Wednesday, September 07, 2005

There has been plenty of action since the last update. August 28 was "The Masterpiece: Style & Speed Showcase" car show at Veteran's Park in Milwaukee. It was the first car show of its type in the area, with some spectacular cars (1931 Cadillac V-16 Coupe Roadster, 1937 Rolls Royce PIII Aero Coupe, and my father's 1932 Packard Coupe Roadster), some great early cars (1902 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, 1926 Stanley "steamer", and a 1905 one-cylinder Cadillac), and competition cars, including my car. The show was carefully planned and staged so that the cars were displayed in groups emphasizing their similarities: finned cars were in a circle with the fins pointing outwards; roadsters were in a circle with the tops down; and competition cars were in a row from oldest (1927 Bugatti Grand Prix car) to newest (1979 Tiga Formula Ford). Proceeds from the show benefitted Jewish Family Services, who are eager to team up for a repeat next year.

Labor Day weekend was unusual for me, to say the least. Races were being held at two tracks in Michigan: Midwestern Council ran at GingerMan in South Haven on Saturday, and SCCA ran two Regional races (Saturday and Sunday) at Grattan near Grand Rapids. I decided that going all the way to Michigan would make more sense if I ran both days. I wanted to get the points for Midwestern Council, and I needed to run more SCCA races to keep that license current. Since the tracks are roughly an hour or two apart, getting a hotel midway between them made sense. The Best Western in Holland turned out to be a great choice. Clean and quiet, with a jaccuzzi tub in the room! Very swank.

Saturday looked like it was going to be uneventful, but looks can deceive. I was the only Club Formula Ford entered, so all I needed to do was finish the race to get a win. I qualified in the thick of the usual group: Dave Knaack's D Sports Racer qualified in front of me, Frank Riemann's FF would be next to me, and Chuck Cassaro's Sports 2000 qualified behind me. When I checked over the car after qualifying, I found that the rear wheel hubs were loose again. I wasn't too concerned, since I know it's due to the relatively soft Brazilian hubs compressing and mushrooming due to the cornering forces that they were never designed for. All I'd have to do would be to retorque the axle nuts and I'd be ready to cruise to an easy win.

Someone once said, "Nothing easy is ever worthwhile." Maybe this was proof that what I'm doing is worthwhile, but when I tried to tighten the right rear axle nut, the threads stripped out of the nut. Bad timing. I don't carry a spare nut (but I will now), and I had about an hour and a half to get the car fixed for the race. I went through the paddock looking for anyone likely to have something to fit. It's an old VW Beetle part, so I checked with some VW Rabbit racers, Porsche drivers, and even the FV brigade, but no luck. As I returned to the Lindstrand Motorsports tent, Nicole Temple told me that a friend of theirs knew a local guy... He had one, but he was 45 minutes away, and the race was in an hour.

A couple of phone calls later, Patrick Ohmann arranged to meet Rob Ritt of Epicenter Design halfway between the track and his shop in Holland. As he sped off, I finished preparing the car and began arranging the details to get the car together and on the track as quickly as possible. Pat would install the new nut as I belted in the car, Nicole Temple from LMI would install the wheel, my roommate David Cox would lower the jack while Amy would take care of the jumpstart battery. All we needed now was the nut. While I waited for Pat and watched the minutes tick away, I mentally prepared myself to start from the pit lane after the other cars had taken the green flag, then just get the required number of laps to be considered a finisher. That was all I needed to do.

As the announcement came over the PA system that the grid for our race was closed*, Pat came running up to me with the new nut in his hand. I jumped in the car and held the brake pedal down as he tightened the nut as much as he dared. As I belted myself in, Nicole got the wheel on quicker than I've ever been able to do, and as I felt the car being lowered off the jack I hit the starter. The engine eagerly barked to life. I got the thumbs-up from Amy and drove toward the grid.

The grid configuration at GingerMan is a little odd. Due to a one-way lane, we had to drive the wrong way down the grid between the lines of cars, turn around, and then join the lineup. When I turned the corner to drive down between the cars, the crews for all the other cars pointed at me in disbelief and began applauding and cheering as though I had already won the race. It's amazing how much the other racers pull for you, even if they're trying to beat you on the track.

Since I was late to the grid, I started from the back. My plan was to just get the required laps, take it easy, get my finish, and pull in. But I don't know a racer who is able to keep his foot off the throttle when the green flag flies. Seeing a slower car disappear in your mirror is just too inspiring. When I got past the first car, I couldn't help trying to pass the next... then the next... I think I passed a car each lap for the first half of the race. I chased down all the cars gridded behind me and actually improved my finishing position by one spot.

