We all have our prejudices in the car modification world. Air bags can be one of those polarizing mods, generally associated with low-rider or ‘stanced’ subcultures these suspension aides are not generally viewed as performance parts. While the aesthetic merit of a low-slung car at a meet or on the street is something to which we can all relate, things get more complicated on a race track.
While a lower center of gravity is a plus when it comes to handling, it is possible to over-lower in performance terms, which has a negative effect on roll center. To really dive into this kind of theory check out our articles on coil springs, and chassis geometry.
Air bags on the motorsport side of enthusiast culture are not all about slamming a car to the ground, they are about on-the-fly adjustability. To dispel some of the common misconceptions about air bags we talked to Red Line Time Attack Champion, Cody Miles.
Where did you get your start racing Time Attack?
Cody Miles: It probably all stems from motocross to be honest. I grew up racing motocross around local tracks in California, and as soon as I got a driver’s license I started playing with cars. I had a truck to move my dirt bike around growing up in Aguadulce, CA. I turned my Toyota Tacoma into what I thought was a cool pre-runner. I found myself constantly reading Import Tuner and I would look for excuses to run through the canyon (Little Tujunga). But then you look at the whole picture and I thought; what am I doing? I need a different car.
What lead you to gravitate toward the Subaru WRX STi over another platform?
CM: The choice was between an S2000 and the STi, but as a childhood dream I was obsessed with Subarus. I knew that they had potential, if it’s a boring car I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I just knew if I got the S2000, as soon as I drove home with it, I’d ask myself; why didn’t I get the Subaru?
Where Did you Start Modifying The Subaru?
CM: I didn’t even have it for 24 hours before the engine seized. What happened was a very common problem with Subarus – the oil pickup cracked and starved the engine of oil. The car sat for over four months while I saved to do the engine that I wanted, which was forged internals and headwork, cams, etc. I had a fully built engine that was capable to handle all these things, so I put myself on the waiting list to get a BorgWarner EFR turbo and waited eight months.
Where did your relationship with Air Lift start?
CM: Because it was a daily driver I wanted a suspension that could do it all, and that’s when I came across Air Lift. That relationship completely started from me being a normal customer. I got one of their kits, and bugged them a few times with questions through the install process. Once I’d started bugging them with questions after tracking the car, they started teaching me the ins and outs of how air suspension is unique in its own way.
Is the air bag suspension you use an off-the-shelf kit?
CM: Everybody loves to think that it’s some special magic wizardry kit, but it is 100 percent off the shelf. I don’t have anything special that you can’t go buy and put on your Subaru right now. Picture a coilover system just like a MacPherson-style strut, but it’s a bag-over, the strut is inside running through the bag.
Is there adjustability built into the system?
It’s just like a one-way adjustable coilover would be, I’ve got compression and rebound on a single knob. I can certainly mess with air pressure on-the-fly, in Global and Red Line Time Attack I’m not allowed to mess with it on track due to specific rules for the class. Driving down the street I can inflate pressure to a specific corner, and I have a display sitting right next to me that shows PSI. You can not only increase your spring rate and height, but you can lower and raise the lower mount – you have a threaded strut body that you can move up and down to determine your length.
In the trunk I’ve got a plate that I made, and to that plate I mount my three gallon aluminum tank, a single air compressor, and the manifold that controls the bags individually. I put it in the spare tire well becuase I wanted to keep it as light as possible and as low as possible.
Do you get strange reactions from people?
From people at the track, they want proof. I get a lot of confusion, despite the huge Air Lift sticker on the car people will walk over and ask; what spring rate, suspension, brand of coilovers? They look at me like I’m crazy, they always hesitate and then they look at me again. Once I show them the compressor, manifold and tank it starts to sink in. Nobody thinks that bags can handle, and I love showing them that they can.
A very common question I get is; is it bouncy? Maybe I haven’t ridden in enough low-rider trucks back in the day where air bags were bouncy. I can tell you this, if you rode in this car and then in a different STi with similar-spec coilovers, you would not know the difference.
While it may be a while until air ride systems gain mass-acceptance among road racers, examples like Cody Miles are doing a lot to promote that image. Being the only competitor in the Time Attack field on bags sets him apart and has forced him to find his own path to success. The differences are not as polarizing as most people think, even Miles told us; “I forget that I’m on air when I’m actually racing.”
As Miles closes out the season with Red Line Time Attack, and Global Time Attack we wish him luck and are eager to see what developments come out of his campaigning Air Lift suspension under his Subaru.