I’m a Miata guy. I like how economical they are. I like how they handle and communicate, and that lets me extract every bit of performance. Miatas are slow, but they punch above their weight, and you can generally pass people in cars that cost 10x as much. If I’m being honest, it’s especially fun to put the hurt on German sports car owners. But this time the shoe was on the other foot. Racing one of the only cars that is slower and more economical than a Miata, we beat 10 out of 12 Miatas in a lowly Toyota Yaris.
Where this shameful event occurred was at the 24 Hours of Lemons race at Thunderhill. Lemons often runs here, combining the 3-mile and 2-mile course using a bypass from Turn 7W to the front straight. That removes Turn 8W, which is a fun right hander that crests a hill and unweights the tires, and two 2nd-gear corners that are about the only place a Miata or Yaris can accelerate quickly.
The one time they ran the full course without the bypass was back in 2014 when they set the Guinness Book of Worlds Records record for most cars in a race with 216 cars simultaneously racing on track. We were in that race, in a Miata of course, and it was as crazy as that sounds.
For this event, Lemons decided to run the entire track without the 7W bypass, and this full 5-mile configuration ranks as my all-time favorite track. Elevation, blind corners, off camber… the layout has everything you could ask for. But Lemons being Lemons, they decided to run the entire course backwards, which nobody has done before. When you run a course backwards, the curbing isn’t in the right spot, the usual reference points are gone, and you end up figuring shit out as you race. It’s exciting, but not exactly safe.
Because stupid is as stupid does, Lemons further decreed that they’d switch to the 3-mile track on Sunday. And run it in both directions. That’s right, they’d stop the race in the middle of the day, re-grid the cars, and run them in the opposite direction.
Because stupid is as stupid does, I booked a flight to Sacto. I packed my helmet, gloves, shoes, and maxed out the rest of my 50-lb weight limit with aluminum street signs, rivets, wing mounts, angle brackets, and various fabrication tools.
Yaris > Yarnis
Ian originally built his Yaris for the B-Spec class, but after one race where a backmarker idiot ran him and another car off track, and discovering the rampant cheating in the class, he gave up trying to race with the SCCA.
The Yaris has only 100 hp, and to make matters worse, the gaps between the gears are so large that the engine falls out of the powerband on every shift. There are momentum cars, and there are momentum cars; this is the latter.
For being a soft FWD car, it handles surprisingly well. What it lacks in power it makes up in being frugal, and burns only 4 gallons per hour. The car once went 2 hours and 42 minutes in a stint, but there were a lot of full course yellows. Still, it’s quite possible to get 2.5 hours out of a 10-gallon tank, and you can’t say that about many race cars.
We themed the car by putting yarn tufts all over the car, like you would for visualizing airflow. Our official team name was Toyota Kazoo Racing, but after theming we were pretty much Team Yarnis.
I’ve been using Accelera 651 Sport tires as a dual-duty tire for street and mild track use. The 651s have a 200 TW rating, but in my testing I found the performance similar to the 340 TW Continental ExtremeContact Sport. I’ve also raced these tires in Lemons before, and found they were about a second per mile slower than a proper 200 TW endurance tire.
So they are definitely at the slower end of what I’d consider an endurance racing tire, but we’d race on them anyway. Why?
Partly because the 651s go on sale occasionally for half price, and the first set has free shipping and a 30-day money back guarantee. Ian purchased a full set for $260 to his door. In addition, the importer, Tire Streets, has a racing program which awards free tires for winning in a recognized racing series. A win gets you four free tires, second gets you a pair, and third gets you a single tire. So not only were the tires cheap, depending on where we finished, they might even be free.
We’d run the Accelera 651 on the front, because the rear tires were already chosen. These are old-stock (as in 6-7 years old) 205/55r16 Maxxis VR1s. Ian got these on closeout and bought a pallet of them. The tires are 25″ diameter (compare with 23″ front tires) which required jacking up the rear shocks for clearance. The combination of tire diameter and coilover height gave the car extreme forward rake, putting way more weight on the front tires than is necessary, and way too little on the rear. But the car looks really cool this way, like a Hot Wheels car, and that is super Lemony.
