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RX-7 and a Half $2003 GRM Challenge
Submitted by SuperUser on Wednesday, May 28, 2003 - 10:10am

For those unfamiliar with it, Grassroots Motorsports magazine hosts an
annual Challenge to build a car for less than $2,00X (corresponds to year)
to compete in three events - a drag race, autocross, and concours - against
fellow readers for no valuable prizes. The idea is to see what
non-professionals can do with very little money to produce a car that is
fast, can handle and looks good. Only materials count against the budget, so
sweat equity ends up being the biggest investment.

The GRM Challenge is now in it's fourth year. It began as a $1,500 Challenge
that was intended to be amongst the editorial staff, but they made the
mistake of inviting their readers to join in the fun. There was just
something about the idea that inspired great interest and participation that
led to it becoming the publications signature event.

After reading about the $1,500 Challenge, I resolved to participate in the
follow-on $2,001 Challenge under the rotary banner. This was no small
matter, as I was completely inexperienced in racing and car building had no
shop or decent tools, and the Challenge was being held in Florida, many
thousands of miles from my home in Portland, Oregon. I quickly threw
together a team from the local RX-7 club - Rotary Power Northwest (
- and approached a local rotary engine builder (Pineapple Racing) for advice
and assistance. To make a long story short, we threw together a car and
drove it to the Challenge. Unfortunately, we blew up the transmission and
ended up selling the car and flying home. On the other hand, we won the
"Longest Drive" trophy for the journey to the event and the magazine liked
the effort and ultimately rewarded us with a three page feature article, so
it was not a total loss. But, I wanted to do better.

For the year 2002, we tried again. This time, we built a monster. It was an
83 RX-7 GS shell, but it had a fire-breathing home built Peripheral Port 13B
rotary engine more suited to racing than trips to the grocery store. It was
fed by a big Weber IDA carburetor. Behind the motor, we had a beefy Turbo II
transmission and a lengthened Turbo II driveshaft going to a reinforced axle
sporting 4.88 gears and a limited slip differential. The suspension was
modified by replacing the rear lower links with heim-jointed adjustable rods
and altering the pickup points. Racing beat springs and Tokico struts
replaced the stock components. All in all, it was a fine car with great
potential. In contrast to our previous effort, this more extreme car was
never intended to be driven on the street. From the beginning, our plan was
to tow it to Florida and thus have a means to bring it home in case of
mechanical difficulties. However, 650 miles into the trip, the tow vehicle
blew its motor and we were forced to abort the journey. "Playing it safe"
did not work out so well.

So, after a couple disappointing efforts, I resolved again to meet the
Challenge for 2003. The good news was that we already had the $2,002 car, so
there was little work required to prep it for battle. But the issue of
getting there and back was still daunting. Having already attempted to tow
it and coming up short, I chose to do something completely insane: drive it.
Why? Because in doing so, I was assured of a trophy for the Longest Drive to
the event in a Challenge car (provided I made it) and it would just be one
more crazy stunt in my life to talk about at parties; people get tired of
hearing my Army stories, so I needed new material. But in committing to
driving the race car, I couldn't take the exercise lightly. This is
particularly reinforced by my previous efforts which were not so extreme but
fell apart from lack of contingency planning. What would I do if I broke an
axle or stripped out the ring and pinion? These were stock parts designed
for 100 hp -- not 300 hp! And welding a backbone on the axle housing,
modifying the lower link pickup points, and changing the companion flange
made it impossible to simply find replacement rear ends in a junk yard. If I
were towing the car, this is not a problem. At the end of the day, I could
simply load the car on the trailer and still drive home. I could also drive
the tow vehicle to run and pick up small parts from the local auto parts
store, if needed. As I discovered in 2001, however, breaking your only form
of transportation is a completely paralyzing experience. You're stuck. And
getting stuck 4,000 miles from home leaves you with very few options. So, if
I were to drive the car, I'd have to haul all my needed repair parts and the
tools to get the job done. Obviously a race car does not have much room for
tools, tires, and spare parts, so I opted to build a trailer to haul those
necessities. Rather than do something boring, however, I hit upon the idea
of hacking another RX-7 in half and using the back portion for the trailer.
As the rear axle was my biggest concern in terms of breaking parts on the
race car, the trailer could serve as a spare parts source in and of itself,
should the need arise. Also, my thirsty car needed a larger fuel reserve to
avoid too many time-consuming refueling stops along the trip, so the stock
fuel tank in the trailer was utilized as an auxiliary for the main cell in
the race car, providing a 30 gallon total capacity. Of course, there is also
the small matter of paying for the estimated 530 gallons at an average of
$1.80+ per, in order to get there and back. This is where the RX-7 community
came to my rescue.

