The car is hot, dusty, and humid—my sweaty hands slip on the steering wheel as I fling the steering wheel first one way, then the other. This is no normal summer day in a placid daily driver. It’s a wild trip—brushing the edge of recklessness—around a barely maintained racetrack.
I come to the end of the shortened straight, preparing to downshift from fifth to second as I struggle to find the line amidst the bumps and potholes of the crossover. I’m trying to hang closer and closer to the rumble strips on the inside so that I’m set up on the far right side for the next sweeper. I believe I’m following the right line, but I have no idea what I’m doing. My helmet scrapes against the bare metal sunroof on each bump of the poorly maintained track. I negotiate the sweeper and rev it out to 7,000, shifting quickly from third to fourth to fifth. Down the second straight, past the gazebo, I see the braking zones pass by: 5…4…3. I silently tell myself to “Hold! Hold! Hold!” The white square labelled “2” whizzes by as my inner safety steward tells me I won’t be able to brake in enough time to make the turn. I hit the last braking zone and roll my foot hard from the gas to the brake in a fluid motion. I slow down to my cornering speed, but a bump or a repair patch unsettles the suspension. I overcorrect and spin out into the knee-high grass.
Dust and grass float in through the floorboards and open windows. I do a quick check of the car, inspect the track to make sure it’s safe to re-enter, and slowly release the clutch. It’s a bittersweet moment: I’m proud that I held on until my braking zone and pushed myself in order to learn and gain speed, but I’m disappointed that I overcooked it and ended up in the weeds. There’s always the next lap, I keep reminding myself.
The first car I can remember is this 1990 Honda CRX Si with 108 horsepower, a hair over 2,000 pounds. From my five-year-old perspective, it seemed like the fastest car in the world—and the coolest. This particular vehicle had a profound and long-lasting effect on my taste in cars: Red Honda hatchbacks would forever be my automobile obsession.
My uncle bought the car in his twenties, and it served him well throughout the years. But it also took some punishment. The harsh, salty winters of Cleveland and the unrelenting rays of the Florida and Houston sun dulled the once bright red paint into a chalky pink. Like all Hondas of this vintage, the rear wheel wheels are well seasoned with rust and a nice family of mice briefly took residence, creating a fist sized hole in the bolster of the driver’s seat.
My uncle gave the CRX to my grandfather in 2009. He used it as a second car for a short period, running errands around the southern Illinois area—not quests befitting a Japanese classic. But soon the CRX spent the majority of its days in a garage, idle and unused. When I’d visit my grandparents over the Holidays or on summer trips, I’d make offhand comments that something should be done with it, that it deserved better. I was only thinking of the car, and I had no idea what those comments would lead to: a new passion, a thirst for experimentation, and a fresh confidence in myself.
In the spring of 2015, my grandfather agreed that something should be done with the car, partly motivated, I think, by a need for more garage space, as well as a desire to see the CRX loved and cared for again. He offered it to me. It could become the project Honda I had always wanted. It would finally give me something to wrench on.
I broached the idea with my wife, who was surprisingly supportive of the idea of a fourth car for our family. With her blessing, the CRX arrived outside our house one month later, trailered on a U-Haul dolly. To my eyes, it looked as perfect as if it had been a shiny new car from a dealer. My grandfather and I—with the help of a friend—struggled to get the lifeless CRX up our inclined driveway, ultimately using my wife’s Honda Accord as a tow vehicle. (I declined to use my daily driver since I didn’t want to risk it—and they say chivalry is dead.) After much cajoling and shoving, we got the car—nearly an ex-CRX—into the garage. After a few cheers of joy and relief, conversation resumed as normal. I, however, was preoccupied.
I wanted to tear straight into the car and start fixing things, but I knew I’d have to take my time and be methodical. I flip-flopped between joy at finally having the car in my grasp and dread that I had bitten off more than I could chew. In the past, I had done the brakes, valve-cover gasket, and radiator on my Mazda Miata, but this was a car that hadn’t run in years. Yet I also felt a sense of undaunted courage—a belief that, with the assistance of the internet and enough time, I could fix any problem I encountered.
That night, my grandfather and I—mostly out of curiosity—decided to try to start it, even though the timing belt was about six years past its prime and the gas was of unknown age and stability. I cautiously turned the key. Nothing. We checked a few things, but our quick diagnosis couldn’t solve the problem. My grandfather, tired from the day of driving and assuming the problem was more serious than a quick fix, gave up for the evening. I started to search on my smartphone for remedies and noticed a pattern of similar issues on the CRX forums. I ran down to the garage and verified that the hard plastic on the clutch safety switch had indeed fractured and was preventing the CRX from safely starting. When I manually held the switch, the CRX rumbled to life on the first try. It was a small victory, but it bolstered my confidence that I could actually bring this car back to life.
After my grandparents departed that weekend, I sat down and took stock of the CRX. The radiator was rotted away and leaking; several coolant hoses were cracking and leaking too. All the fluids were of questionable age. But the biggest concern was the timing belt. It was last replaced some point in the early 2000s. Mileage wasn’t an issue, but the passage of time certainly was. This project would be—by a fair margin—the most involved and the most dangerous I had ever attempted. If I installed it incorrectly, it would surely trash the engine; replacing it would be an expense my wife would be hard-pressed to approve.
