Friday, October 26, 2007

Losing my Bearings

I forgot the cardinal rule of auto racing: When everything looks like it's falling into place, you've missed something. Put another way, if anything can be described as "too easy", it is.

I purchased replacement bearings (four, in case we damaged any on installation). I took the upright off the car (it came off without any trouble). I packed everything in a box and arranged to take it all to LMI Thursday evening.

The first thing Bruce did was to take the stub axle out of the upright. As soon as he did, he could see that I had purchased the wrong bearings. Nothing about them was correct -- wrong size (by about 1mm on the OD), wrong type (double-row ball instead of single-row ball), and much too wide to fit the upright. He got the old bearings out without much trouble (he makes it look so easy), but there was nothing else we could do. The parts stores were closed, and none of the other cars in the LMI shop use the bearing I needed. I put all the loose parts back in the box and drove home.

The real shame is not that I wasted all that time driving to Darien. I felt worse that I asked Bruce to stay in the shop three hours after they closed so he could help me. But this morning I have an upright with no bearings, and no access to the proper way to install the new bearings once I get them.

The proper way to install bearings in a cast aluminum part is to start by warming the aluminum part to about 300-350 degrees. This makes the bearing bore slightly larger, making it easier to slip the bearing in. Ideally the bearings should also be chilled to shrink them slightly for even more clearance. Finally, a press should be at hand to squeeze the bearings into place. I have two out of those three here at work and at home. We have a press and a freezer at work, but no oven. We have an oven and a freezer at home, but no press. If the bearings arrive in time today, we may try to warm the upright on a gas grill. If not, I'll have to go shopping for a press on my way home tonight. And then I'll have to do a lot of explaining and apologizing for putting my car parts in the oven.

I'm giving myself until midnight tonight. If the car isn't on its wheels by then (or at least making significant progress), I don't think I'll make the race this weekend.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Getting My Bearings

The good people at Lindstrand Motorsports have helped me identify the mysterious noises I thought I was hearing. The noises were real, and they were the result of worn wheel bearings. The left rear wheel can be moved about 1/8" up and down, although it is still tight side to side.

The left rear wheel on a formula car is typically the most heavily loaded wheel in road racing. Road racing courses are generally run clockwise, which emphasizes right hand turns. Turning right transfers weight to the outside wheels (the left side), and the rear of the car is heavier than the front, both because of static weight distribution and because weight transfers to the rear wheels under acceleration. I won't speculate on what percentage of the car's weight is carried by the left rear wheel in a right hand turn, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was more than half. This is the same force that ate up the VW wheel hubs I used a couple of years ago.

What appears to have happened is the outer race of the bearing has become egg-shaped (pointy end up) from the extra weight it has been carrying. It hasn't just generally worn out, which would cause the wheel to be loose in every direction. If you put one hand on the tire at 3 o'clock and your other hand at 9 o'clock and push and pull, you won't feel any play. But put your hands at 6 o'clock and 12 o'clock and you can move the wheel up and down with an audible clunk.

The plan for the next few days is to take the upright off tonight so that I can deliver it (and two new bearings) to LMI tomorrow, as Bruce has offered to stay in the shop after hours to help press the old bearings out and install the new ones. Depending on the hour when I get home Thursday night, I may try to get the car back together that night so I can load up Friday night and head to the track Saturday morning. I don't know if I'll make it in time for the first practice session in the morning, but I should be ready for qualifying in the afternoon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

That Loooong Race '07

"Couldn't ask for better weather" was the most often heard phrase last weekend. The late October weather in northern Illinois has not been the best for outdoor activities in the past. Rain, cold, wind, bitter cold, snow, and cold are typical conditions for "The Looong Race," but cloudless skies and temperatures in the 70s made the stiff breeze tolerable all weekend.

This was my first race at Blackhawk since losing the oil pump in the rain last May, and I was looking forward to it. Blackhawk is a fun track with a welcoming atmosphere. Pro teams test there, but the track doesn't host any pro events. Unlike other tracks that cater to the pro racer (and to the spectators), Blackhawk hasn't clearcut groves of trees to set up grandstands or paved everything in sight. The creek where I used to catch tadpoles and snails and grasshoppers as a kid is still a creek. The track is still shaded by trees in many areas. Yes, the bathrooms are far from glamorous and we all paddock on grass or gravel, but the place feels more like a park or a picnic area than a business.

