Category: Project Sentra

(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, 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.


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, 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.

AMB i.t.,
BFGoodrich Tires,
Fast Lane Racing School,
Hawk Performance,
Kirk Racing Products,
HJC Helmets,
HTP America Inc.,
I/O Port Racing Supplies,
Impact Racing,
Nissan Motorsports,
Race Ramps,
Royal Purple,
Safety Solutions,
Smart Products,
Tire Rack,
Vesta Motorsports,


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

By Jason Isley

It has been nearly a year since our Project Sentra graced the pages of SportsCar. When we last visited our 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, the car was in the Rally Stock Front Wheel Drive (SF) class and we had aspirations of moving into Rally Prepared Front Wheel Drive (PF). Unfortunately, the conversion from Stock to Prepared trim took much longer than we had planned – but isn’t that the story of any project?

Phase one of our transformation from a dusty Stock car to a Prepared monster was driver safety and comfort. The first item on our list of modifications was to install a proper race seat and harness system. This would also aid in keeping the driver safe in the event of an incident.

For the race seat we decided to raid our storage bin, so we dug out a lightly used Racetech RT4009HR. This seat was rescued from a previous project car that has since gone away, but we liked the seat so much we hung onto it just for an instance like this. The RT4009HR is FIA approved, lightweight and is just about as comfortable as race seats get. We turned to Beta Motorsports for help installing the seat. Beta owner John Coffey combined the existing stainless steel mounts, which were on the seat from our previous installation, with some aluminum plate to create a solid mount for our seat.

While we had the car at Beta Motorsports, we also had Coffey design and install a harness bar so we could correctly utilize a five-point harness. To make the bar as strong a possible, Coffey welded a 1.5-inch steel tube directly to the Sentra’s B-pilar.

As is the case when building any project car, you sometimes jump too far ahead of yourself – and we’re no exception to this rule. After Coffey attached the bar, it occurred to us that we hadn’t double-checked the RallyCross rulebook to see if this modification was legal for the Prepared class. The rules did not clearly address this type of installation, so we contacted Jayson Woodruff, who is a member of the RallyCross Board

“The harness bar is well within the spirit of Prepared,” says Woodruff. “There’s also the Stock allowance of ‘additions of protective equipment,’ and more specifically ‘driver restraints,’ which can certainly be argued.” Whew.

With the legalities of our harness bar taken care of, we attached a five-point restraint system from Impact Racing. These lap belts tighten from the center, allowing for easy belt adjustment while in the race seat – a big bonus for us since this car would see multiple drivers.

The downside to our driver safety upgrades was that ingress and egress was now more difficult – even uncomfortable – due to the lack of range in the factory tilt steering wheel and high side bolsters on the race seat. To solve this issue, we once again turned to the past project car take-offs pile. This trip to the pile revealed a red leather Isotta quick release steering wheel.

While we can’t say for sure why this particular item was ever saved, it solved the current problem and gave us a touch of bling. An added bonus was this wheel has a built-in chronograph and shift light – functional bling. To fit the steering wheel to the Sentra we had to modify a Momo hub adaptor from a Nissan 350Z, as there is presently not a direct fit part for this application.

Freeing the power

Well on our way to a Prepared class car, we knew it was time for more power. We placed a call to AEM for a number of parts. AEM sent both a Short Ram Intake and a complete Cold Air System designed for our Sentra, so we could figure out which would be best for our RallyCross application. Comparing both systems, we were concerned that installing the Cold Air System, which locates the filter element behind the front bumper, would expose the system to a lot of dirt, so our plan was to opt for the Short Ram Intake despite the fact that this system would pick up hotter air.

Once we removed the stock intake system, which includes a large intake chamber behind the front bumper, we discovered it was actually cleaner behind the bumper than in the engine compartment. Consequently, we shifted gears and installed the complete Cold Air System – no more sucking hot air from the engine compartment.

