What you learn from your first time racing a new car

Tom
Update by Tom Suddard to the Mazda Miata project car
Jun 19, 2023 | Mazda, Miata, lfx, Carolina Motorsports Park, Lucky Dog Racing League, Endurance Race Miata

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For years we’d built and built: Through Covid, through supply chain challenges, through multiple shops 500 miles apart, we’d kept working on our LFX-swapped Miata.

The goal was simple: Kick our endurance racing up a notch and continue running the same Miata we knew and loved.

Good news: It was finally finished! Or at least finished enough to return to competition.

So we loaded up our truck and headed to Carolina Motorsports Park for the Miata’s first event with its sixth engine, a Lucky Dog Racing League endurance race.

[Project vehicle: 2001 Ford F-250]

 

What’s Lucky Dog?

So what exactly is the Lucky Dog Racing League? They describe themselves this way:

Lucky Dog Racing League is a “for racers, by racers” community born out of the desire to offer competitive yet safe, fun, and affordable, wheel-to-wheel racing without the usual barriers to entry…complex rules and the need to have a trust fund.”

On paper, this means a wide-open rulebook, a spec tire make and model (Hankook’s long-wearing RS-4), and a ban on all cars newer than 2006 (though there are exceptions for modern Miatas and B-Spec cars).

[200-treadwear tire test | Continental ExtremeContact Force vs. Falken Azenis RT660 vs. Hankook Ventus R-S4]

In practice, we’d say this series nicely meshes the relaxed atmosphere of series like the 24 Hours of Lemons with the faster cars of series like ChampCar. Even though our new Nankang tires would land us in the exhibition class (dubbed Super Dog), we signed up for their event at Carolina Motorsports Park eager to see what it was like.

 

Let’s Test It Out

The race weekend started with an optional Friday test day, so we headed to CMP early to meet up with Very Cool Parts, our partners on the build, with the goal of testing the car.

Our plan? Get every driver some experience on the unfamiliar track, sort out tire pressures, anti-roll bar settings and wing angle, and hopefully put enough laps on the car to discover any issues before we were racing for position.

We also wanted to use our first session to heat cycle our spare set of tires so we could set them aside to rest before their planned deployment on day two of racing.

[How to make tires last longer? Heat cycling]

And after a full day of lapping CMP, we’d managed to accomplish our goals. The car was well-sorted, the drivers were confident on course, and the biggest problem we’d found was a configuration issue with our power distribution module that rendered our kill switch inactive. (We fixed it with a few clicks on the laptop.)

With testing being deemed a success, we stickered up the car per Lucky Dog rules, cruised through tech inspection, changed brake pads, and put our feet up for a leisurely dinner in the paddock. Endurance racing is always full of unknowns, but we were feeling pretty good about our chances in the next day’s race.

 

Learning About Super Dog

Hey Super Dog how’s it going!”

Uhhhhh what?”

Okay, maybe the interaction didn’t go quite like that, but we remember a friendly paddock passerby throwing the compliment/threat (complithreat?) our way.

Just like that we’d learned about a fun twist when racing with Lucky Dog: the Super Dog. Created as a way to limit closing speeds and keep the series true to its vision, Super Dog refers to an official lap time, declared between qualifying and the race start, that competitors cannot beat. Go faster than the time and you’ll be declared Super Dog and get a black flag and a penalty. Go faster too many times, and you’ll be sent home for the weekend.

Sounds like no problem, right? Yeah–maybe if you didn’t qualify on pole like we did. We held our breath as the Super Dog time was announced, only to be pleasantly surprised: Our fastest lap was a few seconds slower, meaning we wouldn’t have to worry too much.

 

Race Day

With that worry out of the way, it was time to go racing. We strapped in, headed out on track–and started having an absolute ball.

It felt a little bit like bringing a gun to a knife fight, as our car was faster than everything else on track, and wickedly docile and easy to drive.

We passed on the straights, in the corners, in transitions, under braking–everywhere.

Sure, we were running on cheater tires in the cheater class, but it’s obvious this Miata has real potential and we’d be right on pace with the frontrunners even on the series-mandated Hankook RS-4s.

Then we ran out of gas. Oops.

Yeah, turns out there’s a downside to endurance racing a 300-horsepower Miata: fuel capacity.

We limped the car to the pits after just over an hour of racing, and just like that our lead was gone.

