So I bought an Eco-Racer

So, despite everything that’s been going on in the world, there is at least one silver lining. People are selling just about anything on Craigslist for some quick cash! There are some interesting deals out there, and by extension, there are some interesting cars on sale. And sometimes, someone is selling an Eco-Racer in the next neighborhood over.

I should probably explain that I didn’t go out there looking for something. In between work, school, and the existential dread of living in a post-capitalist dystopian nightmare other things, I’m just too busy to take on yet another project.

That changed when my mentor sent me a picture of this:

new toy
Just what exactly is this?

A local Craigslist ad for a “Electric Prototype Vehicle” hidden in the “ATV-Motorcycles” section, with this photo. Most people looking at this thing would probably have dismissed it as someone’s backyard project vehicle. But of course, I knew better.

This wasn’t some backyard go-kart build. This actually is a prototype “high-efficiency” racer in the same vein as a Shell Eco-Challenge racer!

What is an Eco-Racer?

An “Eco-Challenge Racer” is a single seat, superlight vehicle designed to be as efficient as possible. This means the body is usually made of lightweight composite materials, and designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. The best eco-racers have a drag coefficient around 0.1, which is more efficient than a Toyota Prius!

Usually, these vehicles have a compact powerplant designed to consume 1 liter per 100 miles, or 235MPG! But, electric and even solar-powered racers are common too. These vehicles aren’t necessarily fast, but they’re so small and low, driving them must be a lot of fun!

The funny thing is, I’ve had an obsession with designing and building something like this as a school project. And here was one on sale in our own neighborhood.

I think you can see where this is going.

A Cool School Project

After chatting with my mentor about the listing, I decided to send the seller a message. A short while later, we got into contact. After asking a few questions and learning more about the vehicle, we made plans to meet.

The next morning, we hopped on over and got a good look at this eco-racer. I was amazed at the construction of it! The monocoque is made from cardboard honeycomb sandwiched in carbon fiber, and the cowlings are made from a single sheet of carbon fiber. Even the controls are carbon fiber! The end result is a superlight torpedo of a vehicle! I was so amazed by this thing, I had to know exactly where it came from.

a carbon fiber torpedo
One of my friends tries on the eco-racer!

Apparently, this eco-racer belonged to the seller’s sister-in-law. She was a Stanford Mathematician who in the Summer of 2009 traveled to Osaka Sangyo University to assist a student team in designing and building this eco-racer for some inter-university competition. Osaka Sangyo is famous for designing and building highly efficient, record-breaking electric cars and solar-powered vehicles!

The eco-racer that was now sitting in front of me apparently came from an institution with a racing pedigree. Sadly, this was all I was able to find out about the racer from my initial meeting with the seller. Could it be possible that the same minds that built these record-breaking cars from a decade ago built this thing?

After the competition ended and the sister-in-law flew home, the eco-racer showed up on their doorstep some time later. As thanks for her help with the project, Osaka Sangyo University had sent the entire vehicle to her home and paid for all the shipping! From there, she kept in the garage and eventually gave it to her brother-in-law to tinker with. And now, he wanted to give it a new home.

I was pretty shocked that something like this was even in my backyard! I don’t even think the ad was up for a full 24 hours before I contacted the seller! But, how often does something like this even pop up on Craigslist, of all places?

So, I pulled the trigger.

The Eco-Racer comes home

I can fit!
I fit!

After paying the seller and convincing a skeptical, but intrigued friend to borrow his time and his truck to haul this thing home, we unloaded it and took a good look at its construction. With the cowlings and the wheel covers taken off, its pretty clear how extensive the cardboard honeycomb and carbon fiber construction is! There doesn’t seem to be any internal framing except for the brackets holding the motor and rear wheel assembly in place. Even the upper surface the controls are built on the same cardboard-carbon fiber composite as the belly of the racer.

As advanced as the monocoque and cowlings are, the powertrain is simple to understand and work on. Everything is made from off-the-shelf components. The wheels and tires are from a folding bicycle, and the 100W motor itself is from an electric scooter. The motor is paired with a bicycle chain and a single sprocket turning the rear wheel, and the single rear disk brake is taken from a bicycle as well. Power is provided by a pair of 18-volt scooter batteries controlled by a single toggle switch and a pulse width modulator acting as the throttle.

A close up of the controls, with me in it!

With this powertrain and the lightweight monocoque, this eco-racer could be capable of 20+ mph! The seller did mention however that the electronics need to be upgraded. After all, the batteries and the motor are over ten years old. Despite their age, the batteries still hold a charge, and we were able to get the eco-racer to move with my 215 pound frame wedged inside the cockpit! With some upgrades, this thing has a lot of potential!

