2016 EHC Winner

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Underdog: This Toyota Starlet went from rust bucket to rally rocket


This article first appeared in the May 1 issue of Autoweek magazine. Get your subscription here.

This isn’t the first Toyota Starlet I’ve owned, and it won’t be my last. In fact, it’s the fifth in the family, counting the one my father built and raced in the 1990s. (My wife also has one that we’ve been building for a long time, but that’s another story.) My father is the one who got me into these little Toyotas, and into rally; he built and raced a Starlet in rally sprints in Finland, including a few hill climbs and ice races.

I was part of the rally service crew when I was only knee-tall and had been in and around rally cars from such a young age that I don’t remember my first ride well. When I was a little older, I started appreciating the speed and the feeling on gravel, snow and ice. I love the sounds rally cars make in the woods; I think this is something we Finns appreciate more than most because we had all the classic rally cars (and drivers) and lots of rallies in proper forest stages. I get goose bumps thinking about the cold winter weather somewhere in the middle of nowhere. You hear the rally cars approaching from a long distance: Ford Escorts, Opel Asconas and Mantas, Toyota Corollas … it’s dark, so you just see the bright lights. You learn to recognize the cars by sound.

After high school, I went to a Finnish race mechanic vocational school, which meant I could work on my own projects at the school facilities. I knew I wanted a Starlet as my daily driver after I got my license. I ended up with two, including this one, which I found as a stripped chassis. It wasn’t in the best condition, but I had more time than money to fix the shell into a rally-ready car. Work began in 2000.

Once I fixed the rust and strengthened the body, I added a roll cage and other safety features to meet Finnish Group F rally regulations. With a small budget and parts from my father’s crashed car, the Starlet was running by 2002. A buddy was the first to race it at a local hill climb, but later that year, I drove my first rally with my little sister co-driving and my wife, Kati, on the service crew. I was hooked.
[/av_textblock] [av_video src=’https://youtu.be/_YX3B9Mxwq4′ format=’16-9′ width=’16’ height=’9′] [av_textblock size=” font_color=” color=” admin_preview_bg=”] I tried to drive as many rallies as I could while studying at the Helsinki Polytechnic Technical University, and in 2003 I even won some trophies (but spent a lot of time in ditches or snowbanks). The next year, I scraped together enough money to race the six rallies of the national Group F rally series around Finland. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the results, or the roll I had in the last race, but that year was a great experience, and I learned a lot.

I’ve always liked how easy Starlets are to drive, and how easy it is to feel what’s going to happen. The car is very predictable and nimble. It has a short wheelbase, and you need quick hands because it’s tail-happy, but you can drive it on the limit, and over, very easily. The Japanese engineers knew what they were doing with small rear-drivers: They’re straightforward, with great balance.

Years of refinement have brought my Toyota to its present state. I’ve seen people go too far with these cars, but I don’t think I’ve ruined the nature of the Starlet with my modifications. I’m particularly proud to have built the high-revving engine—I love the sounds of a four-cylinder race motor, and I think the recently built 1.6-liter, 16-valve 4A-GE makes this something special. With max power coming (250 hp) at 10,200 rpm, just revving it up makes me smile. The naturally aspirated screamer is mated to a six-speed sequential manual.

Of all the events all over the world the Toyota has taken me to, one that stands out was a wheel-to-wheel road race in Finland: the Ahvenisto Historic Grand Race 2012. I was driving in the Roadsport B-class against a field of almost 30 road-race machines in a rally-bred underdog Starlet. Surprisingly, I was fastest in practice, third in qualifying—and I won the race after taking the lead on the last turn of the last lap.

But the most memorable run, by far, was Pikes Peak 2016. Conquering the mountain on the first attempt with a car I built myself was unbelievable, and seeing the checkered flag on Sunday was an emotional moment. After, fans came over to tell me how exciting it was to follow the car and listen to it rip up the mountain.

Pikes Peak proved you don’t need a million bucks to achieve something big. I could have never dreamed I would do all this with the bare, rusty Starlet shell I bought years ago. I’ve always done things my way; it may be harder, but it’s the only way for me to prove what I’m capable of. I’m very lucky to have the support of my family and friends and, especially, my wife.

A tight schedule—I work as a senior motorsport engineer/project leader with big teams in series like Pirelli World Challenge—means less time for racing in 2017. We are, however, entered in the Mt. Washington Hillclimb in New Hampshire. Combining dirt and pavement, it’s a blend of road courses and stage rallies. It’s a long way from where I started in Finland, but it should be the perfect venue for this rally-bred Toyota.

Mikko Kataja lives in Novi, Michigan, is the founder of VHTRacing Engineering and is a motorsport professional.

This article first appeared in the May 1 issue of Autoweek magazine. Get your subscription here.

Read more: http://autoweek.com/article/car-life/underdog-starlet-went-rust-bucket-rally-rocket#ixzz4jX1hHBne
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