To recap our amazing tire strategy: the fronts are an off-brand low-grip, $65 tire; the rears are the wrong size chosen primarily for looks, and were $59.95 each. That’s a performance-first strategy right there.
With all of that extreme forward rake from the mismatched tire sizes, I knew that we’d have to add rear grip or the car would rotate too much in fast corners. The easiest way to add rear grip at speed is to use a wing.
Ian’s teammate Mike did a really nice job making a double wing from two cheap single wings, but I felt it was mounted too close to the roof. A wing needs about a chord length under the wing so that it can create suction, and if you mount a wing too close to a trunk or roof, the low pressure region collides with the high pressure region, and you get a spoiler, not a wing.
So I made new wing mounts out of splitter plywood and bolted them to the hatchback. These wing mounts allow the wing to move forward and back, so we could theoretically adjust front/rear aero balance via leverage, independent of wing angle.
Ian also had a 9 Lives Racing wing, but hadn’t welded on the wing mounts I gave him. So I riveted on some mounts and we’d test that wing on Sunday. With rear aero addressed, the next thing was to add more front grip and reduce drag.
For the front, my specifications were the following:
- Flat undertray with 12-degree ramps (diffusers) dumping into the wheel wells.
- Removable splitter, adjustable for length, with cutouts for the diffusers.
- Radius the underside of the front splitter edge and bevel the trailing edge upwards.
- Spats in front of the tires.
- Duct the radiator and put an extractor vent in the hood, to make sure no air from the engine compartment could get below the splitter.
- Vent the front quarter panel to extract any air in the wheel arch.
The next thing to address was drag reduction. The Yaris has enormous windows, and when opened, turns the rear of the car into a parachute. Mike rounded the B-pillars with sheet aluminum, which would help extract some of that air. He also added rear wheel covers to reduce drag. We also reduced the openings in the front of the car by more than half, blocking off the bottom grill, and reducing the radiator opening by 1/3.
That all went mostly to plan, but it took more than the single day I had set aside, and so we were building aero in the pits all weekend. Whenever the car was not racing, it was getting cut, riveted, ducted, and otherwise transformed. I didn’t get a chance to make barge boards, they were pretty low on the list anyway.
With all of that aero work happening in the pits on Friday, we missed our early tech spot, but we got classed in C with zero laps. We also missed our chance to test the car on track, or see what the track looks like in reverse. But we’ll figure that all out in the race tomorrow. We have four fast drivers and I feel like we have a shot of winning our class. The question is, can we stay out of the penalty box?
The Yaris has done well in past Lemons races, and should have won Class C by now. But the team keeps getting too many black flags from exceeding the limits of the “attention circle”.
A driver’s attention circle is a lot like a tire’s friction circle. A tire that is being used 90% for cornering has only 10% left for braking or acceleration. If you ask for more than that, you slide out. The attention circle is the same. If you have 90% of your attention on going fast, you have 10% left for watching flag stations, monitoring the car, and avoiding other idiots driving like idiots.
Unfortunately Ian’s teammates spend 95% of their attention on beating each other, and so they exceed the limits of the attention circle and get black flags regularly. From watching their progress over the past couple years, I’d guess they average about four black flags per race.
Let me just get on my high horse for a minute here…. In the past 11 years I’ve done 26 endurance races and have accrued three black flags: One was a blend line violation when I was avoiding another car; One was when I hit a car because I was driving like an idiot; And one time when I got hit from behind by someone else driving like an idiot. All of them are my fault. When you drive the car, you put yourself into situations where things happen. If you’re in the car and lighting hits it, it’s your fault; you put yourself in that situation.
Those incidents aside, I have never spun, put four off, or made a pass under yellow. Yet. I’m sure those things will happen, because that’s racing. But I also know that in endurance racing, my primary job is to take care of the car for the next driver. I won’t put the car in a compromising situation, I won’t flat spot the tires, I’ll watch the gauges and mirrors, I’ll see every flag station, and I’ll stay the fuck out of trouble.
Driving with all of those things in my attention circle means that I’m not concentrating so much on going fast. I lift when I should be flat footed, I don’t steal apexes or defend my line, I point people by, and I drive like a gentleman. I’m not the fastest driver on the team; I’m occasionally the slowest. But if you do the math, I generally come out up top.
