|ModSquad Racing's first, longest-lasting and most reliable car--the ModSquad 1--is a Toyota MR2 Mk. II that has taken the team as high as fifth place in the 24 Hours of LeMons and ChumpCar World Series. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
Like the Porsche 944, many crapcan aficionados view the Toyota MR2 as an impending disaster masked as the perfect endurance racer. Sure, it's light, mid-engined, and powered by an efficient four-cylinder engine that has proven durable on street cars. The chassis even takes fairly kindly to engine swaps, be they docile, modern V6s or relics never designed for automotive use (as we discovered with last week's interview). Hell, you can even graft the back half of one onto the front of a Corolla to make a twin-engined monster. Yet, they sometimes overheat, liberate engine innards, and break other obscure parts,
But if there's ever a team equipped to campaign the MR2 successfully, it's ModSquad Racing, one of the stalwarts of 24 Hours of LeMons' and ChumpCar World Series' races on the East Coast. Forged as a crapcan racing team between good friends Bill Strong and David Hawkins--both forum moderators on Strong's MR2 Owner's Club website MR2OC.com--the team has finished near the top of the field in the majority of 15 crapcan race weekends, including a fifth-place result at LeMons' 2010 Capitol Offense race at Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia. They also claimed ninth and 12th place finishes at ChumpCar's two-race weekend at Florida's Sebring International Raceway in 2010.
Strong (owner of Racing Strong Motorsports) and Hawkins (proprietor of Hawkley, Inc. and twosrus.com, an MR2-specific parts supplier) are joined by a revolving cast of experienced MR2 drivers, giving them a leg up because the drivers are not only extremely familiar with how to drive the MR2 but also familiar with the beast's mechanical innards and how to tame them. Among the ModSquad's recurring cast are permanent driver/crew chief Derek Sanders and regular drivers Kevin Tulay, Tommy Guttmann, Rick Fon, Peter Doane, Stephen Mason, James Cole-Henry, Jake Fisher, and Kelly Evens. They have also at times employed local (to Strong anyway; the team are from all over the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada) MR2 campaigner Troy Truglio, who normally runs the Biohazard V6-powered MR2.
The team have flogged several MR2s, three of which are powered by the durable Toyota 5S-FE four-cylinder engine and one that is swapped in a 1MZ-FE V6 from a Toyota Camry to make a sister car to Truglio's Biohazard whip.
Bill Strong took an hour to chat enthusiastically with The Rusty Hub about ModSquad Racing, those danged middle-engined 'yotas, and ModSquad's recent exploits at the 2012 Capitol Offense LeMons race at Summit Point.
You guys raced at Summit Point last weekend and that was a challenging race for a lot of people and for you guys. Why don't you tell me a little bit about last weekend?
Well, our team has a total of four MR2s:
- One Mk.I that's actually always broken. We've taken that to two races.
- We have the Mk. II--the ModSquad 1 (MS1) car--which we've had since the beginning for three years now. That's our most reliable car. We've had to replace one engine in that and that was due to a wreck.
- We have ModSquad 2 (MS2), which is...we have a major issue with that one that's overheating constantly. We took it to last year's Summit race for a preview and it ended up overheating and breaking. We just kind of put that one off to the side until we can figure what's wrong with that car.
- And we have ModSquad 6 (MS6), which is the newest car which is the yellow one. And that's a V6-powered Mk. II MR2.
So we decided this race we'd take ModSquad 1 and ModSquad 6. ModSquad 6, this has been its second race. We previewed it at the ChumpCar Daytona race, where it had some teething issues. We made it about three hours into the race before we had to pull it out for some overheating issues due to some water pump design issues.
Once we got those things sorted out, we figured, "Well, let's take both the cars" so we got enough drivers for two cars and took it up to Summit Point. We did the track day on Friday with the yellow car (MS6) to test it and make sure all of the things we'd done to it had worked and they seemed to have. The car performed well; we still had some fueling issues, but we kind of worked through that.
ModSquad 1, all we did was basically check the fluids, check the tire pressures, clean some of the dust off the windows, and get it ready to race. We raced it previously race at New Hampshire at the LeMons race--a couple of weeks, maybe a month ago I think it was--and it did well. It had a new engine in it. Not a brand new engine but a new engine to replace the one that got blown up at Nelson Ledges.
That's what led up to that race. We did have some issues. ModSquad 1 actually, reliable as heck, went out for the first quarter of the race, doing well. And all of a sudden, it got brought into the pits. We had no water in the engine. [Laughs] Gone. We don't know where the water went. The big joke around the paddock was that it just didn't want to stay in that car and it went away.
So we filled it back up with water, all looked at each other, and said, "Well, let's just send it back out, see what happens." So we sent it out and it lasted. Water temp. stayed good, water pressure stayed good. All I could think of was maybe we had a bad radiator cap--pressure cap--or that there was dirt underneath it or it wasn't seated properly and the water just steamed out that way. Somebody had reported to us in the pits--one of the other drivers in another car--that water was steaming out the left rear of the car, which would indicate most likely that it was the radiator cap. But once we filled it back up and cleaned everything up, it helped. But we had other issues later on with that one, which is a really good story. [Laughs]
ModSquad 6, I was the first driver in that. We started off really well. I think we started in 17th place--somewhere around there--when the flag dropped and within about four laps, I worked up to second place and pretty much held that until I came in with sputtering. My fuel pressure suddenly dropped to like nothing. We bumped up the fuel pressure on it and went back out but it performed well, but we'd already lost enough ground to where it was difficult to make it back up because everybody out there at Summit Point was very, very fast and very reliable, the top 20 cars.
