Early Apex

I put the camera in the car primarily for Shade Tree. He’d asked more than once, so I went down and bought the popular one (and cracked the cover in Seattle. We’ll see if GoPro wants to replace it).

And for the most part it was an excellent, if embarrassing purchase.

I had no idea what a lousy driver I can be until I watched video of myself in action. There isn’t a single lap where I don’t count a half dozen significant mistakes. Mismanaging RPM. Milktoast driving. Missed turns.

But here is my favorite: This movie is only about a minute and a half long.

The most amazing thing is that what I thought happened in this moment is not what happened at all. Merlin and I had a conversation earlier where he recommended I carry more speed into the turn and then lift to rotate the car through Turn 13. He’d seen other cars come through at a faster clip.

So I tried it. I thought.

Except I didn’t rotate.

The best thing about this lap was that I backed my car off the track and into the grass to get out of the racing line. I didn’t even know I’d killed the motor. The old adage “In a spin, both feet in”  is fairly well burned into my circuits, but the engine died anyway. I went backwards onto the grass with pure momentum.

The second best thing was that I was communicating with the corner worker, although he had to wave me back onto the track twice after I killed the motor a second time.

When I got back I grabbed Merlin’s hat as if to beat him with it, but the video shows he was right. I could carry much more speed through Turn 13. However, I could not carry that speed AND early apex. I ran out of track PDQ. Driver error.

It wasn’t until I watched the IMSA cars come through 13 that I really “got it.” To get out of Turn 13 with speed, I had to come into the left hander from the far right. Very far right. which later in the weekend allowed me to late apex with more speed.

I didn’t try it again in third gear, which is too bad. I could have gained a second there and possibly more, if I was able to carry it up the main straight.


I started, really started the new book today. Chapter 1, which is linked to here, is done, though it will no doubt be changed many times. This will be a tidy little book, now that I know it has a beginning and an ending. Some of you have already read parts of “Butterflies.” Those were snapshots for the wall, vignettes, blocks that will be assembled and reassembled to become this book.

The other new book, the one I only get to whisper about, is with the managing editor of the small publishing house that decided to take it on and put it out there. It goes into production at the end of the month, and on sale soon after with a guerilla promotional campaign. Labor Day? Hooray!

And of course, we are still living the race story, “It’s Never Enough.” I don’t know if that goes anywhere beyond the blog, since I doubt a book about a bunch of guys racing cars has universal appeal. But we’ll see.

Thank you, everyone, for your interest.


Finish line

Ceegar felt pretty bad about causing the wreck in Turn 14 at Road America. He was pretty subdued in the pits after that race. He took most of the blame, too, I think, at least as far as he could.

After spinning off the track because of too much speed, or tires not fresh, or because he’d already raced, and won, a pretty grueling competition over some of the best Mustangs in the nation, or even because he had dialed it back a notch and was out of sync with himself, he tried to come back on and finish what he’d started.

But he came on at an angle, launched across the track when his front tires again found traction at the edge of the pavement, and took out a Corvette. His own car suffered too, driver’s side scraped and torn nose to tail. But his vintage and real Trans Am car could and would be repaired. The Corvette, maybe not.

Many things happen in the heat of battle, and we don’t always use every option available, sometimes not even the best one. Ceegar felt bad because he didn’t control his car and he hit somebody. Of course he didn’t want to hit anybody, and didn’t expect to hit anybody. But sometimes, physics is hard to anticipate if you’re trying to stay in front.

There are some pretty significant consequences if you do hit someone. Stuff happens in racing, and it can be tough knowing who’s at fault. I have spun many times, and I have seen other cars spin and then launch, usually backwards, back across the track.

Ceegar’s real infraction may not have been the spin, but trying to come back on. Reining in the nearly overwhelming need to keep fighting, half thought half emotion, after clawing around the track to be at the front, lap after lap. It’s that emotion that puts us out there, driving inches from a concrete wall at 160 mph, balancing on the knife edge of traction between going fast and sliding off the track, trusting mechanicals (and mechanics) with our bodies if not our lives.

