By on May 4, 2015

083

How many days until I get to race again?

I asked myself that question over and over again this winter. After my first experience running with the fledgling American Endurance Racing organization last fall, I spent many long, snowy winter weeks in Kentucky, counting the days until this season’s debut race at New Jersey Motorsports Park’s Lightning Raceway.

Our small but determined racing team had designs on a big win to start the year. Matt Johnston’s mighty GM-powered FC RX-7 had been dialed up a few notches during its hibernation and was now putting over sixty more horses to the wheels. Matt had done a round of testing at Mid-Ohio earlier in the year and reported back the car felt faster and better than ever before. Not only is he a master sheet metal worker and welder, Matt can also drive the wheels off of his Frankenstein. We also, of course, had TTAC’s legendary racer, Jack Baruth, as a wheelman. I felt confident I would be the best “slow guy” anybody would have on their team.

There was only one thing standing in the way of TTAC having the best journalistic racing team in the history of the internet itself:

actiontravis

That’s right. Jalopnik’s Travis Okulski had thrown down the virtual gauntlet by convincing the powers-that-be at Gawker Media to sponsor the race and actually rename the trophy after themselves. As a result, we would all be competing for the “Jalopnik Cup of Excellence.” Not only THAT, they brought a film crew, an RV, Supreme Leader Matt Hardigree, and approximately fourteen press cars to the race. Oh, and they also brought an LS-powered BMW, too. What the hell, guys? Don’t you know that imported coupes with GM motors is kinda our thing?

What better way to stick it to the man than kicking Travis squarely in the ass of his too-tight jeans and showing those Jalops you can’t just buy your way to the top in endurance racing.

Despite the fact that they allowed the Jalops to put their logo on the trophies, American Endurance Racing just gets it right in so many ways. They compete on world-class racing circuits. They have the skinniest rule book in racing. You can bring just about any car you want, provided it’s fully caged and wearing 200 treadwear tires. They class you appropriately and simply – not based on arbitrary rules or points, but on qualifying times. Oh, yeah, that reminds me – they also have a full day of practice and qualifying, which no other budget-minded endurance series offers. You get two nine-hour races: one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Dollar for dollar, AER is the best value in amateur racing. Period.

During qualifying, Jack and Matt both posted nearly identical times of 1:18.4, which meant that we were third out of forty-one cars. The Jalopnik team broke the clutch on their car early on, so they switched to a backup E36 BMW and qualified sixth. Despite our vociferous protests (not really), that meant we were placed in the top of the three classes – named “Daytona,” “Sebring,” and “Indy” and we were gridded second for the start of the race because one of the top two cars was late to grid.

089

Not a bad pace car, amirite?

 

We placed Jack in the car to start the race. The plan was to take advantage of the mandatory five pit stops by cycling through our three-man team, allowing Jack to take the green flag and Matt to take the checkered. In other words, they’d be doing all the important driving and I’d be filling up some of the time inbetween.

As the Hellcat finished the second pace lap and entered the pits, I held our radio channel open and, the minute the flagman waved, screamed “GREEN GREEN GREEN.” Jack got a great jump on the start and ended up being even with the leader’s E36 as they climbed the hill toward Turn One. The next time they came by, Jack had established a lead of nearly two seconds over the field. We held the lead for the first fifteen laps or so, only relinquishing it as top qualifier and racing coach Kyle Tilley finally made his way up through the field from the back.

Nevertheless, we continued to hold a comfortable second position for the first hour of the race and we were just preparing for a driver change to get me into the car when we heard Jack’s voice over the radio.

“PIT! PIT! PIT! I’m coming in. I think there’s something wrong.”

Then, just a moment later: “PADDOCK! PADDOCK! Water all over the windshield!”

Matt and I sprinted up from our pitlane spot to the paddock where we saw Jack rolling in under the power of inertia. He had totally lost grip in Turn Two, which was when the first radio call was made. It turned out oil had been spit onto the rear tires from the engine compartment. When we popped the hood, we saw a destroyed belt, a broken sensor, and lots of oil and water everywhere. Matt immediately set to work diagnosing the problem, but he had to wait until the cast-iron block of the GM 3800 had cooled enough for him to actually get his hands on the motor. We feared, perhaps, the head gasket had blown.

Luckily, the problem wasn’t as bad as we thought. Matt discovered we had simply blown the front seal on the engine and sent Jack and me to the local Advance Auto Parts with a list of tools and parts required. He believed that he could get the car back on track within two hours. Certainly, that wouldn’t put us in contention for the win, but it would give us a chance to beat the Jalopnik team, which was experiencing problems of their own.

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Travis’ E36 had blown a radiator hose earlier in the day. After they repaired it, they came back in not much later with a broken motor mount. If we could get back out on track, we had a chance to turn more laps than they did.

