is with this same reasoning we obtained the aforementioned welder.

Success!

In March, we took our newly completed Sentra (actually, we were still working on it when we got to the track) to Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Southern California for a Double Regional race weekend.

Our weekend was a success on many levels. First, the car passed tech and now has a logbook – this means all of our hard work paid off. The cage install was completed properly and our seat and belts were all up to par. The only feedback the scrutineers gave us, was regarding the cleanliness under the hood – but come on, it was a RallyCross car.

On the track, the Sentra ran great, aside from some excessive (almost frightening) body roll, the car ran strong and consistent. The biggest concern we had going into the weekend was tire wear. Having to finish the race at 3,100lbs, and essentially having no negative camber up front, we spent the weekend watching the front tires very closely. We were very pleased to find the tires were extremely consistent during the race and, after two days of hard racing, the original set of BFGoodrich tires were still going strong – in fact, they even looked great after running a Tire Rack ProSolo event on them in the same car the very next weekend.

On the racetrack, we were rewarded with a pair of SSC wins, and we managed to finish just outside the top five in a mixed field of faster Touring and Improved Touring racecars (one of which was our project ITA Miata).

Overall, we were very satisfied with our budget Club racer. Tallying up our costs, we discovered that $3,000 was all that was required to get us on track in a competitive car that is eligible for both Regional and National Club Racing. Obviously already owning the car was key for such a small outlay of money, and already owning a seat and harnesses really helped, too. Had we needed to purchase the car, we found comparable model to ours for $7,000 for a car with a clean title – still a reasonable amount of money to get on track.

Equipping the driver

Before you can get on the track at a Club race, you will need to obtain an SCCA competition license. One way to obtain your license is by attending an SCCA accredited Drivers Schools, which is exactly what SportsCar’s Associate Editor Jason Isley did in order to obtain his competition license before taking the Sentra to the track.

Just a short drive from Los Angeles, Calif., located at Willow Springs International Raceway is Danny McKeever and his Fast Lane Racing School. As the official driving school of the Cal Club Region, it is a great choice for anyone looking to make the jump into Club Racing. Previous to opening the Fast Lane school, McKeever spent 12 years as the chief driving instructor for Cal Club, a position currently held by Jim Bishop, who is an active Club racer and a Fast Lane instructor – these guys know what qualities the Club is looking for because they are part of it.

The Fast Lane SCCA course consists of three days, with most of that time being spent on track. While the on-track fundamentals (as well as a test) are given in the classroom, this represents only about an hour of each day – the rest is spent on the track.

One very nice feature about the Fast Lane school is that they will let you bring your own car – this can be a great way to get some extra seat time in your new racecar. However, using the Toyota Celica GT-S school cars really allows you to focus on the task at hand, and the Improved Touring-like prep of the Celicas makes them a very lively ride.

At Fast Lane, the class size is kept small to maximize the instructor-to-student ratio; this also means more track time for everyone. Rather than working from preset criteria in the car, the instructors work on what the individual students need – if you need work on the basics, that’s what they do. The instructor’s goal is to take each person to their next level.

The Fast Lane school, or any of SCCA’s other approved Drivers Schools, is a great choice for anyone looking to complete their SCCA school requirements, or just looking for some great driver coaching.

To find an accredited Drivers School in your area like Fast Lane, go to http://www.scca.com, click the “Club Racing” tab at the top and select “Accredited Schools” in the left hand bar.

Personal safety on a budget

Preparing the car is only part of the equation – a driver’s personal safety is a completely separate, but equally important matter. Just like anything in motorsports, often the only limitation is your budget. However, not having a lot of money to spend does not mean you won’t be protected. The basic rules apply: shop smart and you can save big.

When shopping for helmets, we looked at number of options. With cost being a concern we decided to stick with a fiberglass helmet, versus the more costly composite units. The HJC AR-10 was only slightly heavier than the Si-12 composite version, and meets the same SA2005 requirement – but gets it done for $400 less.

When selecting a driving suit, the SFI and FIA rating systems are very useful, as the GCR spells out a minimum requirement for your safety. Looking to Vesta Motorsports, we found a good range of suits, all at great prices. From Vesta’s Safe-Quip line we selected the 120 Series multi-layer suit. Constructed of Pyrovatex FRC and Nomex, it offers great protection and comfort at a very reasonable $279.99. A pair of Safe-Quip 351 gloves, and RaceQuip Euro shoes finished off the package for less than $150. Don’t forget the Nomex socks – we found a pair from Sparco for around $20 on the Internet.

For this race weekend, we also chose to test a head and neck restraint. A head and neck restraint is currently not required equipment for Club Racing, so using one is strictly a personal choice.

The unit we tested was the Hybrid Pro by Safety Solutions. The Hybrid Pro simply disappears once it is strapped to your body – it almost becomes part of your drivers suit, and we found it did not hamper entry or exit from the Sentra in the least. It is also one of the few devices that will work at any layback angle, so no matter what type of car you have (be it production based or open wheel) you will be able to use this device.

The unit we tested was the full carbon fiber unit, and it was a little pricy at $995, but Safety Solutions recently released a composite version of the Hybrid Pro at a very reasonable $649, and we expect that unit to be just as easy to use.

Data Acquisition

Once you leave your Drivers School it is up to you to find the fastest way around a racetrack. You can spend lots of time testing, hire a driving coach and run infinite laps to learn the quick way around the track, or you can use a virtual driver coach.

At our Double Regional race weekend, we were fortunate enough to meet up with the team from RLC Racing, and they were nice enough to install the Track Commander in our Sentra for the weekend.

In the past, we have had experience with various data systems and lap timers, but this one had a feature we’d never used before – predictive lap timing. Rather than coming in at the end of a session and downloading data in the attempt to lower your lap times, the predictive lap timing feature breaks the track up into segments on the fly – as you race around the track, you are instantly updated as to your segment time, and the display tells you if you are going faster or slower than your previous fastest lap. If you try a new line through one corner, you’ll get instant feedback telling you whether or not it worked.

RLC’s 3.5-inch display is easy to read, even in direct sunlight, and the full color display alleviates confusion – there it is just taunting you, if you see green you know you went slower. Seemingly, with every mistake, the display lights up and lets you know you just slowed down. It is a relentless, full-time driving coach that tells it like it is – but used properly, the pay off is quicker lap times during the same track session.

