Out of all the cars I’ve driven for Jalopnik, the one I wanted to give back the least was the Toyota 86. When Robb Holland asked if I wanted to drive a flooded 86 he was turning into a race car, I jumped at the chance. I’m glad I did, even if I was our slowest driver. It was extremely good before. It’s amazing as a race car.
[Full disclosure: IAA and Autosource—two entities that sell salvaged cars—chipped in substantially to sponsor Robb’s project, hence the big banners all over the car. This project where Robb resurrected a car flooded in Hurricane Harvey to help drive donations to a local charity probably couldn’t have happened without them.]
When I say that I didn’t want to give back the Toyota 86, I didn’t mean it in that wistful, if-I-won-the-lottery kind of way that automotive hacks talk about G-wagens and Lambos. I meant it in the way that it needs to be my next car. This is a normal little car that regular people can own, hoon and track without having to be born with a bad case of affluenza.
Yet the 86 was better than most of the more powerful, expensive fare I’ve driven. It was light and lively, and playful to drive in a way that big modern supercars aren’t. Frankly, it’s the brand-new Porsche 944 that Porsche won’t build us. Robb’s race car conversion of a recently waterlogged 86 turned that up to 11.
The little red Toyobaru arrived at the MSR-Houston last Friday to let teammate Jordon Musser and I get used to it before it raced in the World Racing League’s Texas Fandango race weekend. There were two eight-hour enduros, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Given that this was the car’s first race, and first enduros tend to be where you find everything that breaks, even making it through one day with the car would be a rousing success.
The car looked far too pretty for anything I was expected to drive. It had received a full upgrade kit meant to prepare the car for VLN races on the Nürburgring, which included all the necessary safety gear as well as a host of performance upgrades. (Toyota’s motorsport branch has the full specs here, if you’re really curious.)
Robb wasn’t set to fly in until Saturday morning, but he’d gotten some shakedown time in the car before, so we weren’t too worried. Jordon took the first practice session in the car, and then it was my turn. I think I said it all when I came back laughing like a maniac.
Sure, I was substantially slower than Jordon and felt a little self-conscious about being the only person on the team who was a true amateur who’d never made it beyond the Porsche Club’s intermediate-lite “blue” track day run group. But in that moment, alone with the extremely good 86 in a non-competitive setting where I was free to just keep hacking down my times with each successive lap, I was in heaven.
On one of my earlier test laps, I radioed over that I couldn’t quite reach the throttle from the brake. I knew they were running all kinds of data on the car, and felt the shame of borking a heel-toe downshift. I wear a dudes’ size six in racing shoes (there are no womens’ sizes to be had), and even Jordon—who had regular-sized dude feet—admitted that the throttle was a bit far from the brakes.
The 86's long-distance throttle pedal was an interesting contrast with the extremely short-throw shifter that was now in the car. It was good and clicked solidly into place, but was dramatically short for me, who rarely experienced a functional fifth gear on this very track.
Turns out, I just needed to turn my foot a bit more and really stomp that heel down to make a good rev-matched downshift. Rev-matching—that little blip of the throttle in a downshift to meet the speed of the lower gear you’re shifting into—really helps save the gearbox from wear and tear in longer races like the one we were about to do, so I was happy to do this.
I shut up in the next few laps after this revelation that this entire weekend was going to be Leg Day, and recommenced cackling like a maniac whenever I found places I could go faster. This car did things that the 24 Hours of Lemons cars I’d driven around MSR-Houston and the roadgoing 86 I took on Harris Hill Raceway wouldn’t. I added throttle and it just stuck on the fresh Yokohama tires (which—full disclosure, again—the company had donated for this race). In fact, the car seemed to be happier the more I pushed it. It settled down on its rear drive wheels at full throttle and pushed itself along.
What I didn’t feel was the infamous 86 “flat spot” in its torque curve that every Toyobaru owner on earth seems to experience. Robb noted that the new air intake and tune remedied this, and sure enough, it just pulled and pulled until it hit its redline, at which a rev-limiter would viscerally remind you to shift if you didn’t already. Toyota claims their package of Cup mods bumps the horsepower up to 212 hp, which is just enough of a bump over the stock 205 hp to make this car a pure joy.
This 86 was a bit twitchier feeling than its road-car counterpart now, but this was toned down a bit after Jordon suggested we add two clicks more of compression into the adjustable front shocks. This planted the front end down a bit more and made it less likely to flop around when the rear of the car got loose.
