How to finish a race after putting 3 holes in your engine

Life isn't fair and it doesn't owe you anything. Or maybe it does.... but even then, Life's a dead beat and isn't going to pay up. So do you lay back and just take the beating and loss, or do you man up and take life head on and drag what you need from it?


Suffice to say, if you can see straight through the side of your block your race weekend probably isn't going quite as planned. 

If you follow our social media stories you may have seen that this is exactly the position I found myself in while piloting the Tuner Tools StreeMod class Miata MX5 at Gridlife Track Battle Round 1 hosted at Mid Ohio sports car course over the first weekend in April. For many this would be the end to the weekend, and a reason to pack it up, head home and catch up on some sleep and lick your wounds.

However, this just isn't how our team operates.

A little background on me first: My name is Brian Barnhill, and aside from managing the technical sales and support here at Tuner Tools I also serve as our Motorsports director and crew chief for our Formula Drift racing team. I rarely have the opportunity to spend time behind the wheel myself as our drivers and program come first and spend a great amount of my time on the opposite end of the headset and behind the keyboard (and under our cars) making sure everything is ready to go come race time.

Being one of the few "grip" racers in the company and among our race team I usually take advantage of Gridlife's Time Attack rounds to get a few events in a year. Mid-Ohio is always an amazing track and a great way to spend some time around our Ohio motorsports program which operates largely from the Columbus, Ohio area. The first Track Battle round for Grid Life was scheduled for the first week of April at Mid-Ohio and our MX5 Miata was prepared to debut at this event.

My previous time attack vehicle was a FC3 RX7 sporting a Turbo LS powertrain from our GTO drift car and was putting down just slightly below 700hp on it's standard tune. While this car had more then enough power and potential it was extremely temperamental and expensive to operate. To be predicable enough to drive it would require a significant aerodynamics modifications and a complete overhaul. Not particularly ideal for someone that has significant other track obligations.


Enter the MX5 Miata. When the chance to pick up a rust free (though still in need of work) 1999 Miata presented itself we quickly parted ways with the RX7 and began preping the Miata to be a cheap and reliable alternative that could be loaded in the trailer, crank out laps, and returned to the shop with minor service requirements and less extreme setups. 

The engine in the car when originally acquired quickly developed rod knock and showed signs of wear and abuse and was replaced with a lower mileage drop out from another 99 miata.This setup would eventually become a full interior Street Mod class car sporting a stock BP4W engine with the head decked 0.050 inches and running E85 and controlled on a budget friendly Haltech Elite 750. Service items were addressed and all gaskets and accessory systems addressed to ensure as problem free a life as possible. The car went through pre-season testing with very few hiccups and would put out 140hp on our DynoDynamics dyno with a broad and safe power band.

Or so we thought...

Given every chance and treated well we expected to be able to quickly get a feel for the car in the first session and fine tune a setup I could be happy with and turn in a respectable time. Time attack had to wait until later in the morning to hit the track so I went through some last minute checks.  Engine fluids are clean and topped off, no leaks and a quick nut/bolt on the car and it's given the green light. Pull on my fire suit and gear, slip my HNR and helmet on and strap in while the car warms up and roll off to Hot Grid.

Trying to position myself back on the grid so I can take my time to get the car dialed in (and knowing I won't be setting any records). We get released to pit lane, and then track. Check the car over on the out lap and everything feels strong. Engine revs and shifts healthy, suspension is solid (though the car needs upgraded sway bars!) and the breaks have enough stopping power to snap me against my belts.

Out lap down I roll into throttle and start to ease into the lap and test the braking limits. Breaking early into the the keyhole I see a much faster group heading into the keyhole and make space before tucking back behind and following them into Madness, still re-orienting my mind and reactions to the track. Rolling out of the carousel I decide it's time to go for a flyer and push the car. 

Still learning the chassis again and playing it safe I am a little early on the breaks and carrying much less speed than possible through T1 and T2. Pushing further into the esses (more affectionately referred to as Madness) I feel a loss of power and start to move off line in case of an emergency. Mid throttle still feels solid when cresting the turn into Thunder Valley when everything goes so wrong.

Instant bottom end noise left me quickly positioning the car off the inside of the track and into the grass to tuck into a safe run off near the Armco. A warning light on my display indicates an oil pressure issue and I quickly kill the car while I get in the grass, hoping any mess is kept off the racing surface. 

