Any amateur racer who has seen a Daytona Prototype race on television or watched the LMP1 hars scream around Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans has longed to drive one. Financially out of reach of most amateur racers, prototypes typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What typically is available to amateurs on a budget is a scaled-down open-top sports racer with old technology, and not at all like the top-tier cars on television. In hindsight, the void in the marketplace seems almost obvious.
“We thought there was an area of the market that could be tapped because the World Endurance Championship, with the top entries from Porsche, from Audi, you know the LMP1 cars, they’re the cream of the crop and how many people dream of the opportunity to drive one of those cars?” said NASA Director of Business Development Jeremy Croiset, who spearheaded the NP01 project. “There are as many astronauts who went to the moon as there are people who get to pilot those types of cars. So, the idea was to create a car that would embody that, but still had the NASA core values in its bones, and those are fast and fun and safe and low cost. We collaborated with Élan Motorsports Technologies because they’re one of the best, if not the best, car manufacturer in the United States.”
Élan Motorsports Technologies began concept and design work in the summer of 2014 with the hopes of unveiling the new car and class in the NASA booth at the Performance Racing Industry show, North America’s premier motorsports trade show and conference held each December in Indianapolis.
The timetable wouldn’t allow Élan engineers to design and build a complete car, but it was enough time to design and fabricate a chassis, a scale model of the new car and prove to themselves they could sell the car at a price point that is within reach of the amateur racer: $65,000 for the kit. Élan also will assemble the car for an additional $8,500.
“From the beginning it was going to be a closed-top car, so that sort of set a lot of things in place,” said senior engineer Robert Lindsey, who oversaw the project for Élan Motorsports Technologies in Braselton, Ga, along with Mark Sanderson as program manager. “To start with, I just took the footprint of the Élan DP02 IMSA Lites car, as in track width and wheelbase, and so that gave me an idea how to proceed.”
PRI Show Unveiling
The car’s debut at the PRI Show was critical. How the car was received would determine whether it would be built and whether there would be a series. To incentivize the first purchases, Élan offered the first 10 cars at a discounted price of $59,995.
The unveiling was promoted through social media and streamed live by RacerConnect.com, so as journalists and show attendees witnessed the car’s unveiling, people all across the country could watch it, too.
“The response at PRI was exceptional,” Lindsey said. “We decided, well, now we actually have to build the thing. We practically started from scratch. I wasn’t really happy with the shape of the model. In general yes, but none of the surface quality was very good and I had to go back and make sure that the surfaces actually looked nice.”
Élan is well versed in building racecars. It builds a number of them, including the DP02, which runs in IMSA’s Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Series, the DP08, a Formula 2000 car and, of course, the DeltaWing. Those cars are quite a bit different, though, in that their prices were determined after the cars were built and all the costs were added up.
With the NP01, however, Élan was already committed to the $65,000 retail price, which presented unique challenges to the company’s engineers. Processes had to be simplified and scrutinized for cost savings. It also meant working with vendors who could supply high-quality parts at prices that would allow Élan to meet its price promise and deliver a solid product. So far, 16 NP01s have been sold.
Let’s walk through the manufacturing process and major systems, and components of the car to see how Élan was able to put it all together.
Élan elected to use 1018 mild steel for the car’s chassis, primarily because it’s less expensive than chromoly. According to Élan, 1018 mild steel is easier to repair than chromoly, more forgiving in certain types of crashes and every bit as stiff when triangulated properly.
The chassis arrives at Élan in a box, as a set of pre-cut, pre-bent and pre-notched round and square tubing that Élan outsources to a local company. Élan fabricators then take those prefabbed tubes and weld them together in jigs at the Élan facility. The frame is then powder-coated off-site and returned to Élan.
“It’s built as a main hoop, a front bulkhead and two side frames, all four of which are built down on jigs and then stood up like four walls and welded together, so it’s a lot easier” Lindsey said. “It’s mostly square-tube and pre-bent round, so it goes together pretty quickly.”
Ease of assembly helps Élan keep costs down, which is something that comes into play when building the NP01 suspension.
Starting with the uprights, Élan made them all the same at each corner of the car. Yes, the rear uprights are the same as the front and the lefts are the same as the rights. This had two significant benefits: First this would allow customers to carry just one corner of the car as a working spare for each corner. It also increases Élan’s economies of scale because it is now contracting with a foundry to cast, say, 400 of one part instead of 100 of four pieces. In addition, it simplifies the in-house machining processes that Élan must make to those uprights before they can be fitted to the cars.
The same logic applies to the hub-and-bearing assemblies used at each corner. They’re all the same, and they are production-car pieces designed and built to carry a sedan that weighs some 4,000 pounds, so in terms of load and duty cycles, the hub assemblies exceed the demands of the 1,450-pound NP01.
“If we go to the bolt-on bearing from a production car, it takes a lot of machining complexity out of it, durability goes up considerably,” Lindsey said.
“It may not be the slickest bearing ever produced, because you’re using road car parts, but it’ll last forever and that’s the objective here.”
