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2007 Pontiac Solstice GXP - Raging Bull

The Evolutionary Drift of Rhys Millen

Carter Jung
Aug 11, 2006
Photographer: Steve Demmitt

"Damnit,"you mutter under your breath. It's only 7:20 and according to the schedule the top 16 aren't supposed to start 'till 7:30, but the voice over the PA just announced the start of the final rounds. You make your way through the gates and break into a dash. Your heart starts beating faster both from the lack of exercise and the increasing clamor from the track. The uncontainable excitement of watching the best at their sport going one-on-one around the course at breakneck speeds with a blatant disregard for tire grip draws beads of sweat. This isn't IRL, NASCAR or NHRA--it's Formula Drift, the latest and greatest motorsport to rip up the track.

As you make your way up to the grandstands, the shriek of tires draws your attention to the ensuing battle. You stop and stare in awe. No matter how many times you've seen it, drifting is the only type of racing that never fails to strike an inner chord, likerunning into an old high school flame--only this time, there's something different. The lead car is a category favorite, a Nissan 240SX, however, the trailing ride is something you've never seen.

Much smaller than the Nissan, the car's bright blue, red and yellow colors flicker left and right as it feints and shifts its weight. Entering the key horseshoe of the course, the small blue coupe looks like it's going to crash into the reinforced K wall, when at the last second it snaps quickly to the side, pluming smoke out from the rear fender wells, and pounces towards the 240SX. The blue wonder in its aggressive line creeps towards the lead car until they are neck and neck mid-turn.

The crowd holds its breath.

Both cars exit the turn tires wailing. However, the 240SX is forced to hang back and watch as the new lead car pulls ahead, spraying a thick tire-filled mist as it turns into the last corner, emerging as the round victor. As the smoke settles, you think to yourself two things: how dope drifting is, and where you've seen the familiar Red Bull vinyl scheme.

Evolution. No, this whip has nothing to do with diamond-stars and 4G63s; rather the natural progression of things. A species' ability to adapt to its surroundings is key to its survival. Imagine you're on a safari in the African savannah (far-fetched, yes, but stay with me here) and it's hotter than a crowded club with poor ventilation when out of nowhere, a wooly mammoth pops out of the brush, huge tusks, thick hair and sweating like, well, a wooly mammoth in Africa. Heavy fur and really, really long tusks might've worked during the ice age, but in an era of global warming the only thing you'd be really, really longing for was evolution. And that's what the blue car is, Rhys Millen's form-altering leap to stay ahead of the times.

With competition in the Formula D series heating up worse than the greenhouse effect, Rhys had begun feeling some of the aging effects of his Pontiac GTO. While the vehicle is more than competitive--after all, he did win last year's title--as both driver and team owner, Rhys is responsible for exploring new methods to push his skills and his crew (his nickname is Mad Skills, after all). Skills and scrappiness, mind you, that stem from the great Millen racing blood like that of William Wallace. Skills that include years of Rally racing, off-road, and Hollywood stunt driving (boots may've been made for walking out on Dukes of Hazzard, but Rhys' CGI-less sequences more than made up for the plot). In order to accentuate his strengths, GM paired him up with their spanking new RWD convertible, the Pontiac Solstice GXP, which is bound to raise a question or two from the entire 12 of you that actually read our stories (oooh, pretty letters make words and story).

Why the Solstice GXP you ask? 'Cause it's the hot new compact convertible platform from Pontiac and it's a helluva lot lighter and much more agile than the GTO. "The car is some 650 pounds lighter than the GTO and we're running the same wheel and tire combination...the grip factor is huge compared to the GTO," explains Rhys. Wide 18x8 and 18x9.5 Racing Hart CPS-10 wheels wrapped in Bridgestone RE-01 stickies fill that grip factor, while grippier still are the Rotora micro 6-piston forged calipers up front, with a pair--as in dos--of 2-piston forged calipers in the rear.

