Michael Mihld has always been attracted to the simplicity, classic lines, and brute force of the TA2 recipe. Growing up in the 1970s, a young Mihld was fortunate enough to witness the original Trans Am Javelins, Mustangs, and Camaros which were, in his starry teenage eyes, “the high point of American road racing.” Naturally, he formed a strong sentimental attachment which never died.
When the latest TA2 category was revealed in 2015, its retro styling ignited that adolescent flame. His inner teenager pushed Mihld into researching what it took to get into this professional category.
Despite the excitement, Mihld is a pragmatic businessman and was ultimately lured into the category by the relatively reasonable cost. Though it could never be considered chump change, the expense of TA2 was, as far as professional categories go, nigh-impossible to match. “The cost of a car was a third of what a Porsche Cup Car was, though it ended up being a bit more than I had planned,” he laughs. “Plus, I could do some of the maintenance, the parts were affordable, and there were several reputable manufacturers providing alternatives for every major part,” Mihld adds. Support and accessibility certainly sweetened the deal.
Of course, beyond all the sentimental and practical concerns, Mihld wanted to race. Trans Am offered him the chance “to challenge some of the best racers in the country.” With the likes Paul Tracy, Tommy Kendall, and Bill Elliott making up the fields, there was no doubt he’d sharpen his skills faster than he could in a more amiable club racing environment.
He knew he wanted to run a Camaro—that was the easy bit. Then, he first had to decide whether to build his own car or buy an already completed car, and decided on the former, since he’s the fastidious type. “With the money and time I’d be investing, I wanted to know exactly what I was getting,” Mihld adds, “so, in late 2015, I contacted Howe Racing Enterprises, discussed the details, wrote a check, and in a few months, a very large box of goodies arrived on my doorstep!”
Though it wasn’t the most glamorous beginning to his project, the box of assorted goodies was enough to assemble the rolling chassis. As Mihld only had the assistance of a CNC operator named Ian Klampe to build the car, it took a fair amount of time to complete. “Although Howe provides a detailed owners manual, there were still so many things we had to figure out; everything was a learning experience,” he notes.
Fortunately, once Mihld and Klampe had surmounted the hurdles that were hanging the bodywork and getting the interior sheetmetal to fit, the rest was relatively smooth sailing. “I was a little concerned at first, but these flexible composite body panels have held up with a lot of pushing and shoving—they’re very resilient,” he adds. With the body mostly assembled, he started researching the six companies providing the spec motor. He went with Schwanke Race Engines.
The LS3 arrived in one tidy package. Built on a LS3 Vortec aluminum block and topped LS3 aluminum heads. To keep costs and horsepower in check, an L92 truck intake and 90mm throttle body are used. 36LB injectors are fitted along with custom pistons and forged rods, along with a .550 lift hydraulic roller cam as engine speed is limited to 6800 rpm. A dry sump pan and pump are included in the purchase price.
With a sealed 374 C.I.D. motor that spits out some 490 horsepower and 505 ft-lbs of torque Mihld was in for the most thrust he’d ever enjoyed in a racing car. Additionally, the motor was mounted far back in the bay; grazing the firewall and providing the optimal balance for a front-engined racer. To say he was excited would be a masterpiece of understatement.
Perhaps to counteract the cost of big-bore power and a stiff chassis, there are a few cost restrictions in the other relevant areas. The shocks, brake calipers, and brake pads are all within reach of the hobbyist racer, which is something to appreciate. The Penske shocks, which offer adjustment in bump and rebound, slid just underneath the $800 per damper rules limit. Again, simplicity and affordability is the through line here.
The brake calipers cost $500 a piece, $50 less than the limit, and the Pagid pads come in at the rules limit at $250 a set. The Kirkey containment seat is specifically designed for full-size road course cars and provided Mihld the reassurance he’d need running at well over 150 miles an hour. The AIM Evo4 logging system provides the basic performance references to improve speed, like a brake trace, a throttle trace, and a GPS sensor to illustrate the driving line during debrief. With modern data and affordable consumables, the playing field is further leveled.
Again, cost-of-running is down there with some club racing categories, but thanks to a well-controlled cost structure, the ambitious racer can enjoy a professional level of competition and speed, without an inundation of technical complexity, and without having to sell their house. It’s starting to sound like an appealing proposition, doesn’t it?
The two finished building the Camaro in the fall of 2017, which, considering their workloads and other racing pursuits, was commendable. For two amateurs with no intimate knowledge of the parts involved, to assemble a single-purpose racing car in such a relatively short period of time deserves a tip of the hat. Fortunately, Howe Racing Enterprises provided a baseline setup, and they were on their merry way.
Mihld testing the new and unpainted Camaro at Buttonwillow. Listen to that roar on the downshift!
Next came the paperwork. Moving up into big-league racing required Mihld to submit his racing resume to the sanctioning body. He was given a provisional rookie license then kept under close surveillance. For the first three events in which he participated, Mihld’s driving and general on-track etiquette was observed by the officials. However, the greater speed and the pushier level of competition were made easier to surmount by frequent, mandatory driver development meetings provided by the series. “Trans-Am and their officials go out of their way to welcome new drivers and help you to get up to speed—they want you to succeed!” he adds. Clearly, the foundation is laid for success when a driver decides to step into Trans Am.
