Driving the 2013 Scion FRS – Long Beach Grand Prix Pro/Celebrity Race Cars
The Pro/Celebrity Race which happen every year is a charity race sub-content of the 36 year history of Long Beach Grand Prix. That's every April when the City of Long Beach becomes a huge raceway for automobile enthusiasts of Southern California to host a bunch of big-time racing that climax with the INDYCAR series, and formerly CART, IRL, and even Formula One at one point in history.
The cars specified for the one-make, 10 lap race between American Celebrities versus the Professionals will be the brand new TRD USA-built Scion FRS this year.
We had a chance to preview these cars in it completed specifications, and sample them all on the very technical venue of Streets of Willow Springs Raceway on March 4th, and all I can say is it was both educational and entertaining. Here is short write-up of what I’ve encountered, and we thank all of the staff from Toyota Motorsports Division, and Scion Public Relations team for the kind invitation.
Before we get into the grit of performance and the usual driving impressions, let me inform you on the purpose of the Pro/Celebrity FRS and what it is meant to do as a specialty venue race car.
The race is all about having a group of enthusiastic celebrities from all walks of entertainment industry, trained for a full month by Fast Lane driving School, to compete in a one-make race with handicapped start and a chase by professional drivers from USA’s Professional motorsports industry. It is a short 10 lap race but surrounded by concrete walled and very grueling and unforgiving raceway that is shared with INDYCARS and other pro races that happen on the same week.
Needless to say, these are very special circumstances, and require a very dedicated type of cars which are both forgiving enough for the non-professional driving celebrities, but tactile enough for any professional drivers to be comfortable at full speed. Also, since this is a DRIVER challenge for evenly matched and specified cars, the cars need to be pretty exact in performance and free from variances and character differences so that the drivers can truly compare the skills. Also unique to these cars is the lack of modifications that are typical in a full on race cars for absolute quest for speed. The cars are rather more tuned to be easy to drive, and safe for all of the enthusiasts that get behind a wheel in such unforgiving raceway.
So having said this here are some major modifications done from a stock showroom car:
In the area of absolute safety, a regulations specific roll cage is fitted to each car. However unlike a typical race car, these cars are void of bracing and cages fore and aft of the passenger cabin so as to retain the excellent crumple zone built into the FRS by design in a production car. This makes absolute sense since these cars are evenly built, so there is no point in pursuing the super-strong chassis like those of a race car to permit another 2mph average speed, at the expense of 2 more broken bones in a crash right?
Each of the Pro/Celebrity Race cars are also equipped with a on-board total fire extinguishing system, a 5 point safety harness by Simpson, as well as traditional window nets like on a NASCAR style closed body American racing series. The excellent driver’s seat from the stock FRS is retained here, as well as most of the interior panels. There are specifically made driver knee-pads to the left and right of the driver’s foot wells, keep the drivers comfortable during high-G maneuvers. And, needless to say, the folks at Toyota Motorsports USA, who hand-assembled these cars, did a superb job on making every custom detail look Toyota-quality, right down to the plastic panels and fabricated headliners that cover the upper half of the roll-cage. A level of care that makes any fabricator and custom car folks drool, and makes the cars look that much more inviting to sit and spend time inside.
As for the performance side, reliability is the top priority, while handling improvements as a race car is something really catered to the series of being very even, and relatively docile while not sacrificing the excitement and speed, as well as driver tactility, and feel.
The engine is a stock FA20 as installed in every production FRS. There may be some cleaning and assembly process to assure each engine behaves close to each other, as well as for double-checking the parts to be used, but no internal modifications were introduced to the engine itself. The power rating, according to the catalog spec of these race cars are published as 210hp @7000 rpm, with Redline Oil in 0W-20 grade, and TRD USA custom fitted intake chamber, filter, and what seems like a TRD Japan exhaust system with emissions equipment removed for additional cooling and reliability.
Centerforce custom spec clutch disk system was installed to keep the 10 laps consistent among varying drivers, and Bridgestone RE11 225/40-18 was specified for the one make spec.
