Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rod Blagojevich Never-Say-Die 500: Sunday

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:


Team Resignation's Sunday began as its Saturday had: early and with a handful of things to accomplish. Racing began an hour earlier, however, so we had less time to finish our final tasks. We finished wiring up the killswitch and a handful of other tasks by 8:00 a.m. And then the rains came (again).

The last we'd heard, there had been a significant chance of rain. We walked back up to the tech shed for Sunday's driver meeting, and we again stood just outside the building, getting soaked. It was another uneventful meeting, although Jay Lamm acknowledged the Track Pillagerz! Buick LeSabre Dragonboat for leading the race for a brief time Saturday.

We again returned to our pit, confident that we'd at last get the temperature gauge working. While we worked to get Dave strapped in for his first race session, Kiko worked his Brazilian engineering magic and the gauge finally began working as it should. With just a few minutes before race time, Dave backed out of the pit space and onto the level road, where we checked the fluids. When we were confident it was ready, we sent him on his way.

As the cars circled the track waiting for the 9:00 green flag, the rain slowed and then quit altogether for the rest of the day. Dave came around a couple of times, and the team collectively rejoiced that we'd brought the Escort back to life, although we started Day 2 in 78th place (out of 87 teams).

After the green flag dropped, Dave familiarized himself with the track and the car. From Turn 8, we noticed that the Escort had enough straight-line power to stay with most cars into the Turn 1 braking zone.

We brought Dave in after 30 minutes to check over the car and make sure nothing major was wrong. We'd learned our lesson; at every pit stop, we made sure to check fluid levels and torque the lugnuts. At this stop, Alan also plugged the diagnostic computer into the OBD sensor, and we were pleasantly surprised. The coolant temp was perfect, and the air temperature at the intake was reading ambient temperature. As he stepped out of the car, Dave reported that the car handled perfectly in the dry. No understeer on corner exits, no lift-throttle oversteer, no tire spin when applying liberal throttle. Everything looked rosy.

Kiko, our self-appointed "Resident Old Fart," headed out for his turn behind the wheel. Maybe racing is inherent in Brazilian blood, because Kiko worked the team's best lap down to a 1:26.884. This was better than the previous best lap by nearly 8 seconds. We again brought him in after 30 minutes to check over the car and change drivers. Kiko praised the car's brakes, which he said easily outbraked everyone else in Turn 1. We also noticed that the car chugged along at idle and backfired excessively when the driver let off the throttle. It may have made the car sound even better.

We then turned Johnny loose with the Escort. He chopped another 1.5 seconds off our best lap, and the car continued turning laps without issue. Alan's 210,000-mile motor was running strong and taking the abuse. Johnny collected paint on our driver's door1 from the #61 Honda CRX2 as they entered a corner side-by-side, but we weren't issued a black flag. As his stint carried on, it also appeared we might lose Nixon's face. But the screw in it (barely) held, and we reinforced Nixon's face with duct tape when Johnny pitted.

Alan took the next stint, staying out for more than an hour and racking up almost 40 laps. Although stuck in traffic for long stretches of his stint, Alan managed to rack up a 1:25.820 best lap and dozens of sub-1:30 laps. He also cracked the 100-lap mark for the weekend before noon. Alan also drew some contact, getting bumped by the Merkur, which luckily only left a scrape on the back bumper3.

At around 12:30, Eric hopped in for his second stint of the weekend. As by far the slowest driver on the team, he had perfected the wave-by to the actual competitors of the race. But after a few laps, he battled with the #308 Nissan for a few laps. He noticed that, even through his terrible corner exits, the car kept up with or passed most cars on the main straightaway. For the most part, he stayed out of everybody's way, although he did nearly run the race-leading Skid Marks Neon off the track in Turn 7. Whoops.

After a full round of stints, the car had held up perfectly and was much faster than anticipated. Dave took the car out next, racking up several laps in the 1:25-1:26 range. He'd noticed nothing particularly odd about the car during his stint, although when he brought the car in, a check under the hood revealed oil splattered all over the driver's side of the engine compartment. After some searching, the team could find no evident cause of it. Alan suggested it was possibly leaking from valve cover gasket that had been replaced, so the team pulled the valve cover and resealed the gasket. While it cost the team 20-25 minutes on track, it turned out to be only a minor issue that would not arise again during the race4.

Kiko took the car for a spin around the track and, after a few caution laps, he put up three very fast lap times in succession: 1:26.388, 1:25.184, and 1:24.774, the last of which was the team's fastest lap at that point. While Kiko was out on the track, Alan headed out for fuel to survive the last couple hours of race time. Johnny and Eric decided that Alan would be the driver to take the checkered flag, if the car was still running at that point5.

