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.

SOVREN racers kicking it at Indy

It’s an exciting weekend at Indianapolis for racers from the Pacific Northwest.

Dave Kuniki of Surry, BC is okay after hitting the wall on Saturday,  June 18 at the SVRA Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational.

“I lifted and touched the brakes. The car jumped to the right and slapped the (retaining wall). It was a hard hit. That’s when I realized I had no steering. The car came down into the grass and I tried to ease on the brakes, but the car jumped to the left and started to spin.”

The car then hit something with the left front. The cause of the mishap was a mechanical failure. A nut that holds steering mechanisms together came off. Kuniki had no way to control the car.

“It’s an uneasy feeling. I don’t recommend it,” he said.“But I never felt my life was threatened. I have a container seat, and a strong cage. But they took me to the medical center to get checked out, took my blood pressure, asked me questions.”

Although the damage looked slight, once Kuniki and mechanic Freddie Jonsson got under the car, they found the impact had bent the a shaft holding the lower “A” arm that supports the right front wheel, and the left side tie rod was bent. That was it for the weekend.

“You just don’t know if something is cracked,” he said.

Tom Cantrell had an excellent race on Saturday in his 1998 Ford Penske Taurus stock car, taking first place in the SC3 race group.

“We got way ahead of those guys. I hope I keep my cool and make it happen again,” he said, looking forward to Sunday’s final.

Driving his Can-Am car, Cantrell said he was still getting used to the machine. “It’s really, really fast,” he said. “We’re hitting a buck eighty (180 mph) or more.”

Then he has to slow down and turn 90 degrees left on the Indy track.

Matt Parent came close to giving the Northwest a one-two finish in that group on Saturday, coming in third in his Skoal Bandit stock car.

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Matt Parent’s Skoal Bandit, prepared by Horizon Racing

“We’ve had a really good weekend, so far. We finished third overall (on Saturday) with Cantrell in first. They waved us into victory lane, put us on the podium, had us drink milk (an Indy tradition).

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Matt Parent on the podium. Photo provided.

“We’re also doing well in the Corvette in B production. We were third in that group, and Tony and I (Tony Darmey of Horizon Racing and Performance who prepares race cars for Parent and several others in Seattle) ran in the enduro,” said Parent.

Another SOVREN car from the Pacific Northwest, a 1964 Studebaker owned by Jeff and Jerry Taylor, won “Best of Show” at the event, possibly the most significant in the nation.

“They came by and asked us to bring our car down to the area where they were having the concert. There were two other cars there. They gave an award to the best open wheel car, and one to the best prewar car. Then they gave us the award for “Best of Show,” said Jeff Taylor, of Sisters Oregon.

“ ‘Best of show?’ I wanted to ask if those guys had been drinking. I think they’re nuts, with all those incredible cars there,” said Taylor.

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The Rex Easley Studebaker race car. File photo by AeroSportPhotography

The Studebaker has always drawn admirers, and the well-constructed history of it’s first owner, Rex Easley, has always brought a smile. Kuniki, with one of the many beautifully prepared cars at the event, was pitted next to the Taylors all weekend.

“There must have been 300 or 400 people who came by. They pretty much didn’t see my car, they were there looking at the Studebaker,” Kuniki said.

Curt Kallberg, another racer from Oregon, had a good race. On Saturday, he started in 16th.

“Most of these guys have never seen a ‘Kallberg start.’ I jumped about five of them by going up near the wall on the start into the first corner. I got to ninth, but gave two spots back, ended up 11th,” he said.

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Curt Kallberg, #68, next to Corvette driven by legend Al Unseer Jr.
Car prepared by Jon Bibler. Photo provided by Patti Cordoni

But always for Kallberg, it’s the people and the fun that matter as much as the racing. “This is the maybe the best event we’ve ever been to,” he said, reflecting on the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the quality of the promotion and the cars.

Everything was top drawer, with music provided by Three Dog Night. It was rumored that after hearing Kallberg sing along, which most people in the audience were able to do, he might be asked to tour with the band.

“Nah, that’s not going to happen,” Kalberg said. “I was singing loud, but when they heard me, they left the stage. I was devastated. But I also know ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ and I’m going to sing that for Billy Ray Cyrus.”

PNW racers doing well at Indy

Racers from the Pacific Northwest are doing well at the 2016 Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, weathering a storm that threatened to blow them away when they arrived.

As of early Friday, David Kuniki, driving an A-Production Corvette with a 427 cubic inch motor, was running first or second in the event against cars owned by professional race shops.

Curt Kallberg, also driving a 427 Vette, is in the top middle of the pack, according to Kuniki. Jeff Taylor of Sisters Oregon was racing his 1964 Studebaker in A Sedan. Taylor could not be reached. Norm Daniels is driving a Camaro Trans-Am car.

Matt Parent was first in his class in his Cup Car (a stock car), and was doing quite well driving his small block Corvette in B-Production with a 350 cubic inch motor, according to engine builder Craig Blood of Blood Enterprises.

“He’s 4th in B Production and 13th overall,” Blood said.

Jeff Mincheff and Jackie Mincheff, experienced drivers from the Portland area but new to Corvettes, are doing well, according to their mechanic Jon Bibler, who also wrenches for Kallberg and Erik Dolson.

