What would Tony Stark do? Looks like we have the answer here: Put all that engineering vision and expertise into an Audi R8 instead of making a modern-day suit of armor to become Iron Man—and the result would probably look like Nathan Cicio's passion project.
Passion is the right word here, because Cicio says, "I've built a lot of cars, but this one has my heart. I can't even explain the emotional connection and excitement." Some of that connection no doubt comes from the fact that 70 percent of this build was performed by Cicio's own hands. And the reason why he's built a lot of cars is because he owns and runs TopSpeed Motorsports, a performance shop based in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Many of those builds have involved versions of the Nissan GT-R and Porsche 911. TSM cars have won the One Lap of America event for four consecutive years. But the R8 has always "spoken" to Cicio. He thinks it's "one of the best supercars on the market today. The R8 has a racing heritage... Le Mans, cup cars in the United States and internationally. The first time I drove one, it just fit. I absolutely loved it and still do."
Inspired by the R8 Ultra racing machine, Cicio made a decision: "I wanted to build a car that looked so crazy-radical, most people would not believe it was street legal. But if you were to hop in and drive it down the highway, you would feel it was nicer and more luxurious than stock." The idea was also to use fewer off-the-shelf parts than usual.
He wanted to start with a V10/six-speed manual model in red, which turned out to be a mission of its own. "From all the documentation I could find, there were only 20 or so ever shipped to the United States in that configuration," Cicio says. "So it was going to take some digging." In the fall of 2013, the right candidate turned up at a small Texas dealership. Cicio pounced. He only had the car for a month before breaking out the wrenches. "The goal was to leave absolutely no stone unturned. We wanted to address everything."
The first thing was the body, which is 5.5 inches wider than standard. Right away, this became a major challenge. Every carbon-fiber part, except for the rear wing, is a hand-built one-off. Although many of this car's custom components were designed and built in-house, Cicio had some outside help along the way. In this case, it was from Bryson Richards of Classic Livery in nearby Atlanta.
"The body was a work of art, to be honest. Bryson is more of an artist and visionary than a body man," he says. Cicio, Bryson, and good friend Leh Keen (racing driver, more on him later) thrashed out the concept. Then came four months of multiple revisions on the hood, front lip, canards, side skirts, rear fenders, and rear bumper. Cicio describes the process as "interesting." He uses that word quite a bit, usually in places where most of us would say "problematic" or something less printable.
"I cannot tell you how many times Leh and I would say to Bryson: 'That's not 100 percent what we had in our heads. Cut it off and start again.' Bryson, being the perfectionist he is, continued to push through without one bit of complaint to deliver a car that was not only perfect in his mind but also exactly what Leh and I wanted. The design had to follow performance, the performance I knew I had to have."
Which was when TSM went into overdrive with a twin-turbo setup, keeping things modular to test various options. The trusty Garrett 35R eventually got the nod, along with Tial wastegates and blow-off valves, plus a special cooling system. "There were some tricks to this part of the build. We decided on an air-to-water intercooler that not only increased efficiency but combined the water tank and the intercoolers in the same unit. This design of pushing water up through the intercoolers and letting it drain back through a completely integrated tank before getting pushed through the heat exchanger was not only innovative but eventually proved to work well on the track."
Measured at the wheels, Cicio claims 750 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque, the latter with a flat graph from 3,000 to 8,200 rpm and still making more than 500 lb-ft in those upper reaches. In someone else's hands, this could have been the opportunity to turn up the boost and go for even bigger, brag-worthy numbers. Cicio settled on just 6 psi of boost to make sure the car didn't run into a heap of heat-related issues.
The only transmission modification is a carbon/Kevlar multi-disc clutch made (naturally) by TSM.
Another happy outcome of low boost is that the car doesn't have any split-personality induction shenanigans. "The turbo hit is almost non-existent," Cicio says. "It feels like a huge-displacement NA engine that never stops pulling all the way to redline. The car drives like stock as far as throttle response, tip in, linear WOT pulls, and all. TSM tuned the car using only the factory ECU with no piggyback, so the throttle, fuel, and timing controls are extremely fluid and work seamlessly."
