The radios weren’t working. Aside from the fact that you needed a line-of-sight transmission with the car to hear anything but static which was impossible on turns 2, 7 & 8, I was unable to give any information back to our pit. I could hear Salty just fine as she asked me to check if the microphone had fallen out of my full face helmet.
“No,” I said into the microphone that I could wrap my lips around, had they not been bound in a Nomex head scarf. I squeezed the press to talk button mounted on the hand brake. “The mic is exactly where it should be.”
“I just heard static,” Salty replied, “so I’ll assume that means you have it sorted out.”
For an hour and a half, this frustration went on. Beside me, the sound of the radiator fan occasionally kicked on despite the chill of the day. Beneath me, the tires squealed as I took them to their limit around off-camber turns. In front of me, the whir of the engine calling out to the overcast day in the tone of 4500 rpms with the distinct whistle of the turbocharger mounted above its head. My crew could hear none of this though. They could not hear me until the very end when my voice crackled over the radio, “Sorry.”
“You’re going to get crushed.” This was the refrain of assurance that my co-workers and fellow LeMons racers made since my team, Eyesore Racing, made public its intentions to bring a turbocharged Mazda Miata to the 24 Hours of LeMons race at Thunder Hill Raceway in December 2008.
There was, in fact, good reason to believe that we would be crushed in the People’s Curse. Despite the receipts, despite the story and despite the car’s sheer ugliness, we lived in fear of the jaws of evil construction equipment tearing apart the labor of 6 months while we could only stand by helplessly. The problem is that, despite having three mechanical engineers on the team, everyone thinks that quality takes money. It does not. It takes time; lots and lots of time. Time that we were not going to have picked up 10 feet off the ground by its roof and dropped to the cheers of bystandards. We took every precaution to insure against this fate. We replaced parts that looked too nice, even though it cost us more money. We made the welds look like a one-eyed homeless person had been brought in to make the repairs. We even put together a science-fair board showing how this monstrosity came together for less than $500 and how you could build your own.
Upon arriving at the track on Friday, it became evident that we needn’t have stressed so much. With Bitter on the team, not stressing isn’t an option, but our competition showcased some serious cheaters. Another turbo Miata was in attendance, but this one looked clean, had all of its body panels (dumb), used a commercially available turbo kit and looked good enough that I would have kept it as a daily driver; 1200 lap penalty. Krider Racing brought back their cheater Integra; 1500 lap penalty. The new record was set, however, by a Ford Taurus SHO that garnered an unprecedented 2100 lap penalty. I figured we were safe as long as the driving was clean.
The Engine’s Eating Itself
FrankenMiata is fast. There’s no way around that fact. Taking the engine up to redline leaves no car but the American V8’s able to keep up with her on the track’s straightaway. I never took it to redline. My goal was to not fuck up the car. Ignore the red mist, go in slow, come out fast, avoid contact and, above all, don’t fuck up the car.
I had spent the least amount of time of any of the team assembling the car. Due to my work travel and MBA program, I simply did not have much free time. Since I’m not an engineer or fabricator, this wasn’t a huge hindrance, but did leave me with feelings of guilt. Therefore, I wanted to keep the car in one piece so that no one would regret handing the keys to the red-headed nimrod just to have him go and smash it up.
Two checks of two different oil filters had revealed what none of us wanted to see, metal shavings in the oil. The engine was either tearing itself apart or just getting in the spirit of things and going on a diet. We did not suspect the latter. That meant, cheery thought, that this forced induction engine might simply explode at any time! Our strategy went from driving until the gas gauge reads “E” to everyone drives for an hour on day one before the engine ports itself.
As Goldberg started day one, he noticed absolutely no problems and the engine was consistent in not being destroyed, so we switched back to 2 to 3 hour driving stints.
This Ain’t Altamont
The first time I ever drove on a track was at Altamont Speedway, a crappy little track that hosted the first 24 Hours of LeMons. At that event, no one thought we would have another, so it was part endurance race, part demolition derby. Those days are over.
The first thing that I noticed before we even put rubber on the track was that the usual cast of car geeks had been diluted. Strangely enough, there were a lot more families, children, wives, girlfriends and pets strolling around the pits, working on cars, and chatting.
