The rally car experiments

When you build your own rally car – at some level – you have no idea what you’re doing. Whether or not you meticulously plan it all out, at some point you’re going to have to just try it and see if it works. This is the only way you’ll ever get onto the stages.

One thing I suggest is not running too many “rally car experiments” at one time. Using a scientific method you should only change 1 major component at a time. Get some feedback, get some data – mark it off as successful or try again. This is one of the reasons we didn’t jump right into a turbo motor for this car. Lots of stuff to test and tune before changing the motor over to an SRT package. Here are the current experiments on the new rally car:

LED Lighting
I figured that a car that was built in the 21st century would be able to snap in LED lights. But that’s just not how it is. I’m looking at LEDs for their longevity, durability, and power savings. Using resistor blocks that trick the relay is unacceptable. Turns out, weird stuff happens when you switch over to all LEDs and modify the relay. The car has circuits that rely on that power load, and a diode to ground confuses them. At this point, I am unaware of a setup without “load resistors” that will give the 2GN all LEDs. Right now I have a modified aftermarket relay and stock front turn bulbs. The rear lights are all LED. The experiment continues.

Power Steering Pump
As you have probably seen my work with a steering quickener, this experiment involves getting more fluid through the stock pump. A condition autocrossers are aware of is when you steer so much left to right that the fluid boils and then no-longer fills up the steering assist. You get a condition known as “pump catch” – this is where you’re working faster then the fluid can pump into the rack. So far, all that was done is a change to open the flow valve diameter a tiny .01″. Doing just this gets a lot more fluid through the pump. I haven’t changed any springs or shimmed any valves. Steering pump pressure is extremely high (1200psi) so be careful here. This experiment took a lot of research and appears positive on the street, but I’m not going to call it successful until a full rallycross workout.

Rallycross Springs
The first thing you notice when looking for suspension mods is that practically no-one RAISES their car. Searches always yield lowering springs, and “how much drop from stock” numbers. If you want to rally or rallycross your car you’re going to have to lift or raise it. Taking a page from the Subaru guys, I decided to test something out. You see the Forester (that fat little SUV) is built on the same platform as the Impreza. It uses the same strut design, yet has more ground clearance. Turns out Forester springs are a great start on an Impreza rallycrosser. The springs are “heavier” (spring rate in lbs.) to accommodate the heavier SUV and that means you get a harder spring with more ground clearance. The Forester version of this equation is the PT-Cruiser. PT’s take the same strut design (in the front at least). They are heavier and have more ground clearance. This weekend I changed the front struts over to OEM PT-Cruiser front springs. I gained at least 2″ of ground clearance and didn’t notice any adverse handling issues (not bad for $68). As for the rear, the clearance remains high here as the Neon is always sort of “nose down” from the factory. I’m entertaining ideas as this experiment unfolds. A full on rally suspension this is not, but I needed something while the budget recovers from 2GN rally prep so far.

All the major components are in place and tested for our trip to Prescott Arizona this weekend. Some additional wiring and safety items need to be installed, but I’ll have time this week to button it all up. See you there!

First test drive – 2nd Gen Neon Rally Car

The other day I was pretty excited to pop the axles in and go for a spin. Unfortunately I still had to re-attach the front bumper, lights, and hood. There was also adding fluid to the transmission and the modified power steering pump.

Monday, I wrapped up all these tasks and set the car back down on the wheels. The steering made no argument turning rally tires on concrete. No noise from the pump and the steering felt light. I idled slowly out of the driveway, listening for any weird noises from a car that I’ve taken completely apart and put back together.

Ferrari F355 ChallengeMy first reaction to the quickener is that it drives like a video game. That tight – instant steering you get from your Logitech Gaming Wheel. It feels natural and I didn’t even think about adapting to it. You just drive it like you would Sega’s Ferrari F355 Challenge. The car drives straight and I didn’t tax the steering pump puttering around the neighborhood swerving around trash barrels. The real test will be at speed – and at a rallycross in 3 weeks.

The plan has been finalized to be ‘Zero Car’ at Prescott. This is a lot less stressful then competing and will be a great shakedown of the systems and setup so far. For those of you unfamiliar with the term: 1 or 2 course opening cars are sent down the rally stage to make sure it’s clear and the time controls and signs are in place (000 and 00), then the 0 car (usually a rally car) is run at a fast pace before the competitors. The zero car reports any change in conditions to the drivers, any potential safety issues, and declares the stage “hot” and ready to run. The Prescott Rally is September 30th – October 1st, and we have one last weekend of prep to get the new Dodge Neon rally car ready to run. See you on the stages!

