Racing at the 11th Hour

Last-minute drama propels ProjectCRX to the Podium at NJMP

Posted by Roger on April 28, 2021
So Martin, how much sleep did you get this week?

April 2021 - Project CRX HQ

Funny thing about race weekends: No matter how well you plan, you're always preparing for them right up to the last minute.

Team ProjectCRX's first race of the 2021 season was no exception. Just one week before the race, Maaco returned the CRX with a vibrant yellow finish and a freshly straightened driver's side door. Martin towed the Honda back to HQ, and the mad dash to prep the car began.

Time trial whiz kid and USTCCV race winner Firoze Mehta applied new vinyl to the car while Martin installed a new Racequip full containment seat to replace our weather-beaten Sparco Evo II. Parts were installed and adjustments were made over the course of the week, often at wrenching sessions that went well into midnight. While all this was happening, the days counted down towards the first race of the season at NJMP's Lighting circuit. It looked like everything was coming together. Everything, that is, except that pesky kill switch wiring.

During our last annual tech inspection, South Jersey SCCA's "Men in Black" tech inspectors had called out the unusual wiring of our kill switch. SCCA regulations mandate that the master kill switch cut power to all electrical systems in the car, and our kill switch was wired in a way that the brake lights still worked when the kill switch was off. The solution was to install a new 6-pole kill switch and rewire the car for it. The problem was that it was 3 days before the event and it was still somewhere in the mail.

The team formulated a backup plan: If the new kill switch didn't arrive in time, Andy and Martin would enter the CRX in the Friday Time Trial and use it as a competitive test session. If it did arrive, we would do a last-minute installation and enter the Sprint Races as planned.

The latter seemed less and less likely as the days counted down. Before long it was Thursday morning - the day before the event - with no switch in sight. Time to go to Plan B... or so we thought. Martin returned from work to find that critical kill switch sitting on his doorstep. With just under 12 hours to go, the team made the decision to push for Plan A: Re-wire the car and race on Sunday.

Since electronics expert Chris "Cessna" Eng was still quarantining at home, Martin enlisted the help of expert home builder Eric Anthony. Eric is the owner of ProVision Construction and has done more than his fair share of wiring jobs. With the practiced hands on this gentle giant, we had a glimmer of hope of taking the green flag on Sunday.

Later that evening, Roger arrived to find Eric and Martin working in the dark, putting connectors on a huge mass of automotive wire under the amber-colored light of a portable work lamp. The re-wiring job had not gone smoothly. Undoing the existing wiring modifications proved to be a serious challenge, and the team had to improvise some of the grounds with their limited selection of crimp-on terminals. To make matters worse, a jagged piece of metal sliced open Eric's finger, making him the third member of our team to literally pour blood, sweat, and tears into the CRX.

But the sacrifices would pay off. The CRX fired up on its first attempt and the new 6-pole kill switch performed exactly as advertised. Success at last. Roger ran to Walmart to buy some more permanent wiring connectors while Eric and Martin put finishing touches on the wiring. By 12:15 AM, the CRX was loaded onto the trailer and ready for the track. Everything was set. For the first time in a year, ProjectCRX was going racing.


Friday April 16, 2021 - NJ Motorsports Park

As dawn broke, Martin and Andy rolled into the paddock of NJ Motorsports Park's Lightning circuit with two track-ready cars in tow.

Our Friday schedule would be a bit of a gauntlet for Andy. In addition to putting the CRX through its paces in the Time Trial, he would also be shaking down his new acquisition - A silver Mazda RX-8 that he rescued from the depths a fellow enthusiast's self-storage bay. Performing a shakedown of one new car is a mentally and physically draining task. To double that would be nothing short of a trial by fire.

Indeed, it proved to be exactly that. It all started well enough, with both cars breezing through tech and Andy christening his new rotary-powered sports car with its first lap on track. This was followed by a second lap, followed shortly by an awkwardly long pause.

Martin scanned the long main straight to find that the silver Mazda was nowhere in sight.

Uh oh. Where is Andy?

One of the two rotors powering the RX-8 developed a misfire at the beginning of lap 3, and Andy was forced to limp the car back to the paddock. The team suspected that the old catalytic converter as the most likely cause, but without the right tools and spare parts there was no way to diagnose or repair the car at the track. To the bitter disappointment of all, the RX-8 retired from the event after a single on-track session.

