Cliff Notes

Ever since I started track driving, some 6 years ago, I’ve watched videos of people driving Thunderhill. It’s the closest track to me, and also my favorite (the West side is actually my favorite, but the East side is near the top of the list). In the beginning, I was just trying to learn the track. Later, I wanted to see how my lap times stacked up against other drivers. Today, I mainly watch to analyze driving technique.

When watching videos at Thunderhill, I like to focus on Turns 1-3. Each turn exposes specific driving errors and the entire sequence from the tower to the apex of T4 is under 40 seconds.

The video I have for you today features Cliff, a coach with Audi Club. His YouTube channel features a video from 6 years ago with HoD A and S stickers, so it looks like he got started track driving around the same time as me, or possibly earlier. Cliff is driving a 2015 Golf R with a shitload of upgrades. The Golf R has 292 hp stock, and the Stage 1 tune upgrades this to over 350 hp. The car also features Ohlins suspension, StopTech brakes, and 200TW rubber. The car is properly built for track duty. The description of the video says it’s his fastest lap of the weekend. The video doesn’t feature a lap timer on screen, but from the video timestamps I estimate 2:13.9. Seems like he should be able to go faster. So let’s dive in and see if we can figure out why.

Watch the video and then follow along below.

Some of the things I like about this video are the picture quality and overlays. It’s too bad the camera isn’t mounted inside the car, because it would be great to get an idea of what the driver is doing. Given that most overlays don’t show steering data, it’s useful to watch the driver’s hands to see if he’s fighting understeer or oversteer. I also like watching shifting technique. Oh well, not today.

One of the most useful tools for analyzing drivers is a speed trace. Ideally, your data acquisition system updates at 10 Hz or better. Phone-based apps like Harry’s Lap Timer or Track Addict typically record at only 1 Hz unless they are provided with an external antenna. Since I don’t have data for the lap in the video, I made my own by recording the speed of the car in 1 second intervals using the video timestamps. This provides a low-resolution speed trace (blue) very similar to what you would see from a phone app. I’ve also drawn a theoretical speed trace based on my own imagination, which I’ll discuss below.

Turn 1

In the first few seconds, you can see a major problem. The speed trace has a very rounded top. The car is coasting into the brake zone. I don’t actually subscribe to the phrase “you should always be on throttle or brakes” because people who hear that think it means 100% throttle or 100% brakes. And there are also instances when coasting is actually appropriate. But 2 whole seconds of coasting on the main straight is not one of those times. The amount of time lost is only a couple tenths, so it’s not that big a deal in terms of lap times. But it is a big deal in terms of technique. One should drive the car all the way to the brake zone.

The next thing to note is the deceleration. It’s not very steep. A car with 200 TW tires can decelerate at 1.0g. From observing the G-meter, the car never gets close. It spends most of the time at less than 0.5g. Technique-wise, I also brake more gently in high speed corners. My mindset is that I’m trying to set the corner speed at a specific value rather mash the pedal. But the braking here is just too timid. Looking ahead at other corners, he appears to always brake gently. The car and tires are capable of much more.

The final thing I want to point out is the location of the apex. This is the black arrow. The slowest part of a corner should be before the apex, not after. He’s coasting through the corner trying to hold speed. In the overused phrase “in slow, out fast”, the in slow happens before the apex and the out fast starts occurring a little before the apex. Here, the slow is still after the apex.

Turn 2

Like T1, there isn’t enough commitment to the brake pedal in timing or pressure. But the overall shape is pretty good. I see a lot of drivers mash their brake pedal and over-slow the car. Not so here. He’s using the brakes to set his speed, and then he drives through at the speed he set. Good.

Unfortunately, the mid-corner speed of T2 on 200TW tires is not 61-63 mph. Looking back at some of my data, I drive a couple mph faster in the pouring rain or when joking around on 185/60/14 Douglas Xtra-Trac II tires ($38 Walmart tires with a 420 treadwear rating). On a dry track with 200 TW tires, I’m around 72 mph. Why is he driving so far under the limit? Probably because he doesn’t like the feel or sound of sliding tires. Tires are supposed to slide a little on track. That’s where the optimum grip is. Driving a sliding car can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. The way to get used to it is to do it.