The hard work of putting it all back together.

2GN roll cage paintThe first thing on the agenda was to paint the cage. This is like building a paint booth – – inside your car. After mistakenly buying (and spraying) silver metallic, I went back to the store to pick up a flat ‘granite’ grey. As I’d be painting the roof, floor, and side pillars, I wanted to go with something darker then primer. I think the color is perfect for the interior of a dirty rally car. With a respirator on, I did two coats of grey and then I sprayed a clear coat on the floor and the door bars that would see the most abuse. Allow 3 days to dry, then begin.

The HVAC system was a bit of a fuss to get back in, but eventually I coaxed the blower motor under the bar going out to the front strut tower. The flap that controls air from the cabin and air from the outside was compromised, and we’ll have to see about sealing that up better. The 1stGen only took air from the outside, so being able to control that even partially is better then nothing. The dashboard followed quickly afterwards and heavy modification to the vents were needed to make them operable. I used pop rivets to secure the tubes that push air to the cabin. With 70% of the original dash gone, you have to be resourceful if you want the remaining bits to stay in place.

The wiring is underway with the stock dash harness back in. I found an old phone charger cable that I scrapped to make a coil cord for the horn. I pop riveted the original interior light back in – a little further back, and replaced the bulb with an LED replacement. Red and white LED strips are in place above the driver and co-driver. Their location will be finalized when Christine’s seat goes in.

Dry cell Optima Red Top in Rally CarI mounted an 1/8″ plate with four bolts into the frame rails behind the co-driver’s seat. This fixed, flat location was used to mount an Optima Red-Top battery inside a plastic box. The plastic box will keep spares or tools from damaging the battery, and adds very little weight. I had enough wire to put the battery all the way in the trunk, but I prefer to keep the weight between the front and back wheels. There is a handy rear seat belt bolt near there that I re-purposed to be the main ground for the chassis.

The next big step will be to get the body wiring harness back in, battery connected, and tested. This will allow the stock motor to return and we’ll really start pushing for Prescott.

Making the most out of the least: Your tiny garage.

My first garage was, well it wasn’t really a garage. The place where I spent many a weekend wrenching on my first rally car was a small shed at the end of the driveway at my friend Sean’s house. Always fighting for space , we had to remove the bags of lawn waste, lawnmower, and gardening supplies before we could even think about bringing a car in there. Once a car was in there, good luck opening the doors or doing anything easy. Shelter from the weather and a place to wrench on cars with the help of good friends was what made that place special. I longed for a garage of my own.

Subsequent sheds, borrowed garages and driveways followed. I convinced my Dad that my brothers and I could insulate the garage in a weekend and a propane heater made the difference between working on the cars in the winter and a mission to the outer reaches of space. Have you ever changed brake pads when it was 14°F out? It is a whole new level of preparation and commitment. Fluid, tools, and physical tasks are completely different at that temperature.

Once on the West Coast, we got with an eclectic group of folks that rented warehouse buildings in the garment district of LA. Lots of space to be had for $200 a month, but you never wanted to leave your good tools there, and you could never really call it home. Because of course; the guy with the blacked-out caddy already called it home, he had been living out of his car for over 2 months. 😐 When we found that out, we bailed pretty quick. Transmission swaps in the UCI graduate student housing parking lot gave way to some rented shop space for $350 in San Clemente. Access to real tools, a lift, a tire mounter, etc. For a time this was as good as it gets. Then the economy tanked and the rent had to go up. I stuck it out while my space got smaller and smaller, eventually everything had to be on wheels, everything had to be mobile (including the rally car). This is a pain in the ass when you have a long term suspension and engine swap planned. It was time to save my cash, stash the rally car at a buddies house, and move the tools back into a plastic shed behind the apartment and buy a house – with a garage!

What do you get for a reasonably priced short sale in a nice neighborhood? You get 250 square feet. Now subtract space for the washer, the dryer, and the water heater. Ready to get all those extra car parts up on the shelves? How about you start with the 15 paint cans, the bucket of plumbing supplies, and the box of house fix-it stuff that you refuse to place on the hood of the rally car. Here’s my suggestions for surviving out of a tiny garage.

  • You have to start somewhere. Label the box of random house stuff – ‘House Stuff’. That way you won’t spend two hours digging through it looking for O2 Sensors. Put subsequent labels on it later. ‘House Stuff’ can become ‘House Stuff, Painting Prep, Door Hardware’. Call the P-Touch label maker geeky, but when you and your friends can find (and return) every tool in your tool chest, it’s worth cash money in time saved.

