It’s 2:45 in the morning, pitch black out and the homeless are starting to gather around the lawn of the 7-11 at the end of the driveway again. Me, the shop owner, and Eddie are pushing a non-running Miata and Sylvia back into the shop after finally pulling the Abarth off the dyno. The main thought going through my head right then was if I would be able to get any sleep before I am supposed to be at work in less than 4 hours, still needing to drive back up from Seattle to Vancouver. I remember thinking just how much flack am I going to get from my boss for this?
Stepping back a few weeks Eddie and the car’s owner, Gary, were talking near the end of a HPDE day at Mission Raceway run by Gary’s group, Speed-fanatics. Gary mentioned that he is experiencing a power cut is as he rounds the final sweeper onto the long start/finish straight. After a quick phone call to Tork Motorsports’ owner John Bushbaum, there were two possibilities worked out. It was either fuel starvation from the gas sloshing to one side in the high-g turn, or the car detecting front wheel slip and engaging traction control even though it’s supposedly ‘fully off’. The latter was easy enough to fix but John wanted to get the car down on his dyno to fix it. When Gary mentioned that he would love to get it down there but cannot make the 240km trek across the border Eddie happily volunteered to take it down for him and I jokingly mentioned if he needed a copilot I’d be happy to go as well. A couple of weeks later the date was set, Thursday April 21st, and arrangements were made to pick up the car and an extra 50L of E85 fuel the night before and pick me up at 6am Thursday morning.
After having an awful sleep, the night before, partly due to the excitement of the trip and partly due to random phone notifications and noises, I slept through my 5am alarm. Eddie’s text that he was a half hour behind woke me up. Perfect! I was able to not rush my morning routine, with extra time to pack a change of clothes, laptop and necessary charge cables. I was just getting a jacket out of my Abarth parked on the street when Eddie pulled up with Gary’s Abarth Cabrio, I hoped in and my heart sank. Gary had put a carbon fiber Bride racing seat in the driver’s side. For those who haven’t met me I tend to enjoy my ribeyes, sushi and eggs benedict a little too frequently, as a result I am a bit more North American sized than the owner. There’s no way I was going to be able to cram my backside into that seat.
Once the morning pleasantries and the obligatory weather and coffee discussions were finished we pointed the carbon fiber lip southwards and discussed what to do for breakfast. I did some quick googling and came across an older looking diner in downtown Bellingham at the very end of Meridian St called Diamond Jim’s Grill. Good reviews, open early and photos of food looked like top-notch greasy spoon breakfast food. With that settled we reached the Pacific Highway truck crossing about 7am with only one other vehicle ahead of us. After an uneventful crossing and getting our bearings we made it to the I5, down into Bellingham, and to our breakfast stop. We both ended up ordering their April special eggs benedict, “Young Pascal’s Spicy Benny includes 2 poached eggs, grilled chicken, green onions, red and green bell peppers, black beans, pepper jack cheese, English muffin topped with chipotle hollandaise sauce, guacamole, fresh tomatoes and cilantro”. It was one of the best non-traditional benny’s I’ve ever had. I would highly recommend Diamond Jim’s if you’re in the area. After breakfast Eddie asked if I wanted to try squeezing into the racing seat, which I failed miserably at. I could squeeze in but the tips of my hip bone were in direct contact with the carbon fiber bucket and with another sad look I conceded that it wouldn’t work.