Most of the races we run are short sprint races, somewhere around 30 minutes or 50 miles. The Looong Race is a 100 mile race (technically, it's 97 1/2 -- 50 laps around a 1.95 mile track). Many cars stop to refuel (as I would have to do), and many people co-drive the event (as my competition, Mike and Paul Schindlbeck, would do). Most of our races don't involve pit stops, so this race can see some real entertainment in the pits. Unless the race is going to decide a championship, many of us take a fairly laid-back approach to setting up a pit crew. I hadn't actually arranged for a crew to help me refuel, but the great thing about club racing is that I knew could count on someone to help me. My parents were there, and my father agreed to hand me the fuel jug and hold the fire extinguisher ready while I poured in the fuel. That was all I needed, and I only needed enough fuel to make it to the finish.

Practice was relatively uneventful as I got reacquainted with the track. It was amazing how quickly some of the reference points came back, and equally amazing how baffling some of the corners seemed, even at the end of the session. Still, I turned a 1:20.655, which is only a few seconds off my best time. The car ran flawlessly, and I was even able to buckle the belts without holding my breath this time.

Practice didn't go so well for everyone. For some reason, people in fast cars seemed content to follow slower cars for many laps. I caught up to a group of cars including FCs, FFs, a CSR, and a CS2000 (all faster) following a slower car. I was directly behind a Reynard FC, just watching and trying to copy his rhythm, when the CS2 spun entering corner 3A. A couple of cars went right, one car went left, a couple of cars stopped, and the Reynard went off the track to the left. He must have hit a curb on his way out, because the car went bounding over the grass like a huge metal puppy. He came back on the track in front of me, but he slowed and pulled off at corner 4 with a bent suspension.

I shouldn't have put so much emphasis on qualifying, since winning this race would not earn me any points. Only one other CFF was running (Schindlbecks), and I would still get a trophy for second place. They would probably beat me in the pits anyway, since they have co-driven this race in their car more times than I have in all the cars I've driven. But I didn't come to finish second. I worked hard during qualifying, turning a 1:19.7 to Paul Schindlbeck's 1:22.5.

Paul told me during lunch that they had found their two and a half seconds -- the ignition points were badly burned out, keeping the car from making any power above 5000rpm. With the new set of points, he predicted he'd be right on my tail. I didn't doubt him. But what he didn't tell me is that they wouldn't need to refuel. They would only change drivers. That would be a big advantage for them.

The pace lap was incredibly fast. I don't remember the last time I was in 4th gear during a pace lap. (That may have been my fastest lap of the race.) Once the green flag dropped, I tried to settle in to a conservative pace, turning 1:22 laps and driving as smoothly as I could. Traffic spread out almost immediately, which was surprising after the clumps in the morning practice session. Soon I was all alone. No faster cars in sight in front of me, but more surprising, no cars in my mirrors either. Where was Paul, and when would I see him flying past me? I started cursing my decision not to burden my mother with the stopwatch and pit board. I really wanted to know what was going on around me!

A peculiar thing happens when you're all alone with your thoughts in a noisy racecar. The noises seem to change, though it may only be your interpretation of the noises that changes. Every click, every buzz, every pop, and every rattle worries you. Is that clicking sound new? Was that pop the sound of something breaking? Is something wearing out? Is this car going to last the entire race? You can go crazy listening for new sounds, trying to picture just what the sound is, and trying to calculate how much longer you can afford to push it before the sound turns into an explosion.

I started to worry about the gearbox. This was the same race that cost me a transmission in 2005. I had checked the oil level before this race, though, and it was fine. I kept telling myself to concentrate on the track, on the steering, the throttle and brake. But I kept hearing a rattling, popping noise. I kept picturing a tooth broken off of a gear, bouncing around inside the transmission, waiting for just the right moment to jump between two meshed gears and jam everything solid. I actually stopped using first and second gears, thinking that shifting less often would be less strain on the gearbox. Not that it would have helped. If something had broken off and was rattling around, it could have jammed everything regardless of what gear I was in at the time.

I had a very loose plan in place to stop for fuel somewhere around the 25 lap mark. On my 22nd lap, I recognized my fuel jug being waved in the air at the pit wall. But the person waving it was wearing a helmet, and I couldn't figure out who it was! The next lap, the person had taken his helmet off, and I recognized that it was David Cox. I pulled in the next time around and hopped out of the car. I found out later that David had approached my father and offered to do the fueling so I could rest. I'm so thankful that he did. I had forgotten how tiring it is to race for that long.

