Like all great stories, this one starts with a scandal. Well, not exactly a scandal but a controversy nonetheless.
Buttonwillow, California. This tiny podunk town off Interstate 5 dribbled into existence solely for weary travelers driving the vast stretch of farmland separating Los Angeles from San Francisco in search of petroleum. The highlight of Buttonwillow is its handful of gas stations, restaurants, motels, a liquor store or two, and that's about it. Besides the perpetual smell of manure and the presence of flies, the only real upside is that it's so far out in the sticks, land is affordable. In fact, it's so cheap that a real-estate-heavy venture such as a race track can make economical sense, hence the development of Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
And that's where our story begins, at a time-attack event more than six years ago at Buttonwillow Raceway, where a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII, known as the Cyber EVO, came from Japan and laid down a wickedly fast 1-minute, 48.906-second lap time in the now standard Clockwise 13 configuration with Eiji "Tarzan" Yamada at the wheel. For years, that record stood, daunting U.S. tuners just getting into the art of time-attack. Many would try, staking bold claims, but no one would come close. It wasn't until the 2007 Super Lap Battle Finals that another Japanese team by the name of HKS shipped out their CT230R EVO VIII and driver, the famed Nobiteru Taniguchi, to the U.S. circuit and decimated the standing Cyber EVO record by more than five seconds, with a 1:43.523. If no American team could challenge the Cyber EVO time, who would take on HKS?
Enter Sierra-Sierra, the time-attack team who blitzkrieged the scene in early 2009. For some background, Dennis Kottke, the owner of team Sierra-Sierra, competed in the challenging open-wheel Formula Atlantic series . . . and won. An automotive enthusiast to the very core, Dennis is driven and has zero tolerance for bullshit. The word "can't" doesn't exist in his vocabulary. Beyond his passion for winning, Dennis is respectful and incredibly affable. Within five minutes of first meeting him, it was like conversing with an old friend. According to Sierra-Sierra engine guru, time-attack vet, and resident "Question It" columnist Eric Hsu, "For a person who has accomplished so much in his life both on and off track, Dennis isn't one of those team owners who acts like he's better than anyone."
After Sierra-Sierra's 2007 Formula Atlantic Championship, with dwindling fields and lack of competition, the series started to unravel (leading to their eventual fold in 2010). Dennis, looking for a new outlet, made a fortuitous visit to the 2007 Super Lap Battle Finals in Buttonwillow, where he witnessed time-attack and the aforementioned HKS CT230R's brilliant performance. Impressed by the grassroots spirit of the event, he left Central California with a burning question: With a field full of American teams, how did a sole Japanese effort dominate the competition? The kindling was lit. Sierra-Sierra would take on the time-attack world.
But around which platform would he build his new team? Having owned and driven EVOs, and seen what Cyber and HKS could do with one on the track, building a Mitsu was a no-brainer. To aid in his new venture, Dennis tapped Richard Raeder, his Champion Formula Atlantic team manager with 25 years of motorsports experience (ranging from F3000, LeMans, and Formula 3), along with Jethro Austin, Maciek Kruszewski, and Don Hartzell, and started work in May 2008, fabricating the roll cage and finessing the chassis and aero, in-house. Having gone through two engine builders with little luck, they turned to Cosworth with whom they had worked during their open-wheel race program. As fate would have it, Eric Hsu was also the Product Development Manager at Cosworth, and with some well-placed negotiations would be placed as the engine management lead for Sierra-Sierra and acting Cosworth ambassador.
With all the elements for success, it was only a matter of time before Sierra-Sierra would reach critical mass. Lap times fell and Dennis was on the hunt to become the fastest time-attack competitor in States . . . which is where the controversy comes in. At a time-attack event in March of 2010, the Sierra-Sierra EVO would roll out of the Buttonwillow hot pits and set a 1:43.2 lap time with David "Emp" Empringham-two-time Formula Atlantic champion and one-time Indy Lights champ-behind the wheel. But the organization's RFID-based timing system failed. Epically (talk about poor timing). And the run was during practice. Backing up the illegitimate pass, a 1:43.34 was run, but again, in practice. During competition, wastegate issues inhibiting the turbo from running full boost kept the EVO from repeating its record-breaking run.
