Thursday, October 23, 2008

24 Hours of LeMONS: Texas Edition

Nothing says patriotic like abusing $500 cars around a cow-pasture-turned-racetrack for 24 hours with nothing more than bragging rights and a few boxes of nickels on the line. Especially if you're a Texan.

The brain child of a sick, twisted car nut, the 24 Hours of LeMons is exactly that. A massive pile of wretched automobiles from the last several decades on their last leg vying for pointless bragging rights and a reward that hardly begins to cover their expenses. 96 wretched automobiles to be exact, some so wretched they blew up before the start of the race. All of them eyesores, a prerequisite to participation These cars, purchased for $500 or less, are pitted against each other around a race track for 24 hours straight, this weekend at Motorsport Ranch Houston's 1.1 mile course. The teams can have many drivers and stop for nothing more than driver changes, fuel, repairs and the occasional punishment. These punishments are inflicted by a panel/pair of judges and as our luck had it, we were associate judges for this weekend's fiasco.

Our work as semi-guest-judge-secondary-enforcement-officers started in the pits several hours before the race. Before any car is allowed to race, it must first meet a run-of-the-mill technical and safety inspection followed by a bullshit inspection carried out by the judges and Rally Ready Texas Enforcers (that's us). This is the deciding factor on the validity of their $500 claim. The judges poke the team for information such as pictures, documentation, craigslist ads and really bogus stories. Bribes are happily accepted and rewarded with a BRIBED branding on the side of the car featuring the scales of justice clearly being tilted by a dollar sign. While the judges are busy with this task, we, the questionably cowboy clad Texas Enforcers, climb underneath the cars looking for shiny suspension bits, fancy new bushings, secret turbos, fairy dust and hopefully cash attached to any cheater bits. A decision is made based on the culmination of our inspection, the teams documentation, stories and attitude and a penalty is decided (one lap for every $10 over budget). In addition, the cars deemed too pretty or simply not ugly enough, were beaten with hammers and baseball bats or painted to our liking (see Jalopnik's Neon turned Civic).

During the race, our jobs were much to the same effect. If a driver made contact with another car, grass, concrete, spun the car, generally acted a fool, a black flag was waved and the accused was brought into the paddock to cool down. As the accused (and by default, guilty), you often had a choice; park your car for 30 minutes in the penalty box, (a crudely marked off section of asphalt with used race tires and CRIME SCENE: DO NOT CROSS tape marking its circumference), or swallow your pride (and I mean all of it) and spin the wheel of misfortune. The wheel of misfortune is a dry erase board that features a series of painfully degrading punishments devised to bring the sadist out in everyone but allow the team back on track much quicker. Here are just a few of the punishments the brave men and women endured:

The Sarah Palin: Spray your wrists with coon piss (authentic raccoon urine, none of this Chinese counterfeit nonsense), grab your camoflauge headsock, shotgun and baby and head out in the pits in search of the hidden bear! Bring back the bear and you're team is free to go!

The Barack Obama "Change You Can Believe In": Grab the paint cans, crew. It's time to inspire the judges. Repaint your car to an entirely new theme as quickly as possible. Once the judges are believers, you can go back to pretending to be a race car driver.

The Pantera: Named after the famously homophobic southern metal band, this punishment is for two drivers who don't see eye to eye. You must both take off your shirts and embrace.. And stay that way for the duration of Cowboys From Hell.

The Matthew Mcconaughey: Famous in Texas for his stoned, nude bongo antics and subsequent arrest, this black-flagger must take his bongo on tour through the pits and spectators playing righteous tunes for a pre-determined amount of time.

The Too-Touchy Tango: Shawn the mannequin lacks appendages. In order to dance with him you've really only got one choice: wrap your arm around the back side of his hot pink Houston t-shirt and gently cup his buttocks with your other hand. Don't worry, we cut the shirt short enough that it's all bare mannequin down there. You'd better really show the passion, too. Dancing all the way through Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart is bad enough, you don't want to have to get all the way through any tracks off of "Country Sings Disney".

The driver would (usually) carry out their punishment in good spirits for the greater good of their team and for the enjoyment of any passers by. A day as involved as this after a night of sleep in our inadequate trailer beds and we were exhausted. We caught a bit of the action from the spectators balcony before the sun went down.

Unfortunately, no lighting on cars or track meant the cars stopped when the sun did. This, however, was a great opportunity for some of the cars that met grave misfortune during the day to attempt some true Lemons style repairs. The 3 liter Yamaha V6 in El Toro Loco's Taurus SHO gave up the ghost late in the day Saturday (miraculously before the mid 90's Ford it was encased in). In typical SHO owner fashion they dashed into town and found not one but TWO complete engines for the cost only of the fuel it took to pick them up. A good old fashioned pizza injection and the crew wrenched late into the night getting the new engine ready while their car sat hoisted up on a pile of tires. The starter cranked and it breathed to life around 4am, just in time for a 4 hour nap before getting back up for the Sunday drivers meeting.