The rest of the drive down to Tork’s HQ in Auburn, WA, just south of Seattle, was uneventful and rather quick having the benefit of the express lanes through Seattle’s city center. When we arrived I was introduced to Tyson, Tork’s customer service rep, their mechanic Nate and recent hire, Gina who handles their online activities. We talk for about an hour when the shop’s owner, John arrives in his 600whp Mazda Speed3 soon followed by his wife and young daughter. After being introduced to John he quickly disappears and Eddie gives me a quick tour of the shop floor. I will admit the shop was smaller than I was expecting with two small offices and two warehouse bays with a hoist behind each door. Behind all of that was what could best be described as the fabrication area with welding benches, tool boxes, intake jigs and an organizational structure befitting of a small shop. Behind one of the hoists lies the piece that helps set Tork apart from many shops, the DynoJet Dyno. One of the two offices is the main entrance and reception with a small display counter, water cooler seats and a computer and desk for the Tyler and Gina. The other office is where the magic is created, John’s work space. The office is nothing special with two glass-topped desks, a microwave and one wall is covered in speed magazine cutouts creating a collage style wallpaper. On John’s desk sits two laptops, my eye gravitates to the gaming rig John is feverishly typing away at. I take a quick peek at the screen and all I see are lists, tables and a lot of hex values.
The days of using a wrench to tune cars is long gone. Modern ECU’s dictate that tuning gurus are equal parts master mechanic and wizard programmer. Admittedly, the Magneti-Marelli ECU used in the Fiat 500s appears to be far more complex than your average ECU with hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘hidden’ tables for any possible environmental or engine condition variable. The way it was explained to me is that each table is not stored with any rhyme or reason nor does it have any labels, just hex values, so decoding what each table is responsible for is one of the hardest parts about tuning a 500. The day we are there John has very-recently ‘uncovered’ more tables that affects how he is able to tune Fiats and spends hours going through these ‘new’ tables to create a one-of-a-kind tune for Gary’s Abarth.
While John was eyeballs deep in hex values, Eddie and I hung out with the shop crew, talking about cars, houses, US and Canadian pricing differences. It also becomes apparent that Eddie is rather well-known and liked at the shop, having been there may times before, when Eddie and John’s younger daughter play silly games throughout the day. Over the course of their normal business day various customers pop by, some stay longer to chat and hang out while others are there to pick up car parts that have been ordered in. Each of them has a unique car that has been styled or tuned just for them. On that day I meet a young kid driving a white Abarth with Tork Motorsport stickers plastered all over it, a couple in a blue Focus ST picking up Hawk Pads, Stoptech Rotors and Amsoil Synthetic Oil. I also meet Howard, who drives a 2.4L Tigershark powered Dart with a Borg-Warner turbo tuned by John and spends his off time making 18+ mods for The Sims, and a VW shop guy who’s having brake fluid leak from his Mazda 6 show car that’s riding on mint green painted steel wheels and airbags. I hear a story about how one show he entered the judges somehow thought the car was an Acrua TL.
Somewhere around 12:30 we put Gary’s Abarth up on the dyno to get some baseline power numbers. At this point we remember there’s a rock in the front passenger tire and it needs to be removed before we can safely continue on the dyno. Upon closer inspection it turns out it is a nail. After consulting with Gary, who has a new set of tires at home it’s decided we will not attempt to remove the nail, but just rotate the tires as the rears do not move on the dyno. After Nate rotates the tires they move the car back into position on the dyno but end up ripping the wheel weights off the back wheels in the process. As it turns out where they were mounted they wouldn’t clear the small gap between the inside edge of the rim and the hanger for the rear sway-bar. With the weights placed off to the side they strap the car back down to the dyno to get the necessary baseline numbers. They try a couple initial runs however the car refuses to get past 88mph on the dyno. Everyone was dumbfounded by this as they have never run into it before. John is called out of his office and comes to investigate when Eddie realized the cabrio top is part way back. Both Eddie and I remember that the Abarth is speed-limited when the top is down so they close the top and are finally able to get the baseline numbers.
At this point there is not much to do until John can go back, take the lines and curves provided by the dyno and apply that to create the new tunes for Gary’s Abarth. This is by no means a quick process so Eddie and I go back to chatting with the staff, customers and checking out the various cars in and out of the shop. Eddie’s stomach still isn’t feeling to well so around 4:30 or so we pop out to Jimmy Johns so I can get a sandwich. I must admit for the price (with exchange), I am not impressed by their sandwiches. Your average deli counter can make better tasting, bigger sandwiches for less. Shortly after we get back Tyson and Gina were done for the day and head out to their respective cars; Tyson in a tuned Lexus IS and Gina in a non-stock Acura RSX.
