24 Hours of Lemons

December 24th, 2020 Comments off

We’d just strapped Andrew into the race truck in the hot pits and were walking back to our paddock when we heard a loud BANG and saw a cloud of dirt. Somebody had hit the wall, seemingly hard. Our curiosity turned to shock and confusion when we looked and found it was Andrew who was facing the wrong way, off the racing surface, the truck minus one wheel.

Fortunately, the impact sounded worse than it was, and Andrew was fine. We were in hour 5 of a true 24-hour race at High Plains Raceway in Colorado, so our attention quickly turned to a new challenge: could we get our 1974 Chevy Luv back on the track, and how long would it take?

Me driving the Luv at sunrise. Spoiler: we got it fixed! (Photo: Sean)

The four of us driving, plus the three of us crewing, rapidly set to disassembling the broken corner and tracking down spare parts. Although it initially looked as though the wheel had left the hub, in fact the entire front-right hub had left the truck. A loose nut led to a ball-joint failure, and once that let go the hub and wheel went together off into the prairie.

The Luv coming in on the hook after the incident. Notice the lack of a right front wheel. (Photo: Sean)

I had been driving the truck for the hour-long stint before Andrew, and I must admit I was quite relieved the mechanical failure hadn’t happened with me behind the wheel. Not out of any safety concern — my fire suit, helmet, gloves and so on worked well with the belts, roll cage, and other safety gear in the truck to mitigate that risk. Rather, I was glad I wasn’t the one to crash the truck because, frankly, it wasn’t my vehicle. It was, however, Andrew’s Luv, co-owned with his brother Aaron (who was also driving) and their father Mark (who was crewing).

A pit stop for a driver change and fuel.

I’d gotten connected with the Nebraska-based Pullman family team via a post on the 24 Hours of Lemons forums. I was looking for a drive; they were looking to fill a seat. We got along swimmingly, and two months after the initial overture we were all at the track together. Along the way, we’d also picked up my friend Will as the fourth driver, plus Sean and my friend Mike to crew.

All of us were focused on fixing the truck. That was difficult, because although the drivetrain had been replaced with a V6 and 5-speed manual from a late-90s Chevy S10, the front suspension was more or less pure Luv.

The spare tie rod and ball joint that the Pullmans thought they brought were in fact not with them in Colorado. But wait! Didn’t somebody in eastern Nebraska on the Luv Facebook group mention they had the requisite spares? It was “only” a 400 mile round trip from the track. Unable to raise the man on the internet, Andrew and Aaron set out towards Nebraska regardless, confident in their ability to work things out before it would be time to rendezvous.

The truck in the paddock.

Meanwhile, back at the track, the other five of us on the team passed the time by getting the truck ready to accept the parts and watching the lights on the still-running cars come on as night fell.

High Plains is far enough from Denver that the Milky Way shines bright when there is no moon, and there are few lights illuminating the track-proper outside of the pit area. When the race cars circulate the track in the dark with their headlights lit, they look like they are zipping around the amongst the stars.

Sacrifice to the racing gods of the broken parts from the Luv.

Cars in the field of about 60 entrants broke down constantly. Few were suspension failures; most were engines. The premise behind then series was to race $500 cars, so the minor miracles relied upon to get them on the track in the first place had a knack for disappearing like Cinderella’s charmed accoutrements. Still, it’s a resourceful bunch who engage in such an endeavor, and clever mechanical and electrical hacks often managed to breathe new life into erstwhile expired powertrains.

Sunset was spectacular the day before the race. Here’s the Luv in the turn 13-14-15 complex at High Plains.

The clock ticked towards midnight, then beyond. We waited for Andrew and Aaron’s return huddled by a space heater in the paddock.

Suddenly, out of the night, they appeared — and with the spares!

Ratchets clicked, hammers banged, and the Luv returned to the circuit at 1:00 a.m. We were down severely on laps, but 11 hours of the race remained. The truck ran better than ever — in part due to an ignition problem that we’d fixed during our downtime — and the team began crawling back up the standings.

Night grew lighter, and I took my next driving stint just as dawn broke. My first stint had been an anxious one, as I’d never driven the truck before my time in the race, not even for practice. The second stint was more relaxing. Yes, the tires were going, and a bad vibration on high-speed right turns led me to back off to try to preserve the machine, but overall my time behind the wheel flew by.

