As racers, we do a fair amount of bench racing. During the off-season we sit behind our computers and mock up a possible new car to race. We search Craigslist for cheap vehicles. We look on Ebay for inexpensive go-fast bits. We read the rule book and try to find the right car with just a little edge against the competition in a given class. Over the years I’ve built probably 20 racecars on my computer, most of which never turned a single lap around a track. This off-season I decided to stop imagining and start doing. I wanted to build a car and run in a series where I could get the most bang for my buck. When you crunch the numbers, that’s NASA’s Honda Challenge.
Honda Challenge is where well-designed cars run in close competition on track, have lots of aftermarket support, and are relatively inexpensive to build and maintain. My mind was made up. For the 2016 racing season I would build a Honda Challenge 4 car from the ground up.
I know it’s cheaper to buy someone else’s used racecar as opposed to building one from scratch. Nothing loses value faster than a dusty racecar in someone’s side yard when there’s a baby on the way. I understand that buying a used car is cheaper, but sometimes I like to do things the hard way —so I can get my way. I didn’t want to sacrifice anything with this build. I didn’t want to cut corners. I didn’t want to finish someone else’s project. I wanted to build the ultimate Honda Challenge car with no apologies — with a budget in mind, of course. So, I fired up my computer and began the concept build of a nationally competitive Honda Challenge 4 car.
The first thing I did was read the rules. Understanding the current rule set will certainly save you a lot of money. There is no need to buy lightweight Lexan for windows when it isn’t allowed in the H4 rule set. What I found in the current 2016 rules that was the most interesting to me at the beginning of the build were the required minimum weights. A 1989 Honda CRX DX can weigh 1,900 pounds while a 2002 Honda Accord EX must weigh 2,690 pounds. Both cars are mandated to run a Toyo Proxes RR tire no larger than 225 millimeters in width, but the CRX will have a 790-pound weight advantage over the Accord. So the question is, will 790 pounds make up for the small brakes and the lack of torque the ’89 CRX DX has?
Deciding On Which Car
In the end, I skipped the lightweight CRX and the heavy Accord and landed in the middle with a 1993 Acura Integra RS, which must weigh 2,500 pounds. I was looking for a 92-93 Integra after talking to the guys at Synchrotech Transmissions, who said the internals in the later transmissions were a little stronger and had more aftermarket parts options like final drive and limited slip. I also decided on the Integra based on watching the field at the 2015 Western States Championships at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where there were lots of these cars running, and based on my own experiences with the Integra DA chassis (90-93 Acura Integras). I have won numerous ChumpCar and 24 Hours of LeMons races with a 1991 Integra, and I know where the weak points are. Some Honda nerds will argue the DC chassis (94-01 Integra) may be the better option because it has a more slippery body, better aftermarket support at the same 2,500-pound weight. I won’t argue those facts because I think they are legitimate. Much of my decision came down to how many spares I had lying around for the DA chassis to keep my costs down.
Once I decided on a DA Integra, the search was on to find a good straight chassis without a sunroof. Most people go to Ebay and Craigslist for deals, but I have another method: tow yards. When drivers are caught driving a car without a license in California, their car is impounded for 30 days. During the 30-day impound the tow yards rack up huge storage bills and charge the owners around $1,500 to get their cars back. In many cases, the owners abandon the vehicles. Tow yards lien-sale these cars and try to sell them to someone to recoup their towing costs. I found a 1993 Acura Integra RS — the lowest option level, and the lightest model — at a local tow yard. I asked the guy running the shop if he would let me put the car on jack stands before I made him an offer. He didn’t mind and even provided some shop space and a jack. I was looking for any major impacts to the chassis and I wanted to ensure it was straight underneath. The non-sunroof Integra I found looked like a winner. I talked the tow yard down to $500 cash and it was mine.
Getting Good Advice
Before I made any modifications to the chassis, I spent some time talking to people who race Honda Challenge and know what they’re talking about. First I spoke with National Champion Jeremy Croiset, who advised me I need to spend my attention and money on the handling of the car. I also talked to longtime Honda Challenge competitor Ryan Flaherty, who agreed the DA chassis was a good choice, even though he races a CRX. Ryan warned me not to go to crazy with the engine build and to read the rules carefully because previous Honda Challenge competitors had gone a bit overboard with their valve train, resulting in an illegal engine for the class.
Then I talked to Edik “Edo” Stepanyan, who has run a DA chassis for years in Honda Challenge and also time attack events. Edo gave me some great advice about not spending a ton of money on a $1,500 Hytech Header because dyno testing he has done proved that the $150 Chinese-built fake versions of the Hytech design were within two horsepower of the real thing. His advice was to spend money on a good limited slip differential, like an M Factory.
First Step: Teardown
This project car is going to be run under the Double Nickel Nine Motorsports banner for the 2016 season, so I took the car to their shop to strip it and prep it for an Autopower roll cage. There is something fun and satisfying about just ripping the interior out of a street car to transform it into a racecar. The process does take longer than you would think and we spent days getting every little plastic clip and wire out of the car. Just when we thought we were done, we would find more clips. Eventually we got the chassis down to what the manufacturer would call a body in white — only ours was blue. We ripped the entire wiring harness out of the car, knowing that we were going to use a standalone AEM engine management system with a Racepak dashboard.
Working by myself I got the engine and transmission out in only six hours. Definitely nothing to be proud of. My mechanic friends would have had it out in 45 minutes, but it is out and that is the important thing. The transmission headed to Synchrotech in San Dimas, Calif., for fine tuning, the engine shipped to T.E.M. Machine Shop in Napa, Calif., for a rebuild, and the chassis went to Autopower in San Diego, for a cage. The car is essentially in pieces all over California. If all goes well, and my bank account doesn’t overdraw, these three important components will come back together at Performance In-Frame Tuning’s shop, where NASA racer AJ Gracy will do his magic and ensure the AEM computer actually makes the car start — after I worked on it, which is often a bad thing for the team.
Our next installment of the Honda Challenge budget build will detail the safety equipment installation on the Integra.