“Jackie is doing pretty good. Jeff’s car ( a recent acquisition) is a neat piece, everything on it is as it was raced in 1972. But there’s some work to do (to make it competitive),” Bibler said.

Kuniki said the track reminded him of Portland International Raceway.

“There are two fast chutes. After one, there is a hard right and left, like the chicane in Portland. The back section is technical, you can overdrive it and lose time.  Curt (Kallberg) and I both think it’s similar to Portland.”

Kuniki qualified 1st on Thursday, “on new tires with a 1:38:8. This morning I qualified second with a 1:39:3. I had the older tires on, maybe I was too nervous. This afternoon I’ll have fresh rubber and put it on ‘kill.’ ”

He added, “Along the straight you are three feet off the wall, and the sound from our big blocks is pretty cool.”

Kuniki is dueling with an “incredibly prepared” Corvette driven by Edward Sevadjian, president of  Duntov Motor Company, and Peter Klutt, owner of Legendary Motorcar Company. 

“They made Klutt put a small block in his car to run A production (small blocks normally run B-production), and he still qualified behind me with a small block on old tires,” Kuniki said. “Curt Kallberg is in the upper middle of the pack, even though he’s running with the wrong gears and the wrong carb setting.”

When the racers set up on Wednesday, a thunderstorm blew through the area that threatened to take them out. Bibler said it was like a tornado almost touched down. Kuniki said that he and mechanic Freddie Jonsson had all they could do to save the tents and awning.

“It came on in about a minute. Freddie and I were both holding on to the awning on the trailer and it was picking us up like Mary Poppins. We managed to save the awning but then had to grab the tent and hold on to it for about an hour.  Nobody could help anybody else, everyone had their own problems.”

Tom Cantrell said the weather was fierce.

“The first day the weather was bad, storms came though and were just ripping us. We got about 5 inches of rain in two hours, canopies were blowing away.”

Since then, though, weather has been good, if a little humid.

“We’re having fun,” Cantrell said. “So far the track has been good. We’re getting to know the Can-Am car, making little changes here and there, but it’s doing really well. The cup car is just excellent. We cut four and a half seconds off the last time we were here. We let Brent Glassetner (a builder of Nascar race cars in North Carolina ) have it in the off season, that was a good decision.

“Norm Daniels is doing good, Kallberg seems pretty problem free. All the guys from the Pacific Northwest are doing well,” said Cantrell.

Season over

First things first: Fireball, driving the Holman-Moody Mustang, kicked ass.

Not just mine. Fireball beat Excalibur, and Alice, too. He had the heat for the last weekend of the year.

A lot of qualifications could be put on that. Canuck’s car Alice was in her first race. There was sorting out to do. Canuck turned in lap times in Alice that were faster than Fireball, but with one mistake made (right in front of me) and then  a nearly disastrous mechanical failure on the main straight (right next to me), Canuck didn’t catch the Mustang. Excalibur ran hard, but… I don’t know what happened.

I turned in the fastest lap time of the weekend, a new personal record and maybe one for our group, I don’t know, but that doesn’t matter. I had mechanical issues all weekend which could all be traced back to the junction where brakes, clutch, shifter, gas pedal and steering wheel input all come together.

Driver.

I consistently displayed mediocre skill, not nearly good enough behind the wheel of a 160+ mph race car on the challenging course of Pacific Raceways.

Skill is where Fireball won the race, with a fast enough car that did not have mechanical problems all weekend, or if it did, they were dealt with and fixed by the owner and crew and were not an issue. Even though any of us could have caught him, not one of us did catch him and he won. He deserved each win and they deserved victory, and that’s all there is to say about that, at least from my point of view.

My point of view was from the side of the track. Which is where I was after I bobbled a shift coming into the fastest turn on the course. Which caused me to let the clutch out with the engine running too slowly for the gear I was looking for. Which had the same effect as pulling the pin of a hand grenade where power from the transmission changes direction to the rear wheels.

Which made a really ugly noise.

What’s worse: I’d worked this season on not doing that. I practiced not doing that over and over in my street car. I didn’t spend enough hours practicing in the race car, however, and  with other cars trying to be where I wanted to be when brake lights come on at over 150 mph and about three coats of paint separating us, old habits surfaced.

Bad habits. Expensive ones.

I’ve had a piece just like the one that broke on my “trophy shelf” for two years. It’s broken in the same way. This is not the first time this has happened. Nor the second. To say I was… “disappointed with my driving”… would be an understatement.

That said, Swede and StaysLate came over to my paddock where the tow truck left me. That would be Swede, builder of Alice, and StaysLate, builder of Excalibur’s Corvette: The guys who built the cars for owners who can usually be counted on to beat me, or make me work real hard for a win. My top competitors.

They spent two hours on their backs under my car while it was on jack stands less than two feet off the ground, replacing a rear end that was stubborn coming out of the car, putting in a spare, so I could go out and try to beat the racers they work for.

To those who believe what we do is nothing more than testosterone unleashed, I say, every time I get around these guys it feels like I’ve been reunited with my tribe, and with what that means in terms of friendship, common values, and camaraderie. I was humbled.

“This is amazing, I really can’t thank you enough…” I say.