Me piloting the Luv into Turn 7 at High Plains.

We swapped drivers several more times, and the Luv made it to the end of the race. Exhausted by the repair and wired due to the lack of sleep, we went home happy with dreams for next season.

Sean and I with the Luv after the race.

 

The Indy 500

May 20th, 2020 Comments off

It was 7:30 a.m. on the Sunday before Memorial Day 2019, and I just couldn’t start drinking again quite yet; my companions were undeterred by the hour. The seven of us were sitting on lawn chairs in some friend-of-a-friend’s yard a few blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the makings of screwdrivers were being passed around.

Events had been placed in motion the quiet Tuesday just a few days prior. I’d received a telephone call out of the blue from my fraternity brother Jared. “Do you want to go to the Indy 500 this weekend?” I hadn’t recognized the number, so I was caught unprepared for an invitation into such hedonism. “Why, yes of course!” I said, scrambling to fill in the gaping logistical holes that resulted.

But my credit being good enough, both in a material and interpersonal sense, the path was smoothed, and thus I found myself on a jet inbound to Indianapolis the evening before the race.

On approach for landing, we passed alongside the Speedway. Lit by the golden light of the waning sun, but otherwise idle, the view only hinted at the spectacle that would soon be upon it.

My view of Indianapolis Motor Speedway from my flight

My view of Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we were landing

I deplaned with a small knapsack into the belly of the airport. Everywhere I turned, the theme was racing, and heavy on it. Checkered flags galore; Indy car memorabilia; actual Indy cars; and shells of Indy cars for more acceptable flouting of “no touching” signs. You could have a burger at the 500 Grill or grab a magazine about the race at the Pitstop Market. Bits of racing chatter hit my ears as I made my way through. “Pagenaud was looking fast.” “Did you see Herta made the second row?” “What an embarrassment for Alonso and McLaren.” “They’re saying rain.”

Clearly, Indianapolis had hitched its cart to the Cult of Open Wheels, at least for the month of May.

I burst into the humid midwestern air right about the time Jared rolled up in his BMW convertible, top down. In the car already were two more of my fraternity Brothers, Ryan and Chris. I hadn’t seen them or Jared in person in almost a decade. Could it really have been so long? We all looked a bit different, worn by time, and yet we picked up right where we left things those many years ago.

I jumped in the back and we zoomed off into the verdant suburbia northwest of Indianapolis.

At Jared’s house, four more of my Brothers greeted me. I hadn’t seen George, Kevin, Kyle, or Phil in forever either. Wives and numerous children rounded out the coterie.  Jared had a keg of excellent homebrew beer on tap — civilized! — and as we all partook we caught up with one another on the highs and lows of the recent past.

And more beer, and laughing, and more talking, and more beer, and karaoke, and talking and beer an tlakng andd beeer and… suddenly it was 1:30 a.m., and we’d need to be up in a few hours, and, and… and…

Morning, too soon. But there was a coffee pot, and it was functional.

The cooler was packed with amazingly delicious sandwiches, snacks, and a layer of beer in cans below. I thought we were being clever about the beer, but no: you can bring pretty much whatever you like into the Speedway as long as it isn’t glass.

Which brings us back to the dawn screwdrivers in the yard. We chatted with the homeowner, sharing predictions about the race and gossip about the drivers and teams.

After our supply of orange juice and vodka had been exhausted, we made our way to the track past numerous other boisterous groups still in the midst of tailgating. Above us, clouds.

Rain loomed, the forecast chance being 100%. Unlike Formula 1, or even unlike road courses in IndyCar, oval races are done only in the dry. If it rained, we’d be at least delayed if not postponed. I had to fly back to Denver that evening regardless.

Drastic measures were warranted. I figured I’d guarantee that it wouldn’t rain by wearing my raincoat.

Ten o’clock, and we were past the IMS gates. I’d never seen such a cursory, useless security check of what we brought with us, not even at the airport. The “no glass” rule was effectively on the honor system. It was a heartwarming show of trust in our common decency, something far too uncommon nowadays.

We had a couple hours until the worthwhile festivities started on the track-proper, and our alma mater Rose-Hulman was handing out snacks and good beer at a pop-up tent. I was expecting the hard sell about how much they needed alumni donations, but no. Perhaps the beer would become much more expensive later if one were to avail themselves of it too often?

