Sunday, November 1, 2009

how the west was won and where it got us

Where to start....perhaps where I left off.

Erroll and Kendra took care of the cage installation in Dallas, while I flew to Toronto for a business trip.  I had a 6AM flight from Toronto back to Austin on the Thursday before the race, which I had planned such that I would arrive in Austin about 10:30 and have lots of time to work on the car.  As it happened, the flight was delayed, and Continental managed (even with the delay) to get my luggage on another flight.  This was also the one time I had my car keys in my luggage instead of my carryon backpack.  Let it suffice to say that after four hours of sleep and leaving for the airport at 3:45 Eastern, I still didn't make it home until nearly 1 PM (Central). 

I had some errands to run - I went to Home Depot and various parts stores and got some 4GA wire for the kill switch, brake fluid, spring compressors, electrical connectors, and some other stuff.  Erroll and Kendra weren't due until nearly 8PM, since they were also delayed, so I napped for a couple of hours.  When they arrived around 8:30, we pulled the car into the garage and got to work.

Erroll started replacing the struts, and I tackled the leaky cam box.  I got everything apart, and then to my horror realized Vick Autosports had sent me the wrong gasket - they'd sent the upper valve cover gasket instead of the lower.  Fortunately, at some point in the past I'd ordered a complete Fiat 2L engine gasket kit which I had cannibalized for various parts over the years, but in it was the correct gasket.  I replaced the gasket, and, with some trouble with the shim buckets sliding out of the cam box, I put everything back together, replaced the timing belt, and Erroll started it.

To my horror, the car, which had been running OK before, ran like utter crap. It missed randomly on two cylinders, belched smoke, and there was a horrible valvetrain noise that had not been there before. I shut it off, checked the valve and spark timing which was correct, and stood puzzling over it for a while with extreme concern.  It suddenly occurred to me that, although I had been careful, I might have accidentally swapped shim buckets as they kept sliding out of the cam box.  I got the feeler gauges and Erroll turned the engine over while I checked clearances.  No. 1 was extremely loose (thus the noise), and No.3 was extremely tight.  How it happened I could not imagine, but it was obvious I'd swapped the shim buckets for cylinder nos. 1 and 3.  I took everything back apart again, swapped the stupid buckets, put it all back together, and the car started right up and ran well (although smoking like the very devil because of the oil spilled on the exhaust manifold).  I literally collapsed with relief.

Another setback we had discovered was that the new accelerator cable was for a carbureted 131, not our fuel-injected Brava, and it was too short. I had cut the old cable (which was on the verge of breaking anyway) and so the car would just idle.

Erroll had finished one strut, and with the other small things we had done, it was 2:15 AM and we went to bed.  I figured it would pass tech with one new strut if necessary, but we were woefully behind on everything else. Kendra had painted and put stickers on while we were working.

We got up at 6 AM the next morning. The race tech inspections started at noon and ran until 6 PM, and it was about a 3.5 hour drive to Angleton.  We hurriedly packed, hooked up the car, chucked all kinds of extra tools and supplies into it (overpacking like the n00bs we were), and took off. I snoozed a little in the truck and then drove from Hempstead to Angleton. We arrived just at noon. On the way, I realized I'd left the front bumper to the car in the storage unit - we would just have to run the race without it.

Collin, with great foresight, had reserved us the last large canopy in the paddocks, and we pulled the car in there and got frantically back to work. Erroll set up the rest of the safety gear, including harness and extinguisher, and we started rebuilding the accelerator cable using the old tube and a new wire cable we'd picked up at an O'Reilly's in Giddings, for a GM V6.  It worked, and I turned my attention to the kill switch.  I had a lot of trouble with my ring terminals until Collin and Glenn brought me a pre-crimped battery cable.  This took far longer than it should have done.

In the meantime, Jay Lamm, the race organizer, saw us and came over to admire the car.  He was quite excited about it, but then he said "I have bad news - how are your welding skills?"  I admitted that while we had a welder, I was limited in my skills, and he pointed out the flaw in our cage.  The harness bar (which was really just the rear crossmember) was too low, and we'd have to have another welded on.  There was a shop onsite that could do it. Collin called them and they said bring it by in a couple of hours, and it being now almost 2 PM, Jay said if we didn't make the 6 PM deadline for tech, we could bring it by Saturday morning before the race started.  This was a big relief, and I continued working on the switch.