Every night for two weeks, I read and re-read the forum postings for the timing belt replacement. I walked through every step, studied the photos, and quizzed myself on the instructions. Eventually, I gathered all my tools and began to work. I spent the first hour trying to loosen a bolt that I discovered was welded to the frame and loosened from the bottom. After that humbling mistake, my confidence hit rock bottom.
After several more hours, I was able to remove the side engine mount. That was enough success for one night. Several nights later, I succeeded in removing the alternator bracket bolt, which had seized a long time past. The next night I was removed the timing belt cover—the step I thought I’d get to on the first night! Over the next few nights, I tackled the water pump, idler pulley, and timing belt. I was unsure when I put everything back together if I had done it correctly. I was incredibly nervous. I called my grandfather so he could experience either its resurrection or its untimely demise. I went to start the engine—and nothing. The battery had died.
After a brief trip to the almighty Costco, I had a new battery. Again I called my grandfather to share in the victory or the defeat. The CRX roared to life, with everything running well and without leaks. I was immeasurably proud of my admittedly commonplace achievement. For those few minutes, I felt like I was the first person to do a timing belt in his garage.
Later that night I took my wife to Dairy Queen for our traditional “new-car ice cream treat.” With the roof and most of the interior trim removed and the stiff lowered suspension, she struggled to see the appeal of the car, but I was over the moon with happiness and pride. After my initial victory, I went on to replace the radiator, front engine mount, front pads, and front rotors; install new tires; change all the fluids; and add new gas struts to the hatchback.
After taking the CRX to a few local autocrosses, a fellow Miata owner told me about Sunday Fundays at the MidAmerica Motorplex, a racetrack just south of Omaha two and half hours away. Forty dollars for an all-you-can-drive track session from 12-4 on Sunday. I was gaining confidence in the CRX mechanically and my skills as a driver, so it I was just cocky enough to go for it.
I leave our house in Des Moines that morning around 9 a.m., planning a quick stop for breakfast pizza. Interstate 80’s slowly rolling hills in western Iowa speed by as I anticipate and conjecture about what will happen today.
I am the first to arrive at the almost decrepit track, which has been ravaged by Missouri River floods, low turnout, and neglect over the past decade. Shortly after my arrival, a black BMW M3 pulls up, and I attempt to make small talk. But we’re of different worlds, and it doesn’t go far. More BMWs show up, and more cars slowly trickle in. The bro crowd arrives with BR-Zs, Focus STs, and other WRXs. A white CRX pulls up beside mine, and I feel an immediate kinship. The track manager calls us over to give a safety talk, and he calls me out to ask if I have pants and closed toed shoes with me. I sheepishly reply that I do not, afraid that I had just driven more than two hours to be told to go home. He lets it slide, more interested in my entry fee than safety regulations. We all go out for a wayfinding lap and are then instructed in passing, point-bys, and track regulations.
I return to my pit area, which consists of a plastic moving tub filled with my helmet, cooler and various crap from the car. I excitedly fix my GoPro to the side of the CRX and make my way out to the track entrance. After being flagged on, I channel my years of playing Gran Turismo as I accelerate onto the track. The excitement I feel as I rush over the white-painted start line makes it all more real. I know this isn’t Spa or Laguna Seca, but it feels incredibly special. Within a few months I have resurrected this car from the dead to track day.
I slowly settle into a pattern of doing five to seven laps at a time, gradually finding more time and learning the limits of my car. Then I go in to rest for 10-15 minutes and let the car cool down. During these breaks, I watch the other cars go around and try to study their more experienced lines. During my fourth run I grow more confident. Whereas before I would pull offline and point-by, allowing other cars to pass me, I’m now defending myself. While “racing” was not allowed at this track day, everyone was keeping track of how many point-bys they gave. Although I don’t have as much horsepower as the other cars, the CRX is light and quick on its feet. I am one of the slowest cars in the straights, but I learn that I can brake later, much later, and regain time lost in the straights. I play several rounds of cat-and-mouse with a Nissan 370z, eventually catching up and all but demanding a point-by. I claim it as a small victory for my first track day with the CRX.
I end up doing about 40 laps that day. The CRX spends almost an hour and half at nearly wide-open throttle or heavy braking—all on a rough surface. I can’t believe how fortunate I am: to flog the car so hard and not suffer any issues. In the back of my mind, I remember that when I left this morning I intended my wife to be my lifeboat, giving it a 20 percent chance that I’d call her to come pick me up from Omaha. The CRX suffered a slowly dying alternator and a small radiator leak, but otherwise it has survived the day unscathed.
I know that others have achieved much greater mechanical victories and that no F1 teams will be calling on me for my racing services anytime soon, but this day is a victory to me. I have learned to push myself, both on track and in the garage. The CRX has given me the confidence I need to tackle bigger projects and the drive to refine my racing skills.