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 had 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 ever 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)

Are all alkaline battery brands the same?

December 22nd, 2018 2 comments

I’d often wondered whether there really were any differences among the major AA and AAA alkaline battery brands. Sure, Duracell and Energizer both put out numerous ads claiming to have the best battery life, but I figured that was nothing but boisterous marketing. Surely they must be about the same, right?

How wrong I was. You can indeed buy a bad brand-name battery. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most of the batteries tested in this post

To answer the question, I decided to measure the actual usable capacity of AA and AAA alkaline batteries from the major brands under conditions simulating light to heavy loads. I wanted a rigorous, repeatable experimental setup, so I used an Itech 8511A+ programmable DC load on my lab bench to drain the batteries under precisely controlled constant-current conditions and recorded the data points on a PC. Each battery was in a properly sized battery holder, and it was connected to the load with a 4-wire setup.

Lest anybody claim I’m in the pocket of Big Battery, I bought all of the batteries I tested at retail, and I took no money from anybody.

I will admit that the testing scope kind of snowballed out of control and as a result took a lot longer than expected. I could test only one battery at a time, and when light loads met high capacities, it would take several days to complete a single test (of three) for each battery.

Fortunately, it turned out that a lot of batteries were crap, so some tests went unexpectedly quickly.

AA battery results

Energizer, Duracell, Amazon Basics, and Rayovac were the contenders in the alkaline AA ring, with two Duracell sub-brands represented (Copper Top and Quantum) and four Energizer manufacturing locations in the field (Poland, Indonesia, China, and the USA).

Round one? A light load, specifically 50 mA. While that level is still well above what you’d see in a very light load like a wall clock or a garden watering timer, it turns out that all of the batteries were pretty much the same there: 2700 mAh +/- 10%.

Why not test even lighter loads? Time constraints. The capacity in milliamp hours (mAh) is the number of hours of run time multiplied by the load in milliamps. That works the other way, too, so you can find how long a test took by taking the capacity in mAh and dividing by the current in mA, giving hours. A 2700 mAh battery at 50 mA already takes over two days (54 hours) to test; testing at 10 mA would take about a week and a half. I didn’t have that kind of time or patience, but somebody else did.

As the load was stepped up to 200 mA, which you might see with a flashlight on “low”, some differences among the brands emerged!

With a 200 mA load, there was more than a factor of two difference between the worst performer (the Energizer Max AA manufactured in Indonesia) and the best performer (a Duracell Quantum). The Coppertop Duracell sub-brand was near the top, as was the Rayovac, while the Amazon Basics options had middling performance not far ahead of the worst Energizers.

Oddly, the performance of the Energizer batteries was very strongly tied to the manufacturing location. The Energizer batteries made in China performed pretty well — right up there with the Duracells and Rayovac. However, the Energizer batteries made in Indonesia and Poland were terrible. The Energizers made in the USA were pretty good but not great, sitting somewhat back from their Chinese brethren.

Not all Energizer AA alkaline batteries are made in the same place, and the quality can differ according to the manufacturing location. The place of origin can be found on the positive side of the battery.

Not all Energizer AA alkaline batteries are made in the same place, and the quality can differ according to the manufacturing location. The place of origin can be found on the positive side of the battery.

The same trends held at the 500 mA level, similar to a reasonably bright LED flashlight. The Amazon cells and the Indonesian and Polish Energizer cells occupied the rear again, with only about half the capacity of the Duracells and Rayovac, which were again in the lead. The American and Chinese Energizers rounded out the front group, about 15% off of the best performer, the Duracell Quantum.

The capacity data for the various batteries, in mAh capacity versus mA drain (click to enlarge)

The capacity data for the various AA batteries, in mAh capacity versus mA drain (click to enlarge)

The take-aways from the AA tests:

  1. Duracell is a safe choice for AA alkalines
  2. There isn’t much of a difference between Duracell Quantum and Duracell Coppertop
  3. Avoid Amazon Basics AAs
  4. If you buy Energizer AAs, check the top of the cell (by the positive terminal) to make sure they weren’t made in Indonesia or Poland

Half-time assessment

The Energizer bunny sure has a good side and a bad side, at least based on the AA tests. Energizer fanboys aren’t going to be happy.

On the other hand, Duracell partisans are probably feeling pretty smug. The Copper Top (and Quantum) cells were consistently great in the AA tests.

Other than the Energizer results, the big surprise for me was how poorly the Amazon Basics cells fared. Since those are also made in Indonesia, and since certain tell-tales on them look very similar to the Indonesian Energizers (but not the other Energizers), I can’t help but wonder if perhaps both Amazon and Energizer sourced some AA batteries from the same OEM in Indonesia. Just speculation, nothing more.

On to the smaller batteries. Would the same relative brand results hold? Spoiler: no.

AAA batteries

I did a limited test of cheap alkaline AAA batteries last year, but this time around I looked at the brand name offerings. Alkaline AAAs from Duracell (Coppertop and Quantum), Energizer, Rayovac (Fusion and normal), and Amazon Basics were in the running. All of the Energizer AAAs I found were made in the USA, unlike with the AAs.

