Building a Road Racer in Eight Easy Steps

[Editor's Note: This article was origannly appeared in June 2006. Some information and prices may be different today]

Story by Scott R. Lear • Photography as Credited

You’re killing your street car. That’s okay. We all do it—you’re among friends here. You started off with some perfectly good personal transportation, maybe something that was even a bit sporty from the factory. 

And you couldn’t wait to start cutting into it and changing things to make it faster.

It starts off simple enough, with a few upgrades here and there. A cold-air intake helps produce a few extra horsepower. Cool, it’s loud under throttle, an added bonus.

Stiffer springs, firm dampers and some anti-roll bars would sure help the car through the cones in that slalom, right? Who cares if it rides more firmly on the street? So what if you lower the ride height just a little? “Interesting,” you note, “now I need to enter my driveway at a 45-degree angle to avoid taking the nose off. ”

A few modifications later, your car has evolved to perform competitively in your chosen arena. It’s fun at the limit and never misses a step. At the same time, it’s no longer comfortable in day-to-day traffic.

Choose Your Target

That’s just about where we were with our 2002 Honda Civic Si. After it was built up for competition in the SCCA’s Street Touring S autocross class, we found our EP-chassis Civic to be simply too heavy to compete against its older, lighter siblings that populate the class. Still, whenever we took the car to a track or even a good on-ramp, it brought a huge grin to our face. 

This thing would be a blast as a full-on track car, we thought. We’d also be able to keep much of the speed equipment we’d already installed, including our Koni shock absorbers, Ground Control coil-overs, Volk wheels and some goodies from Comptech, including their header, exhaust and rear anti-roll bar (which includes a nice, big aluminum brace, too).

We just needed a target. The first step to building any race car is deciding where you want to compete. Our goal for the Civic became NASA’s Honda Challenge series. Since the Civic had already received some engine and chassis work during its autocross days, we’d just have to concentrate on making the car safe for wheel-to-wheel action. We’ll worry about making it faster later on.

We printed the NASA Club Codes and Regulations—you can download them for free from NASA’s Web site—as well as the Honda Challenge rules and went to work. Elements of your build may vary, but most of the steps we went through are fairly universal for a club-level, production-based car. Don’t forget to check the rulebook before turning that first wrench or ordering a single part, as each club has their own rules that are constantly being updated.

Step 1: Clean Up

In its previous life, our Civic had been a model in BFGoodrich’s SEMA Show booth. While the car looked great in its grayscale g-Force livery, we wanted to start fresh.

So we set about removing the acres of vinyl from the car. A combination of clay bars, razor blades and lacquer thinner ultimately prevailed over the sun-baked graphics. ScrapeRite’s plastic double-edge razor blades also helped.

Step 2: Strip It!

Next, we started pulling everything out of the interior that our rules allow to be removed. The weight we shed was impressive. Judging by the poundage, Honda didn’t skimp on the quality of the interior components. 

It’s worth noting that the Honda Challenge rules require the stock battery size and location. This means that to make our car legal, we had to remove the battery relocation kit we had installed a few years ago. (Putting the battery back under the hood did save us 10 pounds between the extra cable and the plastic box.)

We have yet to remove the air conditioning (which came in handy in slushy conditions at VIR) or the side windows (which make the car far more weatherproof), although as we progress toward making the car more competitive for its class, it’s nice to know there are big chunks of mass yet to be removed.

Step 3: Roll Cage

Road racing requires a full roll cage, so we towed our Civic to Birmingham, Ala., for a visit to our friend Mark Stewart at Kirk Racing Products. Kirk Racing has done excellent work on several of our project cars in the past, and Mark’s cage fabrication on the Civic was no exception. 

We simply told him what series we were going to run and the weight of the car as delivered, and Stewart took care of the rest. He uses a Millermatic 251 MIG welder for his cage work.

“The primary goal is safety,” Stewart says. “If it gets on its top or you get hit in the side, you’ll be able to walk away. The secondary goal is stiffening the chassis; anytime you can tie it in, and the farther you can get the distances, that helps stiffen things.”

Kirk Racing’s attention to detail is nice. At our request, Stewart was able to fit the cage without cutting into the inner door sheet metal, which allowed us to keep the factory windows. He used 13/4-inch diameter, 0.095-inch-wall mandrel-bent tubing for the entire structure. The cage mounts at six points, with the rear points snugged up to the rear shock towers to aid in the aforementioned stiffening process.

