For SCCA Racing, Miata Is Always the Answer – Except When It’s BRZ

Photos: Courtney Carra

Ever since the age of 17, I’ve been fascinated with the sport of drag racing, as it’s the automotive test of ultimate strength. In order to be a champion, you must be willing to tune your engine on the ragged edge, and every part selected for use must be engineered to withstand the torture test of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of horsepower for short bursts of time, with marginal variance in conditions save for weather and track preparation.

On the flip side of the motorsports landscape, road racing – and endurance road racing by extension – is the antithesis of drag racing. Each part chosen for a vehicle must be designed to withstand stress over long periods of time, under changing conditions, and even with different drivers behind the controls. Daytime to nighttime, warm to cold track temperatures, and even rainy conditions can be experienced during the typical endurance race. Road race vehicles exude strength, but in a quiet, understated way vastly different from that of a drag brawler.

Enter our friends Tom Lang and Marcus Congdon from Gear One Performance, along with Pete and Matt Henwood from Main Line Overland. In years past, Lang and Congdon played support team to the driving tandem of Henwood and Henwood as they competed all over the Mid-Atlantic area in a Spec Miata race program.

“We wanted to help tout what we do here at the shop, but before this [Gear One Performance] was even a thing, we were doing Spec Miata racing with Matt and Pete,” says Lang. “Marc and I used to set up their car for Spec Miata. We’d be in charge of putting the car together, and for two years we set the car up powertrain-wise for them.”

As with any group of racers, the desire to go faster becomes the primary concern, and with that in mind, they started to explore the idea of changing cars.

Lang – who had previous dealership experience, and was the local Subaru dealer’s go-to guy on the BRZ platform when it debuted – still has serious connections in the Subaru community and was able to score a deal on a fresh-off-the-dealer-lot, brand-new 2014 Subaru BRZ for a price that was simply too good to pass up. Although they considered purchasing a Z06 Corvette, the deal on the BRZ was the right one for their racing efforts, and Lang’s familiarity with the vehicle made it an easy decision.

The BRZ is built upon the Toyota FT86 chassis, which is the reincarnation of the quintessential Toyota AE86 chassis, the Hachi Roku rear-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla of the mid-80s. As such, the BRZ’s lineage is easily traced and immediately commands respect within the Sport Compact crowd, although the BRZ uses the familiar-to-Subaru-enthusiasts boxer engine format.

“We wanted to go faster, we wanted to use a cool new platform, and we wanted to be able to show off what Gear One Performance does, within a reasonable budget. So far, we’re the only BRZ fielded in this area, but I think two years from now it’ll probably be a little different as the cars get cheaper,” says Lang.

The BRZ was taken back to the shop, and the team immediately began the process of turning it into a dedicated racecar to run in the SCCA’s Super Touring Under class.  The STU class features late-model production-based vehicles with engines sized less than 3.2-liters.

The Little Engine That Could

Initially, the Gear One team set the car up with its stock powerplant, which displaces 2.0-liters and makes 200 horsepower. It was campaigned that way for one season with the Henwood pair behind the steering wheel during all events, but for the car’s most recent outing, things changed – in a big way.

Firstly, the engine needed to be repaired, as it had expired after just nine hours of racing at the previous race. Not only did they fix it up, they also decided it was time to up the ante in the power department, and struck a deal with the folks at Edelbrock to install one of the company’s E-Force supercharger assemblies. The system makes use of the familiar Eaton TVS-style rotor pack, sized to displace 1.32-liters in this four-cylinder application.

After custom-tuning the vehicle with the supercharger installed, they bumped the power to 315.3 horses and 224.9 lb-ft of torque at the wheels – a substantial power increase over the naturally-aspirated powerplant, giving the drivers with a much more formidable platform with which to go racing.

The Science Of Competition

As with any form of motorsports, preparing the car properly involves lots of testing to ensure it’s ready to go. The Gear One team has spent a lot of time discussing parts consumption and game-planning to determine how many spare tires they will need for each event, whether brake pads and rotors will need to be replaced, and other items that simply can’t be anticipated. They bring spare hubs and wheel studs, spare transmissions, and even a spare engine – just in case.

“We shoot for one set of tires to last through two driver stints. One driver is not allowed to drive more than four hours at a time. We jammed the maximum allowable fuel cell into the car – 25 gallons – into the stock location. Before we installed the supercharger, we could go nearly three hours on a stint,” says Lang.