At the 50 mA level, which would provide data that would be useful for selecting the cells for your TV remote, even the worst performer was only 15% back from the best performer. Thus, for light-load applications, just get whichever of them is cheapest and don’t worry too much about it.

Things got more interesting at the higher drain currents, which would be relevant for things like LED headlamps, flashlights, or radios.

The best and worst options at 200 mA were both made by Rayovac: the normal alkaline Rayovac was the worst, but the Rayovac Fusion was the best. Close behind the Rayovac Fusion was the Amazon Basics AAA. Energizer and Duracell were mid-pack and about even with each other.

At the highest drain level, 500 mA, the Rayovac Fusion option blew away the competition, while the normal alkaline Rayovac was dead last. I mean, dead first. I mean… it had by far the lowest usable capacity, only about 50% of that of the Fusion sub-brand. The Amazon Basics option was pretty good, and the Duracell and Energizer entrants were both closer to last place than to the front-runner.

In other words, the AAA results were entirely different than the AA results. Just because a manufacturer can make a good AA battery doesn’t mean they can make a good AAA battery, and vice-versa. Or, in the case of Rayovac, they clearly know know to make a good AAA battery but choose not to apply that knowledge uniformly across their product lines.

The capacity data for the various AAA batteries, in mAh capacity versus mA drain (click to enlarge)

The capacity data for the various AAA batteries, in mAh capacity versus mA drain (click to enlarge)

The take-aways from the AAA test:

  1. Duracell and Energizer are about even in AAA land, but neither are particularly good
  2. Amazon has a decent AAA battery even though they’re bad at AA batteries
  3. Rayovac Fusion alkaline AAA batteries are really good at high loads, but the normal Rayovac alkaline AAAs are terrible
  4. For light loads, everybody is about equal. The only real differences are at higher loads

Conclusion

Duracell was consistently decent, though not always the best. Energizer was surprisingly inconsistent based on the manufacturing location used for a particular lot. Rayovac was great for AAs, great for some AAAs, and terrible for some AAAs. Amazon’s “Basics” house brand was roughly the opposite: great for AAAs but pretty bad for AAs.

The aftermath

Now I need to figure out what to do with all of these terrible Polish and Indonesian Energizer AAs…

 

How I had a bygone 72-pin connector remade just to play Duck Hunt

June 25th, 2018 7 comments

I had been looking at component catalogs and distributor inventories for so long that my eyes were throbbing. I was searching for a particular circuit board connector, but it seemed there were none to be had. Not here, not there, not anywhere in the world. They no longer existed.

I realized I was down to a single option: a custom manufacturing order. I had never done that, and the prospect scared me.

Why bother? To play Duck Hunt, obviously.

The 72-pin connectors actually arrived!

Spoiler: the custom connectors actually arrived! Bliss!

The connector was — deep breath — a 72-pin straddle-mount female card-edge type, somewhat similar the expansion-board connectors on a computer motherboard. That alone would be, if not common, at least not too obscure, but there was a catch: I needed a 2.50 mm pin pitch, not the standard 2.54 mm pin pitch.

Thanks, Nintendo.

For reasons lost to history, Nintendo used that 2.50 mm pin pitch on their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game cartridges back in the 1980s. If there were just a few pins on a cartridge, the 40-micron difference between 2.50 and 2.54 mm wouldn’t really matter, but with so many pins, two rows of 36, the summed error is enough to cause shorts near the card ends.

The motivation was a project of passion: getting the NES game Duck Hunt to work on an LCD TV. The game usually requires an old CRT (tube) TV, but I’d figured out how to modify it and the Zapper light gun to make it work on with an LCD. I needed the 72-pin connector to build a pass-through board that would apply certain patches to the game on the fly to let it tolerate things like extra video input lag. It would be conceptually similar to a Game Genie. In fact, my early prototypes of the pass-through patch board used a 72-pin connector salvaged from an old Game Genie, but that approach was a huge pain and required sourcing and destroying old Game Genies.

The connector where it will be used

The connector as it will be used: on a pass-through board to patch Duck Hunt so it will work on modern TVs.

I began my search with the US-based suppliers, but when I started getting quotes above $7 per connector in low-thousands quantities — and that was just for standard 2.54 mm pin pitch — I realized that was untenable. Nobody would even return my calls when I attempted to clarify that I was looking for something non-standard, like 2.50 mm pitch.

While contemplating what to do, I happened upon a story at written by a guy in a similar situation a few years earlier. He had needed some DB-19 connectors, which were similarly no longer manufactured. He went to China, the “workshop of the world”, and so, I would go there to.

Alibaba had always fascinated me. It was a land of broken English but endless possibilities. Seemingly anything I could think of could be found there, either by the actual OEM or a factory that didn’t mind making a knock-off. The fact I’d never ordered anything off of Alibaba made it a little mysterious, but I was otherwise stuck, so I figured, “Eh, whatever,” entered “card edge connectors” in the box, and clicked “Search”.

Approximately 1,000 companies held themselves out as being potential providers. Hmm.