Aside from this very useful feature, the Track Commander also has GPS mapping, lap timing, PC playback analysis and can be synchronized with video. The data is collected via a 3-axis g-force sensor and GPS at speeds of up to 20Hz. The information is stored internally, and can be transferred to your PC using a USB cable or Flash Stick.

Sources:
AMB i.t., http://www.amb-it.com
BFGoodrich Tires, http://www.bfgoodrichtires.com
Fast Lane Racing School, http://www.raceschool.com
Hawk Performance, http://www.hawkperformance.com
Kirk Racing Products, http://www.kirkracing.com
HJC Helmets, http://www.hjchelmets.com
HTP America Inc., http://www.htpweld.com
I/O Port Racing Supplies, http://www.ioportracing.com
Impact Racing, http://www.impactraceproducts.com
K&N, http://www.knfilters.com
Longacre, http://www.longacreracing.com
Nissan Motorsports, http://www.nissanusa.com
Race Ramps, http://www.raceramps.com
Racetech, http://www.racetechseatsna.com
RLC, http://www.rlcracing.com
Royal Purple, http://www.royalpurple.com
Safety Solutions, http://www.safetysolutionsracing.com
Smart Products, http://www.smartracingproducts.com
Sparco, http://www.sparcousa.com
Tire Rack, http://www.tirerack.com
Vesta Motorsports, http://www.vestamotorsports.com

(This article was originally published in the May 2009 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Philip Royle

It wasn’t long ago that Club Racing’s Improved Touring class severely limited ECU modifications. “The engine management computer or ECU may be altered provided that all modifications are done within the original housing,” read 9.1.3.D.1.s. With the 2008 GCR, however, that section was swapped in favor of a far more modern, tuner-friendly rule: 9.1.3.D.1.a.6, “The engine management computer may be altered or replaced. A throttle position sensor and its wiring may be added or replaced. A MAP sensor and its wiring may be added. Other existing sensors, excluding the stock air metering device, may be substituted for equivalent units.” And, with that, new power possibilities surfaced in Improved Touring.

Up until the rule change, if Improved Touring racers wanted more power from their factory ECU, they were forced to either cram entirely new electronics into their factory box or find a solution that involved re-tuning the stock system. Both were possible, but the first was tricky and the latter didn’t always offer the tuning level desired by most racers.

The allowance of aftermarket engine management systems opened a world of potential power for many in the Improved Touring community, and we figured it was time to take a closer look to see if it was a modification Improved Touring racers should consider.

It’s important to note that ECU tuning and replacement isn’t Improved Touring specific – in fact, a variety of Club Racing, Solo and RallyCross classes allow ECU modifications and replacements. Each class has its own specific requirements, so you should check the rules for your class to find the engine management system that’s right for you.

A compromised past

People have been tuning racecars without the use of standalone engine management systems or reprogrammed ECUs for years. However, doing so has often been a case of drastic compromise.

“Playing with the air/fuel meter you’re just trying to trick the stock meter,” says Jerry Hoffmann, owner of DIYAutoTune.com. You’re never going to get that perfectly flat air/fuel curve all across the wide-open throttle range – and you’re never going to keep it at the optimal level at part throttle. The cars I’ve seen come to our shop [without a standalone system or correctly tuned ECU] have come in with their air/fuel ratio so messed with that the cars run well at speed but they idle horrendously.”

When the Improved Touring rules allowed only in-the-box ECU modifications, racers were able to get power from some cars by reprogramming the stock computer, but similar to the mechanical tricks, the results were often compromised.

“In a lot of cases, you don’t really have access to the factory ECU,” explains Shawn Church, owner of Church Automotive Testing in Wilmington, Calif., a company that has tuned many championship-winning SCCA racecars in both Solo and Club Racing. “For example, most Mazda ECUs haven’t been opened up. For those kinds of cars, your best choice is to go to a standalone system. In general, this is true for OBD II Hondas and most Toyotas, whereas for a Subaru or Evo, we have almost complete access to the factory ECUs. It really depends on what manufacturer and what ECU you have.”

Virtually eliminating the compromises are aftermarket engine management systems. “[Standalone systems] are the final 3- to 5-percent you’re looking for,” says Church, noting that before you make this modification, everything else needs to be optimized on the car. “You need to have the right intake, exhaust, the right cams if that’s allowed, before those gains really start to make a difference for you.”

What to look for

“The first thing drivers need to ask themselves is do they have someone to tune [the standalone ECU] or can they tune it themselves,” says Church. “Usually, the standalone ECU manufacturers will have a list of approved tuners. The second thing you want to find out is whether it’s a plug and play type of system. For most people they won’t want to have to do anything more than plug the new box into the factory harness – if you have to do extra wiring or add sensors, that makes the [installation] process a lot more difficult. And the third thing is you want to ask is if the system offers the sorts of features that you think you need for your setup.”

Church tells us that for most racing applications, people only need control over fuel, timing, cam timing, idle, rev limiters and knock sensors. “Some people may want data logging, traction control and boost control, but most standalone systems will feature what the majority of people are looking for,” he explains.

Electromotive and MoTeC are two high-end, feature-jammed engine management systems you’re undoubtedly familiar with. When it comes to choosing an aftermarket ECU, however, you’ll want to double-check the rules for your class. Improved Touring allows the replacement, but not the addition, of sensors. Electromotive, for one, relies upon an ultra-accurate crank trigger sensor for its timing needs. However, if your Improved Touring racecar comes equipped with a slew of factory sensors or you’re running a Club Racing or Solo class with liberal engine management rules, these high-end engine management systems and their additional features may be the ticket to your success.

While DIYAutoTune.com is a MegaSquirt retailer, Hoffmann is quick to point out that not all cars require an aftermarket ECU solution. “With a true ECU hack, like a Hondata hack, you have almost as much flexibility with the factory ECU as you do with a standalone,” says Hoffmann. “With some of the better ECU hacks, you’ve got almost the same level of flexibility with the fuel and spark tables as you do with an aftermarket standalone.