“You’d do the same,” each reply to my clumsy “thank you.” Yeah, I would, but that doesn’t diminish appreciation.

I drove off looking for someone to put brand new tires on wheels for this last weekend. Nothing left to save them for. So I wasn’t there for most of the work, but several people came up to me to say what an amazing job Jakester, my 15 year old crew chief, did shagging tools and working his butt off for the mechanics, staying focused, staying available.

Early the next morning, Excalibur asked Jakester if he was in college yet, knowing he wasn’t more than 15, but Excalibur is always —always — thinking ahead.

“When you get out of high school, you’ll have three choices: Military, college, or going to work. You come to me after you graduate, and I’ll give you a  job, and with that job I’ll give you an education that’ll set you up for the rest of your life.”

“He means it, Jake,” I say, and Jake nods and says, “I know.” Bellingham is a pretty cool place. I think Jake might like it there, too, but that’s a ways away.

Ceegar reaffirmed to Jakester’s Dad that he was going to get Jakester and his brother into a driver’s ed course put on by a former racer, a guy Ceegar knows, who lost his own son to a traffic accident.

Jakester has earned a lot of respect from these Type Triple AAA personalities, everyone of them an entrepreneur, every one self-made, every one of them tough and smart and savvy, and obviously, risk takers but percentage players. They see someone worth investing in.

Hey, I’m just glad to be Jakester’s driver.

I’d worked my way up to fourth, behind Canuck and Excalibur and the Mustang, but in the next heat, I make a mistake and let some slower cars get by me on the first lap. They say no race is won on the first corner, but I don’t know if that’s true. Sometimes, letting the pack sort out can have consequences, or I get lazy, or maybe too confident I can run leaders down later. Not good.

I’d almost caught up but was running out of time. All of a sudden, I see a yellow flag. Rocket Scientist was coming out of Turn 8 and into Turn 9 when he missed a shift.

The back of his GT 40 went one way, the front another, which happened to be into the wall at the grand stand. The front of his car disintegrated and he slid to a stop just on the outside of Turn 9.

I was chasing somebody, I don’t remember if it was the Mustang or Excalibur or Canuck, but when I saw the mess and people standing near the wreck and parts all over the track, I hit the binders and slowed down.

There were people out there. I wasn’t going to catch anybody now.

Fortunately, Rocket Scientist was okay, even if a little subdued. “I had just about enough time to say ‘Oh noooo…’ he said later.

“He’s not insulting anybody, so he must still be a little shook up,” said one of his crew members, who won’t be named.

I almost caught the Mustang in the race on Sunday, but Canuck had caught up with me after erasing his own mistake, a spin between the tight right and left hand turns of 3A and 3B as we came down the hill. We race close and just came out on the main straight when I saw something fly off his car. We were side by side, concrete walls we had to thread through just ahead, when Alice skewed hard to the left, then back.

I didn’t know if Canuck was going to smack me, and even now I don’t know how he managed to keep Alice under control. A half shaft failed.

I thought about going down the escape road, but couldn’t watch Alice, see down the escape road, and did NOT want to took at the concrete barrier protecting workers (the car follows your eyes). But Canuck brought Alice back under control as I kept going, and I raced on.

Later, Canuck’s girl, Shoil, normally completely cool, showed just a slightest bit of dissipating adrenalin. She saw the piece come off, she saw his car slew sideways. She knows we’re not playing horseshoes out there, right?

I caught up with the Mustang, dropped back a bit when I ran out of talent, caught up again. We were so close, even Jakester wondered if we’d had contact. I had a chance to get him, planned where I would take him, was almost there on the last lap and then…

… the shifter had been feeling pretty rough, and there were noises I was not used to, I attributed those to different ratios that replaced ones I was used to when we fixed the car and I was… SO CLOSE! …

… I ignored them to get the Mustang… and then…

… smoke filled the cockpit as we headed up the hill. For a split second I thought about ignoring it, “SO CLOSE! LAST LAP! HALF A LAP!”

Then, inexplicably,  I became rational, and decided enough was enough, and started looking for some place to stop that might have a fire extinguisher. Possibly the best decision I made all weekend.

Fortunately, smoke didn’t become fire. Fiberglass really gets burning once it hits kindling temperature, and fire suppression systems make a mess. We’re tied in there pretty good in case the car stops suddenly against something hard. One thing more scary than climbing out of a burning car, is not climbing out of a burning car.

I made it back to the paddock where we lifted the cover off the rear deck and saw where the spinning drive shaft burned its way through the tunnel between the seats and into the passenger compartment. At least it was still connected on each end. If it had come apart, there are other consequences best not to think about.

That was that, for us: end of race, end of weekend, end of season. Rained out the month before, broken suspension the month before that, the season kind of sucked. But this race was the worst, because there were no excuses. Not really. It was on me. Bad technique led to mechanical failure.

So I apologized to Jakester for not doing my best. But he was having none of it.

“You did fine. You would have (eaten their lunch) if nothing happened to Yellow Jacket. Good weekend…” he responded.

Whoa. When in hell did he grow up? He has good parents, that’s most of it, of course. Jakester’s Dad came up for the weekend to help out, and found himself buried in praise for his boy. His mom would have been there too, but she’s president of the football booster club at Jakester’s high school and was in charge of some concession sales for the weekend. That figures, right?

