Monday, October 3, 2011

It's Loko time!

Since last winter, the mystery fleet has been sitting quietly, parked in archival storage, waiting for a new day. (Okay, I lie: they've been parked while we raced with the Pandamonium crew.) But now it's time. It's Shadow time! Here's the fleet, not dead but sleeping:
The Shadow is getting ready for the next 24 Hours of Lemons race, The Skankaway Anti-Toe-Fungal 500 at Infineon in a few weeks. Since it's basically perfect as-is, we just had a couple of things to do-- mostly, fix the overheating problems which plagued us last year at Buttonwillow.

Initial to-do list:
  • Replace radiator cap
  • Pull the thermostat (that sucker was just holding us back)
  • Pull the A/C
It had been a while since I'd driven the Shadow, so I'd forgotten the special brand of ultimate driving experience that it represents. During the short drive from storage to Jinnah's house, the driver's side window fell out.

(Not out, out - just kind of slipped forward in place, lodged sideways in a half-open position like the little triangular wing windows in the corners of old pickup trucks. Even the lady in the 80's LeBaron beside me was giving me the evil eye.)

As soon as we opened it up, Jinnah pointed out kindly that the radiator was leaking like a little sieve.

New to-do list:
  • New radiator
  • All that other stuff
Now a radiator swap is not rocket science, but then again, we are not rocket scientists. (Never mind the highly skilled, highly technical jobs; those are clearly a front.) I demonstrated this by throwing out all the stuff we'd pulled on Saturday before we drove home on Saturday night. 

I have made many tactical errors in my time, but this one was particularly rapidly repaid the next day, when, while fitting the new radiator, I noticed that it was kind of... jiggly.

We rapidly came to terms with the fact that there were a number of parts attached to the old radiator which we might actually need, among them some little rubber feet which seat the bottom posts into the holes on the frame.

At this point we probably should have just made some new mounts out of high-tech duct tape, but being true perfectionists, we decided that only the real thing would do. So, I did what any sensible person would do, and went back to the dumpster to recover the parts.

.... this goes about as well as you might expect. Forty-five minutes and a lot of half-empty fast food containers later, I recovered the last errant radiator mount from the bottom of a huge pile of shredded paper.


Comically small object:

I think we all learned a valuable lesson from this. (I learned that I should not throw away any parts before the job is done. Rob and Jinnah learned that letting my situational guilt play out usually leads to the funniest possible conclusion.)

Stray part recovered, the new radiator is in. It's all shiny and new, and between the radiator and the hoses, approximately doubles the value of the car. Now it will never overheat, so the engine is free to explode as God and Lee Iacocca intended.

Now that that new radiator is in, and all that other stuff is done as well, check out a selection of photographs:


Sexy race car interior:

Driver's side window:

Now that everything's all back together, we've quit while we're ahead. Just need to get some new tires, and grab a crapload of spare parts (this time that one is definitely going to happen), and we're ready to race. Hooray!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Arse-Freeze-A-Palooza, Buttonwillow

We... totally didn't win! But then, we weren't trying to. If, as my fridge magnets inform me, life is all about the journey, then a LeMons weekend is mostly about the drive... to and from Bakersfield, in a desperate, inevitable quest for spare parts.

The Shadow ran well(ish) and finished under its own power, which in LeMons terms is a stunning victory. (It sure feels like one when the checkered flag flies and the car's still turning laps.) It ran hot as hell through most of the race, mostly 1 tick mark below "oh my god I'm about to explode" on the temp gauge, but it never actually overheated, and any damage incurred from two days of hurtling around a track at glowing hot temps hasn't surfaced yet.

We finished in 113th place, of a field of 173 - having lost 1 hour of saturday morning due to transponder failure (the alternator belt ate the transponder cable), and most of saturday afternoon due to having melted a brake caliper while hurtling down the back straight at 95mph. (Jinnah was driving; he kept it on the track despite having lost 90% of braking power. When he brought it in, the brake pad was hanging in pieces from the caliper, and the rotor was gouged and bent, and the caliper was all melty.) Lucky for us, the Autozone in lovely Lamont, CA had new calipers, rotors, pads, lines and caliper pins all in stock, and we were back on the track for all of Sunday. (Which did include some "Oh shit it's overheating" troubleshooting... among other issues, we have a busted radiator cap.)