After we were done playing with it, we buttoned up the cockpit cowling again, taped the windows up for extra security, and then lifted the entire racer onto a portable table near the back of the garage. Then we attached the rear wheel cowl with a single bolt and closed up shop. Right now the eco-racer is sitting pretty until I decide which direction I want to take with it.

So, what now?

The Eco-Racer, shortly before we put it away.

Now that the Eco-Racer is safe and secure, there are a few things I need to do to it:

  1. Replace the older batteries:
    • Even though the batteries and motor are still functioning well, they’re really old. Since the powertrain is built from scooter parts, I could easily source a pair of new batteries and possibly a new motor. In fact, I could possibly upgrade the motor itself and add a 200W instead of the 100W it’s running now. The most important part is the battery pack, so that will be the first to be replaced.
  2. Create a new battery mount:
    • Currently, the battery pack sits behind a simple panel made from the same cardboard honeycomb and carbon fiber the monocoque is made from. Because the batteries are heavy they don’t move around as much when the eco-racer is in motion, but I still don’t like loose components. I want to glue a simple angle bracket and fasten the batteries against the rear wall of the cockpit. I might even add a metal hanging strap or two secure the battery pack further against the angle bracket and the wall.
  3. A new seat:
    • What am I kidding, there is no seat! That panel I mentioned earlier is what you lay against when sitting in the eco-racer. It’s pretty uncomfortable, so I plan on making a new segmented version that not only hides the battery, but is contoured to the upper back for a little more comfort. In fact, I want to use this as an excuse to see if I can make my own cardboard honeycomb carbon fiber panels!
  4. Taping the windows back in:
    • Since the original tape holding up the windows to the cockpit cowling is starting to deteriorate, I want to replace it with automotive VHB tape. This tape can be really thin and transparent, so it wouldn’t look too distracting and it would fasten the windows better then the current setup. Then, I could add thin tape around the outside of the windows to seal the seams between the windows and the body, Bonneville style!
  5. Tracking down the history of the Eco-Racer:
    • This part might be the most difficult. Aside from what I was told by the seller, there is virtually no history or documentation on this eco-racer as far as I know. The seller’s sister-in-law also couldn’t recall who worked on the project, and the name of the competition the eco-racer was a part of. But, I have enough information to begin looking in the right direction. If the eco-racer came from Osaka Sangyo University, it must have been constructed as part of some sort of automotive engineering program. If that is the case, then it’s just a matter of cross-referencing the timeframe in which the racer was built with who might have been teaching at Osaka Sangyo in something related to automotive engineering at the time. From there, it should be a matter of reaching out and confirming everything about the racer!

Stay Tuned!

My hope with this new project is to have something interesting to show off once Cars and Coffee events start opening up again. This could be an interesting opportunity to advertise the Academy of Art’s Transportation Design Program too! I would love to take a crack at redesigning the cockpit cowling as well. Having this thing will be a great opportunity start learning how to fabricate with composite materials.

The possibilities are endless!

Do-it-Yourself: How I fixed my curb rash!

Originally, I wasn’t planning on taking on another Do-It-Yourself project. But, I was browsing Craigslist one day for parts for my Miata to kill some time. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular; I just like to browse and see what piques my interest. In my search, I found a listing I had to read several times to make sure I didn’t misread:

2003 Miata SE Wheels – $80

$80 for a set of wheels that were offered on the top of the line Special Edition Miata in 2003? These wheels were what I thought a special edition Miata like the Shinsen should have come with! And here they were in a Craigslist ad for $20 a wheel! I messaged the seller that night and mentioned I had a Shinsen Miata that the wheels would look good on.

3 of the 4 wheels had some nasty curb rash.

He agreed, so we made plans to meet that night. An hour later, I had a full set of rare OEM wheels for my Miata! There was one caveat: The wheels were badly curbed. They might have been worse than the wheels that came with my car! But I liked the look, so I figured, “why not try my hand at restoring them?” It was time for another Do-It-Yourself Project!

Sanding, Sanding, and More Sanding.

The first step to getting rid of nasty curb rash is sanding. This part is pretty tedious. You either have to put the wheel on a bench and rotate it or move around it while sanding. I ended up using an old stool since it was the perfect size for the rim. Also, it elevated the wheel to waist height, which saved my back. I cleaned the rim with soap and water to get the grease and dirt off. Then after I let it dry, I started sanding down the gouges and scratches with 220 grit sandpaper.

One of the wheels just before sanding. Notice the gouging around the edge of the rim. This wheel was probably the most curbed of the set!