This was important, because the R8 had a job to do. "Everything we build, we race," Cicio says. "This car was never going to be a garage queen or a show car." So the next step was to get the aerodynamics completed.
"For the wing, I called the people at GoodAero (of Columbus, Ohio), who have a great design built by Crawford Composites. I've used their foil in the past and it has proven itself to be a high-downforce piece with a low drag coefficient." Outwardly, the car was done. "The final product combines absolutely stunning lines with the functionality of air flow, downforce, and the ability to fit a ton of tire for maximum grip."
Those tires are either Michelin Pilot Super Sport for the street or Toyo Proxes R888 on the track, fitted to 19-inch HRE alloys. Behind the wheels is an upgraded Brembo braking system, and the springy bits have been changed to JRZ coilovers. In stock form, the R8 is one of the sweetest-handling sports cars out there, so messing around with it offers plenty of scope to screw up the whole thing. Not when Lehman Keen is on the case.
Keen, a great friend of Cicio's, was another principle source of help. Lehman "Leh" Keen has won at the 12 Hours of Sebring (in a Porsche), taken an overall second place at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring, and a second in the GT2 class at Le Mans, so he knows how to attack an apex.
"Leh being a professional racer and me being a track enthusiast, we were dead set on the fact that this was going to perform on a circuit like it was a factory racer on street tires." Cicio says the handling is "still progressive and balanced. We did use the aero and tire size (295 up front) to dial out a little of the understeer the factory car got from the small 235 front tires." As well as the track expanding to fit the new wider body, ride height is lower by around 1.5 inches overall.
If all this sounds like an exercise in discomfort, think again. TSM doesn't specialize in interiors, so Cicio outsourced those duties to JPM Coachworks in Atlanta, Georgia. "A lot of people said I was nuts for wanting to put a fully custom, luxury interior in a time attack track car. But I knew what I wanted. 'No stone unturned' was the goal, and the interior was a stone. My instruction to JPM was: 'I do not want to see one stock plastic, aluminum, or leather piece put back in this car. I want every single panel either redone in Nappa leather, covered in Alcantara, or custom-made in carbon fiber.' From the dash to the firewall, the headliner to the carpet, absolutely every piece of the inside was pulled out."
In came Recaro Sportster CS seats with custom coverings. The steering wheel, center console, and dash are now wrapped in Alcantara with dry carbon accents where there used to be silver trim. The door panels are a combination of leather and Alcantara with red stitching, while the headliner and rear storage shelf sport diamond-stitched leather to match the upper portion of the seatbacks. "I also had them fit extra sound deadening," Cicio says.
Nice recipe so far and definitely something a tech-crazy mogul like Tony Stark would go for. Time to find out if there was any proof in that pudding. Cicio puts the sprint from zero to 60 mph at 2.9 seconds and top speed above 200 mph. It sounds feasible. "Both Leh and I were in shock the first time we drove it. Rolling down the highway at 80 mph with the windows up, the car is silent. With the extra sound deadening, the turbos to muffle the exhaust and then the exhaust design itself (another TSM component, by the way; stainless steel, TIG-welded, back-purged, Audi factory cats), there is no drone at all. However, roll down the window and drop it from Sixth to Third and the turbos spool in like a jet, the V10 screaming behind them."
And the hours working on those one-off body parts and wind-tunnel-testing them appear to be well spent. "The TSM TT WideBody R8 is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating cars I've ever had on track. With all the added downforce, you have to push the car really, really, really hard to get to the edge of what it will do. The faster you go, the better the car grips, giving the driver confidence in high-speed sections of the track. You can even push the car on street tires much further than one would think.
"The power delivery is also spot-on, since the turbos come up so linear. After a tough 45-minute session of track work, the intake air temperatures, as well as oil and coolant temps, stay in check throughout."
"With the gated shifter, you get the exotic feel of metal clanking on metal as you row through the gears, which is simply awesome. Yet it still has creature comforts like a full Harman Kardon audio system, satellite radio, air conditioning, and rearview camera. We even kept the parking sensors. The overall experience, people's reactions, the performance, sounds, and comfort are just incredible."