You know the stars, now it's time to meet the cars.
The full roster of celebrities trying their hand at racing during April's Long Beach Grand Prix was announced Thursday: Jenna Elfman, Jesse Metcalfe, Wanda Sykes and 11 other actors, athletes and TV personalities will take on pro drivers including Andy Bell, Adam Carolla, and Melanie Troxel.
The Toyota Pro/Celebrity race puts everyone into identical Scion FR-S cars that have been specifically tweaked and tuned for the rigors of racing. Toyota said that since 1991, the race has raised more than $2 million for Racing for Kids, a program that raises money for children's hospitals.
Toyota has long been the title sponsor of the three-day Grand Prix weekend, which is set for April 19-21. The event is in its 39th year and draws hundreds of thousands of fans who are eager to see racing in American Le Mans Series, Firestone Indy Lights, IZOD IndyCar, Super Drifting, and Stadium Super Trucks.
With Toyota's heavy involvement in the event, it's no surprise that the the celebrity drivers will find themselves behind the wheel of a Toyota product. This year is the first that the Scion FR-S has been used in the race.
Highway 1 recently logged some seat time in the cars fans can see on the track. Though each may look like little more than a regular FR-S with some racing graphics slapped on the side, these Scions have been heavily modified for the rigors of racing.
With the Pro/Celebrity race often host to several crashes, safety is a primary concern. The cars are gutted and a steel roll cage is welded into each. Many of the interior components are then added back, including the stock seats, headliner and dashboard.
Left on the shop floor are the airbags and stereo; new features are added, such as a five-point racing harness, a window net, a fire-extinguishing system and an engine kill switch.
Mechanically, the racing Scions keep the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine the cars share with their Subaru BRZ cousin. The stock 200 horsepower gets a modest bump to 210, thanks mainly to a new air intake and an aftermarket TRD exhaust that's been modified for a more robust sound. Despite these changes, Toyota said these FR-S models still meet California emission requirements.
The six-speed manual transmission remains, though a heavy-duty clutch has been added to keep up with the demands of the track. Also stock are the rear brake rotors and calipers, though Toyota upgraded the brake pads. The front brakes get larger rotors and aftermarket calipers. The suspension has been lowered slightly, and TRD sway bars and coil-over shocks and springs have been added.
Stir all this up and put it on a track and you're treated to an engaging racer that uses agility to compensate for a relatively low amount of power. Despite the heavy modifications to the suspension, these FR-S models are tuned softer than you might expect from a race-prepped car.
Body roll is nicely held in check by the sway bars, and the cars' balance makes them easily approachable and eager to pop back into line if the tail gets loose mid-corner (Toyota disabled the stability and traction control).
Because we tested the cars on the tight, twisty circuit of Streets of Willow Springs in Rosamond, frequent shifts were necessary to maximize the cars' power and keep them from banging into the rev-limiter. The somewhat notchy feel of the shifter remains from the production cars, but the throttle was very well modulated and responsive.
With some baffling removed from the exhaust, the car kicked out an eager, raucous sound worthy of a racetrack. When it came time to corner, the stout front brakes handled admirably.
The cabin of the Scion is a very hospitable place for turning in lap after lap on the track. There's plenty of headroom to accommodate tall drivers (looking at you, Elfman), even with a helmet. Sight lines out of the car make it easy to see around turns, though the driver's-side window net was often in the way for sharp lefts.
The stock seats were wonderful at holding you in place, and Toyota even added a few pieces of foam padding in strategic places on the door and center console to keep your knees from banging into the hard plastic.
The whole experience made for comfortable yet engaging laps that should leave the Pro/Celebrity entrants grinning no matter how they finish. Toyota did an excellent job of drawing on the many strengths of the FR-S (agility, poise, and predictability) and sharpening them.
The Pro/Celebrity race is 10 laps and is scheduled to start at 11:40 a.m. on April 20. Stay tuned to Highway 1 for coverage of this race, as well as numerous elements of the Grand Prix weekend.
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