The track wins one

Chalk one up for Portland International Raceway, PIR, the track in Portland.

Hell, give credit where credit is due. There’s a reason most fans head down to the chicane to watch a race. That’s where the action is, or is likely to be. That was certainly the case at the Columbia River Classic over Labor Day. Turn One is where it came down.

We’re humping along at a buck fifty or so (150 mph) on the main straight past the start finish line, then we come to Turn One, a nearly 90 degree right turn, followed immediately by an even sharper left at Turn Two, then quickly by the more easy right hand Turn Three. The pavement changes from asphalt to concrete to asphalt right in the middle of all this.

Turn One is a place where you can gain an advantage. It’s also where advantage can be lost in the blink of an eye.

For Saturday morning qualifying, the track was sloppy with rain showers on the west end and barely dry on the east. I had new brake pads to bed in, a type I had not run before. The ones I liked had been cracking because the backing plate was too thin. The new ones worked, but pedal feel was different. They bit later, and a little more softly.

Giving up on a better time as the rain worsened, I came in after a Porsche looped it in Turn Seven doing little more than subdivision speed. Fireball, in the gold Holman Moody Mustang, qualified first, Canuck was second. I was back in the pack at ninth or so, behind the Rex Easley Studebaker which let’s you know how I dialed it down.

After clawing my way to third, I had the best seat in the house watching Canuck and Fireball go at each other. My memory of any one race is always a little vague, because I’m not in a remembering frame of mind when I’m driving, but when one was in front, the other worked at him like a dog, going high, going low, waiting until the last second to brake and then trying to hold on.

Fireball especially reminded me of a terrier, attacking left and right, on the edge and a couple of times over it and in the dirt but always keeping control of the Mustang. He’s a great driver, better than me and at least the equal of Canuck. It was quite a show.

Fireball eventually dove beneath Canuck going into Turn Seven, and was able to get away clean. I was inching up as whoever was in the lead drove a little defensively, but I ran out of time to make a move. All three cars seemed about equal in horsepower, or horsepower to weight, or whatever ratio you want to use that defines acceleration. Nobody was going to just run away from the other two.

This weekend would be decided by something else.

The next morning, the three of us took off. This time, I was in a little better position to make my presence known. My turn to play dog. I don’t remember if I passed Canuck at the end of the back straight or Turn Seven, but was ahead of him and had Fireball in my sights.

We were coming down the main straight and I thought I saw a chance. I moved to the right, inside, glanced left as I went by and saw I was ahead.

A glance at that speed can take more time than you have. I was planning to brake late and hard, but the new brake pads bit a little later, and now I was on the edge of traction and on the edge of the track, on rumble strips where friction is low. I started to turn in, wondering if the front tires would hold.

It’s hard to say if I heard or felt the solid contact. Fireball’s passenger door and my driver’s side rear wheel tried to occupy the same space. After contact, I barely made the turn as he went through the chicane and squirted out to a fifty yard lead. Canuck got by me on the way to Turn Three as I struggled to find the right gear.

The race ended just as it started, One Two Three. Officials were at my trailer before I had my helmet off.

“What happened out there?”

“I made the pass, came in a little hot, he probably had already started to turn his wheel, we had contact. Fireball did nothing wrong,” I said. I didn’t think I had either.

Irish had the whole thing on video. It looked like we just came together in a bit of paint swapping, but his passenger door had a good size dent as well as a round doughnut of black from my back tire. A chunk of wheel flare was missing from Yellow Jacket.

I told the Mustang’s owner that his driver did nothing wrong (Fireball, a one time national champion in Spec Miata racing, is the “shoe”). I told Fireball the same thing. From their response, I’m not sure either of them felt the same about me but they were gracious enough, and that’s another conversation.

There were some in each camp who felt pretty strongly that the other driver was at fault. “You were ahead. His door contacted your rear tire, end of story,” said a driver who had been penalized in the past for a similar incident.

“We’re not going there,” I said. “He did nothing wrong.”

We both had options, true enough, but decisions made early don’t always work out as planned. As they say of flying airplanes, hitting the ground is what kills you but the mistake was taking off with too little fuel. Or misreading a weather report. Flying and racing are risky, and sometimes things happen.

That was the final official conclusion. A “racing incident” and no one at fault. They even let Fireball claim the victory after going right on through the Chicane, which was fine by me. It meant we had another equal start for what was going to be the last race between the three of us that afternoon.