I brought it back in and we had had problems in the track day with the flex sections on the exhaust system with the V6. It's a pretty complicated exhaust system, trying to fit a V6 in the back of an MR2 and still make it flexible when you race. On the street, it would be perfect because you're not really stressing any of the components, but on a track, the engine's moving around, the suspension's moving around, things are getting extremely hot; you want to make it as flexible as you can. Well, I purchased some flex units from RockAuto--the Chinese stuff. They look good, they work good on my street cars; I've done exhaust systems for those MR2s in the past--they didn't work so well on the track.
We ended up blowing a hole through one of them and the problem with that is that the flex section--and I never thought of this--where I put the flex section was right next to the tie rod. The rear tie rod on the MR2 has a rubber bushing in it that surrounds a metal joint that allows it to move around for toe purposes--I'm not going to get involved in all the suspension stuff--but it moves around and if you lose that rubber out of there, all kinds of funny things happen at the rear part of the car. It wants to steer itself, it wants to steer in a different direction than you really want it to go in. It surprises you on bumps and stuff like that.
|ModSquad 1's office (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
Basically, what happened was the exhaust was blowing on that tie rod right where that rubber bushing is and pretty much melted that rubber, softened it up to where it was pretty much useless. And all of the car wants to start turning right, turn left on me; you hit certain bumps and it wanted to do a full circle. In LeMons, you don't really want to do that because that's when they start welding stuff on your car, making you run around the pit looking like a disco dancer and I just don't like doing that. I'm getting too old for that. [Laughs]
So we brought it in, took a look at it, found out the problem, tried to patch it up with some aluminum, steel--just bits that I had lying around the pit. Like I said, it's a very complicated exhaust system so actually having to weld something in during a race is very difficult to do. You have no room in that car, especially in the rear of it. So I made some fixes, we sent it back out; it lasted a little longer. We happened to have...Troy Truglio from the Biohazard team, he's also got a V6 MR2; he won the Road Atlanta ChumpCar race--he happened to be at the track at the, uh...what was the event going on at the other side?
Yeah, he was at Hyperfest with his V6 over there as an instructor for the NASA event. I gave him a call real quick and he happened to have a spare tie rod so he brought it over real quick and lent it to us. We stuck it on and it worked perfect. It was a bit used, but it kept the rear end working. We sent our driver out there and--we have a new driver--he was a little slower than what I was, but he kept it on the track, kept moving. He moved it up a few places, I think, but we were still back in the 70s so now it's just, "Let's keep the car out there and see where we can end up."
Ultimately, my little fixes on the exhaust did not work. We went through, I think, three drivers. It was my turn to get back in. By this time, that tie rod had just gone worse than the original one did. Every time the guys shifted--there's so much pressure in this exhaust--it just pushed and popped the metal covers I'd put in place to try to protect everything. It blew a hole in one of them. It was time to park the car and ultimately that's what we did, just to kind of save the car for future events. Plus, it was just too dangerous to drive for some of our drivers.
So we just piled everybody back into ModSquad 1 and ended up finishing the day. That car performed flawlessly that day. So Sunday we start and I was picked to be the first driver. Two of our drivers were from the Northeast and they had to get back home, so they hopped in their cars and said goodbye to everybody, so it was just David Hawkins, myself, and Stephen [Mason].
We had three drivers so we were going to do this and see if we could finish off the four hours that day. The race started out good; my car was doing well. It was kind of different driving the ModSquad 1 since I'd been driving the V6 for a while. It's prepared a little differently; it's kind of the old rules with LeMons: just a bolt-in cage that's all welded together, whereas ModSquad 6 was a custom cage designed for big impacts in case we got all sideways at Daytona. Just a totally different car. I completely rewired the front half of the car, whereas the ModSquad 1 is basically all the wiring from the stock MR2 so it's a lot neater looking. My wiring jobs aren't the best looking, but they work.
|The original ModSquad 2 was a Mk. I MR2 that was parked after two races and later replaced by a Mk. II. It was originally built to run in ChumpCar World Series races and had a Mk. II's 5S-FE motor swapped in. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
So I got in there and it just turns differently; it's got a non-power rack where mine has the power-steering rack in it. It took a few laps to get used to it, but once I got used to the braking and where I can brake and where I can take the suspension without having it bounce all over the place, it was a very fast car. One of the big pluses with the MR2 is that we can pretty much outbrake a lot of people; we can brake so late and turn in a lot quicker and carry the speed out through the corner with the mid-engine car. They may have us in top speed, but we'll get them in the corner. So pretty much, that's what we did.
I came in...when was that? Oh, yeah, when the taxi went off. He had been--you know the twin-turbo taxi?
He was pretty forceful with making his moves around the track. It was probably a lap before he went off, he had come around me and gone around another lap and, next thing I know, yellows are just waving like crazy. I saw him sitting over in the tire wall and they red-flagged the race after that. So I was sitting out pretty much in the bowl section there, just sitting there waiting. I had the coolsuit to keep me cool, drinking my water.
