Do you hate reading about magazine project cars where everything goes right? If so, you're in luck. My first season of piloting my "Race-ready" Golf has been a disaster. Bad for me, but entertaining, I trust, for you. All along, the object of this exercise (well, one of the objects) has been to demonstrate the joys and pitfalls of amateur racing in the Improved Touring category. And there have been pitfalls. Recall that after the engine blew up in a spectacular cloud of oil and steam at an SCCA regional race at Indianapolis Raceway Park, I replaced it with one straight out of a junkyard.
This proved to be a mistake as evidenced by the prodigious amounts of oil the engine blew into the catch tank on every track session. The oil pressure would drop after a lap or two and all I could do was stagger around at the back of the field, waiting for another major engine failure. Worst of all, it was slow. Very slow. After two frustrating race weekends, one at Road America and another at Blackhawk Farms, I vowed I would park my Golf until I had solved its engine woes. Little did I realize this decision in early August would spell the end of my racing season for 2004.
Rebuilding an engine is usually a straightforward proposition. Rebuilding an engine for use in a race car always seems to muck up the works. Admittedly, the engines in the SCCA's Improved Touring category are supposed to be close to stock, but there are just enough modifications allowed to make a series of choices necessary.
For example, fasteners inside the engine are free. So do you use the already-strong Volkswagen connecting rod bolts, or do you spend the extra money for special hardened connecting rod bolts from a racing supplier? If you choose the trick bolts, then you have to resize the connecting rods after the new bolts are installed.
The same question holds true for head studs, main-bearing bolts...well, you get the picture. I decided I would need some professional help with the Golf's engine, so I called in Chad Erickson, owner and head technician at South Central Imports (SCI) in Minneapolis, Minn. (www.sciperformance.com, 612/722-8897). Chad's SCI is sort of an institution for Volkswagen owners in the Twin Cities. His crowded shop plays host to local Volkswagen club gatherings and is always brimming with hot-rodded Golfs and Jettas. I gave Chad my Golf, a spare engine block and crankshaft, and some connecting rods and he set to work to build a proper and reliable engine for my "Race-ready" Golf.
Chad had the block bored to the first oversize, fitted new pistons to the stock rods and used high-strength racing hardware for the rod and main bearings. Lots of care went into the assembly process to make sure I would have no repeat of the engine calamities of the past season. Meanwhile the cylinder head was sent out for a quick check to make sure all was well.
While he had the engine out, Chad noticed the drive flanges of the transmission seemed strangely loose. He took the transmission apart as a precaution and found the ring-and-pinion gears had several teeth missing. This destruction was caused by a small piece of the speedometer cable, which had broken off and fallen into the transmission (see image on the right). When it got trapped between the ring-and-pinion gears it caused the teeth to break off and the bearings to disintegrate.
This is one of the advantages of having a practiced hand like Chad's in the reassembly process. I probably wouldn't have checked the transmission and would have found the problem only when I brought the car to the track. Unfortunately, the litany of new problems kept costing more time until any chance of making the last races of the season was eliminated.
Because I was upgrading the engine in my Race-ready Golf, I decided it was time to check out some of the newest DOT-racing tires for the upcoming season. The Toyo tires I ran last season were good. They have plenty of grip and seem to wear like iron. But several manufacturers have introduced even stickier tires for amateur racing. The new Tech R tires from Avon looked interesting. Avon tires are well known to European and vintage racing competitors, but are just getting started in the U.S.
The Tech R tire is a radial with an asymmetric tread design. In reality, it's nearly a racing slick and has just two circumferential tread grooves molded into the tire with a depth of just 4/32 in. This means the Tech R tires don't require any shaving before use. The internal construction is straightforward with two steel belts, spirally wrapped with a 0-degree nylon cap ply for a Z-speed rating (above 150 mph). The tire's profile is rounded on its shoulders to accommodate the kinds of camber change modified production cars tend to have (as opposed to the more "true" geometry of a pure racing car.) The Tech R is available in 13- to 18-in. wheel diameters and in aspect ratios of 60-, 55-, 50-, 45-. 40-, 35- and 30-series.
The Tire Rack (www.tirerack.com) is the exclusive supplier of Avon Tech R tires in the U.S. and its experts suggested a 205/55R14 size. They also suggested they supply the tires pre-heat cycled. Heat cycling is done by running the tires on a drum in a heated room to help enhance wear and provide more consistent performance. When the tires arrived, I mounted them on a spare set of 6x14 alloy wheels that came with my car.
The tires work best when they are mounted in a way that a driving torque works in a direction to close the tread splices. On the drive axle, this means the DOT number on the tire should face to the right, or passenger side, of the vehicle. On the non-drive axle, the DOT numbers molded on the tire sidewalls should face left, or the driver's side. Logistically, this means two tires needed to be mounted with their DOT numbers facing inward, and two of them with the numbers facing outward. I made sure they were mounted this way and set them aside while I waited for the car to get its new engine.
In addition to a downright scary moment I had at Blackhawk Farms when a brake hose burst, I have never been too happy with my Golf's braking performance. The brakes never feel consistent when diving into a corner and, consequently, I've never felt like I was getting the most out of the car. Steve Clare, the vice president of motorsports at Satisfied Motorsports, thought he could help.
Satisfied has more than 25 years of experience in high-performance aftermarket brakes and a variety of advanced semi-metallic and non-organic friction compounds to choose from. Steve and his crew chose a competition friction material that should resist fade and give more consistent brake feel. Brake pads are one of the easiest items to change on a VW Golf and I am looking forward to testing this simple upgrade.
With all of the work done to Project Race-ready Golf over the winter, my car and I should be ready to tackle the upcoming race season with conspicuously greater success than last year. The reality is all of the trials and tribulations are not so different than what others can expect when they go racing.
Not everything always goes right, but all along there has been method to my madness. First, I had hoped to limit many of the problems and stumbling blocks facing the amateur racer by purchasing a car with a known and successful history. It was a good plan, but it just didn't work out as I had expected.
After the engine blew up, I replaced it with one from a junkyard, just as many of you might have done. When that strategy proved to be a dead end, I went looking for help from the professionals. The process has been character building at times. I have enough character now and it's time to go racing.
The upcoming year has significance for Volkswagen fans as 2005 marks the 20th anniversary of the Volkswagen Golf in the U.S. I am hoping that with all of these teething problems behind me, it will be a season worthy of celebration.
South Central Imports
Engine and transmission rebuild
The Tire Rack
Avon Tech R tires--available exclusively through
The Tire Rack
Satisfied brake pads--available through The Tire Rack