The MX-7: First Drive — Mostly Harmless

We’d successfully installed a 1.6 liter Miata engine in Dennis’ RX-7. We’d given up evenings, weekends, dozens of brain cells, and 38 or so horsepower in the process. Fearless Leader had managed to let a bunch of near strangers do horrible things to his car — without ever really getting in touch with his inner control freak. Despite our too many egos, we’d some how succeeded in not killing each other during the build process. The idea had occurred to at least a couple of us, but miraculously no one was even lightly strangled.

Now that the car ran and occasionally moved under it’s own power, there was an esprit de corps among the team members. It was nice. So we were off to High Plains Raceway to test the car.

Charles and Ed look upon the MX-7 with pride. Meanwhile, I contemplate the MX-7's incredible, almost unbelievable slowness -n- vauge-ish steering. At the moment this was taken, I'm pretty sure I was thinking that the answer is: Switch to VW Beetle Power.

Keeping with my “hanging back” strategy, I arrived late. Most of the guys were already there and were getting ready to take the car out. As they finished their test drives, each driver seemed to genuinely like the car. No one got out and immediately kissed the ground, but I think they were really just happy to still be alive.

“It doesn’t accelerate, it doesn’t go around corners, but other than that, it’s great!”

The only car I’d driven on a race track in my life at this point was my stock 1994 Miata. I’d gotten comfortable (if not terribly fast) lapping High Plains Raceway. I was still confused by turn 6 and was afraid of turns 4,  5 and 7.

Occasionally, I’d get hugely brave, do something really stupid, and suddenly find myself sitting by the side of the track facing backwards, inhaling a dense cloud of dirt. Brian was usually riding in the car during my moments of brave/stupid. In hindsight, I’m baffled at my own stupidity. On some level, I really believed that if I had a talented driver in the car with me, suddenly I’d become a talented driver. Time and time again, this turned out to be not the case.

I wasn’t going to die from racing… I was going to be bored to death!

I’d gotten used to my little Miata. So when I was strapped into the race car for the first time I discovered it was all wrong. My skinny little butt slid side-to-side across the seat in every corner. The steering wheel was too high; the clutch pedal action was straight out of a UPS truck; the steering felt slow and squidgy.

The car was slow. Really slow compared to my Miata. It was good for what seemed like 75 miles per hour max on the long straight at High Plains Raceway. It would accelerate reasonably well until until about 50 mph. Then it felt like an invisible drag chute was deployed. The ancient all-season tires didn’t stick in the corners, producing gobs of understeer. I wasn’t going to die from racing… I was going to be bored to death!  I came back from my test drive joking that “It doesn’t accelerate, it doesn’t go around corners, but other than that, it’s great!”

I didn’t like our race car, but I was pretty sure I knew what the invisible drag chute was.

Back in Boston, I’d raced sailboats. Slow, heavy, nearly pointless-to-race sailboats that were good for six mph flat out in a gale. Races were held Sunday mornings when, typically there was little wind. In the afternoon at races end, there was often no wind at all. This meant that making the ~600 yard trip back to the dock could take 30 minutes or more. Some of my competitors were able to get their boats to move in zero wind. They’d move to the front of the boat and get the stern out of the water. Smaller stern wake = less drag.

Our alleged race car was missing it’s rear hatch glass. As the air passed this part of the car, instead of flowing smoothly across the glass, it tumbled, creating a huge amount of drag. Big stern wake. Some air tumbled and then was caught by the vertical sheet metal above the bumper of the car. More drag.

I pleaded with Dennis to install a plastic back window. He seemed unmoved. I pleaded with him to re-install the glass rear window. He was extra unmoved.  The great part about having a ChumpCar team is that you have lots of buddies to help you drink beer and work on the car. The bad part is that someone always has a crazy new scheme to make the car go faster. Dennis was burned out on crazy du jour.

The Car Part 2: The Build or… Greasy Outward Bound

We had a race car that didn’t run. The engine was toast. Rebuilding it was going to cost three to four times what our whole $500 racer was supposed to be worth. We gathered at a nearby family eatery to discuss options over breakfast. Was this engine-less project worth continuing with? Or should we just give up and go home?

We discussed re-powering the car with something other than a rotary. I was imagining something really nuts: A ford straight six like the one in my craptastic Maverick I’d had in high school. I wisely kept my mouth shut. Ed told us that he knew where he could lay hands on a Miata 1.6 engine for cheap. Given that there were four Miata owners sitting around the table, someone was bound to suggest that engine. After some discussion about how crazy we might all be, we agreed to do the engine swap. I left the meeting wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. A quick side conversation with Brian confirmed that at least some of my team mates were thinking the same thing.

While we were waiting for Ed to get the new-to-us engine, we started working on the cage. The previous owner of the car must not have been tall, because when I sat in the car my head rested right up against the side of the cage’s halo. Not comfortable. No way this was going to pass tech with me in the car.

For a while, we had Mick on our team. Mick’s an expert welder. Dennis bought bent dom tubing. We all took turns fitting and notching tubing and Mick welded it in place.

Mick welds in a new halo tube for our roll cage while Ed and Dennis hold it in place

We had a basic cage structure in the car, but no door bars. In the end, nearly every existing tube would have to be removed, replaced, repositioned, or totally re-thought.  So much for having a car that came with a cage.

Crisis? What Crisis?