While T2 is a carousel with a constant radius, it is almost never the case that one should drive a constant radius. On a long corner like T2, you should use the first half for braking and the second half for accelerating. You may be slightly slower on the way out of the corner, but you gain a lot more by using the first half as part of your brake zone. Since there’s such a short straight from T2 to T3, it’s better to take this as a double apex rather than single.

Turn 3 and Turn 4

T3 is tricky because it’s off camber. There are lots lines through the corner, especially when racing wheel to wheel. Although Cliff’s overall grip level isn’t where it should be, the shape of the speed graph is just fine.

T4 is a typical 90, so the minimum speed should be before the apex. Here, like in T1, the minimum speed is actually after the apex. If you’ve got a car with 350 hp, you should use a driving line that optimizes the power of the vehicle. That means getting the braking and turning done early so you can throttle on a straight line. This is doubly true for FWD cars.

Rant on

It’s not really Cliff’s fault that he under-drives his tires. The E in the HPDE system is totally broken. If you haven’t read “Optimum Drive”, by Paul Gerrard, I highly recommend you do. He talks about how backwards the HPDE system is. I won’t repeat that here. Go get his book. Paul also says that if we want to solve a problem, we need to get to its root. The problem isn’t that Cliff coasts into brake zones or drives at 0.8g. The problem is that he’s not comfortable driving a sliding car. Fix that problem, and all the symptoms go away.

What’s the first lesson we usually teach new students? The racing line. As if that fucking matters. The line is a result of optimizing grip. Teach drivers to feel grip and the racing line will follow. The reverse isn’t true. Fuck the fucking racing line. I’d much rather have students drive in the middle of the track. There’s less chance they go off track and roll or hit something.

When drivers get comfortable just under the limit they reach a performance plateau that’s hard to break through. And the better they get, the harder it will be to unlearn later. Stability control, sticky tires, and 500 hp monsters all conspire against acquiring actual skill. But the students show up in Hellcats and Vipers, and I’m not getting in the right seat of one of those things without nannies.

If you really want to get better at driving, you have to have the right environment. Thunderhill in a 500 hp monster is not the right environment. The consequences of crashing at 130 mph are just too great. There’s a reason that the Kenny Roberts school is on dirt and why the Skip Barber school uses all season tires. Learning car control is safest when tires are slippery and speeds are low. Simulators are cheaper and safer still.

Rant off

On the other hand, not everyone needs to be a driving ace. Lots of people enjoy listening to music. Fewer people play music. Even fewer compose. If someone is having a great time driving around a track at 6 tenths, do they really need to turn it up to 8 or 10? As a coach, my #1 priority is safety. The #2 priority is to make sure the student is having a great time. For novices that probably means teaching them the racing line and “advanced techniques” like heel-toe shifting. As students graduate to intermediate and advanced, they need level-appropriate instruction. And just like with music or anything else, the lessons become less entertaining and more work. Drivers who didn’t start with a foundation of car control will take longer to reach whatever level they are trying to attain because they will have to unlearn a bunch of bad habits along the way. Who cares? It’s just time, and last I checked, time on track is a lot of fun.

Conflicted

Personally, I’m really conflicted about driving education. I firmly believe that car control is the only thing that matters, and if I ran a driving school, it would be mostly drills on a skid pad or simulator. However, I also believe that as long as drivers are safe, they should do whatever optimizes their fun. If I ran an HPDE organization, we’d do burnouts, drifts, jumps, and of course, the racing line.

SPEC-20

Now that I’ve prepped the GT for track duty, I figure it needs a race series to compete in. Where do economy cars go when they want to race against vehicles of equally mediocre performance? I don’t know. So I made up my own time trial series with some unusual rules. Hello world, whether you asked for it or not, I give you SPEC-20.

Use the link provided above for the current rules. The rules below represent the draft rules.

Mission

SPEC-20 is a low-cost time trial series for economy vehicles whose owners think they’re race cars.

Rules

1.0 Vehicle

1.1 AWP. All SPEC-20 cars must have an Adjusted Weight to Power (AWP) ratio of 20:1 or higher. Weight is defined as factory curb weight. Power is defined as factory brake horsepower. Base Weight to Power ratio (BWP) is simply Weight divided by Power. AWP adds or subtracts values from this figure. See Appendix B for a list of example vehicles.