The sun did battle with the clouds; the humidity crept higher. The trees around the perimeter of the track grounds were lush thanks to the moisture of Indiana, but that moisture was the enemy for the day. Still, nothing had condensed, at least not yet.

We made our way to our seats.

It was time for the pre-race pageantry: the endless presentation of people of dubious notability; the delightful antique race cars that sorta-kinda still worked, belching alarming amounts of oil smoke (or were they diesels?) as they puttered parade laps around the 2.5 mile circuit; the people along the wooden benches in the grandstands who were improbably already hammered; and — this was really cool — the fly-over by an A-10 and an F-16. The former made multiple low laps around the oval, while the latter made a dramatic exit by doing a “quick climb” at the middle of the track, pulling from level to straight up, driving to the clouds.

Crews inserted starters; starters cranked engines; and 33 engines began singing the high-speed motorbike-like idle of racing.

The field fell into formation laps as the quarter-million of us in attendance stood on our feet in anticipation, and then…

Green! Green! Green!

The engines roared! The race was underway!

View from our seats at the exit of turn 1 at the Indy 500

View from our seats at the exit of turn 1 at the Indy 500

Every 40 seconds, the field screamed past us. We were ten rows up from trackside in the exit of Turn 1; the sound would have been deafening without earplugs. You could feel the pulsing of the engines even from that distance.

I was astonished how fast the cars were moving. Despite spending my four undergraduate years living in Indiana, I’d never been to the 500, and the racing I’d done the previous weekend in my Formula Vee was, at most, far less than half the speed I was now seeing. The cars were moving so fast in front of us that it was impossible to track them with a turn of the neck or a flick of the eye. It was nothing I’d ever experienced.

“Who’s your man?” I was asked. “Herta!” I replied, cheering on the young rookie. Four laps into the race, Herta’s gearbox expired, and he was out. I decided it was time for a drink.

The space below the grandstands was not one for lingering. A continuous light drizzle of booze — I hope it was booze — drifted down from the increasingly inebriated throngs on the benches above. Lines were long at the concessions for your choice of beer, hot dogs, pretzels… and not much else. The physical plant, especially in the corroding bathrooms, seemed straight out of the 1940s.

And yet, it was not cheap. Ticket prices were in the triple digits, and those hot dogs were similarly dear. You needed to be reasonably well off to be so lucky as to be low-brow for a day.

It was in many ways as though the decadence and depravity of the Kentucky Derby had migrated a hundred miles north in the weeks between that horse race and this horseless race. Perhaps it was once, like many things, an indulgence of the blue-collared, but now it seemed a fling for the well-to-do as much as anything else.

The race continued. The field settled into a rhythm, grinding out green-flag laps. The rain never came, which was good, but there wasn’t much passing (or crashing), which was a little boring. For the most part, the machines held together. And so it went for the next couple of hours.

But then, drama!

Two cars got into it in Turn 3, which led to three more being collected. The race was halted temporarily, and when the restart came, the 500 had turned from a button-down enduro into a lively 14-lap sprint! There was passing galore, there was close racing, and in the end, Pagenaud prevailed by an incredibly short 200 milliseconds. A wonderful finish! A fun day.

We went directly to the airport, where I bid farewell to my friends, and, once on the airplane, I promptly fell asleep.

Going racing: my first race car

December 14th, 2019 Comments off

I have gone from owning zero race cars to two race cars in the span of a year. This is the story of the first.

I’d enjoyed driving my Boxster on the track for several years in the Porsche club’s “high performance driver education” sessions, but by early 2018 they had begun to become routine. I was itching for the next level.

Earlier in the year, Tyler had acquired a race car, an MG Midget that long ago left the street for a life on the track. Although I demurred on his overtures to get a similar sports-car type of race car, they were formative in that they planted the seed of the race car idea in general. Did I want a purpose-built race car? Did I want another street car that would be usable as an occasional track toy? The Ariel Atom seemed to fit the latter bill, yet even that didn’t feel quite right. I could tell there was an answer out there, but I couldn’t see exactly what it was.

The first time I watched a Formula 1 race, in the spring of 2018, my eyes were opened.

The speed! The passes! The open wheels! I instantly knew what I wanted: a formula-style race car.