Don’t give up! Go! Take him! Go deep! Find it! Brake late! Get back on!

We all know that need. I also know if I were driving through that turn in my Corvette, and saw him in the grass but still moving, then he hit me, my reaction would have been “I was still racing! He was in the grass!”

But I didn’t see the wreck, I was out racing. This all comes from Ceegar, and others who saw it from the stands. There may be other interpretations. And there was a lot of contact out there. We have all screwed up, and more than once. Every one of us.

Cowboy got tagged and put into the wall. Was he hit by another Mustang? One had nerfed him the day before. Maybe the blue one, this time? Small block tagged a Porsche, but Small Block went into the wall and suffered far the worse for the contact. The Porsche sustained some damage, though.

Falcon had somebody bump and run against him, but it wasn’t too bad. His car even wears a band aid from encounters. I have some rubber marks on my side pipe from the day before when another Vette moved for track position I already occupied. But Canuck and I escaped any noticeable damage during the real race, maybe because we were out front and away from most of the uberenthusiasm.

It’s hard to explain this passion.

Stang didn’t even get to race, though his blue Mustang won an award. No small accomplishment, either. There was a lot of competition.

Stang was still happy he’d come to Road America. He was happy about the huge and enthusiastic crowds, the unbelievable track (he’d run a couple days of practice before his engine decided enough was mostly enough), the great weather and town, all of it. The whole show. Yeah, running in the race would have made it a lot better, but being here was better than not.

Stang is right in the middle of all this. Stang recently bought a couple of pallets of car parts. They came with a couple of cars. One of the cars Stang bought was a Pontiac station wagon, a Safari, with two doors like a Chevy Nomad. I’ve never even seen one of those, never even heard of them, and I like Nomads. And of some of the Pontiac’s, too.

Stang isn’t even a big General Motors fan, I didn’t think. I’m always surprised at what I don’t know about these guys. He couldn’t have surprised me more if he told me he liked to wear a tuxedo to his favorite ballet.

He and Canuck and Falcon sort of formed their own team, too, before and at Road America. Swede was helping with their cars, and we all tend to cluster around our mechanics. Stang’s admiration for those other guys was on full display even as he didn’t race, because Stang calls it as he sees it, and he’s been around. He said Canuck has worked hard to be the best driver in our group, and no one can disagree.

It’s hard not to feel a bit let down after a race like Road America, especially when friends have broken cars and we only have one or two races until the end of the season. We don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of sanctions, we don’t really have a lot more to prove.

Canuck was generous to me after that last race, congratulating me on my 10th place (he was 7th) and being 6th in class (he was 1st in his). I wondered if we were starting to mellow out.

But we have at least one more race, in Portland, and I’m not supposed to lose in Portland. It’s my home track. Jake has the Labor Day weekend free, and Labor Day has always been one of my favorite races.

I hope Ceegar has his car back together, and Cowboy, too, and that Canuck will make the trip down from Canada. If Beater is going to up his game with a huge engine in a new chassis and drive like his hair is on fire, I’d better do the same.

I’ve ordered some new parts. They’ll be here in a week, then we’ll have a month to get them in.

If you want to know what it feels like in the cockpit of a race car at Road America, click here.

Here are some still photos of the weekend.



Race Day

On race day, we were all pretty relaxed. After all, the reason we’re here is to have fun. Still, it was a pretty long wait until our race at 4:15 in the afternoon.

I wasn’t even going to practice at 9:a.m. I’d decided to save my brakes and tires for the race. But Kiwi found two sets of nearly new pads in his trailer. It was 7:45.

“If you want them, they’re yours,” he said.

I told him I had already decided not to go out. He looked at me with that expression that said, full of Kiwi accent, “Okay mate, if that’s how you want it.”

