Jul 8, 2020 update to the Volkswagen Fox project car

Project VW Fox: Did We Really Race a $500 Enduro Car During an IMSA Weekend?

Let's talk about failure. It’s inevitable in endurance racing. Whether your trailer has GRM or Roush on its side, you’ll experience it eventually.

And, well, we experienced failure racing our Fox with the TireRack.com ChampCar Endurance Series at Daytona International Speedway during the July 4 IMSA weekend. Sure, there was some success–like 71 laps, three drivers, and four hour’s worth–but we still found ourselves packing up the trailer well before the checkered flag. This is the story of planned success, inevitable failure, and a team that decided they’d do it all over again in an instant. 

Endurance Race Preparation

Unlike some of our past endurance races, which we can now look back on as our young and stupid days, we took our own advice and remembered our 10 endurance racing lessons.

And those lessons dictated that after our Fox’s first outing at Barber, we had our work cut out for us. Not only did we need to rebuild the left-front corner of our Volkswagen Fox in order to prevent another bearing failure, we needed to prepare our spares, our tools and our team for a grueling 14-hour ChampCar race at Daytona. 

So we went to work, spending many evenings in the garage crossing items off our never-ending list. We fixed the car and handed the post-Barber wishlist of driver comfort and convenience features, then added more power and a higher redline courtesy of Techtonics Tuning. After two test days at the FIRM and three hours on the BSI Racing dyno, we pronounced the car done. Well, not quite: The night before the race, we removed the Fox’s wings. Extra drag would be no help on Daytona’s high banks, and ChampCar doesn’t allow front wings, anyway. One team member summed up the car’s wing-free appearance perfectly: “It sucks now.” We’d neutered our Fox, but at least we’d get to race on one of the most famous tracks in the world. 

Time to work on the team. We dove back into the garage, working first on assembling a dedicated tool set for the Daytona event. (ChampCar races require teams to split time between pit road and their garage, meaning we needed a well-organized, easily portable toolbox for the event.) Once that item was crossed off the list, we moved onto the Fox’s spares, inventorying/labeling/color-coding every part, replenishing any missing pieces, and packaging them for easy transport. 

Finally, we packed up the trailer, waved good-bye to our families, and trekked across town to Daytona International Speedway. 

Getting Ready for Racing at Daytona

As we pushed our Fox through the tech line, we knew the odds of finishing the race were low. Despite our testing and preparation, there was an elephant in the room we couldn’t ignore: We were about to race a fragile car that could barely break 100 mph on one of the fastest tracks in the country. For 14 hours. In the July heat. In a field of cars that could turn laps 30 seconds faster. We’d brought a knife to a gunfight, and we knew it.

Our Fox seemed to know it, too, its battery failing to spin the suddenly-ruined starter shortly after rolling off the trailer in an attempt to be spared from competition. No matter, we were more than willing to push start it to its inevitable demise. The car passed tech without any issues, though our inspector did seem flabbergasted that our car had been modified so heavily while still remaining so far from ChampCar’s point limit. 

We spent that evening on the team group chat, each proposing our own theory of the Fox’s demise. Would the weak four-speed transmission explode first, or would we be collected first by one of the dozens of V8-powered cars that seemed poise to pass us with 50 mph speed differentials? Perhaps the used engine we’d swiped from that rusty Jetta parts car–itself a junkyard replacement judging by the writing on the intake–would finally let go after hours of running at redline. Maybe we were all overthinking things, and a wheel would simply fall off again. We slept that night with visions of broken Foxes in our dreams, wondering who would be the lucky driver to ride back to the garage on a tow truck.

Then it was morning, so we bump-started the car to the grid and loaded our greenest driver, Jesse Spiker, into its driver’s seat. Why put in Jesse first? Simple: He’d never driven Daytona, and this project car was born out of his dream to race and lack of any funds to do so. We wanted to make sure he got a chance to drive the high banks (during an IMSA weekend no less) before the Fox broke.

Finally, after weeks of work, our Fox crossed the start line under a green flag. “GREEN GREEN GREEN GREEN” crackled over the radio, and from our pit stall we willed the car to accelerate with the rest of the field. 

Turns out we hadn’t even brought a spork; we’d brought a toothpick at best to this gunfight. The Fox was by far the slowest car in a straight line, and it crawled around the track like post-crash Ricky Bobby as every other car flew by it.

This wasn’t particularly surprising, but something else was: 10, 20, 30 minutes went by without issue. Then an hour. Jesse set his fastest lap: 2:52.009, then spun and stalled the car in the bus stop his next time through. He wasn’t able to restart the car, costing us 36 minutes while he was towed in for a push start. If we had any chance at all of winning this race, it was now gone. 

