Return to The Ridge

yep, this is the right place...

With the Clowntown Roadshow BMW E30 out of commission indefinitely with a blown head, I’ve been catching rides as an “arrive and drive(r)” with various teams at west coast races for the past year. I drove a Humber Super Snipe (really) at Sonoma in December, a Volvo station wagon (a really fast turbo one!) at The Ridge at a “Lucky Dog racing League” event, and with The Flying Scotsmen in their expanding fleet of E30s at Buttonwillow last month. Often times these have been last-minute affairs, that have cost me very little, if nothing beyond travel costs. Right after Buttonwillow I check the 24 Hours of LeMons forums and read a plea from a new rookie team for an experienced driver willing to help them out at The Ridge. I reply, and after an email exchange with the team captain, agree to help them out. We swap lots of emails about their car, passing tech, things to bring, things I will bring, track etiquette, the paddock scene, etc. With as much wisdom imparted through ASCII and RFC2822 as possible, the day comes to drive up to Shelton, meet the team, and race.

Literally a day or two previously the Clan Leader of The Flying Scotsmen, Guy Argo, contacts me and begs me to drive a shift for them. One of their drivers has backed out at the last minute, and with a nine-hour day of racing on Saturday they absolutely require a third driver. My specialty of late has been driving ultra-long shifts at 8/10ths – that is, 5-10 seconds a lap slower than the race leaders, but safe, clean, and longer than they can usually run. For example, I did a three-hour, forty-five minute shift at Buttonwillow that would have had my team in 5th place at my driver change (if the car hadn’t run out of gas about 4/10ths of a mile short of the pit entrance due to a bit of miscalculation after a pre-race modification of the car’s fuel cell. But that’s racing. Also, the car threw a V-belt and overheated 45 minutes later anyway. That is even more like racing.)

I work out the details of leaving my “primary” team for a shift to drive for another team via email the day before I drive up from Oregon to Washington. Everyone is OK with it, so long as I hang with the newbies as much as possible. The Scotsmen really don’t need me except for the one driving stint.

I arrive mid-day Friday, meet my new teammates face to face. Very nice people. My son Nick arrives too. He is super-helpful and fun to have around at races. The Scotsmen show up (having towed all the way from the Bay Area) and we agree upon me driving first shift Saturday. The newbies get settled and familiarized with the track with a cold-track walk, while Nick and I grab a dinner at a local Mexican place. Things are looking good!

Mike and Chuck at the driver's meeting

Race Day always starts with the Driver’s Meeting, where LeMons staffers tell us not to be idiots. Of course, everyone thinks to themselves “I’ll never be an idiot” and as soon as racing starts, everyone becomes an idiot. Idiocy varies only by degree.

New teammates Hayden and Mike at the drivers meeting.

I part ways with my new team, after having spent as much time as I can explaining how to be less of an idiot than average. Hoping it sinks in, I jump into The Flying Scotsmen’s E30 “Tartan 1” for my stint. Team owner Guy Argo has adorned the machine with yours truly’s name in suitably temporary lettering:

I should change my name to Alan McNaught

The Tartan 1 departing the paddock for the grid, your truly at the controls.
(Photos by Nick Goolsbee)

Guy’s instructions to me are simple: Go long and clean, just like I did at Buttonwillow. Stay on-track past the usual two-hour or two:30-hour mark where most teams pit for fuel and driver changes. I don’t need to be near the best lap times, but within striking distance of them. This should put us in the top ten. Once I’m done he and his other driver can go out and and try to maintain position with faster lap times and shorter stints. The green flag waves quickly – less than two laps in, and then two laps later as I’m getting the rhythm of the track down and comfy in a new car, the heavens open up and conditions go from moist to absolutely soaking wet. I can consistently drive a 2:15-2:20 lap at the Ridge with a good car. It is now so wet that I can barely squeeze a 2:40 at first. The car breaks loose with any sort of hard input -steering, brakes, accelerator, or even shifting up or down. It is like driving on ice. I slowly accommodate myself to the situation and start shaving seconds off without unintended drama. 2:35. 2:30. 2:25. Finally, after I find and then eliminate the “you will get loose here” points I get down to a semi-comfy, only mildly terrifying pace of 2:20-2:24 per lap.