I am safe, off the track, and have time to sit and mull over this new turn of events..... My "reliable" car hasn't even lasted 3 full laps. Despite a safe tune, new fluids and proper maintenance, it looks like this engine, and whole weekend is done without even turning in a proper lap time.  To say I was angry would be an understatement...

Thankfully I was off track, and it looks like I either contained my mess, or managed to get off track before spilling it everywhere. The engine was seized and refused to even turn over. Pretty sure we're toast at this point. The session end and the support vehicle pulls around to take my on my tow-of-shame. 

Rolling back into the pits we get back to my trailer and the Haltech booth I am pitted at and we push the car back into place with the help of a couple friends.  Slipping off my helmet and pulling down/tying my fire suit at the waist I reach for the hood release while explaining what happened.

"Pretty sure it's *effin* toast.... oil pressure warning came up, and it was already being shut down... but it was already hurt. Just hopefully I saved the block"


Yeah... that's one big NOPE.

100%, absolutely and totally screwed.... I drop the hood and head to my trailer to hide for a minute. Grab my phone and call my wife while I try to calm down.

"Are you dying?" is the first thing I hear. "Did you crash and catch fire?"

"Well, no... but that would have at least been a cool way to kill the Miata.... Engines toast. Like... Hole in the side kind of toast"

At this point my friend Cote Taylor walks into my trailer and hands me a chunk of metal. It's the #3 Connecting rod cap. Missing all the bolts and scarred/twisted. Removed the the air cooled crank feature I so recently installed in the block.  Yeah.... we're screwed. Wondering how much else is mangled I change out of my gear and carry my new souvenir across the paddock. 

Walking into James Houghton's garage I see Chris Law. Haltech Marketing director, Miata fan and a friend I now owe even more. I set the rod cap on James' wing, and try to look properly ashamed of myself.

"So, we just pulled this out of my engine.... and the engine is still in the car with 0 bolts removed..."  I tell him, to a look of shock and horror. 

"Dude, no way?!" he mutters as he takes a little pause. "So, what now?  Go pick up an engine from Columbus and swap it back at the shop"

Well.... that wasn't my first thought. But Chris knows me and our reputation at the track. And whether on purpose or by accident he planted the seed that would quickly turn into one of the better terrible ideas I've ever had.

So, a couple other things you should know about me

  • 1) I am VERY stubborn and strong willed.
  • 2) I take failure very personally. Which is to say I hate it. It happens, but I will fight tooth and nail to overcome it when ever I can.
  • 3) I grew up racing and learning that you work until that flag drops and drag what you can to the line and leave everything you have on the track

These are all concepts we carried over into our Motorsports program. In this case, there is no money on the line, I am not running a full season so points are not a factor. But - this is racing.... and racing is what we do.

Having been part of the Ohio Miata scene for sometime I immediately start levying contacts and send out an SOS looking for an engine while I start scrolling classifieds.  Of course, everyone immediately mentions the local Miata Part-out specialist. So we start there.

And I get the list of engines back..... triple what I paid for the engine in the car (though admittedly they don't have holes in the side of them. I just can't justify that kind of money for a quick fix. So it's back to scrolling classifieds.

This particular Miata uses the BP4W varient of the 1.8L engine. This came in the NB1 Miata stating in 1999 (so first Miata's to ditch the pop up headlights.) As such, there are a few unique items. While the early 1.6 and 1.8 engines will bolt in and work, they use a different trigger (using a CAS instead of a dedicated cam/crank signal). In addition the intake manifolds are different. So to use an early 1.8 (NA8) or NA6 engine I'll need a fully dressed engine, and need to modify my wiring.  The Haltech ECU would happily adapt to any of these engines, but time and effectiveness is really key here.

Ideally, we would find a later 1.8 (or possibly a VVT) engine. But, so far, not much luck...  So I decide step 1 is to pull the head off my current engine and see how damaged it is.  The thought here - the early 1.8 becomes a much easier swap if we can keep my head. The crank trigger is external, and the cam trigger would swap with the head. We would keep the bumped compression from the shaved head, my VICS intake manifold and as much wiring as possible.

So... Of the head came.

Remarkably the head appeared untouched. Though 3 pistons are currently sitting at TDC..... This is a little boost we needed. early 1.8 will work.

When life gives you lemons......

You throw those lemons in a blender and mix it with some alcohol and kick life's ass!