Thursday, January 31

Exotic Air - SCION FR-S GT-SPEC - True Story

Building a car is never an easy quest. Building three cars in four months to be delivered on the largest automotive stage is, what I have learned.. insane. With this kind of pressure came many challenges as you can imagine. So, come hear the story.

With the hype of the FRS/BRZ being hailed as the true affordable tuner car to jump-start the aftermarket market, I have been following the progress since Toyota dropped a seed about Project 86. Like many when the car was finally for sale, I called in a favor to acquire this early in July. San Francisco SCION decided to host an enthusiast event where owners can enjoy an early morning drive in the hills of Half Moon Bay. At this event is where I ran into Norman, owner of N1 Concepts, a JDM purest known primary in the early 2000's as the source for all motor swaps, RHD conversions, and a J's Racing S2000 in their race program. Norman had purchased a FRS as-well with the hopes to steer his business in a new direction. Over the years of selling used oem parts, the hungry for fresh air was in need at N1. We ended up discussing ideas and allowing our creativity to wander.

Early on, there was a Japanese aero kit that caught the Internet by storm. It was known as the Rocket Bunny FT86, which was actually a combination of parts from Greddy and Kei Muria San. It consisted of a front lip, lip skirts, rear diffuser, fender flares and a GT style wing. I had to have this kit, but Norman insisted that we could do better and he had all the cards ready to go. 

He had an x-employee that had some knowledge with a sketch pen, so they went through a few rounds and presented to me their concept. It was very aggressive. These were HONDA guys, that have followed many JDM tuners that have designed wide body GT style S2000s; J's Racing, ASM, Mugen, and Amuse. Clearly, it's just a drawing, but could they actually execute with the given time frame.

Shortly after that cruise to Half Moon Bay, N1 spared little time and started their STi swap. They had previously imported a JDM spec STi motor with the intent to swap into the FRS chassis due to the same boxer motor mounting locations. Their guys worked fast and within one night the FA20 motor was out siting on a few tires on the ground and the STi motor was mated with the FRS tranny and everything bolted back into the engine bay. The FRS transmission tunnel was incredibly narrow and there was no way the big brother STi tranny would fit without serious sheet metal cutting. It was exciting to see such a brand new car with a turbocharged JDM spec motor swap so early in the scene, we were all smiles for a bit.

Then it was time to hand over my keys so development on the aero kit can start. I will be honest, it was the hardest challenge in the entire project. Andrew was the artist and the designer. He was confident he had the correct knowledge and this process would be swift. Well, two weeks in we started to hit a serious bump which cost hundreds of dollars of material cost. My gut feeling told me we had to ask for other opinions and solutions. It turned out we had to start over, so we lost 2 weeks and a lot of material cost. Like all things, the second time around was much faster and efficient. Overall shape of each fender was cut into wood and we used high density foam to fill the gap in-between. From there, Andrew started to design and shave the foam to the desired shapes. Driver side fenders were completed and work started on the passenger side. Things were looking good.. so I thought.

Norman and I agreed this was a joint collaboration for SEMA and I was happy to be the front man to discuss partnership with all companies that would support our FRS builds. Norman would take care of the back shop duties and I focus on PR/Marketing. I designed a 20+ page detail proposal and started to reach out to many different companies whom we wanted to collaborate with. For me, this was my favorite part because I enjoy working with intelligent people for a common goal. Presenting a game plan that outlines investors return, build process, media coverage is very natural for me. Luckily, I had some old relationships from my 2010 SEMA projects and one of them was Vince at Forgestar wheels. 

I still remember it clearly. It was Friday afternoon, Vince and I were in a meeting and he agreed to use the Exotic Air FRS in his Forgestar booth for SEMA. Good, one goal achieved, onto the next. Come Monday, I get a message from Vince stating he walked in to a Scion dealership and bought a FRS over the weekend for his SEMA booth. That was unprofessional and he felt the same. So, luckily Vince is very plugged-in with all the companies in the automotive industry. He said to give him a few days and we will find a booth for the EA car. Surely, two days go by and the FRS will be displayed in the ENEOS Nippon Oil booth. I was thrilled. 

