Mazda 323 Project – Part 4
- 21st June 2006, 11:30am
As we found out, it's a very painstaking operation in having a car rally registered and not one which should be taken lightly, given the thoroughness of the licensing authorities (in this case VicRoads). The friendly, helpful staff at Protech Developments in Carrum Downs eased our traumas quite considerably, explaining the procedures as they went about their job. Because the car was a Japanese import which didn't comply with the Australian Design Rules in a number of areas, these non-compliant features needed to be listed on the documents that went with the car to the registration department.
Those that were easily fixed (such as replacing the convex glass in the driver's side mirror, substituting side intrusion bars in the roll cage in place of the door intrusion bars and assuring that the fuel filler only accepted unleaded filling hoses), were looked after simply and easily. But what surprised us most was that all the part numbers on items such as headlight and taillight lenses, window glass and so on, were required to be listed on the documents so that any variance from the ADR's was immediately obvious to VicRoads.
With this successfully completed, the car was subjected to a roadworthy check before we left to present the car for registration. Fortunately, the person in charge of this department was rally-friendly, having been involved in rallies for some time and was sympathetic to rallying. Nevertheless, he insisted that the car undergo a thorough inspection to see that it did in fact conform to the guidelines provided by rally registration.
Surprisingly, padding on the roll cage (something that we were led to believe was vitally important) never even rated a mention - none was fitted and none was requested! Finally, he announced that all was in order and the registration plates were to be affixed, causing a huge sigh of relief (even if it was under our breath) by those present. Now some $1,500 lighter in the wallet after the certificate and registration, the cherished ARN 555 plates were cable-tied to the car prior to our trip home. It had been an interesting exercise, a stressful day and a wallet-emptying experience. Oh well, nobody ever told us that rallying was supposed to be cheap!
At this point in time you would think that the car was ready for its first event, but there was still a long way to go. The list of jobs still to be done seemed endless, and even the simplest job seems to always take a lot longer than expected. Even making a bracket and fitting a mudflap can take the best part of a night to complete, and as for the sumpguard - that's another story.
In no particular order we still had seats to fit, a tripmeter and maplight to mount, mudflaps to make and attach, a navigator's footrest to design and build, driving light brackets to mount and wire, and helmet nets to make, even before we turned our attention to the underbody protection.
The driving light brackets presented the first of a few minor problems that were to arise. With modern cars being designed to crumple in the front end, we found that it was difficult to find a solid panel to bolt the brackets to on the Mazda. In the end we chose the radiator support panel and fashioned some steel brackets to poke out through the grille aperture, and while this was neat and tidy looking, we found in practice that there was still too much vibration caused. So until the budget permits the purchase of a proper light pod, a couple of bits of foam rubber squeezed between the driving lights and the bonnet had to suffice as vibration-stoppers.
Extra wiring was run for a number of items, most importantly to relays for the headlights and driving lights to avoid the possibility of a lighting problem at night. A battery safety cutout switch was fitted in the crew compartment, close to the front of the crew member's seats for immediate access in the event of an accident. Wiring was also run to the map light, the Philtronics distance computer (more on that later), and the excellent Terraphone intercom.
There was also the sensor for the Philtronics unit to be fitted and we chose to run this off the left hand rear wheel where there would hopefully be less wheelspin, to give a more accurate reading.
A novel and unorthodox solution was found to ensure that the sensor worked properly. On the Mazda there is a gear that drives the ABS system (since disconnected) on the rear wheels and all the teeth except eight were broken off to provide just eight pickup points from which to drive the unit.
Hardly text book engineering, but effective just the same.
The competition seats finally arrived and these excellent, supportive seats were fitted for both driver and co-driver. Coming complete with adjustable mount plates that bolted on to the existing runners, the Marsh seats proved to be quite easy to install and were not only well made but comfortable as well. One thing that we did opt for was a cut-out in the squab of the seat so that the crutch strap on the 5 point harnesses could be threaded through and bolted to the floor directly below the seat. This is an essential feature to stop the occupants "submarining" under the belt in the event of a sudden stop ie: a crash.
Finally, the seats were adjusted for height, rake and overall position to suit the occupants. The above-mentioned seatbelts, 5 point, aircraft buckle style were installed and adjusted for length. An aluminium co-driver's footrest was manufactured and fitted - everything we did seemed to be adding more and more weight. Brackets for this, support for that - there was no way this car was going to be under minimum weight!
Now it was time to turn to the important aspect of underbody protection and, if you've ever looked underneath a 4WD car, you'll know how important that really is. But first a bit of background. Four wheel drive cars (and even front wheel drive cars, for that matter) can quickly destroy themselves after even just a few events. The constant thrashing from rocks and stones plays havoc not only with expensive drivetrain and suspension components at the back of the car, but with the floorpan itself. In fact, it's not uncommon for 4WD cars to wear their floorpans right through even after as few as half a dozen events.
The combination of the beating from rocks being thrown up by the front wheels and the extremely light, weight-saving steel used in floorpans, renders this area susceptible to being destroyed. Obviously, we wanted the car to last, so we planned to take some positive action before the damage was caused
A fiberglass company made up some moulds of the floorpan and underfloor fuel tank areas before proceeding to make the appropriate panels to go underneath the car. These were duly completed and offered up to the car and were naturally an exact fit of the panel they were designed to cover. We discovered early on that Japanese floorpans are made from extremely thin steel so any protection here would protect the floor and the chassis rails.