To beef up the side-impact protection, Stewart used a pair of angled beams tied together with a pillar in the center. A horizontal harness bar connects the sides of the main hoop. Kirk Racing’s preferred backing plates are large, L-shaped pieces that mount flush to the floor and then kick up to follow the vertical sill.

“The reason I use the L-plates is I have a large surface on the plate on the floor itself, and I can run up the rocker panel and tie all three together,” Stewart explains. “You’d have to rip out the rocker panel and the floor to have a failure.”

The cage is your first line of defense in a major impact, and unless you’ve got excellent welding skills and tons of experience, we highly recommend finding a shop of Kirk Racing’s caliber to build you the most robust cage allowed by the rules of your series. Towing your car to your first event after spending hundreds of hours on it and then not passing inspection because you used tubing that was slightly too thin-walled would be a terrible way to start your racing career. 

 

Whether you’re buying or building a roll cage, check out the feature “Bar Hopping” in the back of this issue for more on the subject. A good roll cage can be a work of art, while a poor cage can make a chassis nearly useless.

Despite the collection of tubes and plates, our cage didn’t add a ton of weight to our Civic. The car weighed 2338 pounds after our lightening session and now checks in right at 2500 pounds. (Both weights are with a full tank of gas, by the way.)

Step 4: Interior Paint

Bare metal looks tough, but it pays to protect your investment with some rust-resisting paint. We spent a few bucks on three large plastic drop cloths (two thin, one thick) and a big roll of masking tape so we could comprehensively mask off the interior and paint the cage.

An hour spent fine-tuning your masking will make for a much better paint job, because you won’t be peeling plastic off the drying paint. Those corners are tricky.

We used two cans of Rust-Oleum Rusty Metal Primer and four and a half cans of Rust-Oleum Professional Flat White to closely match the car’s interior.

You’re going to want throwaway clothes, a good mask and goggles for this procedure.

Step 5: Obey the Law

Read through all the rules that apply to your intended series, and if there are any questions, ask an official. Sometimes you may find that you have to undo a modification or two. For example, as we mentioned earlier, we had to move the battery from the hatchback to its original location. (The relocated battery was legal under the Street Touring rules, but prohibited by the Honda Challenge regulations.)

NASA road race rules also require that the steering wheel lock be disabled. Tech Editor Per Schroeder wasn’t about to miss out on the opportunity to smash something with a hammer, so he brought over a small sledge and center punch.

A small protrusion on the lower left of the ignition assembly houses the locking solenoid; a mighty tap broke through the exterior plate, freeing the spring inside and rendering the internal components limp. Some epoxy secured the remaining lock components in their open position so they wouldn’t vibrate back into the locked position under race conditions.

The rules also required that we remove the stock glass moonroof and fill the hole with a metal or composite plug. We used a plasma cutter to make a sheet metal panel to fit over the big hole. Matching the excellent factory paint job would have required some serious coin and a professional, so we took a more military approach.

Using some leftover gray paint from a Volvo touch-up project, some flat-black camouflage paint originally bought for a paintball gun modification, and a cheap stencil kit sourced from Wal-Mart, we went for the fighter jet look and, voilà, an end result worthy of “Top Gun.” A bead of seam sealer makes the panel weatherproof, while 16 rivets keep it securely in place.

The Honda Challenge series requires tow loops front and rear, so we took the car to our neighbors at BSI Racing and they welded on some sturdy steel loops. We could have done this ourselves, but BSI installs these loops all the time, and the peace of mind of knowing it’s done right is sometimes worth the extra cash.

Our last step was to install the AMB transponder that had previously lived in our MINI Cooper S race car. We found a perfect place for it just behind the front grille where one of the horns once lived. This project required removing the entire front bumper, but this wasn’t that hard to do. We can now just reach through the grille to remove the transponder for charging.

Step 6: Regular Maintenance

At some point, you’ll want to make sure that your car is up to snuff for track duty. In our case, this involved a fresh batch of Mobil 1 engine oil and a new PowerLong filter, a complete brake system flush with ATE fluid, and some Cobalt Friction brake pads, spec(VR) up front and GT-Sport in the rear. We also checked all the other vital fluids. Before we bled the brakes, we replaced the car’s stock lines with some Goodridge stainless steel pieces.

We wanted to ride on a durable track tire that would give us lots of life for a shakedown, our licensing school and probably the first few races. We opted for the Hankook Ventus RSS Z211 tires in the harder C30 compound, and will move to a softer compound once we’ve learned the ropes and are dying to lower our lap times. 