So, it could have been worse.

I also got to spend time with Fox…no, really!… a woman I met who… well… hmmm… enjoyed her time at the races, and … um… er… makes me feel like I’d like to spend more time with her.

All sorts of time: time sitting, time talking, time laughing, time listening, time planning, the kind of time you spend with someone who… quality time… oh hell, enough of that. Who knows what’s next?

It’s hard to know how anything will turn out. Things break, things get fixed, you try hard and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s lots that’s out of our control. You focus on doing what you can do, and accept the rest. Right?

There’s only one thing I know for sure.

It’s never enough.

Alice

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.

 

 

 

 

Little Things

Jakester and I had high expectations after Seattle, where we’d set three personal best times and a new lap record for our group, according to some who’ve been around. We were headed to Portland, after all, and Portland is “home.” I’ve been running cars at Portland since the 1980’s.

The Portland race was being run by a new promoter. SVRA knows what they’re doing, and has the resources to do it. Still, there will be “discussions” when a new way of doing things governs a herd of “Triple Type A” personalities.

Canuck stacked up the Camaro, “Roxanne” in Seattle, and his new Corvette isn’t finished. But most of the rest of the “Bad Boys” showed up, and there were some folks we hadn’t seen before from out of state, and the TransAm grid, mostly from California. And Fireball, driving the gold Mitchell Mustang from even farther out in the weeds than me and Cowboy.

The Mitchell boys are still pretty fired up about the Ford vs. Chevy rivalry from the 1960s. They make it a little like Hatfields and McCoys, in that some things are hard to let go. They always accuse me of running a huge motor when I beat them, and I didn’t appreciate it much when they sprayed oil all over the track in front of my car, and on the faceshield of my helmet, a couple of years back.

Last time we were together, with Looser the owner as driver, not Fireball, the Mustang  got tangled up with Excalibur and Ceegar, doing some damage. The year before, Fireball contacted Canuck. Stuff happens, right? But stuff seemed to follow that car around.

Last week in Seattle, Yellow Jacket was hard to start once. Merlin was standing right there, flipped off the fuel pump, which left enough juice to spin the motor to a start.

“We’d better put another starter in the trailer, just in case,” he said.

Normally less than six hours from Seattle, it took more than 8 hours to get home. Two days later, Mule, my mechanic, came up to my place to put in the new starter. We didn’t want to take the chance it would strand me on the starting line.

I said maybe we should put the old one in the trailer as a spare.

“You could, or get a new one for the trailer. Do you want to take a chance that your replacement is no good?” asked Mule.

Good point.

Two days after that, we were in Portland. Montana Mustang and Montana Mom saved us a spot next to them, so Jakester and his dad and me set up and changed the oil and were ready to follow the SVRA type of schedule.

Instead of three days of racing, we practiced twice on Friday, qualified on Saturday morning, had a race Saturday afternoon and another on Sunday morning.

Montana Mustang was not happy with the new schedule.

“I came to race, not drive around,” he said.

I could see his point. It’a a long way from Montana. It bugged him all weekend. He was still fighting some brake issues, too.

Montana Mom aksed if Jakester and his dad and me would be around later for sandwiches. Like she had in Seattle, she fed us lunch all weekend, and would only let us contribute fresh fruit to the feed.

“Somebody has to make sure you boys have something to eat besides cookies and burgers,” she said. Thanks, Mom.

Family guy was pitted right next to us. Maybe because he owns a tire store, he noticed that one of the tires on my trailer had started to split because of age and time in the sun. He could see the steel belts. Jakester and I got out the spare, and made ready to change it. I’d lost a tire on that trailer on my way back from Seattle in the spring, probably due to the same thing. This would be the year I bought six new trailer tires.

It’s the little things.

After the driver’s meeting before the event, I watched a guy from Seattle angrily harangue the race promoter about one of the tech inspectors, who had required the electrical cut-off switch on his car to cut off power to the fuel pump (for emergency crews in case of accident).

He seemed to be arguing that a fuel pump pumping high octane gas into a potentially explosive situation wasn’t a bad thing. But then it became clear it was the way the inspector said this would not be allowed, apparently.

Culture clash. Or maybe just communication difficulties. I try to steer clear of that kind of thing.

Ceegar, who has what we think is a legal TransAm car, has been “disinvited” to play with that TransAm group. Like a number of the “Bad Boys” from the Pacific Northwest, he doesn’t necessarily think winners should be decided in private before the race begins. We don’t show up to drive in a parade.

OCD is Ceegar’s crew chief, and just about as tenacious as his name implies. He talked to folks running the weekend. They didn’t object to Ceegar going out with the Transam boys during practice, but said it was up to the TransAm folks. OCD went to talk with them. They said it was up to the TransAm “boss.” He wasn’t around. So, nobody said, “no.”

Ceegar waited in the pits when the TranAm group went out onto the track, then went to the startling line and was waved onto the course, with “permission.”

He cut through the field like he usually does, eventually catching the lead car.

“They didn’t like that so much,” he said with a smile after the race.

He basically stood on the toes of the race official who Ceegar thought took too much delight in delivering the reprimand, and confided that smirking would not be conducive for employment in Ceegar’s company.

