Rac­ing with Gra­cie

En­gi­neer­ing stu­dent, and mo­tor­sport fiend, Gra­cie Hack­en­berg – and friends – turned class­room lessons into mo­tor­sport re­al­ity by build­ing an MX-5 race car on the cheap

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

En­gi­neer­ing stu­dent Gra­cie Hack­en­berg – and friends – turn class­room lessons into mo­tor­sport re­al­ity by build­ing an MX-5 racer

Words: Matt Stone. Pho­to­graphs: Sam Mas­in­ter; Gra­cie Hack­en­berg col­lec­tion; An­thony Neste/ Grass­roots Mo­tor­sports

Gra­cie Hack­en­berg is an af­fa­ble, well-spo­ken stu­dent. She was born in Florida, USA, raised in Port­land, Ore­gon, and at­tends Smith Col­lege in Northamp­ton, Mas­sachusetts. It would be easy to take her for a pleas­ant but oth­er­wise av­er­age col­lege se­nior. But to do so would be a ma­jor mis­take.

There’s lit­tle that’s ‘just av­er­age’ about Gra­cie. Like the rest of us she has a heart­beat, but hers isn’t mea­sured with a stetho­scope – you’ll need a tacho. And she’s got as much oil as blood pres­sure. Be­cause Gra­cie is a cer­ti­fied mo­tor­head. She caught the bug help­ing and hang­ing out at her grand­fa­ther’s auto shop; it wasn’t a rac­ing or high per­for­mance kind of place, just a gen­eral garage. It was here, and through him, that she de­vel­oped an affin­ity for things me­chan­i­cal, and she did more than her fair share of oil changes and rou­tine re­pairs.

In high school, once she’d reached driv­ing age, the bug got

worse: she dis­cov­ered how much she re­ally loved cars and en­joyed driv­ing. Dur­ing some ad­ven­ture or an­other, she fig­ured out that go­ing fast thrilled her, so she de­cided to prop­erly learn how.‘i did the Pro Drive Rac­ing School pro­gramme run by Todd Har­ris at Port­land In­ter­na­tional Race­way when I was in high school,’ Gra­cie re­calls.‘that was my first time on the track and re­ally the be­gin­ning of my pas­sion for mo­tor­sports – be­fore that it was just a love for cars. It was a fan­tas­tic pro­gramme and I highly rec­om­mend it to any­one on the West Coast.’ It didn’t hurt that Gra­cie has been a var­sity-level ath­lete all through school, putting her in good phys­i­cal con­di­tion with sharp re­flexes.

Post-high school she sought out a small arts col­lege with an en­gi­neer­ing pro­gramme, and se­lected all-girls Smith Col­lege. It struck her that of all the cam­pus ac­tiv­i­ties, Smith didn’t have a rac­ing team.‘so I de­cided to start one.’ Of course a rac­ing team needs a rac­ing car and races to par­tic­i­pate in, so Gra­cie again took the lead – she iden­ti­fied Grass­roots Mo­tor­sports $2017

Chal­lenge as an ap­peal­ing event to take a run at. Grass­roots Mo­tor­sports (GRM) is a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can en­thu­si­ast mag­a­zine – its strapline is:‘by Gear­heads. For Gear­heads’ – and the mul­ti­fac­eted chal­lenge event is all about, ‘Cel­e­brat­ing the Coun­try’s [the US, that is] Top Low-buck Builders’.

Each year’s Grass­roots Mo­tor­sports Chal­lenge en­com­passes three events: an au­tocross, drag rac­ing, and a car show – and con­tenders must be built on a strict bud­get, of one dol­lar per cal­en­dar year; the 2017 event limit was $2017, and this year’s is $2018, and so forth. So the car must be lean, mean, and clean to com­pete in those three dis­ci­plines, not to men­tion that the driver must pack con­sid­er­able ver­sa­til­ity at the wheel. Gra­cie and her class/team-mates di­vined this to be just their ticket into low buck mo­tor­sports com­pe­ti­tion.

Smith Col­lege Rac­ing re­ceived con­sid­er­able coach­ing, ad­vice and sup­port from the school, but no fund­ing. Gra­cie and her team needed to raise the money, garner the spon­sor­ships, and build the car them­selves. She cred­its sev­eral of her en­gi­neer­ing pro­gramme pro­fes­sors for help­ing out, plus a cadre of fam­ily and friends. More spe­cific help came from Con­necti­cut-based Hale Mo­tor­sports, a well-known (pri­mar­ily) Mazda rac­ing car build­ing and sup­port con­cern, and she also cred­its Dean Case

(for­merly) of Mazda Mo­tor­sports Pub­lic Re­la­tions for con­sid­er­able coach­ing and guid­ance. Plus a dozen oth­ers whose names are memo­ri­alised on the back of the team’s cus­tom T-shirts.

Hale was the source of the car – a rare and now col­lectible 1999 10th An­niver­sary edi­tion Mx-5.‘don’t worry,’ Gra­cie adds quickly,‘we didn’t hack up a low-mile con­cours con­tender to make it into a rac­ing car. It was a wreck, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively.’ Hale ac­quired the car as sal­vage with the in­tent of a race car build any­way, so he sold it to Gra­cie for $600. ‘It was cheap, but it needed a lot of work,’ re­veals Gra­cie. ‘We had lots of body­work to do, and it needed new doors and front end pan­els and such.’ But the price was right and the bones were worth sav­ing. So Smith Col­lege Rac­ing got busy.