We went to Advance Auto Parts in Vineland, NJ, to retrieve the parts required. They did have the seal that we needed, but not the right tools, so we had to walk next door to Auto Zone. After a quick stop at Chick-fil-A, we arrived back at the track to give Matt the items he required and then did our best to stay out of his way.

tinman

Okay, I realize that it looks like I’m sunbathing while Matt is working very hard at fixing the car in this photo – and that’s because that’s exactly what was happening. The Tinman does not like to be bothered when he’s working. He’s been running this car all by himself in NASA Time Trials for years and feels best when he’s one with his car. I, on the other hand, have no mechanical knowledge of a car other than…okay, I have no mechanical knowledge of a car. Best just to leave him alone.

True to his word, Matt had the car back up and running in less than two hours. Since position was no longer a concern, we decided to have Matt drive next; in the event that something else went wrong, he’s much better at diagnosing problems behind the wheel than I. Matt went out and began turning hot laps, throwing down a lap time that would end up being the third fastest of any car on track for the day. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.

“Water all over the windshield. I’m coming in.”

Damnit. Back to the paddock. After more diagnosis, we determined that the water pump was cavitating and this had caused a crack in the radiator.

“So we’re done, right?” I asked Matt.

He took a deep breath. “No. There’s something called AlumaSeal.”

Matt sent us out to the local NAPA Auto Parts store to get a $1.50 tube of this magical powder that would seal the crack in our radiator. As we came back, Jalopnik was having their reader meet-up near the entrance to Lightning. We cruised by and gave the “Jalopnik is Number One” salute to Travis and Matt from our rental Prius – all in good fun, of course.

However, when we were driving back to our paddock spot, we spotted Travis’ Audi S3 press car sitting unattended. “I wonder if he left the keys in it,” and I hopped out of the Prius and tried the door. Sure enough, it opened readily. When I pressed the Start button, the Audi came to life. Yes.

I then returned for another lap by the Jalopnik meet-up, this time waving happily from the driver’s sear of Travis’ S3. “Did I leave my keys in it?” I heard Travis say as we cruised by. Yes, yes you did.

I parked the S3 near their RV and got out to meet some happy Jalop readers as Jack delivered the AlumaSeal back to Matt. They were all super nice people who claimed they read my writing. Lexus brought out a gorgeous RC F to the event, which I immediately wondered if I could get onto the track somehow without anybody noticing, but decided against it.

Matt, meanwhile, was busy actually fixing the radiator. The AlumaSeal had done the trick. By this point, we had no chance of even catching the Jalopnik team (which had repaired their car and was back out turning laps), but we wanted to make sure the car would be ready for Day Two. Matt suited up and went back out for a few laps, then returned to hand the car over to me so I could take the checkered flag. Gulp. My turn to tackle Lightning.

lightning

Lightning is a challenging track to say the least. There’s virtually nowhere to rest. Every turn requires precise inputs and exact speeds. Our power meant we were leaving everybody behind in the straights, but the turns were monstrously challenging. I passed nearly everybody I encountered as I made good use of our torque. As I finished the race, I tried to ensure I didn’t spin the motor too high, shifting early and braking earlier than I normally would. As a result (of that and lesser driving talent), my laps were a couple of seconds behind Matt’s and Jack’s, but I still felt good about my times. Combined with Matt and Jack, we would have been competitive enough for us to podium and contend for the overall win if we hadn’t had mechanical issues.

Even with being careful, I still experienced my own “off,” as the brake pedal depressed much more than normal under the bridge into Turn 7. Rather than try to make the turn, I simply straight-lined it off into the dirt. No harm, no foul. I took the checkered flag two laps later. Upon returning to paddock, everything appeared to be okay with the car. Matt deemed the car fit the for the next day’s race and we headed out to dinner with the Jalopnik staff (who were much more gracious about beating us than I expected). For all the jawing back and forth, Matt and Travis are good, likeable people who have the best interest of the world of automotive journalism at heart. Jalopnik is lucky to have both of them.

That being said, we still wanted to kick their asses on Day Two.

After a solid night’s rest at the local Fairfield Inn, we returned for the second race with a plan that we believed would ensure success. Matt was scheduled to start the race, followed by Jack (who would keep our pace quick), and then me, who would be faster than the third drivers for nearly everybody else. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Matt started strong and moved us all the way up to third from our starting position of tenth, but after 19 laps, a familiar refrain came over the radio:

“I’m coming in. Water all over the windshield.”

The damage was too much for even the magical AlumaSeal to fix. The car overheated from a normal running temperature of 204 degrees all the way to 220 degrees. Rather than try to find a new water pump and radiator, we called it a day. The Jalops didn’t last much longer than we did, succumbing to a broken clutch.

All that being said, I should probably mention that the gentlemen from Team Mancave managed to take home the win both days with their impressively quick and reliable E36 BMW. AER is not a “You’re all winners” culture, nor should it be.