Or something like that.

For a half-hour.

Later, when Ceegar’s Crew Chief “OCD” went to talk things over, the official said he never intended to speak with Ceegar again, not in this lifetime.

Culture clash.

Fireball came over after qualifying to say I had the car to beat.  He was gracious, and I tried to be the same. I’ve had a heart to heart talk with him in the past, and it’s hard not to like the guy.

But Yellow Jacket didn’t really feel settled during practice, nor qualifying. I thought it was me, or the track was greasy, maybe I had asked too much of the tires or was trying to get too many races out of them. But that’s what I had, so that’s what I’d use.

I don’t remember when things began to get worse. Maybe halfway through the race Saturday afternoon. Whenever I stepped on the brakes, the car would veer left. Not a lot, and she straightened right out again. But it was a little unnerving, and caused me to tip-toe around the course.

There was a half lap to go when there was a “clunk” when I turned the wheel from left to right, or right to left.  We spun out diving deep past Fireball in the Mitchell Mustang in Turn 7. And then Yellow Jacket wouldn’t start.

We got towed back to the pits.

Mule came right over from where he was helping out on Cowboy’s car.

“I don’t know how you drove this thing,” he said when he crawled out from under. The trailing arm on the passenger side that helps hold the right rear wheel in place had broken.

So we started to thrash. We put the battery on a charger. Jakester and his dad rode bicycles around the track, looking for a missing part that holds the trailing arm connection together and could not be purchased at local hardware stores. I went to everyone with a Corvette. No luck.

Finally, Mule gave me a list and sent me to Lowes’s, where I went that evening and again when Lowe’s opened at 7 a.m.  Sunday morning.

Mule pulled it off. “This will hold for a half-hour,” he said. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. We put the battery back in. We tested the alternator. Everything was ready to go.

I’d start from the back, but that’s a favorite of mine. I just love to chase. And Cowboy said we were supposed to start where we had qualified on Saturday morning.

On my way to pre grid just before the main race, Yellow Jacket felt so good, I wondered how long that trailing arm had been “not quite right.” I was distracted. The clutch is very firm. I stalled the motor.

She would not start.

I waved some men over, they pushed her, I popped the clutch, she started and I took the qualifying place (the wrong place, by the way) amid some confusion in the starting grid.

But even though I kept her running, eventually, there just wasn’t enough juice left, and the engine died. One of the cells in a fairly new battery had failed. That’s what had been going wrong since Seattle: not the starter, not the alternator.

I was stuck in the starting grid, watching all the other cars go out to race. On “my” track. In the biggest race in Portland this year. After Mule had slaved to get the trailing arm fixed. After we’d charged the battery, replaced the starter, and checked the alternator.

It’s the little things.

Fireball won that race. At first I was tempted to say that would not have happened if we’d been out there, but that’s racing. Even though Ceegar was in front of him, Ceegar ran out of gas on the last lap.

It’s the little things.

Fireball won the race in the Mitchell Mustang because he drove well, as he always does, and because they were ahead on all the little things.

It didn’t take long to get the trailer packed up. I was almost done when over the loudspeaker, I heard them give Fireball the first place accolades and the medal. As I drove past where a large group of them were all celebrating, I gave them a thumbs up. I don’ t know if any of them saw it, but I meant it. They deserved it.

After 13 years of racing, there’s bound to be parts on the car that are tired, and ready to let go. We replace things that have gone wrong, like a broken transmission; things that might go wrong, like a starter; things we know will probably go wrong, like wheels with thousands of laps on them.

We should have replaced old and tired trailing arm bolts, but sometimes we miss some things, especially things like a year-old battery.

Keeping ahead of all the little things that could go wrong takes a lot of effort and, at times, it seems like it’s never enough.

It’s Never Enough: Part II

My season started with an email from Jakester in the middle of April, saying the first race was coming up the first weekend in May.

I wasn’t planning to go. In Middleofnowhere, Oregon, the car was in the trailer where she’d been since I’d drained water out of the block last fall. I had my racing license, but hadn’t even paid my annual dues to the club. I thought I’d be race-ready by June.

Jakester was having absolutely none of that. At age 15, he’s still crew chief and decided the season doesn’t begin when we are ready; we are ready when the season begins.

“Time to suit up,” he says. That’s not a direct quote, because Jakester is more discreet than that, but that’s what he meant and I got the message. Three days later we were signed up, fueled up, tuned up and fired up.

Good thing Jakester woke me up. Cowboy called about a day after everything was finished, asking if I was going to the Spring race, and I was able to say, “Yeah, I’m ready. You?”

“Nah, it’s supposed to rain.”

Actually, I think Cowboy doesn’t want anyone to see what he cooked up over the winter. He likes to surprise the rest of us. One thing is certain: It’s going to be fierce. It may look like an older vintage race car, but that’s because it was “built down” from a much wilder machine.

Or “restored to original,” which is how Cowboy describes it. Cowboy is the best there is at getting you to think what he wants you to think just by how he says things. “Restored to original.” No harm in that, right? I bet there are a few details swept under that rug.

Cowboy doesn’t like new rules letting much newer cars into our races, into our group.  Cars that are 15 years newer than ours. Able to run super-light frames, with bigger motors and smooth tires that will allow them to stick to the track like they were glued.