There’s no such thing as too much track time. The tires would hold up. Merlin, Jakester and I put the pads on, put the better-than-worse brake pads we’d moved to the front the day before back on the rear of the car, and I went out and cooked everything in. After the third long stop from about 100 mph, they stopped smelling like new.

Ceegar had his race against other Mustangs at 1:45. He was ready. His crew chief O.C. got him buckled in while Merlin, Jakester, Friendly and I went up on a hill overlooking several of the turns on the course.

Ceegar got the jump on the white Mustang right off the bat, and led the field of vintage cars. They shared the track with some IMSA Mustangs that were just tearing it up. Those drivers, and their cars, were incredibly fast and precise.

Beater, who was watching the race from a different part of the four-mile mile track, said they hit the same point on that turn within an inch, each and every lap.

What I saw from where I stood would make a difference later that afternoon.

A maroon Mustang began to close on Ceegar as his tires went away. On the last turn onto the main straight, Maroon caught him. Almost. It was a drag race up the hill to the start/finish line. Cowboy was standing there and saw Ceegar beat the Maroon by half a car length.

Ceegar was officially one of the fastest Mustangs in the country. Now he has the medallion to prove it.

The day was hot, and after recounting the race from the different places where we all could see it, Jakester and I headed back over to where my car sat with two other Corvettes Kiwi had hauled to Road America. Eventually I got in the rented minivan, turned the air conditioning on full, and closed my eyes.

I went over strategy, and each turn of the course as I drifted in and out of a light nap. Jakester sat on the other side with his iPhone.

They lined me up fourteenth. I had different goal in mind for the end of the day. But when the green flag fell, I got boxed in by several Camaros and a Firebird. For a lap and a half, the whole clot of fast cars went around the course in a tight group.

Eventually, it began to thin out. And I began to go to work in earnest. Watching the IMSA cars earlier in the day taught me how to come out of Turn 13 and approach Turn 14. Every time, they touched the rumble strip on the left, but came to it from the far right.

The first time I tried it, it made perfect sense. It was the only line that allowed a high rate of speed up and over the hill. Coming at the rumble strip from any other angle put you out in the grass. I knew this from personal experience the previous morning.

I saw where I could brake later on other cars, and get more of a jump. That exit on Turn 14 was critical. I was on full throttle while they were still trying to straighten out, the back of their cars swinging left and right in the hunt for traction.

I picked off a blue Mustang, but wondered if I was lapping him. Then went after a white Camaro. One of the leaders spun down in the bottom of Turn 8. I didn’t see what happened, but he was sideways across the track. Everyone was going by him at high speed, and I followed them.

For some reason, I’d lose brake pedal going around the long right had sweeper of Turns 9 and 10. I started pumping my brakes with my left foot to get them ready for The Kink, even while I had my right foot to the floor.

I came around Turn 14 and saw a red Corvette Coupe mangled on one side of the track. It looked like it might be Cowboy, but the next time around, when the ambulance was there, I saw the color was not quite right. I pushed harder. Now I was catching up to Canuck, just four cars ahead of me.

Then the race was over, 24 miles and 84 turns later.

Canuck was seventh overall, and took first in the Historic TransAm class. I was 10th overall, with the sixth fastest time out of a field of 42 cars,  a time slightly faster than Canucks (though Canuck had posted a time one second faster earlier in the weekend, he was quick to point out).

Falcon was 21st over all, and took first in his class too, even if he had a small ding where he’d been nudged.

Beater moved up to 23rd over all, and would have moved up another ten spots with one more day of track time.

Ceegar, Cowboy and Small Block didn’t fare as well. Cowboy got put into the wall by a blue Mustang. I don’t think it was the same one I passed. The nose of his car was shortened, but he was able to drive back to the paddock.

Small Block spun, and tagged the end of a Porsche, and then he too went into the wall. A portion of the front of his Corvette was removed by the concrete.

Ceegar came out of Turn 14 and started to spin, but gathered it up and was still headed in the right direction, though still on the grass. But when his car came back onto the pavement, the left front hooked up and he shot across to the left, collecting one other car and banging hard the drivers side of his TransAm Mustang, sheet metal bent or torn from nose to tail. His car came in on the bed of a tow truck.

