In our Dark $ecrets – Realities of Professional Road Racing series of articles, we dove into just how powerful money is in the pro racing industry. Don’t think that money and politics aren’t a major influence in Club Racing as well.

To say that the Spec Miata category is important to SCCA and NASA is a vast understatement. To give you an idea, in 2014 Spec Miata accounted for approximately 19% of all SCCA regional entries alone. And that ignores “double dippers who race their SM in other classes like ITA and STL for extra track time.  From a manufacturer’s standpoint, Mazda also recognizes the value Spec Miata (SM) racing has on sales. After all, Mazda is quite proud (as they should be) of their slogan “on any given weekend more Mazda’s are raced than any other car.”

2014 Spec Miata Runoffs Synopsis
At the recent SCCA Runoffs (the club’s National Championship road racing event), the club witnessed it’s largest single class disqualifications in it’s nearly 60 year history. If you haven’t been following this debacle, here is a relatively brief summary. And as always, there’s more than one side to every story.

During the 2014 SCCA Runoffs, a protest was filed against nine Spec Miata cars. While the SCCA protest process requires one individual to sign their name to it, in this instance there was a group of drivers who collaborated and moved forward with this protest. It is well believed that they had seen proof of certain SM engines being modified in a manner they felt was illegal. This was a gutsy move on their behalf as for each car being protested, it was necessary for them to put up a $1,400 bond ($12,600 in total). SCCA tech stewards sealed the engines and allowed the protested participants to race before moving forward with tearing the engines down. What the involved parties most likely didn’t expect was to receive death threats, which at least one of them did.

Post-race inspection resulted in 8 of the 9 competitors found with illegal engine modifications, where the cylinder heads had illegal porting and other infractions. Bear with us here, for a brief tech explanation and history review.

Specifically, the porting work was done in the short turn radius of the head, and was ostensibly to “break the edge” of an allowed plunge cut. When the heads are cast at the factory, it is common for the ‘cores” to shift. The ‘core” is the form around which the metal pours, and variations occur between the different ports. This affects performance from cylinder to cylinder, and head to head. In 2009, the Club allowed “plunge cuts” to be made, and set limits dimensionally to allow builders to remove enough material to theoretically ‘equalize’ the majority of the heads to each other. This was a response that essentially codified an existing practice, that builders felt fell under “Blueprinting” allowances. Essentially “blueprinting” allows builders to match all the parts (a connecting rod, for example) to the best, or most ideal example that comes off the assembly line. The Spec Miata Advisory committee (SMAC) recommended the allowance and the Club Racing Board approved it, in an attempt to create parity among all cars. It’s a change that is not allowed in IT, or STL, or even Limited Prep Prod. (Classes with higher prep levels.) And it adds expense for the racer, who now feels he must have it done to keep up with the others. The problem that arises is that once the plunge cut is done (essentially it’s a full width bore into the port past the ferrous valve seat), it can create a sharp edge, especially near the short turn radius. (Refer to the below photo.) As air flows past this section it is forced to make a sharp turn, and if the area has a sharp angle, separation can occur, hurting flow, and thus horsepower. Builders began “easing” the edge, and then “massaging”, and well, once you start, it’s tough to stop, evidently. Performing this modification improves performance and in such a tightly fought category, any advantage helps. So, the inspectors found heads with various amounts of “work” in this area, which amounts to illegal porting.

Those eight competitors, #2 Drago, #10 Drennan, #12 Ghidinelli, #17 Jordan, #22 Hayes, #29 Berry, #44 Kicera, and #79 Carbonell, were all moved to last finishing position in order of finish per SOM – GCR 9.1.7.C.1.f.4 (cylinder head). This was yet another interesting turn of events. They were found non-compliant. Why were these competitors not disqualified from the race…and sometimes suspended, as typically happens in this type of situation?The engine builders of the non-complaint engines are East Street Racing owned by Jim Drago, (Aslo Driver of #2, and a CRB member)  TiSpeed owned by Dan Tiley (SMAC member as well) and Rush Motorsports owned by Louis Thibault an SMAC member.