“We’ll be middle of the pack. Might as well kiss this racing good-bye,” he said, thinking our popular production Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros would be replaced at the front by cars with less appeal. He makes a good argument, but others see it differently.

“We need more cars or it’s all going away,” says Ceegar. “The fact is, those of us who love these old cars are dying off. We need to have newer cars come out. Some guys we used to race with in the past, like Irish, might even return.”

I enjoyed racing with Irish back when he was still involved. He brought to the track the finest automobiles ever made; a TransAm car, an original Cobra. And he’s a lot of fun to be around, smart and enthusiastic.

It’s true. The grids are smaller, and we’re getting older. A lot of guys aged out, or the money ran out, or they just moved on. There aren’t as many of us as there used to be.

Our cars are getting faster, too, and that concerns me a bit. Racing at 170 mph is not just 15 mph faster than 150 mph. It’s a whole different level, with different aerodynamics, different braking forces, and far more demands on a driver to act and react faster than ever when he runs out of track or out of skill or something happens on the track just ahead that he didn’t anticipate.

We’re going as fast as pro drivers did just a few years back, but we’re in machinery that was designed 50 years ago.

I hope we’re all ready for that.

Ceegar will be there this weekend. He’s 100 percent ready, his chief mechanic, O/C, has seen to that. We may not recognize Ceegar, nor O/C. Ceegar’s lost more than 30 pounds, O/C has lost more than 40. They’re on some diet that cuts portions and uses three drops of magic oil: my guess, something between snake oil and 90 weight gear lube, but you can’t argue with those kinds of results. I wonder if I can sneak some into my crankcase.

Excalibur will be there, too.

“We had teething problems last year. I was going nowhere. The first weekend, we ran a 1:31 and it got worse from there. There was one race I brought the car in and said to Stays-Late (his mechanic) that I wasn’t sure if next time I would bring it in in one piece.  After the front straight, I could stand on the brakes with both feet and not know if I was going to make it.”

This winter, Stays-Late told him, “you will have brakes.” That means Excaliber will drive again with the confidence that made him one of the top three on most weekends, but this season in a fresh and much faster car. Whew.

“I don’t need to win. All I know is that I want to do the best I can do,” he says.

Yeah. Okay. When Excaliber starts a sentence with “All I know is…” you can bet that he knows a lot more than he wants you to know that he knows.

As to speeds as high as 170 mph, he’s cautious but confident.

“I believe that’s where we’re all going. That’s something we all have to consider, and hopefully we all have what we need to do the job… Hopefully, it’s not 1,000 percent harder to go five percent faster. But there’s a world of difference between 80 and 140, or between 100 and 160.” Yeah, things that used to go by fast are now just a blur.

Most everybody thinks the rules on car preparation will be more rigidly enforced, and everybody knows that some will take advantage.

“My guess is, that at least at the July 4 race, you will find some interesting interpretations of the rules,” said Excaliber.  “But if you are a superior driver, that can make up for a lack of horsepower. I always thought the driver was an unheralded part of the equation.”

We do talk a lot more about cars than skills, more about horsepower than technique, more about setup than braking points.

The clearly superior driver of our group, by far, won’t be there next weekend at the Spring race. Canuck’s car isn’t quite ready, he says. Lots of little things remain to be done. His mechanic, Swede, is working on it, he says, but Swede has other clients too.

One of them is Falcon, and changes have been made to Falcon’s red car that he likes a lot. ‘Stang will be there in the blue Mustang that just keeps getting better and better and faster and faster. It’s not like either of them has been sitting on their hands all winter.

There are supposed to be some great drivers up from California this year, who can give any of us a run for our money. Canuck thinks they might push us a bit in Portland, but that Seattle takes longer to learn.

It’s said that Kiwi won’t just wrench and manage cars for clients, at least at the big race in July. Kiwi may drive a big-engine Corvette, and Kiwi used to be a professional racer. He intends not just to race, according to someone who overheard, but plans to qualify first with a better time than any of the rest of us.

“There are seven or eight guys who might disagree with that, who are planning the same thing,” Excaliber says. And he’s one of them. Canuck certainly is. Cowboy, always. Captain America will have a shot. Ceegar wins races, and has gotten 105 percent out of that Mustang each year for so long, he’s got to be close to 175 percent of what that car is capable of by now. I’d like to be in the hunt, too.

Seven or eight drivers in the running for first place, and any one of them could take it. A lot will depend on who did what over the winter; what new cars were built, what big changes were made to old cars, or what small tweaks were found that add up to give one of us the edge.

We’re all looking for that edge. We all live a bit on that edge, in a way. It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. So we’ll keep doing it until we can’t, and keep looking for more.

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.

They’re here.

It’s a new game, that’s for sure. Old cars “reformatted.” New cars built for one purpose only.

“Beater” was out there today in his new ride. A sinister black ‘69 Corvette with an intake manifold big enough to house a family of four. “Beater” is going to take on a whole new meaning if that car goes as fast as it looks.

It’s so strong he broke the piece that holds the rear “control rods.” With that much horsepower, control is mostly a suggestion. The piece is on its way to the shop and a welder. He’ll be ready.