The math is this: A black flag is at minimum a 5 minute penalty, and for the Yaris on the the 3-mile track, it works out to just over 6 seconds per lap. That’s right, whatever your best lap was, add 6 seconds to that one, that’s your fastest lap. And add 6 seconds to every other laps as well. The fact is, one black flag makes you the slowest driver on the team.
If you get a second black flag in a Lemons race, they will start to hold you longer, and as you rack up more and more BFs, they will park your car for an hour and/or make you do stupid and embarrassing shit. The organizers made sure to mention this in the driver meeting, that longer penalties would happen at your second black flag. You can probably tell I’m going somewhere with this….
I keep telling Ian there is no learning without consequence, and he should fine his drivers for black flags: $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and so on. Get four black flags and you’re out a thousand bucks. That’s a teachable moment right there.
Instead, Ian removed the Rumblestrip lap timer from the car, feeling that this should remove the incentive for a fast-lap competition. In addition, Ian said there would be a competition for whoever gets the best gas milage. That’s pretty clever, and he thought it might keep Danny and Mike from competing against each other for once. Unfortunately, I’m the only one who followed team orders.
95 cars registered for the race, but I believe only 88 cars actually started. This is normal for Lemons, some cars never make the starting grid. There was a Lucky Dog race at Sonoma the same weekend, which pulled some of the attendance away, and so weren’t going to get anywhere near the 216 cars we had when we set the record. Which is fine by me, that was too many cars. With 88 cars it works out to 17.6 cars per mile, which should leave everyone plenty of room for racing.
I drove the first stint. There was no time to test all the aero changes we’d made, so my sighting laps were the only testing I’d get. Unfortunately I got stuck behind a really slow car and had a train behind me, so I couldn’t get heat into my tires. Going just half speed I lost the rear end in T7, then again had to save a spin in T1W and T7W. The extreme rake on the car meant there was very little weight on the rear tires, and even with repetitive braking couldn’t get any heat into them .
I did one full lap, and about half way through my second lap, on the west-east connector, they threw the green flag. So I started the race about 2 minutes away from the starting line, which wasn’t very good luck, but as I picked up the pace I felt the rear tires come in, and was able to push a bit.
You’ll recall that the strategy was to get the most MPG, and so I hypermiled my way around the track, short shifting and coasting into braking zones. There’s no economical way to take the 2nd-gear corners on the West side, but it was fun to out accelerate some cars. That’s really the only place that can happen.
I drove a clean stint for two hours and 27 minutes, making a lot of safe passes and bringing the team up to 24th place overall and 2nd in class. I didn’t light the track on fire, but it was a solid effort averaging 15.3 mpg. Unfortunately I set up the Aim Solo incorrectly, and Ian forgot to turn on the video cameras, so all I have are my memories from this stint.
Mike got in the car next and after a few good laps suddenly went four off in Turn 5. This is a tricky, blind, tight corner, and I saw several people go off here. But I’m not going to make excuses for Mike – there’s no reason to go off the track when you’re all alone and you’re competing for who can get the best gas milage.
Mike caught another black flag for a blend line violation exiting Turn 1. The organizers warned about this in the driver’s meeting, and said to treat all blend lines as walls, and yet at least a dozen people got black flags for this. Mike said he was going three wide there and had to cross the blend line to avoid traffic, but since he put himself in that situation, he’s 100% at fault.
That second black flag cost us a bit more time, and we discussed throwing in the towel and using the rest of the weekend for testing. I lobbied to stay the course, because other teams could also have drivers with poor judgement, or mechanicals, or simply bad luck. So with about 20 minutes in penalty time already in the bank, and knowing the next flag would park us for an hour, Mike got back on track and ran some quick, clean laps to finish out his stint.
Danny drove next and did some very fast laps that got us back to fourth place in class, and then Ian drove a short stint to close out the day. His Achilles tendon hasn’t fully healed, so he didn’t want to risk that, but wanted to get in some hot laps on this unique reverse 5-mile layout. Mission accomplished.
Saturday evening we continued on aero until the sun went down, adding more venting and spats on the spitter in front of the front tires.
Before the race we discussed strategy and reckoned we were still in for a podium if we could avoid black flags and skip a pit stop. If all three drivers focused on economy and not lap times, we’d make the whole race on only two pit stops.
