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).

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.

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.

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.”

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.


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.


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.

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.

Retire just means new rubber

Cowboy was on his way home to Rangeville from a rodeo board meeting when I got hold of him. He’s been on the rodeo board for just about half of forever, they won’t let him off because he knows how to “get it done.”

A couple of years ago, he was working the chutes for the bull riding. A bull got out of the chute and buried him in the dirt. It came back for him, too, but got distracted by a clown or that might have been the end. Cowboy was helped out of the area, but on his own two feet.

“A little road rash, a little stiff,” he said a couple of days later. He’s not about to retire.

That’s Cowboy.

His first race ever, a teenager with a racing license, he hammered it and was in first place over the first hill, but landed so hard on the other side he scraped off his exhaust pipes and drove them right through his rear tires. He ended up so deep in the woods, a rhododendron the size of a small tree came out too when the wrecker retrieved his car. So he got new tires.

That’s cowboy.

Last weekend he was on his way up to the race track in Portland to do a little test and tune for both his fast cars. He was meeting Canuck there, down from Canada, and Hotshot. Canuck may be the best driver around now, but Hotshot was a pro driver in Europe for a while, and pretty close to the fastest driver in our group of go fast.

It would be fun sometime to hear Canuck and Hotshot tell each other how to drive. The testosterone would splash half-way up the grand stand

Cowboy was going to put them in his cars during a test session to help him set up the cars, the new one he’s bringing out in July, and the beast he used to drive.

“Don’t put them on the track at the same time,” I suggested. “They’d have to see who was fastest.”

“I thought of that,” said Cowboy. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep between them.”

I’ve never seen Cowboy this focused. He’s built a new car, put a lot of attention into setting it up, maybe even getting a little driver training, if that’s what this last weekend was really about, and I’ve got my suspicions. He downplays everything, and doesn’t think it’s always necessary to play inside the rules.

“Hotshot says he might come back and race with us,” Cowboy said. “We’ve got to find him a car.”

“Maybe he should buy mine,” I say.

“Whaddya mean, buy yours? You ain’t going nowhere.”

“I don’t know, Cowboy, I’m getting old, and maybe slow. It might be about time.”

“Nah. You turned a 1:29 a week ago in Seattle. You’re still one of the fastest. You going to sit around and play checkers?”

“Racing is a lot of money. A lot of money,” I said. My black and yellow screamer is up on jacks as we’re having this conversation. I was checking the brakes at the local garage when I discovered one of the shafts driving the driver’s side rear wheel had nearly chewed through it’s flange two weeks before in Seattle.

Merlin had told Jakester to tighten the bolts on Saturday before he left the race track for the weekend, and Jakester told me before we let the car down off the jacks on the first race on Sunday. But I never knew there was an issue with those bolts, and I overruled Merlin.

That’s always a stupid thing to do. They came loose.

During the Sunday morning race my clutch pedal didn’t work and I came in after a few laps. During the Sunday afternoon race, the car popped a couple of times and I thought I was “running a little lean” as Kiwi says, and came in.

Another two laps and that shaft would have come loose. Driven by the tire, it could have taken out my oil sump, could have cut through the back of my seat like a chain saw and anything on the other side of that seat, or maybe just let the rear wheel flop over onto the track at 160 mph. It any case, it would not have been pretty.

I didn’t discover it until two weeks later when the car was on a rack for brake work. This maintenance thing is pretty important, and I’d been a bit neglectful because I didn’t have a mechanic close by. That’s really stupido, too.

I think the world of Shade Tree, but it’s three hours just to drop the car off for an oil change. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be done.

I was rescued, again, by Cowboy, who told his mechanic, Mule, who had once been my mechanic too, that I might need a little help. Mule called me up and said he was on pretty good terms with the only guy in the country who has those parts. Mule was putting them in my car a week later.

“Money?!” Cowboy says to me over the phone. “You already SPENT the money. You won’t get anything out of your car, so there’s no point in selling it. You might as well be racing, maybe you only race three events a year. That’s okay. Besides, it’s not the racing, it’s the people!”

Well, that’s true enough. Cowboy is the people who got me into this decades ago, and I guess he’s not going to let me out early. There’s still time to get the car fixed and get to the next race.

Maybe with a enough extra practice, enough extra effort like everyone else seems to be putting into this go-fast passion, there might be enough left to win a race or two. Then again, everyone else has the same idea, so maybe there’s never enough.

Spring Sprints

Excaliber in his sinister black Corvette dominated the first race of the season. Ceegar broke, Canuck and Cowboy didn’t show, and I wasn’t even close with lap times would have put me in front last year. I couldn’t catch him, except once when he made a mistake.

The field was small to begin with and got even smaller as the weekend went on. It’s too bad, too. The weather was perfect: sunny and cool, exactly what the cars like best. Drivers too. Those who were there got a treat.

In the first race, Excaliber shot out in front and Ceegar was right in front of me, again. I tried to get him on the inside, outside, braking later, coming out of turns faster, but Ceegar was where I needed to be to get by him, then squirted away.

He was in front of me as we came down the main straight when all of a sudden, a huge billow of smoke came out from under his car. That usually means something bad just happened. Last time it happened to me, an exhaust valve ended up in my exhaust pipe.

Ceegar immediately pulled far left against the wall so he wouldn’t put oil down on the racing line. I went by on the right and after Excaliber, as if I could catch him.

That was it for Ceegar, first race of the first weekend. But he has O/C as his mechanic, and another motor back in the shop. He’ll be at Spokane in a month.