ENEOS is the largest oil company in Japan. They are the Jiffy Lube of Japan. Over the years ENEOS had made huge presences at SEMA with outrageous booth displays in the performance hall, usually nearby the HONDA booth. Oddly, they decided to take a break from SEMA when it came time to lock down their booth location and gave up their seniority. By the time Vince had asked ENEOS to display a booth at SEMA, all the booth space was sold out except for a spot in the Truck hall on the upstairs of the wheel/tire hall. They had no other option, so that 20x30 was quickly purchased and locked-down. That did not bother me.. I was just happy to be working with ENEOS and to build a display car for them at SEMA was very exciting!

Back to the build, progress continues on the GT aero development and other challenges started to slow us down. Andrew was a full time student so scheduling was not consistent. So, I started to help Andrew with the design. The front bumper, like the fenders were built twice due to design issues. Other people started to give their opinions and that forced more changes to happen which took more time to redo. Egos and attitudes were another challenge in this group, which I will not go into detail but I can say it did hurt the relationships and we continue to precious loose time. But what can you expect from a group off guys that have never worked together before and with such strong personalities. Disagreements are bound to happen..

Other local body shops were called-in to help at night to speed up the bondo and sanding stages. Although Norman insisted he had body guys ready, when it was time to execute, no one was there to help. Hundreds of dollars spent each time we needed material, quickly added up to thousands invested.

Designing the rear bumper pushed us all to the limits. It just did not look right, so Andrew continued to try new ideas, but sometimes as artists, you just need to leave it alone and come back to it down the road. We focused back on the front bumper and continued to explore different ideas to create down force from many of the Time Attack race cars. 

Let's sway form the story and focus on companies that partnered with us:

Forgestar was debuting their all new Super Deep Concave F14 wheels at SEMA. I asked Vince for the widest set with the lowest offset offered and it came out to be 19x10 -25et & 19x11 -6et. The only problem was, the wheels were not scheduled to arrive until 1 week before SEMA. Which meant we had no idea what the fitment would be like with the tire choices under the extreme arches. Of course, the FRS chassis was brand new and the 5x100 bolt pattern surely did not allow us enough options for testing wheels, so we had to hope our calculations were close enough. Well, when the wheels did finally come, it needed spacers: an inch in the front and two in the rear. Luckily, Auto R&D stepped up to bat and got us 6x sets of 1" inch spacers (yes, we double stacked in the rear).

TOYO Tires were very generous and sent us two sets of their very high performance R888 track tires in 265/35 and 295/30 sizes. These tires are truly amazing, ultra sticky compound, and hard sidewalls.

AIRAID, a performance intake company reached out to me on the FT86 forum and ended up sending us two of their intake systems. High quality plastic piping and enclosed filter that uses stock air opening was very well designed and installation was spot on.

CKS suspension is good friend. John were more than happy to support the project. He built a custom one-off shock with different valving, higher viscosity fluids and shorter shock length to match the Swift Springs: ultimately to accommodate track duties. I was very pleased with CKS and the outcome. Their system comes with adjustable sway bar end links, pillow ball top hat and full camber adjustment plate. Product is high quality with precise machining and fitment. Dampers are 24 way adjustments. They will have 2-way adjustable shocks in 2013, so I am looking forward to test that.

Odyssey batteries sent their small and lightweight racing cells for all the cars. Odyssey were a partner back in 2010 with the 5 Lexus builds and it was a no-brainer to collaborate again, especially after gaining knowledge about Optima pushing very hard this year at SEMA, I wanted to help their brand and identity. Easy to work with and extremely professional.

ARK Performance is a Korean manufacturer of high performance parts, but really known for their exhaust systems. Similar to Airaid, a representative from ARK reached out on the forum and from there I sent in the proposal and we agreed to work together. Only problem was, their exhaust system was still a prototype and will not be ready until 1 week before SEMA. At the end, they came through with their exhaust system. It utilizes twin mufflers with twin resonators, beautiful machine welds and proper fitment. Not too loud but aggressive when the pedal is floored. We were pleased with the outcome.