It was rough out there. In some ways, it was rough all weekend. Bump and run seemed to be accepted, and there are those who say that “rubbin’ is racin’. There were more wrecks, and more serious wrecks, than any weekend in the Northwest. Of course, there were a lot more cars, too, and Road America is a very fast course.

But if they thought of us as “Show Poodles” before this race, the seven of us able to run on race day took three first place finishes in class, and Canuck and I finished in the top ten overall.

On a track we’d never driven before this weekend.

On the way back to our paddock, I turned to Jakester.

“This would not have happened without your help. Thank you.”

It was absolutely true.

We just looked at each other, and each of us nodded. It’s kind of the way we’ve learned to communicate that kind of thing, when no other words are needed, when enough has been said. Just a nod.

We’d prefer to say the rest on the track, on the field, by what we do and how we do it. We were at Road America, after all, and we did well.

Moving up

Out of 63 race cars in our group at Road America, Canuck qualified 11th yesterday. I was  right behind him at 12th, Ceegar was at 17. He was the second fastest Mustang on the course, and there are a lot of very fast Mustangs.

“We’re at Road America!” Merlin has said more than once. The mantra has been picked up by others. This is Road America, where big boys come to play.

I was awful in morning practice. Nothing flowed.  I spun it in Turn 13 because I forgot that when you’re nearly airborne, there isn’a a lot of traction to be had to finish the turn. And then the session was shortened. A yellow Corvette banged into another as they came through Turn 14 onto the main straight,. Yellow flew into the wall and  wiped out the back half of his car, the driver side front corner. The victim Corvette was fixed up with duct tape.

But in qualifying in the afternoon, as soon as the green flag flew I was hollering loud into my helmet to get my adrenaline up. I wasn’t dancing and I wasn’t smooth, but I closed the gap on Canuck  and a few of the locals driving monster cars.

Cowboy broke, and this time, it was bad. Mule thinks the half shaft had a fault in the casting. It could be that Cowboy puts out so much power now that he just twisted the stock U-joint in two. Doesn’t matter. The end result was that the half shaft kept spinning, and tore through the underside of the his car, and into his oil tank.

When I left last night, they were still working to fix it, and if anyone could find the parts and get her done, it’s Cowboy and his crew.

Nice Guy was discouraged. His times are getting slower. The track is working him over pretty good. And Beater, too.

Beater arrived the night before by plane from Seattle, and he drove the track the first time yesterday morning. Sometimes Beater feigns speechless, sometimes he’s just being careful. But he didn’t have much to say by the end of the day. He knew Road America wasn’t going to give anything away.

“I know I could just let somebody pass me and follow them and copy their line, but I want to figure it out myself,” he said while changing out of his driving suit.

“I disagree. Follow somebody,” I replied. “Follow somebody for as many turns as you can keep up, then follow the next one to get around you.”

“You think so?” Beater looked up at me. I shrugged. Given that his recent times in Seattle were better that mine, while driving a car he isn’t used to, I was reluctant to give him even that much. But here, we’re not competitors, we’re teammates. It’s really good to have him and his wife Lady K in the paddock.

Small Block is here with his family. He’s getting faster, but may have his hands full with distractions.

There was a horrific wreck that destroyed two Corvettes at the end of the main straight. I don’t know if neither would give ground, but the rear was nearly chopped off one, and the other was a mangled mess. I don’t think either driver was hurt, but we’re doing a buck and a half at that point, minimum.

Kiwi’s son fell out of the  golf cart last evening. Kiwi and his wife spent a good portion of the night and next day at the hospital. Jackalope had nausea, etc. Of course, he is the son of a Kiwi race car manager. He has a couple of burns, like one from an exhaust pipe. It was all enough to draw a little extra scrutiny to Kiwi from the hospital.

