The Honda Meet Track Day: EP82 Toyota Starlet Does The FIRM
When Matt sent me the Facebook page for The Honda Meet's open track day at The FIRM, I didn't imagine we would be the only non-Honda automobiles on track. Perhaps I underestimated the ravenous nature for motorsports from the Honda-diehards, the people at all levels who have pushed the envelope while challenging other brands. Growing up I was the outlier in my AE86, my friends mostly had some sort of Honda Civic or Acura Integra, I became well aware of how good these front-drive cars can be when done right. The Toyota brand has been at the forefront of the Japanese automobile industry since it overtook Nissan in the late 1960s. However, Honda has almost always built a fun and affordable cars for the masses; the Civic is no exception. For car buyers in the United States during the 1990s, there were plenty of options from every brand, but Toyota didn't have a hot hatch like the Civic Si or a quick enough front-drive coupe to go head-to-head with the Acura Integra. In Japan, there were competitors like my Toyota Starlet GT Turbo to take on the Honda empire on the track and elsewhere, so when an opportunity came to relive my Gran Turismo 2 days I signed up immediately.
Before getting into how the day played out, let's first look at the stage where the action took place... The Firm. Located roughly 40 minutes from Jacksonville in Starke, the Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park is a facility that offers not only track days but instruction both on the tarmac, and in the dirt. Known for its rally classes, the FIRM as it's more commonly referred to; is a staple to Florida automobile enthusiasts and the test track for Grassroots Motorsports Magazine. If you enjoy driving at any level there's something for everyone, rally, go-karting, a skid pad, and of course the road course. The road course is 1.6 miles and consists of 10 turns with a set of "esses" for added fun. With plenty of events throughout the year, it's easy to find a day where you can get some track time without being on a waitlist. Luckily for Matt and me, we signed up minutes after The Honda Meet posted sign-up instructions; this would end up being a full event with drivers from many states over making the trip to rip around The FIRM.
In order to drive on a track, you should be prepared, this has been covered on this site before. You want your car to be fully functional and able to make it back in one piece, so I installed new parts like an ID-Workz brake upgrade kit consisting of brake pads, rotors, brake lines, and a Mishimoto Civic Radiator using an ID-Workz bracket. It wasn't a matter of just trying to go as fast as I could, but doing so reliably which almost didn't happen at all. I woke up at 4:30 AM to make the three-plus hour drive north, the first stop would be along the I-75 to meet up with Matt in his AE86. When I arrived at the rest stop it was still dark as the sun hadn't yet risen, there was also a smell of burning oil emanating from the front of my car. It turns out that topping off the engine's oil in a rush was a no-no, I left the oil cap on top of my valve cover and was lucky to only make a mess and not destroy my engine. I went in the hatch to go through my supplies (jack, jack stands, hand tools, drill, etc.) to get some shop towels and more oil to replace what I had lost on the trip up. On edge, I waited nervously for Matt to show up, and when he did he parked in the first available spot at the very entrance which seemed strange; something was up.
It turns out that Matt's car just didn't want to cooperate with him so early in the morning, his car was having trouble starting up again after shutting off while still on the highway. Eventually, Matt and our friend Manny were able to figure out getting his Toyota Sprinter Trueno back on course for the track day, or so we thought. Some 20 minutes after departing the rest stop, Matt reached out to let me know that he broke down again and would need to wait for an auto parts store to open up to fix whatever the issue was. It was a major blow going into enemy Honda territory by myself, but it wasn't worth losing out on the opportunity when there was still hope. Eventually, I made it through the speed traps of Florida's infamous state route 301, past the crazy group of supercharged Acura TLs, and with enough cold brew to keep me awake while I was at it. When I checked in I was immediately welcomed by the friendly faces behind The Honda Meet and made my way to my parking spot to unload tools. At this point I was excited, but wondering if Matt would make it to the track, I know he wanted to get some seat time in his Trueno.
Photos Courtesy of: TSF Photo
After setting up and getting in line for my run group, Matt messaged me to let me know that he found the issue with his car (bad coil pack) and would be on his way to the track to at least be a spectator. That huge relief allowed me to focus on the track ahead of me, one that I had never driven on before in a car that was unfamiliar in this setting. For my first lap, I tried to learn the course, being that it was my first time with a front-wheel drive vehicle on track I wasn't exactly sure of which line to take. With so much going through my head as I analyzed each turn, I tried to mimic the EG Civic in front of me as my Toyota Starlet has a similar layout and power output. As the laps flew by and my tires warmed up, I started to become aware of how to avoid understeer by using trail braking to shift the weight forward to regain grip as I turned. Getting the Starlet to rotate was becoming easier but after the first session, its shortcomings were apparent.
