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Track Rat

For years we have all been told that getting on track costs money—lots of it. But does that have to be true? Sure, the top race teams burn through cash with reckless abandon, but what about just getting out there and clicking off some laps?

Welcome to the world of track events and lapping days, where having a fun, reliable car takes precedence over wins and all-out speed. While we have taken lots of past project cars on track, we approached this one a little differently: What would make an honest, solid, low-buck project car? Maximum bang for the buck was the order this time.

Our track car had to meet a few goals. For one, it had to be easy on the budget—and that meant easy on tires and brakes. Those two consumables can quickly inflate the cost of a weekend at the track, so we wanted to keep the cap on those expenses as low as possible. We also wanted to run a smaller tire size, as bigger ones simply cost more.

The car itself also had to be capable of hauling those tires to the track, since we didn’t want to deal with a tow rig and trailer. We also decided that a tire trailer, while popular, would also add to the complexity, budget and hassle.

Speaking of the budget, we set aside $3500 for the initial purchase. And for that price, it had to be a solid, reliable car that didn’t need much work. The whole idea of this project was to keep it quick and easy, and in our minds engine swaps and massive bodywork usually don’t fall into those categories.

To make sure we were heading in the right direction, we sought a second opinion from John Lindsey, NASA’s Chief Divisional Director. He agreed with our plan of attack and without hesitation recommended a Honda Civic or Acura Integra. Both make excellent budget-friendly track cars, he said, since they’re reliable, fun and easy on tires and brakes.

He also recommended the Nissan 240SX, although he noted that the “drift tax” has driven up prices in recent years. The E30- and E36-chassis BMW 3 Series were also worthy of a look, he said, although tires for the later model can get a little expensive.

We initially searched for a 1990-2001, base-model, five-speed Acura Integra. We figured demand would be low, so prices would follow. Turns out that we couldn’t find a decent example in our price range. Everything that we saw was either beat, overpriced, fitted with an automatic transmission or sunroof-equipped. (While a sunroof can be nice on a street car, on the Integra they do rob quite a bit of headroom.)

So we decided to expand our search to other Honda offerings. It had been a while since we shopped for a CRX, and we were surprised by what we found: very reasonable prices. And even though production had ended about 17 years ago, we saw lots of good candidates for sale.

In fact, we only needed a few days to locate a serious contender. We found a 1988 Honda CRX HF on AutoTrader.com that looked promising. The car was about an hour away and was already fitted with a 160-horsepower, Japanese-spec B16A engine. The asking price was $3400, and at the time the local classifieds contained several similar deals. We found the car’s doppelgänger advertised in Los Angeles for similar money, so we don’t think it was a regional fluke.

This one had 201,000 miles on the chassis—barely broken in as far as Hondas go—plus Tokico shock absorbers, a DC exhaust header and an RS-R cat-back exhaust. The engine supposedly had 55,000 miles on it, and the car’s condition was listed as awesome.

We checked out the CRX, and the seller was correct. The car was really solid. The paint was mostly original and in very good shape, plus the engine compartment was clean. We couldn’t spot any rust or issues, either. Obviously it had been owned by someone who cared. And since it was an HF model, it didn’t have a sunroof. The car wasn’t 100-percent perfect, as the tires were junk and the suspension had a clunk up front. The brakes worked, but the seller was pretty sure that the car still had the small HF front discs. We figured that none of those issues were deal killers, and for $3200 the CRX was ours.

Aside from a few small repairs—the battery cables were chewed up, so we ordered genuine Honda replacements—we drove the car in as-purchased condition for a few weeks. It never left us stranded, and we started to fall in love.

There’s nothing like a looming deadline to kick a project into high gear, and ours was a NASA High Performance Driving Event at Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway. We kind of waited until the last minute to register for the event, meaning that we had one week to prepare the car. Fortunately we had done our homework ahead of time, as starting with a good car also made the project relatively stress-free. For years we have all been told that getting on track costs money—lots of it. But does that have to be true? Sure, the top race teams burn through cash with reckless abandon, but what about just getting out there and clicking off some laps?