My crew chief, Jakester shagged some black duct tape from Cowboy to fix the rear wheel arch with some help from Mule, who built Yellow Jacket 14 years ago. Then Jakester put on a new set tires I’d bought that morning from another racer who wasn’t going to make it out on the track this weekend. We were ready, and I realized, again, how indispensable my 16 -year-old crew chief has become.

While they worked, I wandered away from the emotion surrounding the car. I’m not a fan of drama, and there was too much of it. Irish walked me about the paddock as I processed that morning’s contact and worked myself back into racer mode, refocused on the joy of driving.

Canuck got the lead at the start. Cowboy in his beautiful ruby red ’67 Corvette, blasted ahead of both me and Fireball. He badgered Canuck for a lap or two. One thing about Cowboy: if he doesn’t want to let you by, you won’t get by. He can make his car 12 feet wide without seeming to do anything. But he’s also willing to let others race their race, and doesn’t hold anyone up just for his own finishing position. Eventually Fireball slipped past him, and then I did too.

I don’t know where I squeezed by Fireball, though wish I did. It may have been the wide right hander Turn Seven, it may have been Turn Ten. He went into the dirt on Turn Nine, on the outside of the back “straight” that is really one long, really soft sweeper. Maybe that’s where. All I have in my mind are snapshots.

But somewhere in there, Fireball was called in off the track for flames coming out his header. “As if they’d never seen a backfire,” someone said later. He went back to the paddock, but he was behind when that happened, and my eyes were already focused on Canuck, who was in front, where I wanted to be.

I couldn’t out-pull him on the straights. There were places we weren’t separated by more than a foot. Our cars were evenly matched. But Portland is my home track and maybe I have a few more laps there than he does. It’s also really tough driving while having to look in your mirrors and keeping another driver behind you. Eventually, I passed him going into Turn Ten, I think, but that isn’t where the race was won, or lost as the case may be.

We were coming down the main straight, just as hot as we had all weekend, each of us knowing there was only a lap or two left in the race. As we headed to Turn One of the chicane, I was on the left, he was on the inside where I’d been when Fireball and I got together.

I’d been watching Canuck from behind all weekend, and knew where he braked. I decided to apply my brakes later. In racer talk, I decided to “take him deep,” as I’d tried with Fireball before our contact that morning. But this time, I was on the outside where the driving line was softer and traction more secure.

At the last possible second I squeezed the brake pedal with increasing firmness, which the new pads seemed to especially like. Behind me and with a view of my brake lights, Canuck held off even longer hitting his brakes. As he whistled past me, I said out loud, “I don’t think so.”

He went by, but then had to hit his brakes and turn into Turn One at the same time. His wonderful car “Alice” decided to obey the laws of physics rather than Canuck’s late request. They spun 360 degrees into the Chicane.

I drove the rest of the race one eye on my mirror until they threw the checkered flag.

People came over to the paddock and thanked us for the show. Cowboy walked up, still in his driver’s suit, and said, “THAT was a race! I knew you could get by him!” It meant a lot. After all, Cowboy got me into this craziness more than 20 years ago. I’ve learned a lot from him, on and off the track, in the years since.

We push ourselves and our machines and each other to the limit, but we don’t set those limits as we scramble for tenths or even hundredths of a second, a chance to beat the other guy. Time itself sets limits, as does a track that dictates what we can and cannot do where. I give this one to the track in Portland.

Twenty years of racing. That’s a long time. I should probably retire while I’m still able to drive near the front. But then Cowboy said before I drove back home, “You got your hotel room in Sonoma yet? It’s only a few weeks away. And, you’re going to Indy next June. Don’t even think about not going.”

As if it’s never enough.


I may have won a couple of races, but Swede was champion of the Columbia River Classic in Portland, and it wasn’t even close.

Swede doesn’t drive, either.

And his car never turned a lap.

Jakester and Jakester’s Dad had me set up on Friday while I was trying to get back to the track from visiting a childhood friend and his folks south of Portland. Traffic in that city gets worse by the week, and an accident at the Terwilliger curves plugs it like bad plumbing.

Tireman and Son helped. They had brought both their Studebaker and their Camaro. Tireman hasn’t raced in two years, but the two of them played evenly every time they were on the track. How cool that a father and son get to race against each other. It’s even cooler that Tireman appreciates it so much.

