We get rocked at Chumpstock
I looked out of the open window of my car. I was parked in the middle of a grassy field with the engine off. It was maybe 5:40 am and the early morning air was thick and quiet, except for the occasional sound of a passing car on the nearby road and the ticking of the cooling engine. I watched the East Texas sky warm slowly from pitch black to the color of a deep purple bruise. In that pre-dawn stillness, I thought about the frenetic activity of the previous days and especially of the last several hours. Had we been foolish? Had we just been unwilling to accept our fate, like recalcitrant children protesting against an early bedtime? Weren’t we just tiny seeds ground in the mill of destiny? I found peace in feeling small. Looking towards the horizon, just above Turn 7, I could see the sky begin to turn pink. Plain darkness yielded to faint lines, shades, and shapes. For the first time all night, I could see the edge of the track. I rested in peaceful reverie. Then a man ran up to the car with a tow hook. That was strange. Surely, the car was too crippled to tow. But the man hooked the car to drag it back to the paddock. Did that imply that the wheels and tires were still intact? How could that be? But as he pulled the car back to the garage, I could see the steering still worked. The brakes still worked. I keyed the radio, “Eric, it’s a long shot, but we might still have a chance. Here is what I want you to do…”
The 18-Hour ChumpCar Challenge at TWS was a new challenge for our team. Usually, our race weekends are broken-up into two races of seven hours or so, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. The break in between allows for repair work on the car, a good meal, and a good night’s sleep for the team. The 18-hour race would, by far, be our longest race to date. It would also be our first race at TWS and perhaps most importantly, it would be our first night race. To beat the substantial, record-breaking Texas Summer heat, the race would begin at 4 pm on Saturday and finish at 10 am on Sunday morning. There would be no scheduled service time for the car, no good meals, and little to no sleep for the team.
The new challenges were exciting and the team agreed to sign-up for the race. The race car was still good from the last ChumpCar race in November, so all we really had to do was add some lights, fill the car with oil and gasoline, and go racing. But the race wasn’t for months and the team, unable to cope with the boredom of a ready-to-race vehicle, got ambitious. Texas World Speedway (TWS), in College Station, Texas, is a high-speed track, but the Audi was a low-speed brick, without any front bodywork. It was worse than a brick. It was a parachute that was slowing us down. So, we all agreed that the car could benefit from some aerodynamic assistance.
After much debate about the design, Andrew and Kang fabricated a new nosecone for the front of the car. Taking a lesson from Audi Sport and the R8/R10 race cars, the design was one-piece and featured the ability to be removed quickly, in case the car needed to be serviced during the race. The design also featured an air dam set far back towards the front wheels, which prevented air from passing underneath the car, but which still allowed the car to be put on a trailer, without removing the new front end. The sheet metal-over-aluminum-frame construction, ensured that the nosecone would slice through fingers as easily as it sliced through the air. The nosecone was unpainted to save weight. It was brilliant.
There was also much contentious debate about the headlights. In my first email on the subject, I told the team we should buy four rally lights, put them on the hood of the car, and call it a night. But that plan was deemed too cheap, and too easy. Instead, over the course of months, the team acquired two BMW headlights from a junkyard and two fog lights from an auto parts store. The headlight housings had to be painstakingly disassembled to accept the custom brackets that also had to be fabricated, in order to fit the lights into our twisted car. Finally, after months of trial and error, metal fabrication, and custom wiring, we had our lights. They were terrible. The drivers would have been better off wearing those reading glasses with the LED lights built into the temples.
There was more than the usual contention going on with the team. Despite the high effort by a few people, overall, I felt like the team was suffering from a general malaise. To some degree, this was understandable. Significant events were occurring in the lives of the team. In the months before the race, I was distracted by more overseas travel for work, Mike was starting a new business, and Ryan was busy with a new job and the impending birth of his first child. In fact, he would have to sit-out the race, because it so closely coincided with the due date.
Race preparation had followed its usual trend, with relaxed work for months and a sudden push at the end to get everything done. The team’s experimentation with anarchy (or extreme libertarianism, if you like), continued its predictable spiral downwards into the worst disorganization (and resultant frustration) we have suffered so far. When I showed-up at the hangar on Friday morning, the car wasn’t ready, the tow truck wasn’t ready, nothing was packed, and nobody was around. Vehicle safety inspection started three hours from then, at a track that was two-and-a-half hours away. I was livid.
Seven hours later we rolled-up to the track. It was a rough seven hours. There was yelling. But in the end, we got the car to inspection under the wire and without any bloodshed, except that caused by the front-end of the car. The inspection itself went very well, but then the inspector walked over. “So, do you have your AIV?” he asked.
“I don’t know what that is,” I said.