Following Matt Adair of Petty Cash Racing, I note how he’s barely even adhering to the surface – his machine appears to be wobbling over the track like a drunken hippo on a hockey rink – yet it is pulling away from me with amazing speed. Matt has true mastery of both his rig, and The Ridge.

Most of the rest of the field however are really struggling to stay on-track. Black flags are flying, cars are spinning, sliding, and careening off the asphalt and into grass, tire barriers, and other race cars. I somehow manage to avoid any of those fates. The front straight, as always, is a clean driving zone since it takes a seriously skilled idiot to screw up there. I mean how can you mess it up? Come out of the Ridge Complex, straighten the wheel, and push the right pedal down for what seems like forever, but is in reality a half a mile. Even in the wet cars are doing between 90 and 120 MPH by the end of it. Nobody spins, slips, or bumps each other out there. They do however lose bits of their cars. Mostly “theme elements” – a curiosity unique to the 24 Hours of LeMons. I see the crown of “King Henry the V-8th” resting on the left side of the straight about where I shift into fifth gear. It serves as a nice reminder. Other bits and pieces of car decoration are strewn about the track. I see one of “Chronic the Hemphog’s” weed leaf mohawk bits sitting in a puddle as I go by during a multi-lap full-course yellow flag as the rescue crews are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of off-track, stuck in the wet-grass race cars. Cars are strewn over the back of the track in the twisties as much as the front straight is littered with decorative bits that once made up goofy Lemons themes. Soon I was to suffer a similar, though not as drastic fate when the green flag flies again…

Chuck, piloting the Tartan 1 loosely down the Ridge Complex. Rear wheels only slightly out of sorts. Note the oil and lots of water mix on track!
(Photo by Nick Goolsbee)

Flying down the front straight with my right foot flat on the go pedal, the lone wiper furiously swiping away the wetness as best it can, the soaking wet “kilt” of the Tartan 1 suddenly comes unglued from the bonnet and starts slapping the BMW’s windscreen with the fury of a Scotsman given a shot of tequila when he ordered a wee dram of whisky. I flick off the wiper so it won’t get tangled, wrestle the car through the tricky Lemur Complex curves, get on the radio to request help in the hot pits ASAP. We have to get this wild wet fabric off the car or we’re going to get black-flagged as a safety concern. We’re in that magic hour when teams are starting to pit, so every lap I’m out there we’re gaining on the leaders. The last I heard from Guy, we are well in the top twenty and moving up fast and I know a black-flag would set us back too far to recover. I have no idea who jumped the wall and ripped off the kilt, but the delay is minimal, and I’ve lost very little time. Maybe 45 seconds.

The T1, gone commando and stripped of its Kilt.
(Photo by Nick Goolsbee)

A few laps later the rain lets up, and the track slowly reverts from soaking wet to merely moist. My lap times start dropping as I’m able to push harder with more grip and as I become more comfortable with the new (to me at least) car. Tires are starting to make screaming noises instead of hissing ones. This is good! I settle into a pretty steady pace of 2:17-2:19 and start reeling my way into the top ten. Three plus hours in, the toll of the insane elevation changes and hard corners is beginning to wear me down. The Carousel is the worst. A seemingly endless left-hander that you can take at ~60 MPH, tires screaming for mercy the whole time. My neck can’t hold up my head and helmet anymore as I go through it. I start leaning my head right, resting it on the wing of the seat as I enter the long corner, then just letting the g-forces hold it there as I push through. The right-then-down combination into the next section of track readjusts my head automatically vertical for me with zero effort on my part.

All morning as my shift goes on I see the car of my other team of newbies on-track. Every time I give them a hearty wave as I pass. I note that at first they are very slow – and sticking to the right hand side of the track with the C class cars. This is what we told them to do in order to stay safe, and learn the track before they start trying to actually race. Gradually they go faster and faster and I see them less often – but they are still going, which is good!

This team is named “W.O.W Weed” and the car is the aforementioned “Chronic the Hemphog”… yes, all the team (except me) are legal marijuana growers in Washington state. The car is a 1991 Eagle Talon (Mitsubishi) with the number “420” (of course!)