Canuck didn’t bring his “new”  ’69. Somehow, the guys putting in the roll cage made it two inches too short. He doesn’t need the bad haircut if he happened to flip and slide on the top even a very short ways.

So he’s back with his Camaro and his attitude. He has said he expects to run up front. Today he backed that down just a bit, saying that whoever beat him would have to work pretty hard. Nobody out there in the first eight or so cars is afraid of hard work.

Falcon seems happy with how everything has come together. He and Sweden were talking things over after the session. It was mostly thumbs up.

My car went from Merlin’s directly to the track. He massaged many things, rebuilt others, large and small.  He found nearly failed u-joints and rod bearings scuffed and worn, the result of too many years of deferred maintenance on my part.

Merlin also created, using all the same parts, a point, or so, maybe more, not telling, of compression. He rebuilt the combustion chambers from the inside out, adding metal so he could take metal away, creating special shapes in the smaller volume. She sounds so different, feels  so different, it’s like driving a different car, and that’s just in the parking lot.

With new gear ratios everywhere, a little more pull here and there,  driving her will be a whole different experience.  I’ll have to relearn what I’m doing on the track, even if she looks just the same. 

But the car of the weekend has to be what Cowboy put together in the farm fields of Madras, Oregon. Madras! Oregon! It as beautiful, and ferocious as anything that’s been raced by our group, in, well, a long time. Maybe longer than anyone can remember. Not that any of the Big Bore Bad Boys spends a lot of time held back by what we used to do.

“It’s just the same, pretty much. A paint job. Freshened the motor after we threw that dry sump belt last year,” he said. “That’s all. Flares.”

But before the hood went down, I saw  what looked like a mighty big, all-aluminum block. Wasn’t he running an iron block last year? And the only thing taller than his intake manifold is the tale he tells about the car being “just the same, pretty much.”

Ceegar gets in tomorrow. We’re out on the track at 11:30. We’ll know a lot more by the end of the day.

Spokane

Ceegar just flies over the hump at Spokane. 

That’s not a metaphor. His Mustang has all four off the ground. We’re doing 120 mph at that point, maybe a dime more. I feel the drop, and can sometimes smell burnt rubber when my suspension bottoms out.

But Ceegar pushes harder, and gets airborne. Photographers with positions on the back straight that the crowd can’t get to come up to us in the pits, astounded that he flies over that hump. Literally.

flying2

“What do you think?” Ceegar asked after a day of practice. At first I didn’t like the track and I told him so. Spokane’s really tight after that back “straight” and I never had the gears nor the tires to get through turns like that. I don’t much like threading the needle at high speed between concrete barriers, either, but that’s what we do.

George and I had left Middle of Nowhere, Oregon late the day before, got to Portland well after midnight. At 7:30 the next morning we picked up The Jakester, my 13 year-old crew chief, drove on toward Seattle to pick up the black and yellow race car at Merlin’s at 11 a.m., and then drove across Washington State to Spokane, arriving at about 5 p.m.

Whew. The week before I’d done a 1,000 mile round trip in 31 hours to San Francisco to get a daughter home from college. Averaged well over 70 mph, including stops. As much as I like to drive, that was a lot of seat time.

There was more to come. After we arrived at the track, Merlin and Ceegar’s crew chief O.C. asked if we could use my rig to get Ceegar’s TransAm Mustang down to a promotion for one of the sponsors. No problem. Even though my rig is well over 40 feet, Ceegar’s Freightliner and stacker trailer are larger still.

Merlin got some attention when he lit off that motor in downtown to get from the parking lot, where I could fit my truck and trailer, over to the dealership.

I was supposed to follow them back to the track afterwards, but traffic lights and onramps fooled me and I hadn’t followed one of my own rules about keeping Excessive, my truck, fueled for contingencies. I was out of diesel. And lost. In downtown Spokane, which has narrow-enough thoroughfares and one way streets to make a challenge out of driving a truck with trailer hauling a car worth more than my house.

And I’d had one or a half dozen too many sausages soaked in BBQ sauce at the event we’d just left. And I was keeping everyone from dinner. And it was my own fault and I knew it and I was cranky.

George spotted the gas station in the distance and we got there, just barely, took on $140 of diesel, a half-roll of Tums and found our way to the track at about 9 p.m. We left everything as it was and headed out to find something to eat. After one restaurant told us their kitchen had just closed, Ceegar treated everyone to dinner at the casino, though the waitress told us The Jakester shouldn’t really be there after 10 p.m. because even though he’s sometimes the most grown-up in our group, a 13 year-old is considered too young by the law to be around behaviors reserved for…adults.

It was time to tip over anyway.

We set up the next day and I set about learning the track. Ceegar kept saying how much fun it was, but I didn’t see it, not at first. The undulations leading to the short back straight made the car uncomfortable. The back straight itself seemed to be an optical illusion, it seemed long at the beginning but less than a breath of air later it was time to be on the brakes, hard… not hard enough! Hard! and make a sharp right turn.

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“Every turn at Spokane is late apex” I’d been told, which means you don’t even look at where the turn starts but where it feels like it will end. Hard to do, at times. But I got better as the day wore on, and began to see what Ceegar enjoyed about the track in Spokane. And the next morning, I qualified on the pole.