  • Put it on wheels. Become mobile and flexible.
  • Being able to quickly roll work areas and tools around keeps things potentially more flexible then the huge garage with every tool needed in the large immovable chest. Harbor Freight furniture dollies work great for bins of spares, and FWD transmissions. Have some spare dollies in anticipation of your next project. Consider building a smaller mobile work table covered in scrap sheet metal with heavy duty wheels.

  • Get it off the ground. High shelves for stuff you use less.
  • If you are a man – you no doubt consider the floor ‘a low shelf’. Now that everything is mobile in your garage, even 1 bin of parts not on wheels will be frustrating when you go to move everything around for a project. Since a box truck will never fit, why not use the magic space over 5 feet for wall shelves along the length of your garage. Consider a one foot deep shelf with angle brackets tied to the studs. Just like your sugary sweet cereal isle, put the stuff you use most at eye level, ‘good for you’ parts lower, and the super healthy un-used items up above.

  • Unfinished, cluttered, and hot. Invest in small money, big upgrades.
  • Don’t have the time for drywall? Consider ‘Thrifty White Shower Paneling’ for the walls. It’s like $9 a sheet and you get three pretty good benefits: 1. You can hose it off. 2. You can write on it with whiteboard markers (and erase). 3. It makes pretty good projector screen material for Rockband or Rally games on the Xbox. 😀 Rolls of insulation are cheap, and even in Southern California – consider an insulated garage door. My garage door faces the SW and even on the hottest of days the garage is cooler then outside.

  • Setup your old PC or laptop.
  • We’re not building a media center here. We just need access to and mp3’s. WiFi and $9 speakers makes the garage so much more productive. Most OBD software can run on a 486, so that old P4 with a gig of RAM will do just fine.

  • Other ideas:
  • Build a storage loft! Span Calculator
  • Front load washer / dryer = a temp work table on non-laundry days
  • Standardize your bins, various sizes that are all stackable
  • Got your own small garage ideas? Hit up the comments!
  • The 2GN gets dropped off for its roll cage

    Streetwise MotorsportsThere was some excitement this morning in the garage. The 2GN was loaded up onto the tow dolly and brought down to Streetwise Motorsports for roll cage fabrication. We’re looking to get her back in July, but in the mean time we have some electrical issues to sort out on Ze’Neon (our first rally car) and some serious garage reorganization.

    Quick note on choosing a builder: I’ve been talking with Doug at Streetwise about the 2GN rollcage details over the last month (and known him for about 4 years) and I think it’s important that you have a good working relationship with your cage builder – as their work is what really makes a strong and safe rally car. Sure, you and your buddies can weld up a cage, but consider that someone who has built a number of cars, and been around rally for years, is going to have a lot more experience with what works and what doesn’t.

    Race seats will be on order shortly. Pictures of the build, fitment, and process to follow!

    Some additional engineering necessary…

    Just a quick note – The steering column and quickener needed some more effort. If something related to steering is off .05 from the center, it’s off a lot. 😐 After welding I re-assembled and found about 20 degrees of friction when turning. I stupidly assumed that the ID (inner diameter) of the column and the ID of the spline adapter were different and that’s why I tried to center the adapter from the outside. (Metric car made in Mexico – Adapter in the US) I cut it off to re-weld and was shocked to find that the ID of both were .755 and .753 respectively.

    Instead of centering from the outside, all I needed was a metal pin that was exactly 3/4″. And that’s exactly what we did. My buddy Erik was able to find a steel dowel pin from McMaster for $2.32, he shipped it to his office and we welded it up and tested it last night. Check out the video of the Dodge Rally Neon steering quickener test.

    Seam welding, mock up, and fabrication

    Seam or stitch welds.
    Seam welding, or stitch welding, is where you take and join the layers of metal at the seams on a chassis. Modern uni-body cars are made up of dozens of pieces of steel that they spot weld together. Spot welding is fine for a street car, but spot welds start to pop in a car that is bounced, jumped, bumped, twisted, and raced. As we want to build in some serious longevity into this car, we’re taking the time to weld all the metal panels together.

    My friend Erik came over with his welder (Thanks Erik! :D) and we started with the interior. I had prepped a bunch of areas by grinding the paint away and we were able to get through it quickly. We still have the rear strut towers, trunk, and undercarriage to do.

