Toyota has been hosting its Pro/Celebrity race at the Toyota Grand Prix on Long Beach since 1977. The charity event, which has raised millions of dollars over the years, traditionally pits Hollywood celebrities against professional athletes (including race car drivers) on the full Grand Prix course in modified street vehicles. The short, sprint-style race is popular with the crowds as the amateur drivers race uninhibited – the result is an action-packed event with plenty of excitement and automotive... er... carnage.

Over the decades, the drivers have raced a variety of Toyota products including last year's front-wheel-drive Scion tC. But this year, Toyota announced at the Chicago Auto Show that the new rear-wheel-drive Scion FR-S would be stepping up to the plate. The good news only became better when Toyota Motorsports invited us out to Southern California's Willow Springs Raceway (the same circuit where the drivers train and practice) to be one of the first behind the wheel.

Driving Notes:
  • Transforming a stock Scion FR-S into one of two-dozen hand-built race cars is a tedious project that begins with gutting the interior. A steel roll cage is welded in place, and then most everything (including the headliner) goes back in – with a few exceptions. The audio system, cup holders and passenger-side vent are removed, as are all of the airbags. A pair of five-point Simpson racing harnesses are bolted in place and fitted through the stock seats. The radio panel is replaced with a panel only containing a fire extinguisher pull lever, the windshield wipers are deactivated (to prevent inadvertent activation) and the removed vent becomes a master kill switch. A window net is fitted on the driver's side, and knee bolsters are installed on the door and on the side of the center console (anyone who has ever raced will consider the foam pads a gift from the heavens).
  • The four-cylinder Subaru-sourced Boxer engine, left displacing 2.0-liters, receives a new performance intake and TRD stainless-steel exhaust for better breathing (one catalytic converter is removed and some of the baffles are eliminated to increase the exhaust note). Radiator fluid, a slippery bane if leaked on track surfaces, is replaced with water and Water Wetter (a chemical that improves heat transfer properties). Burning unleaded racing fuel, the engine develops about 210 horsepower. The six-speed manual gearbox retains the same ratios, but a Centerforce single disc racing clutch ensures longevity through the abuse.
  • TRD Racing coil-over shocks and springs are fitted and supplemented with TRD sway bars. Special lower control arms, anodized blue at the rear, allow 2.5 degrees of negative camber at all four corners. The stock front calipers and rotors are tossed and replaced with four-piston calipers over floating rotors (surprisingly, the rear calipers and rotors remain stock) and the factory pads are upgraded with Hawk Performance DTC60 racing pads. The new rolling gear is TRD-sourced 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Bridgestone RE-11 summer tires (225/40R18).
  • While it sounded much more aggressive than stock, the exhaust note was loud and booming (easily permeating the shell of my full face helmet). On a positive note, it allowed me to hear the changing pitch of the engine as it climbed towards redline. Even so, I hit the rev limiter and fuel cutoff more often than not in my early laps (a red blinking light alters the driver of his/her ineptness) before consciously short-shifting at 6,500 rpm in my later laps. Rather than rely on the engine's meager torque (about 160 pound-feet) pulling a taller gear, I shifted frequently – more than a dozen times on each lap – to keep the power flowing. As is the case with the lightweight Mazda MX-5 Miata, the FR-S is a momentum car.
  • I found the handling and overall dynamics significantly improved over the stock model. The chassis felt light and agile in response to steering inputs, and the various suspension upgrades meant most of the understeer was gone too (also evident by the minimal scrub on the front tires). The Scion coupe never felt anything but very well balanced. (Note: stability and traction control have been re-programmed to default to OFF – the opposite of what they normally do – upon engine start.) Putting the tires exactly where I wanted them was a no-brainer, and the fade-free brakes easily reigned things in and saved me when I overcooked more than a few corners. If asked to sum up how the FR-S race car felt on the circuit, I'd say moderately powered, responsive, predictable and very entertaining.
  • The 2013 Toyota Pro/Celebrity Scion FR-S is what happens when a very good sports coupe turns great at the skilled hands of a factory-supported team. If these two dozen Long Beach race cars are indicative of what a future Spec FR-S series holds in store, I'll be one of the first standing in line.

Autoblog Short Cuts: Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race Scion FR-S Lap Around Willow Springs