On Saturday, we all had gremlins. Excalibur came in after only a few minutes in the morning, his steering wheel shaking so badly that he didn’t know if something had come loose. Ceegar was playing catch up with two cars, and the Mustang was acting like a bronc. Cowboy didn’t know it yet, but his brake pads were worn down to the steel.

And I was still chasing, after three races, an electrical issue that seemed to be moving from part to part around the engine compartment just fast enough to stay out of site. Replaced the starter after the spring race. The battery after the first July race. A connector ate the last race in Portland. As I sat on the grid for the first race on Saturday, I saw my battery wasn’t being charged. Again, or still? Too late to do anything except hope I had enough juice in the new battery for a 20 minute run.

Cowboy was on the pole, and I was to his left. Excalibur was right behind Cowboy,  and Nice Guy’s Camaro sat right behind our three, big-engined, tuned, loud Corvettes. But not too loud — they made us tone it down after we lit up the meter during qualifying.

When the green flag fell, Cowboy and I had a drag race going to the first turn.

We both had the same idea. Go deep, start in front. I couldn’t believe how deep Cowboy was going, but I was going to take him as far as I could before I hit the brakes. Finally, I hit my binders as hard as I dared, trying keep a balance between stopping and spinning. I didn’t know if I was going to make the turn into the chicane.

I looked to my right to see if I was going to turn in front of  Cowboy or into him, and just in time: he comes whistling past me and doesn’t even try to make the turn. Remember those brake pads? He just used up about the last of them. He has to stop at the stop sign in the center of the turn but off the track and let the field go by.

I pushed hard, trying to build a lead on Excaliber, but I don’t see him in my mirrors. I see Nice Guy’s Camaro falling back (his engine is two-thirds the size of mine), but that’s all.

Mule, who wrenches for both Cowboy and me, comes over after helping Cowboy complete the sale of his new Garcia Corvette to Polished. Actually, it went to Ms. Polished. They drive matching Lotuses, but were now stepping into our rude class of ground-pounders. The Garcia car was supposed to be for him, but he didn’t fit. Ms. Polished fit though, and so the car was hers.

And she did a damn good job driving it, only a few seconds behind those of us who have been muscling these machines for decades. And that’s one concession that will be made: power steering.

“My shoulders!” she said after coming in off the track. Imagine wrestling a car like that at speed, working at it so hard your shoulders were talking back to you. Hat’s off to her.

Mule finds, for the fourth time, the source of my electrical problem. It’s in the start switch. I wiggle it while Mule looks at the volt meter, and the problem jumps up, tries to hide, then I wiggle it again. It jumps up, then tries to hide, again. Mule sends me over to Armadillo for a new switch.

I started in back in the afternoon, to play with Excalibur and Ceegar. I cut my up through the pack, but it started to rain, and everybody but me was smart enough to call it a day. Jakester and his dad wipe the car down.

We were all disappointed that Canuck didn’t show with his new car, Alice. He was supposed to, but it’s a lot of work building a new car.

It wasn’t supposed to rain all day on Sunday. Twenty percent chance, according to my weather app. Yeah, I know that doesn’t mean it will rain 20 percent of the time. But still, you would think we’d get a break, right?

Nope. It was pouring at dawn, it would let up, then rain hard again. Most of us don’t race in the rain. I was told long ago, you pucker so hard when racing a Corvette in the rain, you can’t sit down for a week.

Banker asked me to convince Ms. Polished it would be a real bad idea to go out. What she was driving now was no Lotus. A cough can put you into the wall. I told her what I was told long ago. Not very classy of me, but had to get the point across.

But the winner of the weekend showed up. Canuck arrived with Alice, a car driven by, and wrecked by, some of the fastest drivers we’ve known. Alice was a complete rebuild. And that’s why Swede was champion of the Columbia River Classic.

We all do a pretty good job on our cars. Some are better than others, but each shows time spent, and attention to detail.

Alice was unbelievable. Not a dime was spared on pieces, and hour upon hour was lavished on detail. No trailer queen, she’ll be raced as hard, or harder than, all of the others.

But there were no short cuts taken in her build. Holes were precisely drilled in places no one would ever see to manage weight (or air flow), Heim  joint bearings replaced rubber bushings anywhere precision might be lost, her black paint was so black you could walk through it into another dimension; the names of all previous drivers were written respectfully on the top.