With an increased volume of cooler air coming into the engine, we needed to be able to evacuate it as well. The restrictive stock header was replaced with a DC Sports header. The 4-2-1 header design is ceramic coated and also removes the stock catalytic converter.

The Prepared class rules require a working catalytic converter in the exhaust system, so we took advantage of the allowance to upgrade to a high flow unit. We selected a spun metallic catalytic converter from Magnaflow Performance Exhaust. The metallic core offers a free-flow design that is still EPA compliant, allowing for maximum power. Inside the massive Magnaflow catalog we also found a direct fit cat-back exhaust system for the Sentra. Having used Magnaflow on a number of projects in the past we knew we couldn’t go wrong with these parts.

Good looks and grip

When we started to research the conversion from Stock to Prepared, we spoke with a number of drivers and rally car builders about which parts to upgrade. In almost every case, the answer was: “It’s a waste of time.” We looked at suspension changes, shedding weight, more power; we were told that it all makes very little difference on a RallyCross course. However, the one item that everyone agreed as the most important modification was rally tires.

A call to Falken landed us a set of Azenis RS-01D 215/60-15 tires in the soft compound. According to our sources, this set of tires should transform the car and create an entirely new experience. The downside, however, is that Falken no longer sells these tires, but if you shop around the Internet, you can probably find a set or two floating around.

What self-respecting RallyCross car can show up on a rally tire without wheels to match? Team Dynamics is one of the leaders in rally wheels, as well as being a supporter of the SCCA National RallyCross program (even offering contingency), so it was a no brainier to pick up a set of Team Dynamics wheels.

The Pro Rally 1 is a very rugged design that combines a cooling venturi to direct airflow along with great protection for the brake rotors and calipers. To get the full rally look, we went with a set in white that measured 15×7-inchs. We did have to do a small amount of machining to get the Pro Rally 1 to fit the Sentra – the hubs on the Sentra are a little larger than many cars with a similar bolt pattern, but as solid as these wheels are we don’t think that the small amount of material we removed will be an issue.

The National Challenge

With all of our planned modifications completed, all we needed now was an event with a high caliber of competition, and lucky for us, the RallyCross National Challenge series was making a stop in nearby Lucerne Valley, Calif. This is when thing started to go wrong. Shortly before the event SportsCar Editor Philip Royle, the only person on staff who had any RallyCross experience, suffered a hand injury, relegating him to the role of spectator. This left us heading to the National Challenge with an untested car setup and a rookie driver behind the wheel.

Upon arriving at the event site, the news just got better. We found that we would be the only entry in the RPF class. That would take the pressure off and give us an easy win, but not wanting to take the easy road we opted to move to Rally Modified 2 (M2) – the top level class for any two-wheel-drive car. Now we had 10 drivers to compete with.

Figuring a mid-pack M2 finish would be respectable, Associate Editor Jason Isley took his position behind the wheel and prepared for his RallyCross debut.

After the initial runs, our guess looked to be accurate as we were sitting dead center in the results. Then things started to turn around. With each run, Jason started to make the adjustment from autocrossing on pavement to autocrossing on the dirt. At the end of the day, after 10 runs spread over three different courses, our Project Sentra was in first place in M2 and held the second quickest total time for the event.

Needless to say, we were thrilled with the results. It is pretty clear to us that with some more seat time, some testing and a little elbow grease setting up the car for the surface, our Sentra could be a contender for a RallyCross National Championship. Now it’s just a matter of getting the car to Tennessee.


(This article first appeared in the August 2007 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Philip Royle

Good old-fashioned seat time – there’s no substitute. In any form of motorsport, the number one way to go fast is usually logging time behind the wheel. You need to be comfortable with the car and the stresses of competition, not to mention familiarizing yourself with the details that make up that specific kind of competition. If you’re not up to speed with the ins and outs of that form of motorsport, you can easily find yourself nervous and a little on edge. Shot nerves don’t make for smooth hands.

