Monday, August 24, 2009

No Stick, No Go, No Stop, No Clue... No Problem!

The last time I raced on the Wisconsin State Fair Park / Milwaukee Mile infield road course was in 2005. Since then, another layer of asphalt has been added to smooth out the infield course and especially the transitions from the oval to the road course. Still, I thought I would have an advantage over those who had never raced there before when we finally went back for a double Regional race last weekend.

It turns out that sometimes a clean slate is better than a memory.

The track was terribly dirty and dusty for the first qualifying session on Saturday. When the track isn't being used as a track, it (and the grass around it) serves as a parking lot for people attending the State Fair and other functions at the fairgrounds. Unfortunately, it rained heavily during one or two days of the fair this year, so a lot of mud was left on the track surface. Some of the animals at the fair also used the track as an outhouse, and the resulting mess was too much for even the track sweepers to scrub off completely. As if the slippery conditions and dusty atmosphere weren't enough, the track didn't even go the way I remembered. Every line that I thought I knew was wrong. I qualified last in CFF and 13th overall, 2 rows back from Pete Wood and not even in sight of polesitter Mike Green. I still don't know how they managed to get enough grip to go as fast as they did without off-road tires. I think I would have gone just as fast on the grass as on the track.

Saturday's race started well. I got a good run off the last corner, and the green flag was out just as soon as I could see the starter's stand. I got around the F500 in front of me and tried to tuck in behind Pete, but just as we passed the start-finish line, my car sputtered. It was a familiar feeling, but I tried hard to tell myself that it didn't happen and that everything was fine. I downshifted for corner 1 and followed Pete through. I got on the throttle and felt like I had hit the rev limiter. I shifted to 2nd and set the car up for corner 2 before I realized... my car doesn't have a rev limiter. Just then the car sputtered again. It was starving for fuel and wouldn't pull all the way to redline. That might not have been so bad except that this track is basically 4 flat-out stretches connected by 3 hairpins and a flat-out sweeper. As I exited the corner 4 hairpin, the car sputtered earlier and earlier in the rev band. I watched everyone speed past me as I tried desperately to make it back to the pits with the engine coughing and misfiring the whole way. The next thing I knew, I was on the front straight again. I had missed the pit lane entrance! It would take another agonizingly slow lap before I would have another chance to find it. I just barely made it into the pits before the pack came around again to put me a lap down. I jumped out of the car and took the rear bodywork off, hoping to find an obvious problem like a pinched fuel line, or a loose fitting allowing the fuel pump to suck in air instead of fuel. No such luck. I sent someone running for a screwdriver so I could take the top of the carburetor off. Lucky for me, John Vlasis happened to be in the pits. He came over and noticed right away that the carburetor float bowl was almost empty. Since the float appeared to be in good shape (not broken or leaking), he suggested that the float level had somehow been mis-adjusted. I was willing to believe that, since I had adjusted it just last week! He offered to do a "quick and dirty" adjustment, and I eagerly accepted. He couldn't possibly make it worse. He bent the float to what he estimated would be a super-rich condition and put the carb top back on while I got back in the car. I looked at the lap counter and saw there were still 8 laps to go of an 18-lap race. I needed at least 9 laps to be considered a finisher. As I got buckled in, I saw the starters change the lap counter to 7. Should I still go back out? Let's see, I had 2 laps already. Add 7 more. That's 9! If I could just keep from going another lap down, I'd have a finish. I took off out of the pits and the car ran flawlessly. It popped and backfired a bit on trailing throttle, but that was to be expected with all the extra fuel. I got passed immediately by the 3rd place CFF, and I did everything I could to stay on his tail. He pulled away a bit each lap, but I still managed to knock 2 seconds off of my qualifying time. And I got exactly 9 laps, enough for an official 4th-place finish.

