Conquering the 3x50 Endurance Race

ProjectCRX returns to the site of its disastrous 2014 endurance race for a chance at redemption

Posted by Roger on October 29, 2022

Headline photo by Andrew Conner

April 26th, 2014 - ProjectCRX HQ

6 PM. The 2014 edition of the SCCA Devil in the Dark 12-hour endurance race had hit its halfway point just as the curtain of night descended upon NJ Motorsports Park. This was it. This was the race that we built ProjectCRX for. Our hard charging starting driver Sean Noonan had made the most of the opening laps and had brought us up to a promising position. Which is why it was such a shame that we weren't at the track.

Instead, the team was back at ProjectCRX HQ, listening to the live broadcast of the race from the on-site commentary radio. Half of the team was digging into the pizza spread across the workbench. The other half was busy tearing into the CRX's D16A6 powerplant. Our endurance racer's mechanical heart had stopped ticking at the 1 hour, 40-minute mark, just seconds after Sean reported seeing a low oil pressure warning light on the dash.

Although Crew Chief Alton Worthington was happily tearing into the head, drivers Chris Eng, Martin Szwarc, and Roger Maeda watched on with forlorn expressions on their tired faces. Two years of preparation had resulted in the most ignominious of defeats. We would have to regroup and return another year. Just as soon as we were ready.

Fast forward eight years.


October 21st, 2022 - ProjectCRX HQ

6 AM. Roger's battle-scarred FJ Cruiser rounded that gentle right turn towards ProjectCRX HQ to find a magnificent sight: A race ready Honda CRX on its race trailer. Eric Anthony and powersports (and sailing) expert Paul Hayden had combined their vinyl working skills to bring our new livery to life. The car looked great. It was running great. All we needed to do was to make one short tow to Millville, NJ to get the second shot at the South Jersey SCCA's headline endurance race for 2022.

The eight years between these two races had changed the car, the drivers, and the race itself. The intense resource requirements and crew for a 12-hour race had taken their toll, and entries for the classic enduro had dropped steadily year after year. Eventually, the organizers had no choice but to change the format to something that was easier on teams and crews. The end result? A new format called the 3x50 Endurance Race, composed of three 50-minute race sessions punctuated by 20-minute breaks for driver changes, car adjustments, and fuel.

Our small privateer team welcomed the changes with open arms. With Sean now living 3000 miles away in Ireland, Chris at home, and Andy busy at work, we wouldn't be able to bring a full team of mechanics or a truckload of spares. With this new format, all we needed was a reliable car and a pair of drivers who could be trusted to race at 9/10ths pace for 50 minutes at a time. We had that. And more.

Paul decided that he would accompany the team during our early morning journey to NJ Motorsports park to witness our triumphant return to Thunderbolt. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure that we weren't going to destroy the new CRX livery on its first on-track outing. Either way, the team happily accepted his help, filled a few extra fuel jugs with 93 octane gas at the nearest Wawa, and made its way to the track.

The team arrived right on time at 7:30 AM, flew through registration, unloaded the CRX, and found themselves bored out of their minds. Qualifying for the 3x50 endurance race wasn't until 11 AM and the CRX was so well prepared that there was nothing to do except to check that there was air in the tires and that the lug nuts were torqued down.

Fearing that Paul might get bored from sitting around, Martin took him for a tour of the Thunderbolt paddock. Along the way, they said hi to true gentleman racer Dave Hofmann who, after saving our race last April, had become a friend of the team. Unfortunately, Dave couldn't join us on the grid this weekend, as his Silver and Red CRX had developed a mystery engine issue that had stumped several mechanics. He still took the weekend off to show up and volunteer his time as an official race steward for the race. A true gentleman indeed.

Hotshoe racer (and ProjectCRX race coach) Todd Reid also stopped by to wish us luck on his way to crew for the EVSR program. He wouldn't be able to drive either, due to a sore shoulder. But it was nice to be able to see an old friend at the track.

Fortunately, Paul came prepared. Probably better prepared than the drivers. He popped up his personal-sized canopy, unfolded his lawn chair, and pulled out his Canon Rebel DSLR camera, complete with the longest telephoto lens in his collection. He was ready to capture the sight of his livery in action.

Don't worry about me, I came with everything I need. I even have my sandwich right here for lunch.


The few hours of aimless waffling eventually came to an end. Time to open the mystery bag that would be qualifying.

