By Dan Ilika
Of all the sports car racing that happens on this continent, none embodies the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” spirit quite like the Pirelli World Challenge.
And it’s the series’ Touring Car classes that hold particularly true to that age-old mantra, with race-prepped versions of real production cars running against each other on circuits across the U.S. (and even into Canada). Yet few manufacturers this side of Mazda have been keen to offer turn-key cars that are affordable enough to attract privateer teams and gentlemen drivers alike. Finally, Toyota is looking to change all that — kind of.
Four years after launching a competition version of its 86 for a dedicated spec-racing series in Europe — not to mention hot on the heels of the Honda Civic Si entering the series — the automaker has decided the lone sports car in its lineup would be a great fit to rub fenders with the competition in the Pirelli World Challenge. To say this was a long time coming is a serious understatement.
Of course, we’re talking about one of the most pragmatic automakers on the planet, so bringing the race-ready Toyota 86 — officially called the TMG 86 Cup Car — to North America came with one major caveat: This factory-backed version would race in only one Pirelli World Challenge event.
With a doubleheader on the schedule, the braintrust at Toyota Racing figured Utah Motorsports Campus outside of Salt Lake City was as good a place as any for the car to make its competitive debut. That decision left the folks at DG-Spec Racing, the team tasked by Toyota with fielding the 86, with exactly 35 days to prepare — barely a blip on the radar when it comes to readying a car to race. Luckily, the team didn’t have to do much to get the TMG 86 Cup Car into compliance to compete in the Pirelli World Challenge, with the only major difference being the removal of its massive rear wing.
Invited by Toyota to check out the race first-hand, I arrived at the track early the day of practice to find a fair amount of hype surrounding the car as it was prepped for the day’s practice. But it wasn’t the few fans wandering the grounds that were ogling over the GT86; no, it was others racers who were wandering into the garage to get a closer look at what they were up against.
And what they were up against was a car with plenty of potential. Complaints about it being underpowered aside, the 86 is all about balance and agility. And that makes it an ideal fit for a limited-prep racing series. Outside of the stripped interior and roll cage, it’s only the new suspension setup that differentiates it from any other 86 on the road. The GT86 that was fielded by DG-Spec also featured an optional rear differential cooler, but it was a virtually a stock setup otherwise.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as pulling parts off the shelf at the local NAPA store and bolting them to this 86 when required. There are some subtle differences between the euro-spec Toyota GT86 and the 86 — hold the GT — sold on these shores. The rear brakes, for example, feature cross-drilled rotors in Europe but solid ones here. They’re also sized slightly differently, which means pads and calipers aren’t a case of plug-and-play. It all made for a challenging puzzle the DG-Spec team had to put together — and it only had about five weeks to do it.
Yet somehow the team was surprisingly calm, cool and collected as the weekend got into full swing. All the hard work and preparation, from testing at Willow Springs Raceway in California, to driving the nearly 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) from Los Angeles to Tooele, Utah, had come down to this. The significance wasn’t lost on me as racing extraordinaire Craig Stanton climbed behind the wheel for the first practice session of the day. Yet the team, with its championship-winning experience in this series a handful of years ago, was ready.
With a field of 50 cars spread across three touring car classes hitting the 4.5-mile (7.2-kilometer) course at once, Stanton managed to turn in an impressive lap time of 2:13.763 — just one-tenth of a second off the pace of the best-in-class No. 70 Mazda MX-5 Cup Car fielded by S.A.C. Racing. A few tweaks before the afternoon practice session yielded similar results: A best lap of 2:14.153, one second slower than another MX-5 Cup Car. With what amounted to just a few seconds separating the entire 10-car TCA class, Stanton and the rest of the team knew they had their work cut out for them heading into race day, but it was certainly a show of force that served to put the rest of the pack on notice.
The mood in the DG-Spec garage was a little more serious as I arrived the next morning. As focused as ever, the early hours were dedicated to a few checks and rechecks of things like camber and toe angle before qualifying. And it was during the 15-minute session that suspicions of others teams holding back in practice proved to be true. Despite laying down a lap of 2:13.103, his fastest of the weekend, the best Stanton could muster was the fourth spot on the grid behind a trio of lap times in the 2:12s.
With a rolling start to Race 1, the gall of both car and driver were tested early and often. Compared to the Toyota, the Mazdas were quicker in the corners — while also benefitting from a slightly softer tire compound — while the Hondas were faster in a straight line. Needless to say, Stanton had his work cut out for him as he battled hard through 16 laps. Jockeying for position in a tight field of TCA cars, Stanton nabbed a third place finish in the 86’s competitive debut.
The second race of the day didn’t go quite so well. With a Turn 1 wreck on the opening lap muddying the field and nullifying grid positions, Stanton was unable to gain any ground before finishing the race in fifth place — a result that changed to fourth after the class-winning car was disqualified.
Regardless of the results, it’s hard to imagine this as anything more than a scouting mission of sorts for Toyota. That running the TMG 86 Cup Car in the Pirelli World Challenge will pique the interest of a privateer team or two, who will, in turn, make inquiries about ordering some of these euro-spec racers for next season. All I can say is it’s about time the Toyota 86 went racing in this part of the world.