1.2 Free upgrades.

1.2.1 Brakes. The entire braking system may be freely upgraded (you won’t be going faster by going slower).

1.2.2 Suspension. Struts, springs, sway bars, and alignment are unrestricted. Stanced/slammed cars are welcomed (every competition needs losers).

1.2.3 Wheels. Wheel size and wheel spacers are unrestricted. Overstretched tires are appreciated (again, losers needed).

1.2.4 Interior. Steering wheel, shifter, pedals, and hand brake may be replaced (ideally with faux carbon fiber).

1.3 Engine. Bolt-on modifications to the engine are generally allowed, and result in negative adjustments to AWP. No internal modifications are allowed. All engines must be naturally aspirated and run on standard pump gas.

  • Cold air intake: -0.5
  • Non-OEM exhaust: -0.5
  • Non-OEM header: -0.5
  • Modified ECU: -0.5
  • Engine swap: not allowed
  • Methanol: not allowed
  • Nitrous: not allowed
  • Supercharger: not allowed
  • Turbocharger: not allowed

1.4 Tires. All tires must have a UTQG rating of 200 or higher. See the table below for positive adjustments to AWP. No, not all tires in the same treadwear category have the same performance. Cope.

  • UTQG <200 not allowed
  • UTQG 200 +0.0
  • UTQG 220-280 +1.0
  • UTQG 300 +2.0
  • UTQG 320-380 +3.0
  • UTQG >=400 +4.0

1.5 Exterior. Non-OEM aerodynamic modifications result in negative adjustments to AWP (some things like vortex generators have no actual value, but paying points for them may make some owners feel better about having them). OEM hood and trunk may be replaced with lightweight components, but no other exchanges are allowed.

  • Spoiler: -0.5
  • Wing: -1.0
  • Air dam: -0.5
  • Splitter: -1.0
  • Vortex generators: -0.1
  • Non-OEM hood vents: -0.1
  • Side skirts: -0.15
  • Diffuser: -0.25
  • Lightweight non-OEM hood: -0.25
  • Lightweight non-OEM trunk: -0.25
  • Other lightweight replacements: not allowed

1.6 Interior. OEM components may not be exchanged except as noted below and in section 1.2.3.

  • Front seat: -0.25 per seat
  • Mirror: +0.1 (wide angle central mirror bonus for safety)
  • Stereo: +0.25 (must have trunk kicker)

1.7. Weight reduction. In general, you may not exchange or remove parts of the vehicle to reduce weight. You are encouraged to diet. Only the items listed below may be removed.

  • Spare tire: 0
  • Tools: 0
  • Floor mats: 0
  • Rear seats: -0.5 if removed or 0 if exchanged for 4-point roll bar
  • Battery: -0.25

1.8 FTR. All vehicles are granted +0.5 AWP adjustment under the FTR exemption (Fuck The Rules). FTR can also be used in some cases to skirt rules (e.g. remove the antenna or cut a hole in the bumper).

2.0 Competition

2.1 Events. SPEC-20 events are seasonal, asynchronous, track-dependent, and delta-based.

2.1.1 Seasons. There are 3 seasons, each lasting 4 months: S1 (January – April), S2 (May – August), and S3 (September – December).

2.1.2 Asynchronous. During each season, SPEC-20 drivers may attend any number of track days in order to record their fastest laps. Drivers need not attend the same tracks on the same days.

2.1.3 Track-dependent. Each track counts as its own event. If there are multiple configurations for a track, each configuration may be counted separately. See Appendix A.

2.1.4 Delta-based. Drivers gain points by beating delta times. At the end of the season, each driver compares their fastest lap to the track delta table to earn SPEC-20 Points. See Appendix A for specific times. The SPEC-20 rules committee may update delta times during the first week of any season.

2.2 Championships.

2.1 Season. At the end of each season, the driver who has accumlated the most points during the season is declared the SPEC-20 Champion for that season (e.g. SPEC-20 2020-S1 Champion). Each driver may submit a maximum of 5 events per season.