Photo by Paul Hayden

The weather forecast had called for rain, and the team didn't feel like spending the money for multiple sets of tires. So they decided to use the Formula E tire strategy - Equip the car with a set of treaded hard compound tires that would work ok in all conditions, and run the entire race on them. The race tire of choice was the 100 treadwear Nankang AR-1, a close sibling of the 200tw Nankang CR-S that is so loved by Champcar Endurance Racing teams. They wouldn't have the same level of grip as our usual Hoosier SM7.5 takeoffs, but they would at least last the length of the race. Combined with a brand-new set of Hawk DTC-60 brake pads, some Brembo LCF 660 brake fluid, and a few extra brake cooling holes hastily punched into the front bumper using Martin's plunge cutter, the car was ready for the grueling test of endurance.

Unfortunately, we weren't ready for the car. Roger braked hard into turn 1 only to find that the car was barely slowing down. The new Hawk brakes weren't completely bedded in yet, and were producing around half of their usual braking force. He turned in aggressively to slide the car to scrub off speed to discover that the Nankangs didn't slow the car as much as the usual Hoosiers would. Thankfully, he had half throttled it down the main straight, and he was able to safely slide through turn 1 without falling off the road.

The car was not happy. Our CRX felt unbalanced and all too willing to slide through right hand turns. It felt as if the alignment just didn't match the characteristics of the 100tw AR-1's. The uncomfortable seating position only made matters worse. Roger was sitting too close to the wheel )(the result of using too many supplemental seat pads) and his left knee started aching after just a few laps in the car.

He spent six slow, messy laps probing the finicky behaviors of the car and accidentally bouncing off the rev limiter before handing the car over to Martin in pit lane. Martin fared slightly better. Martin overcame his unfamiliarity with the car's handling and the single chicane layout of the Thunderbolt course with his usual mix of instinct and bravado. He had no idea whether to shift down to 3rd into the chicane or send it through in 4th gear. At the end of the 30 minute session, he managed to punch out a 1:44.135, only good for 8th out of 13 cars in class and 16th out of the total 22 cars on the grid. We would have to be aggressive at the start.

The 3x50 Endurance Race

In stark contrast to the morning's long-drawn waiting game, the green flag for the 3x50 endurance race was scheduled to start just one short hour after the end of qualifying. While Paul leisurely enjoyed his lunch, Martin and Roger made a mad dash to the local Wawa for a sandwich and a few bottles of water. They were about halfway through their lunch when the track announcer boomed over the PA system - "All cars for the 3x50 endurance race, to the grid." Roger hastily wrapped up a half-eaten chicken salad club sandwich as Martin belted him into the car. This was it. Time to show the world what ProjectCRX could do.

Most of the cars in the E4 class were 2nd generation Spec Miatas. They were faster in a straight line and had rear wheel drive balance. But they were also heavier due to the higher minimum weight for the SM class. If we wanted to move up the grid, we would need to out-brake and out-corner some of the best handling cars of the mid-90's in a CRX built by a team of amateurs.

So, we did. Roger pounced on the cars ahead as soon as the green flag dropped, taking advantage of the competition's conservative starts to overtake two cars by turn 2. He would then get past two more cars in the two laps to come. By the fifth lap, our bee-themed Honda CRX was running 12th overall and sitting right on the tail end of a pack of Miatas bustling to get past a Ford Mustang FR500S.

The sight of four 120hp Mazdas trying to find their way past a factory built muscle car was something to behold. The small and nimble Miatas would take up every inch of track in a bid to get past the hulking Ford racecar. They were on the inside, on the outside, on the kerb, on the grass. They were everywhere.

Roger briefly tried joining the fight before deciding that running three-wide with a pair of dialed-in Spec Miatas would not be the best way to make up positions. So he dropped back and waited patiently as his competition pursued the Mustang like a swarm of angry hornets attacking a bear that had disturbed their nest.

The racetrack episode of National Geographic would be cut short just a few laps later. The Mustang would then experience the strangest of mechanical failures in the last part of the high-speed esses coming onto the main straight. A small section of the Mustang's exhaust piping dropping down off its hangers was enough to send the 325-horsepower beast spinning tail-first into the metal guard rail on the left-hand side of the track. Roger breathed a sigh of relief as ProjectCRX sped past just in time to avoid being involved in the incident.

Unfortunately, some of our competitors weren't so lucky. The FR500 bounced back on to the racing line, directly into the path of David Lanning's white and red Miata. Even after applying full braking power, he couldn't avoid the broad side of the gargantuan Ford and hit it with a crash so loud that we could hear the impact through our rear-view camera. When ProjectCRX came through the Octopus section of Thunderbolt, it was greeted with a full course caution, followed by a PIT LANE CLOSED board, followed quickly by the appearance of the official safety car. Oh no. This was bad.

