Prize Fighter

By Scott Lear
Apr 6, 2010 | Subaru | Posted in Shop Work | From the April 2010 issue | Never miss an article

When it comes to our no-holds-barred Ultimate Track Car Challenge, the more cylinders, the better. Out of the 55 track-prepared beasts that entered the most recent competition, the top five finishers all had big V8 power. The next two spots went to six-cylinder racers—one with a turbo, the other with lots of revs and an exceedingly low curb weight. Squarely in eighth place overall, however, was a comparatively diminutive 2.5-liter four-banger.

The boxer engine in the nose of Phil Grabow’s 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX STI had less than a third of the displacement of some of the other cars. However, that didn’t prevent the Subaru from running at the sharp end of the pack with a 2:00.197 fast lap around Virginia International Raceway.

A big turbo certainly helped, but power isn’t the only answer in the search for a quick time on track. In fact, due to heat issues, Phil’s Subaru was running in limp mode when it beat every other four-cylinder turbo at the event—as well as two Dodge Vipers and a full-race Ferrari F430 Challenge.

Tonight’s Card

From left to right, that’s John Shim, Element Tuning owner and car driver Phil Grabow, and James Fournier. Seibon carbon fiber pieces have replaced the doors, hood and trunk on the team’s Subaru.

Phil is the owner of Element Tuning, a performance shop based in Gaithersburg, Md. He started out on two muddy wheels, racing motocross for 10 years and achieving the Expert rank in that discipline before heading off to college.

Motocross was a bit rough on Phil, who owes a broken back, facial reconstructive surgery and seriously blown knees to his first passion. “To this day, I still miss that sport, but I haven’t ridden in 10 years,” he admits.

“After graduating from George Mason University with a degree in marketing, I rode the dot-com boom into the ground,” he laughs. Armed with some money and a newly discovered love of cars, Phil decided to turn the passion into his job. “I worked with TurboXS for about three years helping to develop performance products and engine management solutions.”

In 2005 he struck out on his own and founded Element Tuning, a performance and racing parts company that focuses primarily on Subarus. Since the WRX’s stateside debut for 2002, a raft of enthusiasts have flocked to the brand’s seven-star badge. The result has been plenty of tuner demand for go-fast goodies. Phil must have been paying attention when he got that marketing degree, because one of his first steps was to select a venue to showcase his new company’s talents with the Subaru platform. He decided that time attack was the way to go.

Footwork Drills

Car owner Phil Grabow upgraded the front brakes to beefier StopTech units.

A race car is only as good as the driver at the wheel, so for their debut outing Element Tuning hired the services of professional driver Gary Sheehan. Element campaigned a 2002 Impreza WRX at the very first Super Lap Battle event in the U.S., held at California’s Buttonwillow Raceway.

“We finished a solid second place,” Phil recalls, “but realized that horsepower wasn’t everything. Gary was able to find 8 seconds a lap in the car by helping us dial in the chassis. At that point I knew how to make a powerful and reliable engine, but clearly no amount of power would match the gains we would see from developing the chassis. I could throw 100 horsepower at this thing and not pick up 4 seconds,” he explains. The time attack event also delivered the speed and competitive thrill that Phil once got from motocross. Rather than continue to let a hired gun have all the fun, Phil decided to secure his own time trial license. He figured there was no better way to learn the ropes of chassis development and test his company’s parts than to become a test pilot.

“My past racing experience with motorcycles accelerated my ability to drive fast,” reasons Phil, who qualified for his time trial license after just a few events. Better still, the Element Tuning team and sponsors realized that Phil was downright quick at the wheel of the Subaru. “There aren’t many company owners who not only tune their own engines but also personally race their cars, so I’m proud of this,” he admits. Before long, Phil’s lap times dropped below those of hired guns. He humbly attributes this to his familiarity with his Subaru. Whatever the case, in a competition format where the only thing that matters is the fastest lap, Phil was the man for the job.

Strapping On the Gloves

The interior has been stripped to reduce weight, and a Turbosmart boost controller is mounted high on the roll cage.

The 2002 WRX had done well at the Redline event, but soon Phil realized that the car had some shortcomings for unlimited-prep track use, particularly in the transmission and differential departments. “It had a dog box that we were breaking,” Phil recalls.

They wanted to install the six-speed gearbox and variable center differential from the STI. Rather than swap those components into the 2002, however, they decided to simply upgrade to a different car. A 2006 Impreza WRX STI fit the bill perfectly.

“The reason I didn’t do a 2007,” explains Phil, “was that they switched to a different ECU and taller gearing. We wanted the shorter gearing and the older ECU because we had a Hydra EMS [engine controller] for it.” Within 30 days of acquiring the STI, Phil had his new WRX at its first event, GT Live. The car was still wearing its temp tags.

The Lego-like interchangeability of Subaru components worked to their advantage, as Phil and his team simply transplanted the suspension and wheels from the old WRX. The engine, at the time sporting only an upgraded turbo, Hydra engine management, and some basic intake and exhaust bolt-ons, made a reliable 450 horsepower.

A large GT65 turbo and a suite of Element Tuning upgrades allow this Subaru to churn out a whopping 630 horsepower through the relatively stock Impreza drivetrain.

“We eventually upgraded to a bigger turbo,” Phil says. “We raced on the stock engine for an entire year at 500 horsepower just to prove the point that these engines aren’t fragile—with the right engine management system and tuning, as long as it’s not detonating. Other shops were betting that we would blow up. We beat the big guys, and the engine never blew.”

Still, Phil knew that they were giving up horsepower to their time trial competition, so it was time to take the block apart—Element Tuning is a tuning shop that specializes in engines, after all. Their Big Valve head package, custom piston coatings, forged H-beam connecting rods and cooling upgrades were complemented by Cosworth cams and aftermarket pistons. Master tech Steve Simpson assembled all of these components.