Well at least we had a clean starting place. It would be clean once Brian “Mr. Clean” got a hold of it. Brian’s spent a lot of years working on cars, and he’s gotten tired of being covered in grease. I don’t blame him, I’m just more tolerant of being dirty because all things automotive are a hobby for me.

At this point, frankly I wasn’t taking this build very seriously. I’d never done an engine swap. There were a bunch of guys on the team who were much more expert at working on cars than I. They were all focused on the logistics of getting the engine in. There was an abundance of cooks working on this piston powered RX-7 recipe. In truth, I wasn’t 100% convinced that this car was ever going to run. So I decided to stay the hell out of their way. I worked on the roll cage instead.

There were skirmishes about how the engine mounts would be created, whether to use the RX or Miata steering rack, etc. etc. I avoided most of this and got reasonably good at notching tubing with a grinder. My one joy during this part of the build, is that my bench grinder made so damn much noise that I could not only drown out the sound of bickering mechanics at will, I could make it quite difficult for them to hear each other speak. Passive aggressive? Who me?

Sparks fly during the MX7 build

Pistons are for pussies — That’s what the words painted on the hood of the car said

Oh darn, the epithet isn't even spelled correctly. Never buy a car from someone who can't swear good.

We were installing a 115 horsepower piston engine in a car that used to have a 146 horsepower rotary. The previous owner of the car was apparently proud of fact that the car was rotary powered. We knew this upon reading “Pistons are for pussies” — that’s what the words painted on the hood of the car said. Was he right?

The Miata our new-to-us engine came out of would have weighed about 2100 pounds. A stock 1986 RX-7 weighs 525 pounds more than that. The 1986 RX-7 was named Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year. Would it still have won that award if Mazda had fitted it with a 115 horsepower four banger? I doubt it. The engine was now bolted into the car. Would it run? If it did, how much would this car suck with 31 fewer horsepower and 38 fewer torques than stock?

Congratulations, It's a girl! Our Maz-mongrel now with engine in place

The engine went in with less drama than I expected. I have no idea how much drama the cooks expected. Next, a radiator support and radiator was hastily added. The cooks were moving quickly and frequently stepping on each others toes. Fuel lines connected. Intake and air box installed. Wiring. Oh crap. What were we going to do about wiring? Ed was  of the opinion that we should completely remove the RX-7 harness and use the Miata harness. Mark wanted to keep much of the RX harness. Two, perhaps three weekends of working on the car came and went with no sign of the car actually starting.

As the car now lived at Ed’s shop, when Mark wasn’t looking, Ed ripped out all of the RX wiring, installed the Miata harness and had the car very nearly start-able by the next weekend. After 45 minutes of connecting wires, Ed turned the key, and the car started!

Almost a year later, I’m still grateful that Ed decided to take over the wiring. The level of enthusiasm about doing wiring was a lot lower than it was about getting the engine installed. He put the hours into getting the wiring sorted at a time when as a team, our enthusiasm was low.

The beast now ran. The drive shaft was fitted and we were ready for the MX-7 first drive. Ed lives way out in the sticks. This gave us the chance to test drive the car with minimal muffling. Is actually ran, drove and didn’t immediately catch fire!

Our enthusiasm for this project went way, way up. Next we attended to getting the rollbar completed (or what we though was completed). We got the seat bolted to the floor.

Having never really raced anything faster than a sailboat, I had some fear that I might actually hurt myself in this car. Given this, I insisted that we make the shoulder harness attachment mounting points as by-the-book as possible, given the geometry of the cage. I spent hours getting two short pieces of dom tubing the correct shape to fit the “V” of rear of the cage. The shoulder harnesses would wrap around these short tubes. It was fussy, but it made me more comfortable about driving the car.

I missed a couple of work weekends. During that time an exhaust system was built, the Miata instrument cluster was made to work. Wiring was tidied up. We installed a master power switch. ChumpCar rules state that there can be no glass in the car besides the windshield. The door glass was already gone. We removed the rear hatch glass.

We were now ready to test the car on a track.

The Car: Part 1, They Don’t Call it ChumpCar for Nothin’

2011 was our first of year racing in ChumpCar / 24 Hours of Lemons. It was my first year of racing, period. Some time in late 2010, Dennis casually mentioned that he was thinking of buying a race car. Two weeks later he had a car — a 1986 Mazda RX-7. Immediately he started inviting friends to come and be a part of the race team. I felt very lucky to be invited to come play.

December 11, 2010: Cleaning the new-to-us car

It was an a ex-rallycross car. It was carrying many pounds of caked on mud on its underside. It had some good things going for it. The interior was already stripped. There was a cage that didn’t look too bad (not that any of us knew what a good cage looked like). Overall, the car looked pretty good. It just had one problem. It didn’t run. After many attempts to start it, we gave up. We pulled the engine.

While taking the engine apart, we started to discover just how out of our depth we were. We had no idea what many of the engine parts were called. We ended up bagging and labeling parts with names like “it goes left of the injectors” and “thingamabob”.   During dis-assembly,  discovered a problem.  Important parts of the engine housings that were supposed to be smooth and straight looked like ruffles potato chips. Hence low compression. Hence no starting. Engine = toast.

January 16, 2011: Several non rotary engine experts around a toasted rotary engine saying things like "Hmmmm..."

At this point, I wasn’t feeling quite as lucky to be asked to come play. Dennis looked for engine parts and found that rebuilding a rotary that was this far gone was going to be expensive. Thousands of dollars expensive.