Tales of a Class B LeMons 944
It feels as if it’s finally the Year of the Porsche 944 in the 24 Hours of LeMons. Several well-organized, knowledgeable teams such as Porch Racing and Floridiot Motorsports have made the 944 work reliably and well enough to contend for an overall win on laps. “Der Porschelump,” however, is not one of those teams.
I had tried to buy my way into one of those cars by buying an ex-ChumpCar winning ’83 944, but unfortunately, my time with that car was cut short. Some of you may recognize me from Jalopnik, where my first paid article was about having my racecar totaled in the first driver’s stint. Oops.
So, I bought another one. A commenter on my banana’d 944 article responded that he had one for sale, so I jumped on it. Enter: My First Racecar Build.
Can someone with almost zero mechanical experience beyond brake pad swaps make a 944 with a busted water pump run?
Well, sure, with lots of time and help. There were a lot of “I really don’t want to touch this myself” items on the car like the water pump, timing and balance belts, and anything related to wiring. Even with help, most of my friends were used to things that weren’t a finicky 80s Porsche: mostly Subarus, BMWs, Mazdas and Mitsubishis. Nobody (self included) had the “special tools” that were occasionally listed. That being said, we could usually figure out most of my problems based on parts diagrams, online write-ups and a bizarre Danish-to-English translation of the factory service manual.
One of the biggest hindrances to getting things done had been a wreck shortly after finding the new car, when someone hit my daily driver during my lunch break. I had some neck and back issues along with a pulled tendon in my right wrist, so I had very little upper body strength left when I was finally ready to start working on the car again. I was by no means buff before, so losing what little strength I had built up was a pretty significant blow. Half the times I needed help with something, it was just for brute force to get something unstuck, shoved back together, or held in place with a steady hand.
It took significantly longer and significantly more money to kludge a car together from scratch than it did to buy one off of another team. I was fine with this since I definitely wanted a beater endurance racing car, but there’s good reason why I point wannabe racers to the for sale sections of the various crapcan series’ forums long before I’m comfortable saying that they should look in random fields for a ran-when-parked-twenty-years-ago Karmann-Ghia.
The car was nowhere near complete in time for the initial full-24-hour race I had hoped to make, even after I had spent a week with my crew guy and several other friends trying to thrash together the car. So, we aimed for the March Eagles Canyon Raceway date the following year. Finally, after months of hard work during the coldest, most annoying winter Texas has had in quite some time, the reborn Porschelump was mostly ready.
One of the biggest last-minute nuisances were the stupid hood pins. 944s don’t really have a good place to put them. Most people either install a bracket, or they weld a tab onto the edge of the engine bay. We couldn’t figure out a good place to weld them in without having to move too much else out of the way. The coolant lines were among the last items to be installed in that engine bay. They zig-zag about the engine bay in such a manner that you’d think they were designed by a company that still specialized in aircooled power. Several of the coolant hose fittings were so annoying to install that the idea of moving any hoses back out of the way sounded about as appealing as taking a cheese grater to my ovaries, so we went for a pair of brackets to mount hood pins instead.
I ordered some brackets online that looked like the right size, only to find that we couldn’t get the hood pins in them without taking out the cross-member that made them a triangle shape. Then, once it was modified into just a thick L-shape, I was completely unable to drill them in myself. I couldn’t hold the stupid drill in the same place at that angle long enough to accurately drill where I wanted it to go. It’s this kind of little stuff after an auto accident that wears on your patience and makes you feel broken.
I finally installed the brackets after a friend drilled out the holes for me, only to find that the angle of the upright for the pins to loop through wouldn’t work with the holes we’d drilled in the hood. It didn’t fit. Finally, one of my friends ended up just doing it for me the morning before I had arranged to tow the car over to the cage builder for some last-minute touch-ups on the welds. I don’t think I’ve ever been that grateful for someone stepping in to do something that I had resigned to pay a shop to do (don’t give me that look–safety items are exempt from the $500) in my life. At that point, it was just a frustration.