By comparison, ProjectCRX was as reliable as an old mountain goat. Unfortunately, it cornered like one too. Andy spent most of the day trying to get comfortable with the handling of the car with limited success. The main issue was the vague, uncommunicative steering and a tendency for the front wheels to follow tramline over imperfections in the road. Given the earlier issues with his RX-8, this knock on Andy's confidence came at the worst possible time.

The rambunctious nature of the time trial run group didn't help matters either. A combination of mechanical maladies, some mistakes from drivers, and sheer bad luck resulted in multiple red flags as tow trucks pulled several mangled cars off the track. By mid-afternoon, the grass paddock near Turn 7 looked like the sports car equivalent of an airplane graveyard.

After being baulked by a slow-moving Corvette during his final fast lap of the day, Andy ended the day with an official timed lap of 1:28.6 - A long way off his potential and the potential of the car.

But Andy wasn't about to let the day go to waste. He gave Martin detailed feedback about the CRX and the track. These vital details would help Martin get up to speed faster when it was his turn to get in the car.

Saturday April 17, 2021 - Qualifying Day

Andy went home to spend Saturday with his family. In his place arrived Firoze, bringing with him his signature mechanical talents along with his signature dash of ADHD.

Saturday's race schedule included two practice sessions and a qualifying race that would decide the grid for Sunday's feature. Making full use of Andy's feedback from Friday, Martin found both pace and a workaround for the CRX's handling quirks. Martin's unusual solution to the uncommunicative steering was to ignore it. Surprisingly, this worked. By the end of the first practice session, Martin was lapping comfortably in the 1:24s.

Meanwhile, Firoze uncovered one factor contributing to the CRX's peaky handling - The left rear wheel bearing had developed a noticeable amount of play. The duo borrowed an axle nut socket from the friendly racers at Flatout Motorsports, and in the few short minutes during Martin's bathroom break, Firoze had it swapped out for a new one from the spares kit.

The day went on, and our little yellow Honda kept pounding out the laps. Martin continued to find time with every tour around Lightning's 1.9 mile length. A bored Firoze declared himself unhappy with the way the AIM Solo II lap timer was mounted and decided he would take matters into his own hands. His answer to this problem was to buy some aluminum plate and a die grinder and emulate the feats of this bush mechanic who hand-builds car parts on the side of the road. Under the watchful gaze of curious onlookers, Firoze custom built a sturdy radio delete plate and mounted the lap timer to its face. Another problem solved.

Then came the main event of the day - the Qualifying Race. Martin's fast laps from the early sessions were good enough to start second in the Improved Touring A class. Class leader Hiroshi Hatano was already lapping in the 1:19s by this point, so bringing the fight to him would be optimistic at best. The goal for this race would be to race clean, find more time in the car, and defend second place from the vastly more experienced Dave Hofmann and his red and silver CRX Si.

As racecars lined up on false grid, Firoze strapped Martin into the RaceQuip race drivers seat and activated the in-car camera. The latter of those two tasks took three attempts, one of which resulted in him inadvertently leaving this extremely flattering self-portrait on the camera's SD card.

Firoze had a hard time with your camera Roger...

One uneventful formation lap later, the grid closed up for a rolling start. This was it: ProjectCRX's first wheel to wheel race since its all-too-close encounter with the Z. 

Martin nailed the start to beat Matt Baum's K20-powered Super Touring Civic to Lightning's uphill Turn 1. A conservative entry allowed the #88 NC MX-5 of Michael Lamaina to get ahead into turn 3. Two corners later, Hiroshi went off-track at the exit through the track's fastest turn and spun his Miata in the grass runoff. By the end of lap 1, ProjectCRX was leading its class.

Matt unleashed the full power of his K-swapped Civic on lap 2, blasting past ProjectCRX down Lightning's long main straight. Martin spent the next few laps trying to keep the black Civic in sight as it slowly opened the gap down the two long straights. It was a valiant effort. But in the end, the CRX's 109hp was no match for the might of the Super Touring Under classed Civic.

And so began a long and lonely tour for Martin as he fought to protect his class lead from two invisible opponents. Push harder. Use that bit of extra kerb. And for the love of god, don't throw the car off track.

