“That escalated quickly.” I know it’s a cliché, albeit a fitting one for a hill climb race. But it’s all I could think about after our car—a salvage-title C7 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 street car transformed into a race car in just a few desperate weeks—not only survived the Pikes Peak Hill Climb but finished just one short step off the podium.
(Full Disclosure: This is a story about building a race car for the Broadmoor Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Some, if not all, of the companies involved have sponsored this build in some way, shape or form. Without their support this build would not be possible and therefore there would be no story. If you do not want to be exposed to these companies and think that somehow, in some way, sponsorship is bad, then please do not read this article… and give yourself 1,000 lashes for thinking impure thoughts about being unduly influence by your exposure to sponsors. Shame! Shame!)
When last I left you, a week ago and before Pikes Peak, we were limping home with a flat tire from what should have been a good day’s worth of testing, the day before the first official practice session on the mountain. But with the flat tire stopping us the total amount testing we’d done to date was a mere six laps.
To make matters worse, we the failed tech inspection.
No, it wasn’t the roll cage, as some of you surmised. That passed with flying colors. The thing that got us was the steering wheel.
Pikes Peak International Hill Climb rules state that the steering wheel must have a motorsport quick release in order to be able to more easily remove the driver in the event of an accident. I had read that in the rules and knew that changing out the stock wheel could create an issue for us.
On modern cars, you have data (mainly steering angle) coming from the factory wheel that’s often crucial to the various systems operations in the Z06. Anti-lock brakes, active differential, and active suspension, just to name a few. (This is also how Volkswagen figured out how to give a middle-finger to the EPA, by the way.)
Removing the factory wheel could throw all of the systems we worked so hard to get up and running after the rebuild back into chaos.
I had planned on dropping a note to Dan Skokan, tech director for the hill climb, to ask for permission to keep the stock wheel. But to be honest, with everything that we were dealing with just to get the car out the door, I plain forgot. So I decided to go through tech with the time-tested strategy of asking for forgiveness rather then permission.
Yeah, that didn’t work out the way I had planned it in my head.
Dan was very apologetic and helpful, but also very firm—as a tech director should be. Rules are the rules. Especially when they are for the safety of the drivers. As there was no way for us to adapt the stock wheel to a motorsport quick release, we would have to remove our stock wheel and replace it with a full-blown racing wheel, the night before the first practice session.
Since the stock automatic Z06 comes with paddle shifters, we would also need a motorsport wheel equipped the same way and we needed it in a matter of hours. Even though paddle-shift sequential gearboxes are all the rage in international GT3 racing, they haven’t yet trickled down to the local club guys. So finding said wheel was going to be basically impossible.
Or was it?
Turns out that I knew exactly where to find one. About eight feet away.
As fate would have it, the Audi TTRS that I set the front-wheel drive Pikes Peak record with last year hadn’t been picked up by its new owner yet, so…
See where I’m going with this?
Doubling down on the “asking for forgiveness not permission” strategy, I had my guys “liberate” my Audi wheel and get it fit on to the Z06. I’m going to make this seem way easier than it was but after several hours, and some trial and error, Alex and the boys from 3R Racing finally managed to get the new (old) wheel grafted on and working. For the most part (more on that in a minute.)
After an exhausting day, the car was finally loaded up in the trailer and we headed for the hour long drive down to Colorado Springs, where we finally settled in for bed at a normally reasonable 10 p.m.. I say “normally reasonable” because unlike any other race I’ve ever done, the green flag drops at the Pikes Peak Hillclimb at sunrise (as the road opens back up to the public at 8:30 a.m.) meaning we have to be wake up at a very unreasonable 3 a.m.
Every day. For the entire week.
So let me set the stage for you. It’s 5 a.m. It’s dark. I’ve had maybe four hours of sleep. I’m in the driver’s seat of an 850 horsepower race car that less than 90 days ago was a street car at a salvage auction. That has had an entire six laps of testing. And I’m about to head up one of the most extreme mountain roads in the world as fast as I can.
Hell yeah, what could go wrong?
But a funny thing happened. The car, which had struggled to get more than a couple of laps in testing, ran.
Six runs on the Upper Section of the road (the mountain is split into three sections for the practice sessions) without a single hiccup and the eighth fastest time in class. Holy shit, ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a race car.
That’s not to say everything was all sunshine and roses. There were a couple of things that had me a bit concerned. The first was my inability to fully disengage traction control. On the Z06s and other turned-up General Motors cars these days, there are multiple performance modes that allow the user to select various levels of intervention by the computers. The one I wanted is the fourth level of the Track Mode. It’s the one that turns everything off and leaves the driver in complete control (or completely out of control depending on the driver).
In the hairpins, the quick way through in a rear wheel drive car is to turn the car in hard and use its massive power to break the rear free and get it to rotate. This gets it pointed in the right direction and allows the driver to get to power quickly.
Unfortunately with the change of steering wheels, the car no longer seemed to want to give me access to that setting. This meant that I couldn’t disable traction control and was going to have to spend the rest of the week driving around these annoying electronic nannies. Shit.
While this was frustrating, and would cost me a bit of time (and fun), it wasn’t my main worry. The big worry I had was heat. An abundance of it seemed to be taking up residence in my engine and was starting to rob it of power.