‘We didn’t even have a proper shop to build the car in,’ she re­calls. Some of the car was built in a too-small shed, while other jobs were un­der­taken out­side. Gra­cie proved she was no di­la­tant racer, rolling up her sleeves and grab­bing the tools – she ground, cleaned, drilled, welded and in­stalled. A big part of the job was sort­ing the body­work and mak­ing sure the chas­sis and sus­pen­sion were straight.

Likely the next largest task was build­ing the roll-cage from scratch – it was mea­sured, cut, formed and welded by the team. Done right it would add the nec­es­sary safety pro­tec­tion, and a mea­sure of ex­tra chas­sis rigid­ity for sharper han­dling.

The en­tire pow­er­train, sus­pen­sion and driv­e­line were re­moved, spruced up and mod­i­fied where the bud­get al­lowed. The en­gine is in­ter­nally stan­dard, but earned a few ex­tra ponies via a cold air in­take sys­tem and rac­ing ex­haust (cut and pasted pri­mar­ily from scrounged up used pieces), and a fresh coil pack. Miata spe­cial edi­tion-style wheels were painted red and wrapped in fresh high per­for­mance rub­ber.

A clear Lexan rear spoiler was home­fab­ri­cated and mounted to the rear deck. The cool gear­knob is a 3D-printed piece. And a mil­lion other an­cil­lary de­tails were sorted to make the poor lit­tle wreck into a real racer. Then the whole thing was cov­ered in a fresh, home­brewed paint scheme, and fin­ished off with let­ter­ing and decals ac­knowl­edg­ing all of the helpers and spon­sors.

It’s likely this is the first race car build in the his­tory of mo­tor­sport to come in un­der-bud­get; the whole build rang the reg­is­ter at $1625.23 in­clud­ing the ini­tial cost of the car, and Gra­cie proudly adds that this num­ber in­cludes ev­ery nut, bolt and washer bought and used. Re­call that the event al­lowed a max spend of $2017, so the Smith Col­lege Rac­ing MX-5 was track-ready with a few dol­lars (on pa­per) to spare.

Gra­cie wasn’t sure what to ex­pect when check­ing in at Florida’s

Gainesville Race­way, up against nearly 40 other teams, vir­tu­ally all male, and some with more than a lit­tle track time un­der their Nomex.

She was pleas­antly sur­prised at how wel­com­ing every­one was, with a great sense of com­mu­nity at the event. ‘Ev­ery­body helped every­one else out, whether it was the loan of a part, a tool or some mus­cle.’

The cars ran the gamut from mild to wild: a va­ri­ety of low buck bangers in­clud­ing other Maz­das, sev­eral Dat­sun Zs, Mus­tangs, Hon­das, you-name-its and a tor­rid-look­ing Amer­i­can Mo­tors AMX. Gra­cie drove hard and smart, do­ing well up against sev­eral cars that were likely faster, and some driv­ers with more ex­pe­ri­ence.

Smith Col­lege Rac­ing fin­ished as the high­est plac­ing Mazda in the over­all tally, tak­ing a com­mend­able third place in the au­tocross, and sev­enth over­all, plus win­ning the Grass­roots Mo­tor­sports Edi­tors’ Choice ti­tle. Gra­cie’s smartly turned out MX-5 took the pound­ing and kept com­ing back for more, with no me­chan­i­cal break­downs wor­thy of men­tion. One oc­ca­sional chal­lenge was deal­ing with an on­board com­puter and en­gine man­age­ment sys­tem that was look­ing for things like seat­belts, airbags and cer­tain emis­sions lev­els, but the team worked through and got past it all to fin­ish well and in one piece, still a run­ner at the end of the event.

Gra­cie sums up her GRM Chal­lenge ex­pe­ri­ence:‘oh, so much fun!’what’s next for her? Grad­u­at­ing from Smith with her en­gi­neer­ing de­gree is on for sum­mer 2018 and prob­a­bly some more MX-5 au­tocross and rac­ing.

She’s in­ves­ti­gat­ing what will be needed to mod­ify and re­fit her car into le­gal Sports Car Club of Amer­ica Spec Miata form. But she has no im­me­di­ate de­signs on be­come the next Dan­ica Pa­trick, the only fe­male win­ner of an Indycar race; in­stead she knows the name and back­ground of ev­ery suc­cess­ful fe­male mo­tor­sport rac­ing team en­gi­neer, and that’s her cur­rent ca­reer goal.

She has be­friended Lyn St. James (for­mer rac­ing driver and win­ner of the In­di­anapo­lis 500 Rookie of the Year award in 1992), who she ad­mires greatly and thanks for giv­ing her lots of ex­cel­lent ad­vice and men­tor­ing about be­ing a woman in mo­tor­sport.

So next time Porsche, Audi or maybe even Mazda wins the Le Mans 24 Hours, check to see if the team’s chief rac­ing en­gi­neer is a woman. It might just be Gra­cie Hack­en­berg.

Left: new brakes and sus­pen­sion com­po­nents were fit­ted, and yet still the car came in un­der the rules’ $2017 bud­get (which in­cluded the cost of the car!)

Right: gear­knob is a 3D-printed item

Above: the Smith Col­lege Rac­ing crew did all the work on the car them­selves, in­clud­ing the rear axle re­furb

Above: cold air in­take was one of the car’s few per­for­mance up­grades

An un­likely drag racer, but that was one of the dis­ci­plines in Gra­cie’s rac­ing event de­but

Smith Col­lege Rac­ing team mem­bers all wore T-shirts thank­ing their spon­sors

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