While all this was happening, Hiroshi Hatano had recovered from his early spin and was charging through the field like a man possessed. On lap 7, Hiroshi's white Miata came barreling down the inside of Martin in the Turn 7 braking zone. The Miata closed in so fast that Martin was powerless to stop it from getting past. He would have to relinquish the class lead for now.

Martin tried to fight back but Hiroshi slowly widened the gap, taking advantage of his conservative entry speeds into Turn 1 and the Lightbulb to put a few car lengths on the CRX with every lap. As Martin did his best to keep the white Miata in sight, he spotted lapped traffic on the horizon. A careful Turn 7 pass on Rick Miller's Runoffs-winning Subaru BRZ resulted in a drag race down the main straight with Dave Hofmann's Poison Arrow Frog Racing CRX Si.

To our surprise, Dave's red and silver CRX made up a deficit of several car lengths to out-drag ProjectCRX to the Start/Finish line. But Martin braked later and eased ahead into Lightning's uphill Turn 1. It looked like it would be a quiet end to this first Qualifying Race.

Unfortunately, the racing gods are rarely so kind. Just as Martin started his 11th lap, he spotted Michael Lamaina's T4 MX-5 parked next to the Armco just before Turn 2. The grey NC had spun in and made hard impact with the metal guard rails. Emergency vehicles rushed to the scene and the race finished early behind the Safety Car. Fortunately, Michael escaped the crash without serious injuries.

As Martin and Firoze relaxed after a hard day's work, Roger, Andy, and Cessna poured over the onboard video from the day. Martin's fast lap was a 1.22:9. We knew there was more time in the car, even on Hoosier A7 race tires with 14 heat cycles on them.

While furiously scrubbing through the footage like a team of video editors on Ritalin, the trio made a big discovery - Martin was upshifting well below the CRX's 6800 rpm redline.

The problem was the tachometer. In the early days of the build, the team had decided to install a spare gauge cluster from a DOHC D16ZC equipped CRX. When equipped with our single cam D16A6 motor, this resulted in the tachometer reading several hundred rpm higher than it should be through the top end of its rev range. We instructed Martin to shift at an indicated 7100 rpm to ensure that we were getting all of the power that our single cam 1.6L engine could deliver. 

After recommending some small tweaks to Martin's line, the team went to bed full of optimism. How much faster would the CRX be on Sunday? Maybe it would be fast enough to take the fight to Hiroshi in the white Miata.

Sunday, April 18, 2021 - Race Day

Firoze tagged out at the end of Saturday, and Andy stepped back into ring as chief mechanic for Sunday. Straight away there was something for him to take care of.

The outside shoulder of the left front tire had worn away so much that it was starting to show the metal cords underneath. Andy glanced at the spare wheels, a set of TR Motorsports 15x7s with crusty old Falken street tires. He then made the call to cross-rotate the tires instead, swapping the front left with the still-healthy right rear. The right rear sees the least wear on the clockwise Lightning circuit, so it was the natural choice.

With less than 10 minutes on the clock before the start of Saturday's morning warm-up, the team put the CRX on jack stands and set about playing musical chairs with the tires. The last wheel went on just as the announcer called all closed wheel racecars to the grid. At 9 AM on the dot, ProjectCRX hit the track with Martin Szwarc behind the wheel.

Generally speaking, cross-rotating the tires on a front wheel drive racecar is not something you ever want to do. Different car and track combinations cause different wear patterns across all four tires, and those differences are much more pronounced in a front wheel drive car. Yet this didn't seem to be a problem. Martin clocked a 1:22.2s on just the third lap of the day, beating his previous day's best lap despite the track being stone-cold. It was a very promising start to the final day of the weekend.

There would be a few hours' wait between warmup and the first Sprint Race. So the team started using their time effectively, first by performing some pre-race checks on the CRX. Then they got distracted, wandered off to the Thunderbolt racetrack, started making new friends by randomly walking up to people in the paddock, all before engaging in some kid-friendly activities.

With the short break spent productively, Martin lined up on the grid for the Sprint Race. He would start next to the white and blue Mazda RX7 of Alan Phillips, and three grid slots behind Hiroshi's Miata. The RX7 had a huge power advantage over our CRX, but Martin knew he could keep up by making the most of the Honda's featherweight chassis.

