Bob Cowan built the Exocet he wanted rather than the one the manufacturer intended.
There is a theory in mass communication research called “uses and gratifications,” and it describes not what media consumption does to people, but rather what people do with media they consume. It takes the position that an audience is not passive. The theory can be applied loosely to other fields of study, and in a way, NASA Rocky Mountain racer Bob Cowan’s Exocet is an application of uses and gratifications theory. Let me explain a little.
Exomotive originally intended the Exocet for the powertrain plucked from the 1990 to 2005 Mazda Miata. Cowan took that recipe and upped the ante, so to speak, and created something of an outlier, and it’s likely the only one of its kind competing in NASA nationwide. The car didn’t change Cowan or how he drove. Cowan changed the car — and did with it what he wanted.
When you see an Exocet on track, you have a preconceived notion of the four-cylinder noise it should make, but as Cowan flashes past in his car, you’re met with the baritone thunder of a V8, and man, is it cool.
To back up a bit, Cowan had built a Factory Five Cobra about a decade ago, and it was starting to get a little tired after 10 years as a dedicated track car. So Cowan was looking for something new.
“You know after beating it up for 10 years on the track, it was either strip it down and rebuild the whole thing, or build a second car,” Cowan said. “We could buy a Corvette or buy a Porsche, and we just didn’t see anything that looked exciting, that looked really fun. And that’s really my big goal for being out there is to have something that’s fun.
“Then I happened to come across an article in Kit Car magazine about this new Exocet and it was new to the U.S. market at that time,” he continued. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that looks pretty cool. That could be fun.’ Then, the last sentence in the article said, ‘And of course, it will fit an LS V8,’ and I said, ‘That’s it! That’s the one!’”
Cowan placed his order a week later, and when the kit arrived at his door, he got to work. But because he was adding V8 power, there was a bit of custom work to be done. Two hallmarks of the build were that it had to be fast, and bulletproof so he could spend his race weekends driving the car, not working on it.
That meant sourcing a reliable engine, a GM LS1, from a 2001 Pontiac Trans Am. He found one on Ebay that came mated to a Borg Warner T-56 five speed, and included a wiring harness, gas pedal assembly and the ECU.
“To get that kind of power out of a Miata engine, you’ve got to spend a lot of money and they’re finicky and difficult to run,” Cowan said. “Everybody who tries to run a forced-induction Miata motor, it’s a huge hassle and they just don’t do very well. So, what’s better for a weekend track racing than an LS1? If I blow it up, I’ll just go to the bone yard and get another one for $400 or whatever.”
He still needed a driveshaft, an oil pan, a rear differential and axles. The driveshaft and oil pan were off-the-shelf pieces from Flyin’ Miata, a company that has specialized in V8-powered Miatas for years. The differential was an 8.8-incher from a Ford Thunderbird and the axles came from The Driveshaft Shop in Salisbury, N.C. So, just bolt that stuff in and go, right?
That is where the custom work began, and Cowan did a fair amount of it to get everything to fit and function. The Exocet doesn’t have as much room in front of the engine as there is in a Miata chassis, believe it or not. Cowan had to fabricate brackets for all the cooling system, the radiator, the oil cooler and power steering cooler, and then adapt the power steering pump to the Miata rack. Of course, there was a little frame modification to get the headers, transmission and bellhousing to fit. Then the transmission mount also needed a little custom work to get it the way Cowan wanted it.
Cowan also added a Megasquirt engine control unit and made his own wiring harness for the car. That took a month, he said, in what amounted to an 18-month project. He finished the car, did the setup, put it on track and won the NASA Rocky Mountain TTU Championship with the Exocet in its first season.
|Exocet, race chassis
|1,950 lbs. w/driver
|2001 LS1 5.7L V8, 410 hp
|2001 Borg Warner T-56
|Afco shocks and springs, stock arms, heavy duty rubber bushings, FM sway bars. Power steering using a Miata rack and LS1 pump
|Afco shocks and springs, stock arms, heavy duty rubber bushings
|Hoosier R7 275/50-15 on Trak-Lite wheels
|Wilwood Little Big Brake kit from Flyin’ Miata
|Aim Sport MXL Pista
|Me and my lovely wife and crew chief, Michele.
“The hard part is trying to keep the wheels from spinning,” he said, adding that it makes 410 horsepower and weighs just 1,950 pounds with him in it. “Some of those corners, like out at High Plains, you come out of the bottom of hill and hit the gas and I can feel that right rear wheel hopping around, so you kind of have to ease into it. Power delivery is a little tricky.”
His championship is proof that it’s fast, and evidently the 18 months he spent building it paid off, because the car was dead-on reliable every weekend. Cowan didn’t do anything to it other than routine maintenance. He also added how pleased he is to be racing with NASA.
“I’ve run with other groups. The safety isn’t there. The confidence isn’t there. The camaraderie isn’t there,” he said. “Dave Balingit and Kevin Rogers, they put together such a great, great program. I’m an old guy. I’m almost 60, and I look forward to going to race weekends like a kid going to a candy store. It’s awesome, and it’s all because they put together such a great program.”