Super Piston Slap: I Know What I Don't Know

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
super piston slap i know what i don t know

Were you ever taught something you already knew, something you normally teach others? That moment of surrealism came for this regional LeMons Judge while attending the Newbie School in a new racing series called the World Racing League. Baruth already gave you a tease: I set aside the idiotic ironic Indian Chief hat of LeMons for a weekend stint as a racer/pit crew/errand boy with the same team that brought you the iconic Ford Fairmont Wagon: now with more Granada.

To see the stance is to know it: Property Devaluation Racing made a worthy successor to their Fox station wagon. So when these guys offered me a spot in the Granada and their similarly-spec’d Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, I took Friday off, forked over the fees, picked up another Fox Body loyalist from Hobby Airport (you might remember his Homer Simpson car) and hit the road for College Station.

I drove the Granada for 10 minutes during the Friday afternoon test ‘n tune session, and felt great: the Granada’s flat cornering with mild understeer was a natural transition from my street going Fox Body Cougar. But the first day of racing?

Logging 100-ish miles in the Thunderbird was a different story: the Granada’s tame demeanor was replaced with something a (handling savvy) teammate later explained as body roll induced oversteer. The Thunderbird had razor-sharp turn-in, so sloppy steering inputs netted body roll which reduced the rear tire’s contact patch, easily inducing oversteer. Lap 1 resulted in a huge spin entering a corner at around 50mph. Lap 2 was no better: a similar wipeout left me bewildered, frustrated.

Both times I self-reported my impending black flags before the staff received word from the corner workers. Perhaps LeMons taught me well.

Not well enough. The Thunderbird’s owner’s words in my Nerdie helmet kit were clear: spin again and you’re out for good. It was the reality check I needed, quickly swallowing my pride and methodically retracing the track at a slower pace. This let me understand how drastically the Thunderbird sits/lifts with my steering inputs.

Racing the Thunderbird was like a scientific experiment: repeat the process but alter a variable every time. Enter the turn at the right speed, monitor your steering inputs and smoothly accelerate exit post-apex. If you turned too hot, the rear tires howled: slightly dial the wheel back and they shut up. Thank goodness for TWS’ banked oval, it was the only place I blipped the throttle, downshifted to 3rd and comfortably unwound the Thunderbird’s wicked Windsor V8 to pass “slower” cars. Sure I was slow and hyper-conscious elsewhere, but the banked oval experience continues to give me goosebumps.

Now the World Racing League is an interesting series: damn near any class of car races on the same track. I was passed by far more professional drivers in LeMons cars, Spec Miatas and misc. track beasts to the point my left hand seemingly spent more time doing the “point by” for others than grasping the tiller. And a certain Poorvette absolutely clobbered every car out there, as you’d expect from the wholly under appreciated C4 Corvette.

I learned something besides the obligatory “damn that was so exciting I’d totally do it again” statement of any autojourno in my shoes: my racing technique toolbox just multiplied. The Thunderbird gave me a new set of tools, items previously more foreign than Portuguese. So now I Know What I Don’t Know. Several of my friends suggested I embrace this new addiction to hone my skills, as I’m now a racer.

No dice.

Racing brought me a short term joy that I will gladly spend another $1000 in fees, gas, hotel, meals, etc. to replicate another weekend. But the Thunderbird helped me cross a (final?) frontier: I did what made moonshiners so famous, racing/working on a boring car made from bits of more impressive vehicles. This experience crystallized my plan to write the definitive story of Ford’s underappreciated chassis. I told others about this (including a working vacation to the Detroit Public Library) and they agreed: that’s a book they’d read.

Which isn’t exactly the point: like the benefits of grade school music programs, racing helps you in your real world.

It’s a deeply personal experience that everyone with a modicum of disposable income should try. Go race and then make yourself. Just don’t get motivated to write a book about Fox Bodies, that’s my schtick.

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7 of 21 comments
  • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Jun 25, 2014

    The Homer car you linked too is one of the greatest things I have ever seen.

  • LTDScott LTDScott on Jun 26, 2014

    Not that I ever really gave you any /real/ crap for your two spins, but I think you get a pass for them. After racing the Granada on track for 2 hours on Saturday and not having a single issue with the handling (despite non-existent front sway bar bushings) taking the T-Bird out on Sunday was a complete handful. I had to tip-toe around every corner for fear of the rear end switching positions with the front. I just accepted the fact that I couldn't get the power down out of a corner and was very gentle with the throttle. I was doing fine for an hour when the car unexpectedly fishtailed after a high speed corner where I just breathed off the throttle for a second (going onto the back straight) and I couldn't catch it. Based on the gear and RPM, I later calculated I was doing over 90 when I went off into the grass sideways. The whole time all I could think was "Don't roll!" over and over in my head. When I finally stopped, I was staring at the flagger at the end of the back straight. I had slid sideways the entire length of the back straight, and was almost at the tree line. This was the first incident that genuinely scared me in the 15 or so races that I have been in. It shook my confidence, but I decided to keep going but dialed it back a few notches. After a few more laps, I spun again, but much less dramatically. That was it, I was done. I wasn't comfortable in my ability and didn't want to hurt the car or let the team down (more than I already had), so I voluntarily ended my stint early. It was a major blow to my ego and I genuinely felt bad. Then Marty (the car owner and team captain) hopped in the car after me, and immediately brought it back into the garage after one lap. He pronounced the car practically undriveable. The tires were rotated and pressures checked, then he took the car back out and ran without incident. After his stint, he told me he was surprised I was able to keep the car from spinning for as long as I did, and that the handling was WAY better after he brought it back in. That definitely made me feel better about myself, and they thought enough of me to let me hop back in the Granada later that day. I ran without incident, that is until I blew up the transmission and/or clutch. So yeah, the point of this is that I don't think you got a fair shot, and given how the car handled when I was out there, you shouldn't beat yourself up about it. You also knew enough to know when you were in over your head (like I did) and decide to call it a day before endangering yourself or others. Lessons learned all around! And despite the mishaps we had, I still had a blast, and now get to tell the odd story that the fastest I have ever driven a car was an '82 Ford Granada at 140+ MPH :)

    • See 3 previous
    • LTDScott LTDScott on Jun 26, 2014

      @billyjack2 Billy Jack, it doesn't surprise me that the T-Bird was back up to speed once the tire situation was sorted out on Sunday morning. As I said, I'd actually expect it to be faster than the Granada. And yes, 245s are barely adequate. I can't believe that they previously ran on "mediocre" tires!

  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