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Project Haterade RX-8: Dr. Wankel’s Legitimate Pharmacy DOMINATES Lemons at Barber

Alan Cesar March 8, 2018 24 Hours of Lemons 4 Comments

Was there ever any doubt? Mazda’s Renesis rotary engine is the best of the breed, a flawless engine design that’s proved perfect both on the street and track. Naturally, then, it was a sure thing that we’d obliterate the Lemons field with our cheaty race car. Or we would step on our own anti-submarine straps and fail horribly. One of the two, for sure.

If you weren’t following along, I picked up a 2004 RX-8 for a mere $800 back in September 2017. I had to pump up the tires by hand with a bicycle pump, sweating my proverbial parts down my literal legs, before I could strap it to a dolly behind a dually pickup truck. All of it was very weird.

In an effort to cure an erratic misfire (no error code), I threw a new, cheap set of ignition coils on it, along with spark plug wires. I cleaned the crankshaft eccentric shaft position sensor, which was covered in metallic road debris. I ran a can of Sea Foam through the tank. Only the last thing seemed to make much difference. I commuted to work in it for a few weeks and everything seemed fine, so I started to strip the interior.

I got an enormous battery cable from a BMW Z4 at the local junkyard, along with a metal battery tray from some Nissan and a battery hold-down bracket from a Ford Explorer. I removed the interior and bolted the tray to the passenger-side floor.

Then, after changing fluids and pulling off the vines and foliage that had grown around the suspension parts, I went to tighten the lug nuts. That was when the front wheel shifted. It moved like I was steering the car. I yanked on the wheel and it “popped” back into place.

Push, pop out. Pull, pop in. The wheel on the other side hadn’t moved. Weird.

I jacked the car back up and the problem was immediately obvious.

The ball joint was broken. Great. There’s $300 added to the build budget.

But what’s this? A recall! I had the car, sans interior at this point, towed to the nearest Mazda dealership where they replaced both front lower control arms for free. I had a good chat with the service writer about getting the car ready to race in Lemons. He wrote it up, I took it home, and got ready for a road trip to Atlanta where a teammate would install the roll cage.

We originally planned to run Lemons at Road Atlanta in December ’17, but delays with the cage build and tough schedules around the holidays for the whole team made us postpone. So we pushed back to the ‘Shine Country Classic at Barber Motorsports Park, in early February.

I relished our Plan B. Barber is a beautiful facility, with hot showers, a heated viewing area where you can see most of the track, and a killer motorcycle museum on the grounds. The track itself is also easy to drive but challenging to get right—good characteristics for novices and veterans alike. For new drivers, it’s a lot less intimidating than Road Atlanta covered in snow.

On the Wednesday before the race, we began our travels from our corners of the country and converged on Nine Lives Racing headquarters in Braselton, Georgia—home of a ridiculous V8 Miata that runs NASA events. It looked like a Mazda Fanboy Retreat: A modified Mazdaspeed3 that was formerly a car-magazine project; a stickshift Mazda5 on lowering springs; a Ghettocet; the aforementioned V8 Miata; and, of course, our RX-8.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to line them all up for a photo shoot. With the cage complete, there many details left to wrap up.

We went down the road to see some friends at Freedom Autosport and use their tire-mounting machine. Their shop is much nicer than we deserve.

Nine Lives Racing is sponsored by Maxxis, so we scored a set of 460-treadwear all-season tires at a discount. We didn’t want to spend real money on their more competitive Victra VR-1 because we’re slow drivers with slow pit stops. No one wins their first time out, and we’re not aiming to win regardless.

We also installed a kill switch (and rewired it twice), a fire suppression system (not yet required by Lemons, but will be in 2019), added racing brake pads, new rotors, bled the brakes, replaced coolant with water, ate pizza until our farts destroyed each other’s nasal passages (that was mostly me, sorry), and themed the car.

Ah, yes. The theme. Seeing as we bought the car for $800, it wasn’t hard to sell seats and other components to get the value down below the $500 cap. But knowing Lemons culture, it’s good form to have an entertaining theme—especially if you’re showing up in a relatively new, actually-fast car. We wanted to be seen as people who understand and embrace Lemons, not some Real Racers out to win all the nickles.