The Shadow crossed the line under its own power having done 143 (recorded) laps - 169 short of the race winner. No sweeter feeling than the checkered flag flying on the last day, while your car's still running. My favorite part of a lemons race is the end, when the cars parade slowly back in, and the pits are lined with people clapping and cheering. The judges came down to high-5 all the drivers as we filed off the track. Awesome community feeling right then.

What are we going to do next race? Same thing we do every race: drive as fast as we can and try to stay out of trouble! Maybe in the minivan. I won't lie, though -- it's exciting and different to actually have a chance to pass other cars. Go shadow!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Loko shadow!

Not long after the last race, we came across a craigslist ad for a 1987 Dodge Shadow. What with the Mystery Machine having blown yet another engine (and another pick-n-pull replacement in storage, waiting to be swapped in) and us pining for a 5-speed, we thought, what the hell?

The Shadow was for sale from a nonprofit, the Clean and Sober Homes of Santa Cruz. That makes the purchase price like a donation, right? It's practically altruism. So of course we bought it, stiff clutch and suspected broken motor mount and all, for $200.

(The fact that it came from a nonprofit came in really handy when we got pulled over while transporting it with expired tags. That, and the cop had friends who were LeMons racers. He was very nice about the whole thing.)

Here she is, the Shadow herself:
From Lemons dec 2010

Note the "turbo" on the hood and that stylish hood bump (almost like the turbo is really big and takes up all that extra space! Which it isn't, and doesn't.):
From Lemons dec 2010

This is a 2.2L Turbo I, the earliest version of the K-style Chrysler turbo engine. This engine line is the finest of mid-80's American economy engineering. It's not actually a great engine (after all, we've blown up 2 in a row) but what it is, is familiar. We've spent a lot of hours scouring the internet for minor technical details, we have a really complete service manual for a slightly newer version, and we know where all the bits are. Hard to walk away from that.

From Lemons dec 2010

The Shadow is quite a bit lighter than the van, and a 5-speed (the van is automatic), and it has a boost gauge (and hidden hatchback versatility!) so though it's not what you'd call a fast car (though it was the "sporty" version of the model line, that's not saying much), it's a whole hell of a lot faster than the van.

We were so excited we took it to an autocross for shakedown. Lined up beside subarus and mitsubishis and lotuses, it got about five times the tech scrutiny of any of the other cars, and I was about 10sec slower across the course than Rob in his Infiniti G37, but goddamn, it was fun to drive! I only lament the lack of photos.

A general worklist for the shadow:
- suspension. when we got it, pressing gently on the corner would make it rock like a boat on the ocean for about half a minute. Fortunately, stock shock replacements were $16 each from kragen. A whole $16! We did spring for the nice springs, but even those weren't exactly pricy.
- replace all fluids
- bleed horrible black chunky stuff out of brake lines
- cage, seat, kill switch - we sent it out to TC design to take care of all of this. A roll cage is something I'm pretty comfortable paying a professional for, since I want to live to get very old.
- new wheels & tires
- strip interior (it was nasty, and anyway, race cars don't have interiors)
- remove sunroof, replace with metal plate
- apply theme

Still to do:
- plugs & wires
- replace turbo oil line. Leaks like a rubber hose with a really big hole in it. That isn't really a metaphor.
- replace busted motor mount. For reasons known only to some chrysler engineer in 1985, the back mount was a weird little shock (a bobble strut!) which isn't considered a "wear part", but which no longer provided support or resistance of any kind
- replace valve cover seal (also very leaky)
- new brake pads (and optionally, rotors) in front. The backs are drums; if they give us any trouble we'll probably just disable them
- fix third brakelight
- fit the harness, fire extinguisher, transponder & wink mirror (from the minivan)

Yesterday, we painted it. We went back and forth on theme, but finally settled on a general and timely favorite theme... 4Loko!