“Who is the team captain?” he asked.
“Did you read the rule book?” He smiled, but I could see him mentally wagging his finger at me.
“Well, do you have your AIV?”
“I still don’t know what that is.”
“Your vehicle valuation.”
I slapped my forehead and we shared a big laugh at my dull witlessness. But, I was in no mood to cope with someone spouting jargon and lingo at me. I needed straight talk, so I stopped laughing and returned the favor, “No. We don’t have one of those.”
The inspector’s expression changed. I recognized it from years of looking my teachers right in the eye and telling them that no, I had not done my homework and no, I didn’t have an excuse, I just couldn’t be bothered to do it. The truth was that we actually had a detailed valuation book, but it was just one of the many things we had forgotten and left at home. I didn’t think an excuse would matter one way or another, so I didn’t offer one. The inspector did not look happy. He set-off on his own to figure the value of our car. That was a problem. The way ChumpCar does that is by finding cars for sale on the Internet and using those prices as a basis for valuation. As it happens, we drive an extremely rare car. In fact, there was only one to be found for sale on the Internet and sure enough, the lunatic wanted $4000 for it! Convincing the inspector that our car was only worth $500 would be tricky. Luckily, Eric arranged for Ken to bring the book the next day and the inspector agreed to do the valuation assessment at that time.
With the most difficult part of the inspection process behind us, we began setting-up our garage space. We had missed the deadline for picking up the rental trailer, where we would sleep. Eric had called from the road and the proprietors had said that they were just about to close. They explained that they had an engagement and that they would meet us to pick-up the trailer at 10:30 pm. I thought that was a little weird, but I guess they had to go honky-tonkin’ and such. Nice of them to meet us after. Anyway, that made for a relaxed evening and I spent some time capturing photos of an unusual sunset.
After the sun had fallen, we had just enough time to drive around the paddock a couple of times to check our lights. Unfortunately, the paddock area was lit and it was difficult to assess anything. We also ran out of time, because we learned that the gate closed at 10 pm. We would either be locked-in or locked-out. Since we weren’t scheduled to pick-up the trailer until 10:30 pm, we were going to be locked-out. If anything went wrong with the delivery, we would need to find a room, or face sleeping on the side of the road.
The RV and trailer rental business was run out of the owner’s house, rather than a commercial storefront. On the way to his house, I got a little nervous, because after 15 or 20 minutes of driving through the country, we passed through a sketchy area that looked like it might be the meth capital of Brazos County. But, we arrived at the man’s house and found it on a beautiful piece of property. The trailers themselves appeared to be very clean and well kept. The owner was a good ol’ boy, very nice, helpful, and professional (his mullet and the drink that never left his hand, notwithstanding.) He showed us around the trailer, helped us get hooked-up to the truck, did some paperwork, and we were on our way. We had a late dinner at Chili’s, did a Wal-Mart run, and camped in the trailer, parked right outside of TWS. The trailer was clean and comfortable. Most importantly, the air conditioning was ice cold. I drifted-off easily and slept well until morning. And that would be the last time I slept for almost 32 hours.
Saturday morning came earlier than I had hoped. As nice as the trailer was, it was not light proof and the early morning sun blasted me awake. Eric and Bill were already up and trying to find the keys to the truck. An hour later, they found the keys, stowed the generator, packed-up the trailer, and drove a few hundred meters to our paddock space, where we set it up all over again. No matter, the race didn’t start until 4 pm and the day was very relaxed. Throughout the day, the rest of the team arrived and got checked-in while Eric and I spent most of the day waiting in the registration line. We also got the car valuation. Even with our records, the car was awarded five penalty laps. We made a donation to charity to make them go away. We would be starting square.
Even the ChumpCar organizers were relaxed. The race steward didn’t have his drivers’ meeting until about ten minutes before the start of the race. As soon as it was over, we got Andrew suited-up and had a quick team prayer. Then we got Andrew strapped into the car and a few minutes later – we were racing!
As hard as this might be to believe, the new front end had never actually been tested in a wind tunnel, nor had we used Finite Element Analysis for its design. In fact, we had never even bothered to drive the car with it attached to the car at all. The first test came in the Unintended Acceleration Hillbilly Wind Tunnel™ which is when we towed the car to the track on an open trailer. That test actually did produce some deformity in the sheet metal, but it stayed attached to the car, so we called it a success. As Andrew circulated the car around the track, we looked for signs of nosecone instability. The worst-case scenario was that it would detach and cause damage to our car, or someone else’s car. But there was no sign of movement from the front end and no hint that the new aerodynamics would catapult the car into the air like a Mercedes LMP. Andrew reported that the car was good, or at least he would have if the radios had been working properly.
