We were curious what would happen if someone brought a car with air suspension to a track day... Wonder no more.
At our latest event, August 23rd, we had someone bring a car with air bag suspension to the track. We weren't sure how it would do. Evil M Motorsports brought this show-car quality Mazda 3 to our event and it absolutely performed well.
Air Lift suspension isn't kidding around at all, when they say that their air suspension is actually track-ready and capable. Push-button adjustable suspension like in Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsports, it's a very cool thing to have. The first few laps, the suspension was a little soft, so simply increasing the air pressure inside the bags was enough to make the car handle the increased suspension loading without issues. The car drove there, drove around the track, and then drove back home.
So that's what we think of air suspension; it's just another form of suspension but it can be quite handy to have that super-simple adjustment. Overall, we like it. Here's a video about the experience
How I Drove My 320,000 km Honda Civic EP3 with 17 Previous Owners to an Ontario Time Attack Podium with a Budget of $2526
Quick disclaimer: individual experiences may vary. I don't mean to imply that every car will be equally reliable and trustworthy, despite how much work you either do or don't put into it. This post is more to discuss the story of how this car came to be, and is just proof that track days aren't necessarily extremely harsh on cars as other people may have you believe. Before reading, please know that this is just the story of one car with one story and one situation and one time attack round and three days on track so far in 2020. It absolutely should prove that it's possible to do, but not that you will have the same experience. Without further a due, let's get into it.
The Story of Purchasing the Car
In October 2018, I began working a new week day job in a city that was far away from where I lived. I knew I needed a car with high kilometers to use to get to and from work at that position, where each daily commute was 180 km. I promised to myself, I wouldn't get something far too nice to eventually use as a track car, or so low kilometre that I would feel guilty for driving it to and from work. I posted looking for a car on my Facebook, to see if any of my friends had a car, as I'd rather support my friends, than some random car salesman. A friend of mine reached out to me, and told me she had a 2003 EP3 Civic for sale. Seeing it, it scratched an itch I had always had. I've always been a huge fan of "exotic Euro hot hatches" and even if this one was an SiR trim level, I knew it had good bones to be something special and not seen often in my province of Ontario. I asked her if it was rusty, at all. She told me it wasn't. I was instantly interested.
Going to see the car in person, I started to look everywhere for the rust; where was it going to be really bad? It's a 2003 with 299,000 km at the time; surely it had some of the cancerous hatred that so dearly plagues so many cars from the era, right? The more I looked, the more I knew that this was an ideal specimen of the car, due to its lack of rust. It had a check engine light, it needed a new steering wheel (but I had one) and it undoubtedly needed a lot of mechanical work. The fog lights were broken, the tires were worn, the brakes were "wonky" and "sticky" at times, and the windshield was cracked, but the car's chassis was worth it. I had to have it, for the opportunity to have an almost perfect body condition (a few dents and some paint chips on the hood), no-rust example of a car I had always wanted growing up. Watching Tiff Needell throw an EP3 Type R around Anglesey Circuit in Wales on the show "Fifth Gear" was all I needed to re-solidify my decision to get this example. Unlike the DC2 and EK9 Type Rs that are seam-welded for extra chassis rigidity, everything from an EP3 Type R would bolt straight up to this EP3 - including the 5 bolt swap that was conveniently already done. This car sported the 5 bolt conversion, so the wheels were 5x114.3 and the wheels that were on it were beautiful for this car. I wanted it. I wanted it badly. So, I got it.