“I raised my son to learn and to do things, “ Kiwi said.

“Sometimes kids take a tumble,” I agreed.

Kiwi and his wife are great parents. Jackalope has red hair, Kiwi pointed out to me. A breed apart, he implied.

Sometimes I have second thoughts about where to draw the line with kids. Merlin says me having even one second thought can take half a day, considering how slow I think. We want children to be safe, but at what point do we create hothouse flowers from otherwise healthy plants?

Jakester draws attention as my crew chief. People comment on how hard he works.

He has gone from being a boy I wanted to encourage, to being indispensable. He changes tires. He torques wheels. Airs up tires to precise pressures. Reminds me when to get ready. Straps me into the car. Gets wrenches. Puts tires on the shelf, brings fuel jugs.

Yesterday, Merlin taught him how to bleed brakes. They were under my car, Jakester spotting leaks, Merlin telling him which leaks were insignificant, and why.

Have I mentioned Jakester is thirteen? He is absorbing this world and these people … he grows, nourished by their respect and admiration. I see changes in him over even these few days.

Last night we wandered through a crowd of five or ten thousand people who love these old race cars, were thankful we were there, putting on this show. It was incredible.

And while we were gawking, somehow, unbelievably, Cowboy got back in the game. He raced again on Saturday.

“Mule, how did you DO that?” I asked his mechanic. They’d welded up the oil tank, somehow. Found a new half shaft. Repaired the damage. Not like new, but race ready.

“It’s what I do, you know that,” was his reply.

Of course, near the end of today’s race, a Mustang came up behind Cowboy, gave him a tap and moved on past, leaving a scrape of white on the driver’s side rear. It seemed to be intentional.

Kind of like the Corvette that suddenly put on his brakes just as Ceegar went by him at 160 mph, and as I was closing fast. I went around him too, but I was off line and had to hit my brakes hard, nearly going off course, but then went on to chase Ceegar down the hill into Turn 3.

I would close the gap on Ceegar, he would shut the door and squirt away, then I’d run him down again. I pushed him until his brakes locked up and he spun out in Turn 12. No damage, just like this morning, when I spun it in Turn 13.

I’ve burned through nearly a full set of brake pads this weekend. We swapped the rears to the front to get a little more life out of them, because I didn’t bring spares. I never use up a set of pads on one weekend.

But this is Road America. We heard today that the locals thought the boys from the Pacific Northwest were “show poodles.”

After today’s qualifying race, Canuck moved up to fifth overall, I moved into 11th, according to Jakester, who had our time sheet. Ceegar is now the fastest Mustang. Falcon is wearing a wide smile, driving well on this beautiful track. Small Block is improving, and even Beater made it over to the first page of the time sheet, despite having one less day of track time.

We have one more race, tomorrow. We’d like to do well.

“Show Poodles?” We’ll see about that.

At the apex

Jakester and I flew in to Chicago on Wednesday. Ceegar and Merlin were on the same plane from Seattle. That was good news. Very good news.

It almost didn’t happen that way. Things got broke, things got fixed, but time was spent and there wasn’t enough Merlin to go around. There was disappointment.  Words were said. Feelings were hurt.

Maybe I mentioned that all the racer boys in this little group are entrepreneurs, self employed. They are risk takers, but have a pretty well honed and intuitive risk/reward brain function. They know what it takes to get it done, and are a little impatient, shall we say, when it doesn’t?

It also means they are Triple “A” Type “A” personalities. That’s one of the things I love most. There is safety in that for me. They don’t roll over me, they don’t let me roll over them, then harbor bad feelings for a life time. They’d rather punch me in the nose than stab me in the back.

And  when one of them says something someone else does’t like, it’s because they are who they are that it has the impact it does. They hold up a mirror, for me and for them, and I realize my life would be much smaller if they weren’t in it.