Reassured that the car was going to hold together and confident in Andrew, who is one of our safest drivers, I settled-in for the long night. I started to scrounge around for some food. Then, less than an hour later after the race started, Eric walked-up to me and said the same thing that the team says to me at every race, “They are towing our car in.”
Back in the paddock, Andrew told us what had happened. It was bad. He had suddenly lost power and when he looked down at the gauges, it showed there was no oil pressure. He stopped the car immediately and waited for help. At some point after he had stopped the car, the car also overheated. Expecting the worst, we pulled the front-end off of the car to get a better look.
Naturally, everything was covered with rusty water from the radiator. After the engine cooled a bit, the Fluhrs performed some basic troubleshooting tests and determined that the engine was gone. Later, metal shavings in the oil pan would confirm our suspicions. We gathered around for a quick team meeting. In the shortest debate in Unintended Acceleration history, we agreed that a team should go back to Austin and get the engine from the other car. Meanwhile, the rest of us would stay back, pull the blown engine, and prepare the car for the new mill. We figured the whole swap would take nine hours, which would still leave us eight hours of racing! We dispatched Bill and Eric to Austin. Mark Hergott was suffering from heat stress, so he went back with them. They were on the road in minutes. The rest of the team got to work pulling the dead engine.
With everyone pitching-in, the enginectomy only took about an hour. Bill and Eric wouldn’t be back for hours, so we went into town for dinner at Freebirds, where there was much speculation and debate about the cause of the engine failure. For many, the new nosecone was the primary suspect. Perhaps it had prevented adequate airflow to the radiator. Others of us disagreed, since Andrew reported seeing stable temperatures during his almost hour-long stint. If there had been inadequate airflow, it seemed that a failure would have occurred much more quickly at race speeds.
Back at the track, the debate continued, but there were still many hours to go, so a few people tried to get a little rest. Peter Haas and I walked around and tried to watch some of the race from the carousel and then we went to check-out the Chumpstock bands. I would love to tell you that there was a massive crowd of college-age hippies dropping acid and dancing naked in the
mud dust to the sounds of rock music. But I can’t, because there wasn’t. However, there were three children that seemed to enjoy the band.
A couple of hours later, just after 11 o’clock, Bill and Eric arrived with the engine. We decided to let Ken get every last minute of sleep that he could before waking him, so the rest of us unloaded the engine and hoist, got the engine in front of the car and did as much prep work as we could. Then somebody went and woke-up Ken. It was on. Under Ken’s expert leadership, the team came together and got the engine into the car. Everyone played a part in that effort and I couldn’t have been more proud of the team.
Exactly three hours after the engine arrived, Eric was back on track. He took one lap and came back into hot pit lane, just so that we could see if there were any leaks or other problems. Everything checked-out and he was on his way. We were back in the race! Total time lost was 8 hours and 20 minutes. If we had brought the other engine with us, it would have been half that. Lesson learned.
The team was exhausted. It was 2:30 am. Several of us were sitting in our pit area, when I looked over and saw that Andrew and Mike were dozing in their chairs. Peter had gone to sleep in his car and I think Bill was sleeping in the back of the Prospector. Early morning settled-in and covered us like a warm blanket. Sleep beckoned.
Around 3:45 am, Eric brought the car in. He reported that the headlights “sucked” which is about the strongest condemnation you will ever hear from Eric. But, he said the car was running well, so that was great news. Kang strapped-in and got on track.
Kang ran really well, posting some of the fastest lap times and by far the fastest front straight speeds. He was a man possessed. Because everyone was so tired, I asked for volunteers to run the driving stint after Kang. Ken and Mike both declined, saying that they needed some rest. So it would be me then. I suited-up and waited for Kang to come in.
I got in the car around 5 am. We performed a very leisurely pit stop, with a full top-up on fuel. Kang told me that I wouldn’t be able to see anything out there, but that I would adapt. I drove to the end of hot pit lane, turned-in my time card, and accelerated onto the track. I entered at Turn 1, continued to the left-hand Turn 2 at about 70 mph, tracked out, and promptly drove off the track! The faint light patch of ground I had seen wasn’t the edge of the track. It was dirt. In such low light, I couldn’t see the edge of the track! Swell. I steered the car back onto the track and pressed-on. Indeed, Eric’s assessment of the lights (they “sucked”) was inadequate. Well, I was just the man to string together the right combination of foul adjectives to describe the lights and as soon as I got back to our pit, I planned to do just that.