The plan:
From Lemons dec 2010

The car, in progress:
From Lemons dec 2010

I won't lie, I'm pretty excited. Get some numbers on her, she'll be a real race car.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Photographic evidence

Jalopnik has a really nice photo of the mystery machine, pre-bunnied, in their 108 top cars of Thunderhill post:


The Mystery Machine, in all its lumbering blue and green glory, isn't the race car of the century, but it's fun as hell to drive. What with all the engine work, it was running so much better than last time that it was only a matter of time until we blew it up. And blow it up we did.

This is Goin' For Broken 2010, Thunderhill.


We towed up on Thursday night, and Friday got off to a pretty slow start, which is probably quickest explained with a picture:

But the Mystery Machine went through tech and BS inspection, and - apart from a couple of minor fixes, including securing the battery down a bit more firmly - we had no problems at all. The Mystery Machine's gigantic epically powerful 4-banger evokes mostly pity from the BS judges, who sent us away with 3 bonus laps and a cookie.


Saturday dawned bright and early, and the Mystery Machine rolled out onto the track - followed promptly by a long string of black flag penalties. There's a new rule that teams with more than 3 black flags on Saturday get sent home, and we... well, we tested it.

Flag #1 was JDH putting two wheels off in turn 11, three times in a row. (As it gets hotter, it gets harder and harder to stay focused. The pandamonium guys were having the same problem.)

Flag #2 was Josh. It was his first time on the track, except for a few laps on the practice day, and he blew past the track worker while entering the track. This earned us a lengthy parade lap of the pits, behind the adorable judges' microbus, with Josh saran-wrapped to the roof of the van. :-o

Josh getting in:
From lemons - goin for broken 10

After that we put Rob out, and begged him to drive carefully. He did - it helped that he overheated the van almost right away and lost most of its power - but an encounter with another car in turn 5 got him flagged too. A faster car tried to take an inside pass (it's not a good passing zone, even on the van), thought better of it, and clipped the Mystery Machine's back bumper while trying to disengage, causing both of us to get flagged for contact.

Black flag #3 required us to wire a Cone of Shame onto the roof (this is a regular traffic cone, spray-painted) to identify us as miscreants on the edge of expulsion. And after that was done, I went back out. There were about three and a half hours of racing left, and I did the best I could to keep it on the track, driving clean.

Two o'clock passes... three o'clock... four... as the sun gets lower I start to relax, and at 4:45, with fifteen minutes of racing left, I'm feeling like a superhero. Three and a half hours in the car, without a problem!

And then I passed another car under a yellow flag. SADNESS.

Long story short, we weren't ejected, though under the rules we should have been.

But then we ate some steaks of delicious peppery "hooray we made it, more or less!" goodness, and after all, that's racing.


Sunday wasn't so hot, which was a huge improvement. JDH turned a pile of blinding laps - relatively speaking. His 2:46, while not fast in any other car is pretty good for a minivan - or at least, for our minivan. (There was another minivan on the track, a Gen2 Dodge, very similar to ours, but much more nicely set up - for a start, they'd lowered the back as well as the front, and handled beautifully in the turns. It was also a 5-speed, and seemed able to lay down power a bit more easily - the Mystery Machine is a 3-speed auto, and you can shift it, but kicking down into 2 isn't quite like dropping into 2nd, and they were a solid 15sec faster than us.)

After JDH started, I went out next, and had a roaring good time - it was cooler than saturday, we weren't under penalty pressure any more, and the day 2 racetrack is always cleaner, more serious and less crowded than day 1. I'm always struck by the difference between the Lemons-of-the-paddock, which has a carnival atmosphere (what with the feats of strength, hot dogs and beer, and vast number of people in costumes) and the Lemons-of-the-track, which is a lot like real racing.

Josh went out after me. He remembered to stop for the track workers this time, but he didn't get in more than a couple of laps before coming in too hot to turn 5, and driving off track, earning our first (and only) black flag of the day. (Timing data later proved that the couple of laps he did drive, were damn fast. Josh, we're looking forward to getting you back out on the track next time!)

As a reward for this unfortunate event, we got the best punishment ever - a pair of humping bunnies welded to our roof!!

(I dearly wish I had a photo.)