NRG, we asked for 4x carbon bucket seats, rails, 2x steering tilt systems, 2x concave steering wheels, hubs, lug nuts, carbon canards, etc. NRG responded and said to come pick up parts. This is the first time working with NRG and I was extremely pleased with their professional manner. I was more thrilled when I saw their full carbon fiber bucket seats. Each seat weights less than 12 pounds, the fabric does not feel thin and it's actually a very comfortable seat. I am 6'1" and it fits me well.

Wilwood offered their 6/4 setup. Everything looked great until we tried to install the rear rotors.. apparently they sent two different hub diameters, so Wilwood had to overnight the correct hub to use that final week before SEMA. Overall, their system is more than complete with extremely lightweight calipers and 2-piece rotors. Thrilled to be working with them.

An old friend who use to run HIN now works for Whiteline. They are known as the bushing and sway bar guru in the road racing world. Front and rear sway bars, shifter link and subframe bushings all came just in time. All in their signature yellow theme, it actually matched the N1RR suspension bars quite well.

Seibon offered us 2x carbon fiber hoods, 1x carbon trunk, 1x carbon lip wing, and 1x pair of carbon fender vents. Over the years I have seen Seibon continue to improve their quality and it definitely shows. Their hoods and trunks fit like oem with beautiful finished clear coat over the carbon fiber fabric. All I need is the dry carbon roof.

Lighting Technik Jonny came and equipped the car with their latest LED and HID technology bulbs throughout the car.

Local guy Dave, owner of offered to paint the headlight housing JDM flat black. Although it was his first time working on FRS headlights, Dave worked his magic and sealed everything back like it came from the factory. Honestly, some of the N1 workers were skeptic about separating the headlights but Dave proved them all wrong with his wit and years of headlight painting knowledge. It turned out fantastic!

We had to order large ENEOS decals for the doors and hood. So we contacted Shref at SS Customs for their vinyl printer services. All small decals were handled by a good friend Carlin at Impact Performance in SF who helped with the Wilwood install as-well.

Okay, back to the build.. 

So with the aero kit development coming together, it was time to call the shop that will make the mould. In a nut shell, Norman's "mould" people came, freaked out, said they do not have knowledge to build this size and complex shapes and ran out the door. I was not having a good day. What to do.. we have burned 2 months developing this aero kit and we need to build moulds. Norman franticly searches the White Pages looking for custom bath tub makers.. when I heard the news, it was time to call in a huge favor.

John at CKS is a good friend, so naturally, when he felt my concern he recommended ASUKA Design in SoCal. Asuka has two owners, Brad and Lawrence. Together they own a composite design/manufacturing business in Socal. With over 25 yrs of industry knowledge they have built a serious of SEMA cars for top clients as well as their own projects used in the media over the years. You wouldn't believe the response I got from Brad after I sent our progress photos of the plug. He said, it cannot be done.. not enough time. I assured him, the plug will be finished in a week. We were fortunate, b/c Asuka just completed a big job for another client and were able to help, but I was asking them to build 8 moulds and pop out 16 parts in 20 days. The pressure was seriously on at that point.

Asuka agreed to come help us and together for the next 20 days, we all worked day and night to make all the moulds and parts come out the best we can given our situation. The process is very time consuming. Plugs had to be at least 1000 grit finish, we were at 250 when they arrived at the shop. Everything had to be flanged, mounting points needed to be determined.. honestly, we had no idea how much was involved until Asuka came and taught us step by step. On top of that, they also donated 2x GT wings for our cars. No brackets, just the carbon wing, which was fine since were were planning to design our own brackets.

With parts popped out in fiberglass, we started to trim and test the fitment back on the car. It was looking better with a bit of hope and light at the end of the tunnel. Surely, premature celebrations lead to more issues.

The body shops that agreed to paint the cars could not accommodate us when we needed. Perhaps it was a lesson learned when asking for cheap labor or after hour deals. We needed a solution.

Norman has a friend that works at a domestic shop using CAD and Solidworks. He was called to help us design the rear brackets of the wing. Andrew had made some out of wood as a rough to somewhat get the idea across. From there, it was translated into Solidworks, tweaked and tested using simulations until we felt it was accurate. I sourced a local water jet cutting shop in Oakland and our file was emailed to get the process started. Those that have seen our GT wing would agree, it's pretty crazy. But a car with such an aggressive  GT looking aero kit requires a wing this extreme. Infact, I actually wanted a wider wing with larger end plates.

