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Going racing: my first race car

December 14th, 2019

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!

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