With the switch and other problems still unrepaired, Longhorn took the car and then let it sit while they worked on the cars ahead of us (a lot of people had cage trouble).  I took some tools over and kept working on the switch, and to my complete irritation managed to break off the flimsy aluminum leads to the heavy resistor that is supposed to bleed power from the alternator to avoid blowing diodes when the switch is thrown.  I remembered something I had read somewhere and called Kendra, who happened to be at the parts store for another reason, to get a light bulb socket with leads, and some light bulbs for it.   I wired this in and got the car running again, although the coil wasn't wired into the switch yet. Longhorn finally started welding on the car, and I consulted my Spider wiring diagrams to figure out which coil wire to cut.  They finished the cage (by now it was dark) and also welded up the broken muffler brackets, and then we took it back over to work some more.  I found the wire I wanted, cut it, wired in the switch, and then started it and threw the switch. The engine died, the bulb glowed, and everyone cheered!

Erroll got to work on the remaining strut while I fixed some loose wiring, and tried to tie down the stupid leaking brake fluid reservoir.  After a long while it became apparent that some trouble was developing on the other side, and I found that Erroll had accidentally gotten the spring compressors stuck in the spring as he lowered the car.  Everyone tried to figure out how to get them out, and finally after some judicious wiggling and tying a rope to the end to pull hard (which I think was Jonathan's idea), they popped out and we cheered again. 

Everyone else left to go to the Tiesto concert, and I went back to the RV (which the team next door had kindly plugged into their huge generator), put my sound-cancelling headphones on, and crashed. 

I woke up Saturday morning at 6, took a shower, and kept working on the car. Erroll joined me after a bit, and after fixing a few minor things, we suddenly realized that there was really nothing else to be done to it.  The rest of the team showed up, we piled our gear in the trunk, and Collin drove over to the tech tent where it passed first try, all the while leaving a huge puddle of brake fluid which I passed off as from a loose cap.  We went to the BS inspection next, and Phil, one of the judges, said "The Fiat! Here's my zero pen!" and wrote "0" penalty laps on the inspection sheet. Everyone crowded around alternately admiring and condemning the car, and then we trundled everything back to our tent.

The driver's meeting was soon afterwards, and then I ran back to the tent to get dressed, since I was driving first.  I was starting to get a bit nervous, and then as the dressing progressed, and they belted me in, I was very nearly terrified.  I got belted in, got the car started, and putted off in the direction (at least, after I figured out which direction) of the track entrance.  I joined the line of crappy cars getting on, the man at the gate checked my driver's wristman,and I slowly drove down pit lane to the exit - and then I was on the track.  Funny thing, when I was on the track my nerves went away, since it was really a lot better than, say, Dallas traffic.

We started under a full-course yellow, for practice laps to check transponders, and I passed first thing the broken-down Pinto wagon that had been in the paddock next to us.  I was only going 20 mph or so, and then sped up on the shallow curve to the hummock, where the track goes over a small hill and suddenly turns right. 

Up to this point I had only ever had the car up to about 20-30 mpg, just around the block a couple of times. But as I sped up, it was driving just fine - that is, until I hit the brakes and realized they ain't none, or at least were very bad.  I followed the car in front of me, testing the brakes, and realizing they were slowly getting worse. The car was otherwise doing fine, and I hit 60 or so, and did a lap or two when the green flag dropped and chaos erupted.  Cars flew past me on every side - I dropped a gear and sped up but realized a couple of inconvenient truths almost instantly: one, that nearly everyone had a much faster car than I did, and, two, the brakes were really getting bad.  I pitted on the next pass, drove to our tent, and had to wait until everyone realized I wasn't on the track and ran back to the tent.  Collin added some brake fluid and I went back out, but pitted again and this time Erroll discovered a leaky brake hose that he tightened.

This fixed the leak, but the brakes, to make a pun, turned in at best a halting performance.  The fade was terrible, but they did reach a certain point of degeneracy and stayed there, so we ran the rest of our time with awful brakes and no front bumper. Fortunately, our lack of speed helped in this respect.

I got back out on the track, and really started racing now - short hard right turn, straight, gentle left curve, hummock, casual right, twisties, thenthe glorious long back straight ending in a hairpin right, another left, a straight, then a nice long sweeping left to a hard right and the front straight and the stands.

