Under the Hood: #423 River City Rally Lexus IS350
Last month's Southern Ohio Forest Rally saw a number of impressive class battles, but perhaps none were more closely matched than the one between Seamus Burke and Michael Hooper in 2WD. While Burke eventually won out, Hooper and Alison LaRoza posted an impressive fifth place overall result in their Lexus IS350. Combined with a sixth place overall result at Rally in the 100 Acre wood alongside Claudia Barbera-Pullen, Hooper sits ninth in the overall Rally America National Championship standings, as well as third on the 2WD charts.
Lexus may not be the first brand that rally fans think of when considering a build, but Hooper's IS350 just might change that. He gives us an exclusive look at the car as we kick off our new Under the Hood series:
When did you pick up this car and where did you get it?
We picked up a wrecked Lexus on Thanksgiving 2016. After putting it in the air and examining the suspension we decided it was quite suitable for rally and figured we'd go ahead and try and build one. The IS350 we built showed up two weeks late on January 3rd, 2017. I was bummed as we lost all of the holidays to work on it.
Any nicknames for the car?
Beverly. Almost lost out to Pearl, but in the end Beverly stuck.
Why was this the right car for you to use in Rally America?
Jarco Inc, a provider of Lexus/Toyota Engines/transmissions to dealerships, is our #1 supporter. We really wanted to get back in a Toyota having started in a AE86 and having a great respect for the engineering. James, the Jarco owner, suggested the IS. I thought it was a crazy idea and shot it down as too heavy. We got to looking at the specs and it was within a hundred pounds, a few horsepower, and an inch in all directions of the new STIs. We picked up a wrecked one and to our surprise, even though heavy, the suspension looked quite robust and suited to rally use. The River City Rally team mulled it over a few days, but the more we talked, the more we knew we had to do it. The goal of the car was to build something that could run R2 pace for a fraction of the cost while utilizing a more recent, sponsor-friendly model.
Aside from safety regulations, what have you done to improve its performance?
The car has been very thoroughly built, but it is not particularly high spec. All suspension has been tied in and reinforced and a very nice cage was built by Matt at Vaught Industries. We have swapped in a 6 speed manual trans (1st for trailer, 2-5 for stage, 6th for transit), BRZ torsen differential, a SPEC clutch and flywheel, Bilstein 8125 custom valved coil overs (250mm plus travel front and rear), the seating position has been moved back approximately 12", full underbody coating, FIGS Engineering toe arms in rear and soon to add FIGS custom upper control arms. In addition the interior is very comfy with everything custom placed and in reach in the new sitting position. So far the upper control arms are the weak link. FIGS is creating a custom set with high angle FK uni-balls upper arms to remedy this. So far we have a stack of seven or eight ruined control arms, but luckily none have come apart.
When it’s not rallying, where’s the home base for this car?
River City Rally HQ in Chattanooga TN.
When was your first event with this car and how did you do?
August 2017 at Black River. The car did amazing and won all but 2 stages in 2WD as well as 2nd overall on 15 year old Michelins. Aside from some terrifyingly unpredictable handling in the rear of the car early in the day, the car was much much better than expected. As big as it is, it really goes, turns, and stops. We say driving the Lexus on stage is akin to slicing grapes with a hammer.
Has anybody else rallied this car over the years?
As far as we can tell, this is the only IS350 ever built for stage rally. There are a couple IS300s (the previous chassis) overseas that we have found, but that's it. For our fast roads in the US, it is a great choice.