George Koustoumbardis got into the game a bit earlier than most of us. His first taste of motorsports came through RC cars and indoor karting, but at the age of 12, he tried his hand at a real racing kart. Instantly addicted to that rush which he says “is impossible to find anywhere else in life,” George took the money he had been saving from his lifeguarding job and bought his first car: a Jeep Cherokee. Driving up river beds and over muddy slopes never offered the same thrill as the speed karting did, and so by the time he turned sixteen, he started looking into a Miata for the track.
Building a track car ain’t cheap, but George was diligent, sold his Jeep, and continued collecting paychecks from the pool. Perhaps a regular job at his age made him pragmatic; he looked for a car he could afford, which could be repaired and modified for a reasonable cost, and which would offer great performance for the money.
For a trackday tool, the answer was clear. He knew a Miata would provide all the performance he wanted at a reasonable cost, and though it might get him mocked, he didn’t really care. “It’s their problem, not mine,” he says with a surprising amount of self-confidence for a sixteen-year-old. He set his sights on a low-mile NB Mark II, since it had a better interior and an engine with variable valve timing. He also knew they were a little on the sluggish side, so it also had to have a turbo. No questions.
After a few months of searching, he tested one lightly-tuned, turbocharged Miata and had the cash ready, only to have the seller flake at the last moment. It knocked him back, especially since there was no way he could build a car to that level without spending more than it was offered for. Regardless, he got over his blues, accepted this harsh reality, and restarted the search for his baby.
Seven days later, George wrote out a check for a pristine, silver 2003 that had absolutely no modifications other than a roll bar. Immediately, he began tweaking it with a set of Tein Street Flex coilovers, 9 kg in front and 6 kg in the rear. Along with a Racing Beat swaybar up front, the roll was reduced, and turn-in response seriously improved.
He then took it to Thunderhill, and got his first taste of the typical Miata experience. While immensely quick in the corners, he could do no good on the long straights. “It was a little humiliating, but it just made me realize how badly I wanted a turbocharger,” George laughed. He also realized that his summer tires could not stand the abuse, and after they melted during the fourth session of the day and gave him some annoying steering vibrations, he fully realized the value of track tires. Another step in a long learning experience.
With little time wasted, he threw on a set of Advani S1 wheels and wrapped them in Hankook HS3 tires measuring 225/45R15. The car was making major strides towards becoming a committed track car, and so George installed a Blackbird Fabworx GT3 rollbar to keep him safe at speed.
After that first foray on track, George recognized both the strong and weak points of his machine. It cornered well, and would corner better with a few additional tweaks, but its major deficiency was in the straight-line department. After consulting with Andrew Kidd at Trackspeed Engineering, they decided on a Borg-Warner EFR 6258 turbo kit, which includes an internal wastegate and integrated bypass valve – hence the parrot squawk with every gear change. Kidd designed the kit “Specifically for track work. We took our knowledge from using turbocharged Miatas in time attack to allow anyone to build a reliable, force-fed Miata.”
The low-mount turbo setup is discreet and unlikely to attract the wrong sort of attention.
“This turbocharger uses a turbine wheel that’s half the weight of its contemporaries, and so it builds boost faster than any of the contemporary Garrett turbos while still retaining a strong top end,” Kidd says with a hint of pride. After discussing the spool characteristics with Kidd, any speed junkie will salivate, since “good setups with a tune and an exhaust will make 200 lb/ft of torque at 3,000 rpm,” he asserts. That amount of low-end shove propelling a 2,500-pound car means ear-to-ear grins and acceleration off the corner that bests even the burliest V8s.
With a few tricks learned from the forums and a young man’s enthusiasm, George installed the entire kit and the ancillaries himself. With the help of a MS Lab MS3 ECU, the package chucks out an estimated 220 horsepower at the wheels! Propelling a lightweight chassis, George now had the firepower to keep up the Mustangs and Porsches. Not many would suggest the addition of forced induction to a track-oriented Miata before getting the entire chassis sorted, but George’s vision and stubbornness ended up doing him some actual favors in the driving department.
One thing this offered was a lesson in harnessing real torque. Managing wheelspin in a Miata almost sounds like an oxymoron, but had he gone the advised route and stuck sticky rubber on all four corners without upgrading the motor, he would never have learned how to apply the throttle with a delicate touch and control oversteer at corner exit. Now, even in third gear, he can use the turbocharged torque to help point the car in the direction he wants to go.
Low-end torque matched with a lightweight turbine wheel gives the car a usable, wide powerband – which often goes further than just outright power.
Now with the added speed, the stock brakes were becoming an issue. “The pedal went soft after a few laps,” recalled George stoically, “and I just decided to drive around it.” Some might have opted to upgrade their brakes at this point, but George went for a Sparco Evo bucket seat and a Schroth five-point harness instead. Somewhat mad, you might say, but he had his reasons. “I felt that if I wasn’t planted in the car, I wouldn’t be driving the brakes anywhere near their limit, so the seat came first,” he says. Soon thereafter, George picked up a set of Hawk HPA track pads, and thankfully, some Wilwood Dynapro 11.75-inch big brakes are currently on their way. Hopefully his mother can sleep soundly now.
A comfortable place to be – as long as you’re thin.
His last track day at Laguna Seca showed a car that turned well, showed stability on the brakes, and was quite capable on the track’s long straights too. No longer were the his flashes of mid-corner brilliance let down by an anemic motor; the little NB Miata had some serious poke. But as always with tuning cars, it’s never enough.
It’s a lofty goal, but George intends to compete in Global Time Attack next year. To be competitive with the big boys, he tacked on a NASCAR-style COT wing, and complemented it with a homemade front splitter. The idea of rebuilding the engine and going with the next larger size in Borg Warner’s range of EFR turbos is especially appealing, since it could net him somewhere around 450 horsepower. Of course, a hardtop and stickier tires would be absolutely necessary then. His proposed modification list is surprisingly short, but then again, Miatas benefit from not weighing much to begin with. George is young and has yet to discover beer, so his own weight doesn’t add much to the tally, anyways.
“In the rear-wheel drive class, I think I’ve got a good chance,” remarks the self-assured young man.
We spoke about the challenges of making a Miata handle that amount of power, even with a sticky track tire, and it’s obvious George understands the demands of motorsport better than some racers twice his age. Our chats about ECU tuning showed that he was deadly serious about the finer points of engine development, though he hasn’t put that knowledge into action because “I just don’t have the time, yet,” he says with a wry smirk.
Listening to him speak, you get the sense he’ll do it soon enough. That kind of commitment and a desire to comprehend all that racing entails are enviable traits – especially at his age – and with them he’s bound to go far.