The beginning of day 2 saw a plethora of day 1's retirees back on track sure that their JB welded rod bearings and zip tied suspension bits would stay together. This supplied an epicly long caution as each of them either limped off the track of their own volition or was dragged out on a stretcher. Eventually the herd thinned enough to allow green flag racing and the half of the field that still remained battled for top honors on a now well-oiled track (car's like the SLAAB teams Saab Exxon Valdez were dumping as much as 3 quarts an hour onto the track). There were a few consistent black-flaggers again and new, innovative punishments were in order. A V8 Lexus bit the dust the previous day and for a team who found themselves in the penalty box one too many times, the unenviable task of removing the starter was listed as an option. The alternative was a pile of metal shavings into the crankcase. After a fair amount of begging and pleading, the hood was opened to the Lexus. Five minutes pass and the team is still scratching their head wondering where in the rising sun they might find a starter on a Lexus V8. Eventually it becomes evident it is sandwiched between the cylinder heads underneath the intake manifold and the true intensity of the project is revealed. The team swallows the collective bad taste and dives into the top end of this Japanese/Murican engineering marvel. An 8 hour job according to Toyota, this team of 5 had the starter out and in hand in just about an hour. This proved convenient for the Lexus crew who had to remove the starter to get the blown engine out anyways, apparently.

Some time during all this mess I found time to take Justice Martin out in the heart of the chaos for some snapshots from inside the Rally Ready Evo VI. The car, mostly in Pikes Peak settings, felt more like grandpa's 69 Coupe DeVille than a race car on the greasy pavement. Two laps in and the car overboosted and went into safe mode allowing a Mustang II to slip by. There are few things in life more embarassing than getting passed by a Mustang II-- especially in a race car with four times the power. We brought it back in, turned down boost and gave it some fresh fuel before romping out another 5 or 6 laps. Taking it easy through the traffic, we got to see first hand the lunacy that is seasoned drivers and complete newcomers all on the same track at the same time chunk of pavement.

The Evo back in the paddock, we took a few minutes to cool off before heading back to the crime scene and finishing up the days punishments. The checkered flag waved around 4:30 and a Behr blue FX16 Corolla was crowned king of kooks in a ceremony that celebrated the fastest, slowest, dumbest and most fun cars from the event. Cash prizes are handed out in the form of $100 boxes of nickels, many teams struggling to lift them after a day and a half of racing. The entire paddock was empty a mere minutes after the awards with the exception of a few zip tie ends and greasy strips of duct tape.

In our quest to sleep in our own beds we are delayed a half hour as one of our crew has won a ride in a Nascar via his blindingly fast times at the karting track over the weekend. While we wait on the Nascar to warm up, an Enzo pulls up to the pump and Justice Liberman hops out of the passenger seat wearing a helmet and flip-flops. Safety first.

Marcus gets his face-ripping, asshole puckering romp in the 750 hp NASCAR roundy rounder and the Justices take their rides in the Enzo shortly thereafter. Watching your buddies take rides in race cars and Enzos back to back, you know for once you're in the right place at the right time. The soundtrack to the ride home is a symphony of snores from every corner of the truck broken only by the occasional post-greasy-mexican-food gas.

It's two days since we got home from the madness and I'm back to work prepping two of our rally cars for testing in a matter of days. On lunch break between cutting Lexan and breathing epoxy resin fumes I received an email from Jay Lamm. The subject reads "LeMons Arse-Freeze-Apalooza: YOU'RE IN!"

Looks like I'll see you sickos at Thunderhill.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pikes Peak Race Day

There is nothing that can prepare you for a day like this one. Months of preparation, weeks of physical conditioning and three days of intense practice on the mountain. You've driven each section, now you've got one shot to put it all together and lay down the fastest time.

The morning is early as usual. Wake up in the 4 o clock hour, the crew gets to packing the final things while I get suited up and put on my boots. Gloves, arm restraints, helmet all in the truck. I practice deep breathing as we do a final inspection and pack into the truck. The drive to the mountain and up to the start line takes an eternity. I slept in a hotel room for the first time last night, got a bit of rest but spent a good few hours tossing and turning running through every inch of the road, every inch of the car and every possible scenario in my head. I think of the positives: fast qualifying, lots of experience, good setup, great crew. I think of the negatives: old car, things constantly breaking, very fast competition, a mountain with a mind of its own, and the most uncontrollable of variables such as animals, rocks, weather. Up the mountain I'm thinking of all the same things. I'm trying mentally to block out as much as possible but it is impossible. I just have to let it run its course as I know it will fade soon enough. We reach our pit for the day and the crew unloads the car. They get to work cleaning and final prepping. I lay in the back of the truck and take a nap. It's 4:30 AM, we're one of the last teams to arrive and there is nothing to do until the drivers meeting at 8. 7:30 rolls around, I get a shake on my shin to indicate it's time to get up. I rise slowly and go check out camp. The car is sitting looking at me menacingly. The drivers meeting is the usual business about road conditions, a lecture to the protrucks on cutting ditches, something about being done around 1:30 and the obligatory "be safe, have fun".