By the time we came back around, the red flag was out. Emergency vehicles were already at the scene. Roger pulled off and stopped the CRX within a few hundred feet of the crash, close enough to get a clear view of the carnage. The impact was harder than we had thought. The entire rear end of the Mustang had been smashed in, as had the left-hand side of the car. The front end of the Miata was irreparably mangled from T-boning the Ford at over 70 mph. Between the two cars and the huge field of debris between them, the entire track was blocked. Including the entrance to pit lane. It's a good thing they stopped us in place.

It took the trackside emergency crew 15 minutes to rescue the drivers, tow away both cars, and clear away enough debris so that the remaining racecars could tiptoe their way into pit lane. Thankfully, all drivers involved were able to walk away without any serious injuries.

Martin came sprinting over with a bottle of water within seconds of the cars stopping in pit lane. It was a nice gesture. It was also unfortunately one that Roger would not be able to accept, as the chin bar of his full face Arai helmet prevented him from bringing a water bottle up to his mouth.

I can't drink this! It won't fit inside my helmet...

The duo had a good laugh as they tried progressively bad ideas to get our fully suited driver a bit of hydration without a straw. After a friendly competitor offered up the helpful but highly inadvisable suggestion to "use a fuel hose," the team decided to save the water break for after the first 50-minute session. Instead, the duo spent the time talking about how the car was handling, debating what gear to use in which corner, and shouting hi to some friends who had come to watch from the other side of the pit lane fence.

After what seemed like an eternity, race control made the decision to continue the session where we had left off, with a single file restart behind the safety car. Time to get back out there.

Roger nailed the restart this time, giving him an opening to get past two more cars into the turn 3 chicane to get up to 9th overall. This landed him in the middle of a fierce dogfight between the faster cars in the E4 class. The young guns in the faster Miatas weren't afraid to use every bit of the road and attack at any opportunity. We responded in kind. Greg Bogart in the yellow NB Miata powered down the inside on the main straight to take the inside line into turn 1. Roger anticipated that the yellow Mazda was going in too fast to make the apex, hit the brakes early, and countered with a switchback attack that put our CRX the inside for the fast, uphill turn 2. The rally-bred DMS dampers on our freshly liveried Honda fought to keep the car under control as Roger put both wheels on top of the turn 2 kerbing to stay ahead, much to the delight of Martin and Paul who were watching the action from the pit lane tower.

This back-and-forth jostling continued for a few laps before some of our faster competitors found a way to get by. When things started quieting down around lap 12, Roger started experimenting with the corners to see what he could do to eke a tiny bit more speed out of the car. This didn't come without its mishaps. During one lap, he came into the turn 3 chicane a little too fast and found himself sliding sideways in a half-spin through the middle of the chicane. In another, he took a little too much kerb at the exit of turn 8 and sent the car on an unintended off-road excursion across the infield of the back straight. The team had completed a full 27 racing laps when the checkered flag came out to signal the end of the first session. In that first elongated 50-minute session, we had climbed from 16th overall up to 11th. Not a bad start.

The entire field returned to the paddock during the first 20-minute break. Roger hopped out of the car to finally get that sip of water while Martin checked tire pressures. The three talked about how the car didn't feel as stable as it usually did, and how it felt like it wanted to constantly turn right, even on the straights. It was a very different car from the last time he had been behind the wheel.

I don't think I like these tyres.

The odd behaviors were probably the result of our new tires' behavior and an alignment issue in the rear. With so little time between sessions, there wasn't anything that the team could do about the alignment. So instead, we bumped the pressure on the left rear tire by 1.5 psi, lowered the fronts to 33 psi, and brimmed the tank with an additional 6 gallons of fuel. The team enjoyed a quick chat with the US Touring Car Championship's East Coast Director Andrew Conner and his wife Denise before taking up their positions for the second part of the 3x50 race. Roger was back in the driver's seat, Paul was back in the stands shooting photos, and Martin would observe the race and pick up hints that he could use for his stint.

Cars were re-gridded in the order that they arrived for a single-file rolling restart behind the safety car. It was a good thing we had decided to get to the grid a few minutes early. A handful of cars arrived late and were relegated to the back of the pack. One of the Flatout Motorsports cars had a panic moment and tried to cut into a line of cars that was already headed to pit lane. He too was sent to the back, after receiving what appeared to be a serious dressing down from the grid marshals.

Round 2x...35?

The second session was thankfully less eventful than the first. Roger immediately overtook the two cars in front of him and settled into a steady pace behind the white and blue DudeBro Racing Miata. The objective for the session? Preserve the car, and try not to fall too far behind the leaders.