While fitting the fuel tank guards we discovered by mistake that the steel used to construct the two underfloor fuel tanks is also notoriously thin. A slight touch by a cordless drill resulted in a tiny pin prick of a hole being pierced in the tank, whereupon many litres of fuel started to trickle down the driller's arm! Panic stations - what should be done? The last thing we wanted to do was to pull all the underbody guards off, remove the tank, flush it out and weld it up. However help was soon at hand and our local plumber clambered underneath and soldered the tank up, making a quick and effective repair.
The sump guard was our next major task and, although it had been specifically designed to the correct shape for the car, it still required a great deal of fabrication of brackets to attach it securely to the car. As the Mazda project progressed we became accutely aware of just why it costs so much to have a rally car professionally built by the people who build rally cars for a living - everything that needs fabrication takes so much time. We've mentioned before that it can take forever to finish even a simple job on a rally car, and our sumpguard experience proved this.
Our car builder, Steve Roman, spent many hours laying on his back planning, manufacturing and modifying various bits of steel that were needed to hold the guard up out of harm's way while still clearing things like the catalytic convertor, the exhaust and the tailshaft. The end result was a work of art but the guard still hangs perilously close to the ground at the back just to clear the "cat." And remember - in Group N the catalytic convertor must remain in its original place - after that the exhaust is free.
To protect the sumpguard even further, strips of stainless steel were riveted on to the kevlar/fibreglass guard, a move that proved less than satisfactory as we found out during the course of the car's first event.
There's no doubt that building a 4WD rally car can be frightfully expensive. By the end of the build project we were looking at ways of saving money by substituting alternative materials that would do the same job as the more expensive stuff without compromising durability. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
As mentioned earlier, stone damage is a major problem with 4WD cars and it's customary to cover the rear trailing arms, rear suspension and differential with sheets of urethane. It's light, it's strong, it moulds well to different contours - and it's damned expensive! At around $120 a square metre, we figured that there had to be a cheaper alternative. Visiting the local industrial rubber store, we were reliably advised that heavy duty rubber that comprised layers of fabric as a strengthener was just what we needed, so we parted with $60 and left with this super dooper rubber under our arms.
The first problem came when we started drilling holes in it to poke cable ties through as a means of attaching it to the car. Our beaut rubber started to tear in all the wrong places and later, by the end of our first 30km test session, most of it had either gone missing or was hanging on the ground.
As an interim measure, sections of proper white mudflap material (as found on Mack trucks) were used and although it's far too rigid for most purposes, it's at least long lasting and cheap, doesn't tear and is easy to work with.
It was now just 3 days before the first event. No more than 30 kilometres of testing had been done and the durability, handling and driveability of the car were pretty much unknown. Our best laid plans of a good test program were shot to pieces. What we had discovered during testing, though, was that the brakes quickly ran out of vacuum, leaving little in the way of braking, hardly ideal for competition driving. It was discovered that we had fitted the wrong vacuum booster and master cylinder (one from a non-turbo car, in fact), so this was quickly changed for the right item, dramatically improving pedal pressure and the driver's confidence at the same time.
Only a few things remained to be done - ride heights were set, a wheel alignment done, the turbo sealed and the car scrutineered, passing, fortunately, with flying colours. Finally we were ready to go, and the adrenalin was running high.
Funny, isn't it, how little things escape your notice when you're pre-occupied with something else? We've always held the belief that a rally car should be secured properly on its trailer to protect not only the valuable rally car but the tow vehicle as well. No bungie cords, motorbike tiedowns or rope for us - chains and turnbuckles are the only way to go.
So, weeks before we were to leave for the first event, the unfinished car was rolled on to the trailer, proper towing eyes on the car were located, chains and turnbuckles made to the correct length so that the car could be tied down with the minimum of time and fuss before and after an event, and put away safely for future use. Come the big day and the realisation that the towing eyes had been well and truly covered up by the sumpguard - there was nowhere to tie the car down! We finally got around the problem, but at the time it was pretty frustrating, particularly as it was getting late and we had a 6 hour drive in front of us.
However, if this was the worst that was going to befall us, then we needn't have worried.
Project Mazda had taken twice as long as we expected, was completed with the normal amount of frustrations and headaches, still came in under our projected budget and, to our eyes at least, looked magnificent. We'd set out to prove that there was a cheaper 4WD alternative to Evo Lancers, Galant VR4's, Subaru RS Turbos and the like that the sensible club competitor could use to compete on reasonably even terms with the front runners in state championship level events.
As far as we were concerned, our aims had been achieved, although the car's competitiveness had yet to be proven. It was never going to be a real threat to a top-line Group A, Group N or PRC 4WD that you'd expect to come up against in state championship events, but the aim wasn't to compete head to head with these sorts of cars. It was designed to be the next logical, affordable (if that's possible with a 4WD car!) step up for the person who is unable to go any faster or achieve any better results in a competitive two wheel drive car.
Ours was destined to be a "stayer" rather than a "sprinter" and in completely standard trim as far as the engine and turbo were concerned, certainly couldn't be described as anything other than base level Group N. We'd also hoped it would be reliable. Tales of broken gearboxes by people who claim to know about these things are constantly brought to our attention, but once the car got mobile and started competing in events, we discovered that our gearbox mods had been successful.The car won Group N on its debut in a round of the Victorian Rally Championship, and finished third outright to boot. It proved that by doing things properly, without excessive spending, you can produce a winner straight out of the box!
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