Welcome to the world of track events and lapping days, where having a fun, reliable car takes precedence over wins and all-out speed. While we have taken lots of past project cars on track, we approached this one a little differently: What would make an honest, solid, low-buck project car? Maximum bang for the buck was the order this time.

Our track car had to meet a few goals. For one, it had to be easy on the budget—and that meant easy on tires and brakes. Those two consumables can quickly inflate the cost of a weekend at the track, so we wanted to keep the cap on those expenses as low as possible. We also wanted to run a smaller tire size, as bigger ones simply cost more.

The car itself also had to be capable of hauling those tires to the track, since we didn’t want to deal with a tow rig and trailer. We also decided that a tire trailer, while popular, would also add to the complexity, budget and hassle.

Speaking of the budget, we set aside $3500 for the initial purchase. And for that price, it had to be a solid, reliable car that didn’t need much work. The whole idea of this project was to keep it quick and easy, and in our minds engine swaps and massive bodywork usually don’t fall into those categories.

To make sure we were heading in the right direction, we sought a second opinion from John Lindsey, NASA’s Chief Divisional Director. He agreed with our plan of attack and without hesitation recommended a Honda Civic or Acura Integra. Both make excellent budget-friendly track cars, he said, since they’re reliable, fun and easy on tires and brakes.

He also recommended the Nissan 240SX, although he noted that the “drift tax” has driven up prices in recent years. The E30- and E36-chassis BMW 3 Series were also worthy of a look, he said, although tires for the later model can get a little expensive.

We initially searched for a 1990-2001, base-model, five-speed Acura Integra. We figured demand would be low, so prices would follow. Turns out that we couldn’t find a decent example in our price range. Everything that we saw was either beat, overpriced, fitted with an automatic transmission or sunroof-equipped. (While a sunroof can be nice on a street car, on the Integra they do rob quite a bit of headroom.)

So we decided to expand our search to other Honda offerings. It had been a while since we shopped for a CRX, and we were surprised by what we found: very reasonable prices. And even though production had ended about 17 years ago, we saw lots of good candidates for sale.

In fact, we only needed a few days to locate a serious contender. We found a 1988 Honda CRX HF on AutoTrader.com that looked promising. The car was about an hour away and was already fitted with a 160-horsepower, Japanese-spec B16A engine. The asking price was $3400, and at the time the local classifieds contained several similar deals. We found the car’s doppelgänger advertised in Los Angeles for similar money, so we don’t think it was a regional fluke.

This one had 201,000 miles on the chassis—barely broken in as far as Hondas go—plus Tokico shock absorbers, a DC exhaust header and an RS-R cat-back exhaust. The engine supposedly had 55,000 miles on it, and the car’s condition was listed as awesome.

We checked out the CRX, and the seller was correct. The car was really solid. The paint was mostly original and in very good shape, plus the engine compartment was clean. We couldn’t spot any rust or issues, either. Obviously it had been owned by someone who cared. And since it was an HF model, it didn’t have a sunroof. The car wasn’t 100-percent perfect, as the tires were junk and the suspension had a clunk up front. The brakes worked, but the seller was pretty sure that the car still had the small HF front discs. We figured that none of those issues were deal killers, and for $3200 the CRX was ours.

Aside from a few small repairs—the battery cables were chewed up, so we ordered genuine Honda replacements—we drove the car in as-purchased condition for a few weeks. It never left us stranded, and we started to fall in love.

There’s nothing like a looming deadline to kick a project into high gear, and ours was a NASA High Performance Driving Event at Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway. We kind of waited until the last minute to register for the event, meaning that we had one week to prepare the car. Fortunately we had done our homework ahead of time, as starting with a good car also made the project relatively stress-free.

Day 1: Steering Wheel Swap

There are reasons so many pro race teams use Momo wheels—they're comfortable and solid. We went retro and found an old Benetton model.