Jesse’s stint was complete, and it was time for driver number two. Maybe, just maybe, we might actually limp this thing through a race!

Where There’s Smoke

Five minutes later, we’d checked the lugs and front axle nuts (no issues–looks like our Nord-Locks finally fixed that problem) and put Wayne Presley, our second driver, behind the wheel. We were settling into the groove of racing the Fox: Watch it drive past start/finish from our pit stall, wait a seemingly endless amount of time, then watch it drive past again as cars flew by it on the outside. And the inside, at times crossing the double-yellow line to pass us on the apron. 

This lack of speed gave us plenty of time to talk on the radio with our driver, and we heard all sorts of colorful anecdotes about how hopeless the Fox was on track. That’s also how we knew we were headed for failure before Wayne had even finished his stint. 

Hi guys, the car is driving fine and running cool at 210 degrees,” Wayne said.

Huh, that’s interesting," Jesse replied, “it was always 190 degrees when I was driving.”

A quick check confirmed we hadn’t lost any coolant, and our fan/radiator seemed to be working as intended. Maybe Wayne’s just been driving it harder, we figured, and caused the increased coolant temperature.

But before we could diagnose further, Wayne had set his fastest lap (2:44.561) and pitted for driver number 3, Tom Suddard, to hop in the car.

There’s Fire

Wow, this thing is terrible!” We’re pretty sure that was Tom’s first transmission over the radio, but hey, track time at Daytona is track time at Daytona, so we continued to watch the Fox slowly circle the track.

A few laps in, he was on the radio again “So, uh, water temps are stuck at 235 degrees; any ideas?” 

The other end of the radio voiced the tonal equivalent of a giant shrug, so we all agreed to just keep racing and see what happened. Over the next few laps, we tried short-shifting, slowing the pace, avoiding traffic, and using just part-throttle, but nothing brought down the temperature. Even during caution laps, the gauge read 220 degrees. On the bright side, Tom ran the Fox’s fastest lap of the day, putting down a 2:41.128 lap.

If professionally built race engines can’t survive this kind of abuse, our junkyard turducken Jetta block certainly couldn’t. We were on borrowed time with a worthless engine in a hopeless race, so we kept driving. 

Then, during the 3-4 shift coming onto the banking, time ran out. We couldn’t get the car into gear, coasting to a stop near the bus stop as we desperately wiggled the shifter and tried to keep the car running. Finally we found a combination that worked–third gear and barely above idle–and managed to nurse the car back to our pit stall. The Fox stalled as we coasted in front of our team.

Wayne dove underneath immediately, adjusting the shift linkage and ensuring that we could get through the gears. Linkage adjusted, we push-started the car and were back on track. 

Well, almost on track. Instead, after idling down pit road at ChampCar’s 20 mph speed limit, the Fox died at pit-out, and after even more pushing we realized the true nature of its problem: The car simply wouldn’t run above idle, so we pushed it to the garage and spent 20 minutes changing the screaming fuel pump in a last-ditch attempt to save the race. 

We then belted our final driver, J.G. Pasterjak, into the no-longer-boiling car and gave it one last push start. We were rewarded with the sound of a running Fox! And a sound like KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. The glittery oil dipstick removed all doubt that we’d finally killed our Fox.

Why Did Things Not End on the Podium?

So, why didn’t our Fox last the entire race? It’s tempting to blame one factor–be it blazing July temperatures, competitive drivers, a brutal track, a much-higher redline or a high-mileage engine of dubious origins–but the real answer is probably a combination of all factors. We started with a 30-year-old engine from a beaten and abused car. Then we installed a bigger cam and raised the redline. Then we pushed it for hours at Daytona and hoped for the best. 

The most likely story is this: A well-worn engine was put in a situation that caused high oil temperatures and accelerated engine bearing wear. Those problems weren’t noticed because we had no oil temperature or pressure gauge aside from the stock idiot light. As we continued racing, wear caused temperatures to continue increasing, which caused more wear, which spiraled into the rod knock. There’s one bright spot, though: We removed the valve cover after the race and saw that our upgraded camshaft looks good, meaning we can reuse it on our next engine. 

By the race’s end, our finishing position was official: 73rd overall out of 92 cars, while our fastest lap was only faster than three other entrants. Only one of those cars turned more than a handful of laps before retiring from the race. We’d argue that we had the second-slowest car at the event. 