The first car goes out at 9 AM. We are way down the starting order as our class runs closer to the end so I go back and paruse the pits checking out competitors cars, cars in other classes, and visit some friends. I run into a couple who we competed against and lost to last year, Nathan and Brandye Conley. They are their usual fun, warm selves. We chat about the mountain, our cars, rallying, competitors, times, the usual mess. He compliments my qualifying times as they were quicker this year than last. I thank him and we talk a while more about how things are going with him, about the ridiculous cost of the sport and specifically tires, and eventually we shake hands, wish each other good luck and I meander around a bit more. Mike Ryan's new Shell-sponsored big rig race truck is there and I look over it with my mechanics Roy and Wes. An astonishing amount of the truck stays true to its roots with air suspension and massive steel frame rails. The rest is a different story. We marvel at the engineering prowess and beauty of the machinery before heading to the highlight of the hill for me. A man by the name of Marty Roestenburg has come over from New Zealand in a tube chassis, carbon bodied Mitsubishi Evo with over double the horsepower of our car and nearly a thousand pounds lighter. He's running in our class and his times are incredible. It turns out so is he. We visit for a while about the state of the sport in both my home and his, he discusses the ups and downs of bringing a car overseas for an event like this and is clearly thrilled to be here. His love for the sport is unrivaled by most people there and his enthusiasm is outmatched only by his genuine interest in the conversation. There are few people I've met in the sport who know how to keep it fun quite like Marty. We visited for a while and shook hands to wish each other a safe run before I went and visited with the engineer in charge of building the car. He's equally as nice, very much an engineer. Seems a bit uncomfortable taking compliments on his work, chocks it up as "Simple really. Just a race car." I meander about for a bit longer before finally making my way over to my car to start getting suited up. I make one last trip over to see Nate Conley who is just putting on his helmet. I give him one last handshake and tell him to "Give em hell!" "YOU give em hell!" he replies and he gives me a thumbs up as I walk back towards the car. I put on my fireproof balaclava, helmet, gloves and slip my arm restraints around my forearm. I sit in the car taking deep breaths for a few minutes before starting it up. The guys started it just a while ago and ran it on jackstands to get all the fluids up to operating temps. It purrs nicely, we've done a lot of work to make sure of that during the week. I back it out of the pit and pull it onto the highway and take my place in line. I idle the car for a few minutes, pulling it up every couple minutes as another car takes off. We're about 10 or so cars back and haven't gone forward in a while. Another red flag.. Something like the 10th of the day. An absolute record already and unfortunately not the last. Eventually, the driver from a car that went off is found to be ok, the course is cleared and cars continue. It's getting close to my turn to start, we're two cars back. The bright yellow Subaru of the Conley's takes off in typical fashion with precise shifts and the notable bang pop of the subaru anti-lag system. Todd Moberely in the Subaru infront of me pulls up to the start line and his crew closes the doors. Within moments, an ambulance by the start line fires up and blows off onto the course. "Who is it?" I ask the officials next to me. Nobody is talking, extraordinarily focused on the report coming from the headsets. It is the Conleys. They only made it three corners in before sliding off the road on the exit of a corner and hitting a tree. There is no report for a few minutes and I finally hear somebody say they both have back injuries but are conscious. Medical personell come out of the woodwork and begin hustling on radios and in cars organizing an air evacuation for Brandye and it's quickly decided for Nathan as well. At this point, there is no idea how serious the injuries are but I'm watching friends who I just saw minutes ago hauled out in an ambulance. Without any idea of how severe the injuries are, we wait at the start line for 45 minutes until the course can be cleared. We get word that several more competitors have either gone off or have had mechanical failures on the course. An official comes to the car and asks if I could use a water while I wait. Roy and Wes are at the car with me trying to keep my focus on the race, the road, the car and making it to the summit. I'm having an extraordinarily hard time focusing as a million thoughts race around in my head. Are the Conley's going to be alright? What is the mountain like today that guys like Nathan are going off not just on the pavement but on the 3rd corner. I keep telling myself I've been at this start line 3 years before and I've driven this mountain in rain, ice, snow, mud, gravel, with and without grip and I can do it again. I do everything I can to stay prepared mentally but it's difficult to keep the anxiety down. My blood pressure is high, the sun is beating down and finally, after 45 minutes, we go back to green flag racing. The Moberlys climb in, buckle down and in moments are sent up the mountain. I pull up to the start as Roy and Wes are topping off the water in my intercooler spray tank. This is the last minute. I've been sitting in the car studying the course map for the last time taking note of where people are having trouble. I'm thinking about the Conleys and telling myself to go easy until I know the conditions, I'm thinking about cold tires, cold brakes and a hot engine. I'm taking a deep breath and the green flag points at me. I nod, the flag waves. First gear, second gear, third and fourth gear into the first corner. Fifth gear going through the second corner and onto the first straight. I think about