I had taken off a couple days before the race to finish up the car prep. I painted the white Salzburg 917 stripes coming out from the headlamp holes and finished them off with a glitter top coat. I put the seat on its sliders and did some last-minute interior cleanup.
There was one more frustrating item that was over my head that I needed my crew to help with: the kill switch. I had all of the parts from the old 944’s kill switch, but still had to get some additional wiring and clamps for it to work. We couldn’t quite figure it out, so we sort of jumbled something together based off of some garbled phone directions from my crew guy from the first 944 and the September thrash-build-in-vain. The kill switch still wasn’t cutting off the alternator, but we were quickly running out of time. We’d figure it out once we got to LeMons.
Finally, with the kill switch mostly installed, I took four magnificent laps around Harris Hill Road to see if everything was going to work before loading it in the trailer. I hadn’t gotten to drive my old racecar on track much (if at all) once we’d finished making final preparations for it to race, but I did this time.
I couldn’t have been happier. “My car runs!”
The rest of the day was spent traveling, so the next morning became last-minute crunch time.
The first race with a new car is always the worst. Will everything we did actually pass tech, or are we hosed for this weekend? As anal as I had been with car prep, I had hoped that all LeMons’ requirements were met, but I had left a decent list of items I needed help with before we could go through tech. The morning was spent painting the last number backgrounds, installing theme-related vinyls that made it more instantly recognizable as “Der Porschelump,” installing tow hooks, fixing the kill switch, trying to get the doors to align and shut better, tucking loose wiring out of the way, and replacing the coolant that I’d used for storage with water.
Have I mentioned how much I miss racing the Volkswagen Type 3?
A few less important items like the slack in the throttle cable would have to be saved for later. There was a race to make, and I hoped that we’d at least get some practice laps in beforehand.
We finally got in line for tech that afternoon, nervous and dressed up as ze Germans: one dressed like an extra from “Sprockets,” the actual German on the team in costume lederhosen and me in a dirndl I had to duct tape to stay in place. I kept hoping that they wouldn’t think our car’s uneven idle was anything that needed an urgent fix. The car ran fine at speed, but either a bad O2 sensor or a leak somewhere was causing it to search for idle when it was stopped for a long time.
As the one who had been in and out of the car the most, I did the safety fire drill where you have to get out of the car as quickly as possible—in a dress. I was glad I opted for the long one at the costume shop. We passed technical inspection as “good enough” and were sent on to BS inspections.
Photo Credit: Murilee Martin
Judge Phil bounced on the car’s front bumper a couple times. “MMMMM. Comfy!” he shouted. Kevin, the team member dressed as Dieter, asked Sajeev, “Touch mein monkey.” (Jeeves declined.) Actual German Thomas started answering random questions in German. I tried to argue for Class C, knowing that most of these cars get put in Class A. Ours wasn’t that quick, though, and it was by no means in great shape.
Perhaps the Saucy Minx had seen the terrible luck I’d had with this our car unfold like The Internet’s Favorite 944 Train Wreck, or he had his own idea of what “I bought this car out of the Jalopnik comments section” could entail from his time writing for the site. There’s such a diverse readership on Jalopnik that admitting this could either come off as “competently cheaty” or “some sixteen-year-old kid’s hopeless Craigslist find.”
Or perhaps this was just the single worst 944 that had come to a LeMons race.
Either way, we somehow got put into Class B and were quickly shooed out of the judges’ box.
Finally, we could run some practice laps. I didn’t even care that I was still in a dress—I hopped right in after everyone else had a turn and went to go figure out the track. People whine a lot about Eagles’ Canyon being dull for having several long straights, but even in our down-on-power car, I had a lot of fun. Sometimes I could even keep up with faster straight-line cars if I got through a corner faster than them.