Prior to my scheduled departure, I became ill. In fact, I was out of
commission for almost 30 days with a respiratory infection. Being
self-employed has many advantages, but losing income from illness is not one
of them. I was also about to forgo another three weeks of voluntary absence
which I could not then afford to do. For me, the Challenge was out of reach.
However, fellow RX-7 enthusiasts - quite to my astonishment - started
sending in money to help offset expenses. Individuals were sending $25, $40,
and $50 each. Then, Rotary News volunteered $200! And Pineapple Racing
stepped up with a big donation as well. So, my prospects for making the trip
improved considerably in just a matter of days. Even after leaving,
contributions kept rolling in. On my way through Garland, Texas the big shop
Rotary Performance (RX7.COM) kicked in the largest contribution of $500,
which not only helped with gas but also much of the hotel and food expenses.
Without such generosity, this trip would have failed. I wish to thank the
following individuals:

Ari Yallon (Rotary Performance), Rob Golden (Pineapple Racing), Dan Mazella
and Berny Hererra (Rotary News), The Dallas/Fort Worth RX-7 Club, Gary L.
Heston, Brad Barber, David Breslau (Widefoot Racing), Phil Rusciano, Brad
Berger (First Command Financial), Jared Still (RPNW club),, Meg Pettibone, Eric Stanton, Jeff Hoskinson, Wezi
Love, Charles Wright, and David Wilson.

So, the trip was on! I spent a full week in Portland finishing up the
trailer and organizing the tools and equipment I would pack along on the
trip. With nearly 8,000 miles ahead, preparation becomes of paramount
importance. Simply driving the car around town revealed several problems:
the fuel pump died, the clutch master cylinder blew out, and the trailer
hitch required a last-minute modification to the trailer tongue. The
scheduled departure was postponed for a couple days to address the problems
and provide additional testing. Finally, I hit the road on Friday, March
28th at 3:00 p.m.

While the car is streetable, in the sense of being easy to drive, it is by
no means comfortable. The exhaust noise is deafening, the tranny whines, the
suspension clunks and groans, and the temperature inside the cabin is easily
20 degrees warmer than ambient. Basically, it is an uncompromised race car.
No radio and no cup holders either. Driving it across town is easy. 200 mile
day trips between cities is doable, if not exactly pleasant. However, a
cross country trip is ill advised. Even with ear plugs, the drone of the
exhaust just wears you out. And, without a radio, minutes seem like hours.
On an 8,000 minute trip, this can be a problem.

I had optimistically planned to make the outbound trip in three legs:
Portland to Las Vegas, Las Vegas to Dallas, Dallas to Gainesville, FL. Each
leg is approximately 21 hours, give or take, and while difficult to cover
that sort of distance in one day, I thought myself capable. Once underway,
though, it became apparent that the car demanded too much of my attention to
permit driving more than about 16 hours at a time without losing my
concentration; it just wore me out.

On the road, the trip went pretty smoothly, except for a Semi truck without
a trailer that almost killed me when the driver locked up the rear wheels,
lost control, crossed four lanes of traffic and slammed into the Jersey
barrier, coming within a few dozen feet of wiping me out. This happened less
than five miles into the trip but I figured lightening was unlikely to
strike twice, so I proceeded with little apprehension. Much to my surprise
and great relief, the as yet untested auxiliary fuel system worked
flawlessly. That evening, I made it over the mountains in southern Oregon
and northern California without incident, which I figured would be the first
big test of the improbable tow rig. At about 1 o'clock in the morning, I
pulled off at a rest area near Redding, CA for a well-deserved four hour
nap. At first light, I resumed the journey, and later that day I saluted the
rest area near Stockton, CA that marked the end to my ill-fated 2002
Challenge effort.