Why did the carburetor lean out so much? I have no idea, and that's what bothers me. The last time that carburetor was opened was in 2005 when Bruce Lindstrand set the float level for me. The car ran flawlessly since then, but most engine builders advise that the float level should be checked after every event. I never did because the car ran so well. Last week I figured that I was living on borrowed time and I should check it. It seemed to be just a little bit richer than it should be, which I thought was odd. Still, I leaned it out just a hair -- not even all the way to the recommended level. It also ran just fine Saturday morning in qualifying. We speculated that the needle valve could have stuck closed, but on my second "limping" lap I hit a pothole, bottoming the car on the track surface and jarring everything so hard that I can't imagine that it wouldn't have been knocked loose. It's just possible that some debris could have gotten on the seat for the needle valve, sticking it closed like glue (as opposed to some grit getting in between the two sliding parts of the valve), and that when John bent the float tang in the pits, the pressure on the needle valve was enough to break the grip of whatever was gluing it closed. It's a mystery, which means I don't know what to do to prevent it from happening again. But Bruce reset the float level after the race, which seems to have made it happy again. My fingers are crossed.

Sunday morning qualifying started better than Saturday's race, mainly because the car ran without any issues. I also tried to forget what I thought I knew about the track and just follow the fast cars. Unfortunately, as I started to really learn the track, the brake pedal started going soft. Within a few laps, the pedal was going to the floor without slowing the car. There was no way I would be able to turn any better laps, so I pulled in early. When I checked the car between sessions, I found that both brake fluid reservoirs were nearly empty! A failing master cylinder would have ended my weekend, but when I went to unscrew the caps, they both just fell off in my hands. I had neglected to tighten them all the way, and the brake fluid simply sloshed out.

I only took a couple of tenths off of my lap times, but it was good enough to qualify on the same row as Pete Wood with a 1:20.3. Pete pointed out that the 4 CFFs qualified at 1:17, 1:18, 1:19, and 1:20. Not a tremendously tight field, but at least Mike, Pete, and I would be within 3 rows of each other. After the session I watched some other cars in the corner 4 hairpin. The fastest cars were taking a very different line than what I was doing. It was definitely worth a try! I should have taken a walk down to the two corners where the track exits and enters the oval. I probably could have picked up several seconds there.

The race start went well for me. The green flag came out a bit later this time, but I got a great jump on the FST in front of me, and Pete and I passed Mike going into corner 1. The infield course is very narrow, and it suddenly looked very crowded. I actually laid back a little bit, expecting to see at least one car go cartwheeling through the air, but I should have known better. Everyone made it through cleanly and started to spread out a bit as we approached the hairpin. I tried my new line entering the hairpin, but as I turned in, I was surprised to see Butch Deer's FST right next to me -- in the grass! Apparently he had followed me a few laps in qualifying and expected me to take the same line as I had been doing, which would have left him plenty of room to drive inside me. I got lucky once more. Butch is an excellent driver, and he was able to keep his car under control despite the total lack of pavement under it. There are many drivers who would have ended up on top of me. But we made it through, and the field started to spread out a bit. Pete and I were pretty evenly matched with a couple of FST cars, and we battled back and forth for several laps. Around lap 8, I followed Pete into the hairpin, but it was clear he wasn't on the right line. He slid off the track and let me pass, but he didn't lose much time. He kept the car moving and pointed in the right direction, and I heard later that I only had about a 3 second lead on him at the end of that lap. Two or three laps later, he passed me back and held me off for the rest of the race. I got close, but never quite close enough to challenge. Mike ran into an ignition issue during the race, so I managed to finish 3rd. Pete turned a 1:17.9, and I managed to get down to a 1:18.9 trying to catch him.

One thing became very clear during the weekend: My tires are no longer any good. One thing I am sure of from 2005 is that I was able to take the long sweeper (turns 1 & 2 on the oval) flat out in 4th gear with only a little lift at the entry and slight throttle modulation in the middle. This year, I had to stab the brakes hard before the turn and I could only hold about 3/4 throttle through the turn.

The engine, on the other hand, is doing very well. When the carburetor was working, the engine pulled hard all the way to 6800 rpm. In fact, it accelerated so quickly that I almost over-revved exiting the hairpin a few times. A fresh Farley cylinder head will do that for you, apparently.