Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
Our Tinkerbell Rosso caravan arrived at Thunderhill Raceway Park on Friday afternoon after a 500+ mile drive up California's Central Valley. Our 1996 Ford Crown Victoria ("Vicky") was tucked snugly inside a closed 24-foot trailer being towed by a Ford F-150. A rented motor home, our base camp during the race, followed miles behind. With daylight waning as we parked on the paddock, we quickly unloaded the beast and prepped our Vic for the technical inspection.
Prepared for the scrutiny of the tech inspection, but also realizing that we hadn't really cheated as much as we would have preferred, Alley Nie (our only female support crew) donned our version of a Tinker Bell outfit to present the honorable judges with a bit of liquid refreshment to keep them warm in the chilly air. While the inspectors pored over Vicky, Alley did her best to keep their eyes affixed on more carbon-based matters. Her magic worked for the most part (no pre-race penalties), but we were called-out on a few inadequacies.
The steel roll cage, painstakingly welded by our own Nick Richards, did not have the required 360-degree welding around several of the hard-to-reach tubes. As we weren't allowed on the track without the fix, we scrambled through the dark pits and borrowed a welding unit so Nick could make the repairs. Our second problem was with the restraints. We had installed HANS-friendly 6-point race belts back at the shop (they have slightly narrower shoulder belts). The judges wouldn't let them fly for Solomon, our non-HANS wearing team member. We solved that by retrofitting Sol's helmet with HANS clips for the race, and he borrowed Jon's HANS device.
The borrowed safety equipment dictated our driving order: Nick Richards, Jon Wierks, Mike Harley, and Solomon Shacter. We had calculated our fuel burn at about 12 mpg, so we could run 3-4 hours per 20-gallon tank of fuel. Each driver would get between 60-75 minutes of seat time before pitting under a yellow flag. Communication with the pits would be via Motorola radio-each of us had earpieces and microphones in our helmets with a push-to-talk button on the steering wheel. Our transponder (so the officials could record our laps) was mounted inside the front right wheel well, keeping it out of harm's way. While we had a full set of tools in the trailer, our only replacement parts on-hand were two brand-new BFG tires (not mounted on wheels), one pair of front brake pads, and a single serpentine belt. We were running lean.
The sun never broke through on Saturday, the first day of racing. It was a cruddy-looking overcast 45-degree day. It didn't rain, and it wasn't windy, so it was bearable. With Nick at the wheel, and a full tank of gas, our Crown Vic took to the grid with 114 other LeMons racers. At most venues, the track is "crowded" when there are 30 cars on the grid. The road course at Thunderhill, shortened from its full length for the LeMons race, was simply a chaotic traffic-laden mess. When the green flag finally dropped, it was every clunker for itself. The green didn't stay up long. In fact, it only took about a lap before we were plagued with a full-course yellow as one random vehicle after another spun, stalled, dropped parts, or spewed fluid to effectively end the racing and create yet another parade. This repeated itself over and over again-tirelessly during the first several hours. Pit stops were easy, as the track was always under a yellow caution flag.
By noon, it was finally my turn to drive. We radioed Jon to come in after the next lap, and the rest of the team took their places in the pits. Bryan Nie, our Pit Chief, orchestrated the folly. Upon arrival of the car, crew members would open both front doors and crawl in to release the harness straps and unplug the radios. Once the driver was extracted, his replacement would be inserted into the narrow racing seat and hooked-up. There were four separate belts that needed tightening, and two electrical connections (radio and microphone). Making the job more difficult was all of our data-gathering equipment (GPS-based track telemetry, front-and-rear video cameras, etc...) and their associated wiring lining the cabin. Arms raised high to keep them out of the way, the driver sat patiently as everyone worked around him. Once the radio check was complete, a loud rap on the roof was the signal to shift back into "Drive" and get back on the track. Assuming we didn't need fuel, the whole process took about four minutes. We never checked tire pressures, inspected brake wear, or washed the windows during the whole weekend. Professional NASCAR pit crews would have been proud of our inefficient inadequacies.
The 285,986 police and taxi miles that preceded the LeMons race hadn't prepared our 1996 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor for track duty. Nevertheless, our near 4000-pound battle tank was surprisingly neutral through the corners. The years of abuse had understandably desensitized her steering (the wheel would turn about 30 degrees before the front tires would follow) but she was controllable. Once settled into the turn, and leaning against her soft springs, she'd happily squeal all the way around the pavement. The power from the 4.6-liter V8 allowed us to keep her on the track with the throttle – very gently. While I've never reviewed a car that handled as sloppily as the Crown Victoria, it was actually fun to drive the thing on the track once you got used to her.
The automatic transmission was our big handicap. Forced to keep the transmission in "Drive" (we only had D-2-1 on the column), Vicky would go into overdrive any chance she got. When the throttle was pressed, she'd hesitate for a second and then downshift abruptly. At wide open throttle, we could pass about 75 percent of the cars on the track on the straights (we'd hit about 80-85 mph). However, that was offset by the fact that about 75 percent of the smaller, lighter and more nimble cars on the track could pass us in the corners. With our ABS broken, the rear wheels would lock easily when we stabbed the brakes approaching the tire obstacles. We braked hard regardless, and dealt with the ensuing rear-end wiggle accordingly (although some readers questioned our selection of OEM rotors and semi-metallic pads, they never faded or gave us any difficulty).
