Erick Strong was standing on the pit wall at Buttonwillow Raceway Park watching a friend put Strong’s Spec E30 through the paces during a test session. Out of the corner of his eye, Strong saw the racecar spin in the Sunset turn and slam into the wall. There was a tire barrier in place to cushion the impact, but it didn’t matter. The car was toast.
“Your first concern is for your friend,” said Strong, whose friend was not injured. “Then my heart just sank. My next emotion was ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This just did not happen.’”
Rather than throwing in the shop towel on the season, Strong was determined to get back on track quickly to keep his top five points ranking in the series. The Manhattan Beach, Calif., firefighter was without a replacement car and had the modest budget of a civil servant. Renting a Spec E30 wasn’t an option because that was money he should be using to build a new ride. Strong’s only option was to find another car and get it race-ready in a month. Factoring in his work schedule, Strong had just 18 days to get it done.
“I wanted to test myself,” Strong said. “I’m one of those guys. If I say I’m going to do it, I’m going to give 150 percent. If I came up short, I was going to be bummed.”
As luck would have it, a fellow Spec E30 competitor Steve Stepanian had a 1987 BMW 325is that he bought for $500, which he sold to Strong at the same price. The only problem was that the car was an automatic, and that made it even tougher to get it prepped on the short schedule.
That’s where Robert Calhoun, owner of E30 Motor Werks, came to the rescue. Calhoun was at the track that fateful day in April 2012 when the crash occurred, and was looking to break into the sport. As Calhoun describes it, his shop was slow that week and he essentially shut down the Huntington Beach, Calif., business to work on Strong’s new racecar.
While Strong was working a 48-hour shift for the Manhattan Beach Fire Department, Calhoun proceeded to strip the crashed car of the engine, transmission, driveline, race suspension and brakes. He also would have to do the same to Strong’s donor car. On the surface it might seem difficult to convert an automatic to a five-speed but Calhoun said the process was remarkably easy.
“The chassis were made the same whether it was an automatic or a manual,” Calhoun said. “Nothing in the body needs to be modified. It’s literally a complete exchange of parts.”
After his shift at the fire station had ended, Strong picked up his car from Calhoun’s shop and drove it home, but there was still much to be done. Strong said the car never would have been completed on time if it weren’t for Calhoun, adding he was “forever indebted to him.” Calhoun sees it as helping a friend out of a jam.
“You do good things for people, good people do good things for you,” he said.
In the two-car garage of his Huntington Beach home, Strong started the major undertaking of installing the safety systems and getting the car race-ready. Strong stripped all of the sound deadening material from the vehicle and had to install the roll cage. He had the template from the previous car and used a friend’s shop to create the main hoop and down bars.
The 35-year-old firefighter is a skilled welder, but he lacked the tools of a major shop. Strong had to improvise by using two angle grinders from Harbor Freight to do the notches and cuts. For example, the NASCAR-style door bars required three different bends and two pipe angles that required notches. Strong figures he probably wasted four or five metal bars in the process of getting it just right.
“There were times I could have made this a lot easier on myself and cut corners, but I didn’t want to,” he said.
Strong worked on the car from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., rarely taking breaks and eating takeout food delivered to him by his girlfriend Keri Preston. There was occasional self-doubt whether he could get it done, especially at one point when he was using an angle grinder with a wire wheel, and it grabbed a wire hanging from the dash.
“I couldn’t feel my hand for 20 minutes,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘I still have to go to work and pay my mortgage.’”
Strong completed the installation of the safety equipment and even squeezed in a paint job before taking the car to the track. He cut it so close that a fellow Spec E30 competitor wrote “wet paint” on a piece of tape and put it on the windshield.
The replacement car is actually faster, Strong says, and has better weight distribution than the car that was crashed. Strong didn’t reach his dream of finishing in the top five for the 2012 season. He finished seventh overall, just a few points short of sixth place. The plan is to have Calhoun build a new engine for the car this season.
“Having my car get totaled in the middle of season, I guess I couldn’t be too upset about where I finished,” he said.
Strong estimates he spent close to $5,000 and put in 230 hours building the replacement car. With just the shell left of the old car, Strong used a reciprocating saw to chop it in pieces, then sold it to a scrap yard. Cutting it into pieces was cathartic for Strong and provided closure.
Asked whether he would loan his car again to a friend to run on the track, Strong didn’t hesitate. He would.
“I have guys that I race with that I would let drive my car any day of the week, because I know if they broke it they would fix it or give me their car if that was the case,” Strong said. “Or we’ll build another car as a team, but (the guy who crashed it) is funding it.”