But damned if we didn’t feel like we had a wonderful weekend, even with all the issues. We had a great time running at the front of a talented field of drivers in extremely fast cars. We’ll be back with a bigger pump, a better pulley, and even more determination for the AER race at Mid-Ohio in October. Circle the weekend of October 20-22 on the calendar, my Midwestern friends. Maybe we can have our own little TTAC meetup in my home state. We might not have an RV or a Lexus, but we’ll have three Midwestern-grown boys who are ready to take on the world.

Come join us.

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18 Comments on “Bark’s Bites: Endurance Races Require Actual Endurance, Apparently...”


  • avatar
    Travis

    So how different does the FC feel after the 3.8 swap? I’ve been racing an 89 droptop FC with a stock engine that we don’t think is going to last very long. The owner has a 3.8 with engine mounts all ready to go.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a torque monster. It’s the anti-rotary. It also moves the engine entirely behind the front axle, so it feels more like a mid-engined car in terms of balance.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        You may have just sent FC values into the stratosphere. Sounds like you need a stronger cooling system though.

        I would love to swap a VQ into one of these things. We need to VQ swap all the things.

        • 0 avatar
          Redshift

          If they are going up in value, maybe I should hold on to some of them.
          I just about finished stripping one of my 88 FC convertible shells this weekend of all the usable parts, and was soon going to send it off to it’s fate.

          • 0 avatar
            Speedygreg7

            What parts did you salvage? Any chance you have the black outer edge of the instrument cluster and a turn signal lever that hasn’t broken? Very brittle plastic after 25+ years

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            See I think the RWD 3.8 that was put in so many Camaro’s and Firebirds from 1995 to 2002 could be an unsung swap hero if more people would consider it. Torque-y and it shouldn’t be hard to supercharge one.

            You wouldn’t want to drag race it but I can see how it would make an old RX better, even as a daily driver.

          • 0 avatar
            Redshift

            Speedygreg7: I’m merging two 88 convertibles into a single good car. I took the roof from the parts car for the keeper car, window switches, a bunch of other random small parts, and I took the plastic surround for the gauges because the previous owner for the shell I’m keeping decided to paint it with that textured stone finish paint.
            The turn signal lever looks to be fine on both cars. I also have a 90 coupe I think I’m going to strip soon. A friend of mine who I helped part out an 88 10AE a while back might have the switch. (Surround is Convertible specific, but he might have that if you don’t want a convertible one.)
            Let me know and I’ll ask.

            (Aside from that, I stripped all of the convertible specific parts for spares, just in case. Doors, trunk lid, lights, roof motors etc.)

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Two hours for a crank seal change? You coulda been handing him tools or something! We did an entire engine swap in 2 hours the weekend before at Gingerman after one of our drivers hung a connecting rod out the front of the block. We still lost badly to some very slow cars though.

    Also, there was a black FC with a 3.8L GM motor at Gingerman, is this the same car? We didn’t really notice the V6 at first because an un-muffled 3800 does a decent job of imitating the sounds of a rotary.

    • 0 avatar

      I think a lot of that time was spent just waiting for the block to cool down. But I was mostly sleeping, so I can’t really tell you :)

      I believe that Matt has run Gingerman before, so it’s likely.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Would you be willing to share what an arrive-and-drive costs for an AER event?

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not sure what teams would charge. Total entry fee for an AER event is $1500, but obviously there are additional costs involved. I’d recommend joining the AER group on Facebook and asking some teams what they’d charge you.

  • avatar
    USAFMech

    I’m not sure who I hate more: Jalopnik for being giant doucherockets stuffed into their sister’s pants, or whoever put that ignorant lump in place of the sweet little rotary in that FC. Ok, Travis wins for also having the whiny scream to go with his sister’s pants (per the DEJ video), but I still want to rescue the de-wankled rexxy.

  • avatar
    mikedt

    This track is in my backyard and I have yet to make it there. I really need to find an excuse to attend – wish I had known about this event.

  • avatar

    I will say until my final breath that a bad weekend racing is better than a good weekend working. As you were fighting your Mazda, my cohorts and I were with the good Murilee Martin a few hours south in Camden SC for the LeMons race. On the 2nd laps in my stint, our Nissan ate a connecting rod in spectacular fashion. A teammate drove 4 hours round trip and fetched his newly purchased Mercedes crapcan racer to sub in for shakedown test on Sunday and the good folks at LeMons let us (reseting our lap count, to ensure no appearance of shenanigans).

    The former BenzGay 300 of Midwest Crapcan fame has a few idiosyncrasies, but is absurdly comfortable and capable.

    We never broke higher than 6th in class and never got more than 30 minutes at a time on Sunday.

    I don’t care. It was great.

    This weekend we’re doing it again, at NJMP, and we will have Jalopnik’s Stef Schrader with us.

    I can’t wait.

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