Countdown: The Last Checkered Flag

Monday, April 13, 2009

2009 Gator-O-Rama Race Report and Wrap-Up

Some events deserve an epic narrative to tell the tale of heroism, the struggle of good vs. evil, and the search for ultimate spiritual truth. The 2009 Gator-O-Rama was not one of those events, at least not for Team Unintended Acceleration. In almost every way, this event was far easier for us, even though (and perhaps because) we had a much smaller team this time around. Also, almost everything went according to plan, which does not make for a very exciting tale. Still, we had mad fun. Here is what went down.


On Friday, Ryan and I arrived as part of the advance team and secured a covered space in the paddock. We arrived earlier than last time (and before the advertised gate opening time) and still, twenty minutes after we arrived, all the covered spaces were gone. That's cutting it close, so we might adjust our strategy next time, since we will probably have two cars. After we chatted with some of the other teams, we picked-up Kimberly from the hotel and went on a supply run. By the time we got back, the rest of the crew had arrived with the car. After we got everything unloaded, we worked on some last-minute details, like trying to apply the car numbers during wind gusts of 30 mph. Then we pushed the car through tech inspection and (ulp!) judging.

Kang and the dummy "wave" while the rest of the team applies number decals.

This is where I should take a moment to explain our new theme. Last time around, our theme wasn't much more than a clever team name that referred back to an unusual and unfortunate period of Audi history. We had originally planned a bit more involvement by having the team wear lab coats and having one of us play a 60 Minutes reporter with some scripted banter, but it was all we could do to finish the car and get it to the track, so our car ended-up being rather bland. In fact, someone from another team accused us of being too serious. By the end of the race, our theme was moot, since our last penalty was the Obama - Change We Can Believe In penalty, which required us to change our theme on the spot. We turned the car into a hippy Love Machine that espoused peace, joy and love.

For this race, we considered several different new themes, but in the end, we waited so long to put the theme to a vote that I decided it was too late to debate, and I showed-up to a team meeting one night and just said, "This is what we are doing." Luckily, everyone liked the idea!

The idea was birthed when Ken showed-up one Wednesday with a front grille from a new Audi to fit to the race car. It actually looked pretty cool. Then somebody suggested we put it on the back instead and from there, we ran with the idea. The idea is that we spun so much in our first race, we would make the back of the car look like the front of the car in order to disguise our spinning. The fake front would include a new front grille, side mirrors, and a fake driver, complete with a working steering wheel and authentic driver attitude™. We also added German flag livery on the car to give it some color. We made sure that all of the decals on the car, including our number 44, were symmetrical front to back.

We loved the result, but we could not believe how well this theme was received by everyone, especially the competitors and spectators. While we were prepping the car on Friday, a steady stream of people would come by and take pictures of the car, laughing the whole time. In his race report, my friend, Paul Costas, called it the best car in the race and said he laughed every time that he came upon it on the track. That was quite an honor. We were thrilled that everyone liked it, especially considering that it only came together in the last two weeks before the race.

The happy team. Obviously, nothing has gone wrong, yet.

So, to stay thematically correct, we pushed the car through tech and judging - backwards. The best part was that the tech inspectors kept walking to the wrong part of the car to check stuff! Then we pushed the car to the judging area and there he was - our old nemesis, cloaked in his robe of justice with the full weight of the law on his side and his name carried along the bitter winds of judgment - Judge Lieberman. The entire encounter was captured on the following video. I will warn you that because of the gale-force winds that day, the video is almost impossible to understand.

So, armed with a good car, a popular theme, happy judges, a focused team, and no penalty laps, we were ready to race. We secured our gear and headed to the local Red Lobster for dinner, before catching some anxious sleep in anticipation of the first race day.

Team UA vs. Da Judge, The Rematch. Judge Lieberman considers the case of Team UA using his likeness on their team t-shirts. He would eventually let them off with no penalties.


The next morning was windy and bitterly cold. So, I bundled-up in my racing suit and wore it all day long. The suit is bulky and hot, which is usually a bad thing, but not on that day. Besides, we had to be in our suits to be on hot pit lane. For the last race, they had a system where the cars would come all the way off of the track and go to a designated fueling area in the paddock, which caused a dangerous traffic problem between cars and people. Somebody must have remembered that the reason hot pit lane was invented was to prevent problems like that, so we went back to the traditional pit model, which was much, much better.

Mrs. Pribble tries to keep warm on Saturday.

Just before the race began, we gathered for a team prayer and then strapped Eric into the car for the first stint of the day. We randomly began the race in 35th place out of 96 cars. Eric was very quick and climbed all the way to 8th, before our first pit stop dropped us to 36th! Despite our pit stop practice (okay, not Audi Sport levels of practice, but practice nonetheless), everything took much longer than we had anticipated, especially with regard to our radio and video equipment. I was very frustrated and swore that we would not race again without appropriate hardware. I also just plain swore. A lot.

