If you’ve been going to the track for any length of time, you likely have witnessed an overnight paddock engine swap. Intense competitors, ready for a big race, aren’t likely to throw in the towel on a weekend simply because an engine blew up, so their friends step in and get the car up and running before morning.
But what about a voluntary engine swap? Pulling the engine from a perfectly fine track car, and tossing it into another. That’s something entirely different, and that’s only half of this story.
Alex Ames got into cars the same way many of our generation did, growing up watching “The Fast and The Furious” and playing Midnight Club. Then he got heavy into the Honda street and drag-racing scene. When he finally realized front-wheel-drive cars also can turn, everything clicked, and he fell in love with driving on track. Ames had been tracking for about two years when his friend Lealand Wamboldt bought a Honda Challenge 2 car from NASA Northeast’s Race Director, Brian Casella.
This April, Ames and Wamboldt attended their first NASA event at Watkins Glen. Even though it was their first event running with NASA HPDE, they were both welcomed and felt right at home among the tight-knit Honda Challenge community. Wamboldt was driving the familiar H2 Integra, and Ames his EM1 1999 Civic Si. The welcoming crowd couldn’t be more different from the drag racing community. Ames was more familiar with a dynamic where competitors acted more like adversaries.
Fast forward to August. It’s a Tuesday. Ames and his buddy Wamboldt were both at work, getting excited about the upcoming weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park with NASA Northeast. Ames found a post shared to the Honda Challenge Facebook page for an ST4 Integra: complete racecar, minus the engine for a very enticing price. Ten minutes after seeing the listing, Ames said he wanted the car, and would be there — 10 hours away — within two days.
That’s when the plan was hatched: Ames already had signed up to run Friday, Saturday and Sunday at NJMP in his Civic, and wasn’t about to back out. Wamboldt had the idea for him to bring Ames’ Civic, and Ames could “swing out to get” the Integra “on the way” to NJMP. Now for the crazy part. When both cars got to NJMP, they pull the powerplant from the Civic, which just so happened to be a “proper” JDM B18C Type R, and run the brand-new car that same weekend.
After work Wednesday — still just hours after the listing even went up — Ames left his house in northeast Massachusetts, headed for Pittsburgh, Pa., with an empty trailer. Driving through the night with an hour-long stop for a nap, he arrived at 8 a.m. Thursday to purchase the Integra. From there, he drove straight to New Jersey Motorsports Park, arriving at 4 p.m. that afternoon. In their planning, they had forgotten the NJMP gate wouldn’t open until 7 p.m., so he napped until the gate opened that evening, finally getting some rest. Meanwhile, Wamboldt loaded his two-car trailer with his Integra and Ames’ Civic, and headed down to NJMP.
They originally planned to do the swap Thursday night, but between the fatigue of a nearly 1,200-mile overnight trip and a slight fear of missing track time that weekend if the swap went sideways, Ames and Wamboldt decided to push the swap back to Friday night.
All day Friday, the black Si turned laps on track, and heads through the paddock. With its stance and handsome C-West front bumper, it was just some green under-glow away from a “Fast and Furious” tribute. The Civic, unaware of its imminent fate, ran flawlessly all day. Ames pulled off track from his final session at 5:30 and immediately got to work. By 6 p.m., the engine was on the ground, still hot from the session that had just ended.
Ames and Wamboldt worked seamlessly as a team, making the swap look easy. In all, the swap was pretty straightforward. The whole setup was plug-and-play, with the sole exception of the injector harness, which had to be cut and resoldered for going between OBDI and OBDII. Through the whole process, groups of onlookers gathered and dispersed. There were plenty offering and happy to lend a hand, but they were never needed because the pair knew exactly what they were doing. Honda Challenge series leader Spencer Anderson was the lone extra helper, tasked with filling the radiator.
Despite working as a pair, Ames and Wamboldt were quick to thank everyone in the paddock that night: “I want to say everybody helped just because of the support, everybody stuck by, ready just in case we needed an extra hand.”
Just as darkness fell, shortly before 9 p.m., the Integra was running. The B18C never had time to fully cool from that last session on track, and was still warm for its first crank in the Integra.
Alex Ames and Leland Wamboldt pulled a hot engine from one car and put it in another. It was still warm when it was ready to restart.
Saturday morning, the Integra was on track for Ames’ first session and proceeded to run flawlessly for the remaining two days of the weekend. The only issue Ames reported was how challenging it was to get enough temperature into the overly wide, very old R7’s the car came with.
The new H2 car was up and running shortly after nightfall.
As for the donor civic: The rest of that car was parted out and sold off the following week, recouping the entire cost of purchasing the integra.
Ames plans to attend the NASA Northeast competition school in the spring and race in H2. With a few rookies and a few switching from other classes, it seems like 2022 will be a good year for the class. The car itself doesn’t need much, just a few part swaps to make it H2 legal from its current ST4 trim and the obvious alignment and nut-and-bolt job.
Some of the best stories and greatest moments of this hobby start with a “You know what would be great?” Here’s to Ames and Wamboldt for taking a big leap of faith and bringing another hurt racecar back to life in epic fashion.