Instead of quelling naysayers and waiting for the next Buttonwillow event, Sierra-Sierra had bigger fish to fry. The EVO 8 was due at the docks of Long Beach where it had a date with a cargo container.
At the recent Super Lap Battle Finals, a small crew descended upon Buttonwillow, looking for the fastest cars the U.S. had to offer. On that day it was Sierra-Sierra with a 1:45.061 taking the overall win for 2009, but standing Third overall behind Tomei/Cusco's Subaru WRX STI in second for its effort the year prior (driven by Tarzan), and the HKS CT230R sitting in First. The reason for the search sounded simple enough: the scouts were rounding up time-attack teams from Japan and the U.S. for what was to be the "World Cup" of Super Lap. Sierra-Sierra and a handful of other teams were invited to compete against the best in the sport, on the same track and on the same day, making for what would be a monumental event. The catch? The World Time Attack Challenge, sponsored by Yokohama Advan, would be in Sydney, Australia.
Competition Day 1: May 21, 2010.
Having traveled for 32 hours from Frankfurt, Germany, to Sydney, Australia, I had broken a personal threshold for flying. I used to think the 11 hours from L.A. to Tokyo was bad, but spanning the Atlantic and Pacific was pure torture. Greeting me at the arrival gates was Peter Tarach of Modified magazine, my roommate for the next week who graciously offered to pick me up in his Aussie-spec Mazdaspeed3-at 7 a.m. With the competition starting in two hours, we headed straight to Eastern Creek International Raceway, 50 kilos northwest of the airport. The last time I had showered? T plus 41 hours.
The sole Australian circuit with FIA certifications [see sidebar], Eastern Creek is a scenic 3.93-kilometer course out in the suburbs of Sydney. Run in a counter-clockwise configuration, its long straightaway and 12 turns are filled with elevation changes, making two minutes a decent lap time for a street car. Porsche GT3 Cup cars have run it at 1:36.41. Quicker still, a Ferrari GT360 holds the Production Sports class record at 1:33.40 and a Lamborghini Gallardo in the GT Sports Cars class, a 1:32.86. By sunset of the following day, all three records would be crushed by the top five of the World Time Attack.
For a Friday, the track was surprisingly busy. And it wasn't just because of the 90-plus competition cars split into three classes (Wynn Pro, Motor Magazine Open, and Yokohama Advan Clubsprint). Whereas time-attack events in the States have been primarily a participatory affair, the pits of Eastern Creek were bustling with spectators. Congregated in thick crowds were the paddocks temporarily housing the international teams. From Japan was the Tomei/Cusco Impreza WRX, Pan Speed Racing RX-7, R-Magic RX-7, and the infamous Cyber EVO that held the U.S. time-attack record for years, now in its latest incarnation with a complete Voltex makeover-including wide body and undercarriage-and new turbo setup pushing more power. Rumor has it the Cyber EVO is now faster than the HKS TRB02. Representing Team America? Sierra-Sierra and their EVO tweaked for the trek Down Under.
"Coming to Australia, we had to make a few changes to the car," Eric Hsu explained. "CAMS, the Aussie sanctioning body [think SCCA], doesn't allow for leaded fuels so we had to retune the engine from C16 to unleaded MS109. This forced us to lower boost pressure from the 2.4 bar we usually run down to 2.0 bar. For tires, World Time Attack went by JDM rules requiring two-thirds of the contact patch to be treaded, so we traded the Hankook C91s on the Volk CE28Ns with Hankook Ventus TDs."