After making a left turn at Bakersfield, I headed to Las Vegas to complete
the first leg of the big journey. Unfortunately, this portion of the trip is
all up hill, through almost continuous construction zones with broken
pavement, and amidst often stop and go heavy traffic as people flee SoCal
for the high desert entertainment center. After hitting LV around 7 o'clock
in the evening, I found the suburb of Henderson and then the residence of
Dan Mazella, the publisher of Rotary News. He and his girlfriend were very
hospitable and provided me with what I most desired: a hot shower and warm
bed. I slept in, ate a great breakfast, then hit the road to Dallas/Fort

The trip out of Las Vegas was painfully slow due to the stop and go (more
stop than go!) traffic crossing Hoover Dam, along with the mandatory vehicle
inspections for terrorism prevention. Once this section was out of the way,
however, the trip on I-40 went very swiftly. I stopped for the night
somewhere in eastern Arizona, then proceeded to my destination -- the home
of my teammate Tim Schuh, in Colleyville, within the Dallas/Fort Worth
metroplex. I had intended to be there several days earlier, but owning to my
two day delay in Porltand and the extra stops along the way, we did not have
the time to perform the extensive testing we had intended to do before
leaving for the Challenge. Instead, we devoted our only free day to taking
the car to Rotary Performance for a quick dyno tuning session.

Rotary Performance (aka RX7.COM) is located in Garland, Texas, on the other
side of the Metroplex from Tim's house. In a city nearly 100 miles across,
this is quite a haul amidst heavy urban traffic on a spider web of confusing
interstates. Fortunately, my teammate Tim was familiar with the route. Once,
there Ari Yallon and Chris Ott showed us great hospitality, permitting us to
use a garage bay and all the tools we needed. We did a few dyno pulls and
discovered a very lean condition at 9,000 rpm, right where we were expecting
to make the best power. Instead, we were hitting the wall. We tried every
trick in the book to fix the problem, from smaller air bleeds to bigger main
jets, but the solution proved elusive. Fuel pressure was increased and a
larger grosse jet needle and seat valve was installed to combat a suspected
problem with float bowl filling, but that too was a dead end. Our best pull
was 225 HP at the rear wheels (about 275 at the flywheel), but that was a
solid 50 RWHP less that expected. The good news was that the torque curve
was nice and flat, which would prove to be an asset for the autocrossing
event. At the end of the day, while disappointed by the numbers, we were
happy to have at least respectable power in a consistent and reliable

Tim and I left Dallas/Forth Worth the following morning. Tim was driving his
Dodge van, which would serve as a support vehicle and potentially as a tow
vehicle if the worst happened. I followed him in the RX-Sevenandahalf, as I
called it, and we made good time through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama,
and northern Florida, stopping only in Biloxi for a nights rest. Our arrival
at the hotel and event headquarters in Gainesville, Florida was well timed.
We pulled into a festive parking lot of other such wild cars and their
owners just as the event registration was starting. The riotous exhaust note
of the car in conjunction with the odd trailer made quite a splash with the
other competitors. Telling them I drove it 4,000 miles there was icing on
the cake. Tim and I spent the evening socializing with the other competitors
in the parking lot and eventually found some other rotor-heads to hang with.
Everyone had too much fun, if you know what I mean.

Friday morning was foggy. Well, not really, but the hangover sure made it
seem that way. Tim and I made our way out to the Gainesville drag strip and
began setting the car up to make what would be its first drag runs...ever.
Prior to leaving, I had every intention of taking the car to the local drag
strip to sort it out and find any weak links. Unfortunately, the Oregon
weather refused to cooperate for three months! Rain, rain, rain. Every
"test-n-tune" was rained out. In fact, the only testing we managed to do was
an ITE road race school the rain. At least the dyno tests gave
us confidence that the engine, while underpowered, was at least a solid
performer. So, I told Tim that under the circumstances -- 4,000 miles from
home, with an unproven car, and having never finished the event before -- I
was going to do one 13 second pass and save the car for the autocross the
following day. We bolted on the drag slicks, which were more for dampening
the shock to the driveline than hooking up for a great launch, and I
proceeded to run a 15.x, a 14.x, and a 13.96 with soft bog launches. Not bad
for what amounted to a test-n-tune of a new car. I kept my word and retired
after the third run, even though I could have cut 3/4 of a second off the
time with even a modestly hard launch. We finished 13th out of 65 cars. Two
cars were deep in the 11s, two were in the 12s, and 8 others were just above
us in the 13s. Had I know the results at the time, I probably could not have
resisted the temptation to bump ourselves up a number of positions, but I
don't regret the decision to stop with a respectable time in order to assure
us of an opportunity to finish the event. I also own bragging rights to
being the fastest car not towed to the event, irrespective of distance, as
every faster car was trailered there.