As such, I’m lucky to have a friend who’s an illustrator: Adam Icenogle has been a car guy all his life, but his relationship is not much of a technical one. He told me that his mother would build model cars herself but throw out all the engine parts and glue the hood shut. She did, however, upholster the interiors. While Adam isn’t entirely hopeless behind a wrench, the nut didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Anyway, I’ve helped him out with fixing his car several times, so he was glad to render his services in graphic design. The team brainstormed and landed on Dr. Wankel’s Legitimate Pharmacy as our driving ethos and suggested some possible brand names we could hock. We projected the image onto a masked-off door, cut out the masking tape according to the outline, and hit it with a spray can—overspray be damned.

Dr. Wankel would, of course, primarily sell off-brand products and advertise with spam-filter-dodging emails. RXtenze was Mr. Icenogle’s idea. We had more designs to apply, but ran out of time and/or talent.

Of course, we also improvised a bit of our own when it came time to actually apply a theme to the car. The hood looked bare compared to the sides of the car, and the Dorito-shaped indentation on the hood seemed ripe for… something. The play on words between apex seals, aftermarket parts maker A’PEXi, and boner pill Cialis was just too perfect to pass up.

We had lots of leftover stickers like these, so we applied them to race cars in the paddock.

Our 48-hour thrash still put us behind schedule, and driving through Atlanta during rush hour meant we wouldn’t make it in time for the festival that is BS Inspection on Friday afternoon. We got teched and BS’ed by John Pagel himself on Saturday morning and were placed in Class A, with zero penalty laps. We did not offer a proper bribe, but we did come carrying cookies, candy-filled pill bottles and urine Arnold Palmer-filled specimen cups to distribute to fellow racers.

And then there was a bunch of racing, which we didn’t take very seriously. Our pit stops were uncoordinated and slow, despite us having high-quality racing radios. We missed the post-church-hours race restart on Sunday because we were laughing about the Grapefruit Technique (NSFW link). Adjusting the crotch belt is a difficult process that only one person knows how to do.

But in general the car performed very well, giving us sub-2-minute lap times with our all-season tires. It’s bizarre to outrun people on straights and get passed in the corners when you’re driving an RX-8.

The brakes also didn’t give us confidence. We ran Hawk DTC-60 pads, which have a lot of initial bite. It would momentarily overcome the rear grip, making the back end wiggle even if you were going dead straight. No one was confident under braking as a result, and we actually thought ABS wasn’t working until the rainy stint Sunday morning. That unsettled feeling under initial braking sapped all drivers of confidence to really use the brakes.

We’re hoping better tires won’t be so sensitive to the initial bite in these Hawks. We’ll need new tires for our next event anyway, because they were ragged and chunking by the end of this race.

The car developed a problem shifting near the end of the race, which could be a weak 4th-gear synchro or a bad clutch pressure plate. We’ll need a bit more diagnostic time on the street.

We finished — as if it matters, as if anyone cares — in 38th place out of about 90 cars. Not bad for a first time out. Teams seemed to enjoy the candy and cookies we brought.

We pre-mixed 2-stroke oil with the gas to help the engine last. Someone told us our car’s exhaust smelled like an old Evinrude.

After the race, we prepped the car for a road trip by swapping in a seat with better side visibility, loading up any spares and an assortment of tools, and putting antifreeze in the radiator. Our Illinois cadre then convoyed north through the night, taking turns driving the race car as they froze their toes in -9-degree temperatures in Indiana. The car does have heat, but it’s also drafty as hell. Their cannonball convoy home earned an honorable mention from the Lemons Rally folks.

With a little luck, the usual amount of busted knuckles, and plenty of dick jokes, the car will see some autocross events and one or two more races this year in the Midwest region. If we’re very lucky, Dr. Wankel’s Legitimate Pharmacy will return to Barber in 2019 — but we’re not making any promises. In the mean time…

…take in our 10 seconds of fame right at the top of the Lemons Barber wrap-up video.

[Photos by, in no particular order: Alan Cesar, Duncan Millar, Todd Stura, Kevin Cruz, Shawn Taylor, David Belland, Johnny Cichowski and Eric Rood.]