The Rise And Fall Of Sloppy
We knew going into the 2017 season that the year would be one of change here at Parsimonious Racing. We took on a new co-driver in Trevor, and made the move from STS to STR. The weapon of choice was a 2008 Mazda MX-5 named "Sloppy".
Sloppy's path to us was not direct. It first showed up at a WDCR autocross with a For Sale sign on it, and it was cheap. It also had a dented front fender, a roll bar installed and a good chunk of the rear interior plastics missing. It also had brown seats and a tan top, so I was completely uninterested. Danny Kao, though, was, and he wound up buying it.
Danny replaced the dented fender, removed the roll bar and sourced most of the interior pieces. He then autocrossed it. On stock shocks with lowering springs, he ran close enough to Brian Karwan's times at a PCA event at Hershey Park that he started thinking about diving deeper into a real STR build. This meant acquiring coilovers, sway bars, intake, header, tune, and lots of other go-fast bits that might be necessary to make the car at least semi-competitive.
Staring down that cash outlay, Danny did the smart thing and put the car up for sale. It was still cheap, but I still ignored it because it was a NC with brown seats and a tan interior. But when Kate called me from work one day and said she wanted the car, well, it's not like I could say no. That's when we became the proud owners of a cheap MX-5.
The car came with many parts, both stock stuff that was taken out and upgrades that were bought but not installed. Among those were nearly new Bilstein shocks and a Progress front sway bar. Since we had those, we figured we might as well install them. We invited ourselves over to Nick's "Goober Garage" to put them on there, since he had a Quickjack and, more importantly, experience with NCs. He set up a get-together for us car nerds on Facebook, with the name "Come fix Danny's Sloppy Seconds." And that's where the car earned its name.
With the Bilsteins, the car worked well. The following weekend was the WDCR night autocross. It was an entertaining car under those circumstances, though hampered by a low rev limiter and poor alignment. On runs where I remembered to turn off the traction control, the car was a lot of fun to toss around, and not completely uncompetitive. This was encouraging.
Kate couldn't drive the car for quite some time because she had one of her many ankle operations. I started driving the car off and on just to keep the rotors from getting rusty. The problem was, the more I drove it, the more I liked it. Then the slippery slope began. I wanted more low, and called Sam Strano to see if anyone made coilover sleeves for those Bilstein shocks. He said that such a thing did exist, but, he added, "you'll hate it." I asked how to lower the car more than it was without turning the car into something I'd hate. His answer: Ohlins.
A week later, those coilovers arrived. Around the same time, I found a set of RPF1s in the chrome-like SBC finish.
Over the winter, we continued with the plan to run STS primarily with Captain Slow, our '90 Miata. But I didn't rule out running Sloppy in STR off and on if I decided to make a change of pace. That happened more often than I expected. It started in May, when me and Sloppy took on the Cars & Cones Road Trip, a five-day odyssey that saw me run four autocrosses in three states with a group that was geared more towards putting on events for the muscle car/pro touring crowd. Sloppy was very good in that crowd, putting up a couple top-five finishes while also eating up all those interstate highway miles going from site to site. We also took on the Tail of the Dragon on the off-day, having an absolute epic time despite drizzly weather.
Sloppy got its first serious accolades in July. I took the car to "Cruisin' Connecticut", which offered the chance at doing autocross on the kart track in Lime Rock Park's infield. We ran practice for an hour or so before timed runs, and we were told to watch our mirrors for those going faster and give way, and/or to back off when catching slower cars. I dutifully watched my mirrors, but nobody was catching me. On the other hand, I was running up on everyone else quite a bit. Now there were a lot of people who had never done any real performance driving, and a lot of cars that were very stock or not on the latest and greatest tires like I was. In timed runs, Sloppy was the fastest car there, with the second-best car over three seconds slower.
Through the rest of 2016, Sloppy came out to play more often than I thought it would. We stayed with Slow for serious SCCA stuff, but for the less-serious stuff, the NC ran a lot more than the NA. It was still fairly competitive in those smaller clubs despite it being, essentially, a stock car with coilovers and wide wheels/tires.