2.2 Annual. At the end of each year, the driver with the most points is declared the SPEC-20 Champion (e.g. SPEC-20 2020 Champion). Each driver may submit a maximum of 10 events per year. The fastest driver at each track is declared the Ace of that track (e.g. SPEC-20 Laguna Seca Ace).

2.3 Timing. Lap times must be recorded with a GPS-based timer with a live display of lap time. Approved devices include dedicated lap timers such as AiM Solo and phone-based timers such as Harry’s Lap Timer. AMB-260X transponders are not allowed (because fuck them, their fucking subscription model, and their fucking monopoly).

2.4 Video. Laps must be recorded on video with both the driver and lap timer in view. A camera mount anchored to the driver’s seat head rest works well. In addition to lap videos, a driver must also record a walk-around video at each event. See Appendix C for more information.

Appendix A – Delta Times

The delta times are initially defined as 105% of the track record of the 86/FRS/BRZ stock class time trials. At the end of each season, these default times will be updated to reflect the current SPEC-20 track record (rounded down to the nearest second).

Northern California

  • LS – Laguna Seca
  • SR – Sonoma Raceway
  • TH2 – Thunderhill West
  • TH3 – Thunderhill East (5E bypass add 3 sec)
DP TH2 LS SR TH3
10 1:34 1:54 2:06 2:17
9 1:35 1:55 2:07 2:18
8 1:36 1:56 2:08 2:19
7 1:37 1:57 2:09 2:20
6 1:38 1:58 2:10 2:21
5 1:39 1:59 2:11 2:22
4 1:40 2:00 2:12 2:23
3 1:41 2:01 2:13 2:24
2 1:42 2:02 2:14 2:25
1 1:43 2:03 2:15 2:26

Southern California

  • ACS – Auto Club Speedway (roval)
  • CVR – Chuckwalla Valley Raceway
  • BW13 – Buttonwillow #13
  • SoW – Streets of Willow
  • WSIR – Willow Springs International Raceway
DP ACS BW13 CVR SoW WSIR
10 2:09 2:12 2:14 1:33 1:44
9 2:10 2:13 2:15 1:34 1:45
8 2:11 2:14 2:16 1:35 1:46
7 2:12 2:15 2:17 1:36 1:47
6 2:13 2:16 2:18 1:37 1:48
5 2:14 2:17 2:19 1:38 1:49
4 2:15 2:18 2:20 1:39 1:50
3 2:16 2:19 2:21 1:40 1:51
2 2:17 2:20 2:22 1:41 1:52
1 2:18 2:21 2:23 1:42 1:53

Appendix B – Example Vehicles

  • 1992 Toyota MR2. 2599 lbs. 130 hp. 19.99 BWP. Adjustments: +0.01 FTR.
  • 1999 Honda Civic CX (manual). 2359 lbs. 106 hp. 22.25 BWP. Adjustments: CAI -0.5, header -0.5, exhaust -0.5, splitter -0.5, carbon hood -0.25
  • 2000 Honda Accord 2.3 LX (manual). 2987 lbs. 150 hp. 19.91 BWP. Adjustments: +0.09 FTR.
  • 2001 Ford Focus ZX3 (manual). 2551 lbs. 130 hp. 19.62 BWP. Adjustments: +0.38 FTR.
  • 2002 Nissan Sentra XD (manual). 2519 lbs. 126 hp. 19.99 BWP. Adjustments: +0.01 FTR.
  • 2003 Hyundai Elantra GT (auto). 2698 lbs. 135 hp. 19.99 BWP. Adjustments: +0.01 FTR.
  • 2004 Toyota Corolla CE (manual). 2502 lbs. 130 hp. 19.25 BWP. Adjustments: +0.5 220TW tires, +0.25 FTR.
  • 2005 Subaru Legacy 2.5i (manual). 3200 lbs. 168 hp. 19.05 BWP. Adjustments: +1.0 240TW tires
  • 2006 Kia Spectra LX (manual). 2701 lbs. 138 hp. 19.57 BWP. Adjustments: +0.43 FTR.
  • 2007 Toyota Camry CE (manual). 3263 lbs. 158 hp. 20.65 BWP. Adjustments: -0.5 CAI.
  • 2008 Hyundai Tiburon GS (manual). 2898 lbs. 138 hp. 21.00 BWP. Adjustments: Wing -1.0.