“Basically, with a mapable solution, whether it be a remap of your stock computer or a complete standalone system, if you can re-tune at all different load and rpm positions you’re going to be able to get the proper air/fuel ratio and, more important for power, the proper ignition timing at all partial and full throttle events,” says Hoffmann.

“Theoretically, the factory ECU can control everything an aftermarket ECU can,” Church says, “but in most cases you don’t have access to those features. For example, on the AEM [Programmable Engine Management System], injector phasing is something you can control, where that is pretty much fixed on any of the factory re-tunes you can do – and that can sometimes pick up four to seven more horsepower on a high-power car.”

There are a variety of engine management systems on the market – and depending on the car you’re racing, a re-tuned factory ECU may be all you need. An Internet search will turn up an array of options for your particular application – compile a list of the options you think you’ll need, and once you have your choices nailed down, call the manufacturer or distributor and ask questions. You may find the most basic of solutions is all you need, or it could be your racecar could benefit from a more complex system boasting more options than you can imagine. Once you’ve taken the plunge, though, all that’s left is to head to the track and enjoy your newfound power.

Dyno tuning 101

While most of us will never tune an engine management system on the dyno ourselves, the process is fascinating to learn about.

“The first thing we do is start with a very safe baseline,” says Shawn Church of Church Automotive Testing. “We always want to be adding more fuel and less timing than we think we’re going to need. For systems like the MegaSquit PNP and AEM [Programmable Engine Management System], those systems already come with pretty good baseline maps, and they get you going in a safe manner.”

Church then tunes the part throttle maps, making sure the engine is operating with a reasonable air/fuel ratio.

“Once we get the part throttle fuel right, we then do our full throttle fuel, and that’s when we start accelerating the car through the full rpm range,” Church continues. “Once we get the fuel dialed in, we look at the ignition timing. Typically, we want to run the least amount of ignition timing necessary to get the maximum amount of power, because this gives more breathing room with an inferior quality fuel or on a really hot day. If the engine picks up significant power with the addition of timing, then we’ll add more timing to see what the engine does.

“Where we add timing is also determined by the torque curve – where the torque curve is at its peak, you usually want the least amount of ignition timing. If we have a dip in the torque curve, then we’re going to want to put in some more timing. Typically, as the torque curve drops off, we add more timing.”

The result is a smooth torque and horsepower curve – as was the case with our project Miata.

Putting the claims to the test

Having a 1996 Mazda Miata Improved Touring A project car at the magazine, the idea of tuning the ECU for the modifications seemed ideal. Like many weekend warriors, the ECU on our project car was completely stock – the power output was respectable, but no matter how hard we tried, we always found ourselves losing ground both on race starts and corner exits.

We opted to install a MegaSquirt PNP from DIYAutoTune.com, with Shawn Church from Church Automotive Testing tuning the car. The MegaSquirt PNP installed in minutes, and (with minor bracket modifications) even bolted to the factory ECU location.

Once the Miata was on the Dynapack dyno, we ran baseline numbers using the stock ECU. The horsepower peaked at 131 at 6,800rpm with 118.5lb-ft of unconfident torque at 5,200rpm. From there, the stock unit was swapped for the MegaSquirt PNP and Church began the tuning.

Within 30 minutes, the Miata motor’s power had grown significantly. The peak power had increased by some 9hp and the torque had an additional peak 7lb-ft. However, from 2,500 to 4,000rpm the torque curve had increased by more than 10lb-ft, and the power was far more linear and predictable.

It’s important to note that our Miata went from a completely stock ECU with no air/fuel trickery or mechanical timing advance to a tuned standalone engine management system. So, while our experience saw roughly a 7-percent peak horsepower improvement, your gains will vary.

Numbers are only numbers, so a week later we put the newfound power to the test by running a Double Regional weekend with Cal Club Region at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Since we’d never run this particular track configuration we had no existing data on which to base our improvements, but we did have the rest of the field as a marker. Suddenly, the car stood a chance on race starts, and the car no longer experienced quirky power characteristics exiting turns.

The MegaSquirt PNP for our particular Miata retails for $725, and DIYAutoTune.com says it’s working on plug and play applications for other types of vehicles. We did consider several other systems before deciding on the MegaSquirt PNP, but the things that attracted us to the product were the ease of tuning, the simple installation and the relatively minimal cost – considering the power we obtained, we couldn’t be happier with the results.

What Project Miata has been up to

The last installment of Project Miata came in the August 2008 issue. In that issue, we added a Racing Beat header and exhaust, removed the catalytic converter and installed a Torsen differential with 4.30 gears.

We knew we were eventually going to capitalize on the ECU rule change for Improved Touring, so we have recently been bolting on as many power adders as possible before attaching the MegaSquirt PNP.

First on the table was a Fuji Racing under-drive pulley. The lightweight, small diameter pulley bolts in place of the factory crank pulley. For our car, we ordered the appropriate non-a/c, non-power steering $109 pulley. Installation was a matter of loosening the alternator, unbolting the stock pulley and installing the FujiRacing unit using the factory bolts. We also replaced the pulley belt with one that was one size smaller than stock.

Next, we ordered an Improved Touring intake from ISC Racing Services. We are currently running 1.5-inch front ISC shock mounting plates and 1-inch rear plates and have had good luck with everything ordered from this company. The intake costs about $250, comes with a high-flow Green Filter cone and leaves the MAF in the factory location, making this a legal IT modification.

Since heat is the enemy of all racecars, we called Design Engineering (DEI) and ordered a 12×24-inch sheet of DEI’s Reflect-A-GOLD for $34. This sheet is a polymer laminated glass cloth that is capable of operating in temperatures of up to 850 degrees F and should help keep our intake temperatures relatively low.

While we were ordering heat barriers, we also ordered DEI’s Floor and Tunnel Shield. One of the problems we’ve found with our Miata is, the driver’s right foot gets toasty while resting against the transmission tunnel. DEI’s shielding is just 0.19-inch thick and is capable of handling temperatures up to 1,750 degrees F. It also acts as a sound barrier. With this shielding, the driver’s right foot felt normal all race long – mission accomplished.

We also ordered DEI’s Radiator Relief, which claims to reduce engine temperatures up to 30 degrees F. Installation of this product was as simple as adding it to our radiator after we flushed the system in preparation for the race.