Making less power than it did during its controversial run, and with looser tires, Sierra-Sierra would put down a 1:32.2480 run by the end of Day 1, putting it in first, smoking the Production Sports class record (Ferrari GT360) and GT Sports Cars record (Lamborghini Gallardo). Trailing Sierra-Sierra was the Pan Speed RX-7 (driven by K. Sasaki) with a 1:32.4540, the Tomei/Cusco Impreza WRX (driven by Tarzan) with a 1:32.4940, followed by the R-Magic RX-7 (driven by K. Mitsuhiro) with a 1:33.5050. The fastest Aussie effort was from Prep'd Motorsports' Lotus Elise (driven by Warren Luff) with a 1:33.5520. The Cyber EVO, due to an intake cam snapping during the previous day's practice session, sat out the first day of competition, the team wrenching away at the motor.
But not all was well in the Sierra-Sierra camp, either. During the final session, Eric noticed through the datalogging features of the Cosworth Pectel SQ6 ECU that boost pressure was sporadic. Instead of the constant 2.0 bar, it would fluctuate throughout the run, dropping as low as 1.6. After careful inspection by the crew, a hairline fissure on the end tanks of the aluminum intercooler was discovered. Hypertune, a local intake manifold manufacturer, took the intercooler back to their shop where they welded the leak and returned the repaired piece back to the Sierra-Sierra team the very same night. Thanks to the hospitality of the Aussies, crisis was averted. For now. Filled with suspense, the first day brought chills up my spine.
Back at our hotel, exhausted, I barely made it into the shower. With T minus zero on the funk, I noticed something was wrong. The chills I felt earlier? It might not have all been from the suspense. It could've been from the gaping five-inch hole in my jeans. The way the track was set up, one had to hop four-foot-tall fences to get to the photo areas, on which my semi-skinny jeans paid the ultimate price. Unlike the intercooler, this crack couldn't be welded.
Competition Day 2: May 22, 2010
The morning of day two saw larger crowds than the previous day and the Cyber EVO staged on the Pro Class grid. On its first session out, the Cyber EVO, with Tarzan at the helm, stopped the timer with an epic 1:30.8990 run, destroying by a second the long-standing Eastern Creek track record held by a V-8 Supercar. David Empringham scraped a few tenths off his previous day's effort, giving the Sierra-Sierra team a 1:31.8840. Faster, but still a second off the Cyber EVO's pace. Leaving the press center to ascertain Sierra-Sierra's strategy, I ran into Eric Hsu and asked what their plans were.
"The team wants max power, so I'm going to crank the boost to 2.4 bar," Eric answered.
Turning up the boost? Tuning's ultimate Hail Mary. "Will the Cosworth 4G63 hold?" I asked.
"If we had higher octane fuel, there wouldn't be any problems. With the fuel we have, the head has a chance of lifting," Eric responded.
"So . . . I take it that might be the last run of the event?" I questioned.
"Hell no. We have four hours between the next and last session. That gives the crew more than enough time to swap out the head gasket."
"Word?" It's taken four hours for me to swap out an exhaust and header, let alone a head.
Continuing on to Sierra Sierra's pits, I find Dennis amongst his crew who, despite the commotion, looked amazingly calm.
"I talked to Eric who said you're planning to bump up boost, which could lead to the gasket blowing-are you concerned?" I prodded.
"No," Dennis laughed. "You know the Stephen King movie Christine? The one about the possessed car? Well that's our EVO. It's like she knows how many spare parts we bring and chews through them."
What would compel someone to transport a car packed with enough parts to eat across the globe?
"It's simple, really. We wanted to be able to meet the best people in the sport, who in this case are the Japanese, which we knew coming here. What the World Time Attack Challenge provided was the opportunity for all the teams to fight on neutral territory to help take some of the variable out of it. We've run against the Japanese cars back in Buttonwillow, comparing lap times, but never at the same time. With this event, the weather, track, and time-it's all the same and there are no excuses."
Tyson versus Ali. Pacquiao versus Mayweather. Sierra-Sierra EVO versus Cyber EVO. Up until Sydney, comparing teams was like comparing boxers. What was Sierra-Sierra's strategy coming into the event?
"It's the same as always. We are very calculating and surgical about what we do. We gather all the information we have and make careful decisions with it. In the end, that's what prevails."