Ten days before SEMA, with both cars still looking hopeless, I schedule N1 to drive their trailer down to Socal to pick-up everything. It was a 3 day trip and 6 total stops. They brought back: 8x wheels, Wald FRS kit, 2x hoods, 1x trunk, 1x trunk lip, 4x seats, exhaust system, and a bunch of little parts. Came Sunday, we got tires mounted and work continue to progress.

Besides the two GT Spec FRS builds, we took on a third FRS project when Jonari needed a demo car for their Wald aero kit. N1 concept employee also had a FRS and we quickly had the body shop paint and install the kit, followed by AP Racing brakes Airaid intake and TE37SL wheels borrowed from Speed Element.

A good friend, Brad from Performance Auto came to help us Thursday thru Saturday. Actually, he was a huge asset for the final push before loading up the cars and leaving for Las Vegas. He helped install the exhaust and almost all the suspension arms and braces from N1RR.. a sister brand under N1 Concept. Brad even ran to Tap Plastic to order the GT wing end plates to fit onto the ASUKA GT carbon wing they donated.

We needed a solution for paint, but at that point we were clearly out of time. The decision was made to purchase Plasi Dip in matte red since the car is red, I figure it would be easy to keep the color similar.. so I thought.

That final week was a blur. Everything was coming together and yet felt so far from the finish line. People coming and going, sleeping on Recaro seats in the showroom and eating so many McDouble and McChicken sandwiches to a point just the thought makes me want to vomit onto my laptop.. It was insane. Spacers were ordered and came on Thursday, Vinyl were cut on Tuesday, we were missing NRG steering hubs, so that was rushed ordered and arrived on Wednesday, but we all knew it was the Plasi Dip that we were all very nervous about and could no longer ignore.

Friday night we prepped the car to be sprayed Saturday morning. We all worked until we couldn't and crashed on Recaro seats. Morning came and we started shooting the car with the Plasi Dip kit in matte red. Layer after Layer.. by 1pm.. we ran into another problem. The matte red on the aero kit was not matching OEM red. Ten coats of matte red Plasi Dip and still fiberglass resin was not completely covered. 

If I didn't mention, Saturday was when we were to leave for LV.

What to do at this point..??? Plasi Dip the entire car matte black. 

I rush off to the local Home Depot and bought every can of matte black they had.. 45 cans total and almost $500 dollars later, I get back to the shop and each one of us all took a can and started to spray. It was insane. We finished spraying around 5pm and started to wait for the rubber to cure. 

In the meantime, the wing was being installed and a couple of friends came to install the seats. Somehow they stripped one of the bolt heads and were only able to install one NRG carbon seat before loading both cars that night.

By Midnight, we were all zombies and barely functional. Finally at 4AM we load both cars onto the enclosed trailer and start our drive down to Las Vegas. I remember going home to pack, b/c I haven't been home since living at N1 for a week. I drove with a friend in his Lexus IS350 convertible following the trailer. Nine hours later we arrived just in time to roll in Sunday for the Wald FRS and N1 Concepts GT FRS. 

Monday was roll in for the Exotic Air FRS at the ENEOS booth. All the ENEOS representatives were watching as we rolled in our batrmobile. Honestly, their initial impression was not the greatest since the car was still missing decals, missing one seat, and part of the bumper was scrapped from inside the trailer. But, we worked our magic that afternoon in the booth and finished the car. 

The car was so well received at SEMA as being one of the most aggressive FRS builds, we even won a people's choice award. For me, this was a exercise to continue to push the limit of building one off cars with an under budget starting point. We focused on American made companies. Since this GT kit was designed and made completely here locally, we continued that same mentality throughout the car; supporting the local American companies. Continual and creating new business relationships is the key to a success, at the end it is all about people.

The Exotic Air SCION FRS GT-Spec turned out to be so much better than what I had envisioned. It was blood sweat and tears.. but, if given the chance, I would do it all again.



DaveT said...

That is a crazy story. Good to see you guys pulled it together at the 11th hour.

Karson Kwan said...

This is crazy good. So glad that it turned out well and it now looks amazing! Awesome job, Solo! Hope to see it again soon!