SOURCES:
AEM, http://www.aempower.com
Church Automotive Testing, http://www.home.earthlink.net/~spchurch/churchautomotivetesting
Design Engineering Inc., http://www.designengineering.com
DIYAutoTune.com, http://www.diyautotune.com
Electromotive, http://www.electromotive-inc.com
FujiRacing, http://www.fuji-racing.com
ISC Racing Services, http://www.iscracing.net

(This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Philip Royle

You’ve just finished your mid-summer, 30-minute Club race, and you peel yourself out of your racing seat and douse yourself with water in the hopes of cooling off. Your face is red, you’re dripping sweat and you’re lucky to be standing. The worst part is that when you look around, there’s someone that appears full of energy and is ready for another race – if only that were you.

There are tricks to having your body deal with the stresses of a race (i.e.: exercise), but the fact is you’re going to wrap a multi-layer Nomex suit around you, strap yourself into a racecar designed for maximum aerodynamics rather than  ventilation and place yourself in a pretty high-stress situation for an extended period of time. No matter what shape you’re in, when temperatures rise to over 100 degrees in the car, your body is going to react – and that can lead to sweating, a lack of concentration, judgment and reaction errors and possibly even disorientation.

This problem is nothing new. NASA’s space program was dealing with the same issues with the Apollo program in the 1960s. NASA’s solution came in the form of a complete body cooling system, routing liquid filled tubes around the astronauts. If this technology can get us to the moon, surely it must work in a racecar.

The solution

In 1987, Rich Shafer noticed that surgeons needed a way to keep cool during long operations, and that led him to NASA’s space research from nearly 30 years prior. All of this ultimately resulted in the formation of Shafer Enterprises and the invention of the Cool Shirt.

The Cool Shirt consists of a T-shirt with 45 feet of medical grade capillary tubing stitched to the shirt, and that is connected to a water filled cooler; a motor in the cooler then pumps cold water through the shirt, cooling the wearer. Being a racer and a long-time SCCA member, Shafer realized the Cool Shirt’s potential in a racecar, and brackets were made so the system could be strapped into virtually any production-based racecar.

“Once it’s 95 degrees or higher, you get no evaporative cooling at all,” explains Cool Shirt’s John LaDue. “As your body temperature rises, your hypothalamus gland tells your body to send blood to your skin for cooling, [but] if you’re in a 150 degree car, you’re basically not getting rid of any of your body heat.”

According to LaDue, it’s normal for the blood to be sent to the skin for cooling. Usually, the body sends about 4 percent of the blood to be cooled; under extreme conditions, up to 48 percent of your blood can go to the skin.

“When that happens, the blood is being pumped away from vital organs like your heart, your liver and your kidneys. When that much blood is gone from your core, you start to get dizzy and nauseous.”

Another side effect is your decision making process slows, increasing the potential for  mistakes behind the wheel.

“The Cool Shirt holds about 10oz of water and the flow rate is about 24oz of 45 degree water over a period of about one minute,” explains LaDue, noting that water has the ability to cool the body 28 times faster than air. “Covering 40 percent of the body, the cooling effect of the water going through the tubing will cool one cycle of your blood.”

There are several similar setups to the Cool Shirt available from a number of companies, and you can find a few homemade how-tos online. However, we prefer using something tried and true because there are few things more distracting during a race than having ice-cold water dumped in your lap.

Installation and use

The Cool Shirt package that will work for most SCCA Club racers in production-based or GT racecars is the Club 12 system. For $289, you get a 12-quart cooler with a water pump and eight feet of insulated dry disconnect hoses. You’ll also need to order a shirt (Cool Shirt offers Carbon X and Nomex shirts), and if you so choose, you can order the mounting kit, although it’s easy enough to fabricate a bracket.

“You want to make sure to bolt the mounting tray to a section of the frame, not just the floor pan in case you have any kind of high g-force crash situation,” notes LaDue.

The electric pump within the cooler is simple to power. A 12v power source and a ground is all you need, although you’ll probably want to connect this to a switch the driver can operate from within the car.

“Some drivers can actually get too cold with the shirt, so it’s nice to have the flow control on it,” says LaDue, referring to the company’s temperature control switch that slows the flow of water to the driver. “You could also turn the machine off. Most drivers will put in some kind of toggle on/off switch. The disadvantage to that is you get a little bit of a cold shock when it starts up again.”

The 12-quart system will supply enough cooling for around three hours. Cool Shirt also offers a 24 quart system that is good for an estimated six hours.

With the cooler mounted, the motor wired and the insulated tubes threaded to the driver, the only thing left is connecting it to the shirt, which is worn beneath the driver’s racing suit. For that, there are several options.

“You can take the shirt tubes through the suit pocket, you could get a seamstress to make a hole in the side, or a lot of guys simply run it out through the zipper,” says LaDue.

Maintaining the system

“You can drain the cooler using an extra fitting on the cooler, towel it out and let it sit,” says LaDue. “As far as the shirt goes, if you’re using it on a fairly regular basis, we have a maintenance additive, which is an anti-fungal product that we recommend you add to the unit every time, which stops growth from forming in the line.”

Should anything clog the lines, the water flow will slow and the connectors could get plugged. If you’re storing your system for more than 30 days, it is recommended you drain the water completely, which involves blowing air through all the tubes.

Similar to your race suit, the Cool Shirt T-shirt should be washed. “You can put the shirt in a washing machine on the gentle cycle and then put it in the drier,” says LaDue. “It is pre-shrunk cotton with very easy maintenance. You’ll get several hundred washes out of it before you have to do anything to it.”

A driver cooling systems like this could very much be considered a safety item. When your body’s core temperate exceeds certain temperatures, you no longer are operating at your best, and at racetrack speeds, that can be dangerous. The human body was never designed to do some of the tasks we ask of it (sitting in a 130 degree cockpit for 30 minutes while battling for on-track position comes to mind), thus minimizing the impact to the body is a good idea. Be it a home-brew cooling concoction or this pre-packaged Cool Shirt setup, if you race when it’s hot – and who doesn’t – this is one item you’ll never be sorry you installed.