The guys standing around her know cars. They know what goes into a job like this. There was nothing to say, but to praise to Swede, and what he’d put together for Canuck. Alice has arrived.

But we were rained out, first the morning race, then the afternoon. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Which leaves only one more weekend this year, the Finale in Seattle at the end of the month.

It’s been a strange season, and feels incomplete, for some reason. Maybe it’s because we didn’t get out on the track on Sunday, maybe it’s because I didn’t get to race against Alice. I guess we’ll see. Maybe it’s just never enough.





Hot enough, for ya?

Ceegar was fighting brake fluid gremlins. Kanuck decided at the very last minute to show up and only after Excalibur beat on him a little. The motor in Cowboy’s new, spectacular-almost-a-Corvette was flatter than cola left out in the sun for the day.

Speaking of that sun? Seattle isn’t supposed to be this hot, so close to the ocean. It isn’t just the air temperature, either. Asphalt absorbs, then reradiates the heat. Montana Mustang measured temperatures of the pavement at 140 degrees, I was told.

The only shade was beneath trees near the restrooms, where it was at least 20 degrees cooler than in the paddock where years ago they cut down all the majestic and shading firs. They did it so we’d have more room for the race cars, they say, and not for the value of the timber.

As usual, when I get to the track, fewer than half the folks coming up want to say “Hi,” and more than half ask “Where’s Jakester?” Some ask in a voice that demands an answer, as if Jakester not being there is my fault. It’s a good thing my 14-year-old Crew Chief is coming up on Friday with his dad.

Kanuck decided to bring his red Camaro, “Roxanne,” because his Corvette wasn’t finished. I understood the disappointment when he said he wasn’t going to come, but after Excalibur got done with him, he showed up. Excalibur can be pretty persistent. Still, it takes more than three days to prepare a race car, even one as well prepared as Roxanne.

Stays Late, Excalibur’s mechanic, walked up and handed me four disks he’d made in his shop for my car to protect aluminum wheel spacers from steel wheels I now use because I liked them on Excalibur’s car. Stays Late had experience I didn’t have: “If the steel bites deep enough into aluminum, the lug nuts can come loose. Not a good thing,” he said.

Despite the competition, we take care of each other out there. Thank you.

Excalibur was ready. I was ready. We’d raced against each other at the Spring Sprints, where he spanked me bad. He turned in times in the ’29s’, consistently. That’s one minute, 29 plus seconds. Less than a 1:30. I’d done that once, years ago. He did it every race.

Yellow Jacket had resisted being pushed hard in the spring, and it’s a good thing. There were things wrong that could have been catastrophic if they’d let go at 150 miles an hour.

Since then, I’d had a little help from my friends, especially Merlin and Mule. Merlin conjured a new heart for my machine. I looked at the power curves, and decided how I needed to drive her. I came up a couple of days early to practice, and asked the local track guru for some advice.

Hey, if you’re going to do this, you might as well commit, right?

Cowboy told me on Wednesday he wasn’t coming. His mom had fallen and broken some bones that might not heal. He was staying close to home for the phone call. But then on Thursday, he said to maybe save him a place to park. His son, and then his sister, pointed out that Seattle wasn’t much farther away from mom than home in Middleofnowhere, Oregon.

So, with family blessing and support, he came up. His son, who isn’t so interested in these machines, even came up with him, along with his right hand, Cowgirl. Family, ya know?

After qualifying, I was third. Kanuck was first, Excaliber second. Falcon was right beside me. Ceegar had brake problems, and did not get a time. Cowboy was in the middle of the pack. There was a Porsche in there somewhere.

Smallblock, who  kicked butt in Indianapolis last month, was solid right behind the leaders. He gives up a lot of cubic inches and runs an iron motor instead of the aluminum mill others of us have. His builder Kiwi is quick to share that information. Smallblock has also gotten into NASCAR style cars, and he’s become quite a driver, regardless of what he drives.

I was lined up behind leader Kanuck for the two-by-two start, and when the green flag fell, I tried to squeeze so close to him that Excaliber couldn’t get to the line. But Excaliber came down on me anyway and squeezed me back.

The rules are a little gray there. Does he have right of way because he’s ahead and wants his line, or do I have right of way because I’m already there where he wants to be?