Beyond familiarizing ourselves with RallyCross (and consequently entering a number of events), we needed to get to know our project 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V a little better. We originally chose the car for the purposes of RallyCross based on the car’s light weight (2710 pounds), helical limited slip differential and excellent 175hp 2.5L I-4 motor – all of which should make the car a solid front-drive RallyCross competitor. Had we researched deeper, we would have also discovered a couple of the Sentra’s quirks – quirks we would have to eliminate if we had any hopes of competing.

First, the car utilizes a drive-by-wire throttle assembly rather than a traditional throttle cable. This isn’t really a surprise considering the vast majority of new cars use a drive-by-wire setup. The downside to this system is that manufacturers often set the car’s computer to cut the throttle should the brake and gas pedals be pressed at the same time for more than a couple seconds. Nissan is one such manufacturer.

Workarounds for these systems are usually fairly simple – it’s just a matter of finding the solution. With the Sentra, the workaround involves pulling the brake light fuse. In the Sentra, that fuse is located in the driver’s compartment, on the left side of the steering wheel. The brake fuse is a 10-amp fuse positioned second from the left on the top row of the fuse box (a special thanks goes to SPDiv’s Mark Anton, who also RallyCrosses a Sentra and aided in our fuse removal when we discovered our Sentra’s shop manual had abandoned this project without us knowing). With the fuse removed, the car can be driven with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake without the car thinking it knows better.

Because removing this fuse does stop the brake lights from illuminating, if you drive your RallyCross car on public roads to competitions, we highly recommend pulling the fuse once you get to the course and reinstalling it before the drive home.

The second “quirk” is ABS. The consensus from everyone we spoke to was that ABS is bad, and thinking through how to RallyCross a front-wheel-drive car, it’s obvious why. A common technique for competing in a front-drive car is to floor the gas pedal and press the brake to slow the car, never letting off the gas (this is why we pulled the brake light fuse). Using this method of driving makes it very difficult to lock the car’s front tires, thus allowing the driver to maintain steering control – equally important is the fact that the brake pedal is pressed so hard the rear tires lock. With the front tires pulling the car and the rears tires locked, the car rotates nicely through the turns. This isn’t exactly easy on the brakes, but it is effective and far more consistent then pulling the handbrake.

Disabling ABS is usually a simple process in any car – pull the ABS fuse. In our Sentra, the ABS fuse is located under the hood next to the battery. It’s a 40-amp fuse marked “ABS SOL.”

With the two fuses sitting in our pocket and our left foot ready to practics a completely different style of driving, we took to the RallyCross course. No ABS and a throttle that doesn’t cut while left foot braking made our Sentra feel downright sprightly when compared to driving with all the fuses in place. Also, keeping the throttle planted resulted in smooth weight transfers, allowing us to drive the line we were aiming for.

Running on dirt without ABS is tricky, however, as it makes locking all four tires easy. Should you lock the front tires on a front-drive car, you stand the chance of stalling the motor. In the case of our Sentra, the motor would re-fire immediately upon releasing the brake pedal – left foot braking, however, completely eliminated this problem as it made it all but impossible to lock the front tires. It’s tempting to slightly release the gas pedal upon corner entry to allow the car to decelerate faster, but doing so while not locking the front tires proved incredibly difficult and all but impossible to repeat with any level of consistency – and with RallyCross, consistency trumps one fast run.

Our final prep for the Sentra involved setting the alignment – this is the Sentra’s final quirk. The only alignment settings that can be adjusted on the Sentra without replacing bolts, drilling out holes, or adding camber plates is the front toe. Since several RallyCross competitors told us an accurate alignment isn’t completely necessary, we chose to adjust the car’s toe while the car was on the trailer. We measured 1/8-inch of toe in, so we dialed in 1/4-inch of toe out. The difference was unnoticeable on the dirt, but since in theory toe out is better than toe in, we figured it couldn’t hurt.

