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Born In Brooklyn: A Championship RX-7 From an Unlikely Place

story and photos by robert bowen

When Brooklyn resident Jake Namer took first place in the Super Street Mod class at SCCA’s 2015 Tire Rack Solo National Championships, it was the culmination of nearly 8 years spent developing the potential of his third-generation Mazda RX-7.

Despite that big win, it hasn’t been a walk in the park. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” he admits. “The RX-7 was a teenage dream for me. When it’s on, it’s mind warping. When the car is down, it’s gut wrenching.”

Now add in the fact that the car was built and developed in New York City, not exactly a haven for gearheads. “Sadly the car is terrible for driving in the streets of the City,” Jake adds. Potholes and a low ride height don’t mix well, and things are not helped by the need to prop open the hatch so he can carry his tires to events.

“It was brutal idling in traffic jams, hatch open, no catalytic converter, in the summer heat in the Holland Tunnel returning to New York City from Jersey races,” he recalls. “Oh, to be young.”

Then

After dabbling in various race cars for a few years, Jake’s admiration of the RX-7 culminated back in 2008 with the search for one of his own. Why this model? The Mazda’s clean lines, avant-garde powerplant, rear-wheel drive, light weight and sophisticated layout appealed to him, he says, as they seemed to come together to produce the ideal platform for a great all-around street and track day car.

After a thorough search, Jake found just the right example–a black base model with what appeared to be a good running engine and plenty of upside for modifications. The car was mostly stock with just a few mods–things like a catless downpipe, cat-back exhaust and an aluminum coolant tank. He’d later learn that the engine had bad apex seals, but it was not obvious when he bought it.

Despite that disappointment, the purchase of this RX-7 was anything but the harbinger of doom. That year Jake started dating Elena, now his wife. Turns out that she was at his first autocross back in 2002, driving her dad’s own RX-7. Another RX-7 connection: Together they’d learn that Jake’s new purchase once belonged to her former neighbor, another fan.

Jake soon began the usual tweaks, raising the boost and adding sticky tires, but within a few years he’d fallen down the rabbit hole of performance tuning that so many racers know so well. He eventually realized that he preferred autocross to other forms of motorsports, and the RX-7 followed that plan.

His goal would be the Super Street Modified class, where this particular chassis had fared well. The SCCA Street Modified rules allow for a wide range of modifications while still retaining a slight sense of street-worthiness.

As Jake’s career (and disposable income) grew, so did his RX-7’s development. The exhaust, for example, went from an off-the-shelf, 3-inch stainless steel system to a titanium GReddy system purchased in a shady Brooklyn neighborhood. The current setup, a custom one featuring 4-inch pipe, was made up from scrap mandrel bends sourced from a company that fabricated school bus exhausts.

This has been a group project of sorts, too. Fellow RX-7 competitor and multi-time SSM-class champion Carter Thompson gave Jake the tip about that low-buck source for exhaust parts while sharing a lot of knowledge on setup. In fact, Jake reports, other class champions, including Andy McKee and Erik Strelnieks, have been quick to share information and tips.

The need for a suitable workspace added to this project’s challenges. “Before Brooklyn, I was in Manhattan,” Jake says. “I managed to find a space that worked in the utilitarian sense. It was in a dark corner of a valet garage. I was given a small storage cage next to a 20×20-foot section of the garage.”

The cage held his tools, parts, bench, tires and such. For New York City, that sounds like a luxury setup.

“At face value, it was good,” he says. “But the concrete ceiling was collapsing from a leak. Once a tarp I rigged up was the only thing holding a 20-pound chunk of concrete from crushing the windshield on the car. There was dust everywhere. An hour in the garage would end with me blowing black soot from my nose for the rest of the day. It wasn’t healthy.”

Now

Broken parts seem to be a necessary component of most development stories, and this one is no different. In the last eight years Jake has replaced three engines, one transmission, three ring and pinion sets, three turbos, four powerplant frames, front upper control arm mounting plates, uncountable wear parts and one ECU.

“People always say the rotary engine is unreliable,” Jake says. “I’d argue any 20-year-old, 120,000-mile car is pretty unreliable.”

The RX-7 now sends more than 425 horsepower to the wheels, with its most recent engine built and tuned by Northeast rotary specialist Dave Barninger of Speed 1. It does away with the original, complicated twin-turbo setup in favor of a single massive Garrett GTX3076R breathing through a custom intercooler setup and large injectors. Engine control is via a standard list of Japanese hardware, including an Apexi Power FC ECU and a GReddy PRofec boost controller.

“The hardest thing is getting to a specialist when things get too technical. But I found a huge knowledge base from Dave at Speed 1,” Jake says. “He was touring the country training Mazda techs about the rotary engine when I was a baby. If some nuanced problem would arise, however weird, he’d know right away what failed and how to fix it. Example: I would get a fuel smell with the window down at specific highway speeds a while back. He knew immediately that the emission system’s charcoal canister in the driver-rear fender well had failed and the wheel spinning was wafting the stench forward to the driver at 55 mph.”

One of the biggest challenges, Jake says, is keeping the engine cool. “You can never have too much water in the grid,” he advises. “We’d spray the dual oil coolers, radiator, intercooler core, etc. I’ve heard every joke in the book about watering my engine bay–none of them are particularly funny, though.”

At big events, like the Solo Nationals, friends keep the water sprayers pumping away so Jake can concentrate on his runs. F Street champion Dave Corsaro, Jake notes, has been particularly helpful.

The rest of the drivetrain is also tweaked to suit SSM, thanks to a 4.44:1 final drive with a cryo-treated ring and pinion and locking OS Giken differential. As is usual for a nationally competitive Super Street Modified car, the suspension bears little resemblance to the factory setup. Spherical bearings replace all of the stock rubber bushings, while the shocks are custom Penske units paired with carefully selected Hypercoil springs and a Tri-Point Engineering front anti-roll bar. Credit for alignment and setup goes to Steve Farkas of SJF Performance, whose backyard shop is an institution in the Northeast autocross community.

Like the car itself, Jake’s workspace has also improved over time. “My wife and I hunted for years and we found our place in Brooklyn,” he explains. “We renovated the old warehouse and made a clean, well lit, large, climate controlled garage. We can now stay organized, clean, safe and sane. The garage now is nothing like anything else in a home in the City.” The 25×95-foot space contains a wash bay, a two-post Mohawk lift, and a rack big enough to hold 60 tires–Jake also runs a tube-frame RX-7 with NASA.

“We love being in the city and especially Brooklyn,” he continues. “The culture. The ideas. The easy commute. The food. The people. Being able to expand our motorsports capabilities all under the roof of our home was a blessing.”

Next

Jake took the big win with his RX-7 in 2015, but the car didn’t return to last fall’s Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals. “In 2016 my second son was born,” he reports. So instead of bringing his Mazda, Jake flew out to Lincoln, Nebraska, to co-drive a friend’s Street Mod Subaru WRX, where he finished fourth out of 28 drivers.

The RX-7 will be there this year, he promises: “The car will return to Lincoln to defend after a 1-year hiatus.”

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