I am a long time reader and (rare) commenter on CC. I have often thought about submitting some material, but since (like many others) I have more time on my hands these days, my excuses are no longer valid. Inspired by all the wonderful COAL articles (special tip of the hat to the RLPLAUT series,) I thought it might be worthwhile to try a RCOAL (Racing Cars of a Lifetime) to discuss some curbside classic street cars which morphed into (low level) racing cars that I owned and drove (usually as a back marker in a few road racing organizations.)
I followed “club racing” (which until the 1990s usually meant Sports Car Club of America, aka SCCA) from the time I was a young teenager in the late 1960s. Many people want to try organized road racing but never quite figure out how to do so. Although entry is easier today, people were often perplexed by the hidden passageways and secret handshakes needed to gain entrance to the strange world of road racing in the United States. Luckily, I had a younger brother who had made his way into this secret kingdom (he even raced in the now legendary IMSA RS series while still a broke college student) so I knew what had to be done to put a car on track.
My first foray into street-cars-converted-to-race cars involved some grandiose plans and the only race car I ever bought new. I did not know it at the time, but the 1988 Mazda 323 GT sedan (NOT the better known all-wheel-drive 323 GTX coupe) I planned to run in a low level professional series (The IMSA Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship) was destined to become a rare beast, although not particularly valuable.
I chose the 4-door sedan over the all-wheel-drive coupe because the sedan was lighter. Accurate specs these days are not easily available, but the coupe seems to have outweighed the sedan by at least 100 pounds. No doubt the coupe would be better on a dirt rallye course, but I thought the lighter sedan would be faster on paved road courses. I purchased the car from a Mazda dealer in Southern Oregon (thanks to my younger brother working for Mazda’s North America operations, which secured me a family discount on a new Mazda). I then drove it to my then-home near Sacramento, California.
The Firehawk series was basically for “showroom stock” type vehicles where only very limited modifications were allowed. An approved rollcage was required (mine was a “bolt in” cage.) Aftermarket shocks and struts were allowed, but springs were stock. The catalytic converter had to be removed and the mufflers could be removed (although the factory exhaust manifold and intake manifold had to remain.) Aftermarket wheels (a little wider than stock) could be fitted, but all cars had to use shaved Firestone Firehawk tires, only available at the track. A racing seat could be used, but items like passenger seats and carpeting stayed in the car. The “race car” looked like a regular “street” car with numbers and decals.
I am neither mechanically gifted nor a fabricator. I found someone in Sacramento who built me a legal roll cage (complicated because most of the interior had to remain in place.) I slowly acquired important “infrastructure” like a place to work on the car (a house with a garage), a tow vehicle (Chevrolet van) and an open trailer to transport it. The car had a few “shakedown” runs on test days at tracks like Willow Springs in Southern California and club racing events at Sonoma Raceway (then called Sears Point International Raceway). But it was almost 2 years after purchase before it finally made it to a Firehawk race.
The 323 GT drove much more like a regular street car than a purpose built racecar (or even a significantly modified street car.) The elimination of the catalytic converter and muffler (plus perhaps some shenanigans with the turbocharger) did make it notably quicker than its factory original setup. Since this front wheel drive car came with a stock transaxle, it had to be raced without any “limited slip” accessories using a stock final drive gear. Keeping the drive wheels turning at approximately the same speed was a challenge. The brakes were ok, but not great. Legal aftermarket pads helped, but braking was a little marginal and even the after market (“Hawk” brand) pads wore pretty quickly. Like many front wheel drive cars of the era, the car did not particularly like to turn and normally understeered (aka “pushed’ or “was tight.”) At the same time, I am confident the car could have done more, but I was not skilled enough to bring it out.
What really made the driving experience different from street driving, even fast street driving, is the “cocoon” effect from the roll cage (which made the entire interior feel more cramped), combined with the helmet, race suit, (somewhat) molded race seat and tightly buckled 6-point harness. I felt I was driving a race car, even though the car was a slightly warmed-over street car with somewhere around 140 horsepower.
Still, I was simply in over my head. Although I could slightly hide my lack of skill by having strong co-drivers (the Firehawk series involved endurance races at least 3-hours long, and at least two drivers were mandated.)
The Firehawk series was a “beginner” pro racing series, perhaps roughly comparable to “Class A” minor league baseball in the United States (if the minor league team owner could take the field surrounded by more more talented teammates.) I was much closer to “after-work-softball game” level of skill. I knew I needed to try a much lower level of racing. Spoiler alert-although my driving improved over time, and even though I think I understand why I was slow, I never made the transition to even a decent club racer. Still, my time with the 323 GT was worthy and led to more fun in the years that followed.