Peter Hopelain of Technik Competition and Peter Jones of Legacy Motorworks have spent several years with the 986 Boxster, but before that, they focused almost exclusively on the BMW E46 platform. The two campaigned several E46 chassis successfully in NASA, culminating in a class win for Hopelain with Techink Competition and a class podium for Jones with Legacy Motorworks at the famed 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
While Hopelain and Jones were once competitors, they have recently joined forces to continue developing what they believe to be one of the most overlooked platforms in the club racer paddock: the first-generation Porsche Boxster.
After his success at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Hopelain sought out a new challenge. Having campaigned an E46, a balanced and economical car, he surmised the only thing that would be more competitive than an E46 would be something more fuel efficient and kinder to its tires. He also had to consider the advantages a midengine car might provide.
Putting the Motor in the Middle
With so many cost-effective, low-powered, front-engine club racers available, maybe it’s inevitable that a more curious driver would begin to wonder how major strides in performance and involvement can be achieved while retaining that affordable, fun power-to-weight ratio. What if the weight remained the same, but the center of mass was shifted more toward the center of the car?
The obvious traction-related benefits aside, the adjustability of a midship machine makes it a more exciting drive for drivers who want to drive their cars in a more precise manner. As a general rule, subtler mid-corner adjustments can be made with these lightweight, well-balanced midengine cars, and they don’t quite float and slide post-apex quite like so many front-engine machines will.
“After jumping from a Spec E46 into one of these, the rear seems so much stabler. The drive off the corner is remarkable. However, when they do let go, they’re snappier,” said Jones.
The driver has to be ready for the pendulum effect to take over if they’re a little sluggish with their corrections, too. Without a doubt, most of these cars are driven differently from their front-engine rivals and probably require a little more finesse.
Even if this added adjustability comes at the cost of a narrower operating window and a less forgiving character — two generalizations, of course — but most are willing to try.
Before he found a stock 1998 Porsche Boxster, Hopelain already had started to take notes from fellow racer and friend Heath Spencer, a man with an incredible amount of experience with the 986 platform.
Sage Words from Spencer
With six years of experience building and winning in Spec Boxsters, Spencer is qualified to chat about the intricacies of the 986 chassis. He’s known as an easygoing Californian, though his understated manner might mislead some people. He’s ferociously competitive — and budget conscious. Through sweat equity, mechanical sympathy, and a regularly updated spreadsheet telling him where he’s spending his money best, he’s raced his 986 competitively for the past six years for a surprisingly low cost.
While the Spec Boxster rules simplified the build process, there is still a performance difference between some of the OEM stuff. “Even though these are mostly stock parts, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘How old are the bushings, control arms, track arms, and whatnot?’ These cars are over 20 years old, and they will wear out.”
Now, Spencer ran on tired bushings for his first few seasons and still cleaned up. “The car was fairly tight, even back then, but I had a great donor car with only 50,000 miles on it. Everyone should inspect their track arms when getting one of these cars. They can fail, but more likely, they’ll just feel bad. The old bushings will cause more deflection if they’re old, so you can start to run into tail-chasing situations when you start to set it up.”
Most people will opt for the GT3 lower control arms as allowed by the rules, thereby dealing with the old LCA bushings, but keep an eye out for aging bushings on the other arms. “It’s not a bad idea to go and get new OE arms and bushings where applicable,” he added.
With these pieces of advice in mind, Hopelain led the charge in the vision and creation of this car, pulling upon resources within Technik and through local Bay Area auto shops. Every piece that was considered fragile was swapped for something more robust to handle the rigors of something like the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
Grabbing One for Himself
Of course, price was on Hopelain’s mind when picking up his Porsche. Thankfully, the 986 isn’t one that really lives up to the name in that regard. Even nicer examples of the 986 platform can be had for peanuts.
Within a month, he picked up a fine example of a base Boxster for a song. The car came with a broken motor so it only set him and his team back a grand, and they recouped some of that by hocking the interior for $300.
One of Hopelain’s friends helped them get the whole thing running by selling him a totaled Boxster with a functional drivetrain. After the transplant, he and his colleagues at Technik debated over what to do.
Of course, the entry fee doesn’t tell half the story with Porsche products, but it turns out that the running costs aren’t exorbitant. Junkyard motors cost a couple thousand. Bolt-on Boxster S brakes, complete with spindles, can be had for $700. Yes, the control arms are more than an E46’s, but at least the wear on consumables is quite good because the cars are light and nicely balanced.
As mentioned earlier, the Spec Boxster route was no longer viable. Plus, they wanted to experiment a little more, and so they chose ST5. The suspension was the main area they addressed. They added two-way MCS coilovers, Boxster S hubs, and a set of Elephant Racing control arms. The reason for using these over the typical 996 GT3 arms is the rapid adjustment they offer — and the ways they can extend tire life.