SOURCE:
Cool Shirt, http://www.coolshirt.net

(This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Philip Royle

Stopwatches. According to the GCR, these are an acceptable alternative to the use of electronic timers for logging racecar lap times at SCCA Club Racing events. Quoting 5.10.2.D.2 of the GCR: “The stopwatches should time to the nearest 1/100th of a second. The minimum acceptable resolution for a stopwatch is 1/10th of a second. Timers will record the cumulative time of passage for their assigned car(s), then compute and record the individual lap time.”

While the GCR may still consider stopwatches acceptable, virtually all SCCA Club races utilize electronic transponders mounted to the racecars for their timing needs. When the racecar passes over a track-mounted loop, the transponder reports to Timing and Scoring and lap times are automatically generated. Best of all, the transponder system is generally recorded to 1/1000th of a second – far more accurate and consistent than any stopwatch.

Born from requests from the regions, the SCCA placed transponder guidelines in the GCR in 2001, thus standardizing transponder usage across the Club and naming AMB as the transponder company of choice. During the early days of transponders, however, SCCA regions wanting to utilize transponders for their timing needs had to purchase fleets of the transponders and rent them to racers for the weekend, as few racers owned their own transponders.

As time progressed, racers began purchasing their own transponders, permanently mounting them in their racecars (a movement aided in part by AMB launching its race tracking Web site, MyLaps.com). Racers owning their own transponders helped alleviate some of the drain on the regions, as the regions no longer had to maintain a slew of rental transponders. However, racers were left with the task of figuring out which transponder would best fit their needs – and then there was the problem of mounting it.

What’s right for you

AMB sells two Club Racing transponders: the TranX260 rechargeable and the TranX260 direct powered transponder. The rechargeable unit is the one most regions rent to racers. The rechargeable units can operate for up to five days on a single charge and offer the benefit of not having any external wires to worry about – 30 seconds and a couple zip-ties is all that’s needed to mount this transponder.

The other option is the direct powered transponder, which must be wired into the car’s power supply. “Generally speaking, the direct power transponder is a huge advantage in that it’s on, it works and you never have to think about it for years,” explains Bill Skibbe, sales and support engineer for AMB. “The advantage of a rechargeable unit would be for someone who wants to use [the transponder] on several cars at different occasions. This way he doesn’t have to have multiple transponders.”

While the rechargeable unit does have its advantages, most SCCA Club Racers would probably benefit from the direct powered transponder, as it is very much a “set it and forget it” item – there’s nothing worse than having to rent a transponder because you forgot to charge yours.

Tricks to the trade

“The way the transponder works is that it generates a magnetic field,” says Skibbe. “Any kind of iron or magnetic metal around [the transponder] would distort the field and weaken it.” To keep the transponder’s signal strong, you want to make sure the transponder is not mounted above carbon fiber or metal, and make sure the correct side points to the track.

“Mounting it above fiberglass or Kevlar is ok,” says Skibbe. “Generally, [mounting the transponder above] plastic is no problem – the bracket is plastic. Part of the reason for the bracket being plastic is to insulate it from the metal it’s going to be attached to.”

According to Skibbe, the normal mounting location for a transponder is at the front of the car, either in the fender or behind the front valance but away from flying debris. “It’s [usually] easiest to get power to the transponder from a location up front.”

The ideal minimum mounting height for the transponder is one foot off the track, with a maximum height of two feet. “We’ve seen installations from guys in formula cars who believe they get a better transponder reading by getting it as close to the track as possible,” says Skibbe, “but what that does is reduce the amount of contact time the transponder has with the loop. Between one to two feet gives you the most identifying hits and the best definition of the signal in order for the decoder to process the data and give you an accurate time.”

If you purchased or rented a rechargeable transponder, there is no wiring; a direct powered transponder requires 10-30v DC power and a ground. It’s recommended you tap into a fused wire that is powered when the ignition is turned on.

Spend a few minutes in the paddock and you’ll undoubtedly find someone that has wired their direct powered transponder into a switch so they can turn the transponder off while the car is on.

“Originally, a lot of guys mistakenly thought a transponder would drain the battery if it were on all the time,” says Skibbe, “but the power draw from the transponder is so small that you can’t possibly see the affects throughout the day. Having the ability to turn the transponder on and off within the car is really unnecessary and leads to forgetting to turn it on.” Skibbe also notes that a switch can also introduce a point of failure.

The only catch is pricing. The AMB TranX260 rechargeable unit costs $420, with the direct powered unit coming in at $380. Considering many regions rent transponders for $50-$60 a weekend, it only takes seven weekends for a transponder to pay for itself – and by the SCCA picking a transponder standard, racers can safely purchase one of these transponders with the knowledge that it will work at almost every SCCA Club Racing event anywhere in the country.

Real world installation

We chose to install the TranX260 direct powered transponder in one of our Club Racing project cars, as we liked the idea of never having to remember to charge the unit. We opted to mount the transponder at the front of the car just in front of the radiator support near the factory horn mount. A metal bracket was fabricated, the transponder was bolted to the bracket and the bracket was attached to the car via an existing hole that was already threaded.

The AMB direct powered transponder comes with several feet of wiring you can trim to fit your needs. We tapped into a12v power line that’s live when the ignition is on, and we grounded the black wire. If you need to add wire, make sure to use a sufficiently thick gauge. When the transponder is powered, a green LED illuminates on the front of the transponder.

Once we’d found the ideal mounting location, installation took 15 minutes. With our mounting location, the bottom of the transponder sits 18 inches off the ground – perfectly located between the acceptable height of one to two feet. The transponder also has no metal below it, allowing for a clean signal.

Prior to this, we’d been renting a TranX260 rechargeable transponder from our SCCA region for $60 a weekend. Using the same transponder number now means we can utilize one of AMB’s online features: MyLaps.com.

MyLaps allows racers to view lap charts and information about their races online. Once you’re registered, you can view a variety of charts packed with information about your race weekend. While MyLaps is no replacement for data acquisition (and keep in mind, the race results printed on MyLaps are not official results), the information is very useful and it makes for easy tracking of your racing history.

SOURCE:
AMB, http://www.amb-it.com

(This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of SportsCar magazine)
By Jason Isley

Ask any road racer – amateur or professional – what their biggest fear associated with a crash is and the answer will probably be a fire. A good quality driver’s suit and underwear are the first line of defense for the driver, but there are additional tools you can use to protect yourself – and your car – in the even of a fire.