Eric Hsu and his laptop are hooked up to the EVO through a port above the front-passenger Seibon carbon door, punching in a map-altering sequence of keys he could probably do in his sleep. The rest of the crew preps the car, checking alignment and tire pressure. After four laps, the EVO is back in pits. According to data logged, the water pressure was high, indicating the head gasket was starting to go. Christine strikes again.
Without hesitation, the Sierra-Sierra team got to work. They pulled off the custom Eric Hsu-spec Garrett T04 turbo and Full-Race manifold, unbolted the valve cover and tore off the head. Like the Lakers, each of the crew knew their role and performed it in perfect unison. Someone would take off one part, while the others wrenched on theirs. In less than twenty minutes, Richard, Jethro, Maciek, and Don had the head off, setting what had to have been some sort of 4G63 tear-down record.
With the team deep in work, I asked Eric how the Cyber EVO was able to run such a quick time.
"Both drivers are incredibly skilled and the cars make similar amounts of power, so it boils down to weight," Eric explained.
"But how is that possible? It's not like the Cyber EVO is all dry carbon like the HKS TRB02?"I asked.
"It's the little things that add up. We have buff Brembo Group N tarmac rally brakes that add all kinds of weight. Cyber is running stock calipers on stock-sized discs, which work fine when you only have to pull off a single lap. But if you want the biggest difference, take a look at their roll cage. It has one main hoop and a few small-diameter tubes connected to it, with no cross-bars. The Sierra-Sierra EVO has a 4130 chromoly roll cage that meets FIA GT3 standards. In Japan, their safety requirements for time-attack are much more forgiving. Tarzan said the Cyber EVO weighs in at about 1,100 kg. The Sierra-Sierra EVO tips the scales at 1,277 kg. That's almost a 400lb difference."
With plenty of time to spare until the last session, the Sierra-Sierra crew had the Cosworth engine put together and ready to go. But unless the crew packed a Sawzall and went to town on the interior, chances for another second off the clock were slim. But Dennis and crew didn't come this far not to try.
The Sierra-Sierra EVO would go back out set to run the higher 2.4 bar, but the system would only boost up to 1.8. Emp's best lap time would be a 1:33.2590-not nearly good enough to take on the Cyber EVO. To date, the cause for the fluctuation in boost has yet to be determined. The EVO went straight to the container after the event to make the six-week voyage back home.
Sierra-Sierra would have to settle for a Second-place finish with a 1:31.8840, behind the Cyber EVO's 1:30.5870. Tarzan sandwiched Sierra-Sierra's performance with a Third place finish in the Tomei/Cusco WRX, with a 1:31.9010 lap time, followed by Prep'd Motorsport's Elise in Fourth with a 1:32.2730 (driven by Warren Luff), and the Pan Speed RX-7 in Fifth (driven by K. Sasaki) with a 1:32.4540.
Despite going home without a win, I was amazed at what the Sierra-Sierra team had accomplished in such a short amount of time. In one year of time-attack competition, they hold the claim as the second fastest team in the world. While Dennis only recognizes First, I try rationalizing his team's efforts by bringing up the fact that the Cyber EVO has had at least seven years of development. Dennis doesn't look convinced.
"Did you at least enjoy the event?" I asked.
"I had a great time-the crowd, the competitors, and spirit of the event were astounding! I just hope this is the first of many more World Time Attack Challenges to come."
Which, when translated, means: "They better run this event again. I'm coming back next year to win it."
Eastern Creek International Raceway
Located 40 km west of Sydney, Eastern Creek is a 3.93km (2.44-mile) FIA Grade 2 certified track featuring 12 turns with elevation changes. Nestled in the hills, the beautiful facility boasts 50 paddocks with an elevated viewing area and large grandstands. Our only complaint? The flocks of crows that bleat like sheep and the occasional stench from the nearby landfill when the winds would turn.
Compare the Sierra-Sierra EVO's roll cage to the Cyber's. With lax safety standards, the Cyber EVO's cage setup is typical of a Japanese time attack car-great for saving lap times, not so much with lives.
The faces behind Team Sierra-Sierra.