Erik Stearns was announced the winner, who coincidentally is an East Street Racing customer (which supplied Dragos disqualified engine). Erik Stearns’ car was not subject to the standard SCCA Runoffs post-race tech inspection, as it is SCCA Runoffs standard procedure to only impound the top 6 cars at a maximum, and he wasn’t included in the protest. The post race inspection entails impounding the top six cars, of which they tear down the top three. If one is deemed illegal, they move to the next car in line.

What Was Illegal

The specific rule in the SCCA General Competition Rulebook proving what modifications were deemed illegal was rule 9.1.7.C.1.f.4. I have included the two below sections since they are related.

“9.1.7.C.1.f.3. The throat area of the port consists of the 90 degree angle at the very bottom of the cast steel valve seat as it transitions to the aluminum casting below. It is permitted to plunge cut the throats in order to correct for core shift that is commonly found in many cylinder heads. This cut cannot extend further than the specified number below from the bottom of the ferrous valve seat. There can be no tooling or machine marks in the head below this point.

The area under the seat where the plunge cut ends and the casting resumes cannot be blended by hand, machined, or chemically processed to create a smooth transition. The 90 degree bend at the bottom of the valve seat and the aluminum directly below it will be measured with a gauge and must conform to the maximum diameters and depths listed below.”

“9.1.7.C.1.f 4. No aluminum in the bowl area (other than that specified for the plunge cut) or the ports may be removed, added, or manipulated for any reason. It is understood that heads may look slightly different from bowl to bowl due to casting irregularities. No material may be removed or added from the short turn radius in the port.”

As noted above, the SM rules state that the cylinder head may be plunge cut. Being a non-technical guy, my definition of plunge cut is boring out the port just beyond the valve seat, to increase uniformity between production tolerances from cylinder head to cylinder head. An example of a plunge cut cylinder is shown in the below photo. The plunge cut is the brighter crescent shaped areas below. Note the sharp angle left by the cut. The rules allow a max depth of 12mm.

In these cases, the builders blended the short side to the plunge cut which is not legal. And in some cases, the ‘blending” went much further, over an inch into the port along the short turn radius. While especially to newer competitors these rules may sound a bit confusing, the engines that were found non-compliant were built by professional SM engine builders. As you will read later in this article, these builders are, ironically, also members of the SMAC, who write the SM rules. It would seem as though if the rule was too ambiguous or needed clarification, there was opportunity for that to have been resolved prior to the modifications being done.

One theory I’ve heard is that these engine builders, despite having involvement in the writing of the rules, didn’t realize this modification was illegal. Another theory is that they knew full well that the modification was illegal but was hard to discover even in a tear-down, so they were willing to take the risk. East Street’s owner, Jim Drago, had been torn down and inspected at previous Majors, and had passed. However, in subsequent writings on an internet chat board, (post Runoffs ) he admitted that the engines that passed had been illegal, as had others he had run previously.

There were other issues that were found, namely compression ratio. The tool used to measure compression by the SCCA  is called the “Whistler” and measurements to read the volumes of the cylinder can be done with the engine assembled (vs having the head off and actual volume measurements taken) and with the valve cover on, or off. It’s common knowledge that this tool can produce different results depending upon how it’s used to measure compression. Essentially it’s used to trigger a closer look. When measured with the valve cover on, the tool is recognized to show approximately .5 under. As a result, some engine builders were building their engines to the results of the less invasive tech procedure of the “Whistler test”, versus the actual tear it down and measure with volumes of liquid compression ration inspection. There are also “rumors” of some builders openly admitting this and essentially say “catch me if you can.” The gains to be had by this compression increase are estimated to be between 2% or so, which in a spec class is substantial. The result of these less invasive procedures seems to have created a “tech shed legal” situation, where the procedures used in the normal tech inspection can’t find the actual illegalities.

We also heard that competitors attending the Runoffs held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca were given their fair warning of bringing legal cars, not just tech shed legal.

Either way, they went to the Runoffs knowing there would be a comprehensive tear-down. But their engines have been inspected at previous Majors events without being found to be illegal. Was it was just a matter of tech not catching this modification in the past? Or is this because the previous inspections had not occurred on West coast, and the West coast competitors had seen enough to know something was fishy? No one other than the engine builders themselves will truly know the answer to that question regardless of what is voiced publicly. Certainly the protester knew what was to be looked at, and worded the protest effectively, essentially forcing the inspectors to look for the cheats specifically.

