chumpcar enduro – part IV

Chumpcar 24 Hour Enduro – Pikes Peak Raceway June 11-12 2011

”If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” – Yogi Berra

 The night finally yielded it’s awful power to the day, as it always does. The black sky broke apart, and was displaced by deep blue and purple hues. Slowly at first; then red, orange and yellow were added to the sky’s pallete. Quite suddenly, the sky lit up. Dawn had broken, revealing the survivors still circling the track at a blistering pace. The light offered relief from the fearsome darkness, and the drivers picked up the pace. The race was now in the final few hours.

 At the pre-race drivers’ meeting Saturday, they told us that there might even be a couple of spectators in the stands. We laughed at the joke, because there just aren’t many spectators who go out to watch amateur road racing. All of the family and friends who turned out to support their teams would have pit passes. The stands, built to hold tens of thousands of spectators would remain completely empty.

 And then they were spotted. At 7 AM on Sunday, two spectators were observed high in the upper rows of the bleachers. The race marshalls checked them out, and determined that they were unarmed and apparently harmless. The racing continued uninterrupted.

 We ran all six of our drivers in the hours after dawn, until the end of the race. Each of us in turn put in our one-hour driving stints, pushing our home-built machine through the corners. Pushing is just the right word, too. Our MX-7, with a precision “piece of string” and tape measure alignment, running on crapped out highway rubber did nothing but push. Nothing short of getting seriously out shape in a corner would get the rear-end to even “think” about stepping out. The handling was only remarkable in that it was completely benign.

 As we soon discovered, the loose handling and plowing would make it fast on the banked oval. It was there that most of our passing attempts would succeed. On the six infield turns, the plowing left us wishing we had tried a bit of a different suspension setup, and thirsting for at least a BIT more power. Any, even the slightest bit of acceleration there would’ve been a welcomed improvement. Still, we were racing, and we continued until the very last lap. My final stint ran through the 23rd hour, and Dennis finished out in the 24th, taking the checkered flag. We had met our goal: we had raced for 24 hours and had finished the race.

 At the awards ceremony, our team was called upon to receive our sixth place award. Dennis stepped forward to accept our ball caps and certificate of accomplishment. I proudly donned my cap, knowing that this was one special hat. On it was written “Cometic Gasket”, but underneath it there was so much more. For in my head, the memories of what we had done were just beginning to take hold. Those memories will long be remembered with satisfaction and a smile. I had found my hat.

 We gathered together as Dennis, our Captain held up the certificate. Seeing it, I couldn’t help but get a bit teary eyed, and straightened my shoulders a bit. For there, written on the green certificate, in large bold type were the words:

 “$25 towards any purchase of  Cometic Gasket or StreetPro Gasket Kits.   Please include $8 for shipping and handling. Expires 6-5-12”

More was written as well, for handwritten in the upper right corner with a Sharpie pen was a very special dedication to our Team’s effort. In neat letters, it said: “6th place”. Wow!

 We had come a long way together, to build the car and then race it. At every step, the outcome was uncertain. But we had come together as a team, and now we were quite proud to be just another bunch of Chumps. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The MX-7: First Drive — Mostly Harmless

We’d successfully installed a 1.6 liter Miata engine in Dennis’ RX-7. We’d given up evenings, weekends, dozens of brain cells, and 38 or so horsepower in the process. Fearless Leader had managed to let a bunch of near strangers do horrible things to his car — without ever really getting in touch with his inner control freak. Despite our too many egos, we’d some how succeeded in not killing each other during the build process. The idea had occurred to at least a couple of us, but miraculously no one was even lightly strangled.

Now that the car ran and occasionally moved under it’s own power, there was an esprit de corps among the team members. It was nice. So we were off to High Plains Raceway to test the car.

Charles and Ed look upon the MX-7 with pride. Meanwhile, I contemplate the MX-7's incredible, almost unbelievable slowness -n- vauge-ish steering. At the moment this was taken, I'm pretty sure I was thinking that the answer is: Switch to VW Beetle Power.

Keeping with my “hanging back” strategy, I arrived late. Most of the guys were already there and were getting ready to take the car out. As they finished their test drives, each driver seemed to genuinely like the car. No one got out and immediately kissed the ground, but I think they were really just happy to still be alive.