Toyota Motorsports and TRD USA collaborated with Eibach suspension systems in creating a specific custom spring and shock set, which look really expensive…combined with the TRD-specified anti-roll bar (sway bars).
On the end links for each of the stabilizers were very nicely made high-grade end links from Hotchkis Suspension. And Stop-Tech was called in to create the TRD specific FRS calibrated front brake calipers as well as floating disk rotor. It is still unknown which if any of these parts will be available to the general public and I shall find out later in the year, but the next section will describe how these components all came together to pin-point focus all of these cars to this specific task, and how it all felt to the driver.
I need to warn you that this was a sampling day and not a race day, which I had the opportunity to drive. These are precious cars Scion and Toyota Motorsports need in a very important role in just 30 days time, so I really didn’t opt to flog them to the maximum risk conditions or speed. However, because the venue at Streets of Willow Springs is very technical raceway, with lots of connecting corners and decent straights, I think I got enough of the exercises done to report on how these cars behave with my humble skills, and with every single body sensors tuned to take in the experience, assisted by two cans of RED BULL prior to getting in the cars.
The exhaust note is crisp, and crackles with vibrant high notes which is amazing when one considers the origin of the engine to be a Subaru flat four 2 liter. Like the production counterpart, the engine revs smoothly up to redline at 7400 and stays fairly even on torque in the upper half of the range. Nice and ideal, I’d say, for a nice one-make race car. It makes every mistake easy to correct, and occasionally choosing to be in taller or shorter gear won’t rob the driver too much pace.
One thing to note on these car, it is electronically programmed to cancel all electronic driver assist at engine start, so the cars are as pure as they can be for the driver, and only thing that stays on seems to be the ABS system (which is always a plus, on a concrete walled raceway!!).
There is an option to turn VSC and TRC systems back on, if one chooses, and it was probably left in for those occasions where a journalist or other guests can easily drive it without risk in roles outside of the Pro/Celebrity Race.
Once under way, the specified Bridgestone RE11’s heat up quickly, and within half a lap, they seemed to hit just the right temperatures and stayed pretty nice and predictable throughout the 5 lap sampling sessions. These are not the typical gummy, tacky, full-on race slicks as one may expect, but are what I would call a Sunday Racer level tires, which are designed to be very durable for the race track use, and have far more grip than normal street tires, but also behave in a more forgiving manner in a less peaky way. The RE11 caters to lots of extended fun track sessions and making the car dance at pace all day.
Certainly a full race spec tire may turn in faster laps, but again, ease of operation and less variables the better when we are simply racing with driver skills as the only factor to winning. So these tires are probably the right choice to keep the audience entertained as well.
They exhibit lots more screeching sounds when slid over the grip capability, noticeable to both drivers and fans just on the other side of the fence, than on full race tires. And grip-abundant and predictable enough to every driver to keep the cars from smashing into walls.
I thought it was the perfect choice anyway. It’s basically, a lot of fun this way. And yes, they have FAR more grip than the stock FRS tires.
The cockpit is as familiar as any stock FRS, and the excellent transmission shifting mechanism is retained on these cars. The shifts occur fast and easy and clutch systems are fairly straightforward to any mundane manual seasoned driver. The 5 point harness, which I would recommend to any track driver, not only keeps the driver safe, but also greatly helps in cars like these which can pull a lot of lateral and longitudinal G’s, by keeping his butt in place to feel the car, and to keep arms and legs concentrated on the task at hand than simply holding on. The nicely fitted knee-pads also come in handy for taller drivers who has lots of leg-travel in the cockpit, to keep his/her knees in place.
Steering into each corner and through series of connected corners, the car feels very tenacious at turn-in, responding with eagerness to rotate the car. But unlike some cars that typically become very tail-happy with such settings, the TRD-Eibach suspension system on this car, hunkers down, and keeps all the contact patch stuck to the pavement. It is one of the best combinations of grip and handling balance that I have ever felt on a tuned street car. With increase in steering input, and corrections in mid-corner, controls become really forgiving and positive in feel.