The T-1 (Chuck) catching up to Chronic the Hemphog (Mike). Still wet, but getting less so. The 666 car is on its way to an overall win.
(Photo by Nick Goolsbee)

Not long after the photo above was shot, Mike tucks in behind me and manages to stay with me for the better part of two or three laps. He gets to see me getting just a wee bit aggressive and having to brake hard a few times to avoid contact in corners. I eventually out-run him and I don’t see the car again until I catch up and lap them just as my shift comes to an end. Mission accomplished as The Flying Scotsmen are around 5th or 6th place when I come in.

Meanwhile, Nick’s been hanging out with the W.O.W. Weed crew and shooting photos of the cars on-track. Steve from the LeMons Supreme Court made the best suggestion I can imagine for a newbie team at their very first race, with a new (to them) car: Make the first stint only 30 minutes long. Come in. Check the car. Change drivers. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Phenomenal wisdom! Since they have no chance to actually compete, why not use their first event to practice the most important stuff, which is pits, paddock, fueling, and driver changes in a relaxed, but more frequent rhythm. Pure genius. So, by the time I arrive both Hayden and Mike have done a couple of stints, and even a fuel stop on their own. (I had run them through a dry run of fueling procedure yesterday.)

Here are some shots Nick made of the car and team in action:

Hayden in the car early on, Mike, Rachel, Susy, and Robin look on.

Hayden comes in after a stint.

Not long after I arrive, the track has dried up well and Hayden starts driving hard. Probably a bit too hard, as he apparently gets into a near-miss with another car and Chronic goes two-wheels off the track. Both cars are black flagged. I had instructed Hayden to come straight to our paddock if he gets black flagged, as we are very near the pit entrance. He comes in, announces that he has been black flagged and I hop in the passenger side door astride the roll cage and instruct him to drive VERY slowly through the paddock towards the Lemons Penalty Box. At first he says he has no idea why he got flagged, but eventually admits to his on-track, no contact, but partially off-track altercation. I tell him to confess to the Judges immediately and apologize. I told him (multiple times prior to this, and again right now) that lap times are irrelevant if you are doing it wrong and getting penalized. All those seconds you have have shaved away from your race total are being erased and multiplied 10x over by the time you’re spending off the track and explaining yourself and your behavior. The other driver/car in the incident is in the penalty box already, and of course saying the whole thing is our fault. Hayden confesses, promises to do better and slow down a bit, and the judges send him right back out on-track. I remind Hayden to behave himself and learn from this, and send him back out.

Soon however the car is back in and making odd noises. We remove the hood and listen around – isolating the noise to the clutch. Mike announces at that moment that he was a professional mechanic for over twenty years and can likely swap this clutch in 45 minutes – and sends Hayden to find and buy the parts. Mike and I dive in and start doing the prep work, which involves removing both front wheels and dropping the drive shafts off the suspension. Mike’s goal is to be ready to put the new clutch on before Hayden returns with the parts.

Mike in his element

Mike gets the gearbox off, and revealed behind is a clutch that has been transformed into really awful tasting cotton candy:

This used to be a clutch.

Hayden comes back from the parts store, and of course, they sold him the wrong part. The one he has is for an all-wheel drive version of the car, and this car is front wheel drive. Delayed, we hang out for a while, and I shoot pics of the crew so you can all put faces to the names:

Susy. The calm eye of the Team W.O.W. Weed storm.
Rachel. Susy's daughter and maker of awesome food.
Hayden. Enthusiastic driver.
...and of course, Nick

Hayden gets back from town with the correct clutch, and Mike installs it very quickly, with a tiny bit of help from me and Nick to get all the parts back together again. I hop in the car to break it in and run a shift.

Yours truly strapped in and ready to hit the track.
(Photo by Nick Goolsbee)

This car is very different from any one I have driven before. The new clutch is fine. The tach isn’t functioning, and the engine has a very “buzzy” note to it, so I’m at a loss of when to shift. Since I know its redline is a thousand RPM higher than the E30 I drove in the morning I figure it is safe to just use the same shift points on the track. I know I’m not getting the most from it, but we’re not really racing anyway being so far back in the pack. The track is still a bit wet, so I fall into a comfy 2:20 pace and run laps for a while just getting used to the car. Rearward visibility is just plain awful. On several occasions I have no idea another car is even near me when they suddenly appear in my peripheral vision or hearing. This is not good, as on-track situational awareness is pretty important. The ergonomics are also a bit off, mostly due to the racing seat and how it is installed, and the rather oddly constructed roll cage, which limits driver visibility to important things like… corner apexes and things behind you.