That’s why we were all on the same plane together on Wednesday. I wasn’t at the center of the problem, but I was “sorta kinda” involved. Things broke on my motor and others. Merlin got jammed up. He rebuilt my engine in a few days so I could get to Road America, and some other stuff didn’t get done for some other people. There were different opinions expressed about that, but not by me. Words were said. Feelings were hurt.

But it got fixed. This may not be pro ball, but it’s not Saturday night at the Dairy Queen, either. I’s hard not to respect the men at this level of the sport. Where there is respect, there can be communication. Where there’s communication, what brings us together can muscle out what pushes us apart, even our own egos. Some times.

And this was one of those times. We got in on Wednesday. By the time Thursday rolled around, most of the bad stuff was done with.

We were racing.

Heading north out of Milwaukee, we entered the essence of America, but some place vaguely alien. It was clean beyond belief. Manicured. Acres of close cropped lawn, mowed by John Deere lawn tractors with triple blade cutting decks that mowed 48 inches wide.

“A piece of trash usually won’t lie by the road for more than a day. Why would we leave trash about?” asked Heidi, hostess at the log B&B where Jakester and I were staying.

Heidi is German. About 60 percent of this area is of German heritage. That may explain it. I don’t know, I’m from MiddleofnowhereOregon. I used to think Oregon was pretty clean. Maybe, but not in comparison to Wisconsin. The roads here are even white, made crushed limestone I’d guess, maybe a white granite if limestone would be too soft.

The incredible track at Road America is made of the same stuff as it sweeps around a small set of hills in graceful arcs. Over four miles long, it climbs and drops and winds about over bridges and under bridges and wraps around a paddock where some of the most graceful and some of the most outrageous cars in the world are parked to go racing. It was humbling to be here, exciting.

Canuck said it wasn’t that big a deal, it just highlighted how lucky we were to have such great tracks in the Pacific Northwest. I disagreed.

“There’s nothing like this on the West Coast,” I said. “Laguna Seca is close, but even that track doesn’t express the complex beauty of Road America.” He just shrugged, but I think he doesn’t want to be impressed.

It isn’t just the physical beauty of the facility, though it match the rest of Wisconsin in manicured attention to detail. But the track itself has flow, pace, harmony. You could put Road America to music. Driving it is like playing music. But maybe that’s just me.

It took all three practice sessions on Thursday to get into the rhythm of it. I’d spent three days running on Road America in a video game, to at least learn the corners. Kiwi, once a professional driver and now a car manager, he hauled my car here, said driving in a video games to driving is like kissing your sister. I never had a sister.

But there is nothing quite like a smooth track pushing back against sticky tires, looping gravity, snarling of a tuned motor on the edge and the gnashing of real gears.

By the third session, “I was feeling it,” as they say. Ceegar and Cowboy seemed to be feeling it too. Falcon wore a smile, though Stang had an issue and was done before the race began. His crank shaft came apart. It was a bad day, and his keys were locked in the truck, too.

“What infuriates me is that they knew it might go, before we hauled it two-thirds across the country and spent $1,600 on airfare” said his wife. Airfare wasn’t a tenth of it, either. She was white and nearly shaking when she said this, but by dinner her steady, gracious self returned.

It’s racing.

Today, we qualify, and we race the first of a half-dozen session. For the next three days, it’s all in. Everything we’ve got. No holdbacks, the way we were holding back in Spokane and Seattle and Portland, saving something for Road America.

Because there’s nothing left to save it for. We’re going to give all we’ve got, leave it all here.

Things break

Saturday was not kind to Canuck. In fact, Saturday was a tough day for the Big Bore Bad Boys, period.

To begin with, in the first race, Canuck decided to do a little blackberry picking. His suspension broke, and the good news was that he wasn’t hurt, nor his car really damaged. But still, he was done for Saturday and would start in last place Sunday morning.

image001 image002 image003image007 image008 image009 image010 image011 image012 image013
(This spectacular series captured by Glenn Grossenbacher.)

A few years ago, Mule took a Corvette out for test drive and went up the same hill. That car ended up on its top.

