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86 Day at The FIRM

Another year, another August 6th passes with my own AE86 on jack stands, but what is being an AE86 owner like without fellow AE86 owners as friends? I wouldn't know, that's why we took a trip to The FIRM in Starke, Florida to celebrate our favorite chassis. A few months ago Matt wondered what the take would be for people bringing their old Toyotas up to a track for an event, some of them could spectate and take part in a meet, and others would brave the heat to get some seat time. We were optimistic, people who own a Corolla GTS/SR5, Trueno, or Levin are diehard fanatics, they will travel to maintain that bond we are lucky enough to cultivate through social media, so it was set, we were going forward with our very own event.

Again, my own AE86 is out of commission, and Latte Roku continues to collect dust as my budget and time become scarce to finish what I've started, but it's a tale as old as time, Lucky for me however, my EP82 Toyota Starlet GT Turbo is up to the task. Matt, his wife Jessica, Russ, and I decided to take our vehicles up to northern Florida to stay at an Airbnb, packed with tools, food, and supplies, We stood in a spacious country home located roughly three and a half hours from Tampa. Russ brought his JDM Trueno coupe, Matt had his JDM Trueno hatch, Jessica brought her Neptune blue GR86, and I was the odd man out with my black EP82 but the drive up through some Florida backroads was enjoyable even through the scorching August heat. After a good dinner, a couple of cigars out on the front porch, and a full night of sleep, we woke up ready to fuel up and hit the track.

We were just 20 minutes away from The FIRM which is located adjacent to Keystone Heights airport, a straight shot from the nearest gas station meant that we would arrive before the dozen or so 86 enthusiasts who made their way from various parts of Florida. Once at the track, it was time to set up, tents, tools, spare parts, and coolers were strategically placed in close vicinity so we would have access. It was a sweltering day and even before the driver's meeting at 8:30 AM you could feel the humidity climbing with the heat which was forecasted to reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit, this meant tires would probably get greasy quicker, coolant temps would rise faster, cars would be slower, and we would all need to cool down. Knowing that the morning sessions would be crucial for trying to get a good time without incident, I hopped in my EP82 and made my way out of the paddock area.

Due to the heat, not a lot of vehicles, in general, showed up to drive on the track, which worked in our favor, Instead of having to split up runs in order of experience, it was a free track day with point-by-passing where everyone could safely go full speed. I pressed the record button on my GoPro, started the timer on the LapTrophy app, and started my first lap at half pace to get some warmth in the tires and get acclimated again with the track, After I crossed the finish line it was time to go full-SEND. The Starlet ran flawlessly, however, there were some shortcomings that I noted while driving, I was able to figure out how to cleanly get out of the hairpin in turn 7 but between the large steering wheel and unsupportive seat, I knew exactly what I wanted to upgrade next. The Starlet GT Turbo is based on an economy car and even in its sportier trim level, the suspension is soft and relatively high, A set of coil overs and new bushings would be helpful to tighten things up, but the engine and transmission allowed me to ring it out without hesitation as I tried my best to fend off and catch up to higher-powered cars.

The variety of cars on track was pretty impressive, a newer Camaro SS with the 1LE package, a 600whp C7 Corvette, an Acura RSX Type-S, a Lotus Evora, a Ford Focus ST, and of course 86s that made it on track. One battle I enjoyed watching was Matt's built 16V 4AGE equipped AE86 going up against Tyler's 3SGE Beams swapped AE86, two very raw cars with drivers that enjoy taking their car on track, to autocross events, and the Tail of the Dragon, the sounds were epic. The turnout for 86 chassis fans was pretty decent, and the variety of styles and trim levels was impressive considering most people endured two to three-hour drives to get there, most without air conditioning in the Florida heat. For those who made it out, they were rewarded with a couple of parade laps with every 86 in attendance lining up afterward for an impromptu photoshoot on the track itself, if anything, this made my day.

On track however, things were starting to become a little bit less favorable for my EP82, during the morning sessions I was able to get a 1:38.83 lap time, but once lunch came around, we took photos of the AE86s on the track, and mingled; heat took over. Turbos love cooler air because it helps not only compress air that is being forced into the engine, but it removes some of the heat that gets soaked in on the intercooler, and having a top mount variation doesn't help. Taking my buddies Matt and Russ on a ride along revealed my inability to put together more than three hard laps, my temperatures would rise almost to the very limit on my cluster which was enough for me to take a cool-down lap and park both times, that was it for my time on track, or so I thought.