At around 2:45 p.m., with 75 minutes racing left, Johnny hopped in the car. He ran a short stint so that he could turn the seat over to Alan for the checkered. But in his stint, Johnny chased the rusty ol' (but extremely quick) Alfa6 around the track for several laps. As he noted, he learned a lot about the racing line from following that car. It must have helped, because he pulled out a 1:23.828 with less than an hour of race time left7. It would be our fastest lap of the weekend, and it was probably as close to the limit as we could push that car.

After a fuel stop, Alan hopped in and babied the car around the track for the final 35 minutes. The team headed down to the finish line to watch Alan bring home the checkered flag. We began the hour in 70th place, but Alan racked up 25 laps in the stint, vaulting us up to 66th place with 217 laps completed. He took the checkered flag at 4:01, his fist raised out the window.

We cheered at having resurrected a car from the dead and having it run all day with no major mechanical breakdowns. We also had not been black flagged once, which was remarkable as later there was much discussion about excessive contact on the track and Sunday allegedly broke a LeMons record with 101 black flags.

After a victory lap, Alan (and the rest of the drivers/cars) crept down pit lane. He was greeted at the pit-in entrance by Jay Lamm and Judge Phil. As Alan pulled through, Phil gave the "Double-Victory" signs and Alan responded in kind. It was a glorious day of redemption to cap off a weekend of stupidy and ridiculousness.

Alan's mom (and Kiko's wife) brought food for us when she showed up right at 4. This was important, as several team members had lived off trail mix and Coca Cola for the weekend. We shoveled down as much pizza as we could and Alan finished up a brief interview with the NPR reporter8. We figured that the awards ceremony would take a few minutes to come to fruition.

We were wrong, and we entirely missed Jay Lamm's presentation to us of the Heroic Fix trophy. We also missed him calling us (justifiably) stupid and we missed 300 people's collective gasps when he announced that Alan no longer had a daily driver. While we missed the trophy presentation, we eventually got the trophy9. And we BS'd with Jay Lamm, who asked us how we were getting home. When Alan told him he was driving the LeMon home, Jay chuckled and said it was "awesome," but we're pretty sure he meant "moronic."

We pushed Alan's mid-engined ZX2 onto the car dolly and headed home. Pat, Dave, Duncan, and Johnny all headed out first and went their separate ways. Alan, Eric, and Kiko made a bizarre (and slow and loud) three-car caravan back to Woodstock.

One of the poignant questions the reporter asked Alan was, "Why are you doing this? It seems like it's almost more about fixing the car than it is driving it. What's the point?" It's a pretty easy question to answer for Team Resignation: Our struggle with the car mimicked life10. Sometimes everything's perfect and smooth and natural; a little wiggle here or there is easily handled with some countersteer. But sometimes it won't go where you want it to or the back slides out and you're not ready for it. And sometimes a couple of tiny problems create a spectacular failure. There is always a way out, but it typically involves a lot of hard work, some good help, and sacrifice. And in the end, we find redemption and self-fulfillment.

1 You can get a pretty good look at the mark it left here.
2 This CRX won the race at Gingerman in the spring, as well as the Midwest region LeMons title.
3 The Merkur left its mark here. It may also be noted that this Merkur, when it downshifts, occasionally shoots fire out the exhaust. Eric saw this as he followed the Merkur into the Turn 6 entrance. It made him smile.
4 Johnny later pointed out that Alan was running 0W synthetic oil in the engine because it improved gas mileage when Alan daily drove that engine. However, 0W is probably a little thin for racing purposes, and its thinness could have contributed to the leakage. We added some 5W to the motor to thicken the oil a little. For subsequent races, we plan on using much thicker oil.
5 This really was a no-brainer. Alan had spearheaded the entire project from Day One, and he had even scrapped his daily driver to keep our team on the track.
6 That little Alfa ran 501 laps for the weekend (minus 2 penalty laps). It finished 3rd place after the Skid Marks Neon and the Bucksnort E30.
7 The fastest lap of the weekend was a 1:18.002 by the Save the Ta-Tas Camaro. Only five teams managed to crack 1:20 for best laps.
8 Alan looked like this at the end of the weekend.
9 Luckily, Amanda, Alan's ever-patient girlfriend, had gone to the tech shed for the awards ahead of everyone. She accepted the trophy in our absence.
10 If this metaphor was any heavier-handed, I would be unable to type it. ~Eric

Photos by Alan Cesar and Dave Belland. Video by Dave Belland.


  1. Congratulations! You all did an amazing job, and your blog account is great!

    Do you know when the NPR interview will air?

    --Dave's Mom

  2. The reporter said to look for it in mid-November. He has Alan and Eric's e-mails, and they will let the team know when they hear from him.