Making Lemonade from 24 Hours of Lemons

I’m standing in a puddle of my own shit and piss. I have it on my arms and legs, and I’m reflexively spitting because I got some in my mouth. I think to myself, maybe this is a sign?

Let’s rewind the clock a couple weeks. I’ve been preparing to race the 24 Hours of Lemons race at NJMP Thunderbolt. I’ve done Lemons races on the east coast and in California, but none in this Miata.

The first hurdle was passing tech. Most people think about 24 Hours of Lemons as cut-rate racing, and in some ways it is, but they cut no corners on safety. The Lemons cage rules are more stringent than any other series, and my car, which has passed tech in AER, Champcar, NASA, and SCCA, won’t pass Lemons tech. Whoever built my cage put the back stays in at a 29-degree angle, and they need to be 45 degrees, give or take.

I called my friend Tom Pyrek, whose minivan I race in 24 Hours of Lemons, and he agreed to help me out. Except that he didn’t have a lot of time, and things got pushed back a few days right when I was crunched for time. That was a headache I didn’t need, but that’s how these things go. Anyway, it gave me more time to work on the theme.

Most people these days don’t bother with a theme for Lemons, but I still think it’s an important part of the series. I wanted to do the famed Ferrari Breadvan, an iconic race car from the 1960s. Other people have done this theme (and probably better than we would), but I wanted to do it mostly to try out the aero.

The shape of things to come…

Our plan was to serve pizzas out of the back in the evenings, and so I wrote “Pizza is always the answer” on the side of the car. We were even going to deliver a pizza to the judges in the penalty box at some point during the race. If we didn’t get a penalty, we were going to do it anyway, just to recreate this moment.

Fast forward and it’s the Friday a week before the race, the new back stays are welded in, and we’ve just started the car for the first time in a while. There’s bit too much white smoke for my liking, and so we check the compression numbers: 165, 130, 130, and… 60. We put a bit of oil down the plug holes and the numbers come up, and so we knew it was rings.

Humph. Not terrible, but that one cylinder is concerning. The last time it ran was at PittRace, and we were the fastest non-swapped Miata. Alyssa was doing 2:03s on well-worn RS4s (faster than the Spec Miata record). We all felt the car was running well, so it never occurred to me to check if the engine was still healthy. There’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Ran when parked. Alyssa and Mario on grid at PittRace a few months before.

At this point I have three options. A) Run it as is and probably blow it up at some point during the race. B) Pull the engine and install new rings. C) Pull the injector and plug on one cylinder and run it as a triple.

Option C isn’t as insane as it sounds. In fact there are a whole group of motorcycle racers in the Pacific Northwest that neuter one cylinder of a 600cc four and effectively make a 450 triple out of it. They call these “Cripple Triples,” and it allows them to compete with 650cc twins on equal footing.

Now this option is so Lemony I want to do it, but when we try it, it’s super slow. I run it down the street and the engine feels like it has 50 hp. Somehow that missing cylinder, even with only 60 psi, is very important. So we decide to do option B, and rebuild it. Or at least throw in a new rings, hone the cylinders, and put in new seals. No problem.

The race was in a week, and so I ordered all the gaskets and a piston ring set from Auto Zone on Friday. I thought that should be plenty of time to pull the engine and assemble it, and in fact most of the parts came the next day. Except the piston rings. Monday came and still no rings. Fed-X said they were supposed to be there yesterday, and the new tracking info said Wednesday. Feeling queasy about that, I ordered another set from NAPA, this time next day air via UPS. I paid the price in rings for the shipping alone, but I wanted to cover my bases.

With the engine out of the car, it occurred to me that I had another block sitting on a shelf up at Berg Racing. That engine overheated and I’m sure the rings relaxed, and so it needs new rings as well. May as well do them at the same time. So I drive up and gather it, and we start the surgery of taking that one apart on the bench as well. I’ve got nothing else to do.

I just need rings

Tuesday comes and still no rings. Next day air, my ass. But I’m not sweating it, we can get the engine in quickly. I tidy up other things on the car and finish the theme.

Breadvan theme was ready

Wednesday no parts, either by truck or by air. I went to Auto Zone and Napa and made them call the manufacturer and find out what the problem was. In both cases the shipper hadn’t picked up the packages yet.

Are you fucking kidding me? The manufacturing plant in Tennessee says the parts are right there waiting for pickup, but neither UPS or Fed-X can be bothered to actually get them? I’m feeling like this is a sign or something. We are also having trouble getting rear brake pads. I ordered them a week ago, and they still haven’t arrived.

Around this time my support vehicle (Honda Element) started making belt noises. We use the Element for bringing extra tires and spares, and I really don’t need it to break down on the way there, or the way back. We mess with the belts and the noises go away, but then it throws an engine code. Bad omens or what?