As the sunset began reach across the sky we started chatting with Nate about the various cars parked out front, eventually leading to his daily driver, a 1993 Miata that is far from stock. He has done quite a bit under the hood, including a custom ECU that he uses to teach himself how to program ECUs. He kept the struts stock but replaced the springs with a stiffer lowering spring which he mentioned gives it an unusually bouncy ride. As Nate was going through the list of changes on the ECU he has made Eddie’s ears perked up at Launch Control promptly followed by the obligatory demo including flames shooting out the tail pipe. The only thing I can compare the sound coming from the NA 1.6L to would be a WRC rally car launching at the beginning of a stage.
A little while later, around 8:30 or so as the sun finally set Nate took off, leaving just me and Eddie in the shop and John, nearly ready with the new tunes, in his office. A short while later John emerged from his cave and the adrenaline started to pick up as Eddie started the process of loading the tune into Gary’s Abarth. I learned during this process that the way John typically does the tuning is by loading multiple tunes into the hand-held OBDII tuner and starting with the most aggressive tune first. It may seem counter intuitive however the ECU has so many protections in place to prevent the engine from killing itself. This way if the first tune is too much you would run into a power limiter on the dyno, then proceed to the next tune which dials things back a touch. This process is repeated until there are no limiters triggered. The process of actually ‘flashing’ the ECU with a new tune is not exactly a quick process either, it involves turning the ignition on and off multiple times, getting the coolant up to 91F, pushing in the clutch to verify the manual transmission, and a lot of patience. During the process of flashing the first tune Eddie fired up the car to get it to warm up to the required temperature, however there was a problem. The car refused to idle, it would fire then surge a couple of times before it either died or Eddie turned the ignition off. The process was repeated with the next tune with the same result. The idea of hitting Bath and Body Works followed by Red Lobster for dinner were abandoned as I started to look for places that were open until midnight. Eddie was confident that we would be done well before then though. We settled on Applebee’s as it’s a place we both like and do not have back home.
The process of flashing, starting and dying repeated itself through a number of attempts, each leaving John frustrated more and more. As the clock struck 11pm and after many failed attempts on getting the car running John decided to go back to basics and had Eddie refresh the same tune we drove the car down on. It worked, so we knew the car wasn’t broken. By this time John had also put together a boost to the baseline tune and Eddie attempted to flash it. However, the hand-held tuner kept rebooting every time we attempted to fire up the car, which refused to even start. John was called over and found a loose negative wire on the lightweight racing battery. It was tightened and the flash process started over with the same result. John then muttered something about starting the car too many times and leaving the lights on then proceeded to grab a battery charger. We killed the battery trying to start it too many times. With the battery on charge we all had hopes that this would be the one. It was not to be, it fired up and died just as quickly as all the others. As Eddie was flashing the original ‘big turbo’ tune I abandoned the Applebee’s plan and began to look for non-fast-food places that were open 24 hours. I came across a place a few miles north of John’s shop called Shari’s Café, not as good reviews as the previous choices but it was open.