With the basics out of the way, the next step is to move the car from RallyCross’s Stock to Prepared class by installing a set of rally tires and good 15-inch wheels. We’re also going to strip the car of as much weight as possible as allowed in the Prepared rules. And who knows, we may even get good at this left foot braking thing, too.

(This article first appeared in the May 2007 issue of SportsCar magazine)

By Philip Royle

Just over a year ago we thought it was about time we built a RallyCross car. After all, RallyCross looked like a blast. With fast yet safe speeds on a dirt (or snow) playing ground with somewhat familiar autocross rules, what’s not to like? Once our minds were made up that this was a project we could sink our teeth into, we started shopping for a solid base car that would be up to the riggers of racing on the dirt. Our requirements were simple: the car needed to be powerful, somewhat lightweight and have a limited slip differential from the factory. We also decided early on that we wanted a front-drive car (this was very much an arbitrary decision on our part, so you’ll just have to go with it).

As it turns out, finding the car was easy. We chose a 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V that, with the exception of a few squeaks and rattles, was in exceptional condition (and at the time was only two and a half years old).

The Spec V is powered by a 175 hp, 16v, 2.5L, four-cylinder motor, but thanks to the engine’s relatively large displacement, the motor produces a smooth 180 lb.-ft. of torque – 10 more ponies than the normal SE-R, and 49 more horses than the 1.8L Sentra.

For those looking to save money with the non-Spec V SE-R, it’s important to note that – at least with this model year – only the Spec V comes with the helical limited slip differential, and it’s the diff that plays a key roll in the Sentra being an ideal RallyCross car. With a peg leg powering the car on a loose surface, finding traction would be all but impossible.

Both the SE-R and Spec V come with a quicker steering ratio (15.8:1 vs. 17.48:1) than the standard Sentra, but oddly have a larger turning diameter.

The potential downside to the SE-R and Spec V models are the transmissions the cars came with. The V was only available with a 6-speed manual, meaning the gearing is a little close. While this is good for around-the-town grunt, it can limit you when racing on courses where the speeds hover around 60 mph – as is the case in autocross and many RallyCross events. However, not having to worry about tuning around an open differential makes dealing with a 6-speed tolerable. Also, this model SE-R is a must-avoid car as it was only available with a four-speed slush box. What was Nissan thinking?

The Amazing part of the Spec V is the price. Brand new, the V had a base price of $17,500, which was only $200 more than the SE-R. That $200 got you 17-inch wheels as opposed to 16s, the better tranny, and the V came with spring rates that were 15-percent stiffer up front and 16-percent stiffer in the rear than the SE-R.

An option our V wasn’t equipped with, which we would have liked, was the Brembo brake package. This package includes bling gold Brembo four-piston front calipers clamping 12-inch rotors, with rear rotor measuring 10.9 inches. The stock rotors on our model are 11-inch up front and 9.13-inch in the back. The calipers are also single piston all around. Our model also came equipped with ABS.

New, our little Spec V dinged the register at under $20,000. If you were shopping for a similar model right now, you could probably find a good example for between $11,000 and $13,000. Not exactly cheap, but racing isn’t cheap.

So it was just over a year ago that we obtained our V with the goal of hitting the dirt – this was about the time Southern California RallyCross events dried up. There were some events taking place six or seven hours north, but that was too much of a drive for us – we opted to wait for the events to come to us.

And here we are.

Today, Southern California is getting back into the swing of things with many RallyCross events slated for 2007, and that’s not to mention the Western States Championship that will take place in Jean, Nev., in September. It was time to dust of the V and go racing.

The plan is to build a competitive, highly modified RallyCross car. As the project progresses, we’re going to see what needs tweaking on the V and improve those areas. The first goal, however, was to see how the car would react in its bone stock configuration.

