Few accomplish as much self-funded racing before their high school graduation as George Koustoumbardis. Even before he was able to obtain a driver’s license, he had his sights set on building a track-oriented Miata. A year after picking the car up, he’d transformed it into a well-rounded M3-beater with a modern turbocharger, plenty of aero, and a strong suspension setup. Passing Corvettes got him noticed and plenty lent him their cars for quick blasts around Laguna Seca—one of which was an S2000. He was instantly hooked and swore he’d own one eventually.
When George left California for college, he had to decide on what to do with his Miata. He’d done just about everything he wanted to with it, and wasn’t terribly interested in transporting it across the country. So, he relocated to Indianapolis without his treasured Mazda and went a little crazy without his regular speed fix. After what seemed like eons, he got in touch with his former boss at Sakebomb Garage, a Bay Area-based speed shop specializing in Mazdas and Hondas. One of their customers had recently put an S2000—one which they had modified and serviced—up for sale.
In need of money for his upcoming wedding and overwhelmed with his S2000’s smogging complications, the owner was in a bind. Realizing the futility of fighting California’s strict emission laws, he offered it to George for an enviable deal. For what many would consider peanuts, George had found himself an S2000 that had most of the necessary trackday modifications already completed.
A mix of AP1 (first-generation) and AP2 (second-generation) parts, phenomenal brakes, and very strong footwork make this S2000 a very quick car—even at the long, fast Midwestern courses he now uses it on.
Most of the focus has been on the suspension. The car sports a set of custom long-stroke Ohlins coilovers with 14K springs in front and 13K springs in the rear, Hard Race sway bars up front, and the factory AP1 sway bar in the rear. A Buddy Club roll center correction kit helps keep its 255-section Hankook RS4s in constant contact with the road.
This S2000’s other forte is its braking ability. Even when running on a grooved tire, the custom brake kit gives the S2000 stopping performance unlike anything else George has driven. With Wilwood 6-piston fronts and 4-piston rears, Ferodo DS2500 pads, and Motul RBF 660 fluid, he’s able to flick beads of sweat onto the inside of his visor under heavy braking. “I’ve never felt anything that stops like this—nothing.”
That cornering and braking performance is what grants the Honda its lap time, and they’re also what compensate for its lack of power. Rather than try to address this shortcoming, he chose to avoid the power adders and only make a few changes for reliability’s sake. A Sakebomb Garage oil cooler and a few baffles guard against oil starvation ensure he can run entire sessions without worry.
Avoiding every chance for a few more grunt would be unnecessarily harsh, though. For a little more sense of occasion and perhaps a few extra horsepower, he installed an Invidia Q300 stainless steel exhaust and removed a resonator in the factory airbox. “Removing the resonator does not help much with horsepower, but it does make the intake noise a little more enjoyable,” George chuckles.
However, there are a few modifications made to the drivetrain. Ballade’s clutch and lightweight flywheel send the 240-odd horsepower back through an AP1 gearbox then onto a solidly mounted AP1 differential. Of course, the combination of the AP2 engine’s greater displacement—2.2 liters versus 2.0—and the AP1 gearbox’s shorter ratios make for an exciting powertrain—provided George is always high in the revs. Keeping the Honda on the pipe is just one of the demands this exacting little car places on its driver.
Adjusting to an Unforgiving Car
Admittedly, the current setup is a little oversprung, but George decided to learn how to manage the nervous S2000 rather than make it more neutral. The first order of business was slowing his hands. “The rack is so fast in the S2000 that it forced me to be smoother,” George states. However, even after a cup of chamomile tea before his sessions and softer steering inputs, he was still met with an unnerving amount of oversteer. As he made his way down to the apex, the rear would typically step out of line in snappy fashion. “I couldn’t believe how twitchy it was—I even spun it twice my first time at Gingerman,” he recalls.
Granted, the heat-cycled RE71R tires and 40° temperatures didn’t help matters of traction, but the constant oversteer from mid-corner to exit suggested something was amiss.
As it turned out, maintenance throttle meant something completely different in this new car. Having learned how to stabilize a Miata with a quick-spooling turbo and lots of torque, he didn’t realize quite how much throttle was needed to plant the S2000’s recalcitrant rear end. “In the Miata, the rear was much more stable; it would let you lean on it more. If it started to oversteer, I would barely touch the throttle to get it settled,” George elaborates.