Every track is different, which gives the team even more challenges to take into account during the planning process. Virginia International Raceway, for example, is longer and faster, which places different stresses on the tires and brakes as compared to other places they race. They also compete at New Jersey Motorsports Park’s Thunderbolt course, which is a technical, shorter track layout with lots of curves and braking zones to eat up those components more quickly, especially the left side tires.

“After we installed the supercharger fuel consumption went up, so that adds a layer of complication. You add more pit stops because you run through fuel much quicker, but you don’t necessarily need to change tires with every driver change. With the new fuel efficiency, we can run almost two-and-a-half hours, and we are able to push the tires to every other driver change, or depending on the track, every two driver changes. When we talk about tire wear, it comes down to evaluating what the track specifically likes, and then we formulate a strategy,” he says.

Other items to take into account are the length of driver stints for a particular course, which drivers will be in the rotation and when they will be driving, and whether there will be supplemental rules for a particular race.

“As far as prepping for a race, a lot of it is obvious stuff. You start off with new brakes, check hub play, ensure new tires are installed, and check to make sure nothing is leaking on the engine. Ideally the engine would be freshened from the previous race. Check the air/fuel ratios are good, stuff like that,” says Lang.

Hardships Happen

Even with the best-laid plans, racing is an unpredictable sport, and often there are unseen challenges which test even the best teams’ capabilities.

“Preparing for failure is a proactive thing, but it really matters how reactive you are when there’s an issue with the car. What I mean by that is if there’s a specific failure, let’s say a hub; if you can repair it quickly, then you can stay in pit lane and do it instead of bringing the car back into the paddock area. You can plan all you want, but it comes down to how you react in a given situation. That’s why we like endurance racing – you’re going all out, but there’s a lot of strategy involved.”

The SCCA race they attended last fall at Virginia International Raceway where we caught up with the team was their first in competition with the supercharged engine, which presented a series of challenges they didn’t expect given their previous experience with the naturally-aspirated BRZ.

“When we tested, the car was running super well, but as we got into the afternoon and the ambient air temperature started to climb, the car began to feel sluggish. We were seeing a lot of knock in cylinder one and the intake air temperatures were extremely high, so the computer was pulling timing,” says Lang.

Ultimately, they ended up using racer’s tape and strategically-placed cardboard to help direct cool air through the intercooler and radiator to help solve the problem, but it was one they had to figure out before they could fix it.

Also, the night prior to the race, they had what Lang calls a “strange” electrical failure, centered on the fuel level senders in the fuel cell. Eventually, after the race it was determined that there was an issue within a harness, but during the event they were left to test fuel level through measuring consumption manually.

During the first stint of the race, Pete was behind the wheel with strict instructions to run “race pace” so that the team could estimate fuel consumption properly. But within the first 1,000 feet of the race – on lap one, turn one – there was a crash which forced a yellow flag, and Pete had to putt around the track behind the pace car for nearly fifteen minutes while the track crew cleaned up the mess. This drastically altered the calculated plan, forcing the team to pit at the two-hour mark rather than the planned 2.5-hour interval.

After they switched drivers, the electrical issue got worse, which ultimately caused their AiM Dash monitoring unit to malfunction, leaving the drivers to guess at the vehicle’s operating conditions on all fronts – no tachometer, no speedometer, and no fuel level senders. Nevertheless, they soldiered on, going another nine hours with those conditions.

Also, it was Marcus Congdon’s first race as a driver, which presents its own set of concerns. Getting behind the wheel for two-and-a-half hours in a competition scenario, with adrenaline pumping and the excitement of the event, is totally different from working as a crew member. By the time his stint was over, it was time to replace the brake pads which typically would have lasted for the duration of the event.

“When Marcus got back, he had totally cooked the brakes, which none of us expected to happen. So when Pete got back behind the wheel, he went back out on the track and had no brakes at all and bumped into a wall – which caused us to have to replace the radiator and make some other repairs,” says Lang.

Although the team finished dead last in their class during this particular event, they were proud to finish given all of the challenges they faced during the course of the entire day. They’ve gained valuable experience which will be put to good use the next time out with the car, and most importantly, they had fun doing it. Many people lose sight of that part when it comes to motorsports.

“As long as we’re enjoying the fact that we’re at the race, it all comes together at the very end where we all get to take a picture next to the car – broken down or not – and everyone is smiling,” says Lang.