Fast forward a few months, it's March, the safety inspection is done, a new rad is installed, along with new alternator, new battery, new windshield, new spark plugs, all new control arms in both front corners, new brake rotors, pads, and calipers in three of the four corners, new wheel bearings and hubs in all four corners, new tires, and the "questionable" ride height with OEM struts in the front and extremely low coilovers in the rear has been addressed by adding coilovers to the front to match all four. Pretty much everything that connected the wheels to the road, stopped the car, or kept it under control had been replaced. The engine oil change was done. The gearbox oil was changed. The car had Motul RBF600 brake fluid in the entire thing. The car was really already starting to get there. I was researching exactly which coilovers I wanted to install, which suspension and alignment I wanted, what parts would give me the characteristics I wanted. By May, I had it out to its first track day to check the base settings on 215/45ZR17 Toyo Proxes R1R tires I had procured at cost through a Toyo Tires sponsorship for the 2019 track day season. The car did prove, as I suspected it would, to have absolutely atrocious understeer. The front would never tuck and the car would never rotate. Trying to keep speed in the corners was an exercise in futility. By September, I had worn out the front tires with a half dozen track days and probably 300-400 laps of various tracks in southern Ontario. I started immediately looking at ways to make it handle even better for 2020, to improve the 2019 package.
And then Came 2020; Year of the Limited Track Time and Constant Adjustments
I'm not even going to sugar coat it. 2020 started out poorly for everyone in Ontario. In April, just as the gearhead in all of us was coming out of the deep, dark, cold cave we hibernated in to survive our disdain for winter's lack of track time and salty, disgusting roads, a pandemic hit. No track time for a long time. I mean, I went to Montreal in January and February, once to coach a guest on a winter lapping day, and once for business, but, still. Parts that I had ordered would be arriving and I'd have nothing but time to install, test, fix, align, adjust and generally fiddle with until my quest for oversteer would be fulfilled. It consumed far too much of my time, researching how to finally get the handling I wanted. I visited hundreds of forums for Honda cars, read many suspension reviews to verify that I was purchasing the stuff I really wanted, and genuinely obsessed the fine details of my car. I knew the tire size, spring rates, sway bar size, and general alignment specs that would get me exactly what my car needed. I'll put everything below.
For most of April and May, I was out in the Falcon Autosport HQ driveway, fiddling, adjusting, stiffening, and so on. I waited until I knew what to expect from the suspension to order the exact tire size that would complement the setup. I knew the tracks would reopen some day, and I knew I was going to go out like a "blue balled" maniac when they would finally oblige and allow me the seat time I craved. I ended up ordering the tires from Jocelyn at MSGear.ca, who had also ordered the suspension in for me, painting my wheels from white to bronze so the brake dust wouldn't show, bleeding the brakes several times "just to be sure" (much to the chagrin of the people helping me, I'm sorry!), and generally inspecting every nut and bolt. Twice. At least. Probably. It sounds less bad when you say it like that. Saying like, 6 times... People might get a little upset with you for being compulsive. I just wanted the car to be just right.
Finally, Ontario Time Attack announced that they were back on (and at one of my favourite tracks) and I jumped at the chance. I wanted in. I reached out to Burning Rubber, a shop in Oakville, for an alignment (outside of the specs my dealership would allow), all while getting my tires mounted to my wheels at my work, and buying a sway bar from Garage16, and a friend named Yuriy even offered me some help to adjust the valve lash and clearance back to factory specification; which is when we found that the camshaft lobes were heavily pitted and scored. Yep. What a thing to find out the day before your time attack debut. In true Canadian fashion, though, I asked "are you guys silly? I'm still gonna send it!" and went to the Ontario Time Attack event. I also have to mention that I did have the sway bar initially installed upside down. Live and learn, right? So we flipped that in Yuriy's driveway because that's what the schedule allowed for. I even picked up some new, custom-made Falcon Autosport vinyl stickers (from AM Designs 519) to put on the side of the car, to shout from the heavens that Falcon Autosport exists and that you can join us at our events.
The morning of, the Falcon Autosport crew team and I loaded up our cars full of gear and tools, expecting for something to probably break or whatever. All of my fiddling worked, though, and the car actually ran perfectly almost all day. The Civic's 5 speed gearbox got a little warm in the third session of the day, which actually solved itself because the plastic undertray of the car and the two wheel well liners were removed, when they started to flap around at high speeds, thus granting me extra cooling. Ah, it's the little things in life. When your car is so rag-tag that one minor thing "breaking" fixes another thing, and the minor thing is an easy fix, you know you're going to do well. I still have to give a shout out to Shan, though, for his help in taking those out.