Photo by Paul Hayden

It was all going to plan until about halfway through this stint, when Marcello Paniccia in the Flatout Motorsports Miata started looming large in our rear view mirror, with Warren Sackman's fire-red Mazda tailing close behind. On one hand, we needed to preserve the car. On the other hand, there was no way we could let these two past without a fight. Roger turned up the pace for a few laps to see if he could stay ahead of the two flying Miatas. Even after turning up the wick, the pair of Mazdas would close up through the chicane and down the long straights. It would only be a matter of time before they got by.

Roger gave the two cars one last defensive move through Thunderbolt's slow, left-hand Turn 5 before yielding the inside to Marcello's purple and black Mazda at the end of the following short straight. He turned in to the high-speed right hander while momentarily forgetting that the two Miatas were running nose to tail.

BUMP. A dull thud nudged the CRX over as the CRX's right rear bumper made contact with Warren's left front fender. In an unfortunate act of team solidarity, Roger had managed to do the same thing that Martin had at the Lightning Challenge in June. And just like last time, it was 100% our fault. Maybe it was time to swap to a set of wing mirrors with a wider field of view.

Thankfully, both drivers were able to maintain control of their cars, and neither suffered serious damage. Roger gave the position to Warren a short while later. We would have to find him in the paddock and apologize for that gaffe.

The rest of the session was thankfully relatively quiet. A fellow E4 competitor suffered a broken ball joint on the main straight, but was able to pull his car to a safe spot near the barriers. Roger turned up the pace for one lap to see what the car was capable of. The resulting 1:41.829 would turn out to be our fast lap of the race. The team had no idea at the time that this was 7 seconds a lap faster than they had managed during their 2014 attempt.

Because the cleanup efforts from the earlier crash had race stewards had taken so long, the race stewards had shortened the session to 35 minutes. Good. We were in a solid 10th place overall with clear gaps to the competition ahead and behind. Time to hand over to our ace driver to seal the deal.

Roger returned to the team's paddock to be greeted with by a half-dressed Martin. ProjectCRX's regular #1 driver double checked tire pressures and presented Roger with an unexpected proposition.

Can you stay in the car? You're KILLING it. We're 4th in class and 10th overall!

Somehow, despite running over a second a lap off the pace of the class leaders, ProjectCRX had made its way up to 4th in the E4 class. Martin thought that our best bet at retaining the place would be to let Roger stay in the car. Roger thought our best shot at glory would be to put a fresh driver in the car.

Many of the other teams were choosing to do the entire race with one driver in an attempt to claim the "Ironman" (or "Ironmaiden") award for their class. Putting a fresh driver in the car would give us a leg up on the enervated competition. Plus, Martin had driven the CRX the most out of anyone on the team. If there was anyone who we could trust to close out this race, it would be him.

The debate raged on while Roger, Martin, and Andrew Conner refueled the car, checked the catch can, and prepared it for its last session. With some gentle nudging from Andrew, Martin agreed to put on the rest of his racing gear and climb in behind the wheel.

For the third and last time of the day, ProjectCRX lined up behind the safety car for a rolling race restart. Here we go. The last sprint to the checker.

Round 3 to the Checker

Martin knew that he was fighting to keep 4th place in E4. But all of us neglected to check who he was fighting with. With no idea who or where his competition was, Martin had no choice but to assume that he would be fighting everyone that didn't have twice the horsepower of our little CRX. When the leading pack bunched up on the dash to the line, Martin saw his chance and mashed the throttle to the floor. This also led to him inadvertently passing three cars before he even reached the Start/Finish line. Oops.

Thankfully, he quickly realized what he had done and let the cars past before the next section of turns. In the process, he also let a faster Camaro past, along with the class-leading DudeBro Racing Miata, which at this point was now a full lap ahead of us. Ok, stage set. Time to fight.

It didn't matter that he only had less than 7 laps of practice in the car today. Martin kicked his athletic instincts in high gear and immediately gelled with the behavior of the car. He took the gearing advice that he got from Roger during the break, leaving the car in 4th gear through both the chicane and the tricky entrance to the Octopus and settling into a comfortable pace of 1:43 laps. Within the first 10 minutes, he had overtaken two cars - One lapped car and the white Mazda Miata of Conner Thomas that Martin thought he was racing for position.

It was clear the white Miata fancied a fight, because Conner turned up the pace as soon as Martin got past. For the next six laps, the white Mazda tailed him like a ghost, slowly edging closer after every lap. Then came the one critical moment. Martin hesitated for a split second while making room to let the overall leader by, and Conner's Miata closed the gap. By the time middle of the main straight, our yellow CRX and the white #127 Miata were running nose to tail. And in the braking zone to turn 1, the powerful Mazda slipped past under braking.

