Mark recently asked me a question: “Why do you race a Buick?”
No one has ever asked me that directly. Frankly, I didn’t have a specific answer. My team and I were simply playing by the strict-ish-ly simple 24 Hours of Lemons rule: “Vehicles must be acquired and prepared for a maximum of $500.”
The rest is history — but that wouldn’t make for a good story. So, to find a more specific reason, I looked back at the history of our battered Buick.
After spectating several area Lemons races, my coworker Andy and I decided to give it a try. Two years later, Andy and his friend Justin found our first
victim car: a 2002 Buick Regal GS owned by an old lady who crashed it into a tree. The price was $350, split between the three of us. None of us knew anything about GM’s W-body cars, except they came with transmissions prone to fits of indifference.
From day one, we collectively noticed that, perhaps based on our shared engineering backgrounds, we had similar goals. We wanted a reliable car that would provide us the most track time. We didn’t care much for winning. We didn’t want to spend our race weekends making hack repairs. And, most importantly, none of us wanted to die doing this dumb racing thing. The Buick so happened to represent those values: cheap, reliable, safe.
Despite looking decently regal overall, the front-end was significantly damaged. Andy used his awesome Jeep CJ-8 (on 33-inch M/Ts, lockers, winch) to pull the frame. He also sourced a junk yard radiator, transmission cooler, and long battery cables from a BMW that allowed us to relocate the battery to the trunk. Justin welded in the cage, tubes for which were cut and bent by some guy in Virginia who makes a business of selling bent pipes to idiots like us. Justin also threw in an old Kirky seat, NASCAR mirror, and a harness from his dirt track racer. A mandated safety switch and a fire extinguisher were added.
That was all that was needed to get the car race legal. We also upgraded the front brakes to Camaro units for obvious reasons, and slapped on some Hawk HPS brake pads. Old 17-inch Mustang wheels were dirt cheap and just happened to fit the Buick perfectly.
After the build, we finalized the most important thing in Lemons racing: the theme. Since the previous owner wrecked the car in a park, we decided to go with that. The flames on the front-end were made out of grass turf rug. There was a pond on the roof, and a park bench on the trunk. Depending on the race, we had a different character sitting on a bench: skeleton for Halloween or a MILF inflatable sex doll for Mother’s Day. The bench is more than just looks: it adds rear downforce (on an underpowered, front-wheel-drive car), adds drag, and raises the center of gravity. Win, win, win?
With that we were ready for our first race — the 2013 Halloween Hooptiefest. The car ran well, stopped well, but it lacked proper alignment. Despite that, TTAC’s own Murilee Martin and Sajeev Mehta, who are both 24 Hours of Lemons judges and veterans of the highest ranking, said that we should DOMINATE as long as we didn’t do anything stupid.
Guess what? We did a lot of stupid things.
Not intentional stupid things, mind you, but stupid things that can be mostly attributed to a lack of experience and a preponderance of ignorance. We passed under yellow, put four wheels off track, hit cars, got hit by cars (including a boat and a Saab 9-2) and sped in the pit lane. One of us (hint: he’s tall, handsome, and Polish) even argued with the judges — which is a big no-no. I think we amassed more penalty minutes in our inaugural race than Dave “The Hammer” Schultz did in his entire career (okay, maybe not).
But the Buick ran well! It proved itself! It didn’t have that much power, but it hustled through the twisties thanks to its sticky tires. It stopped well, too! And that stupid bench? Well, in some magical way it balanced the car and allowed for some wiggling of the Buick’s bulbous arse. Sure, we killed two wheel bearings, part of the skeleton fell off (a track worker later found our femur) and we sadly killed two of our tires due to a lack of negative camber, but it was reliable enough to last until the end.
And last it did, at least until the following July. The Regal overheated and blew a head gasket during a ChumpCar race at Lime Rock. Part of me believes, however, that it wasn’t just the car at fault here. You see, neither Justin nor I were able to make that race. In our place were our mutual friends who lived their lives around track days and autocross. They were really good, fast drivers. They were racers in a group of enthusiasts. That would be fantastic in a BMW M Coupe or a Lotus Exige, which these guys own, but not in grandma’s Buick.
Where some would see defeat, we saw an opportunity. It turns out W-body cars with supercharged engines were sold in significant numbers, and many rusted heaps were strewn about New England thanks to liberal applications of road salt. An additional benefit was the fact that those cars also came with “heavy duty” transmissions. We actually managed to find the same model year Buick with the beefier powertrain and, surprisingly, the new mechanical guts swapped over as painlessly as you’d see on Sunday’s PowerBlock.
Our subsequent races revealed that not all was kosher between the car and its new supercharged V-6. Specifically, we were using too much go-go juice with the more powerful motor. The size of the fuel tank limited us to driving stints less than two hours long, and forced an extra pit stop. Having done nothing and being all out of ideas, we went into the next race hoping for different results.
And we got them! We were in 20th place overall (out of 112) and 8th in our class by the end of the first day. This was our best position ever! The next day, we were off to a great start with our fastest driver turning laps. Then, a half hour into the race, his voice squelched of the radio informing us of reduced power. That turned into knocking. He came in.
We thought it was a bad injector. It wasn’t. We thought it was a coil pack, which are known to suck on these cars. It wasn’t. Everything was checking out. No engine light, there was fuel, there was spark, but there was also a slight knock at idle and the engine was low on power. Even our own Christian Mental Ward was stumped.
Out we went again. The mighty Buick came back on a tow truck within a handful of laps. It didn’t sound good, as can be heard in the below video.
The diagnosis was oil starvation. Fast drivers and high speed corners will do that. We later learned that it’s a good idea to overfill the oil on these engines by a quart or so. We acquired another rusted Regal and Andy once again swapped the engine. This time he welded baffles into the oil pan.
We got the car ready just in time for the next race at Thompson Speedway. We didn’t know what to expect, but by now we were experienced. We ended up running a clean race, with just one penalty by a rookie driver. To our own surprise, we finished fifth in Class B and 16th overall. Within our class, we lost to an Integra, two Z cars, and a turbobrick. High fives were given and beers were drunk.
In our most recent race, we somehow we managed to start 6th overall. We ran with no penalties, no breakdowns, no contact, longer stints, and just three pit stops per day. Each driver was almost equally fast, and more importantly, equally consistent. Car number 451 finished third in class and 15th overall. Chest-bumps were given and beers were drunk.
So, why do I race a Buick?
For eight races in three seasons, it has been an excellent car to learn on. It was cheap to buy, modify, and maintain. It has been surprisingly reliable, and has never required mid-race repairs (knock on the park bench). Something that often goes unmentioned in crapcan racing is safety and this car has shrugged off many impacts that would have sent smaller cars into the pits or to the crusher.
Recently, we started discussing our future racing strategy. I questioned if we have reached the potential of this old Buick and if it made sense to throw more money at it. The decision was made for us when an opportunity to pick up a red exotic race car presented itself. I don’t see the new car being race-ready this year, so we are prepping the Park Bench Racing Team Buick for the May race in New Jersey. Beers will be drank.
Kamil Kaluski is the East Coast Editor for Hooniverse.com. His ramblings on Eastern European cars, $500 racers, and other miscellaneous automotive stuff can be found there.