Despite the somewhat numbed assisted steering, there’s plenty of fine adjustment one needs to do inside the analog TA2. With less roll than his E30 but more weight to consider, Mihld first had to readjust his timing. This was particularly noticeable through high-speed sections requiring regular weight transferring, like the esses at Circuit of the Americas. However, coming from a 150-horsepower Spec E30, the biggest adjustment he had to make was in deploying the power.
Managing the Motor
As his racing experience prior to unleashing the Camaro had been in karts and low-powered Spec E30s, adjusting to the bump in power was the first order of business. In addition, he also moved away from some of the aims he’d focused on with his momentum-racing background.
“With this car, I try to get it as straight to possible before putting the power down to try and exploit the V8’s power,” Mihld says Fortunately, the motor delivers the grunt in a linear way, and he intentionally lengthened the throttle pedal travel to make the V8’s power as manageable as possible. That said, wheelspin is only a careless sniff of throttle pedal away, so he must remain cognizant and cautious with the thrust available means a gentle application of the throttle. “I had to learn to modulate the throttle,” Mihld remarks with a smirk, “since it’s easy to spin the wheels in most gears.”
“It’s pretty forgiving when the rear does slide, but you pay a big penalty in time lost,” he begins. However, a progressive application of the throttle occasionally results in manageable wheelspin that doesn’t detract from the lap time; but finding that specific style of yaw is tough with the hybrid tires from Pirelli, which don’t quite take a set and roll like a modern radial. Handling some 500 horsepower is a challenge, but nowhere near as demanding as the braking on the heavyweight.
Braking with Care
Some of the most time is found in bringing the heavyweight—for a real racing car—down to a reasonable speed without locking the wheels; the 2,800-pound Camaro uses discs only measuring 12.19″ in diameter. While overall braking power is impressive and certainly stronger than anything he’d experienced in anything fendered, experiencing a long middle pedal towards the end of the race isn’t uncommon. Therefore, it’s quite easy to over-extend the braking zone if one bites off more than they can chew. However, that’s not the tricky bit.
The braking and downshifting phase is complicated by the engine braking present. While it can be used as a tool to decelerate, it can also cause one of the most frustrating hangups one can experience when driving a TA2 machine: wheelhop.
Wheelhop plagues every driver at some point when racing a Trans Am machine, and even throws the pros for a loop on occasion. As he brakes with his left foot, Mihld rev-matches with his right foot while synchronizing the clutchless downshifts with the GSR gearbox. All the while, the torque of the big-bore LS3 can lock or shock the drivetrain during downshifts, which bounces the rear and destabilizes the car on entry. What’s worse, “any wheelhop with even a small amount of steering lock can cause a spin,” Mihld adds with a chuckle. It’s something that’s caught him out, and has even decided races among the front-runners.
Mihld putting in a solid qualifying lap at Sonoma before the gearbox gave up the ghost.
The car can be slowed appropriately if the gears are chosen at the right time, and if the brakes added with a softer initial application. In any event, one of the determining factors in race pace is saving the tires and gearbox; resource maximization is of prime concern with the powerful, hefty, and patience-testing Trans Am car.
Managing the Mid-Corner
Transferring the weight takes a shorter period of time than it does in his E30, but he has to be cautious not to rush the entry phase to avoid understeer. So, unlike some cars which require a driver to enter the corner as quickly as possible, thrown around to “free up” the car in the mid-corner phase and avoid understeer, the TA2 requires a slightly different approach.
Not rushing the mid-corner phase and focusing on power-down plays a big role in getting the car down the road as quickly as possible. Therefore, he has to be wary of asking too much of the car in the middle of the corner. With the sort of humility rarely seen in a competitive racing driver, Mihld admits he’s not as comfortable with the car, nor does he understand the setup totally yet. Give him time.
So, like the fastidious guy he is, he’s made some strides towards making the TA2 more willing to tuck its nose into the apex. In Mihld’s experience, the Detroit Locker-style differential popular in these cars seems to encourage understeer in the mid-corner phase, so he made a switch to a Torsen LSD in recent months. “The Gleason limited-slip differential has helped some of the push, and so has switching to softer, 400-pound front springs,” Mihld mentions. As with any racing car—even one not intended to bewilder its users—finding the ideal setup for the TA2 takes some time. Fortunately, he has some help in this area.
Building a Team
Though it’s far from hyper-complex, it is a thoroughbred racing car, and it requires the sort of attention that would impress the initiate. Unlike club racing, running in Trans Am needs a sizable crew. So, Mihld turned to three fellow Spec E30 competitors to help out. Allan Hauser, a past Southern California Spec E30 champion, helps with chassis setup; while Andrew Clark and Steve Stepanian (also a past Southern California Spec E30 Champion) split duties by providing driver support and spotting during the race. All crew members work together to prepare the car for each on-track session. Mihld comments, “When working on the TA2 car, we all work together as a team; when racing Spec E30, we are all very competitive and beat up on each other.”
That energy carried them through their first season of racing, which Mihld considers a success in that they were able to compete in several races and accumulate a detailed database of knowledge that will allow them to further develop the car and the driver for the 2019 season. It’s good to have lofty goals, and when one can move forward towards the highest goal they can manage with some assistance, minimal headache, and just enough fear to make things interesting, that satisfies on so many levels.
Anyone considering running in TA2 can contact him directly at michaelmihldracing.com.