The Big Event
Right out of the gate, during the first session you can see in the video just above this section, you can see that the car requires much less turn-in for the same effect. The car has dramatically less understeer, even from just the warm-up session. I'm not exaggerating at all, when I say that the car felt nearly perfect. The understeer-to-oversteer ratio was almost exactly where I wanted it. With 318,000 km at that point on the original engine and gearbox, and having been owned by 17 previous owners before me, I am just assuming that the car is a little tired. The power isn't incredible. My throttle traces are ridiculous, the kind of thing you'd see on a Miata with semi-slicks, and that's okay. A K20A3 with no mods at all, worn out cam lobes, and only god knows what condition the pistons are in, was never going to set the world on fire. It's more likely to set itself on fire at this point. Joking aside, though, the car truly had one thing really going for it above all else; the grip, the balance and the poise.
It doesn't take big power figures to run really good lap times. It doesn't hurt, but, in ideal circumstances, the K20A3 has only 160 bhp, and that's without 318,000 km., and the previous owner's hot air Injen intake that likely heat soaks badly off of the exhaust manifold. Nevertheless, I started the morning testing and lapping out as the fastest guy in T1 class, immediately getting up to speed with the car and track combination from previous experience and trusting my calculations and research in the handling. The track started out very damp, muddy and very slippery in my early sessions, and that really suited me and my driving style. Being significantly faster than a lot of the other guys in T1 in the morning helped me feel confident to just push harder and harder throughout the day. But...
So much of time attack comes down to driver, suspension, tires and brakes that the power barely mattered, but I suspect it played a role in the difference between winning and getting third. Am I upset? Absolutely not! It's still a very good result and I'm still happy that it worked out. I had a lot of fun and have no regrets. I just wanna go back to that track, right now, even! So fun. But, again, the purpose of this blog post is largely to prove that it's sometimes possible to take what you've got to the track and drive it hard and get a podium. The car's not even poorly mannered on the roads with its current setup. It's surprisingly comfortable and refined on the road, especially on its commuter tires that I often swap between events.
Results Don't Lie
My early advantage with the low grip of the morning that suited my driving style and lack of power faded as the sun warmed and dried the track. The tire pressure adjustments we were making, the relative perfection of the setup, how smoothly the car was running, all led to effectively a huge showdown where the lack of power of my car would become apparent. We were all running faster in that final session where the timing and scoring really mattered. On the last lap of the last session, I believe, is when my lead disintegrated. I'm not sure about which lap it was for sure, but I do know that I don't think the engine of my car would give me another full second to work with to get the win in T1 class. The rivals had caught up, they had found the grip that eluded them all morning and they were able to claw back my early gains with the new-found grip. I was particularly fast in the downhill section, where the car's power barely mattered in comparison to the actual grip and driver talent, but I was losing so much in the uphill section that it wasn't meant to be.
Still, I take pride in knowing that I got third place in a car that, by all rights, should've been dead by now. The engine and gearbox, somehow, have survived 320,000 kilometres and no fewer than 10 track days; one even by a previous owner. And it's still going. I just had it out to Circuit Mécaglisse on the 3rd of July, having driven it to Mécaglisse on the 2nd, and driving it home on the 4th.
The Budget Breakdown
2019 Setup (which aftermarket parts I started the year with):
2020 Setup (what I did for 2020, rounded up, after shipping, taxes, fees etc.)
And that's it. Time attack doesn't have to be something that you can't get into. You might not win if you're not an exceptionally good driver with a fast car, but you'll have fun no matter what. And, we here at Falcon Autosport, we get the need for seat time and we want to help you to get it.
Falcon Autosport authors are a team of track day organizers and motorsports enthusiasts in general. Drew drives a 2003 Honda Civic EP3 with 17 previous owners and 320,000+ km. Kyle drives an Inazuma edition Subaru BRZ. Shan has a Subaru Legacy GT.