Suddenly winning was off the table, so we focused on having fun: And passing what felt like 500 cars every lap sure is a great way to pass the time. Well, that and feeling our brake pedal go straight to the floor on track 50 minutes into our second tank of fuel.

Oops.

Back to the pits, where we quickly discovered our problem was no longer fuel capacity, it was brake pad capacity (yay!).

CMP is hard on brakes, but we were still shocked to discover that all eight brake pads were nearly metal-on-metal after less than two hours of racing. We changed pads and headed back out on track, having learned to check them after every other fuel stop.

Endurance racing is full of challenges, but we had a few peaceful, uneventful hours before our next unforced error: Our rookie driver flat-spotted a tire bad enough to wear a hole right through it, an outcome we’ll blame on driver fatigue and on never getting around to fitting our Miata with ABS. We changed the tire and driver and went back out for another session of constant passing and glorious 7000 rpm V6 noises.

Uh Oh.

It was during a pass, in fact, that we completed a shift, let out the clutch, and winced as our Miata’s engine revved freely while the car coasted to a stop behind a corner station.

Some in-car diagnosis wasn’t hopeful: The clutch pedal was merely a suggestion, providing the equivalent forward motion of a gentle breeze. Damn.

That’s how our Miata earned a ride behind CMP’s tow truck back to the paddock. As soon as the strap was unhooked, we raised the car and went to work replacing the clutch.

A hasty plan was developed: We’d send one person by car on a two-hour round trip to buy a Camaro clutch and flywheel at the local parts store, while another would head to the local private airport, get in his tiny private plane, and fly to Nine Lives Racing in Atlanta in order to replenish our supply of Wilwood brake pads for the following day’s race.

And we know what you’re thinking: Private planes? That’s a huge breach of everything GRM stands for, and runs counter to the entire Lucky Dog ethos.

And you’d be correct except for one key fact: It’s not our plane, but rather Wayne’s from Very Cool Parts. We think that convincing a friend with a plane to go on an hours-long flight for little to no payoff just so you can get your Miata back on track is exactly the sort of shenanigans we stand for.  

While the truck and plane searched for parts, the rest of us would stay in the paddock to pull the transmission and prep the car for its new clutch.

There was no time for further diagnosis or investigation for one simple reason: If the clutch was bad, we’d be able to fix it. If anything else in the driveline was bad, we had no spares and no chance of finding them on a Saturday night/Sunday morning in rural South Carolina.

We’ll put a proper spares package together for the car in the future, but for this first race we just hadn’t gotten around to replacing our Miata driveline spares with the Chevrolet driveline spares we now needed. So, with time being our most finite resource, we threw it all at the only problem we knew we could solve.

[10 Endurance Race Essentials (That They Probably Didn’t Mention in Driver School)]

An hour later, and the transmission was about ready to come out, meaning we could spare a few people to investigate the rest of the car. Even with so many unknowns, we didn’t want to waste time that could be spent inspecting, cleaning, and changing brake pads.

And it was near one of those brake pads that we discovered the true source of our missing momentum: a CV joint broken internally, meaning we had one free-spinning axle.

Why’d the car feel like it needed a clutch, then? We’ll chalk that up to the few spline remnants still left and the clutch-type limited-slip differential, which conspired to provide just a touch of forward motion. This diagnosis was confirmed a few minutes later when the transmission hit the ground, exposing a perfect clutch that was working as intended.

That’s why our truck and plane arrived back to the paddock to find us with beers open, parts strewn around the ground, and everyone filthy, sad, and dejected.

Our Miata uses custom axles for the V6 swap, and replacing them on short notice would be impossible. And yes, we tried disassembling an OEM Miata spare from the trailer to see if it had any of the necessary pieces to attempt an axle rebuild in the paddock. We’d failed, and all there was left to do was load up the car and head home.

 

Results

So was the entire weekend a failure? Well, yes and no. Sure, we broke the car and missed the second day of racing. But even after those hours in the paddock we finished the first day’s race in 41st out of 58 cars, and managed to set the fastest lap of the day by more than two seconds.

Oh, and we had an awesome time in the process, really enjoying the community, format, and racing that Lucky Dog has to offer. For the car’s first race after major surgery, we’ll call that a success.

Time to head home, focus on our spares package, and come back stronger next time.

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Comments
calteg
calteg SuperDork
3/10/23 9:35 a.m.

