Thursday, October 18, 2012

I went slow, and then I didn't go at all

This is the weekend write-up I never wanted to do. Last weekend at VIR was supposed to be the culmination of 7 years worth of performance driving. Instead it served as the ultimate disappointment and early end to my season.

I'd prepared for a solid year to do NASA's Super Comp school in October. I'd read the rules, prepared the car, waffled over just the right setup, and ultimately chose one that was slow, but stable. I even had a crew member for the day to make sure I got from the classroom to the race car, and that I didn't run out of gas at any point.

The day began well enough, with a bunch of classroom sessions and on-track runs. We spent 40 minutes at a time doing starts, restarts, short (half-lap) races, and drills that kept us pinned to one side of the track or the other for upward of 20 minutes.  It was grueling, but really eye-opening.

I felt extremely optimistic going into the final session of the day. I'd managed to pass at least one car in each of my sessions, and only one person passed me all day. It was really great, and all I had to do was make it through 2 standing starts, 2 rolling starts, and a practice race.

The first standing start was crazy. I launched the car pretty well (4000RPM clutch side-step, just like at autocrosses) and got a run on a Spec E30. We were supposed to race to the start-finish line at the south paddock, but there were no flags displayed there, so we kept charging until we saw the first flags, which were displayed at T14. I passed a blue Mustang under hard braking as we approached the flags, and saw another instructor gesticulating wildly as I pulled up beside him.

I couldn't tell what he was trying to tell me to do, so I stayed beside him through the turn. What happened next I can't explain. Whether I went stupid or half-blind or just chose the wrong pedal or what, I got on the gas as he got on the brake. Maybe I thought he wanted me to pass him. Either way, the moment I got in front of him, I realized I was boned. I had just passed a car under double yellow flags and failed the school.

I completed the remaining starts and restarts and got about 2/3 through the practice race before the car started acting up.  Coming onto the front straight, she just wouldn't accelerate above 85mph. Once I hit 5000RPM in 4th gear, there was no further acceleration. I dropped back into 3rd and came through Turns 1 and 2 and the car seemed to be ok-ish, just a bit off pace, but when I started up the climbing esses in 4th, the car was actively slowing down. I looked down and saw that my oil pressure gauge was reading 0psi, so I pulled off-line and coasted the car to the south paddock.

What blew me away, though, was that the car was still running. You can't run a car for a solid minute at full-crank with no oil and have it reward you with a stable idle. I figured the motor just really really liked me and I shut it off and waited for a tow.

When I got back to the paddock, I looked under the car for a big gaping hole in the motor, but there was none to be found. Oil was still on the dipstick, too, albeit just the teeniest amount. A light tug on the wire for the oil-pressure sender revealed that the nut had fallen off, and that I'd just lost the signal.

Cool, but why then did the car die?  I tried to refire the motor, but the starter wouldn't even click.  I grabbed the charger and got my first clue: the battery was 100% dead.

In a comedy of errors, I had managed within one lap to:  kill the alternator, burn just enough oil out of the motor to make it appear empty (it was only down 1 quart), and lose my oil pressure sender.

The next morning, after charging the battery for several hours, I was able to start the car, though it was now producing a horrible sounding knock from the bottom end. Add a thrashed bearing or rod (and/or crank) to the list. Fun.

So with a tanked motor, tanked alternator, and failed attempt at race licensure under my belt, we packed up and came home. It was, without a doubt, the single most disappointing automotive outing I've ever experienced.

I've already begun work to transplant the "spare" motor, but it's gonna be a long road ahead, and it won't be done in time for November, so the year is done.

But there were some take-aways from the ordeal. I've decided unequivocally that I will keep the orange car in aero trim and make it my Summit Point (only?) car. The diff ratio, aero, and suspension seem to work very well there. Stacey (the 'new' car) will be coming home from the builder within a couple weeks, and will receive the orange car's transplanted motor with heavy-duty forged internals. I'm going for torque & horsepower above all else with this one, and she'll be dedicated to tracks with longer straight-aways. I'm not completely optimistic that she'll be ready for February ($$$), but dammit I'm gonna try.