Step 7: Safe and Sound (and Fire-Resistant, Too)

Most of the final steps for preparing the car for the track involved safety items. Sanctioning bodies don’t really care if you’re successful on track, but they’re absolutely concerned for the safety of everyone running under their banner.

Our first requirement was a seat, so we went to the GRM stockpile and grabbed a Sparco Evo that had previously been installed on our Cooper S. We contacted Sparco USA directly for a mounting bracket for the 2002 Civic Si, and after toying with a few configurations decided to run the side rails bolted directly to the mounting bracket, without the slider in place. This put us low in the cockpit and at just the right position. The Cooper S also donated its Schroth window net; we welded the brackets to the roll cage and were good to go.

We then ordered an Impact Racing six-point cam-lock harness. Impact sells all the hardware you’ll need for this installation, from clips and brackets to high-tensile steel eyebolts. We opted for the pull-up lap belts, since we had pull-down belts in another car with a Sparco Evo and have always regretted that decision. The details of this installation (and the rest of the project) can be found in the project car section online at www.grassrootsmotorsports.com. 

Pack Racing Products was the source for our 2.3-liter in-car fire system. We like their Firecharger products because they can be recharged at home for little expense. If there’s even an inkling of a reason to pull that red FIRE handle, we don’t want to hesitate while weighing the cost of a recharge versus the cost of the potential damage—we want to get covered in anti-fire sauce right now. Again, the GRM Web site contains lots of details on this installation.

A call to Racer Parts Wholesale and $18.99 got us a four-panel Wink mirror, one that provides awesome rearward visibility, especially considering the cage. Awareness is a safety item, and we’d highly recommend doing everything you can to optimize your in-car visibility.

While we were on the phone with Racer Parts Wholesale, we also bought a master kill switch. Rather than fiddle with the intricacies of the Civic’s many computers, we took this job to BSI Racing, and we’re glad we did; Speed Channel regular Stu Brumer and his team had to bang their heads on this one for quite a while and download a few factory schematics before they found the two ECU lines that were interfering with a clean power-off.

Finally, we installed some BSCI high-density, SFI-approved foam padding everywhere we thought our head or knees might be able to hit the cage. This padding has an adhesive backing to allow for an easier installation, while zip ties keep everything secured. According to the manufacturer, it also won’t melt or burn. 

Step 8: I Feel Pretty

Our last step was to put some new graphics on the car. This is a work in progress, however.

The number panel was left over from our last Challenge event, but it’s kind of lost on the car’s huge doors. We’re ready to admit that while putting the decals parallel to the door crease seemed like a good idea at the time, it does look kind of goofy. 

The GRM decals on the rear quarters are cool, so we’ll probably just get some big numbers cut for the doors and maybe even do all the sponsor logos in a solid color. Fortunately, we have tons of experience removing vinyl from this car thanks to our experiences at the start of the project, so no problem there.

Conclusion: It All Comes Together

We were confident that we’d covered all our bases, but we still breathed a sigh of relief when the NASA techs handed us the Civic’s first racing logbook. The car performed beautifully at the SuperComp school: The Impact harnesses were easy to use even with gloves on, the Cobalt brakes stayed strong throughout the day, and the Hankook tires provided very consistent grip even during long 40-minute track sessions. 

Thankfully, we didn’t have to use any of the safety gear, but knowing it was there made our rookie editor feel safer on track than he ever had before.

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Comments
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pinchvalve
pinchvalve MegaDork
2/18/20 10:26 a.m.

I wonder where that car is today, 14 years later, and if it is still racing?

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
2/18/20 12:39 p.m.

In reply to pinchvalve :

That's a really good question. I'll ask around the office and see if anyone knows.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/18/20 12:51 p.m.

In reply to pinchvalve :

From what I remember, the car is much flatter now. I kept the shift knob, though. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/18/20 12:51 p.m.

(And, yes, the top of my bookshelves are a little dusty.)

noddaz
noddaz SuperDork
2/18/20 4:40 p.m.

"From what I remember, the car is much flatter now. I kept the shift knob, though." 

Well, that is a shame about the car.

BTW, nice Carrera and Scaley cars in the back round on your shelf.

 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/18/20 8:09 p.m.

In reply to noddaz :

Thanks. Pretty sure that Civic was a crusher. 

Durty
Durty Reader
2/24/20 8:55 a.m.

Was a crusher or was in a crusher?

Jack Hudson
Jack Hudson New Reader
3/6/20 11:37 a.m.

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GCrites80s
GCrites80s Reader
3/7/20 1:21 p.m.

^Yes, but do you ship by canoe?

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