Over 1000 possible card-edge connector suppliers were listed. Too many options!

Over 1000 possible card-edge connector suppliers listed. Too many options!

The trick, I learned, was weeding out the actual manufacturers from the mere distributors. In theory, that should be easy, since Alibaba allows companies to be categorized as “manufacturers” or as “traders”, but in practice, many traders also claimed to do a little manufacturing on the side, and vice-versa. In order to tell them apart, I had to look at their product lines.

If the company sold a wide variety of products across several categories, but claimed to have only relatively limited manufacturing floor space (also listed on Alibaba), that was a red flag. It was similarly a red flag if they used the same stock photos as everybody else, even if those photos were emblazoned with bespoke watermarks or graphical overlays.

After identifying six companies that appeared to actually make card-edge connectors, albeit with specifications different than I needed, I contacted them through Alibaba’s messaging system. I described what I was looking for and asked them whether they could provide such pieces and on what terms.

I also sent a technical drawing showing the 72-pin 2.50 mm pitch female straddle-mount cart-edge connector. I didn’t have one handy, so I grabbed a drawing for a 2.54 mm pitch connector that was otherwise appropriate, tweaked a bunch of things in Photoshop to match what I needed, and attached that to my inquiries.

Of the six companies, only three responded. The first sent a polite note that they could not help.

The second sent what has to be one of the gutsiest replies I’ve yet encountered in business. “Yes!” they said, they could sell me those connectors. In fact, they had them in stock, and they could ship them immediately for US$1.10 each. That seemed very suspicious. I asked them to send me a technical drawing of the part they had in stock so that I could check that it would meet my needs.

What did they send me? Why, a cropped version of the drawing I had sent to them!

I couldn’t believe it. It was definitely the crappy Photoshopped drawing I had put together, except with the edges cropped in. I was so surprised that I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be angry.

The third company, one based in Guangzhou, was much more professional. After working through some clarification — yes, I was sure I wanted 2.50 mm pitch, not 2.54 mm pitch — they sent me a technical drawing of a connector they could produce. More importantly, it wasn’t the drawing I had sent in the first place. It looked perfect.

And the price? An order of magnitude cheaper than the non-custom connector the stateside manufacturer was trying to sell me. The only catch was that I would need to order 2000 of them at a minimum.

My fears rapidly shifted towards how to pay them and how they would get the components to me.

How did international payments work? How did shipping work? Would I need a broker? A fixer? A smuggler? I read horror stories about how payments to mainland China banks were tricky, how shipment was its own beast, replete with a sea of incoterms, and so on. Would I have to worry about customs? How would I even find out?

Fortunately, the connector manufacturer was large enough to have well-oiled solutions for such situations. I paid them via credit card using PayPal, the destination apparently being an account at a bank in Hong Kong. Then, for getting the parts back to me, they gave me a variety of EXW options, including DHL and FedEx. I chose FedEx IE, which balanced cost with speed.

The PayPal payment complete, I crossed my fingers and waited.

A few weeks later, but five business days ahead of schedule, I received a FedEx tracking number from the company. Woo! I was excited! Surely my connectors would arrive in short order!

Ha. Um, no.

Thus began a 10-day slog in which I learned that FedEx IE (international economy) is a lot different than FedEx IP (international priority). An airplane was involved, but it might as well have been a slow boat.

I watched as my package lingered for days in Hong Kong. The FedEx tracking page claimed that the “shipping exception” was due to “scheduling due to shipper request”. It turns out that doesn’t mean my vendor requested something shipping-related, but rather, that FedEx itself was deprioritizing the package. Of course, none of that was obvious when I made the initial shipment, and getting more details about the shipping schedule beyond “It should arrive within a few weeks” was nigh-on impossible.

A

A “scheduling per shipper request” shipment exception from FedEx

After the better part of a week, the packages started to move, albeit slowly and on an indirect route. Taipei. Anchorage. Memphis. Would it ever arrive?

But arrive the packages eventually did, on a sunny morning a month to the day after I’d first contacted the Chinese manufacturer. The doorbell rang, my dog Sophie barked, and there I found my 87 lbs. of connectors, all 2000 of them of them, boxed and covered in Hanzi characters. “Enjoy your… whatever they are!” the FedEx guy said.

I was giddy with anticipation as I cut through the tape on the topmost box. Inside, I found a stack of smaller white boxes, each labeled “72-pin female straddle 2.50mm” — a good sign!. I lifted the lid. There they were! My connectors, packed neatly in rows and layers.

A quick check with calipers confirmed they were the correct size. Hooray!

Incredibly, they met specs: 36 pins (per row) at 2.50 mm spacing is 87.5 mm center to center from start to end.

Incredibly, they met specs: 36 pins (per row) at 2.50 mm spacing is 87.5 mm center to center from start to end.

I soldered one to the patch-board PCB I’d designed and plugged in a real NES cartridge. Worked great!

I zapped some ducks on my LCD TV to celebrate.

UPDATE June 28th, 2018: More to the story coming when I get around to writing it! In the meantime, I’ll jump ahead to the part where I made this available so you too can play Duck Hunt on your LCD TV.