Well, the wheelbase is shorter on the smaller GXP so handling's probably wack, right? Err, no, as Rhys points out, "where I have three feet of overhang behind me, the GTO had eight...the [Solstice] is very agile and it gives me the responsiveness from the steering that I require." Dramatically improved steering angle--courtesy of the engineers at Roush Industries, who custom fabricated A-arms, tie rod ends, toe links, and solid bushings--also allows the crew to fine-tune the Solstice's alignment. Eibach ERS coilovers paired with Penske dampeners were installed for enhanced responsiveness as well as a Z06-spec Tremec T56 transmission, Exedy clutch and GM CTS-V LSD for added bite during tight course turns.

But it's a four-banger compared to a high powered and much larger V-8 LS1 motor--there's no replacement for displacement, right? Wrong. While yes, the V-8 has twice the cylinders of the Ecotec motor, the replacement for displacement is the right turbo emplacement. And it silences the critics that whine like a compressor blade at full sing about Rhys' winning reliance on a large V-8. Remember fellas, this is the same Millen that competes in turbocharged four-cylinders on dirt rally courses. "I think that's what everyone's waiting to see...how I adapt from a big healthy V-8 to a little four-cylinder, but I think that they lose sight of ten years of rally experience and turbocharged four-cylinder cars," says Rhys.

So how much does this Ecotec motor actually make? Ahh, now you're onto something. Surprisingly, the turbocharged four is putting out horsepower and torque figures on par with the V-8. Feel free to close any gaping jaws before we describe how. Built by GM Racing, the Ecotec motor in Rhys' Solstice is similar to those found in six-second drag cars. Starting with the head, GM Racing ported the runners for enhanced flow and stuffed it with their camshafts and sprockets, Ferrea valves, PSI valve springs, and Trick titanium retainers. On the bottom end, GM Racing mated slightly-bigger-than-stock JE pistons and Manley rods, connecting them to a crankshaft from Bryant Racing, and bumping up the displacement to 2.02L. With the motor ready, the long block was assembled and capped off with a GM valve cover and Bates Engineering oil pan. Counter-intuitive to turbo logic, the motor's new compression ratio was bumped up from 9.2:1 to 9.72:1, reason being GM's choice of E85 for fuel (see sidebar for more on this mysterious gas).

Hey, how about that big talk about turbo emplacement beating motor displacement? Whoa, easy there pardner, the red on your neck is glowing. As we were about to say, with the motor and fuel ready for massive amounts of boost, GM Racing called on Precision Turbo for a specially built GT25 fan. Bolted up to a Hahn manifold, in-house custom intercooler piping, intake manifold and GM throttle body, boost pressure from the ball-bearing turbo is regulated via a HKS wastegate and relieved through an Innovative blow-off valve. A Weldon fuel pump fed to a custom GM Racing fuel rail and 160 lb/hr injectors are in charge of spraying the boost-friendly E85 ethanol to the combustion chamber, while an MSD ignition and sparkplug wires hooked up to NGK sparkplugs light the mixture. A FAST ECU and Innovative boost controller manage fuel and boost while cooling duties for extended track runs are handled by an air-to-water intercooler and C&R Racing radiator.

Think it's still missing some of the "wow" factor making it Formula D championship-worthy? For you naysayers, a full line of Sparco gear in the cabin including Pro 2000 seats, 215 steering wheel, and shift knob along with Stack gauges, custom dash and aluminum work from Roush should push you over the edge. If not, the House of Kolor's Magic Blue Pearl and Mean Yellow, applied by The Paint Shop, laced with graphics designed by RMR, Kristina Biane and Modern Image should. That and the dry-carbon 3D2-GT wing from Rotora makes the Solstice look like a winner standing still.

As of press time, Rhys has yet to debut the Solstice on the Formula D proving grounds. "The car is competitive and we've already proven in testing that it's quicker than the GTO, but it's taking a lot more for me to drive it that quick and I need the car to be fail-safe for me personally. I want to bring this car out and have it just run circles around any other car." Judging from the development, specs, and Rhys' mad skills, it looks like the Solstice will do more than just that--it ought to drift, charge, howl, and literally smoke the competition.

By Carter Jung
165 Articles

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