While the GT3 arms are adjusted with shims, the Elephant pieces use adjusters. “If the tire is running hot on the inside, you don’t want to depend on shims. You sometimes need to steal shims from another control arm to get your desired setting. Changing them is too time consuming and not exact enough for our needs.”
For a little over a season, the car ran more or less in this spec. However, the gearbox revealed itself as the weak link. After going through three factory five-speed transmissions, they bolted in a six-speed from a Boxster S. While this alleviated their transmission woes, it was the one exception to the budget appeal — this box, complete with solid mounts, set him back seven grand with all the axles, clutch, hubs, a shifter, and all the other related bits.
“Third gear is flimsy in the stock ‘box—particularly those from the ‘98 and ‘99 cars. As the third gear synchro wears and gives some play, the way the shaft sits in the needle bearing shifts. It starts to turn on its axis by a few thousandths of an inch, and with the force of shoving the shaft into its gate, the shaft falls out of lash and tears the gear apart,” Hopelain elaborated.
There is a solution, though. Though a really healthy motor will only make 195 horsepower at the wheels, the factory five-speeds from those years were equipped with aluminum shift pins that will not accept the abuse for long. Those need to be replaced with steel shift pins, and provided the driver learns how to shift, the lifespan of the gearbox can be lengthened to a point of cost-negligibility.
Spencer suggests proper shifting technique. “I’d say leave your downshifts to the end of the braking zone if possible—especially if you’re not great with the heel-toeing. This will put less strain on the gears if the rev-matching is off. Also, the upshifts need to be done smoothly. You can’t just ram the shift lever into the next gate if you want the transmission to last.”
Spencer put these ideas into practice and spared himself many transmission-related headaches. In fact, he’s gone through just a few gearboxes in six seasons of hard racing, and the first two were very old. Mechanical sympathy pays off, even in relatively simple, sturdy cars.
The Limiting Powertrain
The basic 2.5-liter M96 motor makes about 180 horsepower at the rear wheels — not an insignificant amount of power for a 2,400-pound car. Best of all for an endurance racer, it’s efficient in a couple of notable ways. First off, the factory open differential administers all that power to the pavement. More importantly, on 17 gallons of fuel, Technik could run a full two hours.
Those strengths were encouraging, though the knowledge that an additional 20 horsepower is allowed per the rules, provided they use the Toyos, was a source of persistent frustration for them. “It’s a dumb motor. It’s got a mechanical throttle body, it lacks variable valve timing, and so it doesn’t give us many opportunities to add more power for a reasonable cost,” Hopelain carped.
Sadly, the motor represents the low ceiling for the modified 986 track car. “The engine limitations and the low weight of the car make it hard to take advantage of rule changes,” Jones added. “We can’t add any power for a reasonable cost, and there’s no ballast to shed, either.”
A Fuller Future in ST4
The 986 Hopelain and Technik built was campaigned in several endurance races, but seemed to be off the pace. To get it to the front, Hopelain reached out to Peter Jones. After several conversations, Jones agreed to give the Boxster a look. An outing at Thunderhill had Jones hooked on the idea, and he agreed to take Hopelain’s Boxster into the Legacy Motorworks camp for development. Legacy did some initial work on the car primarily in the reliability department and managed to get it to a point where it is a solid upper-midpack car in ST5.
That got them thinking about swapping its 2.5-liter lump for a 2.7-liter from a 2004 Boxster. This model boasts variable valve timing and the tunability needed to fit snugly within the rules without compromising their fuel efficiency.
This seemed like a logical solution, but it is a little more involved than just pulling out a 2.5-liter and plopping in a larger motor because the electrical systems are different. A debate broke out about whether the effort would net the desired result. Rather than tear the car apart and try the 2.7-liter engine, Jones threw out the idea of swapping in a 3.4-liter from a contemporary 911, which runs on the same electronics. Jones sourced another race ready chassis once raced in Spec Boxster and began creating his ST4-spec “BoxSquared.”
The 3.4-liter version of the M96 is beset with the same intermediate shaft problems that the Boxster suffers from, but it makes 275 average horsepower at the wheels and, with a few tweaks, has proven itself reliable enough for racing. There is the required deeper sump, a little baffling to prevent oil starvation, the recommended (though not completely necessary) IMS bearing fix, and a few other minor modifications, but making one of these engines race-ready does not require cracking it open.
Additionally, it is so modular. “Everything bolts up directly. Compared to swapping an S54 into an E46 330i, this is much easier.”
Including the gearbox. Thankfully, the Boxster’s five speed can handle the added grunt, even after Jones replaced the old 255-section-width tires with a girthy set of 275s. The extra tire and horsepower put it squarely in the middle of the ST4 pack.
The added agility of a midengine car, the respectable power-to-weight of a 280-horsepower Boxster, or just the cachet of a P-car, all are decent reasons to try the platform. Of course, it comes at a price — all Porsches do — but fretting over running costs doesn’t have to be part of the experience. Concerning oneself with the big fixes does. Does the added agility and straightforward operation justify the extra cost? Many think so.