Friday, December 30, 2005

Two seasons, two cranks, two blocks

Last winter I purchased a used race engine from someone getting out of the Formula Ford class after a minor incident (another car landed on top of him). When my engine oil pressure dropped last summer, I was tempted to put this engine in, but he had stressed to me that it was tired and needed to be rebuilt before I ran it. I stripped it and took the block and crank to the machine shop to get it checked. Good thing, too. The center main bearing saddle is cracked.

To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement. Broke-busted-disgusted would be closer to the truth. But at least I can be pretty sure this one wasn’t my fault.

In his defense, the seller made no promises or claims except to warn me that it was due for a rebuild. The engine ran – very well, according to everyone who saw it – when he parked it in 2003. I am absolutely certain that he never knew or suspected it was cracked. His asking price was less than what I thought the engine was worth, so I pounced.

I had high hopes for that engine. I hadn’t decided whether to use it as the spare or the primary engine, but the plan was to have one running engine in the car and a second ready to bolt in at the first sign of trouble or loss of power.

If this cloud has a silver lining, it’s that I will be spending far less this winter than I thought. The crankshaft from this engine is good enough to put in the other engine, and I won’t have to buy a second set of bearings, piston rings, and gaskets. On the other hand, that "savings" was spent on the cracked block.

If it is possible (and not ill-advised) to repair this block, I will definitely do it. These engines are no longer made, and good used blocks are rare. The theoretical "too expensive to be worth fixing" threshold is pretty high on this one.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Racing Checklists

The king of racecar preparation, the late Carroll Smith, once said, “Life without checklists is chaos.” It took me a while to learn that. When I started racing, checklists seemed to be overkill. I recently realized that the racers I admired -- the people with immaculately clean cars that always finished every session (usually toward the front) and never panicked -- all used checklists. Now I swear by them instead of at them. A while ago I promised all you insomniacs a rundown of my now-famous racing checklists. Here are some of the things I've learned about making and using them. Brush your teeth, put on your PJs, and get yourself tucked in.

First, we need to agree that a race car is a complex assembly of fragile parts held together by fasteners that loosen in response to the vibrations of the racing engine. Every session, the engine does its best to shake the car apart while the driver does his best to break it. By the end of a session, something (oftentimes many somethings) will be loose, missing, broken, about to break, worn out, out of adjustment, leaking, burned, or boiled away. If you finish a session and nothing falls into one of those categories, you probably didn't go fast enough.

The constant stress and strain on the car means that dozens of different things need to be checked every time the car comes off the track. In addition to checking all of those things, you also need to add fuel, reset the tire pressures, make any necessary adjustments, and get yourself ready for the next session. It's pretty much impossible to remember all of that every time. Without a checklist, something is bound to be forgotten. That's the fundamental reason behind checklists.

Checklists never forget what needs to be done. Checklists also tell you at a glance what has already been checked so you don't waste time checking it again. Good checklists can create an ongoing record of maintenance and repairs. Checklists also make it easier to delegate work to other people on the crew so that you can take a break. And the best part is the peace of mind you can enjoy while sitting on the grid, knowing that your car is fully prepared for the session.

On the other hand, checklists can't do the maintenance for you. The most detailed checklist does you no good sitting in a desk drawer. Checklists should never, ever be used to assign blame when something goes wrong! The crew should initial when a job is done instead of just checking it off, but that should only be used for things like tracking down the missing 1/2" wrench and knowing who to ask just how far that adjuster nut had backed off. It's also easy to look at a simple checkmark and think to yourself, "I don't remember doing that... what else did I check off without really doing it?"

My own checklists have evolved from a note pinned to my shirt ("Fill Gas!") to a one-page list of jobs to do between sessions (the "Track" list) and a two-page list of jobs to do between race weekends (the "Garage" list). Jobs have been added and deleted, leading to very personal lists tailored to my particular car. The Track list includes items that need attention after every session to keep disaster at bay: Check the critical fasteners, check the fluids, bleed the brakes. The Garage list includes jobs that aren’t easily done at the track: Check the rest of the fasteners, change the fluids, and change the brake pads. All of the items on the Track list are also on the Garage list.

Since my car is water-cooled, "Bleed Radiator" and "Check Water Level" are on both lists. Since it has disc brakes, "Adjust Brake Shoes" is not. The fasteners which are more prone to loosening on my particular car also appear on the Track list. The fasteners which do not frequently come loose are on the Garage list. If they develop the habit of loosening, they are moved to the Track list. If they establish a stable history, they may be moved to the Garage list.

The checklists are organized to allow a good flow of work. The jobs are arranged by chronological order, grouped by physical area, and grouped by similarity to each other.

When I say chronological order, I mean that I want to be able to start almost as soon as the car comes off the track and go down the list without skipping a job because those parts are still too hot to touch. For example, "Check Exhaust Header Bolts" is at the end of the list, after the engine has had a chance to cool off. The very last jobs are setting tire pressures (which could change if the car sits too long in the sun) and pushing the car to the grid.