Nate and Brandye and trail the brakes lightly into the corner. It is obvious that the mountain today is not the mountain we qualified on Friday. Back into fourth into the fourth corner the tires are scrubbing and the car is unstable. The pavement is several miles long and varies from tight, technical corners to fast flat out corners. None of them are fast and none of them are cooperative. My braking zones are earlier, the corner entry is slower and the corner exit is endless. I can feel the seconds piling on and know that I'm not getting anywhere near the time I was hoping for. Onto gravel and I feel hope that everything will get better. I go into the first left hander where I hit a rock and blew out the suspension in practice. The car slides wide again, this time no rock in sight. Brown Bush, a tight right hairpin turn comes up and the car will not cooperate. I can't get it to turn left, right, slow down, it's almost helpless. I wrestle it down to a slow enough pace and tiptoe in, the car very reluctantly beginning to turn. I see the exit and squeeze the throttle managing to save a shred of dignity as the car picks up pace and heads up hill to the next corner. Through the entire gravel section the car continues to fight. Not a single corner goes as planned until I finally make it into the last corner before the middle section at Glen Cove. Back onto pavement, the car is still a handful and runs very wide coming up into George's Corner, the first hairpin in a long succession that takes you above the treeline and into the alpine zone. The tires are scrubbing violently, losing countless seconds in the process. I try a different approach each time, nothing seems to be any quicker. I use the handbrake to get it sliding through a corner and I find the antilag isn't working proper and I have no power to get the wheels spinning on corner exit. The car slides to almost a halt as I grab first and try to salvage what's left. The next corner I run a clean race line and don't lose much. Soon, I come up into 16 Mile and in a last ditch effort, try pitching the car sideways fast and early hoping I'll have enough time to get power and pull through to the exit. The effort proves overzealous and I slide backwards into a ditch against the only snowbank on the entire mountain. In the process, I come within inches of taking out a photographer. Courtesy of my good friend four wheel drive, I fire the car up and pull out back onto the main straight with only seconds lost and head up into the top section of the mountain. This is the final stretch. It's all gravel, it's fast and it always scares the shit out of me. Last year I lost the race on this very section because the gravel was loose and the car wasn't set up for it. This year Im hoping for better conditions but find it unfortunately even looser than the year previous. There has been an unusual two day dry spell and the road hasn't seen any rain since Friday. This means the dirt has become loose and gravelly and combined with the dry-biased setup on the car, it makes for a twitchy difficult to control race car. I make through the first couple corners, braking early, easy on the throttle. I make one or two corners count and come up into the final corner before the summit. It's Olympic, one of my favorite corners albeit one of the more difficult. Some of the drivers who have already completed the course are watching and they turn as I come up into the tight right corner. I trail the brakes in, the car begins to slide right, I yank the handbrake and the car finds a tight inside line. The power comes on easily and I slide through on a much cleaner line than expected. I maintain some bit of dignity through there and across the finish line and slide the car sideways in a wild display of joy before pulling up behind the other parked cars and climbinb out. A month ago I decided for the sake of health and physical and mental well-being I wasn't having any soda until I made it to the summit. In honor of that, I packed a camera bag with six Dr. Peppers for this very occasion. I climbed out of the car breathing heavily and slowly peeled back my gloves, helmet and balaclava. All of them wet, my eyes teary from the wind and dust. I go to the trunk, pull out my bag and open a soda. Worth every bit of wait, it's the best drink I ever had. A half dozen reporters come over to ask if I was the guy who went into the snowbank. One guy asks what happened, another asks how much time I think I lost and another asks if I knew I almost took out a photographer. Consumed, I give them all a vertical index finger and swallow my soda. "Can I have 10 seconds?" I ask. Everyone backs away and smiles as I catch my breath. I walk to the first guy "Now what's this about a snowbank?" I ask. He grins and puts a microphone up and begins to ask me all kinds of questions about course conditions, my run, my history on the peak, etc. I manage to get enough out to make a useful interview and go to the next guy. This time it's the radio. My family and crew are down somewhere on the mountain with a portable radio and I know they're hearing some portion of this. I tell them what they want to hear and meander off to take in the air at the summit and visit with the handful of friends who made it. A few minutes pass and I come up to my buddy Leon who's visiting with somebody. He grabs my shoulder and shakes me and asks "How is it, Mr. Winner?" "I don't know, you'd have to ask somebody who won," "YOU did, mate!" he says as I stare blankly for a few seconds before it sets in. I begin to stumble and almost collapse. "Where's Marty?!" I ask suddenly stunned at the thought that I don't see him anywhere. "He flipped it down at bottomless pit." Leon tells me. "You won it!" It's a bittersweet moment as I'm torn between the undeniable thirst-quenching, heart warming, overwhelming feeling of taking the win and the concern and heartbreak I feel for Marty. "How is he?" I ask. Nobody seems to know too much for the moment but from the radio and the bits of information seeping through here and there it appears he is ok.

