Michael Keen wants street-legal low nine-second quarter-miles, and now he has just the car to do it

It’s not often that someone manages to secure two separate features in NZPC magazine, and it’s even more unusual to have those two features printed less than a year apart. While it was only 10 issues ago that we covered Michael Keen and his rapid 1996 Mitsubishi Evolution IV, things for the Invercargill local have changed dramatically in recent months, and, after taking a peek at what he’s been up to over winter, we couldn’t resist revisiting the deep south for a look at his newer, lighter, and quicker 2005 Evolution IX. 

If you remember reading the feature on Michael’s Evo IV, you’ll know that he has a thing for going fast — specifically, in a straight line over the quarter-mile. But, as these things tend to go, although he was running lightning-quick 10.5-second quarters in his Evo IV, this still wasn’t rapid enough — Michael needed more. “I guess the bug had bit … You just want to keep going faster,” he says. He was already making over 450kW at the wheels running one of STM’s excellent forged short-block packages, but, with the sort of power he had in mind — somewhere around 750kW, or 1000hp — he was going to need a new, drag-specific bottom end, as well as big upgrades to the IV’s set-up: the driveline, body, suspension, tyres … it was going to be a big job. 

It was at this point that fate stepped in to lend a friendly hand, when fellow STM customer Chris Rae, who had been chasing the stock-block Evo world record in his 2005 Evolution IX GT for the last few seasons, decided to sell up. Michael got Chris’ details and gave him a call. “I was talking to Doug from STM about taking the next step on the IV, a PPG [gear]set was on the wish list, but it carries a heavy price tag,” Michael explains. “I knew that Chris Rae had cancelled his bid for the world stock-block record, so I contacted him about buying the gearbox out of his IX. Somehow, I ended up buying the [entire] car instead.” 

The later-model Evo was perfect for Michael, and, thanks to all the goodies included in the sale, it saved him a whole lot of money and time in the long run. The silver IX was already well set up as a drag car and sported a full lightweight chromoly cage, good suspension, Racetech seats, the aforementioned PPG dog box, and plenty of other nice go-fast gear — with a big Garrett T04Z sitting on a custom exhaust manifold and a Link G4 computer for starters — based around the internally stock motor. As a GT model, it also came with mechanical plate–type 1.5-way limited-slip diffs, as opposed to the more advanced but less dependable S-AYC diffs in the GSR models. 

It seemed a shame to pull down Michael’s freshly built motor from his Evo IV for use in the new car — it had only done just over 1000km, after all — so the decision was made to sell the forged block and transfer the modified head, Hypertune intake manifold and throttle body, plus a few other crucial bits and pieces, over to the IX, which had had its stock motor pulled and was waiting for the mother of all 4G63 bottom ends, one based on an Evo VI block. “The first motor was built for 700hp [522kW] using a stock crank, basic Eagle rods, etc.,” Michael tells us. “The plan [for the new engine] is [for it] to eventually be over 1000hp, so we have built the bottom end strong.”

This has meant using the best gear available from Eagle, JE, Carillo, ACL, and ARP, which, when combined with the best parts from both of Michael’s Evos, will create the ultimate, nearly indestructible 2.0-litre four-cylinder Mitsubishi 4G63. Though the goal is somewhere north of 745kW at the wheels, for the first season, Michael has decided to play it safe: “I want to see how reliable the set-up is on less power for this season. If all goes well, I’ll then push for some more decent numbers.” 

Once the street-legal car was fired up for the first time and bolted to the dyno at STM, it wasn’t Michael’s sensibilities that were keeping the 4G63 from its full potential but the turbo, fuel system, and cams. At 33psi, the current set-up had nearly reached its limits, with STM’s tuner Chris Wall squeezing 525kW (704hp) at the wheels out of the 4G63 — spot on what Michael and the team at STM had wanted and predicted for the car in its testing phase. 

After sourcing the perfect set of 15x8-inch Weld Star RT wheels wrapped in Mickey Thompson slicks, the car was put on the trailer and taken all the way back down to its new home in Invercargill, where Michael owns and runs his own workshop, MAK Automotive.

Though there is no dedicated drag facility down in the far south, Southern Dragway has a deal with Teretonga Raceway that allows between six to eight drag meetings a year, and, with the first day of racing fast approaching, Michael got stuck into the car, carrying out a long list of final jobs before tuner Chris flew down from Wellington to help fit STM’s own Ghost Shifter push-button pneumatic gear-shifting system and help Michael out on the car’s first outing. 

The day before the race, Michael and Chris were able to head out to Teretonga to do some testing, but all did not go to plan. “We pretty quickly found out that the fuel system wasn’t coping, so we took the car back to my workshop and swapped it out for the entire system from my old Evo IV,” says Michael.
“It was a 4am finish, and then up again at 7am to get to the track to do a retune. Four laps later, and we were done.” The new fuel system also allowed Chris to bring the boost up to 38psi, but, at that point, the car couldn’t keep traction on its street tyres, so the decision was made to leave it there, somewhere around the 560kW mark. 

This brings us to the main problem with drag racing down in this part of the world — although it’s great that there’s a place for people to race, the rules set out by Teretonga mean that all cars must use DOT-approved road tyres, rendering Michael’s Mickey Thompson slicks useless. This is OK if you’re pushing average power, but it’s a real issue when there are 700 horses trying to escape through all four tyres.
A ban on any track prep, like VHT, only furthers the problem. Despite the restrictions, Michael was still champing at the bit to test his new car, even if it was just on 18-inch Wolf S1Ps shod with 245/35R18 Toyo Proxes. After a day full of slippery runs, he managed a best of 10.9 at 140mph (225kph) — not bad, considering! 

That said, there are plenty more meets planned for the summer season, and Michael hopes to drop that PB further — but what happens once he has reached the limits of what is possible without slicks and VHT? Is there even any point going to a bigger turbo and camshafts if you can’t put it to the ground? The closest drag strip that both allows slicks and preps the track is Pegasus Bay Dragway at Mike Pero Motorsport Park, Ruapuna — does that mean Michael’ll drive the seven-hour trip each way every time he wants to race? “They are going to build a purpose-built drag strip at Teretonga. It will be like the one at Ruapuna in Christchurch, but that is still a couple of years away. So, until then, yes, I will travel a bit — I’m heading up to Christchurch on Labour Day weekend to race, for example,” he says.

Like a lot of us, Michael will do whatever it takes to go fast — he’s just a little more committed than most. Although he might be just about as far away from a prepped drag strip as anyone could be in New Zealand, that hasn’t stopped him from building one of the most brutal street-driven drag Evos in the entire country. It’s an ethanol-snorting launch monster that should, all going well, be capable of low nine-second passes once the wick has been turned up. But, for now, Michael is just happy to learn his new car, and take it to a track day or two plus out on the odd Sunday cruise — 38psi of neck-snapping boost, whining dog box and all. This is one car we don’t advise underestimating should you see it out on the streets of Invercargill this summer!