Ceegar came up to me afterwards with his head tipped forward, looking at me over the top of his glasses.

“I guess you like the track okay now?”

But racing isn’t just about driving and I am an absolute bonehead at times. As the first race approached, Merlin and I got involved in a discussion about politics and even though I’ve got a clock the size of a dinner plate always in view, I let time get away from me. I fumbled with straps and buckles and got to the grid after the five minute countdown.

Despite my fastest qualifying time, they made me start at the back of the pack. I was able to get up to fourth, but that was that. Feeling like an idiot, to say the least, though in fact, coming up through traffic is an awful lot of fun.

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“Jakester, maybe you should let me know it’s time to suit up 20 minutes before race time,” I told my crew chief later.

Yeah, I know, not really his responsibility, but even Ceegar’s crew chief O.C. was telling me how much time was left by then, though Ceegar joked that Merlin should get me “talking politics before every race.”

Though I don’t wear a watch, I usually know what time it is, but rarely know how much time is left. It’s how my brain works. Or doesn’t. And I always have a really hard time remembering what happened in races. Those who know racing, or athletics, say that’s a good thing and has to do with what my brain is doing when I’m on the track. I’ll take their word for it.

I know that at some point that weekend, I was behind Ceegar and a very, very fast and well-driven Porsche. In that race, Ceegar took him deep, deep into that turn at the end of the back straight, and the back wheels of the Porsche decided to change positions with its front wheels.

For a moment, I thought I was going to wear that Porsche like a smile, but I got by, and went after Ceegar.

I think that’s when FastCat blew up the brake rotor of his bright red V-12 Jaguar, maybe trying to avoid the Porsche sitting half on and half off the track. I don’t know. Earlier, FastCat had to put a diaper on the differential of the Jaguar that was leaking onto the rotors, which on a Jag are “inboard” near the differential and not out at the wheels. He left the track before I could find out if they were related.

I can’t tell you where I caught caught Ceegar, but I did.

“Like the track enough yet?” he said, afterwards.

George Folmer, a star of TransAm driving Mustangs and CanAm driving a Porsche, decades ago, was the featured speaker at dinner on Saturday night. We got his book, and Folmer signed it for The Jakester and his dad. Ceegar had Folmer sign a piece of art Ceegar had created out of fenders from Folmer’s TransAm Mustang, a car very much like the one Ceegar was driving this weekend.

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Falcon put on a show during one race. Coming out of the slight right to the main straight, there are bumps that unsettle the car. He spun right in front of the grandstand.  Falcon wondered if his shocks had been destroyed by Spokane, he and his car had dealt with far worst than that. The next day, race promoters said they hoped they had his spin on camera, it would be used to promote the excitement of Spokane races in the future.

‘Stang has all the power one can put under that hood. He had a pretty good weekend, too, but Spokane can punish as well as reward. Once at Spokane, ‘Stang tried to go around someone on the outside and caught the gravel on the edge, then the bank on the opposite side, then a large rock. He said he was glad the little building that’s there now wasn’t there then or he would have collected that, too.

Once over the weekend, Ceegar asked me about “trail braking” into a turn. I spent far too much time explaining car dynamics, feeling like I knew something, then realized he was really trying to learn whether I was brake checking him — putting my brakes on to fool him until any advantage I had could be used. Maybe he wasn’t, but he drove right up my tail pipe after that and I could never get away.

In the race Sunday morning, Porsche and I dueled. I could not escape, him, either. I tried to scrape him off on the Studebaker driven by Rex Easly (probably the fastest racing Studebaker in North America, maybe the only racing Studebaker in North America) but Porsche wasn’t fooled. He got by me once coming out of a turn but I followed him close to the next, where he bobbled. I got by him again and then shut the door and that was that. You can see that here.

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In the next race, Ceegar and I freight trained nose-to-tail at the start and our combined power and draft put us both in front of the Porsche.

“No soup for you!” Ceegar kept saying every time the Porsche tried to get past him. And that’s how we finished.

“You like this track, yet?” Ceegar asked, after I posted first place and fastest lap time. I had to admit, I had grown somewhat fond of the tight, undulating track at Spokane. I can’t get my wheels off the ground in full flight like he can, but I’ll keep working at it.

Merlin was the mind behind the engines that powered the cars that finished first and second. His reputation doesn’t need any more light around it, but that didn’t hurt.

After Sunday’s races, George and I put The Jakester onto a flight from Spokane to Portland where his mom was waiting, and at 4:30 p.m. after an already long day, we headed south to Middle of Nowhere, Oregon, getting home about eight hours later.

Not much got done on Monday.

The car did not come home with me. It went back to Merlin’s in Seattle. Merlin hasn’t finished finding out why what should be available in that motor doesn’t seem to be there. I’m not going to give you any numbers, or what we’re looking at, or where we hope to find power and torque. Because other people might want to know.

But I will tell you that we’d better find it, because the biggest race in the Pacific Northwest happens in about three weeks, in Seattle. Cowboy, Canuck, and Beater will all be there, with everything they’ve got, and that’s more than anything we’ve seen so far. Who knows who else will show up, from Colorado or California or someplace else?

We have to find more. It’s never enough.

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