Appendix C – Walk-around Video

Take one continuous video showing the components below.

  1. Engine bay, making sure to show intake
  2. Tire, making sure to show the tread pattern and sidewall markings
  3. Exterior, making sure to show exhaust
  4. Interior
  5. Any components that make adjustments to AWP

Track Prepping The GT

A couple weeks ago I posted about my carpool car: a 2003 Hyundai Elantra GT, which I call “The GT”. I’m doing some light modifications to make it track-worthy. Why? Well, if you have to ask, you’re not the intended audience. Still here? Sweet, let me give you the goods.

Brakes

The very first modification every track car should have is high temperature brake pads and brake fluid. While I have raced cars with fading brakes, and had a good time doing it, it’s safer and more fun if you have confidence that the car will stop every time you hit the brake pedal. There are lots of high temperature brake fluids, and I’m not picky about them. I never bother with fancy disks. Drilled rotors are unsafe. Slotted rotors remove mass. OEM equivalents are just fine.

My usual brake pad is StopTech 309, but I couldn’t find those for the front. I did get them for the rear, and amazingly, they were just $13 for a pair. For the front, I decided to try Power Stop Evolution Z23 brake pads. I’ve never used them before, but if they really are good up to 1200°F, that would be pretty sweet as a set is just $28. Here are some brake pad temperatures I’ve found online. Most of these numbers are coming directly from the manufacturer. Not sure how reliable that is. Boldface below indicates pads I’ve had on my cars.

  • Hawk HPS 700°
  • Hawk HP+ 800°
  • Hawk Blue 1000°
  • EBC Green 1000°
  • Hawk DTC-30 1200°
  • Raybestos ST43 1200°
  • PowerStop Z23 1200°
  • G-Loc R8 1250°
  • StopTech 309 1300°
  • EBC Red 1400°
  • G-Loc R10 1475°
  • Hawk DTC-60 1600°
  • EBC Yellow 1650°

In case you’re wondering how I rate these, the worst feel are the ST43. Too much on/off behavior. They last forever though. Hawk HPS and EBC Green feel okay, but melt quickly. They may be fine for autocross, but not for track. EBC Red/Yellow, StopTech, and G-Loc all feel about the same and have similar longevity. But StopTechs are half the price of EBCs and EBCs are half the price of G-Locs. If it turns out that PowerStop is good enough, that’s great because they are even cheaper than StopTech.

Transmission Cooler

I don’t know much about tracking an automatic, but my understanding is that autos fail when they get too hot. I recall being at a track day where they had to shut the track down for 30 minutes to clean up an exploded slushbox. I don’t want to be that guy, so I need to protect and monitor the transmission. Unfortunately, not many cars report their transmission temperature on the dash and getting the temperature out of the ECU can be complicated. To keep things cool I got a Hayden Automotive 677 transmission cooler ($38). I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to monitor the temperature.

Suspension

I’ve driven lots of cars with stock suspension on track and I really don’t mind a bit of body roll. But The GT suspension was in need of replacement anyway, so I decided to upgrade. The few people who autocross Elantras say that a good handling formula is KYB GR-2 struts, H&R Sport springs, and a Tiburon rear ARB. None of that is very expensive. The struts were about $60 each, and the springs were on sale for $200 from Tire Rack. I picked up the ARB from Pick-n-Pull on a member’s 40% off day for $25. The whole suspension package was under $500.

Wheels and Tires

I have nothing against tracking a car on all season tires. I actually have a lot of fun with that. But I’d like to embarrass some actual sports cars with The GT, and the simplest upgrade is sticky tires. The original wheel and tire sizes are 15×6 and 195/60/15. There are no decent tires in that size so I went looking for 16″ and 17″ rims on Craigslist in 4×114.3 bolt pattern. I got lucky and found a set of Team Dynamics in 17×7 for just $250. They were previously on an autocross e30 with an S52 swap. They are nearly new, and even though I don’t have much preference for wheel aesthetics, I like these well enough that I may have picked them out of a catalog.