In comparison, the S2000’s engine’s lack of torque means the rear needs a much heavier dose of throttle to stabilize it. Therefore, just before the nose meets the apex with the right attitude, George needs to transition from forceful maintenance throttle to full throttle immediately if he wants to keep his exit speeds up.
“You have to get on the throttle hard before the apex just to keep the rear pinned,” he clarifies. In fast corners, this helps neutralize the car. In slower corners, a little oversteer sometimes occurs after matting the gas, but George claims this has more to do with abrupt weight transfer than wheelspin. “The rear of the car is so stiff that it doesn’t squat with power application, but rather chooses to exert all that energy into the tires laterally and this is what overwhelms them,” he describes. Still, even a little oversteer in slower corners doesn’t slow his charge much—it’s simply part of driving an S2000 quickly.
Only in some instances of long, increasing radius corners like Gingerman’s Turn 2 does he need to apply the throttle progressively. Not to avoid wheelspin, but rather to keep the front end on the intended path. Matting the throttle early while holding a significant amount of steering lock can make the S2000 push.
Once he caught on and began managing the sideways antics with a heavier right foot, George was able to whittle his lap times down to a very impressive 1:46.1. Even while spending virtually half of the lap crossed up, he was able to run a competitive time without any setup alterations—a testament to the agility of the car and his ability to adapt to it.
Prior to returning to Gingerman the second time, he made a few changes to the S2000. A new set of Hankooks and an absent rear sway bar helped keep the car from snapping as frequently, mostly since the removal of the swaybar slowed transition times. This was most beneficial in Turns 8 and 9: fast switchbacks in which abrupt direction changes previously upset the car a great deal.
“Although this made the car feel a little lazy, it allowed me to lean a little more on the car in the faster stuff,” George notes. Setup changes, as helpful as they were, were not enough to get George running competitive times for the Gridlife class he planned to attend. To ensure he’d be at the pointy end of the field there, his braking technique needed some refining as well.
A Faster Rate of Release
Building up the assertiveness to threshold brake with those massive Wilwoods took less time than learning how to release them properly. Since weight transfer occurs so rapidly in this stiffly sprung S2000, getting off the brake quickly was necessary. Note the difference in hand movements between the first and second outings. Throughout the faster lap, he’s able to control the weight transfer better, and as a result, induce the right amount of yaw. There’s simply less steering effort present in the second clip; it’s George’s footwork that facilitates rotation there.
As one might guess, the incisive front end doesn’t require any trail braking to turn in-except in some strange situations. Because of the trajectory taken through Turn 5, the long, decreasing radius corner that follows requires a strange approach.
As mentioned earlier, even the briefest period of coasting mid-corner will induce some oversteer, so maintenance throttle is always required to keep the rear settled. So, to keep the nervous rear from stepping out of line, there are some occasions when George has to rub the brake slightly with his left foot while applying some maintenance throttle with his right.
To settle the nose in, Turn 6 is the one area which requires a rub of the brake—but the throttle must remain cracked just slightly. Listen to the drop in revs and note how busy his hands are during the slower lap (3:28 in the video above) versus the faster lap (0:57 in the video below). The amount of yaw in the faster lap is the perfect amount, and all George needs to do is straighten his hands as the rear comes around and points him at the apex.
The combination of those new parts and a much surer sense of weight transfer in this fast-reacting car helped him slash his lap times—in similar conditions—by a considerable margin. Leaving his second outing at Gingerman with a 1:44.4 and his chest proudly out, he realized he was within range to reset the Gingerman Raceway lap record for a normally-aspirated S2000 without any aero. He’d made this much progress in such a short span of time, so why not take on another challenge?
Though high on confidence beforehand, a series of frightening events kept his first attempt at Gridlife from going smoothly. In addition to inclement weather, his oil filter backed off mid-lap, poured oil all over the header, and started a small fire in the engine bay. The fire was extinguished quickly without any damage to the car, but his enthusiasm was too.
That’s racing. During the downtime, he’s been able to diagnose his car and establish his aims for the coming season. Currently, it’s running spring rates better suited to an aero car, and it doesn’t have enough rear toe for high-speed stability. “Down the road, I’ll probably add a wing, decrease rear spring rate, and maybe an AP2 rear subframe for a little more stability. But it is what it is, and I’m learning how to drive around its weak points,” he says stoically.
Though he could’ve complained about the setup and struggled to make this edgy machine more neutral, George took it upon himself to adapt to a new challenge and overcome his fears. His is a great example of the right mindset needed for any driver looking to develop the skill, confidence, and versatility needed to become a real ace.