Some feel that there was an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” between builders, that snowballed, and when one knowledgeable entrant cried foul, it became the largest disqualification in one class in the Clubs history.

An insiders view:

When speaking with Matt Kessler, owner Kessler Engineering, a company which builds SM engines, he had the following to say:

“I have not seen the heads from the 2014 Runoffs that are in question. I have seen examples of this blend in other pro built engines. This practice has been used for quite a while, mostly on the exhaust port only and not the intake port. The carbon buildup after a few minutes of running masks this blend. This indicates to me intent to gain an advantage outside of the rules and not be detected. I have seen blending on the intake port as well.

I would not use ‘deburr’ to describe what I’ve seen in these heads.  Some information going around seems to back this up. Deburring a head surface after milling IS a common machining practice.  This is breaking around 0.005-0.010” off the edges. This is done for safe handling of the piece, to prevent cracks from starting, and to minimize hotspots in the chamber. I doubt any of the heads found at the Runoffs were penalized for a ten thousandth break-edge.”

If one rule was inaccurate, or even more so, contradictory, it would seem to me these individuals should have asked for clarification or modify the rule’s working before all this ensued. After all, they are members of the Spec Miata Advisory Committee.

SCCA, NASA and Mazda Motorsports Reaction

SCCA, NASA and Mazda Motorsports, realizing the significance of these findings, came together to discuss how best to respond to the situation and if the rules needed to be changed or just clarified. While these conversations took place behind closed doors, I can fully appreciate how challenging of a circumstance it must have been. Interestingly enough, Jim Stewart, owner of Stewart Engines which builds SM engines, was in attendance. There’s no doubt he possess a wealth of knowledge on SM engines, however I wonder if there is a conflict of interest here.

The conclusion was that, to achieve their long-term goal, the class must ultimately return to stock cylinder heads with a permitted industry-standard valve job. Below is the ruling released by the group:

“Recognizing the number of modified (both compliant and non-compliant per the current rules) cylinder heads in the community, the expense to replace these and potential parts availability concerns, the group agrees to the following path, with details to be finalized no later than the December 14 SCCA Board of Directors meeting:

  • Permit plunge cuts and unshrouding per the current rules, but with clarification of concentricity, as well as some level of blending of the plunge cut (language TBA). These modifications may require that additional weight be added to the car.
  • Independent testing will be conducted to determine the effect of the individual and collective modifications. Only once this scientific data is collected and evaluated will weight levels be determined.
  • Weight additions will compensate for the power gains from the head modifications, while also encouraging the behavior of changing back to an unmodified head as soon as possible.
  • The allowance of these modifications will have a sunset period of one to two years, based on parts availability. The intention is for this to happen sooner than later, but with appropriate competitor notification.
  • Only un-modified heads would be permitted for competition at the 2015 SCCA National Championship Runoffs.

Additionally, the group unanimously desires greater resources and efforts with regard to season-long compliance checks. Collectively, it is developing an enhanced compliance program to address this. The group will also evaluate class parity and additional concepts to ensure parity and compliance moving forward.”

My Opinions Regarding the Ruling

While I recognize the intent of the proposed rules, I feel that this is not the right approach and will cause even more issues going forward. It is my opinion that the rules should stand as-is allowing the plunge cut to remain, and not to allow blending. This blending wasn’t legal before and there simply is no need for it to be allowed. If people think the existing rule wording is a bit ambiguous, re-word it so it is clear. If there are areas which need Mazda or the sanctioning bodies to provide additional specifications, obtain that information.

The idea of using sealed engines has been mentioned by several people, which honestly would be great if well managed and implemented. Unfortunately this is not an option due to the infrastructure it would necessitate. In addition, the earliest of the SM engines, the 1.6L, has been out of production since 1993. The tooling and other equipment may not even exist for these motors. Mazda has discontinued offering them as crate motors for at least five years now.

