We were halfway through the eighth stage of the Lake
Superior PRO Rally and things weren't going so well. A
misfire in the engine, caused by a faulty throttle position
sensor had reduced our power. Then a problem with the clutch
linkage made shifting difficult. So I wasn't too surprised
when a Mazda 323 GTX piloted by a fast local driver started
catching our 323 GTX.
Our PRO Rally effort had been going extremely well up to
this point. I had bought the partially prepared 1988 Mazda
323 GTX just before the 1993 season started, and codriver
Scott Webb and I had won the 1993 California Rally Series
championship. We had raced against some strong competition
and it was the first time in the 18 year history of the
series that a driver had won the championship in his rookie
year. Webb and I were each named Rookie of the Year.
We went on to clinch the 1994 SCCA Southern Pacific
Divisional Championship, which starts and ends on Labor Day.
This title earned us an invitation to compete against
Divisional champions from around the country at the Press On
Regardless PRO Rally in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a vast
wilderness of deer, trout and the kind of dirt roads all
rallyists dream about.
This year, "the oldest, meanest, toughest" rally in
America was renamed the Lake Superior PRO Rally. The Detroit
Region SCCA, which had organized the Press On Regardless for
47 years, opted to pass the event on to the more
strategically located Lake Superior Region, but retained the
POR name for a road rally.
Despite the name change, it was the same event with many
of the same dedicated workers and the same phenomenal roads.
This year's rally comprised 165 miles of special stages with
another 288 miles of transits.
Stage Eight, called Far Point, began as a fourth and
fifth gear run through the dark forests. The powerful
driving lights filling our mirrors were mounted on the GTX
driven by Craig Sobczak of nearby Marquette Mich. Our clutch
would not fully disengage, so shifting was difficult.
I was staying in fourth gear, lugging out of the slower
corners and not shifting up to fifth on the longer
straights, trying to avoid damaging the new close ratio
gearbox. We had decided to simply drive for the finish.
It was a dark, rainy night and there was still a long way
to go. I had lost my enthusiasm for the high speed stages.
"You were driving like an old lady," Webb said later.
When Sobczak got close, I turned on the right blinker and
moved toward the right side of the dirt and gravel road,
slowing to 70 mph to let him by. But watching Sobczak throw
his GTX through the high speed corners inspired me to go
faster. "This is like road racing," I shouted.
Still, Sobczak was pulling away, dropping momentarily
from sight around a bend. On the next straightaway we saw
that his left taillight lens was missing and the gap between
us had narrowed. Then we saw some tracks in the road where
someone had skidded toward the ditch. "He went off and
tagged the bank!"
Sobczak had slowed only slightly, but we had turned up
the wick and cut our distance. Then Webb called an acute
right hand corner where we turned off the smooth county road
onto a muddy, slimy trail that went up a hill. A crowd of
spectators had gathered, standing behind a yellow banner to
witness this challenge.
As Sobczak turned in, his 323 bogged in the muddy turn.
Seizing the opportunity, I turned inside and went by him,
slinging mud in all directions, and accelerated away.
Cameras flashed, the crowd cheered-this was racing!
The path we were now on was composed of the slipperiest
mud I'd ever seen. Suddenly, I was switched on and the car
seemed to be working much better at the lower speeds. We
were shifting from second to third and back again, grinding
gears, braking in the muck for the tight turns, the car
fighting every change of direction as we squeezed through
the trees on the narrow path, grappling for grip. We pulled
away from Sobczak and when we finished the stage we were
ecstatic. We knew we had lost the stage to Sobczak, but we
felt as if we had won the race. It was the highlight of the
We failed to press on, however. On the next stage we hit
a big rock that cracked the sump, draining our engine's life
blood and ending our race through the dark north woods.
Veteran John Buffum won the rally in Paul Choinere's Audi
Quattro. Meanwhile, Rhees Harris from Vemmont beat us to
take the overall Divisional driver's title in the Open 4WD
I was surprised at my lack of disappointment over failing
to finish the event. It had been a great season and we had
prepared well, given our meager budget. In nearly two
seasons of PRO Rally, we had not suffered any mechanical
problems and were happy to gang them all up in one event.