None of our team members have children and our speech is not filtered the way a parent’s should be. You could kind of say we curse like sailors, especially on the track. That’s why, following the on channel discussion between Goldberg and J-Kav of something involving “balls”, a “bonch” and several “fucking” and “shit”’s, another voice came onto our radio telling the pair to “mind their P’s and Q’s” because “there’s children around.” After careful consideration of the gentleman’s concerns, J-Kav informed the good sir that he should, “Shut up. We’re fucking RACING.”
That was another difference. In the early days, we had pit boards and a flashy light to communicate back and forth with the driver. It is usually ineffective, but sometimes did the job. Now, nearly all of the 108 teams on the grid have radios; radios with only 22 channels. Trying to communicate with your driver is like trying to make a personal phone call on a 1960’s party line. You have to sort through all the communication and driver instruction to scream out “Green! Green! Green!” On day two, we tried to reserve a channel by taping down the “Press to Talk” button and leaving the microphone in front of the car stereo with Mariachi music playing. Didn’t work.
The race has become a series with 10 events hosted nationwide at real race tracks that normally cater to respectable racing series. With these nice tracks comes real rule enforcement. Where the Altamont crew delighted in throwing lemons at passing cars and leaving stranded vehicles on the infield until a good 5 or 6 contained stranded racers, Thunder Hill waved the yellow flag any time a car went off track or struck a chicane. This led to a lot of driving around in single file admiring the clever saying painted on the rear bumper ahead of you.
At the end of day one, we found ourselves a little confused. We did not have to replace an engine, straighten body work with a hammer or sawzall or even have to beat suspension pieces into place. We could actually go back and get a drink and a good night’s rest. The days of demolition derby style racing have faded. I’m both happy and a little sad. For one, I’m good at holding my nerve and slamming into another car just to keep going. It is fun to wreck cars. It just is. On the other hand, this style actually relies on driver skill and lets teams like ours with talented drivers shine. It is also a real pain to have to fix stuff on the car all weekend; though it does feel a little un-LeMonny to not have to make a heroic fix.
Turn One and The Checkered
This damn E30 had been blocking me out for 8 laps now. Its silver backside and BMW emblem sneered at the fenderless, hoodless hoopdie that I was piloting. I was faster, but just couldn’t cut in without sliding. Then, I saw my opportunity. Coming off the big straight, turn 1 offered me a chance to cut inside. I’d taken the turn several times at 4000 rpm in 4th gear. I knew I could use the track to drift to the outside with an early apex and pull in under the Beamer. What I hadn’t accounted for was that the BMW would be in the space I needed to hold that speed.
I went in hot, held my pace and began to feel the car understeer as the tires screamed in protest. I looked through my turn, but the silver BMW was right next to where my passenger’s side door should be had I had one. I couldn’t hold this speed and not slide into him. The time for braking was 45 feet behind me at the end of the straightaway. I would try to ease the accelerator in an effort to slow down while scrubbing speed with the tires.
I lifted too quickly.
The back end swung one way while I counter steered to correct. Then it slipped out the other way and I over corrected as I felt the pendulum swing back and spin the car 520 degrees off the track and into the soft mud and grass.
“Is that you?” Salty inquired.
“Sorry,” was all I could think to say. I feared that something would be destroyed, that I’d messed it up for everyone. Had I fucked up the car?
I turned the key, nothing.
Tried it again, nothing.
Oh, wait. It has to be in neutral. I threw the shifter into the middle of its home, turned the key and FrankenMiata jumped back to life and pulled cleanly out of the ruts that it had dug.
A spin-out means you get to go see the judges. I gave my wave of recognition when the corner worker at turn 6 held out a black flag for me. I pulled into the penalty box, ready to endure one of the infamous tortures that LeMons judges have concocted over the years. More importantly, I was upset at the loss of time our car would have on the track due to my aggression. Thankfully, Judge Johnny Lieberman greeted me with, “I saw what happened. You guys never show up here, so swap drivers and get back out there.” We were saved.
As the checkered flag went down, a Geo Metro powered by a 900 cc Honda motorcycle engine won the race with 335 laps completed. However, they did receive a 10 lap bonus because the organizers thought that the chain drive would break within 2 hours, which actually gives them 325 laps; the exact same as Eyesore Racing in fourth place! Second and third place each had 326 laps, so it was a nice cluster at the top.
There are four classes that the cars are grouped into upon inspection: Prayer of Winning, No Prayer of Winning, Prayer of Finishing, and No Prayer of Finishing. Eyesore Racing was the leader in the No Prayer of Winning class.
I’m already goading my LeMon driving friends to get off their asses and get their cars together for 2009. I’m ready to gloat.
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