The GCR currently allows for a 2lb. handheld fire extinguisher to be used in a number of Club Racing classes, and we have been using this allowance in one of our project cars. While the small extinguisher meets the letter of the rules, and we are certain it could prove useful when tackling a small fire, we do not like the idea of getting close enough to a fire to actually use the extinguisher – we hope to be out of the car and far away from the flames, which essentially makes the extinguisher a cosmetic item. Consequently, a complete fire system was in order.

As items like a HANS and a radio system are added, egress time is slowed, reducing the amount of time the driver may have to use the handheld fire extinguisher. A fire system protects the car and driver better than a handheld extinguisher as the system does the work of fighting the fire even as the driver is in the process of escaping.

Your options

When it comes to on-board fire systems you typically have two choices, Halon or Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF). Halon is one of the most common types of extinguishers in automotive applications. Halon is stored under pressure in a liquid state and once discharged the combination of liquid and gas work to smother the flames. A nice feature of Halon systems is that almost no cleanup is required if you discharge the system; a drawback is that due to some of the ingredients being labeled as harmful to the ozone layer, production of Halon was banned in most countries in 1994.

If you have a Halon system, or are thinking about purchasing one, don’t let the production ban deter you. There is still a large surplus of Halon available – over 30 years worth, according to some sources – as well as safe alternatives such as FE-36, which is in production. It is also noteworthy that many experts agree that chlorofluorocarbons do more harm to the ozone layer than Halon due to the volume used.

Unlike Halon, AFFF is stored as a liquid and discharges as foam. The AFFF concentrate is a water based, synthetic animal protein, and the foam is biodegradable, non-toxic and cleans up with water. The most common AFFF applications are found as a pressurized tank, charged by nitrogen or oxygen.

The reality is both Halon and AFFF are more than adequate to help protect you and your car, leaving a lot of the decision to personal preference. After researching the options, we opted for an AFFF system for its environmental advantages.

Installing the system

Emergency Suppression Systems (ESS) offers an AFFF system that is non-pressurized and meets SCCA requirements. The ESS system uses an AFFF concentrate, which is combined in the storage cylinder with water. The activating agent comes from an externally mounted liquid filled C02 cartridge. When the system’s T handle activator is pulled, the C02 cartridge is pierced allowing the C02 to mix with the AFFF and water in the tank, creating foam that resembles shaving cream.

The ESS system is user rechargeable, so if you ever have to use it (or you accidentally pull the T handle) you can recharge it yourself – which is a great cost savings and convenience. The ESS system is also priced around $50 less than a competitive Halon system. The shelf life of the ESS system is also nice – when mixed, ESS states that its solution is good for ten years, but recommends replacing it after five to seven years.

The ESS 2.3-liter system was a perfect fit for our application. The 2.3 system is designed to give two areas of coverage – the driver and the engine compartment. The AFFF foam is delivered via three T-style nozzles, one on the driver and two covering the engine.

Beyond basic hand tools, the only item we had to source for the installation was a flaring tool, to flare the end of the 1/4-inch aluminum tubing. If you have not used a flaring tool before, it is a good idea to pick up a scrap piece of tubing from you local hardware store to practice on.

The first step is to pick a location to mount the cylinder. The cylinder should be mounted horizontally in the car, with the head facing the front of the car to optimize the foam delivery. Beside that, the only mounting limitation is you must mount the tank within six feet of the actuating cable pull handle. However, it is a good idea to minimize any unusually sharp bends in either the actuating cable or the discharge lines. It is also a good idea to mount the cylinder with the C02 cartridge on top, this way if you should have to remove the C02 unit for a tech inspector, you will minimize any AFFF loss.

The T handle is the next item to install. This handle must be mounted within easy reach of a belted driver. We chose to fabricate a panel to fill the space once occupied by the factory radio and we placed a metal bar behind the panel to create a sturdy mounting point for the handle.

Back to the ESS cylinder, there are two outlets at the head of the cylinder. From these outlets will run aluminum tubing to both the driver and engine compartment.

Working with the aluminum tubing is simple as the tubing is soft enough to bend with your hands – just be sure to avoid sharp bends or pinching the tubes. The tubing should be secured with the supplied padded clamps, and steps should be taken to prevent the tubing from rubbing on anything that could wear a hole in it over time.

The driver’s discharge nozzle should be positioned to provide coverage of the lower torso, legs and feet. Typically, the side of the center console or transmission tunnel is a good place for this outlet; it should be about knee high.

Depending on your car, locating the bulkhead T can be a difficult task. Once you have found a suitable location to pass through the firewall you can select a location for the two nozzles. Typically against the firewall, one on the passenger’s side and the other on the driver’s will offer adequate coverage. These nozzles should be angled to face slightly toward each other to provide overlapping coverage of the engine compartment.

Once the hardware has been completely installed, you must remove the cylinder and fill it with the AFFF solution and water. Doing this step last makes the cylinder easier to work with not only because it weighs less, but there is no chance of accidentally discharging the system during the installation. This is also the most dangerous part of the installation. When mixed with water, the AFFF solution is perfectly safe, but in its raw state it can be harmful to your eyes, so safety glasses are a must.

The process is simple: Fill the cylinder with the prescribed amount of water and add the AFFF solution. During this process, make sure to have the C02 cartridge in place or fluid will escape from the cylinder. Once filled, reinstall the cylinder, hook up the T handle and nozzle lines, and you are done.

According to Thomas Turner, president of ESS, if you have followed the instructions your system will be ready to go with no testing needed. We did ask Turner if there was a way to verify the fittings and nozzles were aimed correctly and had no leaks without discharging the tank. Turner informed us we could run water through the lines – this would also ensure you have not left any debris in the lines from the flaring process and that all your fittings are tight. He did reiterate, however, that testing is not necessary if you installed everything as shown in the instructions.

While installation of the ESS system is relatively easy, if you have any reservations about your ability to install the system (or any fire system), contact a professional for the installation. It is essential that the system works properly, and it is very likely you will not know if you did something wrong until the moment the everything has to work.

With the fire system installed, we are far more confident of our and the car’s safety than when we were merely meeting the GCR’s extinguisher requirements. As for testing our system, while we would like to see what it is like when it goes off, we have been unable to convince the boss to pull the trigger.