I didn’t feel like having that discussion, or speaking through fenders of fiberglass. For the time being, I figured if I could stay close enough, Kanuck and Excaliber might push each other out. I stuck my nose in a couple of times, but backed out again before it got bloodied.

Then the Porsche dropped either his engine or exhaust on the track, the pace car came out, and we followed its yellow lights around and around, five hundred horsepower of grumbling. Around and around.

They didn’t just push the Porsche back behind the barrier, and a tow strap wouldn’t suffice. They had to bring out a wrecker.

Around and around. In the heat. I started to sweat, which got into my eyes. Around and around. The two one-gallon bags of ice I put into my driving suit were mostly liquid by now.

Around and around.

Finally we came around and I saw the Porsche was gone. Workers at the kink right in front of us had the yellow flags up, but the tower right behind did not. I figured we were about to go racing.

Kanuck later said he’d thought the race was over. Excaliber doesn’t say much in these kinds of situations, but he was either sleeping or pinned behind Kanuck for just long enough after the starter raised his arm and I saw green. My foot was already halfway to the floor. I went by both in full song, grabbed another gear, went through the right hand Turn 1, the left hand sweeper Turn 2, down the hill into the sharp right and left turns 3A and 3B.

They weren’t gaining on me.

I let Merlin’s magic do its work under the hood, while I tried to concentrate on my job: smooth line, smooth throttle, firm braking, fast exit. Over and over, for about 24 more turns.

I just had to avoid being stupid, not always easy for me.

Sometimes, just not being stupid is good enough. Leading the parade lap was sweet.

So were the kids I got to put in the driver’s seat after we got back to the paddock. After a race, there are often a lot of kids coming by. Their eyes get big when I ask if they’d like to sit in the car, their folks always have a camera. Making memories, a friend used to say.

Hey, that’s how I met Jakester and his dad at the big race in Portland, so it’s a safe bet I get more out all that than I put in. Five minutes from me and they have something else to talk about when they get home and look at the pictures. Easy trade-off.

It was a nice start to the weekend, but Kanuck made it clear before he left the track that race was only the first race, and that there were four more to come.

“I would have caught you if I’d had ten laps,” he said.

“Maybe,” I replied. He’s a better driver, we all know that, and maybe Excaliber is better than me now, too. But not this afternoon, at least not for as long as it took me to jam the throttle to the floor.

Excalibur didn’t say much of anything at all, except to point out in a discussion we had before the races, he’d said  I’d be first or second. That was all. He’s like that at the track. He prefers to let his black car do the talking.

I wandered around our paddock for a little while, my hand out. Roxie Hearts, one of the key volunteers, she lines us up at the beginning of the races, is walking 12 miles next weekend for a cancer fundraiser. She’s a three-time survivor herself, we were told. I figured we “big bore boys” would all like to pitch in, and everybody was willing. More than willing.

One of the other volunteers, not a regular on the track but one in an orange shirt keeping spectators safe as we drove around them in race cars, heard my pitch.

“Would this help?” he asked, and gave me two quarters.

“You bet,” I said.

That smallest donation was my favorite. When I stuffed the wad of cash and two quarters through the fence to her station, I made sure Roxie Hearts knew where it came from. Like putting kids in race cars and one becomes Jakester, or finding one loose bolt that could put us into the wall at 160 mph, or one extra stroke honing an intake runner that wins the race, we never know which quarters will make the difference. Right?

Saturday, the heat didn’t let up. When the green flag came up, my foot went down. I got to Turn 2 first, and didn’t look back. At some point, Kanuck dropped out, his engine sputtering. Excalibur got smaller in my mirror. Yellow Jacket turned a lap of 1:28:906, a best ever for us.

The same thing happened in the afternoon. While Kanuck was fighting up through the pack because of his DNF (Did Not Finish) in the morning, and Falcon was trying to dice it up with Ceegar, Excalibur couldn’t quite catch me. Toward the end we backed off, but not before Yellow Jacket turned another lap just a hair under 1:29. Another 1:28.

Two personal bests on a hot day, with lousy traction. That felt pretty damn good. The bags of ice JD (Jakester’s Dad) made up for me to jam into my driving suit were bags of cool water. Excalibur had called me a machine, and it was a compliment.

But what was nicest was when fans came up to say we made it look effortless.