Racing my 1970 Zink C4 Formula Vee at Pikes Peak International Raceway in April 2019

Racing my 1970 Zink C4 Formula Vee at Pikes Peak International Raceway in April 2019

In particular, I was enamored with the idea of wings on an open-wheel car. That presented a challenge as my racing connections in Denver were mostly in the vintage-racing community, and vintage racing — with some high-dollar exceptions — was mutually exclusive with such airfoils.

So I hemmed and hawed the whole summer, driving the Boxster on the track, driving formula cars in a sim, and getting a feeling for the race car market overall. By early autumn 2018, I had honed in on what I wanted: a Formula 1000 car, which was a modern formula car with wings, slicks, and an engine from a superbike. However, they were hard to come by, and the ones that were available seemed to be priced wrong. That, and everybody I asked told me that would be a terrible first race car. I’d be in over my head, and it wouldn’t be fun, they said.

More time went by, and right around Christmas I found what seemed to be a unicorn: a vintage-eligible formula car with wings, a strong service history, and a reasonable price. Specifically, a 1975 Lola Super Vee up in Washington state. I liked it enough that I made an offer on it… and was pipped. ‘Twas not meant to be.

At that point, I reconnoitered. Did I really need wings? No, probably not. Would I be better served by something a bit more approachable and inexpensive, as I would inevitably make mistakes? Yes. Did I still want an open-wheel race car? You’d better believe it! And so I settled on Formula Vee.

A few weeks later, in January 2019, I found the right car about 20 minutes from my house: a 1970 Zink C4 Formula Vee.

Me with my FV at High Plains Raceway in May 2019

The first night I had the car in my garage, I put my helmet and gloves on, belted myself into it, and made engine noises as I imagined myself driving around the track at High Plains. It felt right. I spent the rest of the winter getting it ready for the racing season.

In April 2018, I took it to High Plains for real for my first time driving it on a track. I’d done hundreds of laps there in my Porsche, but the Vee was something else entirely. It was a far more visceral experience: the roaring engine right behind my head, the nimble handling and sticky tires taking me through corners at speeds I’d never thought possible, and the world flying by just inches below me. It was like a giant go-kart, but much faster. I distinctly recall thinking that first lap in the Vee was the most fun I’d had driving a car of any sort, ever.

Two weeks later, the Porsche was sold.

Getting set up next to Tyler in the paddock at Pueblo Motorsports Park in September 2019

As adults, we seek challenges for fun. That which comes too easy is unsatisfying. The Vee provided plenty.

To start, I wasn’t the amazing driver that I thought I was. Formula Vee is a tightly controlled class, so there’s a high degree of parity among the cars themselves. Speed is about the person behind the wheel. Thus, when I got my ass handed to me on the track, I was forced to realize that maybe I had a lot to learn about driving fast.

Then, in late July 2019, I was on the track when a terrible BANG-CRUNCH sound came from behind my head and the car lost all power. After I was towed back to the paddock, I took the engine cover off and discovered that the block had a gaping hole in it. Following some disassembly, I determined that one of the conn rod bolts for cylinder #4 had failed, causing the rod to liberate itself from the engine. The fracture face on the bolt remnant showed all of the classic signs of fatigue failure, so it was, in hindsight, inevitable.

I needed a new engine, and that gave me the opportunity to learn how to do an engine swap.

New engine! The FV’s blue frame, sans bodywork, is in the background.

I’m sure the car has far more to teach me. Even the known unknowns, like suspension setup, are a murky darkness in my mind. I’d be willing to wager that the unknown unknowns are equally as vast.

It’s a blast!

Mechanical watch

November 16th, 2019 Comments off

Do you wear a watch? The answer is probably no, but if you do, you’re probably of an, ahem, more experienced generation, or your watch has the computing power of a 2010-era iPhone. However, I wear a watch, I’m a millennial, and my watch has zero ability to do any sort of computations.

I love my mechanical watch.

The beating heart of my Seiko 5 Sports mechanical watch.

The beating heart of my mechanical watch. Also the first animated GIF I’ve ever had on this blog.

Every once in a great while I encounter somebody else with a mechanical watch. For those in the know, it’s possible to immediately identify such watches, so long as they have a second hand. Whereas quartz watches have a second hand that ticks once per second — tick….tick…tick… — mechanical watches beat at least four times per second — ticktickticktickticktick — so the second hand assumes a smooth “sweep” motion from afar. There are exceptions, notably the tuning-fork-driven Accutron, but if you see a real, working Accutron on somebody’s wrist, ask the person about it, because I can guarantee it will make their day.