The only thing holding him back would be his nerves. Sprint races tend to be a little more intense than your average qualifying race, and this would be his first proper sprint race of the season. No wonder he was a little nervous.

Ugh, the butterflies and dry mouth is in effect.

The green flag dropped, and Martin instantly forgot about his nerves. He immediately put the hammer down, revving the motor to redline and easily keeping pace with the more powerful cars around him. His start was so good that he nearly ran into the 200+hp cars ahead as they hit their brakes early for the entry into Turn 1. The first few laps were an electrifying blitz match between the first five cars, with Matt Baum's K-powered Civic, Hiroshi Hatano's Miata, and Alan's RX7 trading positions just a few short car lengths in front of Martin's front bumper.

Or so we're told. Due to the confusing nature of our Apeman A79 action cam's terrible user interface, the in-car camera didn't capture any of this action on video. At the time of writing, yours truly was sitting at his desk trying to reconstruct the race from lap times, trackside photos, and Facebook messages from people who were watching. So as for the details of what actually happened on track... well, you're going to have to use your imagination. Sorry.

What we can tell you is that the heated battles roused Martin's fighting spirit and he started lapping in the 1:21s, wringing the neck of ProjectCRX as he clung to the back of the leading pack. By lap 5, he had turned a 1:20.294 - A full two seconds faster than he had been all weekend. Not bad for a rusty driver on tires that were well past their prime.

Martin's pace was so strong that he would eventually come up to lap Dave Hofmann's red and silver CRX. With no immediate threat behind, Martin chose to stay behind Dave for a few laps, observing him and studying the setup differences between the two cars. He took the checkered flag a comfortable 2nd place in the ITA class.

Martin sat in post-race impound with a smile on his face. The CRX had passed post-race scrutineering with flying colors. All that was left was to convert this Sprint Race finish into a strong result in the upcoming 20-lap Feature Race.

Unfortunately, the overworked tires could go no further. The right rear tire was thoroughly corded by this point, and the left rear was showing signs of wear as well. This was trouble. No amount of tire rotation would guarantee that the tires would get these tires to the end of a full-length feature race.

Bono my tires are dead.

Fortunately, help came at the 11th hour - from none other than fellow ITA racer, Dave Hofmann. In a selfless act that put the "Gentleman" in "Gentleman Racer", Dave offered a helping hand: Even though he knew full well that our yellow CRX was what was standing between him and a 2nd place finish in the ITA class.

Because the 14" wheels on the Poison Arrow Frog Racing CRX were incompatible with the 15"-based setup on ProjectCRX, we wouldn't be able to benefit from Dave's spare wheels. But he was friends with Smarty, owner of race tire supplier Northeast Racing Tire. Dave brokered a deal for the team to get a pair of Hoosier SM7.5 takeoffs for little more than an IOU. Thanks to Dave's selfless act of sportsmanship, Team ProjectCRX would make the grid for the final race of the weekend.

The green flag flew one last time for the final 20-lap race of the weekend. Martin made a rocket start for the third race in a row, once again with the onboard camera firmly set to Play instead of Record. Reliable sources tell us that the CRX went even faster on the mix-and-match combination of Hoosier SM7.5 fronts and A7 rears, punching out low 1:20 lap times within the first laps. This was enough to keep both Hiroshi's white Miata and Alan's ITS RX7 in sight for much of the 20-lap race.

It wasn't quite enough to bring a proper fight to the two Mazdas, as both drivers found the pace to dip into the 1:19s. But it didn't matter. For the first time in a long time, our yellow CRX endurance racer was running fast, reliable, and consistent laps around NJMP's flowing Lightning track.

At the end of 20 competitive laps, Martin brought ProjectCRX home in 2nd place in Improved Touring A. It would be our team's first podium finish in over 4 years.

Later that evening, the team regrouped on their team chat for our usual post-race debrief. The CRX ran well. But we knew it could be better.

The asymmetric handling and numb steering that ruined Andy's Friday became the top to-dos on Roger's list. Firoze wanted to adjust the clutch and remove the play from the typically sloppy late 80's Honda shifter. Martin wanted to upgrade the quick release and rearrange the on-dash gauge pods. Cessna wanted to see what the car would do on fresh tires.

No doubt, there would be many late nights of wrenching in the weeks ahead. And yet, we couldn't be happier.