A couple hours of walking around on the summit, taking naps in the car and visiting with friends and it's time to head back down. The fans line the road to give fives. Around 16 mile, many are enthusiastic about the spin, the whole mountain has something to say about the graphics on the car. I reach 11 mile where I know the crew is and I see Merek in the black and pink Rally Ready T-shirt. I pull out of the procession and towards him right as a swarm of arms fly up in the air and I hear a chorus of cheers from crew and family as I pull along and drive past. Arms are going in the car, people jumping up and down, cameras flashing and a bag of home made beef jerky lands in my lap courtesy of my mom. It is clear they got the news.

Back in the pits, Wes walks over refusing a handshake and goes right for a hug. He knows all the work this week and the week before has been worth it. We discuss the climb, the win and the Conleys. I go see Marty's mechanic and ask if he has any news and he says not yet. At the awards ceremony I find out he's in the ER getting checked out for chest pain. Later that evening he is released with a clean bill of health.

The crew and family come down, we talk, hug and take pictures. After a brief awards ceremony (where for the fourth year in a row, I finished on the podium and didn't get a trophy,) we packed up cars and trucks and headed home. Miraculously, I stayed awake for the duration of the evening talking to family and crew before getting some well deserved rest.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Photo recap

Here's a few photos from the week thus far:

Eli. posing.

Paul C on the open road

Fixing the flat in Dalhart


View from the campsite

Home/work for the week

Pikes Peak daily storm

Where's Lunchbox?

Kwak on a rock

Range Rd

Practice Middle Section

Getting ready for practice

Merek doing something.

On the Dyno at Mac Autosport

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pikes Peak Day 5

There are few things in the world like waking up with your face pressed against a 55 gallon drum of 104 octane racing fuel. Especially in the back of a race trailer with 5 other guys.. at 3 am.

Once again, somehow everyone is out of bed with minimal complaint and in the truck on the way to the mountain at 3:30 AM. We reached the top section for practice and unloaded the car. The first pass was ok, the second pass much better as we tried a new tire compound. Each pass after that we got quicker and sorted out almost everything left on our list. I didn't want to check times but by the smiles on the crew, I knew we were setting quick times. We wrapped up practice as usual and I took Wes on a tour up to the summit before heading back to the trailer for breakfast and a meeting. During the meeting, a strategy for weight reduction and cooling were discussed and tires were cut in preparation for the last day of practice in the morning.

The remainder of the day was spent knocking out the task list and we were effective in completing everything we laid out.

Family arrived later in the afternoon.. My mom and boyfriend, my sister, my aunt, uncle and cousins all showed up at our campsite and we enjoyed a big dinner.

Having been up since 3, it is time I find some rest before our final day of practice and qualifying.

Statesman Video interview

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pikes Peak Day 4 Afternoon

After practice, we split up into our two vehicles and headed down the mountain. Paul C and his car of goons went back to camp while us truckers decided to stop back at Mildred's Cafe for breakfast. The cheesesteak the day before was unrivaled and as expected, the waffles this morning were mind-blowing.

After breakfast we made way back to camp and everyone found their own version of relaxation. The Cali boys got to jetting their scooters while the rest of us either napped or sat out in lawn chairs taking in the Colorado mountain weather.

Myself, Warren and Merek opted to hit one of the local hiking trails to kill a couple of hours. We got 1.5 miles into a 6 mile trail when we ran out of water and energy and turned it back around. A trip to the grocery store followed to prepare for the steak dinner.

Back to the camp around 2pm, I slid into the camper and hit the hay. Everyone else got to work on the car, cleaning up from this mornings practice. I spent 5 hours in the trailer completely unaware of my surroundings except for the nasty thunder and hail storm that misted my sleeping bag. When I woke, the car was finished and loaded on the trailer and the fire was just getting smokey. Steaks had marinated for the past 3 hours and were just about ready to slap on the grill.

Dinner was exquisite as expected and we're all crashing as PC is finishing up breakfast tacos to circumvent the mutiny that would ensue from a second day of breakfast-free practice.