This set alarm bells ringing in Martin's mind. That could be 4th place slipping away right in front of his eyes. He had to do something. So he quietly turned up the aggression on his own driving, leaning into the Nankang AR-1's and asking them to help him make up time where our bee-liveried CRX was fastest - Under high-speed cornering and braking. He started braking harder, turning in sooner, using that tiny bit more kerb in a desperate effort to bring the taillights of that Mazda closer to his front bumper.

It worked. Within a lap, ProjectCRX's ace had Conner's Miata within striking distance. But where would he make his move? The Miata had more straight-line speed and was faster through the slower corners. Our CRX had the edge under braking and through high-speed corners. Martin spent a full lap observing Conner and noticed an opening. The Mazda pilot would regularly miss his apex going into the swoopy entry into Thunderbolt's Turn 8. It's not the easiest place to pass a car, but maybe he could make it work?

We had our answer soon enough. Conner missed his apex that next lap. Martin took full advantage, placing our yellow Honda on the apex kerbs while staying in full view in Conner's passenger side wing mirror. Roger watched with eager anticipation as ProjectCRX emerged onto the main straight ahead of the Miata. 4th place in class was ours for the taking.

Martin wasn't about to let that slip up happen again, so he kept the pace turned all the way up. He flew through the next few laps as if Conner was still running in front of him, building a second per lap gap until the white Mazda all but disappeared from our rear-view mirror. 

Even as backmarker cars came and went, even as the setting sun threatened to blind him through his tinted visor - Martin stayed on the edge of control, turning competitive lap after competitive lap, chasing an invisible opponent that could be just around the next turn. Somewhere in the middle of the session, one of the cars ahead of him had pulled off into pit lane. Martin was now running 4th in E4 class and 9th overall.

Then, it happened. A fast-moving grey blur flashed into view. Something was coming. Something fast. But what? The front end looked like a Mazda of some sort. At that point, it didn't matter what it was. Martin turned up the wick and started squeezing more pace out of ProjectCRX. He had to keep that car behind him.

Martin looked up at the flagger stationed at start / finish to see the 1 lap to go board. If he could keep that grey car behind him for one last lap, 4th place was ours. Time to shine.

Shine he did. Martin drove a decisive, solid defense that kept the grey Mazda behind him for the entire lap. That was, until the very last high-speed corner before the main straight. The mystery car had somehow managed to get a run through the high-speed esses and came up alongside going into the last turn. Martin had no choice but to yield the inside line, hurting his exit speed and allowing the grey Mazda past. He gave an angry shrug and quietly rolled the car back into impound for post-race inspection.

Roger was there waiting for him, bottle of water in hand. Martin took a swig of water and asked the question he dreaded most:

Damn. There was a Miata that passed me on the finish line. Was he in my class?

The answer was no.

The grey blur that Martin was so valiantly defending against was a 150hp NC MX-5 in the higher E3 class. 4th place in E4 and 9th overall was still ours. Martin's face brightened with joy as soon as he heard the news. Despite everything that had happened, all the misery and misfortune of the past 8 years, being the least powerful car in the field with mystery tires that gave up speed to our opposition, ProjectCRX had finished in the top third of the biggest class in the South Jersey SCCA's headline endurance race.

Joy turned to laughter when Roger showed Martin the race results. The white Miata that Martin had vanquished was indeed running in our E4 class - just two laps down. We had overtaken the car multiple times in Roger's earlier stints. The 5th placed car was almost a full lap behind Martin by the time they all crossed the line. Once Martin got up to speed, none of our direct competitors were fast enough to challenge us.

Regardless, the reality was that our ace had delivered on his promise. We were happy.

The duo went straight to the podium to congratulate the top finishers in each class. Yes, we had finished just off the podium that day. We didn't care. The two CRX pilots showered their competitors with applause as the podium announcer tried his hardest to announce the winners' names over the sound of big bore cars rolling through pit lane behind him.

Even as they returned to their paddock to pack up gear, the team couldn't believe what had happened. This race was meant to be a fun run - an excuse to burn up a little bit of fuel and to try out a few things on the CRX before we put the car into storage for the winter. It was. In the process, it just happened to fulfil the raison d'être for our little project car.

In our excitement, we had completely forgotten that some teams were showing up for the regional races that were scheduled for the day after. And one of those teams had unpacked their huge trailer-camper rig directly in front of our unhitched trailer.

There would be just one more question for the team to answer before they could drive home to celebrate the fruits of their labors:

So... how do we get out?