Photos Courtesy of: Thee Fat Mermaid
Back in the paddock/parking area, I was able to talk to some other drivers like Manny known online as (insert IG), and his lightly modified EK9 Honda Civic hatch. With so many front-wheel drive cars, there were plenty of tips I could pick up from more experienced drivers who have honed their skills over the various track events they have attended. Even though my solid rear torsion bar equipped EP82 lacked an LSD like some of the quicker Honda cars that day, ideas on how to set up suspension and weight balance is very similar. My brakes held up great, as did my new radiator setup, but I wasn't exactly confident with the combination of body roll and lost grip in some turns. Not having a limited-slip differential made the turn 7 hairpin extremely difficult to get out of with the momentum through the esses. Going into the long sweeping, double apex turn 8 was scary as the body rolled as I tried to track out towards the wall.
Eventually, Matt showed up, it was during lunch around the time I was devouring some homemade sandwiches and snacks, it was also the perfect time to fuel up. Upon returning from the pump which took me for a significant chunk of change, I was ready to complete some more sessions as I had the only other non-Honda nearby on track with me. I was starting to learn my best line although I didn't rent a transponder or get a video to time myself. As I would start the lap I dove deep into turn 2 to maintain speed, getting as far left as possible while keeping my eyes focused on the end of turn 3. Out of turn 3, I was able to gear back up and continue linking turns 4 and 5 before downshifting to take on turn 6 and the esses that followed. Through the esses I cut straight through, clipping a bit of each curb as my stock suspension absorbed the bumps without realigning my track. Then came the problematic turn 7 which is a momentum-killing hairpin for a car like my Toyota Starlet without an LSD. Trying to power out with whatever traction I had, I would surge forward into the scary wall ahead...I mean turn 8. Turn 8 can be very fast if you can gradually track your car out towards the wall and readjust for the second apex midway through, this will allow you to generate more momentum to gain speed on the back straight towards the finish line. Then of course you have the finish line just after turn 10 which if you don't brake, downshift, and maneuver correctly; will have you end up through the pits.
Photos Courtesy of: Oh Schuck
The laps go on and on, if you're wired and properly hydrated, your brain will pick up on where you left off and you'll make adjustments to be better the next go around. The beauty of driving on a track like this, in this environment, is that it helps you gain confidence and skills with the car you're so enthusiastic about. I couldn't help but think of all of the modifications I'd like to gradually make to see how I would fare on subsequent trips to The FIRM. While we can follow someone else's build and consult group page discussions on what are the best mods, the best modification you can make is seat time for yourself. The fixes for the things that prevent you from going faster like power adders, brakes, or added rigidity, are not necessarily quantifiable through the experiences of others. Your own driving style which albeit includes a level of bravery/stupidity can determine the changes you need to make on your vehicle of choice along with your vehicle of choice. Not every car will be great on track, as the metrics of fun, performance, and tunability all factor in on whether or not you have the right car. As a starting platform, my mostly-stock Toyota Starlet GT Turbo is a pretty good start for a front-drive vehicle as its lightness allows it to pick up speed quickly and adjust to my inputs. There is a sizeable aftermarket and some tried and true modifications for the EP82 that will make it perform better next time but that depends on how far I want to go with this car.
As the temperatures rose throughout the day, I started to notice that my coolant temps were starting to creep up a little too high for my own comfort. The premise behind removing the OEM radiator and replacing it with a thicker Mishimoto unit for a Civic is that it provides the same cooling capacity with a smaller footprint. With the fan working as it should, I think it was just a matter of too much time spent at the top of the rev range as I started to get a firm grip on The FIRM. Not wanting to chance doing any serious damage I pulled back into the paddocks and ended my day two sessions before the event was over. By getting some time to just relax and take in the sights I was able to see Matt run from the sidelines and see a few shots of fire come out from his exhaust. Overall, I had a great time at The FIRM with the folks at The Honda Meet; friendly faces and fast cars, I can't wait to go back. In the meantime, I'll start collecting some parts to enhance my experience on track with the EP82, coil overs, new bushings, and a front sway bar should add the precision I felt lacked at times. Future modifications like more horsepower and a limited-slip differential will have to wait, so stay tuned for future updates.