The second practice run I had was an utter joy. Holy crap. I have found what I have been missing in my life, and apparently it’s more power. The car was easier to catch when it started to slide now, and absolutely perfect in the dry. I offered to trade the team my well-loved Lancer on the spot for the 86. (Hey, they’d get two more doors and road legality in this deal. I have no idea why they didn’t take me up on it.)
We had a couple issues to sort overnight. The interior kill switch needed to be rewired, and we added 135 lbs of ballast to fit into WRL’s third-fastest class of cars, GP2, instead of GP1. WRL classes cars by a simple power-to-weight ratio, so we bolted a set of gym weights in the passenger side and dropped down a class.
Race day was the great unknown. We hadn’t had time to do any fuel mileage runs, so we were just going to run the car until it was mostly out of gas. Our plan then became to run the car until it had around a quarter-tank of gas left. The car was better than we expected on fuel mileage.
Rain wasn’t supposed to show up until after the race was over, but everyone knows that the weather in southeast Texas is more accurately predicted by a raccoon on acid than any actual meteorologist. Intermittent raindrops throughout the morning seemed to back me up on that theory.
Jordon took the first stint and put the car decently ahead of the rest of the field. It took a little longer than I’d hoped for to swap into the seat after him, as I had to adjust nearly all the belts to go longer as I was so short, and then in our rush to swap me in, I was maybe one notch away from where I really wanted to be.
Sure enough, rain showed up early, sprinkling on my windshield a couple times in my stint but mostly holding off. The tires were warmer and had less grip than yesterday’s perfect practice runs, so I was taking things a little easier to avoid spinning out or doing anything else that would necessitate an extra, unplanned stop. I made it through my three-quarters of a tank unscathed, and successfully delivered the car back to the team in one piece.
Jordon hopped back in Robb arrived in the afternoon, taking a double stint in the car after Jordon had hopped out. Robb—who had never gotten to drive at MSR-Houston before—finally got the downpour of rain that the grey sky had been threatening to unload all morning. The two faster guys took it through the end of the day as they were similar in height didn’t have to contend with moving the seats and belts as much as they did for me.
The surprising part of this build is that the car didn’t have any drama throughout the whole day. We didn’t have to stop for surprise failures or repairs. Sure, it had been professionally prepped by 3R Racing, who had also shown up to support the car.
I’m so used to chasing problems with my cars lately that I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the extra time. I messed around a little with taking slow-shutter panning shots of the cars on track, caught up with friends who’d shown up on other teams, helped with driver changes and even loafed a little in the chairs around our garage. At no point did I ever have to whip out so much as a hammer.
The car with this kit was shockingly reliable, even though we weren’t doing much beyond shifting a little slower and more deliberately to save its components. It happily redlined through the end of the race, where we finished fifth place in GP2 and 13th overall.
Sadly, we didn’t get a second day racing it. Our main race mechanic Maciej Kruszewski had complained of side pain all morning long, such that he was switching sides to jack up the car and such. By the end of the day, we were all urging him to get it checked out. Turns out, he’d been toughing it out with appendicitis. Since the 3R Racing guys were the ones who had to head back to Colorado with the car, we bowed out of the second eight-hour race that weekend.
Best of all, we hooned the 86 for a good cause. We’ve been highlighting the State Firefighters and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas (or SFFMA for short) throughout this run, as they still have members out of their homes half a year after Hurricane Harvey ripped through southeast Texas. Those are the first responders saving everything from your cat to your house when things go wrong, so it’s hard to think of a more deserving bunch.
There’s always this big push to help out in the immediate aftermath of a big disaster, but it always peters out whenever other headlines take over the news. Robb even had trouble finding a charity that was still actively seeking donations for this project, and now even our own lawmakers in this state seem to be forgetting the utter havoc that was wrought on a gigantic chunk of our state.
Nah, man. We’re still hurting down here, and it’s going to be a while until we’re fully rebuilt and actually ready to handle things better the next time a big disaster hits the shore.
While we didn’t get any numbers on how much money we drove to the SFFMA, a member of their Board of Directors told Robb that they noticed a noticeable uptick in donations through their website. You can donate to them on their website here, if you’re interested.
Maciej said he was recovering well when I last checked in with him, thank goodness. He was crucial to making this weekend happen, and we were glad he and co-crew-member Zack Bergert were there to help set up and run the car.
While this was an incredible opportunity to run something truly special to promote a good cause, it also proved my theory that if a road car is fun, the race car version should be even better. The Cup kit added to this car fixed some of the Toyota 86's most common issues, and made it one of the most fun cars I’ve driven in years.