So, where’s this leave us? We’d blown up our race car, lost the race, and stood around in Florida’s July heat for a day for nothing in return. But we’d still do it all over again: We had a ton of fun, we passed a few cars, and Jesse can now say that he’s raced during an IMSA weekend at Daytona. Plus, 19 other teams now have the honor of being beaten by a Fox on one of the fastest tracks in the country.

What’s next for the Fox? Unfortunately, it’s time for a break with this one as we have a V6 Miata to wrap up and sort. 

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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/20 11:34 a.m.

noddaz
noddaz UltraDork
7/8/20 12:59 p.m.

I think the answer here is a 1.8t and trans out of a  1999 Passat.  No one will be able to tell, all VW engines look the same.  wink  Or better yet, paint a Passat white and put a Fox badge on it.  No one will ever know.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
7/8/20 2:15 p.m.

Nice story Tom.

Two things... why didn't you go across the street and buy a battery for the car?

And second, we need to make it clear to readers that this is our Lemons car and not our ChampCar. The aforementioned V6 Miata we are building, will be a competitive ChampCar.

We had a last minute opportunity to join in the fun, when ChampCar joined the IMSA weekend and couldn't resist, but the only car we had ready to go was the Fox.

There's fire. Hot fire. 

Robbie (Forum Supporter)
Robbie (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
7/8/20 2:27 p.m.
Tim Suddard said:

why didn't you go across the street and buy a battery for the car?

 

Something about throwing good money after bad? (I keed I keed!)

But more seriously, it is possible that a bad battery lead to cooling fans and such not being as effective as they should be? Or low system voltage tricking the ecu into mis-reading sensors and sending incorrect timing/fueling values? It probably wouldn't be bad enough to not run, but it could certainly push into "not great". And at WOT you're probably not using the o2 sensors at all, rather jumping into hard coded maps based on ECT sensor and MAF. So engine might have been running quite a bit leaner than it should have been because of false sensor reading because low battery. "A bit lean" for 3-4 hours at WOT straight could become an issue.

At the very least the low battery would cause a big drag on the engine since the alternator would be working at full steam the whole time trying to charge it. 

Bill Strong
Bill Strong New Reader
7/8/20 2:53 p.m.

In reply to Tim Suddard :

All I keep reading are excuses .. I really believe you guys could have won this race if you had started it a week earlier!  

Thanks for choosing to race with us guys! It was fun watching you from the air conditioned tower booth.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/20 3:39 p.m.
Robbie (Forum Supporter) said:
Tim Suddard said:

why didn't you go across the street and buy a battery for the car?

 

Something about throwing good money after bad? (I keed I keed!)

But more seriously, it is possible that a bad battery lead to cooling fans and such not being as effective as they should be? Or low system voltage tricking the ecu into mis-reading sensors and sending incorrect timing/fueling values? It probably wouldn't be bad enough to not run, but it could certainly push into "not great". And at WOT you're probably not using the o2 sensors at all, rather jumping into hard coded maps based on ECT sensor and MAF. So engine might have been running quite a bit leaner than it should have been because of false sensor reading because low battery. "A bit lean" for 3-4 hours at WOT straight could become an issue.

At the very least the low battery would cause a big drag on the engine since the alternator would be working at full steam the whole time trying to charge it. 

rcutclif

Our battery was actually fine—quick diagnosis showed that our starter was the real problem, which is why we decided to just bump-start the car for the day. I'll update the story to clarify. 

And I doubt the car was running lean due to an electrical issue—like I said, the battery was fine, and we did dyno pulls beforehand all the way up to 220 degree coolant temps to make sure our AFRs would stay healthy when drafting. Perhaps the failing fuel pump was bad long before we knew it, but I think this was a simple case of too much abuse on too worn of an engine. 
 

Crappy cars really do make good stories. 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/20 4:04 p.m.
Bill Strong said:

In reply to Tim Suddard :

All I keep reading are excuses .. I really believe you guys could have won this race if you had started it a week earlier!  

Thanks for choosing to race with us guys! It was fun watching you from the air conditioned tower booth.

Bill Strong

Thanks for having us! It's a huge testament to ChampCar that even with this turd of a car, we were able to run Daytona and even have a somewhat competitive class to race in! We'll definitely be back with a proper entry. 

Chesterfield
Chesterfield Reader
7/8/20 4:05 p.m.

I think this chassis was produced in South America with the aircooled flat 4, which has decent history of endurance racing in some pretty harsh environments (baja 1000).  Maybe, you should try a more archaic engine technology. I am sure that it would be interesting, and might get a good laugh from the tech inspectors. Just a crazy thought exercise, I might be getting a little loopy from too much time stuck in the house.

tba02
tba02
7/8/20 7:57 p.m.

