Saturday, November 20, 2010

Team Resignation is kind of famous?

We were featured on the NPR sports program "Only a Game" this morning. Listen here1.

1 This link will change next week, probably, when the story is archived. I'll update that link at that time.2
2Done. -Alan

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.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rod Blagojevich Never-Say-Die 500: Saturday Pt. 2

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:


When we last left off, Team Resignation's #74 Ford Escort LZX2 had grenaded its engine after 75 minutes of racing in the rain. The cause was traced back to a faulty hose clamp, which had allowed all of our radiator's water to dump out onto the track at some point1. This, combined with a non-functioning temperature gauge, led to our engine severely overheating and killing itself dead.

It should be noted that Kiko had driven Alan's daily driver ZX2 to the track. This car had been a warrior for Alan: 210,000+ miles on the odometer and only a few minor problems (like the ubiquitous 3rd gear problem common to most ZX2s). We had brought it to the track to harvest some odds and ends that we figured might be needed (but could be easily replaced back onto the daily driver): spark plugs, a hose, a belt, maybe some nuts and bolts. It was a fortuitous decision.

With no hope of reviving the race car's original motor, team members turned to Alan with a simple question: "How badly do you want our racer back out on the track?"

We gave Alan some time to consider swapping in the engine from his daily driver. It wasn't an easy decision; we only had room to tow one vehicle back. This meant that if we swapped the engine and that engine blew up, we had absolutely no way to tow both cars. And if the race engine didn't blow up, one of us (Alan) would have to drive the race car home.

Alan decided thusly: "We didn't come here to only run for less than two hours. Let's swap the motors and get out there ASAP." He then needed some time to say goodbye to his trusty ZX2, which he'd had for about 7 years2.

In the meantime, Johnny borrowed an engine hoist from the Top Fool Elemonator Subaru team.

The plan was:

1) Pull both drivetrains

2) Seperate the trans from the race car and mate it to the daily driver's engine.

3) Drop good drivetrain in race car.

4) Get out for a few laps on Saturday (It was about 12:30 when we began, and racing ended at 5).

With Alan's expertise on Ford Escorts, we had the race car's drivetrain out in short order. However, it was extremely difficult to move the hoist at our grass paddock space. We pulled out divots (which we replaced dutifully) and had to manhandle the hoist around on the grass. But we managed

Pulling the ZX2 drivetrain proved more difficult, as the car still had power steering (we had de-powered the steering rack on the race car) and air-conditioning. We spent some time disconnecting both items. Thankfully, nothing serious was broken on the engine, and it looked in good shape. It came out easily enough after some coaxing and a little swearing.

24 Hours of LeMoNs - 19 from Daniel Meyer on Vimeo.

By this time, people had started to drop by and see what our silly asses were up to. We got visits from several other teams, as well as some spectators, the previously mentioned NPR reporter3, and one Judge Phil of the LeMons Supreme Court4. Most people seemed intrigued enough by the engineless car with Nixon in the back. They were a little taken aback when we told them what we were up to; I think most came just short of calling us lunatics and idiots. And rightly so.

In short order, we disconnected the daily driver's third-gearless transmission and attached the one Alan and Eric rebuilt for $40, some elbow grease, and the help of a retired machinist. Alan also swapped the belt tensioners between engines, as we'd re-routed the serpentine belt to accommodate for the deleted power-steering on the race car.

As Saturday's race session drew to a close, we looked to an empty engine bay and knew we'd be on track Sunday morning, at best.

With a lot of hands and some good luck, we had the "new" drivetrain mounted in the car before sunset. We worked for a couple of hours, reconnecting the wiring, the hoses, and the radiator. While Alan and Eric had done these things before, it was now simplified in that they didn't have to swap in wiring harnesses. We also replaced the valve cover gasket on the engine.. The car at this point looked like a car again.

And so, sometime around 8:30 p.m., we felt we'd reconnected enough stuff to try starting the car. And with no dramatic tension whatsoever, the engine immediately roared to life. Our shouts and cheers drew the attention of neighbors, who came over to see if we'd finally done it.

While Alan had led the charge in re-engining the car, the swap was entirely a team effort:

We spent the rest of our night reconnecting odds and ends; Alan bled the clutch line, while Eric and Pat swapped the Falken tires onto the car in preparation for the car's return to the track Sunday morning.

We traded beer with the TFE team, the Racing 4 Nickels guys, and a couple of spectators who were camping for the weekend. We learned that there had been a three-car accident during a full-course caution, and the #146 Team Cougar Bait Saab 9-3 was leading the race.

We headed to sleep around 10:30, exhausted and with a short to-do list for the pre-race morning.

Before going to bed, however, we decided to store the melted engine in Alan's ZX2, rendering it mid-engined.

1 Naturally, nobody would have noticed, since the rain fell heavily throughout the car's brief life.
2 Go here for Alan's farewell to this car.
3 Watch this clip. At about the :20 mark, the NPR reporter tells us to just do what we would normally do, but just don't swear. Less than a minute later, Alan describes what's wrong with the car to a driver from another ZX2 team. The NPR reporter gets the whole thing, and then Alan describes the spark plugs as "covered in shit," thusly ruining a perfectly good sound bite.
4 Judge Phil took some pics of the swap, too. You can see them on his uber gallery, along with a thousand or so other pics.

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

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