Sidebar: I know all of you naysayers are going to be like, “We told you the Corvette Z06 sucks. It won’t even run on the race track for 10 minutes without overheating.” And the lawyers who have filed a lawsuit against GM are licking their chops at the mere mention of another Z06 overheating.
Personally, I think the whole thing is load of crap.
First, how long should a street car be able to run on track before having to stop? One minute, five minutes, 100 minutes? Twenty-four hours? What’s the benchmark? A race track is a very different environment than the street. You can’t design a car to work well in both.
(Now I know some of you jokers are going to cry out “But the Porsche GT3 RS can run all day on a track!” You’d be right, but the Porsche GT3 RS is a horrible street car, and the Z06 is not.)
Second, when I want my daily driver to do something that it doesn’t do straight from the factory, I pick up the phone and call my nearest tuning shop—not my lawyer. Brakes, transmission, engines, and yes, cooling systems all need upgrading to survive a driver pushing hard on a race track. Even on the Z06.
Alright then. Rant over.
So anyway, we were struggling with an overheating issue. It was enough of an issue that it slowed my last two runs in qualifying. The first of those runs the car went into limp mode about half a mile from the finish of the qualifying sector, and the last run I aborted completely when the temps jumped substantially not long after the start.
On the positive side, it looked to be more of a heat soak issue then a pure overheating issue. The first run of the morning would go off just fine and temps would stay well below the threshold. However, when we would stop to reset for another run, the temperatures would stay elevated. Then on the second run the temps would start a bit high and then creep up towards the limit. By the third or fourth run the heat would be high enough to send the car into limp mode.
After closer examination we found several contributing factors to the issue. First and foremost is that all cars struggle with overheating to varying degrees at Pikes Peak. The air above 10,000 feet, and while cooler, it is also very thin and very dry. That combination is the worst-case scenario for cooling, as air at that altitude has very little convective capability and overall heat capacity.
Also, our under-hood temperatures were very high, which means that we weren’t doing a great job in excavating the air that was coming in through the front grill. This has a knock-on effect, exacerbating our heat soak issues.
Finally, we had absolutely no intake ducting. This one was totally on us, with the compressed timeline forcing us to skip things that we would have normally done. With proper ducting, air coming into the front grill would be forced through the radiator. But with our current lack of ducting the air, as opposed to being forced through the radiator, would instead look for the path of least resistance, which would be around the radiator. Clearly not ideal.
With no easy access to fabricate the proper ducting we looked for other solutions. The simplest one was to water spray the radiator. My NRG Motorsport guys raided the local Home Depot for some hoses and lawn sprinkler mist nozzles to MacGyver the system.
Using our unneeded windshield wiper bottle as a reservoir, we ran a main hose to the nozzles we installed just in front of the radiator and intercoolers.
This had an immediate positive effect. Our temps dropped 20-30 degrees and we were able to get several runs in before we hit redline. While I was happy to see an improvement I also know that there is a big difference between keeping things cool for a few four-minute runs and keeping them cool for the full blast to the peak.
With everything working well mechanically, I was actually starting to look forward to the last day of testing. We were on the middle section of the mountain, which, with all of the start and stop switchbacks, is always the hardest on the cars’ cooling systems. I decided to be the first in line as there were a few ominous-looking clouds on the horizon. It turned out that I made the right choice, as those clouds didn’t stay on the horizon long and moved in quickly as I waited for the rest of the cars to come up to the finish.
The last few cars had to come up through the clouds with very limited visibility and after only one run, the session was red flagged. The drive back down was spectacular as at 12,000 feet, we were actually above the cloud line looking down on them with clear skies and a beautiful sunrise above us.
It was all incredibly beautiful and immensely humbling at the same time.
So we would head in to race day with only one sighting run through the middle section, but everyone in our group would have the same disadvantage. It was time to suck it up and put three months of hard work on the line and see what our Z06 could do.
Fastest. Corvette. Ever.
Our time was 10:55.166, good enough for P4 in Time Attack 1 and the 16th fastest car overall.
Yup. I know, it shocked the hell out of me too.
Was it a perfect run? No, not really. Our overheating issues creeped back up, meaning I had to back out of the throttle a bunch starting just before the W section of the hill. I was able to keep the oil temp just below the threshold for limp mode for the rest of the run up, but it definitely cost me time.
Also, as our run on race day didn’t go off until after 11 a.m., the temperature of the road was substantially higher then in testing at 5 a.m. With higher road temps I could get more heat in the tires which meant more grip, but with that extra grip I found that the car was set-up way too soft. The grip of the Pirelli DS soft tires overwhelmed the stock bushings and sway bars, making the car feel vague and more than a bit unsettling. So it was hard to push it to 10/10ths with that issue
But at the end of the day I am immensely proud of what my team and partners were able to accomplish is such a short timeline. We took what is technically still a street-legal road car from the salvage yards to one step off the podium at one of the most respected motorsports events in the world in 98 days.
This is not the last you’ll hear of this car. The plan is currently to keep developing it for Pikes Peak 2018. I’ll keep you guys updated periodically on what things we have going on and where the car will show up next.
SEMA? Optima Battery Street Car Shoot Out? The Nürburgring? Who knows. Stay tuned.