Economies of scale also came into play with the NP01’s control arms. For example, the rear upper control arms are the same from side to side. The front upper control arms also are the same from side to side. The lowers front and rear are different from side to side because of the way the pushrods attach to them.
For shocks and springs, there really was no way to trim expenses without harming the performance of the car. It’s one aspect of the car where Élan budged a little on costs. Motion Control Suspension provided the shocks, which will be spec’d and set up by them, and they cannot be re-valved by the customer. The springs came from Hyper-Coil because, again, the suspension required top-notch equipment.
“That’s one of the places where we really just had to spend money, because for a spec series, the dampers are very crucial to keeping a level playing field. People are inclined to tinker with dampers.” Lindsey said. “So we had to get a decently expensive and double-adjustable shock, which helps to eliminate that because you’re going to spend your time in the middle of the range anyway, not at one end or the other. The adjustability removes some of the opportunity for buying your way to the head of the pack. At the end of the day, you just have to know how to set up your car.”
Using identical components in different places throughout the car reduces manufacturing costs for Élan. For racers, it means they can carry fewer spares yet still be covered if something gets bent on the racetrack. What’s neat is that Élan used similar techniques when specifying the NP01’s brakes.
The brake calipers and rotors are the same at each corner, again, reducing costs and decreasing the number of spares racers carry. StopTech assisted in creating a package that could achieve this and maintain the brake balance needed.
Obviously, braking needs are different front to rear, and to create the right braking balance, the NP01 comes with different size front and rear Wilwood master cylinders and pedals, and a brake-proportioning system operable by a seated-and-buckled driver. Use of the same caliper at all four corners also means the brake pads are identical. Again, this lowers costs for spares.
Wheels and Tires
NASA’s longtime sponsor and partner Toyo Tires was involved with the development of the NP01, which uses a 235-40R-17 Toyo Proxes RR, the spec tire for the series. They mount onto series-specific 17-inch by 9-inch OZ wheels, which means that the tires can be rotated freely for even wear throughout a race weekend.
“We got some really good information from Toyo Tires,” Lindsey said. “They actually sent tires to Japan to do some load testing for us, so we couldn’t be happier with the support they gave us on the tires.”
A racecar’s powertrain can make or break it, and the NP01 comes with the proven 2.0-liter MZR engine from Mazda, which makes 185 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. The choice to go with a Mazda engine was easy since Mazda is the official vehicle of NASA and because Élan already had so much experience with the MZR.
With a 10.8:1 compression ratio, the MZR engine runs on 91-octane fuel. Élan explored different powertrains, including big-bore motorcycle engines, but in the end, and in the interest of reliability and longevity of the engine and transaxle, the MZR engine won out, because the prices of each were comparable.
The engine itself arrives as a stock long block from Mazda. Again, costs are a concern, so Élan does as little as possible to the engine to trim expenses. Though Élan never pulls the head or rotating assembly, the list of modifications is still somewhat extensive.
Upon arrival, Élan engine builders add a proprietary cast aluminum intake manifold, fuel rail and injectors, dry-sump oiling system and its own water pump pulley and alternator kits. They remove the wet sump oil pump from the front of the engine and modify the front cover for engine mounting purposes. They add water outlets, machine a keyway into the crankshaft and harmonic balancer, disable the variable valve timing, dial in the cam timing and add tamper-proof seals to the cam cover, oil pan and crank sensor. The MZR engine uses a Burns Stainless header and a throttle body from Ford modified to use an idle screw. When the modifications are done, the engine goes to the dynamometer for testing.
“They basically gave us a number. They wanted 185 horsepower,” said Todd Therkildsen, an engine builder for Élan. “We knew that with a manifold and headers we could get in the high 170s, so we basically played with cam timing to get the number that they had targeted with very little effort and parts. We set them all up the same way. They all have to be within a certain percentage of each other. So far, the three we’ve run on the dyno have all been pretty much identical in numbers.”
To keep honest people honest, Élan worked with AEM, which is providing its Infinity ECU to control the NP01’s engine. The ECU is hardware-locked from AEM, so it is in no way user accessible. The maps are tamper proof to ensure the NASA NP01 series is a true driver’s series. The driver keeps tabs on everything using an AiM MXL2 dash, which comes standard with the car.
To put power to the ground, Élan chose a six-speed sequential transaxle from Sadev in France. As exotic as that sounds, the Sadev gearbox is ubiquitous in racing and in Europe in particular, where it’s used in Formula 3 competition.
The transaxle assembly not only houses the differential, but also the remote reservoir for the engine’s dry-sump oiling system. It’s a very slick setup that can handle the power of the MZR, and it saves space in the engine compartment because there is no need to mount a large, auxiliary reservoir for engine oil. It’s also the safest place to locate the oil reservoir.
“It’s the same dry-sump system we use in our IMSA Lite, so it’s something we buy lots of and are familiar with,” Lindsey said. “We’re well within the service parameters of this gearbox in terms of torque and rpm. We don’t anticipate any longevity issues, and they have probably millions of miles on them because it’s an F3 box that they make hundreds of a year.”