The lever for the sliders on the seat broke at the end of the day, so Chris borrowed a welder from another team to mend it for the next day. We had about a full foot difference in height from our shortest driver to our tallest one, so the idea of having to use a pillow just to reach things wasn’t ideal. The best part about the car running well all through some practice laps was that this slider issue was the biggest issue we had to deal with after going through inspections.
Race day started with thick, pea soup fog. Our other two drivers had arrived, Anthony and David, and I gave Anthony the first stint because he was local to the track and had driven it the most. I thought this would be the easiest way to deal with the morning traffic, but fog delays and a standing yellow flag until it cleared made his stint a bit boring.
We had two more crew members arrive as well—Tim and Nate. They helped wrench a bit and act as spotters, which compensated for the fact that our radio only worked on the front straight. Installing the antenna through the fiberglass sunroof insert wasn’t the best idea—reception is a lot better when you mount those on metal.
The weather cleared up into a perfect race day. The temperature stayed in the 70s for most of the day. People were lounging around in shorts, and even cold-natured me only needed a light jacket to deal with the wind.
Our strategy was that we were in this for the lulz, so we didn’t need to push too hard or break the car. Everyone probably got tired of me saying “don’t break my car,” but to say I wasn’t on edge because of how my first car ended up would be a total lie. I hadn’t been able to drive on a track for months, and I still felt a tad weak. Thomas had some track time, but lacked any wheel-to-wheel racing experience. I figured we wouldn’t be any threat to any other teams.
We stopped at the gas pumps to fuel and took it easy, short shifting between 5,000 and 5,500 RPM to keep the persnickety and often rod-bearing-hungry 944 powerplant happy. We lost a hood pin that we quickly replaced with a cotter pin and had one low tire that we had to air up mid-day, but other than that, it was fairly uneventful.
During the stop when we noticed the low tire, the car started peeing water. We didn’t see anything too unusual in the engine bay, but I discovered later that the wiring harness to the fans came loose and took out our alternator belt. Luckily, the car did not have to idle for long, so this wasn’t really an issue, and we never had any issues with power during the race since we had a brand new battery.
Best of all, I got to drive my own racecar! In a race! Even though I had prior experience racing the Type 3 and a Fiat Spider, neither of those cars were mine. This was the first time I’d gotten to drive a car that I’d owned and prepared in an actual race. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment with seeing your racecar project run, drive and work for its intended purpose.
In my opinion, out on track during a beater enduro is one of the most peaceful and bizarrely relaxing places to be. Lap after lap is spent concentrating on “where am I losing unnecessary time?” over any other worry or care in the world. You get into a rhythm after a while, figuring out places where you can cut past slower traffic and celebrating when you do.
I smelled a little fuel from inside the car during my stint and asked about it when I stopped, but we deemed it unnecessary to deal with until we stopped for the day. We thought a little gas might have dripped on the car during refueling or something.
Everything was going ridiculously smooth when our car came in unexpectedly during Thomas’ stint. We all rushed down from the viewing area atop the hill to see what was wrong. Sure enough, the best and only Porsche at the race came into the penalty box.
Continuing my n00b tradition of getting all the black flags in the Type 3, our biggest novice had blown past a yellow flag in Turn 6. We apologized profusely, trying to back Judge Phil away from his demands for Puffalump blood. He let us back out, but let us know that if we came back again, sweet little Fluffy Bunny (Eater of Souls) would be in peril.
We were a bit more careful after that, to say the least. Nobody wanted to hear the sad tale of how my darling, innocent little Puffalump bunny rabbit bit the dust all weekend long. Nobody.
The rest of the day went smoothly for us, and we stopped in 17th place overall.
Nighttime was filled with the usual buzz of a LeMons evening break: a tour of the other machinery in the paddock, good food and frantic wrenching. Our trailer- and pit-mates had brought a 1975 Honda Civic and were working on an engine swap.