We loaded the car onto the trailer and towed the V north to Jean, which (as mentioned) is the future site of the Western States Championship. Since the goal is to compete at this event, this looked as good a place as any to baseline the car.

The dry lakebed in Jean is rough, but the surface breaks up quickly. What this means is that by the third run you quickly stop running a race line and start looking for available traction. This also means there’s a lot of dust flying around, and if you’re not careful (and the door seals aren’t sealing quite up to snuff) you can wind up with a lot of dirt entering the cockpit.

A good tip is to ignore the dirt as it flies around the cabin.

Since our Sentra was still sporting the stock Continental 215/45-17 ContiSportContact summer tires, traction wasn’t exactly plentiful; however, this didn’t mean the car was out of control. With ample mid-turn left foot breaking and some not-so-subtle yanking of the handbrake, the car would rotate nicely, and the differential would allow you to floor the gas and power out of the slide. With just enough angle through the turns a good rhythm could be had.

By the end of the event, it was obvious our vehicle choice was a good one. The car pulled hard in second and third gear, and the power was just enough that throttle modulation was necessary – once aggressive tires are added, however, this will probably not be the case. As for the stock tires, they did a fine job, but the surface was a little tough on them, leaving the front left tire with a nice bubble on the sidewall. While RallyCross isn’t an overly damaging sport, it’s not nearly as easy on street tires as autocross, so we recommend bringing a separate set of tires to race on.

The event results were promising. Out of 16 entrants, we finished third – and since we were beat by a rear-drive Toyota MR2 (sporting somewhat aggressive, yet still Stock legal, tires), that meant we were the fastest front-drive car. Our overall total was 9.11, with first place overall scoring an 8.85. Second place overall scored a 9.07 in the same MR2. Finishing fourth overall was a Dodge Neon ACR, with a 9.27.

Our plan now is to add a couple components to the Sentra while sticking to the Stock rules. That basically means we can bolt on snow tires. We’re also going to play with disabling the ABS, since that’s allowed by the rules, to see how different the driving experience is, and which suits our driving style best.

Ultimately, we’re going to prep the car for the front-wheel drive Prepared or Modified class, depending on how much power we think we’re going to need, and hopefully compete at the Western States Championship. Now that we have one event under our belts, we’re experienced, confident and boisterous. We’ve also left the event completely addicted to a new type of racing. Oh man, this is going to be a fun and dirty project.

RallyCross car prep

With no knowledge of how to set up a Stock-class car for RallyCross, we took our autocross knowledge, mixed it with a liberal amount of trackside advice and then hoped and prayed all went well.

As far as we were concerned, the most important thing was that the tires stay on the rims. Finding a consensus on what tire pressure to accomplish this, however, was difficult. The advice ran the gamut from the somewhat vague, “Run those pressures high,” to one competitor pumping his street tires to 50 psi. In autocross, 40 psi is a good starting point, so we decided to try that. We ended up filling the tires to 39 psi front and rear (39 psi was chosen because it was nearly 40, but not – don’t ask why). The tires never pulled off the rim, so from the looks of it, relatively small sidewall tires (215/45-17) can safely run at around 40 psi on a not-so-grippy dry lakebed without unseating. Had there been hard ruts, we may have bumped up the pressure another couple pounds, but at that point we could risk blowing the tire.

As it was, we did end up damaging a tire. With two of six runs remaining, the front driver’s side tire formed a bubble on the side, just below the tread. The bubble didn’t stop us from finishing the day, though, and the bubble got no worse (this being the advantage of towing to an event).

The final setup trick was taping down the handbrake button. Having watched many a rally, we knew the handbrake played a key role in making sure the car rotated nicely. Having no clue how the car would react on the dirt, we took some duct tape and liberally taped the button. This allowed for the handbrake to be used during the event without worrying about the handbrake not releasing.

As it turns out, this was an incredible idea, and it aided dramatically through a couple tight turns. Without the handbrake, our score would not have nearly been as low as it was.