Monday, November 1, 2010

Rod Blagojevich Never-Say-Die 500: Saturday Pt. 1

(Photo by Seth Graham. Thanks!)

Several months ago, Alan and Eric endeavored to begin a 24 Hours of LeMons quest, a Ford Escort dream that at times closely resembled a nightmare. Despite stubborn engine and and suspension swaps, wiring fit for torture, and last-minute scrambling to meet safety requirements, we finally made it to the race and even had the car on the track for a bit over the three days of race events. Here is our story:


We awoke around 6 a.m. Saturday, knowing we had a lot left to accomplish. Weather forecasts indicated that it was supposed to rain all Saturday, beginning some time around 3 a.m. As best as anyone could tell, rain had actually fallen for about 5 minutes. We felt encouraged by this omen, thinking that as long as the rain held off, our car could run with the best of the field.

We spent an hour or so mounting Nixon to the car in the most solid way we could figure out. This involved tie-down straps through his jacket, bungee cords around the legs, and mounting wire around his waist and tied through holes left from the long-since-discarded hatch. As the mannequin was a four-piece dummy, we drilled holes through the arms and attached very long cable ties through both arms. Our rationale for this was that if one arm goes, then the whole damn thing does. A whole Nixon flying at a pursuing/passing LeMons competitor has a higher entertainment value than just an arm, really. And the mannequin weighs about 5 pounds total, so it wouldn't have done too much damage1. We think anyway...

We cruised up to the tech shed around 8 a.m. to have the roll cage weld and harness mounting re-inspected. The inspector looked at it for about two minutes before signing off on the repairs; we were in business to race. During that brief inspection, we'd noticed a middle-aged man walking around with a microphone, following the inspector and some of the other teams. He soon sidled up to Alan and Eric and asked a bevy of questions about the car, the theme, and our sanity. After a bit, he introduced himself as a reporter for "Only a Game," which is NPR's radio show2.

Somewhere during all of this, Johnny showed up at the track ready to drive, although his patchwork and bedliner-paint-job Del Sol got some unwanted notice from people in the paddock3. The team collected their LeMons licenses for the race and headed back to the pit for some last-minute prep before the drivers' meeting.

It was in this spell of time, somewhere around 9 a.m., that Alan and Eric had a fateful (and incredibly stupid conversation):

Alan: "Hmm...we still don't have a working temp gauge."
Eric: "How big of a problem is that?"
Alan: "Well, if the car overheats, we'll have no way of knowing, other than smoke and/or steam."
Eric: "Oh. Well, do you think overheating will be a problem?"
Alan: [Shrug] "It'd be nice to have a temperature gauge."

And that's where that conversation ended, because we were about to run late for the driver's meeting. Please note that the fault, if it lies with anyone, probably lies with Eric's ignorance4.

The driver's meeting was uneventful, and Jay Lamm's pervasive message was, "Don't drive like a jack ass, and you probably won't get any black flags." We got the point and so again returned to our paddock space.

By this time, the rain was falling in earnest, and it was clear that there was enough water on the track to make it good and terrifying. So the team sent Alan out first. We had brought two sets of tires: a set of cheap all-weather radials with good tread left and a set of sportier and stickier Falken Azenis. Because of the Azenis' alleged poor wet weather performance, we opted to go with the all-weathers5.

Alan headed out to the track around 9:50; we expected the green flag at 10:00, although it didn't drop until a little after. Of Team Resignation's initial 30-minute stint, Alan spent about 20 of it under full-course caution. Puddles formed in the 7-8-9 turn complex, as well as on parts of the main straightaway. It made the rainy racing ridiculously perilous (and slow).

24 Hours of LeMoNs - 8 from Daniel Meyer on Vimeo.

Alan pitted and when he'd rolled to a stop in the paddock space, he reported that the car was an absolute nightmare to handle in the wet. It, in fact, did the exact opposite of what you told it to do. Basic notes on driving the front-heavy car in the rain:

-Entering a corner? Brake only in a straight line. Braking with the wheel turned = instant sliding.

-Exiting a corner? Don't give it any throttle until you're aimed straight and you've unwound the wheel. If you gas it before then, the car will just keep going straight6A.

-Have you already experienced the car going straight with the wheel turned, as mentioned above? Don't lift the throttle, or else the back end slides out instantly6B. Drifting is fun, but not when there's a 3500-pound Crown Vic with a stripper pole on it going around the corner next to you.