The first low fuel light illuminated during Sol's stint in the early afternoon on the first day. When he came in, we pitted at the fuel stop so we could put in some gas (all fuel had to be pumped on the concrete pad). Hurried, we put 10 gallons in her belly with just two fuel cans... about 5 gallons short of a full tank. This decision was the only thing that haunted us on Saturday – we nearly ran out of gas late that afternoon and had to make an additional fuel stop. By the end of the day, our Crown Victoria had performed flawlessly.
That evening, we jacked the car into the air to rotate the tires (wearing quite evenly, to our astonishment). The rear brakes were at about 50 percent, but the front brake pads were nearly expired (with less than 300 miles on them!). We put a new set of fresh semi-metallic pads in the front. There was a lot of gear oil in the rear right wheel well too – theoretically seeping from the bleeder valve in the rear differential. We filled the differential back up with synthetic 140-weight. She wasn't burning any engine oil, and the water/coolant levels looked good. We covered her up for the cold mid-30's night and then walked down to check on the leader board. We were shocked to find that we had finished the day in 18th place overall. Our competitive natures kicked into high gear as we realized for the first time that we could theoretically pull off a top-20 finish!
While the weather on Sunday was identical to Saturday, our team's racing strategy had completely changed overnight. There are many different awards handed out at the conclusion of these races, but the "overall winner" of LeMons is the vehicle that accumulates the most laps and is still running in the race. To complete the laps, your car needs to be on the track running the big circles as much as possible. Black flag penalties for crashing into other drivers, skidding off the track, passing under a yellow, or just being dumb out there gets you time in front of the judges and their extracurricular punishments. Mind you, these are precious moments that your team cannot generate laps on the track. On Sunday morning, our team was determined to run a clean race and shoot for a decent finish.
Our Crown Vic ran well in the morning, but we received an alarming call on the radio just before noon. Sol was reporting an intermittent loss of power. The team discussed bringing him in for a look, but then we figured it was likely a fouled spark plug or clogged fuel filter (we had never changed or even checked any of that prior to the race). With nothing to lose, Sol was told to keep driving it hard. We'd run him another 15 minutes as scheduled, and then pop the hood during his pit stop. When Sol came in, the hood went up. Oddly, everything was running well. When we leaned over to blip the throttle cable, our near-disaster was obvious. Four of the spark plug wires were bouncing on the top of the alternator pulley! They had been rubbed raw underneath, and were arcing with the metal on the spinning wheel-killing the engine momentarily. A quick fix with electrical tape and zip ties seemed to do the trick, and we sent Nick out for his driving stint.
Lesson learned, the fuel tank was filled completely full after Nick's run and Jon spent the next hour or so dodging the traffic and attempting to avoid penalties. At one point, cutting it very close, he had a scrape with the tire barrier obstacle at 70+ mph on the front straight. It left a nice imprint down Vicky's right side. An inch closer, and it would have been disastrous (as it was for many other teams). We were now running in 11th place overall, and the pressure was mounting. In the middle of my driving shift, the radio went dead when the battery completely discharged. After two laps, I noticed Nick standing on the wall with our back-up old-fashioned pit board. Fuel was good, and Vicky was running consistently, so all I really needed to know was when I was coming in. I would run another 30 minutes without two-way communication (probably good, as they couldn't hear my cursing at the other drivers anymore).
Solomon was our last driver on Sunday afternoon. With a top-10 finish now a possibility, he was under tremendous pressure to not screw things up for the team! Dodging other cars methodically, we had to stay on the track regardless of what was happening elsewhere on the course. Earlier we had decided that vehicle repairs were out of the question during the latter hours of the race – we were running Vicky to her death. As the sun went down, so did the checkered flag. We had survived.
The final results were posted. Coming in with 313 laps completed, we had accomplished a 9th place overall finish! During the ensuing award ceremony (during which Jay Lamm, Chief Perpetrator, announced there were a record 288 black flag violations), our team was also presented with "First Yank Tank" medals recognizing our 1st place finish in our "American Car" class.
After putting 619.1 hard track miles on the odometer, a post-race inspection revealed that our rear brakes were metal-on-metal, the differential fluid was near-empty, and low tire pressure had seriously accelerated the wear on one of the front tires. Vicky, our $500 LeMons racer, wouldn't have held out another hour without a catastrophic failure. With countless hours of planning and preparation all now futilely tossed aside, it appears we had underestimated the role of sheer dumb luck in the 24 Hours of LeMons. Of course, we'll be back again...
[Team Tinkerbell Rosso raced in the 24 Hours of LeMons to raise money for children struggling with health issues during the first years of life at the Children's Hospital of Orange County in Southern California. The team will present a check for $7,020 to the hospital next week-thanks to all of our donors.]
Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.