SOURCES:
Emergency Suppression Systems INC., http://www.essfire.com
Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov

(This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Philip Royle

There are flaws with every racecar, and ours is certainly no exception. Thus far, our project Improved Touring A 1996 Mazda Miata has run like a champ, yielding a growing collection of second and third place trophies. The problem? The car isn’t fast. While we were legitimately beating other ITA competitors, our little project car was hardly hanging with the frontrunner. We were, in fact, getting our butt handed to us. Luckily, the car is far from finished.

To this point, we had yet to expand the motor’s power output, even in the most basic sense. There were also a handful of very non-desirable parts living underneath the car – namely an open differential and a tall rear end gear ratio. Beyond that, we’d also simply bolted items like the Koni race coilovers and Eibach springs on the car, neglecting to take advantage of the adjustability by corner weighting the vehicle.

Tying up loose ends

Our 1.8L Miata was the epitome of the “Whispering Death” (as some had lovingly dubbed Showroom Stock back in the day) – namely, our Miata was sporting a stock exhaust system. Beside the stock components bottling up potential power, they were also keeping the car way too quiet. Racing door-to-door with an RX-7 often left us wondering if RX-7 pilot was even aware of our presence.

Like with much of this buildup, our solution was probably not the obvious one. Racing Beat has long been known for producing quality Mazda products – and its header and exhaust system are no exception. Our order included the Racing Beat header ($425), Sport Connecting Pipe, which doesn’t include a silencer ($130), and Power Pulse Muffler ($276). While not an inexpensive option, this setup would guarantee we would always pass sound requirements at any SCCA venue, including some of the more restrictive Solo events we also compete in. A Mazdaspeed cat-delete pipe ($40) rounded out the exhaust system.

When we ordered the exhaust from Racing Beat, we also ordered the exhaust manifold gasket (the only gasket not included) and we supplemented some of the included bolts with our own.

This setup isn’t necessarily the lightest available. The Racing Beat components with the Mazdaspeed pipe weighed in at a hair over 44 pounds, roughly 6.5 pounds lighter than the stock setup. If you’re in the market for lighter equipment, there are a number of Spec Miata exhaust systems that could potentially knock another eight pounds off – but in our case, weight was not a concern. An Improved Touring A Miata has a minimum weight of 2380 pounds. Based on the track scales at our first race, we’d bolted 100 pounds of ballast onto the passenger floor. Consequently, a lightweight exhaust could take a backseat to ease of install and not killing our eardrums.

We also opted not to dyno the car. We did so for multiple reasons, the most obvious being that while this system is all but guaranteed to pick up power, it’s equally as guaranteed not to generate as much power as a deafening Spec Miata setup. We also have plans to capitalize on a 2008 General Competition Rules and Specifications Improved Touring rules changes regarding the ECU in a later project installment, at which point we’ll spend time tuning the car on a dyno.

The next glaring problem with our Miata was the open differential and tall gearing. While it’s debatable as to how much the open differential was actually slowing us down, a factory Torsen limited slip differential couldn’t hurt – and there’s little doubt the 4.10 rear end was not the best to be using. While installing a Torsen was a given, the question was what gearing should we choose.

Flatout Motorpsorts is a company with notable success racing Mazdas, including Miatas in both Spec Miata and ITA. A call to Flatout revealed that our realistic choices for final drive ratios involved the traditional 4.30 rear end or shorter 4.80 gears. However, after testing both setups, the Flatout crew settled on the 4.30 as ideal – not to mention the easiest to install since it’s a direct bolt-in for 1.8L Miatas. Consequently, we ordered and installed a complete differential from a 1999 Miata, which housed the 4.30 gearing and Torsen.

As a side note, we’ve been running different tire sizes to find out if the 205/50-15 tires on most Miata racecars is truly the best size. In addition to the 205mm size, we’ve also been competing on 225/50-15 Kumho Ecsta V710s. With the tall 4.10 gearing, our data showed that coming off several turns the Miata simply did not have the power to rotate the larger diameter tires. Hopefully the gearing change will allow more flexibility when it comes to running varying tire sizes.

We also discovered the wide 225mm tires, while offering more lateral grip than the 205mm tires, rubbed on the fender lip. To solve this problem, we ordered a fender lip rolling tool from The Tire Rack. This tool isn’t inexpensive ($259), but if you’re going to roll fenders on multiple cars, this tool will quickly pay for itself. The process was quick and, best of all, successful.

Professional help

With the car in – what we considered – good shape, we thought it time to get a professional opinion before fine-tuning the setup. Consequently, we headed to Tri-Point Engineering and ProParts USA.

Tri-Point Engineering is no stranger to the SCCA. The company not only campaigns the reigning SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Mazda6 racecars, but it has also setup a variety of Club Racing cars. Along with selling performance parts, the company also offers racecar setup as a service at its Canoga Park, Calif., headquarters.

The Tri-Point team checked the car’s alignment and cross weights and inspected the suspension setup. With a half tank of gas and the cold tires filled to 32psi, the Miata had a cross weight of 47.5 percent. While the cross weight wasn’t horrible the camber and toe were way off. We had set the camber to -2.5 degrees front and rear and set zero toe over a year ago. Now, the car now sported -2.3 degrees of camber in the front, -2.2 degrees in the left rear and -1.7 degrees in the right rear. There was also slight toe-out in the front and toe-in in the rear.

Tri-Point made a number of recommendations about the setup, including adding forward rake to increase aerodynamics, balancing the car on the scales closer to 50 percent, setting the camber to larger negative numbers and correcting the wonky toe. Tri-Point also noted that, in order to take the car’s handling to the next level, we should remove any binding in the suspension. A key component for this would be to allow the dampers to freely pivot at the upper mounting points.

Setting up the car

Beyond Tri-Point’s notes, there was also the issue of the rear suspension travel – or lack thereof. The Koni race shocks we are using are shorter than stock. With the ride height set to just over 5 inches to the lowest point on the rocker panel, the rear shocks were sitting on the bump stops. While raising the ride height and drastically cutting the bump stops would solve the problem, that particular solution would not offer the amount of shock travel we’d like.