They finally let us go out there, they restart the race. We came up on the end of the straightaway and I have brakes, but the brakes just feel a little...weird. It's hard to describe; they were there, but they weren't there. So I continue around and I come up onto the next long straight going under the bridge; as we crest the hill, I said, "Let me tap the brakes, let me make sure they're here." I tap the brakes. "OK, they're there." I go to enter the bowl section and I brake--with the MR2, the way I enter that concrete section, I enter at an angle, basically throw the car into it; I tap the brake to do that--as I tapped the brake, nothing happened. It kind-of-sort-of went to the floor. I came around and I just held on for dear life, basically.
With the MR2, you hear people talking about snap-oversteer and don't let off in a corner and, basically, you don't. On the gas, all the way through; that's what I did and it held. The tires were pretty much water--melted rubber--once I got out of the corner, but I took it easy going up the hill. I came up to the corner, hit the brakes again: I had nothing.
But I carried on, took it a little easy. Maybe I'm overheating stuff, since I've been known to do that with the other MR2s. At the end of the straightaway, I had brakes. So it's like "Oh! Alright, I'm not coming in." I did about two more laps and it just started doing funny things at different points in the track. I brought the car in and David and all the guys that were in the pits started taking off wheels and inspecting brakes. We had pads, nothing looked out of the ordinary on the master cylinder, we had no leakages. Well, maybe something's just getting hot so they put everything back together and I went to go backwards and I had nothing again.
|The team showed up a bit early for the 2010 LeMons race at Carolina Motorsports Park. Driver Kevin Tulay calmly sits in the neatly organized paddock space before the storm of an endurance race. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
We had this problem with our Mk.1 at the [Virigina International Raceway] ChumpCar race about two years ago--the first VIR Chump race--where when you hit a certain point...there's a certain point at VIR where you go to hit the brakes as you crest this hill, you have no brakes. But if you waited to hit your brakes, after you crest the hill and sort of brake late, it worked fine.
It ended up being that we had a bad master cylinder. Don't ask me why it only worked as you crested, I don't know. It's magic. [Laughs]
So I'm sitting in the car thinking the same thing: Maybe the master cylinder's gone bad or it's the brake booster. So they disconnected the brake booster and I was able to get brakes. "OK. I'm going to drive a power-four-wheel-disc brake system car with no power connected to it so this should be interesting. Never done it before." But, you know, you read stories about how these guys back in the '60s who drove four-wheel disc brakes without power and they were able to do it; I figured I can do it, too. It just takes a lot of leg and I'm a big guy so I should have enough leg.
We get back on the track. First corner, I almost kill myself. Second corner, I almost kill myself, but not quite. It's going well; I can stop, I can kind of power through it. And then I'm thinking to myself, "You know, the MR2 is a momentum car." I hear that a lot on the Internet forums that I run. "Momentum car, use momentum." So that's basically what I did until I learned how to control the brakes, where they would work and where they wouldn't work. And that worked really well.
Probably 10 laps later, I've got it down. I know where the car is going to do funny things. All of a sudden, it starts wanting to turn right or it turns right very well; it doesn't want to turn left very well, but it wants to turn right. But it's controllable. It happens at the same spot on the track every time. It's like, "OK, I can run through this" so I run, I don't know, 10 more laps. I'm trying to tell the guys on the radio that "Hey, there's something wrong with the rear of the car; it feels like the tie rod on the MS6. When I come in, you need to look at the rear, please."
So they're all getting ready and I hear "One lap to go." The car's just getting worse. As I come around on the front straightaway, I almost spin it. It wants to turn toward the wall. As I'm trying to turn left, it's trying to go right. So it's like, "This is pretty scary so let's find out what's going on."
I slow down and I pull into the paddock. As I pull into our little pit area, I see David Hawkins walk up to the car--he's looking at the left front--throws his hands up in the air and says, "Ah, we're done!" So it's like, "OK, what does that mean? Why is he looking at the front of the car?" I'm thinking that everything's broke in the back.
What had happened--somewhere after the taxi had crashed--we had a crack develop in our front-left hub to where basically the front left mounting of the wheel that you actually attach the lugnuts to, that had completely broken off the hub.
The whole front-left tire was held on for, I don't know, 15-20 laps by the disc brake. [Laughs] You know it's funny, every now and then I'd smell rubber; that was the disc brake wobbling and hitting the front tie rod. And the tie rod, you know, has the rubber in it so it basically wore that about a quarter of the way through. The actual brake caliper had actually cracked on the mounting.
So it was really scary, especially considering the kind of speeds I was doing on the front stretch and the back straight. I just thought, "Well, it's controllable, I can drive it so I'm going to drive it to its fullest." And that's the way I've always been. Now, looking back [...] I should have come in. It's just one of those things; you don't know.
We called it a race; we didn't have a spare front hub. We've never seen this type of failure before. I think maybe that this had happened when--this was the car I was driving at Nelson Ledges for that crazy Chump race--that Mercedes, him and I were going around the last turn onto the front straight. He ended up getting a little sideways, going off the track, and basically came back in at full speed and went over the nose of the car. He did hit that front tire and he did cause some damage to the wheel and the tire, so possibly that was the big shunt that caused the crack that we never noticed that could have been kind of dangerous.
|ModSquad 1 tackles Charlotte Motor Speedway at the ChumpCar event there in 2011, finishing 15th despite lacking the power that many larger-displacement cars had at the speedway. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
Yeah, that's basically how our race went. We were on track to finish another race, though not as high as we've done in the past. We finished fifth place--that's the highest we've finished ever--at [the 2010 race at] Summit Point. We get very good mileage there and the car just does really well at that track.
This was your 15th weekend? Is that right?