Kang straps Ryan into the car, while Eric and Jimmy refuel.

More pit action!

Ryan got in the car and after some heroic driving, took us back up to 18th or so. Kang took us to 15th, and I ended the day in 24th. Our pitstops got better, but we were still having a hard time making any progress. Still, we were very pleased that the car had performed flawlessly and everyone had driven well, with no penalties. We secured our site and went to Chili's, where I sat through my dehydration in silent misery and had one of the worst steaks I have ever had in my life.


Sunday started very well, with Eric absolutely blazing around the track. Here he is chasing a BMW 1600-02, which was in 2nd place at the time (we would have been in about 18th).

During this stint, Eric set our fastest time of the weekend (1:16:274). It turns out, this was the third fastest time of the race, from any car! Only a Miata and an Integra were faster. If the Fastest German (2008) award hadn't been renamed to Highest Finishing German (2009), we would have won a trophy! Success had eluded us again.

Unfortunately, just as he was about to pit, the PS belt broke and Eric lost all power steering and brakes. Eric brought the car in and Mark started pulling it apart. Some grim realities began to dawn on us. Not only had we not replaced a misaligned harmonic balancer, which is certainly what caused the broken belt in the first place, but we hadn't brought any spare belts! We always bring spare belts. We had brought spares to the last race and we even bring spares to regular driving events. Mark buttoned-up the car enough for Ryan to limp the car around the track, while Eric and Kang drove into town to get a belt.

Mark works the problem. The broken belt is on the ground.

When they returned, we called-in Ryan and began the repair. Thanks to classic German over-engineering, a simple belt replacement took over an hour. All told, we lost two hours behind the wall. We would never really recover. Ryan went back out in 40th place and we would only gain back six positions by the end of the race.

We all drove well for the rest of the race, but there was one more incident. About two laps from the end, I was approaching the carousel, when suddenly the car just died. No cough or sputter, it just died. I coasted around the carousel and pulled off track. I tried to restart the car, but the starter just cranked away. Had I run the car out of gas? I should have had plenty left, but we weren't sure the gauge was accurate. So, I just sat in the car. I could hear Ryan on the radio telling me to stay calm, but I was fine. At that point in the race, the failure didn't amount to anything. They finally threw the checkered flag and on the last lap, I waved and everyone honked back in reply. When the track was clear, they towed me off. And that was how we ended our race.

Jimmy takes the checkered flag (sort of).

Jimmy waves at thousands of invisible, imaginary fans.

Ryan celebrates a penalty free race, while the crew helps Jimmy out of the car.

There is a theory that says a race car should expire the instant it crosses the finish line. So, our car was just a little early. Except for the belt failure (which was fully our own fault), the car had performed brilliantly. It was faster than ever, had seemingly limitless grip, and composed manners. Even the last failure wasn't a failure at all. It was, if I dare say it...a miracle? Weeks before the race, we had accidentally disconnected the fuel pump wiring, which was bundled in a mass of other wires in the back of the car. Somehow, in that mass of wiring, the fuel pump wires had fallen so that the two connectors rested against each other and allowed the fuel pump to operate. Despite the jostling and vibration, the connectors had rested together for street driving, a test day at Harris Hill, and for 99% of the 24 Hours of LeMons, before finally separating and causing the car to stop. It's mind blowing to think of how it could have lasted as long as it did.

Jay with our sponsored trophy.

At the award ceremony, Jay Lamm awarded our very own Unintended Acceleration Uber-Recidivist Trophy, which the team had put together. The trophy was a starter motor, mounted to a wooden base, in memory of the Lexus Starter Motor Challenge. Ken had welded it, Eric assembled it, and Angela and Kimberly made the label for it, using a luggage tag that I had bought. Jay awarded it to the team with the most number of penalties (and who didn't quit), so it went to the Los Diablos, who drove an old '74 Camaro. They seemed like a great bunch of guys and I used to have a '75 Camaro like theirs, so I was happy the award went to them.

Then we got a surprise of our own. The judges got up and gave us a special Judges Choice Award for being the most improved team, having gone from one of the most penalized team in LeMons history to having zero penalties. The award? In the spirit of all cash awards being in nickels, Jonny handed us - one nickel. It was quite an honor.

A shiny new nickel!

The Future

The next race is the weekend of October 24,25 and we can't wait. The doomsday...I mean, countdown clock has been reset. The next race will see the full Unintended Acceleration team brought to bear with two cars, eight drivers and a full support crew. Late braking news is that the second car will be an Audi Coupe GT. Stay tuned for build news.

Editorial note: I have incorporated photos and videos into this report, from earlier posts and have deleted the earlier, redundant posts. I also reserve the right to ninja-edit the following list, if new stuff gets posted to the Internets, or if it otherwise comes to my attention.


Final Race Results
  • Team Unintended Acceleration Channel: Vimeo
Other Race Coverage and Misc
  • Jalopnik: Tag search: Gator-O-Rama: Jalopnik


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