A common solution for first generation Miatas is to install damper hats from a 1999-’05 Miata. These factory hats can be purchased through Mazda Motorsports and reportedly offer between 0.5 and 0.75 inches of additional travel for about $25 a corner.

With the back of the our Miata resting on the bump stops, we decided to go a little more extreme, so we ordered four upper shock mounts from ISC Racing Services. ISC is very experienced in the world of ITA Miatas, having built several winning ones – the company has also built Miata damper hats to solve the exact problem we were having.

The ISC shock mounts are direct replacements for the factory units and add roughly 2 inches of shock travel, although the company will build custom height hats to fit your needs. The cost is about $39 per corner, or $45 for custom hats. While the ISC units do utilize a bushing at the top of the hat permitting shock pivoting, this movement probably matches the amount built into the factory hats. While we would have liked to go with a pivoting damper setup like Tri-Point described, we were more interested in greater suspension travel at this point in time.

With the shocks disassembled, we also took the time to trim about a third off the Koni bump stops. Also, if your shock shaft is larger than the hole in the ISC mount then drill out the hole to slightly larger than the shaft. This was the case with our Koni shocks.

With the suspension installed, we adjusted the ride height to 5.5 inches in the front and a touch higher in the rear (the car was sporting the larger diameter 225mm tires, so we wanted to leave room for when we swapped to shorter 205mm tires). This was when we discovered increased shock compression with extremely short shock bodies results in almost no rear droop. Should the lack of droop have too negative of an affect, we could either have ISC custom make rear hats or order a set of rear 1999-’05 Miata hats, depending on how much droop we think we’ll need.

Not to second guess the setup without going to the track, we broke out the corner weighting and alignment equipment.

The scales we used are the Longacre Computerscales DX with PC download corner weighting scales. These scales are one of Longacre’s top-of-the-line scales, costing $2,049, but the company’s $1,098 scales would do just as good of a job. The more expensive scales boast 10 memory settings, auto leveling and shows you the wheel weights and partial percentages at the same time – the less expensive unit does not. However, for the average Club racer, the less expensive Longacre scales would be perfectly acceptable, although the extra features did speed up the corner weighting process.

To make loading the car onto the scales easy, we used a set of Race Ramps scale ramps. Race Ramps is known for its lightweight ramps, and is continuing the tradition with these ramps, which weigh in at less than 4 pounds each. These ramps match the height of the average corner weighting scale and offer a flat area allowing you to push the car off and on the scales with ease.

After looking at the initial weight distribution numbers, it’s obvious why the Miata is such a popular vehicle. By simply setting a ride height with a slight forward rake and a half tank of fuel, our Miata already had a 51 percent weight distribution – and following two shock collar adjustments we had the car sitting where we wanted.

LF: 625lbs.            RF: 628lbs.
LR: 567lbs.            RR: 560lbs.
Total weight: 2380lbs.
Cross weight: 50.2%

The trick to corner weighting any car is to remember to disconnect the swaybars beforehand, have the driver sitting in the car and to remember that any change you make to one corner will affect the diagonal wheel in the same fashion. Raise the shock collar on the right rear and you’ll increase the weight on that wheel and the left front.

Next, we broke out the SmartRacing alignment tools. SmartRacing produces a number of handy and affordable components for setting toe and camber. We started by stringing the Miata with the SmartRacing SmartStrings to measure the toe settings and then calibrated the SmartCamber tool with hands free adapter. The SmartStrings cost about $408, and the SmartCamber tool runs about $260.

While the process of doing your own alignment isn’t quick, it is very precise and allows you the ability to try a variety of settings with the freedom of changing it at the track. Consequently, we got a little adventurous.

As before, we set the car to zero toe, allowing for the least rolling resistance. At the same time, we set the rear camber to -2.4 degrees. Up front, however, we set the camber to -3.8. Many spec Miatas seem to run -2.5 in the rear and about -3 in the front. Owning the SmartCamber and SmartStrings means that should we find the car too much of a handful, we can adjust the alignment settings at the track to correct any problems.

Up next for the Miata is to work out any handling issues and then hunt for more power and speed, capitalizing on a couple recent Improved Touring rules changes – hopefully winning a couple races along the way.

The right rear end

When it came to swapping the differential, we had several choices. Having never built an ITA Miata before, we contacted Flatout Motorsports for some advise. Flatout was founded in 1994 by three autocrossers, Nick Leverone, Andy Bettencourt and Steve Ulfelder. The company had limited success at the time, but the crew breathed new life into it in 2003. By then, the Flatout founders were road racing.

“The company really took off in 2005,” explains Leverone. “In 2004-’05 we started renting out some Spec Miatas, and that started the company on a path to do more with road racers. In 2006, we took on our first arrive and drive client.”

The Bellingham, Mass., company’s arrive and drive program involves Flatout maintaining and transporting owners’ cars. Presently, this constitutes the majority of Flatout’s business. In addition to their own racing, this allows Flatout to see what works and what doesn’t, as the customers all share their setup.

“Everyone shares data with each other [on the arrive and drive program],” says Leverone, “and it helps everyone on the team do better.”

When it came to our gearing question, Leverone had some firsthand experience. “We found the 4.88 gears, even at a track like Lime Rock [where shorter gears can come in useful] the gears were putting Andy into a bad position [in his ITA Miata] when it came to shifting and running out of gear.”

Following that, Flatout installed the 4.30 gears with a Torsen and the result has been Bettencourt running right at the track record at several tracks in the northeast.

“Some tracks may lend themselves to the 4.88,” says Leverone. “You may talk to someone that says a 4.60 or 4.44 is a more suitable gear ratio for all the tracks, but…I think the 4.30 has proven to be the best gear ratio for the [ITA Miata].”

SOURCES:
Flatout Motorsports, http://www.flatout-motorsports.com
ISC Racing Services, Inc., http://www.iscracing.net
Kumho Tires, http://www.kumhousa.com
Longacre, http://www.longacreracing.com
Mazdaspeed Motorpsorts Development, http://www.mazdamotorsports.com
Race Ramps, http://www.raceramps.com
Racing Beat, http://www.racingbeat.com
SmartRacing Products, http://www.smartracingproducts.com
Tri-Point Motorsports and PowerParts USA, http://www.tri-pointengineering.com, http://www.propartsusa.net
The Tire Rack, http://www.tirerack.com