Trackday Diaries: Dangerous Ticks, a Descent Into Madness.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
trackday diaries dangerous ticks a descent into madness

Hear the rhyme of the Tetanus Neon

See the pictures on T-T-A-C

Mesmerizing the unlucky reader

Stay here and listen to the nightmare of defeat

Well, that’s more the Iron Maiden version of “Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner” than Coleridge’s, isn’t it? And yet, this is not a dissimilar tale. There’s plenty to tell about my stint as a driver for last weekend’s 24 Hours of LeMons — misfortune, dehydration of the aqueous and fuel varities, damage, failure, and, finally, escape.

Friday, 1:30AM — “You can’t write about me,” she says, “and, also, I’m not crazy like that one girl on your Facebook, (redacted).” Agreed on both counts, so that’s all we will say about this particular blue-eyed Tex-Mex beauty. I’d flown in to Houston’s Hobby Airport at five o’clock to meet some friends for dinner. In the early stages of the drinking, I’d gotten a text message from our own Murilee Martin, telling me that the Tetanus Neon team had been battling some sort of fueling issue all day in practice. “I’m sure they will figure it out,” he wrote.

Vaguely disquieted by this news, I’d allowed myself to have a couple of Ketel One doubles to wash away the worry. The party kept moving, from the Pappas Steakhouse through four more bars and finally landing at a “jazz club” where the house band played “Purple Rain” and “Rock With You.” After sobering up, I return to the steakhouse and convince the night janitor to find the keys for my rental in the valet stand.

Saturday, 9:00 AM — I arrive at the racetrack to meet my team and shoot the breeze with the other TTACers at the event. Mary, the young doctor who owns Tetanus Racing, is petite, forceful, and pale-skinned. She informs me that the fueling issue — a “bucking” which limits the Neon to 4500rpm — was intermittent yesterday and may not recur. In all other respects, the car is set to go. I’m scheduled to drive the fourth stint of this nine-hour day. With temperatures in the 105-degree range, it’s planned that those stints will be about an hour. I’m concerned about this. My experience racing LeMons has taught me that 150-minute stints are absolutely essential to winning, and 180-minute stints are better. We’ll have to see.

Saturday, 1:00PM — Our first driver, Jimmy, had experienced no problems with the car, but by the time Mary gets in, 4500rpm is the most it will rev without shaking and cutting out. Our lap times are perhaps twenty seconds slower than the car’s true potential. Still, we’re in the top half of the field from the simple expedient of continuing to proceed. All three of the other drivers come out of the Neon looking fairly dehydrated and dizzy; without power steering, and in this heat, it’s fairly tough to pull even a 75-minute drive.

We’re required to wear full drivers’ suits and keep our visors down while fueling the car, so I’m feeling a little beat just from being wrapped up in several layers of Nomex and running around pit lane. Mary, the third driver, reports that the rev ceiling has dropped to about 3800rpm and that the car can no longer sustain full throttle. We decide that the fuel pump needs to be swapped, but the nearest one can’t be in our hands until the end of the day. She’s also concerned about vibration from the CV joints. I agree to take it out for a while just to see what happens, but request that they completely fuel the Neon before I get in. Off we go!

Saturday, 2:30PM — I’ve been driving for an hour now. For most of my stint, the Neon hasn’t been able to accept more than half throttle or run more than slightly under 4000RPM. By using one-third throttle and no more than 3500RPM for a few laps, I’m able to build up a “push to pass” time where I can run as high as 4300RPM and full throttle opening for a few seconds.

Yes, I’m passing people. The driver talent pool at LeMons is always shallow — this is entry-level racing in $500 cars, not GP2 — but I’m surprised at how many people are utterly dismal at negotiating turns. If you are reading this and wondering, “Am I good enough to try LeMons,” and you successfully drove to work without killing a busload of kids, the answer is probably “Oh, yeah.” With about fifty horsepower on tap, using fifth gear where possible to get above seventy miles per hour but never seeing eighty, I’m passing cars almost as often as I’m being passed. Too often, however, they will simply blow by me on the next straight and then hold me up for two or three corners before I can short-brake them again. Still, we are climbing up the charts as cars break, retire, or take long driver changes.

Saturday, 3:00PM — I’m ninety minutes in and I am feeling pretty good, actually. Although I had failed to maintain my training regimen prior to arrival, I have a few advantages my co-drivers don’t have. To begin with, I’ve been racing cars without power steering for years, and I’m physically the largest person on the team, so the work is easiest for me. I’ve also consciously worked to keep my breathing and heart rate down during the stint, used my hand to direct fresh air to my face, and although I don’t use a Cool Shirt, I do have a hideously expensive OMP custom Grand-Am drivers’ suit that is much cooler than everyone else’s three-layer G-Force specials.

I find a true joy in driving the utterly powerless car as fast as it can go, holding the very last bit of corner speed, methodically unwinding out of every turn as soon as possible, drafting the faster cars and offering no courtesy to passing traffic. I decide to drive until the fuel runs out.

I’ve found a sparring partner on track: a Miata which drives away on the straights but falls back to my front bumper on the twisty back section of the track. This situation — a Miata having power, but lacking cornering, compared to a Neon — is so backwards from club racing it makes me laugh. A few times I manage to get side-by-side on the front straight, only to be drag-raced out by four car lengths. Oh well. Our duel lasts almost ninety minutes before I finally start to fuel-starve at 3:32 and call for a pit-in.