The stock tire has a 24.2″ diameter. The closest 17″ sizes are 215/40/17 (23.9″), 205/45/17 (24.3″), and 215/45/17 (24.6″). There are a lot of sporty tires made in those sizes, so it was a matter of choosing the tire that maximizes some function of price and performance. I love Bridgestone RE-71Rs, but they are pretty expensive in 17″. Federal 595RS-RRs have nearly the same performance for a lot less money. The only downside of RS-RRs is the vape-inducing tread pattern. When I went shopping for RS-RRs, I couldn’t find a set of 4. Recently Federal introduced the 595RS-Pro, and maybe the reason there aren’t any RS-RRs around is that the RS-Pro is the replacement. It has the same treadwear rating as the RS-RR but a more typical tread pattern. The only place I found selling RS-Pros was Phil’s Tire Service. I ordered a set in 215/40/17.

After mounting, the total bill was about $550. You can see how little sidewall there is. I might be worried about damaging a rim if I hit a pot hole on the street, but these are going to be used for track only.

Engine? Weight? Aero?

I’m not going to upgrade anything on the power line. OEM from intake to muffler. For me, the whole point of going to the track is to drive around corners fast. I don’t really care what happens on the straights.

Removing weight helps a car accelerate, decelerate, and turn. But this is still my commuter car, and it needs all its comforts. The only weight reduction I’m doing is taking out the spare tire and tools.

While aero can counteract both drag and lift, I’m not doing any. I hate aero on street cars.

Summary

OMG who spends $1200 to track a $2000 car? Every Miata owner ever? OK, so an Elantra GT with an automatic transmission isn’t exactly the answer to many car questions. But in its own way, The GT is going to be awesome. Don’t believe me? Check back for the track report. I’m going to run circles around some motherfuckers.

DIY: Camera Mount and Sequential Shifter

Camera Mount

I normally mount cameras to the roll cage. It’s stable and I like having the camera positioned in the center of the car. In a car without a roll cage it’s more of a challenge, and one solution I’ve seen is to mount a camera support to the headrest. I looked at several designs and decided I could make one. I came up with the design below because I had some box section aluminum and RAM mounts lying around. I got the J-hooks and twist knobs at the local Ace Hardware. Wingnuts would have been much cheaper, but I hate twisting those things. The hooks were a bit long, so I trimmed them with an angle grinder. Overall, it’s very sturdy, and inexpensive.

Sequential Shifter

My G25 shifter is old and having problems. So I decided to build my own shifter from an arcade kit. The last time I built a USB controller it was a lot more expensive and complicated. The one I got was $22 and included the stick, 8 buttons, and a USB board. I mounted the stick and one button to a scrap of bamboo flooring. The shifter works okay, but I wish the return spring was a bit more robust. Ultimately, it works just fine, and it was a fun project. However, if I was doing this again, I would look for something more robust.

Sim rig updates

Recently, I made a few improvements to my 2×4 sim rig in order to give it more of a car-like feel. Here’s the rundown.

Steering Wheel

Most simulator wheels are much smaller than the steering wheel in your car. I’m not sure why this is, but they tend to be around 10-11″ while cars are 13-14″. For reference, the stock NA Miata wheel is 14″. The wheel in my Yaris is a cheap eBay wheel measuring 350mm or about 13 3/4″. I want my sim rig to be as similar to a car as possible, so I bought another eBay wheel. These things run about $35 and the quality is good enough for racing. For another $35 you can get an adapter that will allow you to mount a standard 6-hole steering wheel onto a Thrustmaster base. You can buy a Thrustmaster base without a wheel for about $200, so $270-ish for a high quality wheel is a good deal. The only downside to this is that you won’t have a bunch of buttons on the wheel or paddle shifters. That’s okay because I don’t have those on my real vehicles.

 

Button Box

Since I lost some steering wheel buttons, I wanted to replace those with a button box of some kind. What do you use a button box for? Ignition, windshield wipers, lights, pit requests, etc. While you can use a keyboard for that, it’s usually not within easy reach while driving. For that reason, many sim rigs have dedicated button boxes mounted like a dash. I salivated over button boxes like the one below from DSD. I even contemplated building my own using a USB chip from Bodnar (I’ve done that before for flight simulation).