Yeah, we've done a lot of races. David has the exact numbers; I've kind of lost track of all of them because basically it's just build the cars, go up and race.
[Laughs] We've done a lot of racing.
So with an ambitious schedule like that--and you guys run a lot of races close together--what's kind of your process to turn a car around in a month?
Well, basically, after the race is done, we do a quick lookover on the car. We have two shops: My shop is in central Virginia at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where David's shop is up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania--central PA. We kind of take turns with who has what what car, who has what trailers. On our team, we split everything up; if it's major fixes, I bring it down here. If it's minor stuff or things that he can do there, he has a lot more MK. II MR2s, I have more MK. I MR2s in mine--MK. I is '85 to '89, MK. II is '90 to '95.
The big stuff, anything that requires welding, we kind of take down to my shop. The two cars this winter...if it's before the winter time when we have a long time between races, we'll just take it into his and have a work weekend. He's just got a lot more room than I have and it's only like three hours away for me to drive so it's not that bad of a trip.
|Troy Truglio tears off a piece of duct tape to affix the brake ducting at the Charlotte ChumpCar race in 2011. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
Basically, we look at the car, see what needs to be done. If it's anything major, I take it back to my place. I try to do it after work--I work for the University of Virginia--get off work, come home, work on that car. It's like this car, David got MS1 home and just pulled off the front to see why it happened--you know, the front suspension. Basically, we need to replace the whole front suspension on that car because it got overheated so bad the metal, everything turned blue. Pretty intense. [Laughs] I've never seen blue metal before on front suspension parts. I assume that's bad. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I would probably agree with that.
The ModSquad 6, that's in the trailer. I brought it down here. This is the car we'll be running at VIR for Chump. Basically, on that one, I just need to fix the rear suspension and redo the exhaust system. Everything else worked fine. I'm going to tweak a few things for ingress and egress on the car, but other than that, it's working pretty well.
With all the races we've done, that's pretty much the same situation: Look at the car, bring it home, fix it, turn it around, and go. What's nice is having multiple cars, because if for some reason something major is broken, we're able to to just pick a car that's not so bad and take it with us.
So the V6, that wasn't a factory option. That was an aftermarket swap, wasn't it?
Umm... [Pause] Yeah. I was trying to think of something funny to say, but I couldn't think of it. [Laughs] Yeah, it's non-factory. With the second-gen MR2s, the big swap was...you know they came standard with the 2.2L 5S-FE/Camry engine. Great mileage, OK power: like a 140 horsepower, I may be off there. The high-end version was the turbo car; that's the one all the kids want because, you know, you can get 1,000 HP out of that with just a few things.
In endurance racing, those don't last. Historically, the turbo engines have just not lasted. There's just so much heat, there's nowhere to put that heat, and they end up blowing themselves up. We talked about it; we have plenty of turbo engines, but the 5S-FE is the choice engine for the MR2 for endurance racing. It's not powerful; it's a simple engine. It's a very reliable engine; I mean, you see them with 200,000-300,000 miles in them, even more in the Camry. And they're cheap; you can pick them up for $50 out there everywhere because what happens is these kids take them out of their...they do the turbo swap in their 5S-FE MR2s.
|Peter Doane demonstrates some of the mud collected inside the car's cockpit after a scrape with the Schumacher Taxi Service Mazda Miata at the LeMons race at New Jersey Motorsports Park in 2011. (Murilee Martin photo)|
They pull that motor out and stick the turbo in it so you've got all these basically free motors out there. So that's what we did. We did that in the ModSquad 1 and we even used that in the MK. I and used a 5S-FE in that to good effect.
The V6, I've always wanted to do the V6. I don't know if you knew I'm one of the first guys to do a V8 in an MR2.
I didn't know that.
I stuck a Northstar in one. Back in 2003, we started that project and had it running about a year later and pretty much left it there, started racing and haven't touched it since. Yeah, we stuck a Northstar in it and kind of got famous doing that.
I always wanted to do the V6 because that's a simple install. In a race car, it's even simpler because you just take the harness out of a Camry and the engine out of a Camry and just plug it into the MR2 transaxle, plug the harness. Just apply 12 volts and ground wherever you need it and you're done.
With Toyota engines, we've learned "Keep them stock." Don't modify them; when you modify them, that's when they break. You add headers, that's when they break. You add cams, that's when they break. So keep it stock, keep it stock settings, run stock fuel. You know, the V6 we run 93 and the 5S-FE we run 87 octane; no need to run any higher than that. In fact, we could probably run 87 octane in the V6 if we wanted to, but it takes it down about 20 horsepower--10 to 20 horsepower.
It was pretty easy to stick in there, just had to make a right-hand side--passenger-side--engine mount. Everything else bolted up. There's a few things I did not get with the engine that I had to make. Other than that, it was pretty simple to install.
|Tommy Guttman (left) tightens the driver's belts while Rick Fon fills the coolsuit cooler during a nighttime driver change at ChumpCar's 24-hour race at Virginia International Raceway in 2011. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
The team is mostly moderators from the MR2 forums, is that right?
Yeah, we're MR2OC.com. We've been around since about 1999 and we started out with...originally it was going to be...Well, the story is that David and I are best friends and have been friends since 2001 at one of our Toyota MR2 meets that we first met. I brought him on as one of my moderators to help me out with administering our boards. As we got bigger and bigger, I just needed to have more guys helping me out because it was a full-time job keeping things under control, keeping things where they need to be, keeping the bad guys off the board.