Effortless. They don’t see Merlin sweating the tiniest details of air flow, invisible to most people, even to most engine builders. That’s why what he does is magic. They don’t see Mule under the car, discovering small cracks, or polishing the inside of fenders where tires once rubbed, deciding to open the rear end to discover loose bolts, stubbornly squeezing out every flaw. They don’t see me researching the length of drive shaft yokes for four hours, or sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed in the hotel room at night, my feet stabbing an invisible clutch and accelerator, hands moving an invisible shifter and turning an invisible wheel, practicing each turn in my mind’s eye.

Like a lot of things, the more effort you put in, the more effortless it looks.

On Sunday morning, Excalibur jumps the start, it isn’t even close. He’s six cars in front of me before the green flag. I point at him as we approach the starter station, but they wave the green flag anyway. Later they say that waving off a start is to invite a wreck. It’s happened, but I think not enforcing that a race starts when the green flag flies also encourages wrecks.

Whatever. Excalibur gets loose in Turn 3b, I stick my nose in but he hooks it up and gets away from me. He gets loose again in Turn 6. This time I catch him as we come up the hill, through Turn 7, and I’m by him at Turn 8.

We only run a couple of laps before double yellow flags flower all over the course. I’m in the lead, and nobody can pass me, and I throttle down to a crawl. Safety crews don’t like to be out there when we’re doing a hundred. On the back side of the track, Kanuck’s Roxanne is sitting backwards, front end mashed, in the blackberries. But he’s okay, I see him standing outside his car.

Sometimes, squeezing out just a little more is just a little bit too much.

The pace car comes out and I wave him past so he can lead us around. They won’t get this one cleaned up in time and this race is over. So is the weekend. It’s a long drive from Seattle back to Middleofnowhere, Oregon through the traffic of a July 4th weekend. It will be good to hit the road early.

As I’m walking into the trailer to get get changed, Jakester, still 14-years-old and Crew Chief, hands me a time sheet, grinning. Somewhere in those first laps, we turned a 1:28:49 something. I have Excalibur to thank for that. I’m always best when running someone down.

“You know what’s next, right?” he asks.

“What’s that?”

“A 1:27.”

“You think that was easy out there?” I ask, incredulous, drenched in sweat, still vibrating from speed, from hanging it out on the edge of traction with tires shuddering, feeling Yellow Jacket’s insane urgency as she leaps to redline again and again.

“Just sayin’…” he tosses back, turning around to put the time sheet on our clip board. It’s Jakester, after all. He’s got high expectations.

I grumble something back, but he’s already got me thinking about a couple of turns where I can maybe carry a little more speed, an angle of exit that might add a mile per hour, a place where I just might pick up a half second in a lap more than two minutes long.

It’s never enough.

Canuck rules

Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the top.

Canuck walked his talk.

Not only did he spank us, he broke 1:30 driving the Camaro. He had a 1:29:6xx or something. Nobody was even close. Ceegar was second in his TransAm Mustang with a new personal best of 1:31:6xx, but that was two full seconds behind Canuck.

In this game, a two second gap is huge, even though a lap takes just over minute and a half. Or less than a minute and a half, if you’re Canuck. Let’s give credit where credit’s due. He was leading the pack.

That was on Friday, and the only cars that could have come close, the three big block Corvettes, were all broken. Beater busted his transmission in the morning qualifying session. His mechanic took the blame, he’d put it together. But had another one installed by dinner time and Beater will run on Saturday.

Cowboy came off the track early. There was a vibration he didn’t like, and it persisted in the pits when he revved the motor. It didn’t take long before Mule, his mechanic, had the valve covers off and found the problem. The rocker for the intake valve on the number 7 cylinder was lying on its side on the head casing. Both bolts holding it in place had come out and were lying by valves nearby.

“I torqued every one of those!” Mule said. A torque wrench was found and all the other bolts checked out. Mule went looking for an underlying problem.

Merlin was bent over my engine. In the morning session the motor backfired, lost power, gained a little power, backfired again. It wasn’t happy. After leaning out the carb and putting in a missing rivet for the exhaust pipe, Merlin said to run it and ignore the backfire. Jakester, my crew chief, even reminded me on pregrid that Merlin said to ignore the backfire.