If the organizations move forward with requiring “stock cylinder heads with a permitted industry-standard valve job,” that opens up many other issues. Competitors who run towards the front of the pack at Majors events where the cylinder heads will be checked for compliance, will most likely still be have professional engines built to the limits of the rules. Drivers who race in regional races and know they will not be teched unless another competitor protests them will most likely run with the plunge-cut heads. This is absolutely not a knock on the SM drivers; it’s just reality. Who wants to spend big money on a new head, just to go slower? Mid pack drivers likely feel they aren’t winning trophies, so whats the harm? And, let’s face it, the self-policing protest process is not a fun one for any involved and the protester needs to put up a $1,400 bond per car. If the car is found legal, that bond money is then lost to them.

The other major issue is the definition of a stock head as worded. Most of us remember the days of showroom stock racing where little was actually stock. Since engine builders will be building these new heads to the limits of tolerances, yet another issue is raised. What are the tolerances? Mazda does not spell out all of the specific dimensions of a stock motor. There is plenty of room for builders to game the “stock” rules and still be deemed legal, or at least tech-shed legal.

“To expect every SM to become fully compliant to an all stock head is unrealistic given any time frame. Pro built, plunge cut heads will become more available. Cars and engines will be sold with these heads for years to come, without disclosure. The added power will be obvious on track. I believe this will cause much tension in the class. The disparity between legal plunge cut heads with or without an STR blend is less than the disparity between a stock head and a plunge cut head,” Matt Kessler.

On top of this, the castings among the heads have too much variability between them. Looking at the various stock heads in person, it’s easy to see the differences. In the above photo, the heads towards the top of the photo are untouched stock heads. Then there is one head being built which incorporate the at the time legal plunge cut. At the end is a head taken off a junk yard car, later to be found with as a ported head.

“The stock head castings differ greatly. I have flow tested heads and found poor and good heads. The plunge cuts do help equalize the heads, especially between average-good heads. I have no flow testing to back this up, only a consistency of power readings. A very poor casting probably will not improve much with the allowed cuts (or any other mods besides full porting). I have never tested this since I never use those casting.

There is a stock plunge cut. The stock plunge cut is done before the valve seats are installed. Sometimes, but not always, this cut and the inner diameter of the valve seat are mismatched. So, this mismatch cannot be used to determine if an additional cut has been made. Seats in different chambers on the same head will have a different mismatch. The additional plunge cut is simply a different diameter cut going through both the seat and stock plunge cut. The method I use to make the plunge cut is visually similar to the stock cut. I am not the only engine builder where this is the case. The diameter needs to be measured and cannot be checked visually.

The ability to detect a hand blend on the short turn radius or anywhere else in the port has nothing to do with this diameter. The elimination of the allowed plunge cuts will not assist in detecting an short turn radius (STR) blend,” Matt Kessler.

The end result will be that drivers with money will buy several heads, (or pay their builder big $ for ‘the best head”), to determine which are the best heads and sell the remaining. In the end, this will create further disparity between engines, and cars, in what is supposed to be a class about driving, not crafting better engines.

Club Racing is supposed to be fun.

Second Issue: Remove the Existing Conflicts of Interest

We see it happen all of the time in politics and business. It shouldn’t happen there and certainly shouldn’t in Club Racing.

I am not stating that any of the below individuals have acted or made decisions in their businesses’ best interests, however this conflict of interest should not exist. No advisory committee, liaison, or Club Racing Board (CRB) member should have a financial stake in a rules making process which could have an impact on their business. If they would like to provide input to the rules, their request should be submitted just as any other competitor would. Currently there are several members who have SM related businesses directly involved in the creation of the rules.

SCCA’s Spec Miata Advisory Committee

  • Daniel Tiley – TiSpeed. One of the SM engine builders found illegal
  • Louis Thibaut – Rush Motorsports, a Miata prep shop and also one of the engine builders found illegal
  • Michael Collins – Managing Partner of MEATHEAD Racing, a Miata prep shop, and purchaser of engines from TiSpeed, EastStreet, among other engine builders. “I do not build engines or sell products.” (Update per Mike 11/17)
  • Ralph Provitz
  • Samuel Henry – Springfield Dyno (a supplier of Miata parts)
  • David McAnaney

Chairman and Liaisons

  • David McAnaney, Chairman
  • Jim Drago, Liaison. Owner of the SM chat forum and East Street Motorsport, a Miata prep shop. Another engine builder found illegal.
  • Jim Wheeler, Liaison

When speaking with one of our editors and former 6 year member of SCCA’s Improved Touring Advisory Committee (ITAC), Jake Gulick, he had the following to say:

“No way should anyone with a vested interest in the class be on a board making rules. Sorry, but I’ve been in the smoke filled rooms, I’ve seen the BS that goes on and the good old boys protecting their own turf. Even when it’s not obvious, there are manipulations and back channel chatter happening. This stuff is hard enough to control as it is.