We had talked about doing something crazy over time. About three or four years ago, you might have heard a story about some guys doing a trip around the United States in their car where they visited every single state and they set a world record doing it. They GPS'd it out to where they basically set foot and drove to each and every state in the contiguous United States.
I said to David, "You know, we could do that in a Spyder--a Toyota MR2 Spyder--and probably beat that record." And he kind of got excited about it and told his wife and his wife thought we were crazy. I hadn't told my wife yet because my wife thinks we're crazy anyway. She's like, "You are not going out there; you guys will kill yourself, blah blah blah." So then we thought about maybe doing the One Lap [of America]. You know, again, the wives were like, "You'll kill yourselves, blah blah blah." You know how wives are. [Editor's note: I don't know what he means, dear. Now please set that frying pan down...]
He decided...I think he went down to one of the first [Carolina Motorsports Park] races with Rob [Leone]. You know Rob with the red, white, and blue MR2 and the Schumacher team?
He went down there with him to help him out just to check it out, check out LeMons and see what it was like. He came back with a hell of a story. That got me excited and this time by December--I think it was November/December--he had purchases a car from a guy off the board for low money. The car totally fell into the LeMons rules so we built it and ultimately that became ModSquad 1. Well, we needed drivers so we talked about it and, you know, we have a bunch of guys on our moderator team that are ex-racers, ex-national champions: Brian Heitkotter, Randy Chase, Randy Noll, those guys are all on our board. And it's like, "We can get some of these guys to be our race car drivers."
We threw it out there and we had a bunch of mods that were interested, but the big problem with racing and forums and living in the United States is that we're so huge. There's just so much distance between everybody. Getting everybody to race on the East Coast is not the easiest thing to do. We have a lot of mods that have experience that are autocrossers out West; they may not have the money to come out here and race. Same thing in the Midwest.
|The Mk. II mafia at VIR in 2011: (front to back) ModSquad 1, ModSquad 2, and Troy Truglio's V6-swapped Biohazard MR2. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
We don't have enough drivers, so let's open it up to the rest of the other MR2 drivers. We got Tommy Guttmann from Canada, his nephew Rick Fon--he's a Porsche racer from Canada who owns a big pub in Montreal: McKibbin's Pub--and we had Troy Truglio, who's a local for me who's also kind kind of famous for his Killer Turbo MR2 that he took to the Ultimate Street Car Challenge. One of the old defunct magazines back in the early 2000s put that on out in California; he ended up blowing up, but he represented our community quite well. And Troy's a good friend of mine. We had Kevin Tulay, who's an autocrosser that is also on our board that has a couple good MR2s.
So we brought them on and it was myself, David Hawkins, Troy Truglio, and Kevin that raced our first race at the first fall race at Carolina Motorsports Park. We thought we had a great car, we thought "We're gonna win this thing" and we get out there, of course, the brakes don't work right. We use street compounds instead of the endurance compound from Porterfield. We're melting calipers and melting discs. We ended up fixing things--luckily it was a Double-7--we ended up fixing things using Gatorade bottles and ducting air where we needed it. [Laughs] That car looked so LeMony, it was unreal so that worked out well.
We had a great time; that really got us enthused about racing and getting us ready for the first Nelson Ledges LeMons race. That's when Tommy Guttmann and Rick Fon came in from Canada and we did quite well there. Again, we had some issues with the spinning and maybe some overheating here and there with certain things, but other than that, the race went well.
But the ModSquad...we just kept the name. We talked about changing it, but it's such a cool name and pretty much that's what everyone was calling us anyway so we kept it. We still have moderators that join us and I've actually met some good guys that we've talked about becoming moderators with us. It's nice to actually meet them before they become mods. [Laughs]
So the Nelson Ledges race was a 24-hour race and you've done a couple of those. What's the difference between running the double-session races versus one long session?
Well, for easiness--if that's a word--the Double-7s are the best...they don't all seem to be Double-7s. They seem to be 10-4s--10 hours Saturday, four hours Sunday--those are kind of good, especially if you're having problems with the car, if you're still developing it. Because if you do have a problem Saturday, you have plenty of time overnight to fix the problems for the next race.
For the 24s, you don't have that. For the 24s, you need to show up with a car that's ready to race. And that's the most difficult part, especially for a new team. Everybody wants to run a 24; that's the hardest race to run. If you finish it, you've really accomplished something. It just puts so much stress on every part of your car. You don't have time to look things over; you've got multiple drivers, multiple skill levels that can do damage to your car. If they run it differently, that may overheat parts of the car that you're not used to overheating. There's just so many variables and that's what makes it just so difficult.
|The ModSquad MR2 drives into the gloaming at Nelson Ledges. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
It's really hard to explain to my friends that don't race. "Why don't you finish these races?" or "Why didn't you win it?" "Why didn't this happen? Why didn't that happen?" It's like, "Man, you just have no clue." It's just so difficult. And that's why I like 24s over the Double-7s. It just stresses the drivers, the team, and the car to the breaking point. If you can work your way through that, you accomplish so much.
And that was what was so great to me at the first LeMons 24 hours at Nelson Ledges. The car pretty much worked well; we had some exhaust issues where we kept having to clean things up. We were still in the learning stages at what happens to a car during an endurance race. Our fueling was really slow because we were still using a funnel and pouring it in. You know, the dangerous things that you shouldn't really do. [Laughs] We hadn't figured the fast fuel fills and driver changes, that kind of stuff, but we were learning.