“It doesn’t accelerate, it doesn’t go around corners, but other than that, it’s great!”

The only car I’d driven on a race track in my life at this point was my stock 1994 Miata. I’d gotten comfortable (if not terribly fast) lapping High Plains Raceway. I was still confused by turn 6 and was afraid of turns 4,  5 and 7.

Occasionally, I’d get hugely brave, do something really stupid, and suddenly find myself sitting by the side of the track facing backwards, inhaling a dense cloud of dirt. Brian was usually riding in the car during my moments of brave/stupid. In hindsight, I’m baffled at my own stupidity. On some level, I really believed that if I had a talented driver in the car with me, suddenly I’d become a talented driver. Time and time again, this turned out to be not the case.

I wasn’t going to die from racing… I was going to be bored to death!

I’d gotten used to my little Miata. So when I was strapped into the race car for the first time I discovered it was all wrong. My skinny little butt slid side-to-side across the seat in every corner. The steering wheel was too high; the clutch pedal action was straight out of a UPS truck; the steering felt slow and squidgy.

The car was slow. Really slow compared to my Miata. It was good for what seemed like 75 miles per hour max on the long straight at High Plains Raceway. It would accelerate reasonably well until until about 50 mph. Then it felt like an invisible drag chute was deployed. The ancient all-season tires didn’t stick in the corners, producing gobs of understeer. I wasn’t going to die from racing… I was going to be bored to death!  I came back from my test drive joking that “It doesn’t accelerate, it doesn’t go around corners, but other than that, it’s great!”

I didn’t like our race car, but I was pretty sure I knew what the invisible drag chute was.

Back in Boston, I’d raced sailboats. Slow, heavy, nearly pointless-to-race sailboats that were good for six mph flat out in a gale. Races were held Sunday mornings when, typically there was little wind. In the afternoon at races end, there was often no wind at all. This meant that making the ~600 yard trip back to the dock could take 30 minutes or more. Some of my competitors were able to get their boats to move in zero wind. They’d move to the front of the boat and get the stern out of the water. Smaller stern wake = less drag.

Our alleged race car was missing it’s rear hatch glass. As the air passed this part of the car, instead of flowing smoothly across the glass, it tumbled, creating a huge amount of drag. Big stern wake. Some air tumbled and then was caught by the vertical sheet metal above the bumper of the car. More drag.

I pleaded with Dennis to install a plastic back window. He seemed unmoved. I pleaded with him to re-install the glass rear window. He was extra unmoved.  The great part about having a ChumpCar team is that you have lots of buddies to help you drink beer and work on the car. The bad part is that someone always has a crazy new scheme to make the car go faster. Dennis was burned out on crazy du jour.

The Car: Part 1, They Don’t Call it ChumpCar for Nothin’

2011 was our first of year racing in ChumpCar / 24 Hours of Lemons. It was my first year of racing, period. Some time in late 2010, Dennis casually mentioned that he was thinking of buying a race car. Two weeks later he had a car — a 1986 Mazda RX-7. Immediately he started inviting friends to come and be a part of the race team. I felt very lucky to be invited to come play.

December 11, 2010: Cleaning the new-to-us car

It was an a ex-rallycross car. It was carrying many pounds of caked on mud on its underside. It had some good things going for it. The interior was already stripped. There was a cage that didn’t look too bad (not that any of us knew what a good cage looked like). Overall, the car looked pretty good. It just had one problem. It didn’t run. After many attempts to start it, we gave up. We pulled the engine.

While taking the engine apart, we started to discover just how out of our depth we were. We had no idea what many of the engine parts were called. We ended up bagging and labeling parts with names like “it goes left of the injectors” and “thingamabob”.   During dis-assembly,  discovered a problem.  Important parts of the engine housings that were supposed to be smooth and straight looked like ruffles potato chips. Hence low compression. Hence no starting. Engine = toast.

January 16, 2011: Several non rotary engine experts around a toasted rotary engine saying things like "Hmmmm..."

At this point, I wasn’t feeling quite as lucky to be asked to come play. Dennis looked for engine parts and found that rebuilding a rotary that was this far gone was going to be expensive. Thousands of dollars expensive.