And at the awards breakfast, we learned Scott had amassed
enough points to take the overall co driver's divisional
championship in our class!
How We Started
I bought the 1988 323 GTX from Bill Morton, a New
Zealander who helped prepare Rod Millen's 323s for the Asia
Pacific series. He had built the GTX for his own rallying
pleasure and was forced to sell it after taking a job with
Toyota Team Europe. He lamented-and I reveled-in the fact
that he had only tested the car once and had never gotten a
chance to race it.
But Morton had prepared it well. He removed the interior
except for the original front seats, door panels and dash.
He and Mike Welch welded in a superb roll cage, reinforced
with gussets, and painted the interior refrigerator white.
Headroom abounded. They bolted on a sturdy skid pan and
numerous mud flaps. And they installed an HKS manual boost
control and PFC F CON fuel controller to extract additional
horsepower from the tired motor.
But the big feature was the suspension: Morton had
managed to procure a rally suspension that had been on one
of Mazda Team Europe's 1988 World Rally Championship cars.
This suspension was much stronger than the stock setup and
the spring and damping rates provided phenomenal handling
over loose, rough surfaces. The rally suspension provided
adjustable spring perches for varying the ride height and
Bilstein competition dampers.
I knew the basic preparation was right. I knew there was
a good divisional series in Southern California. I knew I
had to have the car. So I bought it, figuring I'd run a few
local events. Besides, I reasoned, the car was street legal
so I could always use it to run around town.
A mere eighteen months later we had won two championships
and had posted finishes in the top five nationally. My
experience in autocross, road racing and blasting down the
dirt and gravel roads of Eastern Washington and Northern
Idaho seemed to have paid off.
The real key to our success, however, was sound car
preparation, a crack crew chief and consistent driving.
Rallying What It Takes
Probably no other motorsport requires the combination of
car preparation, driving ability, endurance and reliability
demanded by rallying. Triumph in the face of adversity is
the battle cry of the successful rallyist.
The key is car preparation. A competitive rally car must
be fast, tough and reliable. It must be driven consistently
fast, with more emphasis on consistency than on speed. PRO
Rallies often comprise more than 100 miles of special stages
and another 200 miles of transit legs-quite a bit longer
than a 20 minute regional road racing event or three minute
autocross. Many times we've seen drivers go extremely quick
in the early stages only to break or crash later in the
event. We've been guilty of this ourselves.
The car must be prepared to finish events. Too many teams
spend too much money on horsepower, overtaxing the gearbox,
suspension and brakes. And assuming you can't afford to
spend more than $30,000 for a six speed gearbox, the engine
must offer a generous rev range with enough torque at the
low end to dig the car out of sandy switchbacks.
Preparing The Rally Car
Our 323 suffered two major crashes during the season. In
the first one, I mistook the little 323 for a stadium truck
and launched it 12 feet into the air at a rally sprint on
the Glen Helen, Calif., motocross facility, landing the car
on the front bumper. In the second one, we drifted off a
sweeper at the Prescott Forest PRO Rally, rolling four times
down the mountain.
Most of our development efforts coincided with repair
work from these crashes. Road/Race Autosport, a race
preparation shop run by Scott Webb and Mike Welch in Los
Alamitos, Calif, prepared the car.
Welch replaced the body work and painted the car white
with a scheme reminiscent of Mazda's 1988 World Rally
Championship 323s. Road/Race replaced damaged and worn
suspension bushings, lateral links, trailing arms,
differential mounts and engine mounts using components from
Mazda's Competition Parts division.
Nonslip pedals help a driver keep his feet in place on
those rough stages.
The benefit of strut bars is sometimes called into
question, but we have witnessed their virtues. The stress of
rallying was causing the front strut towers to rotate and
gravitate inward. We had gained two degrees of camber and a
new fender was off by more than an inch when we tried to
match it up to the inner liner. Road/Race solved this
problem by designing a front strut bar to tie the towers
together. Most strut bars on the market are made of small
diameter tubing and often are bent in several locations for
clearance reasons, allowing them to flex under the high
stress loads. The Road/Race bar is a highly rigid, yet
lightweight design with larger diameter tubing and minimal
bending between the struts to prevent any flex.