All crapcan options aside, I think this is probably closest to the truth - 
"Perhaps the failing fuel pump was bad long before we knew it"

And that lead to a lean condition which provided cascading effects that lead to the demise of all things VW/Fox that day.

 

Honsch
Honsch New Reader
7/8/20 8:00 p.m.

Too bad the motor E36 M3 the bed.

If you pop the head off you can see if the pistons are melted.  If they are it was probably the fuel pump that killed it.

I'm going to get some Nord-locks for our Fox since they seemed to work.

Now is it time for an ABA?

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/20 8:35 p.m.

In reply to Honsch :

Yeah, I didn't have time to tear the car down any further now (need to get moving on other projects) but once we resuscitate this project down the road I'll definitely pull it apart and see what really happened.

As far as what's next—we don't know yet. I have a spare 1.8 sitting here ready to drop in, but the team has kicked around everything from an air-cooled swap (yes, we came up with that independently, we're pretty twisted) to a Subaru EJ20 and trans. We'll probably skip the easy ABA route and do something stupid for the sake of writing an interesting story. Or we'll just rotary swap it, because I didn't learn my lesson with the turbo rotary Miata.  

Oh, and the Nord-Locks worked perfectly. The nuts didn't budge at all. Here's what we used from McMaster-Carr:

Line   Product Ordered Delivers Price Total
1 91074A328 Zinc-Flake-Coated Steel Wedge Lock Washer for M20 Screw Size, 0.840" ID, 1.540" OD, packs of 2
Honsch
Honsch New Reader
7/8/20 11:52 p.m.

You could go modern 1.8t/Passat B5 transmission.  We've done the trans swap so we know all the ins and outs.  It's got great gear ratios and if you're willing to do a little lathe work you can put a Quaife LSD in it. 

Thanks for the part numbers, we'll see of we can get McMaster to ship to Canada.

sergio
sergio Reader
7/9/20 12:15 a.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

Helium in the tires and you would have won your class. 

Matt_B
Matt_B New Reader
7/9/20 11:22 a.m.

I was Corner Working in Turn 1, car looked really good coming through there.

 

Did you guys get to take part in the pandemonium in the first rain?  We counted at least 10 off in turn 4, and then at least 8 off under full course yellow in turn 1.  

DirtyBird222
DirtyBird222 UberDork
7/9/20 2:34 p.m.

It was great seeing you guys out there. I was happy to see you on track a few times in the first stint. We had our own issues that likely prevented us from a solid finish. 

Issue 1 - Lap 1/Turn 1 the brake pedal went to the floor. One of us forgot to put the shims back in on the left front brake caliper which screws everything up. Easy fix but that immediately dropped us pretty far down. We got back on track for 3 more stints before....

Issue 2 - the right front wheel bearing (likely an Autozone part with at least 90 hours of racing on it) finally let go. It destroyed the brake ducting and axle boot in the process. It did so right as the first red flag came out which gave me time to call and travel to six different auto parts stores in the area that all claimed to have a bearing; but, upon arrival did not have it in stock (except for the sixth and final store). The guys had disassembled everything, gotten a new axle in, and threw the hub on ice. When I arrived back we caveman hammered the new bearing on and got the car back on track for another stint before......

Issue 3 - the screws in the distributor backed themselves out and destroyed itself. 10 minute fix and we were back on track for the rest of the race. We clawed back to 42nd overall and 4th in B class. 

I'm happy we finished as Daytona has been a nemesis of ours. We've blown clutches (replaced in under two hours), engines, axles, Randy Pobst has run us off the track in the bus stop in his Volvo, and had harmonic balancer fall off on the last lap in which we pushed the car across the finish line on pit road. We were so happy to finish under power! 

drsmooth
drsmooth HalfDork
7/9/20 3:48 p.m.

In reply to DirtyBird222 :

Best Livery Ever!

Typ85
Typ85 New Reader
8/7/20 2:26 a.m.

Tom

Been watching your build since the beginning, being an old school Audi guy, alot of the parts are interchangeable wth the Audi 4000's.

Also, I have a buddy that's is a VW fox enthusiast (Greg wood), he knows all when it comes to what Audi parts are compatible with your Fox (engine, trans, axles, suspension, brakes, etc).

Let me know if you want me to reach out him so he can contact you.

Thanks!

Dan G.

PS, Wallens did an article on my '84 coupe in the Oct. 2006 edition of your magazine!

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