At the end of the race, when we crossed the finish line, it was probably one of the best feelings I've ever had to finally finish a 24-hour race. I had tried one in the '80s and failed miserably. To finally finish it in my own car was just a huge, huge deal for me. That really got me pumped for the next race.
Like I said, the Double-7s are fun. They're actually a little more relaxing for me. We have more time to teach our drivers, work with our drivers. We have a lot of new drivers that are coming out with us so those are the nice races where you can talk to them, you can look at their lap times after the race is over and talk to them about how they're driving it, where they can accelerate a little better, look at the video, say "Try not to bounce off that guy too much." [Laughs]You know, those things.
You guys have raced at both Daytona and Sebring. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to take a crappy car to these legendary tracks?
[Laughs] Sebring...My first experience at Sebring was on the short course with the Mk. 1.22. [Editor's note: Mk. 1.22 is the unofficial name for a 5S-FE swapped Mk I.] That was a car that I built...I found this car in a farm field. One of the SCCA racers was going to use it build a new GT...not GT, I forget what class of the SCCA the MR2 runs in...but he was going to build it as a club racer and just never got around to it. So he put it up for sale and I saw it and I said, "Hey, I'd be interested in this car." He said, "Well, I'll give it to you. Just come up, pick it up and haul it." Cool. My son and I go up there and picked it up, brought it home. It was supposed to have a cage in it; it didn't really have a cage in it. It had a cage at the farm that was sitting in muddy gunk for years and kind of rusted away.
We brought it all home, took it apart, looked at it, and just set it off to the side. When David talked about running LeMons, Chump hadn't started up yet. When Chump was talking about their thing and running Sebring, I'm like, "You know, I'd really like to run that." So we built the car and we ran it at Chump; we didn't want to run the LeMons car in that because their rule sets were totally different at the time. So we thought, well, we'll build another car, which was this Mk. 1 with the 5S-FE in it, which was a simple install. You just bolt it and weld a new mount on the sides and boom, you're done. Wire it up. It weighs a little bit more than the 4A-GE that's in the first-gen MR2, but it makes for a very fast, reliable car.
So we ran it at VIR with good success. We had a couple of electrical issues with it, but once we got that sorted out, it ran well...and the braking issues.
It came time for Sebring so I talked to some of my drivers and I decided we're going to run this thing at Sebring on the short course. It was myself, David Hawkins, and the two Canadian guys--Tommy and Rick--and we all met up in Sebring. To me, that was the coolest thing because I grew up watching in the '60s these endurance races where they're running on Sebring and they're running the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This was one of my dream tracks. Of course, it wasn't the full track, but close enough. We wanted to have some fun here.
We get out there and David's our first driver and we're competitive. We're not fast; I thought the car would be a little faster than it was, but it wasn't. But we did well and the track was fun. I tangled with TAJ Racing, their Mustang, a little bit. We knocked fenders in a couple of spots and we ended up wrecking the right-hand side of the car off their car. There's a story there, but I'd rather not talk about that one. [Laughs]
We're friends now with the TAJ guys. But there was a 280Z that spun in front of me and...you know how when you're racing and a car is spinning, you kind of aim for where he was or where he is now because when you get there, he shouldn't be there?
I did that, but the problem was the guy had stopped and then he let off the brakes. When he let off the brakes, he rolled back into me and I had nowhere to go. So basically, all I could do was floor it and try to power my way through it. I ended up pushing the right-front suspension all the way back to where it had no caster at all. It turned so easy into right-hand turns. [Laughs] Left-hand, it was a real pain. And we lost a tire about a lap later. There's a real good picture on my website of the tire going down, you can see it.
Basically, that track was fun, but I wanted to go back because I knew I could do better. A year later, Chump announced it was going to run the full course. I'm all over that, but I don't have enough drivers. David, we kind of made this rule now--because we were traveling so far that it was just costing us so much money--that we decided we were going to make a circle and we're not going to race outside the circle. Well, unfortunately, Sebring is outside the circle.
Troy Truglio with the Biohazard had a seat, so I jumped all over that--the Biohazard MR2 with the V6. So I thought I'd be able to take some notes, you know, see what he does to his cars, do all this spy stuff that Troy loves me doing. [Laughs] So him and I meet up; he lives in Fredericksburg, Virgina; I live in Nelson County, Virgina. We meet up and we drive down there, had a blast.
We get down there for the race and my first stint--I was the third driver, I believe, third stint--once I got out there, it was really intimidating at first because that back straightaway is so long and you're mind is going "I'm going to be going so fast." All you see is concrete everywhere, concrete fences...no runoff. You picture in your head all these big shunts that have happened all those years with all these big race cars and you've seen them on YouTube all over the place, big wrecks, and your mind is just going "Oh my god, is this going to happen to me? Am I going to make a mistake here?" It can kill you, that kind of stuff.
But once I got going, it was awesome. I had no fear; you could really take the corners fast and there's enough space to really drive out to the wall on some of those really fast corners. The driving was probably the best driving I've seen in ChumpCar and LeMons out of any race that we've been to. I was impressed; I was just blown away. I had so much fun at that race. Some of it was that it wasn't my car, so I wasn't worried.
I didn't have to worry, all I had to do was buy [my seat] so that helped out a lot. I learned so much at that race just by watching other teams, watching Bill Riley and his guys. That was kind of cool because we were pitted near them, seeing how they did stuff and talking to their team guys. So that was fun. The track was amazing. I love Sebring; it's easily one of my top five tracks in the world.