What would 8/6 be without actually driving an AE86? And at a track it would only be complete by enjoying that activity by actually going on the track, so in came Matt who gave me the keys to his beloved AE86. I haven't driven this Trueno in years, the first time was around Matt's neighborhood and a quick trip on the highway, it was a much more civilized ride back then, a stock 4AGE in a car well suited to some spirited driving but not too far of an experience from some other relatively stock AE86s I've driven in my time. Today, Matt's car is completely different, it packs roughly 150whp on a Mustang Dyno, it has non-power assisted brakes, a manual steering rack, sticky rubber, and an aggressive set of brake pads for the many times Matt fully sends his car through whatever turn is in front of him, it is well dialed in for him and rarely misses a beat. I can't lie and say I wasn't scared or intimidated, this is Matt's baby in a sense, it's also completely new to me since I haven't driven a car like this on a track, heck I haven't driven a rear-wheel drive vehicle on a track in years, so it was important to pace myself and not make myself into a viral reel clip.

On the first lap in the AE86 I was easy on it, I wanted to do my best to feel the chassis and its reaction to my inputs, also I wanted to go around the FIRM incident-free, but with Matt next to me, you kind of have the other side of your conscious telling you to push it and show him what you're made of. For the second lap, I felt a lot more comfortable, the brakes took a bit of getting used to, you couldn't just press them and expect a reaction, the actual bite of the pads onto the rotors doesn't happen until you really exercise your calf muscle. the steering feels normal at speed, and the engine revs with a beautiful soundtrack while the gears flow into each other giving you that Keichi aura...or so you think. From turn four to turn five I was getting into my groove until I exited turn five and the rear end wanted to come out from behind me as I felt the front end loosen up its grip on the pavement. I'm not sure what happened, perhaps I dove in too deep and the LSD did its best job to get me out of the corner but I had loaded the car in the wrong direction, regardless; I almost lost the car and had to do my best imitation of a ship captain and row the steering wheel back and forth while trying to get the brakes to straighten me back worked. Thankfully I kept the car off the grass and out of a wall, Matt watched without much reaction which made me believe he probably believed in me to some extent, I however, did not believe I should take any more chance and tried to take it easy but Matt wanted me to feel what 9,000 RPM was like so I just had to. On the final straight, I dug into the gas pedal and let that 4AGE scream up to near its redline while it sang a glorious song, it really made my day and inspired me to get my own project finished; and then I gently drove her back into the paddock area onto our grass parking spot with shade.

It was a glorious day, beyond the excruciating heat and my mishaps on track, seeing so many people gathered together to celebrate a car of legend like the AE86 and their newer siblings (86/FRS/BRZ) truly gave me the warm and fuzzies since Matt and myself put in the effort of trying to organize it. Owning an AE86 in 2023 is not easy, what was once a cheap platform where parts could easily be found for reasonable prices has led to those same cars being run into the ground and barely running examples selling for thousands over they ever have. For those like myself who have owned one of these cars for a couple of decades, it's great to see enthusiasts really dive in and go crazy over these old cars, so much so that companies have now started producing new or recreated parts to help support the AE86 chassis. What was once just a nerd's car is still a nerd's car but with a mainstream following that even helped generate a second and third generation with the new ZN6 and ZN8 chassis cars, the 86 life is a real thing now and their seems to be no limit to the growing appreciation for these sports cars. This first event was eye-opening and made me realize that it's a great reason for people who have this one thing in common to get together because it's what this culture and community is about, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or even whatever sticker is on your beat up rear bumper, we all have a link that bonds us together; and it just so happens to be one of the most fun cars you can get behind the wheel of. Stay tuned for an even bigger and better event next year, and for those local, we may cook up a winter event to gather some of the southeast's best Toyota vehicles who want to go on track. Until then I want to give a big thank you to everyone who came out and showed support, this also extends to the people who run the Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park, without this facility and their staff, none of this would have been possible.

Video coverage of the event:

More photos from Crumptography:


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