Phil tuned the engine for a peak of about 620 horsepower. It’ll spin to 8500 rpm reliably, and the meat of the power is above 4200 revs. On hotter days, however, cooling issues require the wick to be dialed back a bit. (By the way, Element sells entire engines built to the same Pro Comp specification starting at $6457, while more streetable engines go for less.)

Naturally, power is only half of the power-to-weight equation. Phil also put the Subaru on a serious diet. Replacing the four doors with Seibon carbon fiber pieces was a big help; Phil reckons he saved 200 pounds between the doors and their glass. The hood and trunk are also Seibon carbon fiber pieces, and Phil replaced the heavy stock rear wing with an adjustable APR unit. The steel subframe was replaced with a lighter aluminum piece.

Having extra weight up top doesn’t help performance, and the stock STI had a surprising chunk of mass there. “On the ’06 cars, they have this weird little spoiler on the top of the rear window. That thing is made of steel; it was very heavy,” Phil laughs. “Frankly, everything else we do is adding weight—the brakes, bigger sway bars, the cage. You’re kind of fighting with that,” he says. Even with all the heavier race prep stuff, the Subaru now clocks just 2800 pounds on the scales.

Mental Conditioning

Setup and handling trump power in the search for lap times, hence the adjustable camber plates.

The realization that chassis tuning was the key to speed inspired Phil to learn more about the art of suspension setup. At first he was taking tire temps and checking tread wear, but he admits that he was still flying by the seat of his pants, pushing the car until he found a weakness.

“In motocross we’d revalve our own suspension,” he explains. “You had a lot more control than you have on these street-type performance suspensions.”

Phil went to JIC Magic—his sponsor at the time—and admitted that he needed some help. “He asked me for the corner weights, wrote down a bunch of gibberish, and said, ‘These are the rates we want.’” Phil decided to learn how to set up his own suspension, studying how travel, sag and pre-load impact performance. BC Racing came on board as his suspension sponsor—Phil is particularly pleased with their strut replacement program—and the lap times continued to come down. “We haven’t changed power in a long time,” Phil explains. Instead, he’s been finding speed in the car through improved grip and aerodynamics.

Because the Element Tuning Subaru is a time trial weapon, the setup is somewhat radical by road racing standards. It’s more like a high-stakes qualifying setup.

“With time attack, you don’t worry about the temperatures or the wear,” Phil explains. “You’re looking for maximum grip, the greatest contact patch.”

He started by increasing negative camber; “Burn up the insides to get your best time,” he says. “We’ve run three-quarters of an inch of toe-out, kind of a temporary fix,” he explains. “Guys in [Daytona] Prototypes told me they run an inch of toe-out for qualifying. Of course, it won’t last very long.”

However, he has learned that sometimes conventional wisdom isn’t the best answer: “In the search for the fastest possible lap times, you’ve got to be open to things that don’t make sense on paper.”

Heat Drills

Cool Shirt blowers for the brake ducts dramatically improved the Subaru’s braking performance.

If the Element Tuning Subaru has a weak spot, it’s heat. Time trial events usually consist of just a few flying laps, but in a powerful, grippy, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive car like Phil’s tuned STI, intense heat is always lurking around the corner. The more they turn up the boost and power, the quicker temperatures can enter the red zone and put the head gaskets in danger.

They’ve upgraded the obvious stuff, including a Koyo radiator filled with straight water and Red Line WaterWetter. Fortunately, time trial events give them a real-world way to test different solutions.

“One thing that’s really detrimental on Subarus is the hood scoop,” Phil says. “On one race we cut a big hole on the back of the scoop; we couldn’t believe how much it lowered the temps.”

As Phil explains, the scoop crams air into the engine bay and won’t let it out. “I think the next step is to do an actual duct system that goes in [the front] and then up and out the hood, so the whole radiator is ducted,” he adds.

Element Tuning tried a few aftermarket head gaskets but found that the OEM Subaru parts work best, as do the OEM crank and block. A sleeved engine, Phil says, will overheat badly. He also says that while the stock pistons aren’t unreliable, they won’t tolerate detonation over 400 horsepower. “You can make some mistakes with forged pistons,” he states.

Another heat problem area for the team car was the brakes. They’d been turning the gold-painted OEM Brembo calipers black, going through pads in a weekend. However, an interesting solution has yielded surprisingly effective results. To cram more air into the cooling ducts, Phil stole an idea used on Gary Sheehan’s US Touring Car Subaru: Use Cool Shirt electric blower motors to force more air through the system. “I was like, ‘That’s kind of silly,’” Phil laughs.

With nothing to lose, Phil decided to order a set of the small blowers and give them a try. “They seem like a super joke—3-inch in, 3-inch out—but they flow some serious velocity,” Phil says.

Turns out the little blowers were no laughing matter. “They were enough to knock me down a temperature range in the brake pads,” he exclaims. “I wish I had temperature data to back it up.”

In the Ring

Aerodynamic upgrades include a front splitter, underbody panels and this adjustable APR rear wing.

Phil and the Element Tuning Subaru have racked up an impressive number of time trial titles in just a few short years, including championships with Formula X Time Attack and NASA Mid-Atlantic’s Time Trial Unlimited class.

As a feather in his cap for 2009, Phil secured the NASA Mid-Atlantic TTU championship with an overall victory at Virginia International Raceway last October. Even though he was in the process of testing a new turbo setup, Phil broke the 2-minute barrier and beat a similarly prepared Nissan GT-R in the process.

Like so many Subaru owners, Phil’s brand loyalty is strong. As a bonus, his chosen marque has allowed him to beat up some of the world’s most recognized sporty cars—all with a four-door STI.

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