Pikes Peak Day 4 Middle Section Practice

Up at 3:30, everyone moved relatively quickly and loaded into the truck and chase car to head up the mountain for practice. A 30 minute delay due to misplaced truck keys had blood boiling early but was laughable once we arrived safely and on time on the mountain. The truck had been packed with tools the night before and the car loaded on the trailer, the only thing missing was food. So the first 5 hours of the day are spent in the cold halfway up Pikes Peak.. hungry.

The car fired right up and I took it out for the first run. We are practicing today on the middle section of the mountain which is entirely paved and has the steepest grade of all the course. The majority of the corners are very tight and the margins for error are slim to none. This is the first time I've driven it with the new turbocharger and I've never run these tires so it's all about learning and tuning. I get through the first pass without any serious problems but everything feels strange. The new turbo is a bit slower to deliver power than the old one but comes on significantly harder as expected. The anti-lag setting on our ECU is helping but not much. In addition, I'm dealing with a heavy dose of understeer which means the car won't turn as much as I want it to. So back down the mountain and I visit with my techs about the problems. We check the tire pressures we set last night and they are much higher due to the elevation and heat. A quick adjustment to the shock dampening rates as well and we give it another go. This time, I go equipped with a clipboard, laser thermometer and tire pressure gauge. I take the next run in a different driving style looking for speed and find the small changes we made have had a huge effect on handling. The car is responsive, the complete opposite of what it was previously. The car is much much faster but almost twitchy and unstable. When I reach the finish, I record tire temperatures and tire pressures with the tools I brought. They prove that our alignment settings are good, the tire pressures are still a bit high it seems though. From there, back down the mountain we discuss settings and decide to drop tire pressures again. This time, the car goes back towards slight understeer in tight corners and is still relatively twitchy. Back in service, we make an aligntment adjustment but by the time we get ready to take another run, they have sent the last group of cars up. So we have our baseline on the pavement, we know the settings that worked fairly well there. The goal for tomrrow is to run those on gravel up top and see if they are good there as well. The goal is not just compromise of speed between the two surfaces but stability and confidence on the gravel up top. Historically, I have always had a harder time up top and last year was the worst of it, losing easily half a minute due to poor setup. If we can make the car fast or easy up top, the rest should come together.

I haven't compared our times to those of our competitors as realistically the competition is too steep for us to expect a win or a podium. The goal for me is to help the team get the car as fast as it can be and on race day I'll drive it as fast as I can. If we do those two things, we have done everything we can with the tools at our disposal. But when it's all said and done, it's entirely up to the mountain what the end result is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pikes Peak Day 3

Another easy morning, up at 6:30 for breakfast before hitting the road for tech and registration. Everything went smoothly at registration as everyone now has their credentials. Tech followed suit and no major hiccups meant we were ahead of schedule for the rest of the day. First on the agenda was a trip to the local Brakes Plus where we got our suspension aligned to suit the road conditions, tires and new suspension. A few overly-rallied parts made adjustments a bit tough but we managed the settings we were looking for eventually. While aligning, our California contingent arrived on the scene with a truck full of scooters and the pieces of our Subaru engine we've been waiting on for 2 years. It may be in pieces but at least it's on its way back home. We split them up and sent our rally tech Roy off with Paul C and Wes to Denver to get the car dynoed. The remaining 3 cali techs went off to the campsite to get settled in while we made our first trip up Pikes Peak.

The handful of us left from the campsite for the mountain and made it up to the toll booth only to realize I had about 1/8 of a tank of fuel to get to the summit and back. A trip to the nearest gas station followed. As this is my fourth year up the mountain, everything is extremely familiar and it's starting to feel like I was just here yesterday. Just driving the car along the start line, I start to feel the excitement of race day and the pressure from the mountain. I have three guys who have never been on the mountain who are quietly taking it all in while I describe each corner in detail along with the driving line necessary not just for the corner but to properly set up for the next corner as well. I know most of the 156 corners, a few I still mix up but overall I'm prepared to climb the mountain for the second year without a co-driver. We struggled last year on the top section with an extremely loose gravel surface we weren't properly prepared for. I spent a good deal of time studying the surface today and will do the same every day up until the hillclimb noting any change. After the climb, we did lunch at Mildred's cafe at the bottom of the mountain who we learned serves one of the meanest cheesesteak's the world has to offer.

While I was studying for the week ahead, the car was on the dyno in Denver putting out impressive numbers. A few adjustments to the air/fuel ratio among other things brought us horsepower that is significantly improved from last year. Barring any unforeseen problems (at the mountain's discretion), we are looking good for a significant improvement on last years time of just under 13 minutes.

