It was coming up on noon, and I really wasn’t surprised that Brian Ma was running late.
It’s not because Brian isn’t punctual, but rather because he had only just started to Si-swap his Civic Sport two days prior, with a harness bar and other details still to button up the very morning we were to travel south some 400 miles. Perhaps equally daring, this all transpired mere months after receiving the car, and just weeks after chopping the fenders and fitting extensive aero.
With everything (probably) in order, it was finally time for a proper shakedown on a road course. But putting the car on a trailer for the 800-mile round trip for the Gridlife Streets Special seems far too sensible, don’t you think? This would also go against the grain of the BMSPEC ethos, so instead Brian tossed me the keys to ‘Circuit Heart’ and asked if I would drive it from the Bay Area to Willow Springs Raceway.
At the track, driver Jackie Ding would take over, hopefully returning the car in one piece for me to make the trek back on the same tires. Like any reasonable person, I jumped at the chance to drive the boosted Civic south. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Brian showed up just before 1:00pm, a feat which is actually quite impressive considering that in the midst of all the work on the Honda he had found time to shop for and purchase a new-to-him support vehicle.
This wasn’t part of the plan, but rather a necessity after his other BMW 5 Series was totalled the day before by a driver who didn’t seem all too familiar with stop lights.
The pair of cars made it from Fremont over the Santa Cruz mountains to my home in Aptos without a hitch, but the first real test for the Civic would be the five-hour drive south to our hotel in Palmdale, California. Brian quickly showed me around the car I’d be driving and handed over the keys with one final piece of advice.
“Oh yeah, the speed sensor broke off inside the transmission, so the reverse lockout doesn’t work.” With the gearbox acting silly, a careless shift to fifth would mean I’d end up in seventh, essentially another neutral, and a sloppy move into sixth would result in a very, very bad time for everyone as reverse is right next door.
With the main goal of not destroying the aero and the secondary pressure of keeping the components in the transmission and engine where they belong, I was ready to roll. Ignition on, the check engine, tire pressure, and low fuel lights all greeted me; everything was as expected, then. So, just like Brian said, rev up to near 2,000rpm, clutch out quickly. And…
Once I realized Brian really was serious about his description of the clutch, we were off. Below 3,000rpm the car was expectedly gutless, due in part to the base-map tune as well as the larger-than-stock turbo feeding the tiny 1.5L engine. But once you get up past 4,000rpm, the car becomes properly quick and extremely responsive, making it an absolute pleasure to drive on my home turf with twisting back roads to the Pacific Coast Highway.The Drive
Eventually we cut over to Highway 101 where we were greeted with an unholy amount of rain. Despite me being genuinely worried about the 200 treadwear track tires and the standing water, it was actually pretty cool to see a huge plume flying off the front and rear aero.
Just as I was thinking it might be best to pull over and wait it out, we shot out into the dry, something we’re much more accustomed to around here. But it’s only natural that it would be dumping rain in California’s desert this weekend; after all, a track day was coming up.
After a couple stops for gas and food we arrived at the hotel without any hiccups. From here, Brian had an extra three hours of driving to do to pick up Jackie Ding and Charles Zhao at Los Angeles airport, giving the jet-lagged driver and photographer a good four hours to sleep before the Gridlife time attack and track battle sessions began.
More importantly, the first hurdle was over with. Circuit Heart had made it.Sunrise At Streets
After a quick but restful night, we stopped off for gas the following morning (maybe you’re noticing a trend here?). But down the road on the way to Streets of Willow Springs I noticed a new feature in sixth gear: absolutely no throttle response.
Hopping quickly into fourth seemed be an immediate cure, but a few miles down the road it happened again. The same solution worked, but perhaps it was purely coincidence. Either way, when I mentioned this to Brian he was obviously unexcited. Rainier Nguyen, a BMSPEC teammate who was along for the journey, quickly set about tearing apart the fresh harness under the hood to try to find the culprit.
A couple of test drives didn’t show a repeat in the issue, and the final prep for Gridlife commenced.
A good 60 cars, which is a really good showing for the smaller ‘Streets’ circuit at the Willow Springs compound, rolled in for tech and their groggy pilots went into the clubhouse for a drivers meeting.
As the Gridlife Streets Special was the group’s first foray into California, I was stoked to shoot at the event, which actually featured three sub-events I’ve already alluded to. First, the TrackBattle Time Attack, your good old fashioned time attack-style run group. Then, there were the TrackBattle Brackets where drivers face off in lead and follow laps, as well as standard open track time in another run group.
I finished some prep of my own as cars were buttoned up and turned over, engines roaring and humming in the background as drivers started to make their way to the grid.
With Jackie ready to take Circuit Heart out on track for qualifying the first leg was of the trip was in the books as a success. But as with any shakedown, it was anyone’s guess what would come next.
I’ll give you a closer look at the Civic — as well as a rundown on the Gridlife Streets Special and a handful of spotlights — soon.
But for now, I need sleep.