The jobs are also arranged into areas to try to prevent running laps around the car. For example, the jobs at the rear of the car (checking the rear axle CV joint bolts, checking the rear brake pads, and checking the gearbox for leaks) are together so that you can do them all while you're back there. To be honest, that type of grouping hasn't been entirely successful, because so many jobs require going from one end of the car to the other anyway. Still, checking the rear brake pads should be done between checking the rear CV joints and checking the gearbox, not between checking the front brake pads and the brake fluid level -- which are both at the front of the car.

By similar jobs I mean jobs requiring the same tools. Grouping these jobs together can save a few trips running back and forth to the toolbox, but it can also reduce the chances of two people fighting over tools. For instance, if one person checks all of the critical Allen-head bolts, then he won't be waiting for someone else to finish with the Allen wrench set before he can start. The alternative is to bring a second set of those wrenches to the track, which ties up more money, weighs down the tow rig, and takes extra space in the toolbox. On the other hand, if you're fortunate enough to have a dozen crew members, or if you bring a spare car to the track, then by all means bring a second set of tools.

Next to each job is a box to be initialed when the job is complete. After each job is a space for notes or comments. For example, in the space next to "Add Fuel" you would record how much fuel was added. If you find any worn rod ends, you would note which ones in the space next to "Check Rod Ends." You can also add specifications for torque or clearance next to their respective jobs. The required torque value is printed in the field next to "Torque Lug Nuts," and the ignition timing is printed next to "Check Ignition Timing." Those specifications are added to the sheet before it is printed, so they are always available without having to look them up elsewhere.

If I can figure out a way to post an Excel spreadsheet, I'll put my checklists up here. Otherwise, feel free to ask for them -- just post a request with your email address as a comment. I'll send you both documents via email and then delete your address so you won't get spammed. Copy them, change them as you need, use them as you like, give them to your friends and competitors. I claim no copyright on them, but I also disclaim any responsibility for them or for you. You have to work with them to make them work for you. Use the principles I outlined above to make them fit your program.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

2006 Racing Schedule

Have I mentioned that I’m not a fan of snow and cold? I’m not. I would hibernate if I could. That is why so little has been happening in the garage this month, despite our current heat wave. It’s been in the high 30s the past couple of days, but the temperature is expected to drop again tomorrow.

So let’s pretend winter is over already and start thinking about next summer. Here is my not-very-tentative (and yet not quite firm) 2006 schedule. As I said before, racing schedules are always subject to change.

April 22-23 GingerMan (MI) SCCA National
April 29-30 Blackhawk (IL) SCCA National
May 13-14 Grattan (MI) SCCA National
May 20-21 Blackhawk (IL) SCCA National
May 27-28 Blackhawk (IL) MC Drivers’ School
June 3-4 Mid-Ohio (OH) SCCA National
June 24-25 Montreal (CAN) F1 Grand Prix Support Race
July 29-30 Nelson Ledges (OH) SCCA National
August 12-13 Grattan (MI) SCCA National
August 26-27 Montreal (CAN) CART Support Race
September 2-3 Nelson Ledges (OH) SCCA National
September 16-17 Blackhawk (IL) MC Drivers’ School
October 9-15 Topeka (KS) SCCA Runoffs

The Canadian organizers haven’t confirmed the two support races in Montreal. We also haven’t heard what rules they will use for those races, or if they would accept my license. It might be worth the 16 hour tow to race on the same weekend as F1 or CART, but I may find that I need to focus my energy and resources on the SCCA races instead. On the other hand, this could be my only opportunity to appear on their program. But I’d rather not postpone a promising SCCA season for the sake of one event that may not work out.

The Runoffs will depend on the points standings, as will the National races in Ohio in the second half of the season. The SCCA Runoffs is an invitation-only, “winner-take-all” race for the national championship. Only the top 10 drivers in each Division are invited, with each driver’s best 6 finishes counting towards the total. If I can earn enough points in the first four or five events, I may be able to relax the pace a bit. If I’m hopelessly far behind the top 10 by June, I probably won’t push too hard the rest of the season. And if that happens, then I won’t be attending the Runoffs.

Some other races that are on my “backup” calendar (if the budget allows, if other events fall through, etc) include an early April MC race at the Autobahn (good for a shakedown before the first National race), a June MC race on the Milwaukee Mile infield road course (and a Regional race there in September), and the June Sprints at Road America (on the same weekend as the Canadian Grand Prix).

I will have to miss the Central Division East-West Challenge series races race at Grattan on Memorial Day weekend because of the conflict with the Drivers’ School. The EWC Blackhawk race in July is unfortunately third on the list that weekend, behind the Classic Car Club of America’s Grand Classic event and a National race in Indianapolis. The EWC at Road America also conflicts with the Montreal CART race.

On a different subject, I plan to change the look of the site just a bit in the next week or two. Some people have reported that their browsers only show part of the page, so I need to adjust the size of the page. You may not even notice a difference.