Let me say here that I like the car.  It tends to understeer, which is no surprise given the motheaten bushings and gooey rear shocks, but it was predictable. The torquey 2-liter was a lot of fun on the curves - I could hold it in third and make the long curves right at the limit of the car's grip, actually even staying with some of the faster cars,  and the throttle was very responsive.  My driving sucked, since it was my first time, and I lost a lot of time plowing through corners that I should have approached with a little more finesse.  But the car really surprised me with its latent ability.

The virtues of the car weren't the only thing that surprised me.  I was flying (a relative term) around the track, all the faster cars passing me in every available inch of room on each side, when the engine began to sputter.  It got pretty bad pretty fast, and I pitted, but in the paddock everything was fine, and I went out again. I didn't make it out of pit row before the sputtering began again, and I started to think it was a lot like fuel starvation. I was towed back this time, and we examined my glass prefilter to find it full of gunk. We cleaned it out, and Collin went out this time but only had a top speed of about 10mph, and was towed back.

The gas tank had started giving up the junk living in its crevices, with all the fuel sloshing around. While we had cleaned out the tank (in fact it was the first thing we did), we obviously hadn't done a good enough job.  We drained the tank, added new gas, tried again, but there was just too many particulates coming out.  We ran 5-10 gallons of gas through, agitating the car, and Kendra ran and got us a couple of really big filters. We noticed that the particulates were getting finer and finer, so we slapped on the new big filter in place of the little one, and sent Collin back out after nearly two hours.  Surprisingly, it worked. Collin turned in some good lap times (in fact, the best of all of us), and turned it over to Erroll, then Jordan, then Glenn.  I took the last stint and really had fun.  I came around the last turn and saw the checkered flag to end the first day. That excitement, to shoot past under the flag - it was a triumphant feeling, even though we were in 103rd place of 123.

The whole mood of the team had changed - we had all gotten to drive, all the problems thus far had been surmounted, and all we had to do was park the car while a lot of other people (including Saturday's leader) were frantically working on theirs.  We had had no penalties, although Collin had nearly wiped out on the last turn in front of the stands.

The next day, we sent Jonathan out.  He was not skilled driving a manual - in fact, he'd only driven the car up and down the street.  He got out on the practice laps, and when the flag dropped off he went, only to have his passenger door fly open on a turn, and then have the car die.  They towed him back,and I was relieved to find the coil wire had fallen off. I ziptied it down, Jordan ziptied the door (by this time the car was a porcupine of zipties) and sent Jonathan back out. He did quite well, except now we had developed a water leak somewhere, and the car was nearly overheating.  I added water, and things went quite well until Collin (after yelling "I don't need gas, let's go!" in the paddock) ran out of gas, rolling gently to a stop in front of the stands.  Towed back, we committed a huge faux pas by fueling in the wrong place, and that was our last tow.  Everyone got to drive, and then at about 2 PM I took the last stint and drove. This was really the best stretch - the team had figured out what to do, and we even did an awesome tire-rotation pit stop that drew a few people to watch  the racing team at work.  My driving had improved somewhat as well.

The race itself was pretty clean. There were only a few contact events I saw (and someone lightly tapped us on the driver's side). Once, as I was coming around the long last turn before the front straight, a bright orange Mustang II came flying past me. I thought, "There's no way he's going to make that turn", and indeed he slid off the track and did a magnificent four-wheel drift through the infield, grass and dirt flying, for which he was summarily black-flagged and penalized. 

Collin called me on the radio: "The checkered flag just dropped!" I made the last turn down the front straight and indeed, there it was - I shot beneath it and blew my horn down the straight, for, beyond my wilder hopes, we had finished the race.  I came round on the cooldown lap (passing the broken Mini) and joined the line of cars getting off. As we came through there was a lot of cheering and congratulations, and the judges pounded on the car. 

I parked in the tent, and climbed out and high-fived everyone, then we trooped over after a while for the awards ceremony.  I was faintly hoping for the LeMons Index of Effluency award, but it went to a deserving Triumph who had finished ahead of us.  However, we won the "What is this? Do I need one?" award, which is a rear-view mirror mounted on a post, for being in everyone's way and also for being awesome enough to bring a Fiat Brava. 

We succeeded past nearly everything I had hoped for - finished the race, which I didn't expect, did a lot better than a lot of other people, got no penalties, and even won an award which made Ian happy.  The car survived with only a scratch or two and a few extra oil and vacuum leaks, and we'll do it again, without a doubt.

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