The first thing we had to do was rid the car of the world’s worst steering wheel, a flexible no-name aftermarket piece that was starting to come apart. The diameter was also too small for our tastes. The wheel’s quick-release mechanism also failed to impress us. Obviously we weren’t the only ones who detested the wheel, as the mounting hub bore the scars of a failed removal attempt.

Here’s a tip for removing a steering wheel that just won’t come off with brute force: Get a steering wheel puller. We borrowed one from our local AutoZone, and a few turns of a ratchet freed the once stuck wheel. We’re fans of Momo wheels, but new ones start at more than $200. While that’s a fair price for its level of quality, we wanted to spend less. Hello, eBay. We bought a new old stock 350mm-diameter Momo Benneton wheel for about $150. The multicolored look might not be for everyone, but it feels great and gives the interior a ’90s-era vibe. To mount the wheel to the car, we purchased the required adaptor from LTB Motorsports.

Day 2: Suspension Surgery

At first encounter, we knew that something was up with our car’s front suspension. We had positive camber at one corner along with an unsettling clunk. Since a quality suspension goes hand in hand with safe, controlled laps as well as low tire wear, we decided to just go with new, proven hardware.

Just about everyone in the aftermarket offers suspension hardware for the Honda Civic and CRX—another benefit of going with a popular chassis—so we first called Progress. We have noticed a lot of their stickers on the fast NASA Hondas, and we enjoyed our time in the Progress-equipped Acuras used by Mid-Ohio’s driving school.

The guys at Progress recommended their Series 1 coil-overs, but with a slight change: Where the kit is usually sold with 350 lbs./in. front springs and 250 lbs./in. rears, for our needs they suggested 350 lbs./in. springs all around. To accommodate those stiffer rear springs, they’d also bump up the rebound by about 15 percent. To make these coil-overs fit our car, however, we needed to make some changes. The 1988 Civic and CRX feature a lower rear shock absorber mount that is unique to that model year, and the Progress pieces are designed to work on a 1989-’91 Civic or CRX.

We solved that problem by ordering a pair of SPC aluminum lower control arms. These pieces feature the 1989-’91 mounting arrangement, plus they also have provisions for an anti-roll bar, something our stock pieces lacked. To allow for nearly limitless alignment possibilities, we also ordered a pair of rear adjustable camber links and toe adjusters from SPC.

During the suspension install we also found the source of the clunk: A bolt on the aftermarket camber kit had failed, but fortunately we found the original stock upper mount in the box of spares and extras that came with our CRX.

Before calling the suspension final, Geoff Thompson at Andre’s Auto Repair dialed in an alignment. We told him that we wanted the car to be easy to drive and even easier on tires. He responded with 1.2 degrees of negative front camber along with 1/32 inch of static toe-in, the theory being that toe will become zero once at speed. Out back he set the toe at zero along with 0.8 degrees of negative camber. He left the ride height a little on the tall side so we’d have all of the possible suspension travel.

Day 3: Locked in Place

We weren’t going to have time to install a driving seat and harness, but we still needed something to secure us better behind the wheel. A previous owner had installed a pair of custom upholstered CRX Si seats. They looked great, but unfortunately they were also slippery.

Enter the easy-to-install CG-Lock. It simply clamps the lap belt tightly across the driver’s waist, and installation only takes a few minutes.

Day 4: Clean Breathing

An engine spends a lot of time up near redline while on track, so a clean air filter is pretty important. Our CRX came with a no-name cold-air intake, and the filter element looked a little aged. We probably could have just cleaned the filter, but we found a new one in our own stash that fit perfectly.

Day 5: Brake Check

In addition to offering a larger heat sink, replacing our stock CRX HF front discs with the larger CRX Si pieces yielded more options regarding brake pads.

Our initial brake plans were simple: upgrade the pads and fluid. Unfortunately, not too many companies stock track-ready pads for our HF calipers, so we needed a Plan B.

Some research revealed that all 1988 and 1989 CRX models use the same master cylinder, proportion valve and rear drum assemblies. Following this logic—and after conferring with brake engineer James Walker Jr.—we figured that we could safely swap our HF-spec 9.1-inch front rotors and calipers for the 9.5-inch rotors and matching calipers found on the Si and DX models. In addition to the increased thermal capabilities offered by the larger rotors, we’d also greatly increase our options regarding brake pads since the CRX Si is such a common application.

