Racing cars is a lot like smoking crack. One hit of the stuff and you’re hooked – and then you can’t get enough.
I’ve loved every minute of racing with my Clowntown Roadshow team mates. However, I’m the sole team member living and working in the Pacific Northwest, with the rest being in Northern California. While I’m very in-touch with my team mates via our Facebook group, and I always volunteer to pull tow-duty on the SoCal races – I miss the weekends wrenching on the car, and have been unsuccessful in convincing my team to think about coming north for events in the northwest.
I advertised myself as a “driver for hire” on the 24 Hours of Lemons forums for any team in the PNW planning on running the Pacific Northworst Grand Prix in Shelton, WA. I had a few teams show an interest, but a group of “newbies” from Shoreline, WA seemed the most eager to have me along, so I joined their team. They had a car, and a lot of enthusiasm, but only three drivers. All had young families and hoped to make it a big outing. Nick had his Freshman Orientation the two days before the event, so I brought him along to round out the family atmosphere.
The event was at the brand new Ridge Motorsports Park outside of Olympia. Nick and I awoke at O’dark:thirty Thursday morning to drive to Corvallis – spent all day and the next attending welcoming lectures, parental-panic-soothing seminars, class registrations, and advanced placement tests at Oregon State University, before making the dash Friday night (with a stop in Portland for dinner with friends) to Olympia. Saturday morning dawned wet and gloomy – yes we were back in western Washington! We arrived at the track, paid our fee, and lapped the paddock looking for our team. I noted that street cars were lapping the track, and since we could not find our team I steered my car out onto the pit lane and decided to see this new track.
With Nick hanging on for dear life, I steered the M Roadster around the track at 5/10ths. Just surveying the layout. Wow, what an awesome track. Crazy corners, TWO “laguna seca style” corkscrew combinbations – one uphill, the other down. Insane off-camber corner combos, and some diminishing radii curves. This track is going to be a blast!
Two laps in they wave us off the track and I cruise the paddock again until my team is spotted and they wave us in. The car looks pretty ratty (this is Lemons after all!) but the team are all grinning like kids on Christmas morning. Introductions are made, hands are shook, and the car is looked over. The race is starting in about 50 minutes, and our team’s founder is taking the first shift. I explain to him how it will all work out, regarding a typical Lemons full-yellow start, and we send him out.
The race is a small one compared to the California events I’ve attended so far. Under 50 cars, unlike the 150+ car events I’ve run. This means that it only takes a few laps for all the transponders to be checked, the quick-dying beaters to be towed off, and for the green flag to fly. We all track Trevor’s lap times and they are… disappointing. He is averaging just shy of 3 minutes, while the fast cars (Mustangs and BMW E30s) to clock in around 2:15. In his second hour he starts shedding seconds and cuts that down to just under 2:30. I explain to the guys how to do a driver change/fuel-up in Lemons-style. Since the fuelers must be in full fire suits, including helmets, it is best for the driver to hop out and hold the fire bottle while the next driver scheduled to go out fills the car. Once the car is gassed up, they rest of the pit crew can jump in and help strap-in the driver, fill water, check tires & brakes, wash the glass, etc. In theory this should take just a few minutes, but some confusion and fueling issues turn our first driver change into a 20+ minute affair. Oh well.
Some mods to our fuel fillers dramatically improved the next driver change to under 10 minutes. I was able to snap the above shot of John Verd & John Davenport as I helped strap in our driver #3. I was next up, but long before I even climbed into my fire suit we were timing John’s laps when more than 3 minutes went by without seeing the car. Uh oh. Eventually we heard from another team that our car was off-track up on the hill. Eventually it came down on a tow-strap. The car had lost power and died. Within seconds we were swarmed by helpers from adjacent teams in the paddock who quickly diagnosed a coil/distributor problem. The coil had overheated and ceased to function. We did not have a spare, so after a while Trevor directed John & John to head out and find one. The local junkyard had a similar, but not exact model of what we needed. Lots of crazy phone calls happened next, and Trevor basically told the Johns that they could not come back to the track empty-handed – if it meant driving to Seattle to find one, they must do that!
Meanwhile, after a couple of hours I figured the coil had cooled down enough to run again and Trevor & I re-installed it. Presto! It starts and runs, so onto the track I go!
My thoughts on the car: OMFG – what a POS!