Saturday was the autocross and concours. Half the field would autocross in
the morning and perform the concours in the afternoon, while the other half
would do the converse. We were in the former group and proceeded to run the
autocross in the morning. This was also the car's inaugural autocross and
Tim's first ever opportunity to drive the car. Fortunately, Tim adapted
quickly and took us to 5th place in the morning session, though we sunk to
14th position by the end of the day. Again, this was out of 65 extraordinary
cars, so we had no reason to feel bad. In fact, we were delighted. The
afternoon was not so pleasant. Concours is a car show; you shine the car up
and compete on looks. We had a fast car, but she was no beauty queen. I also
must admit to putting forth little effort in making her pretty, as I prefer
function to form. However, most of the competitors rightly see the Concours
as a "free" event, meaning that labor is free, there are few materials
required (paint, basically), and the tools to do the job are not counted in
the budget (air compressor, paint sprayer, masking materials, sand paper,
etc). In other words, many of our competitors sported new paint jobs or at
least were made through many hours to look rather stunning for supposedly
$2,00x cars. Can't fault them for playing by the rules, however, so we
placed 44th with a very decent looking "10 footer" race car. On the other
hand, this only dropped us two spots overall, to finish 16th. Again, very
respectable given the level of competition. We were beaten by one other
rotary-powered entry, another 1st generation RX-7 finishing in 14th place,
but it should be noted that it was mostly built from the ashes of my 2001
effort, purchased by a fellow competitor. The engine (rebuilt as a bridge
port), the coil-over suspension, and the big nitrous setup were all
previously mine, so I can only blame myself for that deal coming back to
haunt me.

The awards banquet was held Saturday evening and we walked away with the
Longest Drive trophy, beating the next longest drive by a few thousand
miles. No other awards were forthcoming, but I felt vindicated for finishing
the event and breaking the "jinx" of prior years. Tim and I spend the rest
of the evening socializing and feel we have honestly made a few more good
friends; brothers in arms of the automotive variety, all incurably dedicated
to the idea that a fast car does not need to cost a fortune.

The drive home felt longer than the drive there, but with every mile I was
closer to home and more confident in completing the final challenge of
returning unscathed. There were a couple trying moments to the return
journey. In Louisiana, we drove straight through a big thunder cell while
crossing the ten mile long bridge over Henderson Swamp. My windows were all
down and the rain water hitting the floorboards flashed to steam and fogged
up the windows pretty bad. Lightening also struck about 50 feet away at one
point and left me seeing spots for several miles thereafter. The other
incident was less dramatic: I blew out the muffler in northern California --
literally blew the back end off and lost all the muffling material -- but
quickly had it replaced and made my way back to Portland. When I pulled the
ear plugs out for the final time, the scale of my accomplishment started to
sink in. Not only did I finish the event in a respectable position against
worthy competition, but I managed to drive almost 8,000 miles round trip in
a $2,003 peripheral port-powered, puck-clutched, 105db race car with no
radio, pulling a trailer full of spare parts and tools that I managed not to
use. I think I can be forgiven for counting this trip as a victory.

The myth, the car, the trailer. RX-Seven-and-a-half

Hitting the road for the 8000 mile round trip

Autocross Driver Tim Schuh, tearing up the course

One of the many, many fuel stops.

Tim, making a small adjustment to the car

The trailer setup.

Blake running the drags. The 7 was the fastest car not trailered.

First stop in the cross country trek, Dan Mazzella's house in Vegas.

Line-up for the Autocross.

Muffler finally let go on the trip back.

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gas tank
No Rotor
August 3, 2004 - 12:39pm
please help me find a gas tank,i have a rx7 1984
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No Rotor
August 3, 2004 - 2:00pm
How can we do that if you don't leave your name, email, etc?
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No title supplied
No Rotor
December 31, 1969 - 4:00pm
I had a quick chance to take the car for a spin... Peri-ports are really fun above 7grand :)

You should have seen the looks on my neightbors faces when the car and trailer was parked in front of my house.
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No title supplied
No Rotor
December 31, 1969 - 4:00pm
Sounds like great fun! 18 hours continuous driving's the most I ever managed, though... and not in a racing rotary, either. Go for the full-on hard launch next time...!
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Madaz Motorsport
No Rotor
December 31, 1969 - 4:00pm
Well done! I race a bridge-ported '82 RX7 which basically the same gear you have in your P-port and I admit I would never even attempt to drive it on the road. Certainly not 8,000miles! So, again, well done!
BTW, your HP for a P-port is basically about right. You can really only get more (300HP at the flywheel) from a full-house factory 13B PP engine. 225 is actually very respectable for a carb'd motor. Most of the PP's here are getting around 210-220HP at the wheels where the high range is fuel-injected.

Madaz Motorsport
Perth, Australia
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