The lessons we learned while sorting a new race car

Tim
By Tim Suddard
Feb 1, 2024 | race car, Column, Sorting, Endurance Race Miata | Posted in Columns | From the Feb. 2023 issue | Never miss an article

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There’s just no way to shortcut the process of sorting a new race car. This is especially true when dealing with an endurance car.

A little while back, we decided to slip a Camaro V6 into our endurance racer Miata. You might think that’s an extreme solution that could lead to some difficulties, and you’d be right. 

Sorting usually starts with the basics: Is everything tight? If it’s a street car, you can maybe take a lap around the block with your cell phone at the ready or a buddy following behind. Hopefully nothing important falls off. 

We didn’t have that luxury for obvious reasons, so we headed to our test track, the FIRM, where we could run the car for an hour or more at a time. Despite Central Florida’s hot, humid conditions, we found the car to be very quick but in need of more areo, more brakes and more cooling.

[The Grassroots Motorsports ultimate guide to track car lap times]

Our first race was just over a week away. We scrambled to get a wing and a splitter from Nine Lives Racing, an even bigger front brake kit from Wilwood, and some better ducting around our radiator. After several long nights and more than a bit of sheer panic while waiting on parts, we deemed the Miata good to go and loaded it in the trailer. 

After thrashing until the last minute, our team members rolled into Carolina Motorsports Park between midnight and 5 a.m., rested (not!) and ready (mostly) for the task at hand. (Lesson here: Budget more time for development.)

Our Lucky Dog race weekend started very well, as we put the Miata on the pole. We celebrated with high-fives and back slapping. These twin 7-hour races would be a walk in the park, right? Not so fast.

We knew the Miata’s fuel tank wouldn’t allow us to run the maximum stint length of 2 hours, and we knew this would hurt us. However, we felt that our stock Camaro engine would provide the perfect balance of speed and reliability.  

We planned to run 90 minutes between fuel stops. An hour and 10 minutes into the race, our first driver came into the pits complaining of fuel starvation.

Despite our slick new Sunoco fuel jugs, a venting issue with the car prevented us from quickly adding fuel. Our mandatory 7-minute stop for gas and a driver change drifted past the 10-minute mark. This was also going to hurt us, especially since we didn’t think we could fix the issue between stints. (Lesson here: Again, budget more time for development.)

Then came the next issue: A few hours later, our second driver pulled in with no brakes. We’d worn our first set of pads down to the metal backing plates. Our time constraints prevented us from ordering proper endurance pads, but we figured we’d still make it through at least the day on our pads. 

Looking back, who could have possibly thought that the fastest car at a race track would use up fuel and brake pads at an accelerated rate? (Lesson here: Test more.)

We had spare brake pads, but just one set, so we sent out a crewmember to find more. At the same time, I headed in the opposite direction, bound for the only area tire store still open. 

Our Miata doesn’t have ABS, and one of our drivers didn’t have experience with this car or track. He flat-spotted and then blew a tire. We had some spare Nankangs, and I was able to get them mounted and balanced in 15 minutes for the whopping sum of $26. (Lesson here: Bring tires mounted and ready.)

Before I even got back, my cell phone rang and I was instructed to fetch a new clutch and flywheel. Our car was out of the race and back at our paddock with what we thought was an exploded clutch.

After spending nearly 4 hours trying to extricate the Camaro transmission from the impossibly tight orifice that is a Miata transmission tunnel, we found a clutch that looked new. 

Our lack of forward motivation turned out to be due to a stripped axle that we couldn’t see. (Lesson learned: Racing ain’t easy.)

Our weekend was over, and we had learned yet another valuable lesson: The only way to truly sort a new race car is in the heat of battle. Our Miata will be back.

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