Mechanical watches are, in every objective sense, terrible timepieces. They stop if you don’t wear them for a few days, they’re nowhere near as accurate as quartz watches even if you do wear them religiously, they require periodic maintenance, and they’ll break if you subject them to even moderate physical insult. So why bother? Because they’re amazing.

They are purely mechanical systems, reliant only on Newtonian physics, that can do something remarkable: keep time, and (usually) recharge themselves. You can the movement doing its thing through the skeleton back present on many mechanical watches, so there is no mystery to it — except for how the designers came up with the ideas, how the machinists/robots produced such precise parts, and, for automatic watches at least, how the whole thing manages to run solely on the tiny bit of energy harvested from the mundane routine movement of one’s arm. It’s all observable, it’s all knowable, and yet it’s magical.

Many high-end watches are still mechanical. Brands like Rolex, TAG Heuer, Breitling, and others more expensive and obscure feature purely mechanical movements as options if not defaults in their pieces. I, on the other hand, have worn a simple Seiko 5 Sports automatic since 2015. It’s not as fancy as the watch it replaced — the crystal is some sort of glass instead of sapphire, the body is stainless steel instead of titanium, and so on — but unlike that other watch, it’s mechanical! My Seiko has been reliable, but it’s cheap enough that if I were to break it I’d simply get a new one. I’ve seen another person wearing a Seiko 5 Sports only once, at an automobile race track several years ago. We exchanged knowing acknowledgements.

Even today, I’ll sometimes take the watch off my wrist and put it next to my ear, just to listen to the “tickticktick” of the balance wheel at the heart of the movement. I’ll flip it over and watch its rhythmic motion beat away the moments. And then I’ll return it to my arm and employ it in its utilitarian raison d’être, using it as my go-to source of time and date information. Some pull out their phones all the time; I save time by telling it from my mechanical wristwatch.

Car number eight

April 2nd, 2019 1 comment

I’ve heard the claim that deep down, every American guy secretly wants a 1-ton pickup truck with a huge engine. I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s exactly what I ended up getting for my eighth car.

I still have Sam the Subaru Outback. Sam is great, but I found myself in need of more towing capabilities than any unibody car could be expected to comfortably provide.

I wanted to be able to tow at least 8000 lbs, which meant one of three options: a large SUV, a full-size van, or a pickup truck. I also wanted to keep the purchase cost low and the reliability high, which eliminated a surprising number of options. Many SUVs are great, and even unibody SUVs often have surprisingly high towing capacities (about 7500 lbs for the Cayenne, for example), but they just wouldn’t be well-suited to towing an enclosed trailer though the mountains with a race car on board. Yes, they would do it, but it would be hard on them.

Full-size vans, like the Ford E-350 or the Chevy Express 3500, have high towing capacities and a lot of interior room, but almost all of the reasonably priced ones have lived extremely hard lives as commercial work vehicles. The Mercedes Sprinter 3500 is another option, but it combines an unusually low towing capacity (about 7500 lbs) with insanely high prices, even used.

All of which brought me to pickup trucks. I would like to have a gooseneck trailer at some point in the moderately near future, as they are apparently wonderful to tow, and that requires a pickup. A dually, ideally.

I searched for a while, trying to decide among Ford, Chevy, and Dodge, and whether the religion founded by Rudolf Diesel was worth its many trade-offs. The stakes were high, since as everybody knows, Ford truck drivers can’t be friends with Chevy truck drivers, and nobody likes Dodge truck drivers. Then, one day, the stars aligned on Craigslist.

Thus, my eighth “car” is a 1999 Dodge Ram 3500 V10 4×4 long-bed dually pickup truck. It’s enormous, comically inefficient, and sprung so hard that driving on a concrete freeway gives me a headache, but man can it tow. With a fifth wheel or gooseneck, it’s rated at about 13,000 lbs. And while that isn’t particularly high by modern standards, it should be sufficient, and the purchase price was well within budget.

Stats

  • Silver 1999 Dodge Ram 3500 4×4 quad-cab long-bed dually
  • 8.0 L V10 gas engine
  • 4-speed automatic transmission
  • 310 HP / 450 lb-ft torque
  • 13,000 lb towing capacity
  • Gray interior
  • 101,300 miles when acquired (December 11, 2018)