Otherwise, it is actually a pretty good car. Good power. Excellent brakes. Nice turn in.

Yours truly taking Chronic the Hemphog for a test drive.
(Photo by Nick Goolsbee)

I finish my hour-ish shift in the hot pits and help fuel the car with help from Hayden on my side of the wall and Jim, Nick, and Rachel on the cold side.

The day wraps up, still overcast and occasionally drizzly in that comforting Pacific Northwest way that we haven’t seen in months. Susy and Rachel cook up an amazing dinner, and I am so tired I have little recollection of the evening. All I know is that I survived a nearly four hour stint in the soaking wet, we swapped a clutch, and I drove a new (to me) race car for a while on a moist track, then eventually collapse into bed with an early alarm set for Sunday.

Sunday dawns clear and cool. A true Pacific Northwest summer day! The track is dry, and occasional LeMons staffer Steve has the first shift in Chronic. He puts down sub-2:14 laps towards the end of his shift following some leader cars. After an hour of that he hands over to me. With a dry track and better knowledge of Chronic’s capabilities I push it much harder than I did Saturday. I push the shift points higher and further down the track. Mike informed me that I’ll feel the torque curve flatten about 1k-RPM prior to the redline. Wow, what a difference! I’m now going through corners much faster, and have accumulated around 115-120 MPH by the end of the long front straight. My lap times show it, as I’m in the 2:15 range (my normal dry track time in my team’s E30) and occasionally doing 2:14s. Things get super fun when I note the Team Petty Cash “Jett-uh” behind me for a few laps and then tuck in behind it once it has passed me. This team knows this track better than anyone there, so by following their line and braking spots I shave a few tenths off each lap. I’m not really racing, but certainly having a LOT of fun… until… The Jett-uh passes a Toyota Supra. It happens to be classed with us in B, and also happens to be a lap ahead of us. The driver of the Supra does his best to hold me off and prevent a pass. I find it funny, but frustrating. Seriously, we are out of this race and it really means absolutely nothing to me if we are 41st or 42nd at the checkered flag. Sadly, the Jett-uh that was making my driving fun has pulled away, and I’m stuck looking at the rear end of this supra that is clearly 3 seconds a lap or more slower than where I’m comfy and in the zone. I manage to get by it a couple of times, but either traffic, a yellow flag, or towards the end… fuel starvation because I’m nearing the bottom of the tank, stalls me and the Toyota catches up and passes me. So I give up and ride his rear bumper for three straight laps until it is time to pull into the hot pits for gasoline and a driver handover to Hayden. The guy even brake checks me a few times – sigh. Since we have no radios, I use hand signals through the Ridge Complex to let the team know how many laps to go before I pull in, and even one-handed down the corkscrew-like complex I can stay glued to the Toyota. The little Mitsubishi mill in the Eagle is pretty impressive once you know what it can do.

Hayden takes the car from me halfway through the day, with the plan of him and Mike swapping seats until the 2:30 PM checkered flag. Sadly, the new clutch gives way about 45 minutes into his stint, and Team W.O.W. Weed is done for the 2015 Pacific Northworst Grand Prix. We pack up the paddock, get a group shot in front of the dead car, push Chronic onto the rental trailer, attend the awards ceremony(see footnote), and head our separate ways. I give Nick a big hug, and thank him for all the help. Say my farewells to the great group of friends I just made, and head off south to home.

Team W.O.W. Weed.

footnote: At the awards ceremony, the LeMons judges produce a wallet which goes unclaimed. It turns out to belong to a team member of the “Kia Pet” car, which Mike had helped fix some wheel bearing issues. he recognized the name, called the guy, who had already left towards Portland with their dead Kia. I volunteered to drive the wallet the 100 miles down I-5 where they were waiting. So my initial dash down to Exit 49 was really a dash, followed by a leisurely drive back to Powell Butte. A refreshing change from my normal long drives to California races. Alls well that ends well!