In the end, I let my frugal side win and bought an external numeric keypad from Amazon for $8.99. I put a RAM mount on this and position it just left of my wheel.

Hand Brake

I wasn’t sure if I would like a hand brake, so I ordered one from Amazon because they have a convenient return policy. I was expecting it to act like an on-off switch, but it outputs a range of values when operated. You can mount the handle horizontally or vertically. Mine is horizontal, like in most cars. Is it worth $90 for a hand brake? If you do a lot of rally driving, yes. Otherwise, no. Since DiRT Rally is one of my favorite titles, the answer for me is yes.

Shifter

I’ve had a Logitech G25 shifter for a while, but it isn’t always connected to my rig. I started using paddle shifters when I got my Thrustmaster wheel, and they take up less desk space. But now that I don’t have paddles, I have to go back to the shifter. I don’t have that much of a preference either way. I feel like the shifter is the least important part of a sim rig.

Completed

In the picture below, you can see the current setup. The curved monitor is 2560×1080 at 144hz. There’s also a tiny 1280×720 monitor below on the left. I use that with DashPanel to monitor tire temperatures and such. Just below that, behind the steering wheel you can see the numeric keypad. Both the mini-monitor and keypad are attached with RAM mounts because I mount everything with RAM mounts. The hand brake is visible at the bottom.

Carpooling

For the last couple years, I’ve been carpooling in my Ford Ranger. That works fine for 2 people, but I wanted to take another passenger. So I got a new car specifically for carpooling. What did I get? Let’s first define my criteria.

  • 4 doors because everyone should have their own door
  • Hatchback because I love the extra space, especially when the seats fold down
  • 35 mpg highway is a good target
  • Automatic transmission so that my wife can drive if her car is being serviced
  • Interior in excellent condition
  • As close to 100k miles as possible
  • As close to $2000 as possible

The car I found checks off all of these boxes. I get 37 mpg on the highway at 70 mph without drafting (but of course I draft when I can). The interior is all leather and in surprisingly good shape for an older car. The previous owner installed a Bluetooth radio, which works great. And the price was on target. So what was it? A 2003 Hyundai Elantra GT with 129k miles.

So what kind of performance am I expecting? It tips the scales at about 2650 and the motor churns out 135 hp. With those numbers, it’s actually pretty similar to my previous track cars (325e, Miata, Yaris). At this point you must be thinking “wait, you’re going to track that thing?” Well of course. Every car is a track car, and with my Yaris headed for New York soon, I need a FWD track car. You might wonder why I like low-powered cars. There are several reasons.

  • I’m cheap. I don’t like spending money on cars. I’ve talked to Corvette owners who said their rotors are over $1000. WTF, a pair of rotors is the price of my car.
  • Less wasteful. I don’t fully approve of fun at the expense of the environment, so driving economical cars makes me feel a little less guilty.
  • Lower speed. I don’t actually want to drive faster than 100 mph, especially without a cage. I think my favorite corners are in the 50-70 mph range (off camber, blind, and wet if that’s not asking too much).
  • Passing people in actual sports cars is a cheap thrill that hasn’t gotten old.

Mine looks like this minus some clear coat issues on the hood. But I don’t really mind pealing clear coat. They’re like wrinkles: just a sign of age.

Onward

Early Days

When I bought my 2007 Yaris, it was intended for my son. And he really liked driving the car. The high seating position and large windows made for great visibility. It got 35/45 mpg and it was easy to park. I liked it because of the robust, no-frills design, and that it was possible to build it to SCCA B-Spec rules with minimal cost, should that bridge ever need crossing. When he left for college, I started tracking it. I removed the rear seats and built a tray to turn the back into a station wagon. I had a Miata at the time, and the wheels had the same 4×100 bolt pattern and 54.1 centerbore. I tracked it at Thunderhill, Sonoma, and Laguna Seca. Despite its low power (106 crank hp), drum brakes, and non-supportive seats, it was a hoot to drive. I even took it off road to the Primitive rallycross school.

Here’s a video of the first time I had it on track. 2:22 on 195 width RS3s isn’t too shabby at Thunderhill.