We needed three things to do this swap: calipers, rotors and pads. We sourced rebuilt calipers and the appropriate mounting brackets from our local NAPA, while the Brembo OE-style rotors and Hawk HP Plus pads came from The Tire Rack. We also flushed the system with ATE Super Blue fluid.

Note that we didn’t convert the rear drums to discs. “Either the drums or discs are fine,” says NASA National Chairman Ryan Flaherty, himself a CRX racer. “The car has such a short wheelbase that it uses almost no rear brakes.” The rear drums are also lighter, he adds.

While the car was on the lift, we also changed the oil. A couple of quarts of Mobil 1 and a new Honda oil filter had us back in business.

Day 6: Number's Up

By the end of our week, just about all of the heavy lifting was done. All we had to do was give the car a bath and apply some numbers. While we could have used our magnetic number panels, NASA Southeast Regional Director Jim Pantas recommended something more permanent. “You can use tape, magnetic, etc.,” he said, “but Roebling has a long straight, so magnetic numbers have a habit of falling off.” We heeded his warning and had Hawkeye Signs & Graphics cut some new vinyl for the car.

Day 7: Rest-Not

And on the seventh day of our quest, we rested. Okay, actually we made tracks for a NASA HPDE event at Roebling Road Raceway. The CRX handled the 31/2-hour drive to the track without a single hiccup, and the Progress suspension was actually quite comfortable on the interstate. Upon arriving at the track, we unloaded the car, mounted our tires—three-year-old Nitto NT01s on 15x6.5-inch Rota wheels grabbed from another car in our fleet—and checked in. We passed through the NASA technical inspection without any issues and were soon on track. NASA breaks their HPDE participants into four groups depending on their experience, and they placed us in one of the intermediate groups. We’re happy to report that the car ran perfectly all weekend. We didn’t dominate Roebling’s long front straight, but the CRX could keep up with the pack through the twistier bits. More importantly, the car was extremely easy to drive; we have never before piloted a CRX that could trail-brake so deeply into the corners. Considering all of the suspension setups possible for a car like this, we’d have to say our hardware and alignment setup nailed it right out of the box.

Our between-session routine only included four tasks: cleaning the windshield, torquing the lugs, checking the oil and measuring tire pressures. We never had to bleed the brakes, rotate tires or add any fluids—and that includes oil and coolant. We also never had to investigate a weird smell, call a friend for technical help or run into town to chase down an obscure part.

The CRX also wasn’t too thirsty, as it used about 4.8 gallons of fuel per hour of track time. We’d have to call it a successful debut outing.

Future Plans

The CRX was almost to easy on us during its debut NASA event. We pretty much just checked the lug nuts, cleaned the windshield and waited for our turn to go on track.

Sometimes it’s nice when a plan comes together. The CRX did a great job during its first time out at the track, but we still have some work to do. For one, we need to install some real safety equipment. Car-on-car violence is rare at HPDE events, but we’d still like to have the maximum protection allowed by law. Installing a Kirk Racing roll bar and Safe-Quip belts is on our to-do list. A real racing seat is also in the works.

We’re also going to replace our original rubber brake lines with something sturdier. The Tire Rack didn’t have any Goodridge braided lines in stock when we ordered our pads and rotors, but we now have a set. While they offer a slightly firmer pedal, the fact that they’re tougher and newer than our current setup really interests us. Call this a comfort and convenience upgrade, but new engine mounts are also in the works. Our car came with an old set of Place Racing mounts, and the dried-out inserts make the car a little buzzy—and that’s being polite. While the vibration is tolerable when on track, around town it does get a little old. Hasport mounts are a bit more civil, and soon we’ll be installing a set.

Notice how we haven’t yet discussed making any more power? The main plan was to make the car reliable, safe and consistent—and sometimes that’s just the way we like it.

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