While the car was on its way back from the dyno, I left the guys to clean up camp and went into town for the drivers meeting. The usual was covered.. parking, new regulations, timing transponders, etc. Nothing too exciting and as usual my name was called as "Dave....Ca..Cara....... Dave C?"

Back at camp now, a new master cylinder for our handbrake just arrived and Wes and Roy are at work on that along with a few other adjustments in preparation for our first practice in the morning. Paul C is working on preparing dinner and has a handful of people filling fuel jugs, loading tools, lighting fire for BBQ and making service lists.

That's a wrap for day three, more to come tomorrow morning after practice.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pikes Peak Day 2 Afternoon

After lunch things got more exciting. Wes' to-do list got heavier and everyone found themselves busier as we found more to fix on the car and more to setup around camp. The wind picked up with the weather and while we were working on bodywork, our canopies caught a gust and went flying, breaking a good portion of one of them. Eventually we managed to tie them down via some combination of wheels, a posthole digger, rope and stakes. And repair on the damaged one came via zip ties and wood stakes.

A couple more small issues were found with the brakes as well as a notable clunk in the front suspension. Half the crew was put on that while the other half held down the canopy during the next big gust of wind.

After the bathroom door checklist was dwindled down sufficiently, Wes and Paul C loaded up the car and went to town to try and find somewhere that could align the car.. at 5pm. Only one place in town was still open and their alignment tech was out of town. Meanwhile, the rest of us loaded up and headed for the Garden of the Gods for a hike. We found ourselves high up on one of the larger rock faces in the park with quite a view of Pikes Peak. After the climb, we took a drive through the park eventually coming to pass a small dirt road snaking off to the right. The sign on it read 24 miles to Woodland Park, the nearest town to our campsite. Without hesitation, we veered for that golden egg in the Acura TL we were in and set off. The road was hideously rough at times shaking the car and occupants violently enough to skip the CD. After 10 or 15 miles it smoothed out and became quite a drive. Similar to Pikes Peak in surface, it got everybody excited about the rest of the week. Eventually it came to pavement and we made our way back to the campsite rather uneventfully. A spaghetti dinner was waiting with a big salad and corn on the cob. We ate it around the campfire and discussed adjustments to the itinerary for tomorrow morning. A few last minute adjustments to the new body work we were still massaging and the car is ready for the trailer and an early morning tech. Cross your fingers.

Pikes Peak Day 2 Morning

Camp was quick and easy to set up last night, no complaints from any of the crew. Paul C made a fire while everyone else cleaned out the cargo area in the trailer and set up air mattresses. Wes, the king of snore opted, for the sake of our friendship, to pitch a tent. After sausage wraps and salad, sleep took everyone out quick.

Most people were up and working by about 7:30, some people as late as 8. Pancakes fried with bacon and eggs got people moving. A team meeting gets everything into full swing and within minutes tarps, tools, canopies and tires are organized and the site is ready for a week of work.

The brakes on the car have been squishy and ugly for a while now and we've narrowed it down to a few remaining suspects. Some of them are expensive and impossible to source before race day, some are easy. After some deliberation and experimentation, an adjustment to the brake bias along with a few secret adjustments brought a rock hard brake pedal. So far it has stayed firm, we won't know if we've found a cure or a bandaid until we hit the mountain Wednesday.

The new turbo we just put on the day before leaving hasn't been run at full operating temp or under load yet so we found some leaky crush washers and a few hands under the hood get it fixed quick.

Paul C is back with our flatbed Uhaul we'll be using to transport the car around town for the week and everybody is breaking for sandwiches and carrots. Good timing as the first sprinkle of the daily Colorado showers is beginning to come down.

Pikes Peak Day 1

Pikes Peak Day 1

Departure was a miraculous 6 am, just an hour behind schedule. Other than bags and food, only a handful of items had to be packed last minute. Apparently planning works fairly well.

The drive was nice and smooth at first until our mechanic Wes noticed tire noise around Dallas. Nobody put it on paper and as we learn, if it doesn't get put on a list it doesn't get done. So we cruise a while longer, the truck getting worse than expected fuel mileage. At the next stop, a kick to the passenger inside dually tire revealed a flat. We poked along to the next town and lucked into a podunk tire shop who happened to be open as a trucker had called an emergency service call in for the same reason as us. We chatted them up for a bit, made some new friends and got the truck back together. While waiting in scenic Quanah, Tx for our tire to be patched, we see a familiar truck go by and of all people it happens to be our good buddy Jeff from Boulder Creek Farms. We've spent the past two weeks testing with him and were apparently trekking the same highway as his family.

Back on the road, we get all the way from Quanah to Dalhart, Tx before a trucker waves us down to notify us of another flat.. this time on the trailer. We bring the trailer into Dalhart with a beautifully shredded tire and back the rig up so the flat axle is hanging over a curb and we swap out for the spare. We're now out of trailer spares and managed to forget the truck spare and luck doesn't appear to be on our side. It will be a miracle if we make it the remaining few hundred miles.