-Accelerating on a straight? Don't give it more than about 50% throttle, or else the tires will spin. Also don't downshift, as that will also break the tires loose.

Other than that, next driver Eric reported the car handled just like you'd expect: terrifying and noisy, but extraordinarily fun. He put in his 30-minute stint, only getting sideways 9 or 10 times. However, as he returned to Team Resignation's paddock space after pitting, he stalled the car at a stop sign and discovered that the starter had suddenly stopped working. With the help of some courteous strangers in the pit, the car found its way back to the paddock space.

24 Hours of LeMoNs - 11 from Daniel Meyer on Vimeo.

The team pored over the car, investigating the starter and the electrical system. The diagnosis was a broken starter, and the team opted to push start the car for the next driver, Johnny. However, the team had neglected to check any other systems on the car, like, say, coolant level.

The team push-started the car without incident, and Johnny headed out for his short stint. It was uneventful for about 15 minutes. And then, as we watched from the exit of Turn 9, Johnny passed by, a single puff of smoke lingering behind from where he'd put the power back on for the main straight. We waited anxiously for him to return, and he did indeed a minute or two later, followed by an enormous dark gray smoke. We told him to pit in, but he was already on pit road headed in.

(Photo by Seth Graham. Thanks!)

What followed was a bizarre series of events that are still unclear to all team members. While Johnny tried to pit out, the pit entrance worker apparently waved a car onto the track immediately behind Johnny. As this car was picking up speed to exit into Turn 1, Johnny said somebody was giving him the thumbs up but blocking pit out. As he was about to be run over by the car behind, Johnny had no option but to go around the course again. He never made it. The car died somewhere around Turn 6. In the meantime, the rest of the team had seen him on pit road but hadn't seen him go around again. As a result, team members scattered all over the paddock looking for a car that wasn't there. After about 10 minutes, Johnny radioed in that the car was dead and he was being towed in7.

We saw him being brought in, and we pushed the car the length of the pit lane. When we reached our pit, the initial impression was that the motor was completely blown. There was an incredible amount of heat everywhere under the hood. We decided to fill the radiator, which crew member Duncan had noticed was empty. A few seconds after dumping water into the fill cap, it came dumping out at our feet; a hose had broken and spilled all of our fluid. Because our temp gauge wasn't working, the only way we'd figured it out was from the huge clouds of smoke from our exhaust8.

We entertained the notion that perhaps the engine had just overheated and would be OK. Alan changed the spark plugs; one from the overheated engine was covered in thick, black grime. After swapping in the spark plugs from his daily driver's Zetec engine, Alan told us to wait and let the engine cool. We took a little time to eat some chili and watch some of the race, which had opened up some as the rain subsided.

After letting the engine cool, we tried to push start the car, to no avail. The engine chugged a little, trying to turn over. Johnny pointed out that it sounded like there was absolutely no compression. We then tried tow-starting it behind Duncan's E30. The car would start, but would only chug along at about 400 RPM with the throttle completely open. Kiko pointed out that it sounded very much like a blown cylinder, which meant a totaled motor. With the car parked, Eric noticed that the inside of the bright-red cherry bomb was coated with black soot, which was thick like a paste.

We had been on track for 30 laps.

1 There's almost certainly a parallel here with Nixon's presidency, but I can't quite voice it. Anybody have some help with that? Also, I secretly wanted one of Nixon's hands or arms to fall off and smack a car, preferably one with in-car video, on the windshield. ~Eric
2 It's worth noting that this show is not syndicated in Chicago that we know of. However, it will be broadcast in mid-November and will be available online in whole.
3 For those who haven't seen it, Johnny's daily driver is a Honda Del Sol with an Acura front-end fastened to it. It's spray-painted with bedliner. Some people remarked as he passed, "Look at that piece of crap." Sad Johnny was sad.
4 This is self-deprecating humor. Sad Eric was also sad.
5 It's hard to say if this was a good decision or not. We didn't get a chance to use the Azenis in the wet, but the all-weathers were godawful.
6A AKA "Shit-your-pants" understeer
6B AKA "Shit-your-pants" lift-throttle oversteer
7 Some of the more astute may ask why Johnny didn't radio back instantly. We had rigged up the radio system to essentially be received only. Johnny was able, after the car died, to reach the radio at last and call us back. We'll have a driver headset for future races.
8 The cloud of smoke clearly represented our shortcomings as humans8A.
8A What? I have to use my liberal arts degree for something.

*Photos by Dave Belland, Alan Cesar, and Seth Graham. Video by Brian Quezada

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