In the afternoon race, FastCat blew his motor at the end of the main straight. Pieces of 12-cylinder Jaguar connecting rod were all over the pavement. I’ve been told there are photos of the fireball. (Somebody have those photos?) He was okay, too, but that motor will be melted into beer cans.

All this mayhem left Ceegar and me to battle it out in shortened events Saturday afternoon. Ceegar was in front. Where I wanted to go, he already was. If he wasn’t there yet, he just moved over to get in my way. Here’s what that looked like from my point of view. I especially like the segment starting about 9:30.

But you know, Ceegar is one of the few I trust to go through The Kink at Seattle at close to 160 mph. On top of that, it’s for a good cause.

It was great racing, and left me thinking about how I was going to approach the session the next morning. I thought about letting Ceegar get out in front and letting Beater go after him. Sometimes that’s worked for me, letting the leaders wear out their tires, get tired, work too hard. But it has risks, especially if the race is shortened like it was on Saturday.

So I decided I needed to get in front and stay in front on Sunday. And considering how Ceegar worked me over on Saturday, I had the attitude.

A long time ago, Cowboy told me to watch the starter’s elbow. “Go when you see their elbow go up, don’t wait for the green flag,” he said. And that’s what I did to Ceegar. When the elbow started to go up, my accelerator went down. By the time green could be seen, my engine was starting to howl. Ceegar was a half second behind me, but that’s all I needed. See it here.

I didn’t drive my best line. But the line I drove kept Ceegar behind me, until finally his transmission broke and he had to pull off. Canuck was getting closer every lap after starting from the back of the field. I made my self wide, and he couldn’t get by before the checkered flag.

He would have had me if the race had gone another lap.

Kuniki chasing
Photo by Gayle Jordan)

I didn’t run in the Sunday afternoon race. My black and yellow Corvette did not feel good at the end of the win over Ceegar; she sounded harsh, out of sorts. I decided enough was enough.

Beater put his sinister black car away for the afternoon too, after a couple of excursions into the dirt trying to get past Ceegar.

Cowboy finished the race, but his car had issues. He’s going to have to work hard to fix it. His clutch was slipping, there’s still an unidentified vibration, and he has a long drive to Road America, less than two weeks away.

Enough was enough. More than enough, actually, for this weekend. All three days, Merlin battled gremlins in my engine. Water in the distributor from a pinhole leak in the non-standard intake manifold gasket. Three pistons on the driver’s side had reduced the spark plug gap to nearly nothing. Three times he had to torque the bolt on the intake rocker for the number four cylinder.

On Monday back at his shop, he found that bolt had again backed off, despite being set with Loctite and torqued. The bolt dropped into the crankcase, rattled around and damaged my oil pump. It left the intake valve closed, which was why she didn’t sound the way she does when she’s running smoothly on all eight.

“In hindsight, I wish I’d not let you run in that morning race,” Merlin said. In hindsight, I’m really glad I heard the engine’s distress and didn’t run later in the afternoon.

Canuck won that afternoon race, and he pretty much owned the weekend, despite his little excursion up the hill to pick berries. Even if my Corvette had run on all eight cylinders at some point in the weekend, I wouldn’t have been able to catch him. The truth is, had we been in identical cars, he would have beat me anyway.

Doogie, driver of the blue GT40 in the videos, took a photo of everyone. Doogie is a rocket scientist, and  may be in the photo too. He’s the only one I know smart enough to pull that off. But maybe it’s just the light.

Beater and his gang

I’ve given the photo a title: “The man who would be King.” That’s Beater out in front. For years he’s wanted to be first, the best. And there he is. He might just do it on the track, too, he’s improved so much. On the other hand, there’s a few of us with the same goal in mind.

Merlin is thrashing on my car to get her ready for Road America in two weeks. I’m trying to juggle transportation so my crew chief Jakester and I get to Seattle/Tacoma International for the flight to Chicago, where we’ll meet Ceegar and Merlin and drive down to Road America.

For more photos of the race, click here.

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.