In my fifteen or so laps until the coil expired again, I took mental notes. WAY too much body roll. A cacophony of noise, vibration, and harshness unequalled since 1944. It drives an Acura, but handles like a Trabant! It was fine in a straight line (I’d hit ~95 MPH on the straight) but the car would wallow through corners like a drunken manatee. Mercifully the coil overheated and the car died about the same place it had before. I find a nice inside off-line side of a wide sweeper to pull over and await the tow.
As I climb out of the dead car, I have a semi-brilliant idea: cut a hillbilly hood scoop out of the bonnet to direct air over the coil to keep it cool. I glove-up and measure where to cut, whip out the Dremel with cut-off wheel and go to town. Three cuts over 15 minutes or so, and a few wheels later I pull up a flap of sheet metal, then smooth out the edges of the flap with a stone. Sadly some reinforcing struts in the hood block about 50% of the flow, and they’re too thick to cut with the Dremel. Trevor has a Sawzall! Ten seconds of OSHA-exceeding sound later, we have a nice gaping maw. The sun is going down and we’ve got less than 30 minutes of racing left to go in Day One. John & John show up with a new coil/dizzy pack and I hop in the car and strap-in while they scramble to install the new part. The car fires and I head-out on-track just in time for a couple of last-minute laps. The car runs great. OK, not great, it still feels like it will invert itself on every mild change of direction, but at least the engine works! The checkered flag flies and all the cars exit the track into the paddock to a standing ovation from all.
Our team has a quick pow-wow and decides to try and improve the handling by cutting the rear springs. We don’t have the right tools, but our paddock neighbors do, and we schedule a time later to perform the surgery. We jack-stand the car and drop the rear suspension. I take the opportunity to give Nick a guided tour of a Panhard-rod & coil-pver rear suspension layout while the car is up in the air an the wheels on the ground.
Nick & I head to our hotel room in Olympia for some sleep (well, *I* sleep almost instantly – Nick stays up who know how long! He’d socialized all night at OSU Thursday and napped most of the day at the track.) Between me being so tired, and Nick’s sleep schedule being so weird, we both overslept a bit Sunday morning. I dressed in my fire suit and drove to the track ready to drive – arriving minutes before the race start.
The full-turn coil removal has improved the car’s handling dramatically, but at a cost: lots of noise and tire-rubbing. It still wallows a tiny bit (OK, a LOT), and now every corner is a symphony of squeaks, groans, rattles, and shakes. It unnerves me for awhile, and then it starts to rain! The car has no wipers, but does have enough Rain-X to shed it all on the straights – it just accumulates around every corner. This makes for some mild entertainment. I feel more confident in gaining speed so I concentrate on finding the best line and speed through every corner. At the top of the complex at the end of the straight I find the edge of the envelope and lose the car’s rear-end on a left-hand bend, right before Flag Station 5. The sound of squealing tires has all the flag workers looking right at me, and I’m facing them, going sideways. Recovering, I give them a thumbs-up, hoping not to be Black Flagged.
Eventually I find the right combination of speed and smooth to turn the track just over 2:20. The rain stops and I note my fuel gauge reading low about 15 minutes before I had hoped to wrap-up. I start giving the pits a 5 lap countdown with my fingers as I go down the front straight, and come in likely with less than a full lap of gas at the end. I’m done with my shifts for this race!
We decide to chalk-off the fueling area after one of the kids strayed out during a driver change causing some parental-panic. Nick dashed a line, and labeled it the “Danger Zone” (then X’ing out the “D”) and I started drawing our car on the kids’ side of the line. That kept them distracted and away from the “Anger Zone” the rest of the race.
The rest of our team ran their shifts throughout the remaining hours of the race, while Nick & I wandered the paddock, chatted with event organizer and old rally-buddy Jam Lamm, and shot photos.
Speaking of both Hurling and Team Petty Cash, have a look at this video. You’ll see me being towed off the track at 0:48 seconds or so when the coil overheated on me the day before. Otherwise, the video shows why this team won a SPECIAL prize for this performance. Mind you, our car rocked and rolled through this crazy course WAY more than the Jeep, and none of US lost our lunch!
I eventually chatted with Jay Lamm, and introduced him to Nick – noting that he now knows three generations of Goolsbee’s. He told me to give my dad his best regards. Nick was starting to really enjoy himself and had done a great job being a tool-fetcher/organizer, and driver-change helper. He says he wants to come along to our next race.
Given our lost time to the coil/dizzy problem, our chances for reasonable placement were a complete fantasy, but we kept running all day Sunday to the finish. Every driver had his shift and everyone had a blast. I have no idea where we finished, but honestly that isn’t what Lemons is about. We had a great time. Period.