    Dashboard mock up
    I’ve had parts of the dashboard in and out of the car a dozen times. I want to see what is going to work and what won’t, and the best way to do this is to mock it up using a couple of bolts just to hold it in place. All of the extraneous plastic and metal is out of the dashboard and the HVAC system and piping has been reduced to a minimum. I actually think I’ll duct the floor heat, making it better then it ever was. 🙂

    steering modification
    The heavy fabrication was done yesterday with a new steering wheel, extension, steering quickener, and floor mounted gas pedal. I had just about given up on the “tilt wheel” with the Howe 1.5:1 quickener, but I was able to make it work after an hour of critically examining the steering. I modified the cast piece that hinges the column up and down, and was able to slide the housing of the quickener into it. Now I just need a bracket from the upper part of the column to support the quickener. While I was at it I solved an issue where the aftermarket steering adapters don’t reset the blinker. Adding two small threaded posts with a plastic covering on them I was able to restore functionality. Check out the quick video of the steering blinker reset in action.

    Taking my time during fabrication means I’ll have no-compromise steering, A gas pedal in a Neon that I can actually heel-toe with, and a car that is ready for whatever rally can throw at it.

    The Motor is out, now for serious business.

    2.0L motor pulled from the Neon SXTLast weekend a gathering of rally friends helped take out the 2.0L 420A. This was made easier by taking a Sawzall to the radiator support. 🙂 As we were taking the motor out we discovered some pretty serious damage to the bottom core support and the wiring harness that goes to the lights. This had been ground into by the AC compressor upon hitting whatever bent the metal of the front end. 😮 This explains the melted connector on the back of the headlight switch and the crackle sparking sounds when I turned on the fog lights.

    Next is a serious discussion about the roll cage design for the 2GN. When I built the first Rally Neon I was hesitant to put any info of authority on rallynotes. I was new and didn’t want to come off like some expert on the rules for roll cage design. This time around I’m still no expert, but I’ll show you what we’re planning.

    Roll cage options for door bars.This is my proposal for a door bar layout. I think the door bars are one of the most critical areas and it’s important to balance safety with the ability to get in and out of the car.

    The rules: NASA RallySport / Rally America Both sanctioning bodies have a slightly different view of the best method for coming up with a safe roll cage. I could write a book about the complex differences between the two organizations, but I’ll summarize what you need to know: Both organizations accept each others log book. NASA Rally Sport requires FIA seats and Rally America as of this writing does not. Which rule-set should you use? YMMV. Find someone who has been building rally roll cages for a few years and has some experience.

    The sill bar. Back in 2003 when SCCA was running the show, there was a movement in the rules to get an additional door bar added. Before this, you only needed 1 bar going from the main hoop to the front A-pillar. I can’t even imagine sliding sideways at 90MPH with a single 1.5″ door bar… Then again, cars used to be made from steel and not hydroformed .0025″ thick zinc coated plastic sheets. 😉 The solution was to add a straight bar from the main hoop to the A-Pillar close to the floor on the sill. A lot of rallyists started adding the full “X” WITH a sill bar, but the minimum in the rules (as of mid-2011) is only 2 door bars. Sill bar and a diagonal, OR just the “X”. After seeing a car take a tree stump in the door with just the “X” – we’ll be adding the additional sill bar.

    The bar from the corner of the windshield to the floor (along the A-Pillar) is now mandatory and we’re considering adding it to our production car. These cars are “jellybeans” and where a 1988 VW makes a 45% bend for the windshield, the Dodge “cab forward” design is this 15% decaying slope that needs to be strengthened if it’s to survive a hit there.

    If this design looks impossible to get in or out of the car with, consider that the stock dash extends beyond where the A-Pillar diagonal is, and the proposed door bars are no higher then the ones in our Production car. Will the full “X” make it a little harder to get in and out? I’m sure. Will we be going a little faster then in our Production car? Absolutely!

    2GN Progress Report

    The interior and extra weight is out. I need to get a couple extra grinding discs and wire wheels to get the drivers side door metal out and the extra thick seam sealer in the hard to reach spots. The air-box for the heat and AC is dependent on the heater core and I’ll need to drain the coolant before pulling that out and re-engineering it.

    Draining the coolant means that it’s just about a good time as any to pull the motor. The motor has to go if we’re going to seam weld, plate, and strengthen the front end. To keep it easy I’m going to cut the radiator support out and we’ll be changing that up anyway. I don’t know if I’m ready to put “tubular K frame” on the to-do list, but it’s being considered.

    This weekend some friends and past crew members will be giving me a hand. Soon the 2GN will become more of a shell then a car. Rally prep at the garage is well under way!