To reduce brake fade and improve reliability, we
installed semi metallic brake pads, racing fluid and braided
Most PRO Rally cars use a rally computer I to help
their drivers keep on time.
Extensive underbody protection is required on a rally car
to fend off rocks, tree limbs, flyovers and other hazards,
particularly on the rough special stages of the Southwest.
Morton's skid pan protected the sump, and Road/Race added
numerous guards made of carbon fiber to protect other areas,
while clever metal skids were welded to the leading edges of
differential mounts, exhaust joints and important bolts. And
all those mud flaps aren't just for snazzy good looks. A
season of flying rocks is like a sand blaster working around
the clock that will gradually grind suspension pieces away
to nothing. So Road/Race installed mud flaps made of LPDE
plastic behind each wheel. in front of the rear trailing
arms next to the lower timing chain cover and anywhere else
that was exposed to flying rocks. We're constantly replacing
The car came with safety harnesses. so inside we added a
rally computer, a pair of racing seats, a padded box for our
helmets, window nets on both sides, an intercom and a
co-driver's map light with a red lens-a white light is
distracting for the driver and is too bright for the white
paper in the co-driver's route book.
Road/Race replaced the bracket holding on our driving
lights with an attractive pod for our massive, new PIAA fog
and driving lights. The pod keeps the lights out of harm's
way, locates them out of the cooling air for the engine and
can be quickly removed or installed for daytime and night
stages. It also reduces vibration, which can be
We fitted 15 inch DP Enduro wheels shod with Michelin
rally tires. Our competition tires are size 14/62-15 L4,
meaning they are 140mm wide, 62cm overall height and 15
inches in diameter using compound No. 4 on an L-shaped block
tread design. With four-wheel-drive cars, particularly those
with locked differentials, it's important to use the same
size tires on all four corners. Otherwise the drive train
will fight itself, possibly leading to an expensive repair.
While rally tires may look like snow tires, they are really
very sophisticated and provide surprising grip on pavement
and are nothing short of phenomenal on dirt. The extremely
strong sidewall construction of the Michelins makes them
incredibly resistant to punctures from sharp rocks.
We try to start an SCCA National PRO Rally with six new
tires. In 12 events, we've had only two punctures (both on
the same stage!) and usually finish an event with four
serviceable tires and two new spares, all of which can be
used for the next event. This provides us with a complete
set of spares in case the event is particularly brutal on
tires. To be totally prepared, we should have gone to
Michigan with ten new rally tires, six snow tires and six
Showroom Stock tires for the tarmac stages. But we couldn't
afford to be totally prepared and, in the end, that was
Halfway through the first season I asked MFI Power in
Garden Grove, Calif, to rebuild the engine. John Mueller
focused on a broad powerband with strong low-end torque
rather than maximum horsepower. With the stock gearing, we
had often found ourselves lugging out of sandy, uphill
corners at the bottom of second or third gear.
For the most part, Mueller rebuilt the engine to stock
specifications, porting and polishing where possible.
However, he lightened the crankshaft by five pounds and
dropped another nine pounds off the clutch and flywheel
assembly to maximize off boost performance. He knife-edged
the crank and machined the flywheel from aluminum stock. We
added Torco 5W30 synthetic racing oil to provide maximum
protection and minimum friction. We think Torco might have
saved the engine when we lost all the oil in Michigan.
The result was an estimated 190 horsepower compared with
135 hp stock. We selected a Centerforce competition clutch
and pressure plate designed for an RX-7 to handle the
increased horsepower and the abuse of rallying. Road/Race
designed a pair of hood ducts to extract hot air from the
engine compartment. These reduced engine temperatures at the
hot weather events, and we could see the hot airwaves coming
out of the engine while waiting for the start of stages.
Our most exotic piece of equipment, a close ratio
competition gearbox, was installed late this past season.
Our top speed has dropped to somewhere in the 90s, but the
gearing has really paid off
Competing for an SCCA National PRO Rally championship is
not cheap and should not be considered a grassroots
motorsport any more than IMSA Firestone Firehawk is
grassroots road racing. However, it is possible to run a
Divisional series or selected National events on a budget.
For my money, there's not a more exciting or fascinating
form of the sport available.
When he's not racing in PRO Rallies, Mitch McCullough
is involved in motorsports public relations for various