I got the jump on Excaliber in the second race, but that black car filled my mirrors for three or four laps, before he finally got around me. I think he was either toying with me or watching my line, figuring out where he would get past. And then he did and off he went, I had nothing for him.

But as I was coming around the hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill, I saw a cloud of dust on the left side of the track, then saw Excaliber facing backwards, off the track on the right. He had cooked it into the sharp turn just a little too hard.

I went by as he started to move forward, and I pushed it. I knew his tires would be full of dirt and gravel for at least a few turns, and I wanted enough room between us so he couldn’t catch me before the checkered flag. That’s how it ended up, too.

But it was luck, and Excaliber has set a new standard. One minute and a half. Well over 160 mph. Winners this year will need to turn 1:29, and I think we’ll see a 1:28 before the season is over, probably from Canuck, and maybe from Excaliber too, given his single-minded focus on getting better, going faster.

BS-ing in my trailer after the race, Excaliber says he doesn’t know how I got the jump on him, and I’m not telling him, either. “You’re just old, your reflexes are slow,” I say. I’m probably older than he is.

“And so it begins,” Merlin says laughing, or he said something like that, I’ve forgotten.

The fact is, Excaliber’s 1:29 was no fluke. He was turning them all weekend, every day, several laps in one race, he was consistent. Some of it is pure power, and that black car has a ton. But you don’t turn a 1:29 because you can accelerate in a straight line. That kind of time takes skill. Excaliber has worked hard over the last several years to improve his cars and his driving. He earned this.

Jakester and I buttoned  the race car up and left the track, but stopped at the kart track on the grounds on our way out. I needed seat time and had sorta kinda promised him when we first arrived.

“You sure you want to get whupped, since you’re probably feeling pretty good after winning that last race?” he tossed out with the cockiness of an almost-fifteen-year-old who doesn’t think he can lose driving karts.

“Perfect,” I think, so we run a quick race, the two of us and three family guys from out of town who are just out to see what its like. I was behind Jakester and we were at the back of the pack as we lined up. As soon as racing was allowed, I goosed it, got by Jakester and everyone else and just started a run.

Jake passed me about half way through, but just like Excaliber earlier in the day, he bobbled in a turn and I got by him. Again. Then he took me coming out of the last turn onto the main straight.

But we had come upon the family guys. We were starting to lap them.

Experience is worth something: Jakester got pinned behind one of them and I went by both just before the checkered flag.

Jakester’s pretty competitive. He did not like not being second, even to me.

“We need to have a rematch,” he says.

“I don’t know. It is what it is,” I say.

“I turned the fastest time,” he says.

“But you weren’t first to the flag,” I say, a bit of payback for the “attitude” when we arrived to drive. He sort of laughs, knowing that’s exactly why I said it. I can see him going over the race in his mind, figuring out what he will do differently next time, thinking, “THAT won’t happen again.”

Ceegar’s Mustang was not to be seen the next day. They didn’t even open the trailer, none of his crew was around. Too much to do, too little time. Falcon showed up to run his red Ford.

In the morning race, I got the drop on Excaliber again but my transmission was a little balky, or I was rusty, and after a few laps when I tried to use the clutch it went right to the floor, where it stayed.

Unable to get power to the wheels, I pulled off the track and coasted to a place in the shade where I figured they wouldn’t have to slow down the race until they could tow me in.

It wasn’t serious. I had pushed my recently repositioned clutch pedal so hard it jammed into the fiberglass floor, where a corner caught and held the pedal down. In the pits, I popped it out. Swede the mechanic crawled under Falcon’s car and retrieved a piece of sheet metal they didn’t need any more. I screwed to the floor behind the clutch pedal to keep that from happening again.

“Shall we put gas in?” Jakester asked after we were done changing out the tires. I was hot and sweaty and wanted to sit for a bit before the race. We hadn’t run more than a few laps in the morning, I thought, and maybe starting out a little lighter would give me something to use against Excaliber.

“No, I think we’ll run it as it is,” I said.

I was working my way up from the back of the six car pack, but after a few laps, my car started to pop coming up the hill through turn seven, and I pulled off into the hot pits. It smoothed out, so I drove slowly to the trailer. I didn’t know for sure what was wrong, but I had to admit to Jakester I thought I’d run out of gas.

“I TOLD you we should have fueled her up,” he said. Yeah. Four gallons of gas sitting in the trailer didn’t do me much good out on the track. Kiwi later asked if I knew the technical explanation to avoid embarrassment: “She started to lean out.”

I turned a time well under 1:29 in that race, but Excaliber turned a lap a half second faster. In this sport, a half second, even in a lap of 10 turns over more than two miles, is huge.

I went over to his trailer where he was talking to Canuck who had come down to watch. To them and everyone else, I acknowledged they are both faster than me. I’m kind of like Jakester: I don’t much like being second, let alone third, maybe even fourth or fifth.

Just one more lesson from a weekend of dusting cobwebs collected during six months out of the driver’s seat. The first go is always a learning experience, and I learned that I need brakes. I need power. I may need a transmission repair, and I need practice. A lot of practice.

It’s never enough, especially with Excaliber running consistent 1:29s; Canuck will probably hit 1:28 in his new car; and Cowboy has a new car with history and set up that he’s keeping under wraps until the first big race in July where he may blow everyone away.

And there are supposed to be some guys coming up from California soon who intend to show us how it’s done.

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.