So JDH went back out in the newly-bunnied van, and turned laps ever more scorching, until at last he managed to get the Mystery Machine up to its best speed ever through the whole back section - a steady 80mph through all of 6, 7, 8, coming in to 9. And then, in true K-car style, the engine blew.

With only an hour left in the race, the Mystery Machine came back in with the saddest goddamn knock you've ever heard. We're pretty sure we threw a rod.

RIP, engine #3.

Maybe next time we'll race a Shadow.

From lemons - goin for broken 10

My favorite part of a Lemons race is the end. After the checkered flag goes out, all the cars file in off the track, driving slow through the pits, and everyone who isn't hastily packing up all their stuff comes out to watch and clap for the cars as they come past. It's an amazing community feeling - the cars might be junk and the racing erratic, but everyone present put in a huge amount of time and energy to make it happen, and - winning or just driving (or nursing a crushed front end or a broken engine) - the end of the race is an achievement.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

how low is too low?

The race is this weekend. We leave tomorrow, to spend an exciting night in the RV line in front of the gates at Thunderhill, along with our Pandamonium comrades. (We're going to have to draw straws on who has to wear the panda suit.)

Since we got everything running well in advance of the race, we took advantage of having a whole leisurely weekend of van time to do a few extra things (which will almost certainly make it worse): added a "boost gauge" (a vacuum gauge plumbed through the firewall and jb-welded to a bracket on the roll cage), fixed the engine mount bolt that we stripped the previous weekend, etc. We also cut a couple of coils off the front springs.

Here's Rob, in state-of-the-art protective gear (it doubles as a welding helmet! so long as you keep your eyes closed.):
From Mystery machine rebuild

Now it's shorter:
From Mystery machine rebuild

Now the front is *really* low:
From Mystery machine rebuild

So low that when we lowered it off the jack stands, the oil pan bottomed out on the jack. Think that's too low? Never! We'll just have to be careful around speed bumps.

Friday, April 30, 2010

timing is critical

Arse-Freeze-a-Palooza back in November was pretty great, but the Mystery Machine wasn't exactly running at top form - timed all to hell, it couldn't be made to top about 4500-4800rpm. We tried a few different things - cpu troubleshooting, vacuum (we kind of eyeballed the vacuum lines when we put the new engine in, and Laz swore up and down he plugged everything in to the right place), distributor timing. None of it made much difference, and we limped our way through the race.

So then we parked the van for the winter and conveniently ignored it for a while. But now that Goin for Broken is right around the corner, we thought it would be nice to regain the use of our many missing horses (and our turbo, which wasn't really working either).

After some more fruitless poking around, we eventually discovered (via some googling and much experimentation) that our problem was, as we initially suspected, related to timing. We'd already marked the flywheel and reset the ignition timing to spec, but doing so had given the van a disturbing smoker's cough.

Once we lined up the cam pulley at TDC, and were putting things back together, we consulted the manual, eyeballed everything, and...

JDH: And the lines on the crank pulley line up with the arrows on the block, right?
Rob: ...those are supposed to line up?


Since we had it mostly apart anyway, we also replaced the timing belt.

From Mystery machine rebuild

When we put it all back together - magic! It totally works!

As soon as it was running well again, we noticed a lot of hissing, and found an uncapped vacuum line (which used to go to the A/C) which we'd never noticed, due to not having actually generated any boost. The super-high-tech vacuum gauge threaded through the firewall confirmed, while hooning up and down an unsuspecting quiet residential street, that we're getting up to 7psi now.

Now, if you ever need to re-time a gen-2 dodge turbo, you should check out the instructions on, here: "Cam timing on 2.2/2.5 Chryslers". But in general this was easier than I expected - once the belt was off and we'd given up on the pre-existing timing entirely, we lined up the holes in the camshaft pulley with markers on the block, lined up the markers on the crankshaft pulley, and then, once the belt was back on, re-timed the ignition timing to spec. (The crankshaft pulley ended up being 2-3 notches off from the camshaft, depending on how you count.)

There, we fixed it!
From Mystery machine rebuild

(I am not in the picture. I am holding the camera, poorly.)