By on June 8, 2014


I’m reliably told that “reality shows” are extremely popular. Consider this, therefore, TTAC’s own reality show. We will follow me, your temporary editor-in-chief, as he tries to return to NASA club racing with a part-time crew, a few not-quite-healed fractures, and a car that hasn’t turned a lap in competition since 2009. Our first episode, naturally, is a nearly complete failure.

Back in January, when my most stalker-like critics on Jalopnik rose together in triumph to openly celebrate what one of them actually called my “humbling” at the hands of a late-model Hyundai Sonata, (to be fair, most Jalops were more than kind about it) I issued a challenge that was meant to redirect some of the animus and energy in a positive direction. I can’t find the post for some reason, but the gist of it was this: “Anybody on Jalopnik who hates my guts and can manage to get a racing license and see a flag before I can rehab from nine fractures and a missing spleen to do so will receive a prize/profound apology/recognition of their superiority from me.”

This was immediately condemned as “arrogance”. At the time, I believed that I was just trying to get some people to try racing, and if I had to take a little humbling to do it, it would be worth it. Now I’m not so sure. It never occurred to me that I would fail to return to racing in a big hurry. I’ve been hurt worse than this during my cycling career and I always came back (until I didn’t, after a failed knee surgery in 2003.) So yeah, maybe I was a little bit arrogant about my belief that I could come out of the ICU to pit lane faster than the typical incel wanna-be spoiled brat of the Internet could manage to overcome his fear of the outdoors and sign up for a Skip Barber three-day race-school-and-race-day program.

On May 4, I took my first competition flag at the Southern Discomfort Lemons race. I wasn’t quite sure that this satisfied the conditions I’d laid out for myself to consider “returned to racing”, however. I wanted to return in my own car, which meant digging my Plymouth Neon out of mothballs and competing in a “real” sanction under my own team name.
To do this, I recruited the Crapcan Racing team, led by Daniel Sycks, to fetch the Neon and prep it for the June sprint races at Mid-Ohio. The Neon’s had not one, but two failed engine swaps since experiencing a partial engine failure in May of 2009. I directed Daniel to complete a previously-begun swap of a 2.4L engine from a 1999 Plymouth Voyager and to make sure the thing ran with no difficulties. His team handled this with no issues and reported that it was running well in half-hour hot testing.

When we showed up on Friday, we passed our NASA annual tech with no issues. Getting my medical clearance was, um, a bit more difficult, but by noon we had that handled as well and prepared for our first session. It was eerie getting back into my own race car after half a decade behind someone else’s wheel. For the first half-lap, all seemed well, other than the fact that we’d forgotten to install a rearview mirror.

Then the engine started cutting out at 7000rpm…. and 6000… then 5000… then 4000… After two and a half laps, I brought it back in.

For the next twenty hours, we swapped parts only to have the condition worsen every time. Each new part made it run worse.

Saturday morning practice, I ran a 1:49.4 with a rev ceiling of 4800rpm. This looked like it might get us mid-pack in the twelve-car field; fixing the problem, if we could figure out how to do it, would put us up near the front. In qualifying, however, the rev ceiling dropped to under 4k. After a single lap of 1:55.2, the engine cut out entirely and I nursed it into pitlane. We’d qualified 11th of 12.
Luckily, a former BMX protege of mine who now runs a fabrication shop stopped by the track and spent three hours working the scantool with us. We determined that we needed a new fuel pump — but we couldn’t get it in time to make the race. NASA offered to let me start then exit to the pitlane so I’d have an official start, but I didn’t want to risk a safety hazard for the other drivers, so we called it a day.
Ten hours later, we finally found the culprit: burned wires deep in the factory harness. Could we get another harness at midnight on Sunday? A quick scour of the only junkyard in the city that was open on Sunday revealed a single OBD-I Neon — and the harness was cut.

Nominally speaking, I’ve satisfied my own goal: we qualified for a real club race. Since we’d rather win a real club race, however, we’ve decided to rebuild the car from scratch. Our new goal is to qualify at the sharp end of the grid, in this car, with me driving, in the three races of the season we have left. Watch this space.

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9 Comments on “Race Report, June 7 2014: Smokin’, not in a good way....”

  • avatar

    Challenges notwithstanding, it’s good to see you back in a race car.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Having suffered a similar situation with my beloved turbocharged L-body in the 80s, my immediate reaction was,”must be a bad fuel pump,” but my woes came from bad RF filters and not savaged wiring.

    I hope you can find a replacement harness quickly and get back out on the track soon; may good fortune follow your efforts.

  • avatar

    Go th’ Neon!!!

  • avatar

    Best of luck; put it on the pole!

  • avatar

    Dead Brand Racing! (Good luck with your PLYMOUTH Neon.)

  • avatar

    Interesting engine swap. My recollection of the SRT-4 engine is that the internals and block are quite different from the old 2.4l engine, even the head-bolt size is different. The Wikipedia SRT-4 entry confirms this.

    So when I read of 7000rpm on that long-stroke minivan engine, was just a bit surprised it didn’t go bang in a big way.

    What am I missing?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      You’re not missing anything. I expect to get 1000 miles out of an engine in the Neon. If you revved a minivan past 7k continuously, you’d get 1000 miles out of it.

  • avatar

    I’m glad too hear your gearing up and getting track time, Jack, BUT… I would rather stick my head in a toilet then race a damn FWD, especially a POS Neon. But the Neon explains the Accord.

    Just kidding, Racing is racing whether it is a timed, track or an endurance race in a crap can or a formula car. And anyway we can get on the track or course, is a whole lot better then sitting in the stands or watching on the boob tube.

    Friends still can’t understand how I can get out a 500+Hp race car and go race a sailboat. But racing sailboats is an exercise in critical thinking, and crew coordination, and doing that better then anyone else on the course. And it can be quite exciting, so exciting sometimes we have had to put newbies back on the dock during a race, because they had mentally shorted out with fear. Green water over the boat and in the cockpit can even get a tough seasoned crews attention, but we play on.

    Even when hiking with friends there is an unspoken race to the top of any hill and these days part of the challenge is doing it without having a heart attack. Funny how we forget that when our ego and pride kicks into overdrive. Dumb asses… col!

    The only sporty FWD I ever made the mistake of owning was a new 1982 Citation X-11. One of the shortest car ownership’s I ever had. Cured me of FWD’s for the rest of my life, though, the 83′ Rabbit GTI and the 84′ Jetta GLI nearly reeled me back in again, but I bought and SVO instead. What did I need with a FWD when I had a 4X4 Suburban with studded Town & Country’s all around to get up to the ski slopes.

    The only dynamic claim to fame the FWD’s have, is up hill traction, and even that can be marginal in some vehicles(minivans). It is mostly the interior packaging that makes them popular.

    Gee! It’s not even Friday night and I’m ranting already.

    I would say ‘Luck too Ya!’, Jack, but racing luck cuts both ways.

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