Just the appearance of possible meddling is reason enough to reorganize boards to shed members with conflicts of interest and vested interests. Furthermore, it’s very easy to bring people in with situational knowledge as guest speakers or experts on conference calls, so that the committee can interview them and research situations as the needs arise. The engine specific knowledge isn’t something that is only Miata based. It’s a four valve inline four cylinder with port fuel injection. It’s not like this is some new fangled fusion power source heating water to turn into pressure to drive the wheels. And if there is Miata specific questions, there are unbiased experts who can be called upon.

I’d be slightly more tolerant about conflicts of interest if the minutes, the detailed full meeting with who said what to who notes… were public. Sunshine is the ultimate cleanser. I advocated for this back in my ITAC days.

I’m pretty amazed, and annoyed, that so many SMAC guys wrote the rules, then claimed ignorance or debated the wording to defend obvious cheats. And lets not forget, the cars were ONLY protested for illegal heads. If the builders (SMAC members!!!) are so brazen who knows what the bottom end of the engines look like!? Flywheels? Cranks? Conrods? It indicates a deep seated culture of cheating to my eye.  And, worse…they ONLY tore down 1/4 of the Runoffs entrants. How many other cars were illegal? Only a fool would think all of the remaining cars (and trophy winners) were legal. Sad situation”

How Your Voice can be Heard

Of course we’d love to hear your comments here, but in order to invoke a change or show support of the decisions, it will take more than that. There has been a petition created, however it is pushing for the illegal “blending” to be allowed going forward. Essentially this codifies the cheat. Instead of penalizing the engine builders who got caught cheating, it embraces what they did and “forces” competitors with legally built heads to have the head blending modification done in order to keep up with the associated benefits.

“The petition is to allow the cuts already allowed PLUS hand blending the short turn radius. I do not support this. This gives a Pro built engine a heavy advantage over a stock or “Joe machine shop” engine. Much time and money can and will be used to gain advantages in this area. It is without-a-doubt NOT within the philosophy of the class. I also believe that rules must not be written to allow cheating every time it happens on a wide scale.

Pulling out of circulation all heads with any cuts allows engine builders that have done the STR blend to replace their heads without any consequences. A bare head casting at $750 would need $1,300 in internals. “Send me your old head or you’ll have to pay for the guts.” The cheating will be buried.  Builders that have blended the STR will have minimum consequences. Those consequences will be put on the memberships shoulders.

There are no stock plunge cut diameters listed in the 6 different years of Mazda factory service manuals that I’ve checked. This was part of the reason for the plunge/chamber cut rules. A spec must be given if unmodified heads are required.

Pictures of the short turn blending found should be released to the membership. This will assist in inspections both by owners and tech officials,” Matt Kessler.

Here is a link to the petition.

The author(s) and individuals behind this petition have chosen to remain anonymous.

The best way to provide your input is to submit it through SCCA’s website or send to John Muller at NASA . A final recommendation of the group will be presented to the SCCA’s Board of Directors and NASA leadership for approval in December.

Beyond this, if you are passionate about the SM category, consider submitting an application to become a member of the SM Advisory committee.

Based upon many years of Go Ahead – Take the Wheel working with the SCCA national office, we can say your voices will be heard and do matter. Please keep in mind that they are working to do what they believe is in the best interest of the Club and its members. While we have not worked with NASA much, we believe they also will be receptive to feedback from their customers.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In no way do any of the above comments or opinions reflect those of Go Ahead – Take the Wheel’s partners or site sponsors.

Matt Kessler is the owner of Kessler Engineering. His shop based in CT focuses on building and maintaining Spec Miatas. One of his specialties is building SM engines.