And then my RV, which is race headquarters and also my tow vehicle, throws engine codes for a misfire. And then the brand new tire that I just replaced is slowly leaking. FUUUUUUCK! Everything was falling apart at the same time!

For the past few weeks this has been happening in little subtle ways. I’ve been looking at all these signs, portents, and omens and patently ignoring them. But I pressed on for good reason: My brother was flying in from California; My buddy Chris was flying in from Detroit for his first ever wheel-to-wheel race; And I don’t believe in omens. So I was going to make this happen, my dog spinning upside down on the ceiling and speaking latin backwards, or not.

I then went to dump out the RV tanks at a local state park. I was doing this on the down-low, without paying the sewage fees, so trying to be a bit sly and get it done quickly. Well, some genius (ahem) left the guillotine valves open last winter, and so when I unscrewed the cap to attach the sewer line hose, my own shit and piss sprayed out all over me. Yep, I literally shit all over myself.

It was at this time, standing in a widening brown puddle, my arms and legs covered, no longer the least bit stealthy about dumping my waste tanks without paying for it, reflexively spitting and wondering how sick this shit would make me, that I began to believe in omens. I stitched together all those signs and portents and finally figured it the fuck out. I contacted all my teammates and told them we were done. We aren’t racing. As my brother put it “when the shit hits the man, it’s time to reassess the situation.”

And Yet, Lemonade

Instead of racing, I invited all my teammates to Pineview Run. They were all coming east anyway, it was the least I could do. We spent the day hooning and gather data, and fun was had by all.

Ian drove my wife’s Honda Civic. We didn’t use it much because the VSA really overwhelms the brakes. (See my blog post Autocross N00b for the 10-step procedure to turn that off.) It wasn’t fast or fun to drive anyway, and Ian got in a lot of other cars.

Clayton drove his NB, and both Ian and I got to drive it and compare notes. I’ll follow up on this data in another post, it’s rather interesting to see how differently we drive the same car. We also got to see how Clayton drives, and while he’s off the pace, his instincts are really good. He’s a natural driver, and will keep getting better.

Jim brought his 240 hp turbo 1.6 Miata. I didn’t get a chance to try it, but I’ve driven it on the street and it’s a blast. Turbos are not my choice for track cars, but street cars, yes please. Unfortunately the charge pipe kept coming loose, both on the track and on the drive to and from, and by the end of the weekend Jim had replaced every hose and clamp.

The front end of Jim’s car is called a Wizdom. It wasn’t exactly an easy fit, but we made it work. I also made a custom undertray and left it long in front to make a splitter, and added a hood vent. It’s a bitchin car all around.

Fitting the Wizdom bumper, before splitter and other enhancements.

Chris brought his Veloster N, which is an impressive car and I regularly think about buying one. He fitted Falken RT660 tires, and while his car isn’t set up with lot of camber, he wisely got the tires heat cycled from Tire Rack before delivery. Meaning, the tires didn’t delaminate, which is what they do when run without heat cycling and with less than ideal camber.

I ran a 1:15.565 in the N, exactly two tenths of a second slower than the all-time FWD record lap time (CRX on A7s). On A052s or Hoosiers, I’d own the FWD record. In a bone-stock car. I need to make this happen.

Ian also got to drive the Veloster and I was thankfully faster than him, but only by half a second. He’s a FWD expert, and I’m a Pineview expert, but I sure as shit was not going to lose to my brother on his second ever visit to the track! Phew.

I drove my 1.6 Miata mostly on 14-year old NT01s (I shit you not), and they still grip, and wear imperceptibly. I also finally got a chance to try some take-off 245 R7s. Oddly I didn’t go any faster than I did on 205 R7s (1:14.5). The steering effort was absurd, and I overall didn’t love them. I’ll have to play with pressures and stuff and see if I can get them to work.

Honestly, it was a fantastic day, maybe even more fun than racing because we were all on track together, with five cars instead of one. Yeah, I had to eat the Lemons entry fee, the NJMP practice day, all the parts and labor to prep the car, and $800 worth of track fees at Pineview. So I lost over $3000 on this “race” weekend, but I guarantee it would have been worse if we had gone to Thunderbolt. Something bad was going to happen. Every force of nature was against me, every step of the way, I just wasn’t listening. I am now, tho.

My wife says, you win or you learn, and education costs money. It reminds me of the old joke: Do you know why divorce costs so much money? Because it’s worth it. Missing this race was oddly worth it; we made lemonade out of Lemons.

The Punchline

Saturday afternoon, the day we were supposed to be racing in New Jersey, I got a phone call saying that the rings arrived at NAPA (five days late). The next day, Auto Zone called to say the other set of rings arrived (seven days late). In the race of rings, UPS next-day air beat Fed-X freight by a day. But they are both fucking losers in my book.

Maybe I should have spent more time on mechanicals than theme?

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