The trick here is to sand down to the bare metal so that the outer edge is uniform all around. I had to take care to sand the outside of the rim as well. This was to make sure I wasn’t leaving any burrs that could shred the tire. I also had to make sure that I didn’t focus on one area too long so I wouldn’t have any flat spots that would show up after painting. After I was done sanding, I cleaned the rim again.

The name’s Bondo…

Next, was the fun part. And by fun, I mean tedious. It was time to bring out the Bondo! Fillers like Bondo are great for when you need to quickly fill some spots in a surface. It has a consistency between putty and modeling clay. So if you’ve done sculpting before, then you’ll easily take to using Bondo.

I used a fair amount of Bondo to fill in the gouges and scratches on the surface of the rim. The goal here was to make a uniform surface that could hide the imperfections so that I could lay down some primer. I stuck a few globs of Bondo on the edges and scraped away the excess material with the plastic mixing board. Later, I found that just laying on a lot of filler would be easier to sand off once it hardened, and without the risk of taking too much off from the holes the filler is supposed to fill.

After sanding, I filled in the gouges with some filler and then sanded the excess later.

Even more sanding, then primer!

The next step in the process was sanding off the excess filler from the edge of the rim and making sure that the surface was smooth. I took that same 220 grit sandpaper I used to sand the rim beforehand, and then very lightly sanded the filler. After sanding the surface, I used my hands to feel for any rough patches where I would have to sand some more or use more filler. If I was satisfied with the smoothness, I would move on to laying down some primer!

After cleaning the wheels again with a solution of water and dish soap and letting it dry, I started spraying on a few coats of sandable primer. I chose a sandable primer since it could fill in any imperfections on the surface of the rim. Also, it could fill in any mistakes I made when sanding away the filler. Once the wheel was primed and ready for paint, I washed it off again with dish soap and water.

The Main Event: Painting

This ended up being the most tedious part of the process, but not for what you might think. I had some paint I wanted to use lying around that matched the original finish of the wheels. After spending an entire can experimenting and painting a single wheel, I had to travel to four different stores to try and find the same paint! I eventually found it, but if I had sourced the paint beforehand, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time. Lesson learned; make sure you have all of your materials!

Anyway, I used Rustoleum’s Custom Shop Wheel Paint to get a cast aluminum finish similar to the OEM finish, and I sprayed at least three coats of paint per wheel. This wheel paint has more sparkle than the original OEM finish, but since the Shinsen Miata has metallic paint, it works! The one thing about the paint though was its finish. Once it dried, the surface of the paint was very rough; not like the original finish at all. I tried to rectify this by polishing the primer before painting with high grit sandpaper, but it made no difference. I ended up color sanding each wheel with 2000 grit sandpaper to get that polished feel.

Better than new!

The result of my “little DIY project” was a set of wheels that not only looked brand new but almost was impossible to tell where the curb rash was from the beginning. In fact, the finish was so good, the technician who fitted the new tires I ordered on the new rims couldn’t tell where the original curb rash was! Not bad for a first-timer!

The finished wheels, painted and color sanded!

The best part about successfully finishing this large project was the fact that I managed to get everything done the day before the 30th Anniversary Miata Reunion! I set about this project with the goal of having something new done to the Miata, and I managed to pull it off!

What’s next?

Now that the wheels and tires are finished, the next step is taking on another Do-It-Yourself project I’ve been putting off: Repainting the front bumper. Since I bought the car, the front bumper’s paint has been peeling in places and there are huge scuff marks under the bumper from the previous owner’s Auto X sessions. It might be worth replacing the front valence altogether with a new one, but who knows? Maybe I could save the whole thing and keep the car as original as possible?

Let’s see what happens!

The new OEM wheels mounted on brand new Firestone Firehawk Indy 500s!

MY PHOTOS ARE ON THE CORKSCREW NEWSLETTER!!!

Ever since I started volunteering my photography to SCRAMP and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, I always sent copies for their media team to use in their publications, as a sort of “thank you” for letting me work with them. It’s a pretty sweet deal, actually!

So, maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised when I get the latest Corkscrew newsletter and recognize some of the photos, but I’m hella surprised!

These look familiar!

The first two photos I shot at the Monterey Cars and Coffee event at Laguna Seca back in May 2018!

The next photo is from March of this year from the new Laguna Seca Cars and Coffee!

I’m still in shock! I mean, I actually accomplished something! I’m not some bum with a camera and wishful thinking!

I’ve been working really, really hard and questioning whether or not what I’m doing is right or if I should just pack my bags and go back to the East Coast. But after seeing this newsletter; I’m even more determined than ever!

See you at the track!