Here’s a video at Laguna Seca on a day where rain runoff created puddles at various places on track. 2:02 isn’t bad under the circumstances, and I passed a lot of faster cars who were afraid of getting their feet wet.

B-Spec

I got it in my head that I wanted to build the car to SCCA B-Spec rules to compete at the SCCA Runoffs at Sonoma. While I don’t consider Sonoma to be my home track, it is the closest one at about an hour away. B-Spec meant it needed a full cage, fire suppression, race seat, cutoff switch, suspension, etc. So I stripped the car to its bones, got the cage built at one of John Pagel’s cage-building classes, and put all the pieces together. I tracked it a few times, and looking over the Norcal B-Spec records, I expected us to do okay. But then I had a series of injuries that kept me off track for a while. This included knee surgery and a herniated disc. The knee is doing fine, but the back continues to give me problems. Anyway, I didn’t end up going to the Runoffs at Sonoma or anywhere else. The only SCCA race I did wasn’t much fun.

Here’s a video of the car on a test day at Thunderhill West, which I consider my home track. Fastest lap was a 1:33, which is pretty respectable.

Endurance

The first endurance race for the Yaris was a Lucky Dog race at Laguna Seca. I got stung by something, which freaked me out a little. I’m deathly allergic to yellowjackets, so I hung out in the ambulance for a while making sure I didn’t go into anaphylactic shock. Eventually, I did get on track, but just the last 20 minutes or so. Here’s video of that.

The next race was my first and only 24 hour race: a Lucky Dog race at Buttonwillow. I put extra lights on the car, but it wasn’t enough. The first set of brake pads burned through in 8 hours, leaving us 16 hours to go with the other set. Team orders: coast into braking zones. I hadn’t plan on doing well, so I mounted 340 treadwear tires on the car and didn’t bother removing the unleaded restrictor. With any one of the following: longer lasting brakes, stickier tires, or a larger fuel neck, we would have won the race. We “settled” for 3rd place overall. It may be the best race weekend I’ve had. Here are a couple of my laps from that race near dusk.

The next race was a ChumpCar race at Thunderhill West where most of the team were complete rookies. It was more like a track day than a race. The Yaris is an ideal car for some first-time racers, and it saw them all safely home. The camaraderie of the team made it a special weekend. I don’t have video from that, sadly.

Next up was a Lemons race at Thunderhill. I had finally decided to abandon B-Spec rules and upgrade the car! Which turned out to be brake calipers from a Corolla. I didn’t decide to abandon street legal. The most memorable part of the weekend was a freak rainstorm that turned the race into a slippy slide playground. That was the most fun I have ever had in a car. I’ve linked my rain video several times, so feel free to skip this one if you’re bored.

The Yaris’ last and maybe final West Coast event was a Lucky Dog at Thunderhill race where Randy Pobst took the last stint. Sorry, the front-facing camera wasn’t working for some reason on Sunday, so here’s some footage of me on Saturday.

Onward

The Yaris has done around 30 track days, split pretty equally among testing, racing, and coaching. It turns laps faster than it should and doesn’t consume oil or water. Gasoline usage is a mere 4 gallons per hour. 17 other drivers have raced it in anger including some pretty talented racers like Randy Pobst, Matt Shinnors, and Pablo Marx. The Yaris has proved itself over and over as an unexpectedly great racecar. It makes indelible memories, and I will miss it.

Wait. Miss it? Yep, the Yaris is moving to a new home in Ithaca, New York. I’m sure my brother will take great care of it, and if his Miata is any indication, it will be much improved under his stewardship. Does that mean I’m done racing? Nah. I visit him a couple times per year, and there a bunch of bucket list tracks I’m looking forward to attacking with the Yaris. There are also plenty of teams out here I can arrive-n-drive with.

So what’s behind this sudden decision? It’s actually not that sudden. I’ve been talking about this for about a year. Some of the decision is my back health. Every time I work on a car it hurts my back. I’ve also lost some motivation. I don’t have much to prove to myself anymore, and I’ve answered most of my big questions. Still, driving is one of my beloved hobbies, and as long as I’m having driving ideas and adventures I’ll be posting them on YSAR.