As events that test a car's mettle go, few are as brutal as endurance racing. Only rally racing or demolition derby top it. Drag racing certainly beats up an engine, but build it to withstand short bursts of extreme stress and it becomes a more predictable beast. But putting a car on the track and asking it to carry consistent engine and chassis stresses for three, six, 12, even 24 hours, is one of the ultimate tests of a car's--and crew's--fortitude.
In December 2003, organizers from the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) wanted to one-up the famous Le Mans enduro and put together a 25-hour endurance event at Thunderhill Raceway in Northern California. Among the glut of Miatas and Porsche-club types who showed up came several teams campaigning Hondas. Spoon Sports even made the trip from Japan with its Accord Euro R.
One of the teams making a considerably shorter trip to enter the race was a small crew from SoCal called Team Orange Racing. Team Orange consists of about eight full-time members, all of whom work regular jobs and consider racing and wrenching a common hobby. They do not run a shop or work on other people's cars for profit, but work out of a warehouse space in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley.
All the more intriguing then that they should enjoy about the closest thing to Honda factory support as one could expect from a company notoriously quiet about its grassroots racing efforts. Just six weeks before the 2003 SEMA trade show in November, Team Orange took delivery of a 2004 Civic Si (EP3) and the JDM Integra Type R engine (K20A) that would power it in the 25-hour race. Only one snag: they had six weeks to turn it from production model to racecar, in order to fulfill a promotional appearance at the SEMA show for Honda.
That was six weeks to strip the car to metal and primer (aided by aircraft paint remover), get the car up on a rotisserie, stitch-weld a six-point roll cage inside and put it all back together. Team Orange driver, wrencher and general spokesman Lawrence Hwang describes it as an intense few weeks, "a challenging project that forced us to grow a little faster."
Companies like King Motorsports (North American distributors for Mugen) and Honda, Hwang notes, "are professionals with professional expectations."
The Si went to the SEMA show with its stock K20A3 engine, while the rest of the team worked on the ITR engine back at the shop. The Thunderhill event was only a few weeks after SEMA, leaving a small window to build the engine and swap it back in. To keep things as simple as possible, Team Orange received a tightly wound, 11.5-compression love machine tailored to Japan's One Make Series spec. It also decided to keep the car as close to One Make spec all the way around. Factory parts. No opening the block or head. No radical suspension setups.
"We wanted to keep the car as stock as possible for reliability," Hwang explains. "You can buy all the best tuning parts out there, but if they're not designed to work with each other ... it's not the best way. The best combo for this engine with a Mugen ECU is literally nothing except for intake and exhaust."
The only other engine work TOR allowed themselves was to take the cylinder head to Alaniz Technologies, where headsmith Joe Alaniz disassembled the head, blueprinted it and ensured it was to factory spec, slathered on some of his own assembly lube and pieced it all back together.
The attention to detail was worth it. Hwang says that during the entire 25-hour race, they didn't need to add a drop of oil to the engine, something that he attributes to both the Accusump oil system and F1 experience. Not Hwang's, but rather that of Yoshihiro Nezu, an engineer who has served on both Jordan-Mugen Honda and King Motorsports/Mugen World Challenge teams. Nezu flew in for the 25-hour race to monitor and keep an eye on the promising kids from Southern California.
His guidance and instruction, Hwang says, is responsible for the engine not only finishing the race in fine form but also setting a fastest lap time in class. The engine was golden. The same couldn't be said for the suspension setup, which Hwang admits to having set too low for the race. The Si rode on two inches of ground clearance, which thrashed the exhaust and led to five pit stops to weld, tweak and otherwise attend the exhaust.
"It probably wasn't the best thing for us to put a new car in a 25-hour race when you don't know enough about it," Hwang says with a laugh.
Maybe not the best thing, but not horrible either. The Si finished eighth out of 12 entries in the E1 Class, a class run with Porsches, RX-7s and BMWs, and ultimately won by Spoon Sports/OPAK Racing's Accord R. Taken alone, it's not overly impressive. But the car did also post the fastest lap in class (2:04:943), a full four seconds faster than the next quickest car.
The Si is now torn down and getting a rebuild for another shot at the 25-hour event. Not bad for a group of friends and relatives with a shared love of racing, driving and competing. TOR earned its reputation with enduro racing, campaigning a '97 hatch with Spoon backing. Now a few years later, they're showing the rest of us what's possible with an EP3 shell and Integra Type R heart.
But think twice about sending these guys your motor. As Hwamg reminds me, "we don't do this for business. This is just our common hobby."