We packed up the truck and loaded the trailer after the race to get back to the hotel for the night. I soaked in the jaccuzzi for a while until my throat started to burn a little, which I figured was due to breathing in all of the hot chlorinated water vaporizing all around me. When I woke up Sunday morning, I realized that it was really the start of a cold. There wasn't much I could do about it then except get some hot cider and oatmeal at the hotel's continental breakfast and hit the road to Grattan.

We got to Grattan right on time, got through Registration and Tech without any delays or difficulties, and found a great paddock spot without even looking. After we got the car unloaded I realized that I would have plenty of time to change the gears to suit the longer track. I got the gear change done in record time with Amy's help -- despite a boneheaded error on my part that cost me about 15 extra minutes -- and waited for the morning qualifying session.

Qualifying went well enough, but I didn't set the world on fire. I only needed to finish the race to fulfill the renewal requirements for my SCCA license, but I enjoy Grattan too much not to drive hard. Once I managed to match my best time from May, I cut my session short by a few minutes and pulled in, hoping to save the engine and tires a bit. I was sent to Impound for a spot-check, and I rolled across the scales at 1191 pounds. I had a few more gallons of fuel than I would at the end of a race, so it sounded accurate to me. I returned to my paddock space and began the nut-and-bolt check for the afternoon's race.

I finished two items on the list and started to feel dizzy and exhausted. I realized that the cold was catching up to me, and it was not going down without a fight. I wrapped up in a blanket and a fleece sweatshirt and sat in the sun, shivering for about an hour. I actually felt much better after that little rest, so I set about finishing the preparations for the race. Everything was in order... except the exhaust header pipe from the #1 cylinder had a big crack in the tubing.

The exhaust header's primary job is to direct hot exhaust gasses out of the engine, away from things that need to be kept cool, and eventually out the back of the car via the tailpipe. It also plays a rather significant role in the performance of the engine. The correct length header tubes can work together, harmonizing the exhaust pulses and increasing the power output of the engine. A less appreciated duty of the exhaust header is to prevent cold outside air from coming in contact with the hot exhaust valves. If the header breaks, cold air can suddenly rush in, potentially cracking or bending the exhaust valve. If you've ever dunked a cold glass in steaming hot wash water, you have experienced this same kind of thermal shock: the glass breaks because of the extremely quick change of temperature.

I really like this cylinder head, and I don't want anything to happen to it. Pushing the car hard, especially on the undulating Grattan circuit, would almost certainly cause the cracked header to break. I had to drive as easily as possible, minimizing the bumps and jumps that make Grattan so much fun. I also had to go easy on the throttle, since pushing the engine too hard could also make the crack develop into a full fracture.

We watched the start of the first race group, and I noticed that they were taking a pace lap and a half. The false grid at Grattan enters the track at corner 3. The pace lap would take the field out onto the track at corner 3, make the rest of that lap, cross the start/finish line, then make another full lap before the green flag. I realized that was 4 miles of driving I didn't need to put on the car, so I spoke to the starters about starting from the pit lane after the green flag. I explained that the header was cracked and that I was feeling under the weather, and they were very nice and supportive -- "No problem, we'll take care of it," "Remember, you only need 8 laps to get a finish," "Good luck, hope it holds together," "Feel better!" I already felt better after talking to them.

While puttering around at 4000 rpm, I learned a few things. First, I learned that if I drive down the front straight at 4000 rpm instead of 7000 rpm, I can brake at my usual turn-in point and still make it through corner 1. I learned that there is so much used rubber off the racing line that if you drive down the front straight off the line and then try to carry some speed through corner 1, you get the feeling that you're driving through some kind of weird rubber storm with all the bits of rubber being thrown up by your tires. I also learned that if you drive ten laps at Grattan off the normal line, you gain about 5 pounds of used rubber.

I pulled in after 10 laps and went to Impound. Since there was only one other CFF there, I would get credit for a second place finish. The Impound workers gave me a cold washcloth and two bottles of water and insisted that I stay on the scales in the shade until the other cars were done racing.

The scoreboard for MC looks the same as it did before, but add 25 more points to my total. And it only cost one knee (Amy's -- injured on the trailer before we had gone one block), one nasty wasp sting (Amy again), one 1" strip of skin off my pinky finger (another boneheaded move during the gearchange), and one nasty head cold.

Next up: Showing off the car again, this time at a British car show in Palos Hills, IL on Sunday.

*The grid "closes" five minutes before the start of the race. If a car gets to the grid after the grid is closed, that car must start at the back of the pack.