I pulled out of the pit lane and saw that my lap timer showed a time of 5:49.5. I had lost 4 minutes in the pits -- most of it spent struggling to buckle myself back in the car. I found out later that the Schindlbecks had changed drivers in less than 30 seconds, and their total pit stop, including entering and exiting pit lane, cost them only about one minute. After both pit stops, I was one lap down. I would really have to turn some seriously fast laps to catch them.

Or I could rely on luck. The next thing I knew (which was about 15 laps later), I passed Mike on the track. He was going very slow, and the car didn't sound right. Even with a helmet on, I could see he wasn't happy. Shortly after they had changed drivers, Mike spent about 5 minutes in the pits because the car was overheating. Several laps later -- probably shortly after I passed him -- he pulled back in with a blown head gasket. Their race was done after 35 laps.

I nursed the car to the finish, turning a best lap of 1:21.5. This was my first time ever winning The Looong Race (and only my third time making it to the checkered flag) in 9 tries. I was so worn out at the end, I know the car was in better shape than I was. I could barely hold the checkered flag because my hand was so sore from gripping the steering wheel. I couldn't push the clutch pedal because my foot hurt so badly from bracing myself against the footrest. My eyes were as dry as the Sahara and I could barely hold my head upright. But it felt great.

Now I need to open the gearbox and find out what is going on in there before the last SCCA Regional race of the season at Blackhawk this weekend. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wisconsin Grand Prix

There are epic tales of legendary races. There are very short stories about not-so-interesting races. And there are a few stories of races that never were.

The SCCA had planned to host a race on the infield road course of the State Fair Park racetrack (the "Milwaukee Mile" -- I don't call it that because the road course is two miles, not one). Everything was arranged, and the cable company was even going to send out a film crew to cover the event for the local sports channel.

I got to the track just after 6pm, when registration was scheduled to open. The paddock was already a little crowded, but I parked and went to stand in the registration line. On the way I passed a few people who were on the board of directors for the SCCA region, and they didn't look happy. The phrases "looking pretty grim" and "may not happen this weekend" were overheard. Someone else filled me in: The race may be cancelled because the track was not ready. It would take a lot of work to make the track safe for a race, and nobody knew yet if the project could be completed in time. They would try, and we would wait.

A handwritten sign on the registration tent didn't inspire confidence either: "Registration closed until futher notice." I decided to take a spot in line and wait for the final word.

The State Fair grounds were hosting several other activities that same weekend, including a very large cattle show. (That's a very large show for cattle, not a show for very large cattle. Though some of the cattle there were indeed very large.) They had decided that the best place to park all the cattle trailers was just outside the track -- circling the registration tent. The smell wasn't too bad, but apparently it soaked into my clothes pretty thoroughly during the two hours I waited in line.

More details came filtering in bit by bit. Barricades were not in place for the road course because an Indy car team had been testing on the oval all day long. Stacks of tires, which had been supplied by and assembled by members of various sports car clubs, were now missing. The pavement of the infield course was much higher than the surrounding shoulder, resulting in a severe drop-off. The track had been instructed to fill in the shoulder to make it safer if a car spun off the track. Instead, they dumped a lot of rocky fill dirt on the edge of the track, building up a berm in some spots and leaving large (6" diameter) boulders sticking out in other spots. The track didn't have the equipment required to grade the dirt and make the slope of the shoulder more gentle. They were now trying frantically to scrape it down and redistribute the dirt with small Bobcat loaders, working by the light of the safety trucks' headlights.

Around 8:15, the club made the official announcement: It had become clear that there was no way the track could be made safe for a race before Saturday morning, so the event had to be cancelled.

I was disappointed and a little frustrated over the work we had done to get the car ready in time, but then I realized how many people -- drivers and crew and volunteer workers -- had taken the day off to drive in from all over the midwest, only to find there was no race. I have to be thankful that this race was (or would have been) in my own backyard.

Someday I should have my dad tell you the story about the time we pulled up to Grattan Raceway in Michigan back in the '70s and were met by the track owner, drunk and at the wheel of a bulldozer, blocking the entrance.