Body and Aerodynamics
The body itself consists of a roof panel, nosepiece, side pods, front fenders and rear quarter panels and the engine cover, which includes the dorsal fin. The car was designed that way to reduce repair costs. For example, rather than having to replace an entire front or rear clip as a result of contact, the owner could replace one corner.
Due to stiffness and consistency requirements, the doors, roof and the splitter are made from pre-impregnated fiberglass cloth, vacuum bagged to remove air from the laminate and then heated in an autoclave at Élan’s facility. The rest of the components are wet-laid fiberglass.
Underneath the car, Élan used what it refers to as marine-grade plywood for the undertray. The wood itself, which extends forward past the fiberglass splitter to add downforce, is treated with a black laminate on the top and bottom to resist splintering. It also makes it look better.
Rear downforce comes courtesy of an extruded aluminum rear wing. Lindsey points out that they normally use fiberglass or carbon fiber for rear wings, but those materials also would add tooling and labor costs.
“We get an extrusion that has these pilot holes already in it, so all we do is cut it to length, tap it and weld brackets onto it,” Lindsey said. “It’s a lot stronger than fiberglass. It’s slightly heavier, but it’s a lot more durable.”
Inside, the car was engineered to accommodate drivers of all sizes. The fiberglass seat, which mounts ahead of the 12-gallon Pyrotect fuel cell, is designed to be used with foam-filled seating systems. In addition to harnesses and side nets, the seat insert is one of the few components added by the owner.
In addition to low production costs, at least when compared with other sports racers, the NP01 was designed with low operating costs in mind. The reduction in the number of spares needed, the use of off-the-shelf components where possible and clever manufacturing techniques all point to the bottom line of being able to sell the car for $65,000. However, the car also was designed to provide owners with low operating costs compared with other cars at this level of performance.
“It is a decent amount of expense up front, but for a lot of guys jumping into this class, it’s right along the same lines of what they have been spending,” Croiset said. “But you don’t have the expensive costs of engine rebuilds and transmission rebuilds, and the kinds of expenses you get with a car in the 400- to 500-horsepower range. This car is just as fast, but with reduced operating expenses.”
Consider what some racers might spend on a Corvette or a Viper. By the time they add a roll cage, safety equipment and dial in its performance it’s not difficult to imagine them spending more on cars that turn laps more slowly than the NP01, which begs the question: Who is buying this car?
Marketing the New Car
Croiset pointed out a few demographic profiles of people who already have put down deposits on the new car. Many of the new owners are coming out of Corvettes, Vipers and Porsche Cup cars, either from NASA’s Super Touring or German Touring Series classes.
“These are guys who are already spending a decent amount of money in racing, and they want to go fast,” Croiset said. “This car provides that same level of performance for a fraction of the cost that they’re spending to go that quickly. I’m hoping this draws in a large cadre of people from the endurance racing world, who have always had a passion for Le Mans-style cars, but didn’t think those kinds of cars were attainable to them.”
Croiset also identified drivers who were interested in a sports racer, but were never enamored with the idea of an open-top car. He also said racers at the top of their games in other series, such as Spec Miata, have expressed interest. Those racers are spending the money it takes to run at the front, but they realize it won’t cost them that much more to run an NP01, and they can go a lot faster.
“There are a lot of nuances for different drivers, but ultimately they all boil down to the same things: They want to go fast; they want to put something in their garage they can take a picture of and post on Facebook and have people say, ‘That’s a racecar!’” Croiset said. “Nobody is going to look at the NP01 and think, ‘Why would you race that?’ You just have to post a picture of it and people will ask, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
2016 Debut Season
“The car is designed to run within NASA and only within NASA,” Croiset said. “The car was specifically designed not to fit anyone else’s particular segment because we wanted something unique to the marketplace and that would be run and operated within NASA.”
2016 will be the inaugural season for the NP01. It can run at any NASA event nationwide, but there are certain regions of the country that will have more cars than others. Where there is competition, the NP class is the place to race, but drivers also can run the cars in Super Touring. Fields will grow in size as the market saturates. In the interim, there will be respectable fields at the NASA Eastern or Western States Championships as well as the series Championships. NASA expects to see seven cars start the series on the West Coast alone.
There are also a number of contingencies available for NP01 drivers, including generous prize money from Toyo Tires, Mazda and Hawk Performance. And because it’s a Mazda-powered car, Championship-winning drivers are eligible as semifinalists in the Mazda Road to the 24 Shootout.
It could be debated that the NP01 is just another racecar, but it’s arguably much more than that. The NP01 ushers in a new era of NASA racing that holds the promise of close, fast racing at a price previously not believed possible.
“That was really the whole idea, to make something cool and unique that had never been done before and try to hit a price point that’s attractive to the average Joe,” Croiset said. “Granted $65,000 is a little above the average Joe market, but as most of us in the world of motorsports have discovered, you end up spending a lot more than you ever thought you would on your road-racing hobby.”