So I did,  I ran it as hard as I could until I just couldn’t stand it any more. She was still mostly willing, but I knew something was wrong. The backfires weren’t clearing up and if anything, were getting worse. She felt like she was walking in sand, not dancing light and eager as she usually does.  I came off the track.

If you want to find fault with me for personifying a machine, go ahead. I was told more than once by a woman I dated for a while that my romantic point of view bordered on the delusional. She was convinced her cynicism contained far fewer illusions. I said reality, as she viewed it, was highly overrated.

Of course, she thought that was a perfect example of why she was right and I was wrong. I said something about a self-fulfilling fallacy and walked out the door.

Merlin found water in the distributor cap. After determining there was no water in the oil, and no oil in the water, and that the motor still had compression, he traced it to a pinhole leak in the gasket between the intake manifold and the head. He immediately took the blame.

He pulled the intake off and found a gasket either in my parts box or his (he usually orders two to have spares), cuts parts out of my old gasket to make a better seal, and put it all back together again.

While he was working, he overheard Mule and Cowboy talking about having no compression in the cylinder where the rocker had come off. Major damage. Cowboy was getting ready to pack up and go home.

I was saying something not too important when Merlin interrupted me and called over to Cowboy and Mule: “If the rocker is off you won’t have any compression. The valve can’t open to let air into the cylinder to be compressed.”

“Sheesh, he’s right. I never thought about that,” said Mule.

A little more back and forth, Merlin looked at the push rod they’d pulled and said they could turn it over and maybe drill out the oil port where it had gotten a little crushed.

“I’d run it,” he said. A little more discussion, and Merlin told Cowboy he’d go back to his shop after he was done with me and look for a push rod and some bolts to replace the ones that had backed out.

Cowboy was going to trailer up and drive back to Madras, Oregon, where he would pull a lesser engine out of one car to put in this car to run at Road America in two weeks. Instead, he’s racing tomorrow.

When we needed a timing light, Cowboy brought his over.

“I can lend you a timing light,” he told me, “since you lent me your mechanic.”

Merlin had been all over the paddock this day. Not only working on my car and looking at Cowboy’s, he’d come down to primarily support Ceegar. He’d fixed the jetting on a Lotus, the shift linkage on a Porsche, consulted a few others.

“It all pays off in the end,” he said.

Which was true. I’d shipped my car to Merlin in Seattle from MiddleofnowhereOregon because two years before I couldn’t get it running at the big race in Portland. It took Merlin five minutes to determine I’d been given the wrong carburetor gasket by the parts store when Shade Tree wanted to make a last minute change in the dark of my trailer when we both were in a hurry. Merlin had the right gasket somewhere, even though he wasn’t woring on big Chevy motors.

It’s not that Merlin doesn’t make mistakes. He’d failed to reset his timing light to zero a week before this race, and pretty much toasted a motor of a Mustang on the dyno. But what makes him Merlin is that last Saturday, a machine shop cleaned up the cylinders for him, parts arrived during the week and everything was back together and was ready when race day came around.

“You just take care of it,” Merlin told me. “I learned a long time ago, if you can step up for a customer and take care of things like that, you pretty much own them for life.”

Because he’s Merlin, he also pulled the plugs of my car. And that’s when we found what may have been the real problem, not that water in the distributor isn’t problem enough. Electrodes of three spark plugs on the driver’s side of the motor had been hammered nearly closed by the pistons beneath. All four of the plugs on the passenger side were fine.

“Did you take this over 7,000 rpm?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t think I did, even on my third to first shifts. So at about 8 p.m. as the sun slid behind tall Douglas Firs that surround Pacific Raceways, Merlin regapped the plugs, then indexed them, turning them just right so the pistons would leave them alone.

When we started her up, she was smoother than she’d been since I’d come to get her in Seattle.

“I could have caused the problem on the dyno, or it could have happened when you decelerated here at the track, ” he said. Pistons wobble, forces while racing are different, and we’d reduced a lot of clearances looking for more compression.

That’s what he was saying. But what I heard was a motor happier than it had been any time this weekend.

“Tomorrow we’ll tighten the half-shaft bolts,” Merlin said in the restaurant where I took him to dinner after we got done, since his wife had already made something at home. When called to tell her he was going to have a bite with me and then go to the shop to look for a pushrod  for Cowboy, she said his dog Jed was pretty freaked out by the fireworks, since Merlin wasn’t home to provide reassurance.