Saturday, 7:30PM — A full load of cold fuel fixes the bucking issue and the next two drivers have full use of the car. We’re up to seventh. Chris, the co-owner, sweats it out through a very difficult ninety-minute closing stint as I sit ready by pit lane to jump in at a moment’s notice. Amazingly, we are in seventh place; my lap times without power were very similar to the full-power laps turned later in the day, and running at that pace is apparently good enough.

Sunday, 2:30AM — (redacted)

Sunday, 6:30AM — I tumble into bed to sleep for two hours before the race.

Sunday, 6:45AM — There’s an emergency conference call for a production issue with my job back home. At one point I interrupt the proceedings to dry-heave for five minutes.

Sunday, 12:00PM — I arrive at the track to find the Tetanus Neon sitting in the paddock. The CV joints are making big noise and shaking like hell. On the plus side, the first driver had full power for his whole stint; on the minus side, the second driver didn’t. The new fuel pump, replaced by Mary and the crew while I was wandering drunk through downtown Houston, didn’t fix the issue. We are still in seventh but we are dropping fast.

Sunday, 12:30PM — Mary comes back in from a testing stint complaining about heavy vibration above pitlane pace. The left CV is thrashed. Worse yet, one of the lugs has snapped off the disc, with another one wobbling. We have no replacements. We are done.

Sunday, 3:00PM — I’m playing the bass line from “Tom Sawyer” through a massive Ampeg tube amp while notorious TTACer doctorv8 plays drums. It’s very cool in the house. Afterwards, we tour his collection of fabulous automobiles and discuss our Saturday nights. It seems very far from the heat and misery of LeMons, and it occurs to me that I could skip the race next time I come to Houston.

Sunday, 6:00PM — I’m stuffing my helmet bag into the overhead compartment when the woman seated next me says, in her Texas accent, “So… what do you do?”

“I’m… um, a race car driver,” I respond.

“What kind of cars?” she inquires, leaning over to display her fabulous endowment and smiling with megawatt teeth.

“Crappy ones,” I respond.

Thanks to: Tetanus Racing, Mary, Chris, Jim, Phil, Sajeev, the rest of the LeMons crew, and Sanjay. You see! I didn’t write about you!

Join the conversation
3 of 20 comments
  • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Jun 08, 2011

    If you are reading this and wondering, “Am I good enough to try LeMons,” and you successfully drove to work without killing a busload of kids, the answer is probably “Oh, yeah.” -- Lines like these are why I read every Baruth article!

    • Byron Hurd Byron Hurd on Jun 08, 2011

      And as an added bonus, it happens to be true. I believe the prerequisites for a LeMons racing "license" are $50 and a set of safety gear (helmet, nomex, maybe a HANS?). You should also probably not be red/green deficient if you want to understand which flags indicate "go like hell" and "hot death imminent."

  • Andy D Andy D on Jun 11, 2011

    Lighten up, Francis, Great prose, Jack.

  • 56m65711446 Well, I had a suburban auto repair shop in those days.
  • Dukeisduke Yikes - reading the recall info from NHTSA, this sounds like the Hyundai/Kia 2.4l Theta II "engine fire" recall, since it involves an engine block or oil pan "breach", so basically, throwing a rod:"Description of the Safety Risk : Engine oil and/or fuel vapor that accumulates near a sufficiently hot surface, below the combustion initiation flame speed, may ignite resulting in an under hood fire, and increasing the risk of injury. Description of the Cause :Isolated engine manufacturing issues have resulted in 2.5L HEV/PHEV engine failures involving engine block or oil pan breach. In the event of an engine block or oil pan breach, the HEV/PHEV system continues to propel the vehicle allowing the customer to continue to drive the vehicle. As the customer continues to drive after a block breach, oil and/or fuel vapor continues to be expelled and accumulates near ignition sources, primarily expected to be the exhaust system. Identification of Any Warning that can Occur :Engine failure is expected to produce loud noises (example: metal-to-metal clank) audible to the vehicle’s occupants. An engine failure will also result in a reduction in engine torque. In Owner Letters mailed to customers, Ford will advise customers to safely park and shut off the engine as promptly as possible upon hearing unexpected engine noises, after experiencing an unexpected torque reduction, or if smoke is observed emanating from the engine compartment."
  • Dukeisduke In an ideal world, cars would be inspected in the way the MoT in the UK does it, or the TÜV in Germany. But realistically, a lot of people can't afford to keep their cars to such a high standard since they need them for work, and widespread public transit isn't a thing here.I would like the inspections to stick around (I've lived in Texas all my life, and annual inspections have always been a thing), but there's so much cheating going on (and more and more people don't bother to get their cars inspected or registration renewed), so without rigorous enforcement (which is basically a cop noticing your windshield sticker is out of date, or pulling you over for an equipment violation), there's no real point anymore.
  • Zipper69 Arriving in Florida from Europe and finding ZERO inspection procedures I envisioned roads crawling with wrecks held together with baling wire, duct tape and prayer.Such proved NOT to be the case, plenty of 20-30 year old cars and trucks around but clearly "unsafe at any speed" vehicles are few and far between.Could this be because the median age here is 95, so a lot of low mileage vehicles keep entering the market as the owners expire?
  • Zipper69 At the heart of GM’s resistance to improving the safety of its fuel systems was a cost benefit analysis done by Edward Ivey which concluded that it was not cost effective for GM to spend more than $2.20 per vehicle to prevent a fire death. When deposed about his cost benefit analysis, Mr. Ivey was asked whether he could identify a more hazardous location for the fuel tank on a GM pickup than outside the frame. Mr. Ivey responded, “Well yes…You could put in on the front bumper.”