We tried to diagnose the mystery fuel smell and do a few little things here and there. Everyone swore up and down that Eagles Canyon’s long straights would destroy all brakes, but we were still on the brake pads and tires from the original racecar that I had deemed “the practice set” before the race. They had plenty of life still, and we had zero issues with any of them. Three cheers for light, underpowered machinery!
The fuel issue was another story entirely. Opening the cover to the fuel filler neck on a 944 is like staring into the Kraken. You just stare at all the various fuel line appendages and wonder which engineer came to work on very strong hallucinogens. There doesn’t seem to be a nice, clear diagram of them in the manual, either. The hoses were moist when we took off the cover, but we couldn’t find the source of the moisture. So, we just tightened all of the connections that we could reach, sopped up any excess fuel that we could, and felt as if that likely fixed the problem. Delicious barbecue from the Poorvette team awaited, and I wanted to see how many LeMons teams would touch mein monkey.
The temperature started dropping rapidly overnight. Our poor pit-mates—engine swap now complete—woke up to find that their radiator had frozen overnight from the cold and the wind. Luckily for us, the 944 has a pointier nose with a smaller grille, so ours started right up.
We had to add our windshield wipers back on first thing in the morning to prepare for the predicted precipitation. Chris had the ingenious solution to zip-tie the wiper lever to the roll bar so we wouldn’t have to finagle the wiper lever assembly loop back under the steering wheel hub again.
Anthony came dressed and ready to go out in the freezing temperatures, so I put him in the car first again. The race started late as there was some ice over one corner of the track.
We had one scare earlier in the morning due to our iffy radio communications. Anthony came in once thinking he’d been in for a while and wondered if anyone else wanted to have some drive time, but no one else was all that eager to get in the car, plus I felt bad that he’d gotten the really boring stint yesterday, so I let him stay.
Anthony chased down the leaders in Class B. At one point, we were as high as 14th overall and we were getting close to the top three in our class. One of the cars ahead of us had some issues and came into the pits. I was beyond amused at how quickly the car was running.
And then—the usual LeMons 944 curse struck. We got flagged in for a fuel leak.
Whatever was wrong with the fuel neck was really wrong with the fuel neck. We had been running the fuel neck from the old 944 that had been hollowed out to allow for quicker fueling. To rule out the lack of inner flaps in the fuel neck being the issue, we swapped it for the stock fuel neck that had numerous baffles and other traps still intact. This ate up an hour considering that we had all lost most of the feeling in our outer extremities in the cold, and we dropped in the rankings.
Thomas had to back me down from “Other cars are breaking! We could still go for top 3!” crazy-talk. “No—just go back out, drive the car and have fun,” he said.
Anthony’s stint had been interrupted thrice now by weather-related shenanigans, so I said he could stay in until he feels like we should swap drivers. David was okay with running, but could take it or leave it.
We rode out the remaining time in the race until it was checkered early for a huge snow and ice storm rolling in. I was so shocked and delighted that the car merely finished that I couldn’t believe it. We only got back up to 6th in class and 20th overall, but at least the fuel leak didn’t surface again.
Well, for a little while, at least. I discovered the fan wiring/alternator belt issue when I got the car back to the track. Once that rat’s nest of gnawed wiring and belt chunks was cleaned up, I then drove it until I noticed that it was peeing fuel out the side in hard left turns again.
Such is the life of a Class B 944.
Bertolini on Aug 14, 2014
Good to see you here Ms Schrader as I enjoy you LeMons insight on "that other site". Nice thing about crapcan/LeMons/UCAR vehicles is that once they are used up on the race track, they make decent demo derby cars, at least in my experience. Most of the hard work to prep them as a derby car is done and they are worth the same as scrap regardless of condition. My UCAR team tries to break even on cars that don't make it through the season. Buy the car at scrap price, build it with existing parts, race it, derby it, sell it back for scrap at the initial price. Yes there is are opportunity costs but every hobby has a buy in.
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