Other than the lights, I had no problems with the car. In fact, the car handled better than it ever had. It was too bad that I couldn’t exploit that handling to turn better lap times. Instead, the good handling was saving me from my spastic driving, late braking, early turn-ins, and other mistakes I was making, because I couldn’t see. After going off track twice, I really dialed it back. I reduced my passing zones to just two and allowed myself to really get held-up by slower traffic. It was frustrating, but I didn’t have a lot of choice. Still, I was coping. Better than that, I was having fun.
Around 5:40 am, I took the right-hand Turn 3, straightened the car for the drive to Turn 4, and drove straight off the track with my foot still planted on the accelerator! It shocked the hell out of me. I went off at such a speed and departure angle that I knew I could not steer back onto the track. My foot came off of the gas and I started to apply the brakes, but I was still going over 60 mph when I hit a culvert. The wheel went into the culvert and the front-end pitched into the ground. The car skidded for a few feet and soon came to a stop. I sat still and did a quick triage of myself. I had taken quite an impact and my neck hurt from snapping forward. Worse, my back felt cold. I was scared that my body was reacting to a serious injury and that I might be going into shock. That’s when I realized that I was only feeling the cold water from my cool suit. I hadn’t noticed it while driving, but sitting still, I felt the ice water circulating around my body. I wiggled my toes and then gave the corner workers a thumbs-up outside the window so they could see that I was OK.
I got on the radio and told Eric, “I’m off. I’m OK, but we’re done.”
He asked me a few questions about the condition of the car and I responded, “We’re done.”
I followed protocol and did not get out of the car. While I waited for the tow truck, I tried to figure-out what had happened. It’s one thing to not be able to see very well, but I thought I had negotiated Turn 3 the same way I always did. Then I straightened the car, apparently thinking I had it pointed in the right direction, but I didn’t. Somehow, I had become unknowingly disoriented about my position on the track. Damned headlights. And then right on cue, the early morning sun started to lighten the sky.
The tow truck pulled-up and the driver ran over with a tow hook. He checked to make sure that I was okay and then he told me the engine had dumped it’s oil. I’m sure that the oil pan was damaged. Then he spent a good five minutes trying to attach the tow hook to something on the front of the car. Clearly, the whole front-end was destroyed. There was nothing left to hook. Eventually, he sorted it out and he began to drag the car back to the paddock. It occurred to me that the wheels were still attached, presumably rolling on inflated tires, the brakes worked, and the steering worked, though it didn’t feel quite right, probably because of the spontaneous, explosive front-end alignment I had given the car. I called back to Eric and told him to start pulling parts off of the old dead engine that we might need to salvage this engine. For sure, we would need the oil pan. I told them that it was a slim chance, but we might be able to save the car again.
We got the car back into the garage and this is what we saw:
Bill woke-up Ken and it was on again. The team rallied a second time. We hadn’t come that far to just give up after a little setback like a totaled car. Ken started the car for a couple of seconds, just to make sure the engine would still run. Once that was confirmed, we set to work. The damage report: the front-end (the “cow catcher”) had been torn off the car. In fact, it had folded under the car and done most of the damage. The radiator, oil pan, oil filter and sandwich adapter, and oil cooler were destroyed. Also, one motor mount and one transmission mount had been broken. Most likely, the subframe and struts were bent.
We pulled the oil pan, oil filter and filter adapter from the old engine. We made a custom hose to take the place of the oil cooler, since we didn’t have a replacement. However, as evidence that we aren’t totally incompetent, we replaced the radiator with an actual spare part that we bring to the races for just such a purpose. We also had a spare motor mount. Imagine that. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a transmission mount, nor did we have a way to attach the front engine snub mount, which was originally secured by the cow catcher. So the engine was held in place by only three of the original five mounting points. The rest of the front end was held together with tow straps. Unconcerned with his safety or well-being, we put Mike in the car and sent him out to evaluate the repairs.
After a lap, Mike brought the car in and told Ken he thought everything was good enough. We sent him back out and he got to drive for a little over an hour.
Finally, it was Ken’s turn. If anyone deserved to drive the car and take the checkered flag, it was Ken. The weekend had been a team effort, but Ken is our primary mechanic and it was under his leadership and superlative skill that we had accomplished what we had. Ken got in the car with about 30 minutes left to race. And then, as if there hadn’t been enough miracles over the weekend, Ken took that knackered car, with wheels pointing every which way, and set the fastest lap times of the weekend.
Half an hour later, Ken took the checkered flag. We had done it! Not only that, but we weren’t even dead last. To cap it off, we won our very first trophy – an award for mechanical excellence. ChumpCar recognized our team for our never-say-die effort. Perhaps better than that, we had seen the team come together and perform better than it ever had. I have never been more proud to be a part of this team. I want to give special thanks to our support crew: Peter Haas, Butch Bianchi, and Mark Hergott.
Unintended Acceleration will return.