Now going to Daytona...I'd heard rumors at Sebring. We had talked on the Chump forum about running Daytona. We joked to John [Condren, ChumpCar's founder] that, "You need to get Daytona." And we knew it was kind of probably out of their money range; you know, some of these tracks are so expensive. So over the years, we've been bugging him on the forums. Then we started hearing rumors that, hey, they were looking and the Daytona folks were there observing and they liked what they saw and they had contacted [John], that type of stuff.
I was pumped. So I thought I need to build a car for this because our four-cylinder just won't go that fast on an oval because we had that issue at the Chump Charlotte race. We did well; the car was just outgunned by some of those V8s. So I thought the V6, that would be a good little car to run. Of course, I don't have a car, I don't have an engine or anything like that. So I start looking.
Once it's official that they're going to have a race--or once I hear that it's official, because I hear back-channel stuff--I start looking for a car and I find one for $500 up in Maryland. He just wanted it gone and I picked it up and we started our build and stripped it out. Troy gave me one of his extra V6s and everything needed to get it installed in the car and I got a rollcage from Rollcage Components and started building. We got done maybe a week before Daytona. [Laughs]
So the paint's dry because I decided to paint that earlier. Normally, I wait to until the last second to paint it so it's still drying on the trailer, which is like the worst thing ever because every bug in the world gets embedded in it.
One of my drivers is a paint guy, so he's like "Paint it early! Paint it early!" so we got it painted. It was running OK; it wasn't running the best. We were trying some experimental cooling things to help cool the water; those didn't exactly work out right. So my trip to Daytona was OK. I took the family with me. That made it really good because my kids got to see it--I have a 10-year-old and 11-year-old girl and boy--and they had a blast down there hanging out by the pool and hanging out on the track itself.
|At the team's first race, Strong spent the between-sessions time rigging up brake ducting using empty Gatorade bottles as funnels for the air. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
Going out on the track those first few laps--I took the car out first--it was pretty intimidating. That angle of that track--I think it's 38 degrees, 31 degrees, it's pretty darn steep--it was really intimidating. But once you got out there with the other cars all around you and you're working, you're not thinking about that. You're just thinking about "Don't hit him. Don't spin." [Laughs] "Turn here. Brake here." I had cooling system issues, like I said, so once the second lap hit, I was more interested in "Where's my temperature gauge at? What's my oil pressure doing? How's that associate with the temps?"
The 1MZ[-FE] V6--the Toyota 3.0L out of the Camry--tends to have oiling issues where it loads the head up with oil. I guess that's good for the head, but it's not so good for the pan because then you have nothing there to pick up. Within the ChumpCar rules, we're allowed to run extra oil with accumulators. We run a three-quarter accumulator in it and an oil cooler; that gives us like an extra 10 quarts in the engine. Being able to watch all that, that was basically what I was doing my whole stint out there: watching pressures and temperatures and trying not to get run over by some of those faster V8 cars because they were fast. Oh, man, they were fast.
I do remember looking at the video--I have video in the cars--and I remember seeing a Volkswagen, this little Beetle, and thinking "I can catch him! I can pass this guy!" So I worked really hard to pass him because we were down on power at this point due to the cooling and the fuel pressure. [Laughs] So I pass these guys and I'm so excited and then I'm thinking, "You know, this is kind of lame." I passed this Volkswagen Beetle in a super-fast-looking MR2--because it looks really fast; it's not really fast--and it's like, you know, how lame I am? [Laughs] And I'm not discounting that Volkswagen because I'll bet that Volkswagen's really fast.
I really do like those big tracks. Now, Daytona, I was told over and over again...Mike Skeen told me at one of the races it was going to be boring at our speeds that we go at. It kind of was; it wasn't anything like the Sony Playstation game--GT whatever it is...Gran Turismo--it wasn't anything like that. It just seemed a lot skinnier; the track wasn't as wide as it is in the game so that made it a little more...I don't know. The only fun part I had was going into the Bus Stop chicane on the back side of the track because you can hit that at just such high speed. Our car just stuck to the ground so well with the aero we had that you just flick it bing-bing-bing and you're done. It's a lot faster than what it seems like in the game; in the game, I think I have to slow down a lot more than I did in real life.
Out of those two tracks, I think Sebring was the best track.
Sure. Just one more general question: Do you have any advice for new teams? What would you tell somebody who was starting a team near you?
If you're starting a team, don't. If you've never done this before, go race with somebody else. You're going to save yourself a lot of money and a lot of heartache. [Editor's note: We think he means do an arrive-and-drive with an already established team rather than "Go race in some other series, jerk!"]
If you're set on starting a team, start out cheap: Buy the cheapest car you can, the slowest car you can. Something that you can buy parts for nothing like a Honda; Honda parts are cheap.
I know that around the country you have different types of cars. In the Northeast, there's a lot of Neons, there's a lot of Sunbirds...err, Sunfires. There's a lot of Pontiacs and that kind of stuff. If you go out West, you've got a lot of Hondas, a lot of Mitsubishis, a lot of that stuff in the junkyards. Look to see what's in your local junkyards that you can easily get parts off of for cheap. In central Virgina, we have a lot of Toyotas so that helps us out. Get something that's cheap to race.