I drove the first stint again and settled into hypermile mode, netting 16.3 mpg in a 2 hour and 28 minute stint. I drove a pretty boring race, but mixed it up with a GTi and a RX7 in the following clip. They have more top speed, but our aero works around Turns 8 and 7, which makes Turn 6 my passing zone (recall we are running it backwards, so the turns are descending in order). I get by the GTi and then get on the RX7, who gives me a point by on the front straight, right into a waving yellow! I back off and then make room for a second-gen MR2 to blend onto the track, which puts the RX7 out of touch for a bit. But I get by the MR2 and RX7 eventually.
A lap after I pass the RX7 I see the IS300 of the team pitted next to us. He’s closing fast but I want to show him a little of what the car can do, and I break out of hypermiling mode for a single lap and do a 1:28.14. (This is at 1:44 in the video if you care.) It doesn’t matter, the IS300 catches me and I point him by just before the front straight
I got us back into the podium positions and handed the car off to Danny, who’s job it was to drive economically and finish out the reverse direction, stay in the car for the switchover, and run the tank dry in the forward direction. It wasn’t necessary to drive flat out, since our strategy relied on skipping a fuel stop. In fact, the only way the strategy would fail is if we had to fuel an extra time. After watching Danny’s full stint, I don’t think he heard a word of the race strategy, and just went out there as usual driving with aggression and trying to make passes, not distance.
Here’s a single lap of me and Danny doing about the same lap time, compare the driving styles and notice how many steering corrections he makes. Everyone has their own driving style, but I have to think mine is easier on the tires and gets better economy. Indeed I did beat him by 1 mpg.
Just after noon was the switchover, where they stopped the race, re-gridded the cars, and put the cars back in the regular forward direction. Ian and I were in the tower watching when they threw the double yellow, and as we looked across to find Danny, we watched him pass another car going up to Turn 8. We hoped the judges didn’t see that, or we’d have earned ourselves another black flag.
Danny got lucky because the judges missed that infraction, and he got lucky again by avoiding a big pile up on the front straight:
Our last driver was Mike, and on his first lap had to return to the pits immediately for a black flag. It turns out it wasn’t for Danny’s pass under yellow, but a 4-off right before entering the pits. Jesus.
After that Mike got back on track, ran some decent (but I wouldn’t say economical) laps, and then picked up another pass under yellow at Turn 14 or 15. That one was pretty hard to see, and even the organizers felt a bit sheepish about it.
So now with four fucking black flags (shoulda been five), we’ve blown our four lap cushion, and now Anal Probe Returns to Earth are only a lap down on us. To Mike’s credit, he put in some fast laps and kept us out of danger. But turning fast laps uses more fuel, and the only way this race strategy would work is if we conserved fuel.
I was up in the tower for the end of the race, and knew there were only a couple laps left; all we had to do to get 2nd in class was cross the line without pitting for fuel or running out of gas. Then I see Mike come across the line with his index finger up, meaning he’s coming in next lap, so I run down to the hot pits and find Ian and Danny, who are planning to do a fuel stop and driver change! I yell that we can’t do that, we have to send Mike right back out again, there’s only one lap left!
Like a nightmare, we see Mike pull into the pits on the last lap, and we yell at him that he has to go back out and if the car runs out of gas, so be it. If we pit, we lose 2nd place. So he goes back on track, makes it around for a lap, and returns on fumes. We get 2nd place in class after all. Phew.
We got 13th place out of 88 cars, and like I wrote too many words ago, we somehow beat 10 out of the 12 Miatas in the race.
The team that won C class had slower lap times than we did, and yet they beat us by 8 or 9 laps and placed 9th overall. They drove a clean race and deserved to win. They also deserve to be in B class in the future, because they’ve won C class 3 times now. The Yaris is also arguably a B class car, but as long as the team keeps shooting themselves in the foot, they belong right where they are.
All in all, it was a great race weekend. I had Mexican food every day, got in 5 hours of racing, did a ton of aero work, visited family, and made new friends. That the racing didn’t work out exactly to plan is normal, and it honestly went better than it should have.
We have some ideas for the next race (or possibly a test day), setting the car back to a normal ride height, corner balancing, using better tires, faster fueling, and better coms. And of course more aero.