Fast forward to the 2016 SCCA Solo Nationals. At one of the banquets was me, Kate, Trevor, and Trevor's dad Bryan. We were just shooting the breeze, thinking about what we might be doing the next year, and somehow we all decided that we were going to team up and run Sloppy in STR
Sloppy was going to need more work before it turned into a real STR car. We had adequate suspension, though softly-sprung compared to what the rest of the class was running. The biggest opportunities were under the hood. Moto-East provided an intake, header, and a remote tune. I installed the intake quickly, since it was a fairly easy task. I procrastinated on the header install, since it was a lot more involved, but eventually that job was done as well.
When I configured the tune initially, I thought I had them set the rev limiter to 7500 RPM, which would be a nice upgrade over the stock 7000. But when I tested that at Spring Nationals, it didn't seem to translate into very much 2nd gear speed over stock. And that showed up on course, as we were bububububububububub all over the courses in both the Pro and the Tour. This didn't seem to hold the car back in the results, as Trevor made the Bonus Challenge and got all the way to the final pairing before losing, and special guest driver Shane ran third in STR in the Tour's first day before falling to 4th on the second day.
But I thought that limiter was still holding us back. Through questionable internet research, I had convinced myself that I could probably get away with running the car all the way to 7800 RPM. There were certainly those who were skeptical that the engine would take that abuse, but I took my chances. The car was a fairly low-mile creampuff and healthy, so I rolled the dice and had the limiter cranked up while the car was dyno tuned at PTuning.
The first time out with the new tune was the Toledo Pro Solo. I took the car out onto the street on Friday and figured out the launch control, and we got through practice starts just fine using that. Kate got through her Saturday morning L3 runs in one piece, and next up was Trevor in STR. He did OK in his first session, but brought the car back sputtering after his last run. We shut the car down and restarted everything to see if I could get runs in, but I only got one run in before deciding to park the car as it was definitely not running right.
Initial diagnosis in impound was that what happened to the car had happened a few years earlier to James Dunham's NC. As it was explained to me, a sensor ring on the intake camshaft had slipped, and the car wasn't timed right. The likely fix was to delve into the cylinder head and replace the camshaft itself. With that sobering news, we loaded up the car, found other cars to jump into to finish the weekend, and think about dealing with the car after getting it home.
I let the car sit on the trailer for the better part of two weeks before even thinking of doing something with it. Finally I summoned up the courage to at least ask some people for advice. A mechanic friend said that if I pulled the cam cover and timing covers, he'd come by and diagnose it. But I didn't want him making what would have been a pretty good haul on his time off. I took a ride up to York Automotive in Mount Airy and asked Ed about it. He asked if the car had thrown any codes. I said yes, the cam angle sensor code. He said, "change the sensor, what can it hurt?"
I was pessimistic, but willing to make the investment on a small chance of this getting the car back running again. It's an easy sensor to change, and I hopped in the car to see if I was going to be lucky. It fired right up, but this was no indicator as it had started and idled fine even at its worst. When giving it gas is when it would stumble. But as I goosed the gas, the car revved without hesitation over and over. I was elated.
My reports of Sloppy's demise being premature were met with pessimism. Yes, they said, it's fixed, but that doesn't mean it's going to be better for the long haul. Chances are, I was told, that if I were to start banging the car off the rev limiter in the future, I would probably be in the same boat with the fried sensor. I could also be staring down the camshaft replacement that I thought I'd successfully avoided.
Half of me thought that we could possibly avoid future complications by going back to the tuner and have them lower the rev limiter to a more safe 7500 RPM, and set it so it had a "soft" rev limiter rather than the rather harsh limiter in it now. The soft limiter would lower the shock to the entire driveline, perhaps to the point where the (possibly) damaged camshaft would remain in its working-for-now shape for the foreseeable future.
The more that I thought about this, though, the more that the realization that the NC1 just wasn't the right tool for the job at hand. If we tuned the engine for maximum - relatively speaking - reliability, we'd be back to where we were at Spring Nationals, where we were on that limiter for over half of the course on each run. That's not ideal, it's not fast, and it's frustrating while driving. Knowing this, the prudent thing to do was to retire Sloppy from competition. If it never sees the rev limiter again, it could theoretically run forever as a fun little commuter.
This left Parsimonious Racing in a tough spot. What next? Go back to STS with the old car and rent-a-ride for the Pro Finale? Find a new car to build in a short time? We'll cover that the next time we put pen to paper here.