Also, what helps is something you know. With us, it's MR2s. That's what we do on our forums. If you need any questions answered, you can get answers pretty quick. Plus, we know these cars inside and out. If you don't know the car, join a forum. There's forums out there for everything. Simcas, join a Simca forum, you find a Simca. Just have fun with it.
The other hard part is "How do I get the car to the race?" Get a trailer, get a pickup truck. If you can drive it, drive it, but just remember if something happens during the race, you won't get that car home, possibly.
But yeah, start out with something cheap and reliable. Don't modify it. Everybody wants to--and I'm included--David reins me in a lot with "Hey, I want to do this. I want to do that." Keep the car as stock as you can because a stock engine is going to last longer than one that's modified with cheap parts or parts from RockAuto that just might not be up to par.
Keep the car as stock as you can. That way, there's no setup. If you can run a stock suspension, run a stock suspension. It's easier to do your alignment at the track; it's easier to get things fixed. If you break something, you can fix that part; you don't have to modify a custom part to get it installed.
Keep it stock and keep it cheap and learn to race. That's the big thing is learning to race. Now, I know there's a lot of guys out there that do have racing experience; they can go into a more complicated car, but they'll probably have more fun and be more reliable in one that's not modified.
If you look at our multiple cars, the V6 so far has not been as reliable as the totally-stock 5S-FE one, the ModSquad 1. That's been the most reliable car we have and it has nothing done to it. Basically, we cut the springs to lower it and we replaced things over time like brakes and that. We did upgrade to the turbo brakes instead of the standard normally aspirated MR2 brakes because those are just too tiny. We kept cracking fronts and that cost us money. Ultimately, we ended up putting parts on it that last longer so they're not costing us money in the long run.
Just keep it simple, have fun with it, and pretty much, you're never going to win. If you go into it with that attitude, you'll do well and just have fun with it. Try not to spend too much money because that usually ends marriages [Laughs], ends friendships, things like that. Keep it simple.
You don't need to bring a "garage mahal" with you; just bring it on a trailer, you can get those for cheap. It's nice to have a trailer; I have an enclosed trailer now with air conditioning. That's nice to have, but we've worked hard to get that. We did not have that at first; we had an open trailer, packed all gas cans in the back of the track and strapped everything down to the trailer. We pretty much overloaded--I had at the time I had a little Dodge Dakota four-wheel drive quad cab with a V8 in it--we had everything so overloaded that it was insane. Because you have to take all the parts with you; if you think you're going to break it, take it with you.
[Editor's note: Bill later added that having a spotter with a radio has been beneficial for new drivers.]
The Lightnning Round - 5 Questions answered kind-of fast
|Bill Strong (front) and David Hawkins look over the car at as the sun hangs low over the trees at Nelson Ledges. (Racing Strong Motorsports photo)|
The Rusty Hub: (1) I'm going to start you off with a little bit of MR2 trivia that you probably already know.
Bill Strong: I hope I do. [Laughs]
Toyota sold the MR2 in France, but they didn't call it the MR2. They called it the "MR." Do you know why?
Yeah, because "MR deux" is like "shit" or something like that. I forget exactly what it is, but it wasn't nice.
That is exactly what it is; [merdeux] means "shitty" in French. [Laughs]
(2) The TV show The Mod Squad had the original tagline of "One black, one white, one blonde." What would ModSquad Racing's tagline be?
[Laughs] "One gray, one bald, one young." That's just dumb.
I have the hair, by the way.
(3) What was your first car?
Ah! The first car I drove was a 1968 Dodge Charger with a 318 with a three-speed on the column; that was my dad's car. My first car was a 1973 Chevy Vega and we called it the Vega-vette. [Laughs] I don't know why. But I painted it all up. I wanted so bad to be able to afford performance parts for my car; back in the '70s you had all these magazines: Hot Rod and that. They hopped up all these cars.
And I just had no money in high school. The part I wanted most was a Moroso anodized blue air cleaner; they were like $30. Thirty bucks was a lot of money for a high school kid in the '70s. That's like 10 tanks of fuel, I think. What I ended up doing was I took the air cleaner off and I cut around it and got a nice, cool little air filter that had the dual-metal grates on it and painted it blue. And that was my cold air intake. Of course, all it did was make it loud and obnoxious and I think it defeated some of the oxygen and emissions-control parts, but, you know, I didn't know know any better back then.
That was my baby; I loved that car. Now, you talk about a Vega and people look down on those cars so much. But I tell you what; I beat the living crap out of the car driving it in high school, drag racing everything that moved. My buddy had a '69 Camaro; we would race all over our little community of Mira Mesa in San Diego. Of course, totally illegal stuff, but we just had a blast with it. That's sort of...your first car is always one of your favorites. I've had a lot of cars since.
(4) If you could, what international track would you run the MR2s at?
Ugh...that's a hard one...Le Mans.
Yeah, I've driven on that track before with a little Vauxhall Nova, which is a tiny little boxy car, when I was over there. And I'd love to take my MR2 on it. I know it'd be boring as hell because it's just basically floor it and let the car go except for a couple of spots. Just to say I've driven an MR2 on that track would be cool.
Nurburgring is up there, too, but Nurburgring, I think...I don't know. That's a hard track when I drive it on the Playstation.
I think Le Mans to me has more...I saw that movie when it was first out at the drive-in with my parents when I was a kid and I've just always been fascinated by that place. I love Le Mans and that's kind of why I do what I do with endurance racing.
(5) If the ModSquad MR2s could speak for five seconds, what would they say?
"Help me now, please! Take me away from here!"