By now it was almost 11:30 and John was beyond frustrated. There were only two common denominators between all the tunes that were flashed, the car and John’s laptop. Thinking it could be the tuning software producing corrupt tuning files, which apparently has happened before, John reboots the software and the machine and tries again. With the rebooted flash in the ECU Gary’s Abarth was started again hoping this would be it. All hopes were dashed when it refused to idle, just like every tune before it. At this point we had eliminated every variable except the car. Its moments like these when you get a glimpse into how good someone is, it’s well past closing time, past midnight even, everyone was tired, befuddled, and some more frustrated than others. Yet the dedication, knowledge, skill, and confidence on display that night was amazing. Just past midnight John goes under the hood to see the popular boost-leak fix for the first time, asking what is it and figuring out how it is, possibly incorrectly, wired up. After only about 5 minutes he’s figured all that out, traced the waste-gate that is only connected to a vacuum line, and realized there’s no pretension on the waste-gate actuator. Uttering a few more choice 4 letter words John goes to grab some tools, a couple of pliers, wire cutters, and a box cutter and proceeds to cut the boost leak fix out of the engine bay, reconnects the waste-gate properly and adds proper pretension to the waste-gate actuator. Eddie re-flashes the last tune that gave us problems and the car idles successfully. The relief in Eddie’s eyes was hard to miss as John gets him to work through the rev range while warming the car up to the required 91F. Once the tune was flashed it was then time to see what kind of power they could get out of the little 1.4L engine.
After flashing a couple different tunes and dyno pulls, with the power slowly easing up from 200whp to 220, to 225, we reach a final number of 229whp and 256lb-ft at 4000rpm. That does not tell the whole story though, the torque reaches its plateau closer to 3300rpm at 249lb-ft making it a very fun, punchy hot hatch. Once we reattached the wheel weights with the only thing John had in the shop that would work, 3M two-sided tape, we unstrapped the car from the dyno and took it for a quick spin around the block. Once out on the main road Eddie punches the gas and held on for dear life. Eddie’s car puts out about 20 more horsepower, but with his being a bigger turbo the acceleration is much more linear than this car and that initial punch caught him off guard. Even with the limited slip differential up front the car torque steers worse than stock. Once we both stopped laughing like little school girls we return to the shop with grins bigger than Texas.
It’s now 2:45 in the morning, pitch black out and the homeless are starting to gather around the lawn of the 7-11 at the end of the driveway again. By this time the lack of sleep is becoming more apparent by the minute. After inadvertently parking Gary’s Abarth in front of the dyno hoist and being yelled at to re-park it, me, the shop owner, and Eddie start pushing a non-running Miata and Sylvia back into the shop after finally pulling the Abarth off the dyno. The main thought going through my head right then was if I would be able to get any sleep before I am supposed to be at work in less than 4 hours, still needing to drive back up from Seattle to Vancouver. I remember thinking just how much flack am I going to get from my boss for this? I’m snapped back to the moment by the crashing of the big bay door being closed. John locks up the shop, sets the alarm and goes to get his car. Once we exchange pleasantries John heads home to bed and we make a beeline for the nearest Jack-N-The-Box as we are both starving. After stuffing our face with fries and burgers that taste suspiciously like Dairy Queen’s Eddie asks if I want to try to squeeze into the racing seat again.
Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to drive one of the fastest Fiats on the west coast, if not the continent, with no traffic around I wiggle into the deep bucket of the seat and do my best to find a bearable position. I’m not sure if it was sheer determination or tiredness, or possibly a combination of both, I was able to find a position that would let me experience this mini rocket ship. Pulling out of the parking lot I notice how light the clutch is and how soft and long the shifter feels, I would find out later that both are still stock. After a gentle drive through the streets to the freeway I decided I am confident enough to get it some gas on the onramp to the freeway. I think I giggled just as hard as I did earlier from the passenger seat. The car was so unexpectedly quick that I think if I sneezed I would have been in arrestable territory for speeding, though I will say the throttle calibration made it very easy to drive around town in between stoplights. I continue up the freeway with a not-so-mild grimace every time we hit a bump, I swear I could feel the bone being worn down on my hips from rubbing against the inside of the seat. As we are getting into downtown Seattle with the Space Needle to our left, I toss in the towel and start looking for the next side-street exit. Once we make it past downtown I pull off and reluctantly hand the keys over to Eddie. I think it was about another 30 minutes and I was sawing logs in the passenger seat, waking up for a second or two over every major bump heading north on the I5. We eventually made it back to the border at about 6am and about 30 minutes later I was stumbling through my front door desperate for a few hours’ sleep before heading into the office later in the morning.