With a good deal of luck and careful driving, both truck and trailer make landfall at camp in Cascade, Colorado at 9pm local time.. Our exact scheduled arrival time. Take into account leaving an hour late, the hour we gained in mountain time and two flat tires, that's pretty darned good!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Step into my office

Ever wondered what it is like to sit in a four wheel drive turbocharged rally car? Rally Ready driver Dave Carapetyan gives you an e-ride:

Through the intercom into the drivers helmet: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Go. Left 3 over crest 30. Right three minus down 50. Right four into left 5 20 right five opens long.

The co-driver rattles off a succession of seemingly computer calculated information that means nothing to anybody.. except for me, the driver.

I sit ratcheted down into a bucket of Carbon Fiber wrapped in fireproof fabric. My hands, wrapped in the same fireproof fabric are loosely gripping an aluminum steering wheel lightly clad in suede. My feet, wrapped in.. you guessed it, fireproof fabric, dance between a stack of pedals. My right foot generally fluttering up and down on the throttle while my left foot wildly dances between the clutch and brake pedal in an effort to transfer the weight from corner to corner, helping slide the car on the narrow gravel path swirled through a maze of trees.

With the tall task of keeping a 400hp car somewhat sane on a narrow gravel road, the idea of not only hearing what the co-driver says but translating that from gibberish to steering, throttle and brake information adds an entire new realm of insanity to the already intense equation.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Go. Foot squeezes open the throttle, clutch foot slips out, just long enough to zip to seven thousand RPM. Clutch back down, right hand goes to second, steering wheel goes left, throttle still wide open. Clutch back in, 3rd gear. A few feet at full speed, all of a sudden the road drops off ahead, turn the car left, start braking, steer right, lift off the brake and blip the throttle just long enough to get the car to change directions, back on the brakes as the car is sliding and scrubbing off speed. Down the hill the road goes right.. same direction as the car luckily. Apparently the rally binary spewing out of the co-driver means something as the car is miraculously maintaining the small margin between the car and trees. Towards the middle of the corner, back on the throttle, in second gear somehow (when there was time to shift is anyone's guess) through a series of corners the car is flat out with a tap on the brakes every now and again to change the direction of the slide. At a T with another road, the car slows from 70 mph down to a school zone friendly 20 and the hand reaches down not for the shifter but the big vertical handbrake. A pull of this cheater bar sends brake pressure to the rear wheels causing the car to slide an even tighter radius and point the car straight on the new road. Slam the throttle back down for a half mile drag race. I reach down and tighten my seatbelt straps. Over a cattle guard, the car pops in the air and lands just in enough time to hit the brakes and handbrake our way off onto another road.

New road, the dynamics change. It's narrow. Rock face on one side, hill on the other. The corners are technical and the Co-driver has shifted into overdrive reading two corners ahead. Where you enter a corner also determines where you exit therefore the entry position for one corner often determines the position for the next three. Get it wrong and at best lose a few seconds, at worst lose a car or a life. "Left four opens 30 into jump. 20 jump. 20 big jump right six over crest." I'd like to pretend I'm professional enough not to entirely keep my cool but between the nervousness of keeping the car in one piece and the excitement of leaping through the air in a car, a few extra beads of sweat form. Exiting the left four, the steering goes back to straight. Approaching the first jump, brake lightly and then apply full throttle to hurl all the vehicle's weight back. All four wheels spinning, the engine taps the rev limiter and the wheels come back down. 20 meters to regain composure and they're up again. Back down and it's time for the big show.

A six is the fastest of all the corners, the numbers loosely correlating to the appropriate gear. This means my job is to keep the car on a road which is not only going to turn but send my car flying through the fastest measurable corner while it does so. That is, assuming the note was called correctly. Since I can't see any of it, I'm relying on the trust I have in my co-driver and his notes to keep us both alive. I turn the car right, begin to slide towards the trees. The road goes up and drops away just as he promised. While floating about waiting for physics and our good friend gravity to chime in, I'm looking at where Mr. Chatterbox told me the road was. I see trees, grass, rocks, I see people some cheering, some with their hands over the mouths, some running. The possibility always exists that he made the mistake of saying left when he meantright or six when he meant two. Both would mean the car is on its final flight and taking us both down with it. Luckily, cut narrowly through all that is a road. Right smack dab where he said it would be. Our rubber meets the road once again and the onslaught of legalized automotive brutality continues. Both fixed on our jobs, working in a symbiotic battle to find the limit of every law of physics without crossing that deadly line.

Unfortunately, sometimes the cards don't fall in your favor. As the old saying goes: There are two kinds of rally drivers. Those who have rolled their cars and those who will.