Any well-developed driver can put the car right on the intended line and trace it all day with this car. With a bit of a forced entry or late braking, the RE11’s will slowly warn the driver, and break away progressively, while maintaining great composure, and lets drivers think about how and when he can return the car back online. This freedom and confident attribute is very important in a car which race against each other, and when multiple cars dive and dice on a narrow track like at Long Beach. Drivers can negotiate an off-line corner with another car alongside without fear of losing the car into the walls. FRS has all the body structure and dynamic balance to offer, and with Toyota Motorsports’ expert tuning, all of the fun factor, spelled ‘confident balance’ is retained and extended to a higher cornering speed. Simply amazing in terms of overall chassis development and tune, especially in focus to what they are designed to cater in the Pro/Celebrity Race.
With one look at the car, one may notice a pair of huge red-colored 4 pot caliper with TRD logo on the front hub, and the seeming unbalance with stock rear calipers which seem rather small in visual comparison. But these thoughts just fly out the window when you punch the brakes, then in successive lap after lap on the Pro/Celebrity Scion FRS. The typical mismatch and ill-character that’s usually associated with using haphazard brake caliper selection on a stock fluid balancer and master cylinder like this, is completely non-existent. The cars slow down fast and steady, lap after lap, corner after corner, with complete and neatly proportioned way, and brakes are really close in feel to stock, but with heat related changes curtailed to nothing more than warming the pads for a corner or two at start. It's just what the car needs, to match the huge increase in grip afforded by the excellent RE11 tires.
With all the handing and braking prowess, the relatively stock FRS engine seems a bit unexciting on the main straights of course. However, this is something very negligible to the driver once they clip the first apex of a corner, as the car retains so much momentum and inertia, that the driver shall be very preoccupied with keeping the cornering G’s high, and screaming out of each corner at speeds akin to race cars than production based car. Not to mention the sheer width of his smile being wider than the track width at Long Beach! What is commendable about this engine is the absolutely flat and easy torque and power output, which is such a joy to modulate while the car is on the edge. Throttle translates so well to vector changes and steering inputs extremely well. For those of you that are familiar with rear wheel drive sports cars, you will immediately know that this is the ideal form of something light and scratching the road with the back tires, that can both propel the car, as well as steer the car at will.
All said and done, the day ended way too short of what I wanted to spend, and this was with a FULL day on the race way with just 14 drivers invited! I just could not get enough of these Pro/Celebrity Race cars despite the 4 sessions I had, and I would easily say that this is the best Pro/Celebrity race car ever for the series.
I say this because unlike the heavy and flex-frame Celica in the old days, or the tricky and demanding nature of front driven Celica and recent Scion tC, this FRS leaves so much options for the drivers to change his style, speed, pace, lines and whatever we do on the raceway, that much more of the driver’s individual style, driving prowess, and character will probably be apparent in the 2013 race, and therefore making us, the spectators that much more entertained and focused on the race.
You know, I might just have changed my mind about the favorite Toyota car I would want to take to the track… Yes, I think I prefer this Pro/Celebrity spec, Scion FRS to the mighty Lexus LFA…
It’s that good!
PS. I had the opportunity to take our favorite in-house photographer for Club4AG, Danny and Geoff of JDMZIPTIES, and they have photographed the event nicely, moment by moment. We thank them as well as everyone at Toyota Motor Sales USA, various service and Public Relations entities, and partners, for making the event a really comfortable experience. The FRS Pro/Celebrity replica Radio Controlled cars were a nice touch by HPI and Scion PR! And TRD USA display and OEM AUDIO+ on site kept us talking for hours as we took turns at the very special automobiles from Scion.
More about the 2013 Pro/Celebrity Race:
Driver Roster Official Release - http://club4ag.com/driving-the-2013-scion-frs-long-beach-grand-prix-procelebrity-race-cars/
More photos here at JDMZIPTIES webpage! http://jdmzipties.com/2013/03/06/toyota-pro-celebrity-race-scion-fr-s-media-day-streets-of-willow-highlight-photos/