What I learned hopping in a new racecar? I'm not nearly as talented as I thought I was

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/10/23 10:25 a.m.

Getting out for the first time is when the fun starts. Debugging is more fun than building.

I've had this exact same failure happen with parts from the same supplier. Come off a corner and wzzzzz, no drive. I don't remember the diagnosis process but in my case the exact cause was figured out fairly quickly. Possibly because I didn't have the stress of a counting clock, I was on a test day.

So I pulled some higher spec parts off another car so i could go to Laguna Seca a week or so later, and the underengineered drive flange required by those higher spec parts ripped off at the apex of turn 9, releasing the wheel to the freedom it desired. That was a much bigger problem than the broken splines.

Some nice looking shocks you've got on that car :) Glad to hear the handling was good.

Noddaz
Noddaz GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
3/10/23 12:06 p.m.

Glad to hear the car was great...  Until it broke.  But that is racing.  

I am sure it will do better next time.  Now fess up.  Which one of the drivers was dropping the clutch and doing burn outs?  lol

Tom1200
Tom1200 UberDork
3/10/23 12:38 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:

Getting out for the first time is when the fun starts. Debugging is more fun than building.

I actually hate building and debugging race cars; I may find it interesting but I don't find it fun. It's part of the process but man I dislike that part.

I do find developing a car a lot of fun; playing with parts, settings and seeing the results is fun...........as well as fascinating. 

Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
3/10/23 12:50 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:

 

 

So I pulled some higher spec parts off another car so i could go to Laguna Seca a week or so later, and the underengineered drive flange required by those higher spec parts ripped off at the apex of turn 9, releasing the wheel to the freedom it desired. That was a much bigger problem than the broken splines.

I think I may have seen the video of that event.

Datsun310Guy
Datsun310Guy MegaDork
3/10/23 2:08 p.m.

Nothing, I haven't raced.  

I'm a pud.

leec
leec New Reader
3/10/23 3:16 p.m.

A Miata DNF is rarely the "fault" of the vehicle!  Other than the originally supplied stock [to weak for racing] pressure plate, subsequently upgraded [SSB legal] by Mazda for the 1994 R, the reliability was phenomenal. [ask Rennie] Once you start modifying them, all bets are off, and  they're no longer really a Miata! 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/10/23 5:22 p.m.
Tom1200 said:
Keith Tanner said:

Getting out for the first time is when the fun starts. Debugging is more fun than building.

I actually hate building and debugging race cars; I may find it interesting but I don't find it fun. It's part of the process but man I dislike that part.

I do find developing a car a lot of fun; playing with parts, settings and seeing the results is fun...........as well as fascinating. 

I consider the debugging to be part of the developing. Hardening a car to make it more reliable in enduros is an exercise in problem solving and planning - including how to make something fail gracefully. It's different than "what happens if I change these springs" but just as interesting to me.

John Wyer's account of building new Le Mans cars includes talk of their testing. They didn't really consider a less-than-race-length test to be all that valuable when it comes to development.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/10/23 5:22 p.m.
leec said:

A Miata DNF is rarely the "fault" of the vehicle!  Other than the originally supplied stock [to weak for racing] pressure plate, subsequently upgraded [SSB legal] by Mazda for the 1994 R, the reliability was phenomenal. [ask Rennie] Once you start modifying them, all bets are off, and  they're no longer really a Miata! 

There was a modified Miata on the stand the day the roadster was introduced to the world in 1989. There have been modified Miatas literally as long as there have been Miatas. Once you start modifying them, they're still very much Miatas...

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/10/23 6:39 p.m.

In a previous life we learned to be careful to let customers know that a built car is NOT a finished product and there may be a debugging process that could take a few months to a year.

 

I am honestly nervous about "Colin".  (The R53 getting vehicle reassignment surgery to be the best little WRX it can be)  I know how Imprezas handle and want to retain that as much as possible, but if course it is not an Impreza.  Might go out the first time and find out that it drives square (straight, turn, straight) and needs some suspension development work to be able to carve, or develop better 3D maps for the center diff control.

With known-factor vehicles you can also learn from better drivers who will tell you that you can do THIS to get good corner exit or THAT to do whatever, and these spring rates with those stabilizer bars work the best...

So, yeah, nerves.  Especially since there isn't room for stabilizer bars as far as I can tell.

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