Monday, November 23, 2009

Slow but predictable

Last things first, the win this weekend went to... Pandamonium! Our Siamese twin sister team finished Saturday in first and held on to the lead - despite enthustiastic competition from several teams, including the Eyesore Racing Batmobile Miata - finishing in first place.

But more importantly, the Mystery Machine FINISHED THE RACE! In 62nd place, out of a field of 150 or so.

When we took her out on the track on Friday, fresh from the engine swap, we discovered right away that all was not quite right - she's okay at idle, and okay up to about 4200rpm, but after that--nothing. Couldn't top 55.

After some contemplation, we hand-adjusted the timing. Having forgotten to line up the timing mark when we replaced the flywheel, we were reduced to: rotate the distributor cap a little bit, rev the engine, see how it sounds. (Scientific!) But it kinda worked: we still couldn't really top 4200rpm, but at least there was power lower down, and when the race started on Saturday morning we were slow, but functional.

Here she is, on Friday night, getting all ready to race:
From THill Lemons 09

Despite the lack of top end power, the Mystery Machine hummed around the track, doing her best impression of a rolling chicane. And our fourth driver this time around was a ringer: Rob, also driving for Pandamonium, who promptly put all our complaints about lack of power to shame by turning in lap times only 24sec slower than in Ling Ling - 2:47 in the Mystery Machine, to 2:23 in Ling Ling.

Here she is, out on the track:

(from Laz's gallery)

Driving the Mystery Machine gives a great view of the race, especially at less-than-full power - you can't go very fast, particularly on the straights, so you have a lot of time to check out the other cars. It's largely an exercise in being passed gracefully.

We turned in a fair amount of damage on the first day - a hard hit each to the driver and passenger side doors, and some assorted whacks on other body panels. Here's the Mystery Machine experiencing a slightly less-than-graceful pass, which knocked out the right front headlight:

At the end of the day's racing there were a few retirees, like the Killer Bee MG, which landed on its roof:
From THill Lemons 09

Pandamonium drivers changing brakes for the morning:
From THill Lemons 09

On Sunday we settled into the super serious business of not melting an engine in the last hour of the race, which was a huge downer at Reno Fernley - just staying predictable, out of the way, and out on the track. Fortunately our engine's persistent refusal to top 75mph kept us from getting anywhere near overheating.

Two more cars flipped on Sunday: the v8olvo (formerly the Black Metal Volvo) flipped right before I arrived on the scene in the van in turn 10, and this BMW apparently lost a wheel:
From THill Lemons 09

Meanwhile, things were heating up for Pandamonium, who was still in the lead.

("We're gonna need a yellow to fuel," Laz suggested. "Maybe we could get Jinnah to roll the van." I nixed this plan on the grounds of being really, really fond of that van.)

Ling Ling on the track:
From THill Lemons 09

From THill Lemons 09

Pandamonium in the pits:
From THill Lemons 09

The rest of the field:
From THill Lemons 09

From THill Lemons 09

JDH driving:
From THill Lemons 09

We started Sunday in 73rd place, stayed around there for most of the day, and started to steadily climb at the end of the day, as other cars dropped out, but we kept going. Last I saw, we were in 62nd place.

They threw the checkered flag at 4:30, and I was fortunate to drive the Mystery Machine across the finish line -- bringing her back triumphantly accompanied by people shouting things like "Mystery Machine, you're slow as shit, but we love you anyway!"

Aww, we love you too.

Here we all are, while going through Tech inspection:
From THill Lemons 09

Left to right, drivers: Rob, Astrid, Jinnah, and Jen.

And here's Scooby, hanging out in Ling Ling during the award ceremony:
From THill Lemons 09

Lastly, huge thanks to Laz and Rob from Pandamonium, who put in the past four weekends, along with JDH, on the Mystery Machine's engine swap. We couldn't have done it without you.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Day 1 at Thunderhill (north of sacramento, outside the lovely town of Willows) dawned with a text message from Laz asking for a helicoil, to rethread a stripped oil pan bolt on Ling Ling. It also dawned rainy.

But laz sorted out the oil pan bolt issue, and we straightened out the truly awful positive camber in the mystery machine's front wheels (via some crack last-minute internet purchasing of camber bolts) and we figured out how to assemble the sidewalls of the EZ-Up, and eventually the clouds even cleared up. Ling Ling and the Mystery Machine both passed tech with no more than minor issues. Pandamonium team passed inspection with less trouble than last time, probably because Laz wasn't wearing a t-shirt which reminded everyone that he's an E30 racer.

I think everyone would agree, though, that the real highlight of tech inspection was Jinnah's awesome Fred hair.

From THill Lemons 09

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Mystery Machine LIVES

At the end of the last race, the Mystery Machine came off the track at Reno Fernley in a huge cloud of white smoke. We guessed it was the rear main seal that blew, but honestly, there was oil everywhere so it was really hard to tell. And it sounded terrible.

How terrible, you ask? THIS terrible:

So in August we picked up a potential replacement from the Milpitas Pull Your Part (since closed, alas), and then we... kind of sat around for a while. We didn't really have anywhere to work.

By october it occurred to us that we should really put the engine in if we were planning to race. In this process we have learned valuable lessons:

1. If you're going to pull a junkyard engine, it's a really good idea to do a few simple tests first - a compression check (even a basic one, hand crank it and stick a finger over the spark plug hole and see if it pushes). You should also probably pull off the valve cover and make sure the head is full of nice shiny oil, and not foamy oil-and-coolant milkshake, and rust. Otherwise you get to go back to Pick N Pull and do the whole thing over again, which is exactly what we did.

Empty engine bay:
From Mystery machine rebuild

Work in progress:
From Mystery machine rebuild

2. While a 2-ton folding shop crane sounds excessive - even if it was really cheap from Harbor Freight - it is not. It is AWESOME, especially if you need to winch multiple junkyard engines in and out of trucks and vans.

From Mystery machine rebuild

From Mystery machine rebuild

3. There's no better time to rebuild an engine than when it's out of the vehicle, on a stand or on a crane. We thought about that. But it really seemed like a lot of work. So we just installed it.

The new engine came with a shattered flywheel, which was an encouraging piece of evidence in trying to determine why the donor van (a 1990 dodge caravan) was junked in the first place. On the flywheel there were pick-n-pull part numbers, and hand-written lettering that said "89 Le Baron".

From Mystery machine rebuild

Despite having done a solid preflight check on our second replacement, after a day of pulling and a day of installation, we still didn't know if it would run. But we finally drew some good automotive fortune, because the new engine purrs like a kitten. (Persistence helps. If you don't have time to do it right, you can always do it over.)

Meanwhile, JDH also fulfilled his dream of converting our 14" rims to a 15" setup. This is way harder than it needs to be, due to the really-similar-but-not-the-same universality of K-car parts. The basic unit to replace is the steering knuckle, the whole bracket with hub plate, lower suspension mount, and caliper bracket. We already had calipers, rotors and pads from having tried this before, but this time, after pulling four different sets of steering knuckles and three attempts at replacement calipers, we were successful -- mostly. The front wheels have some disquieting positive camber.

The back was just new drums with the different lug pattern, and that was all. Our new 15" pick n pull steel rims are super pimp.

Between the pick n pull engine, the frequently-wrecked chassis, and the full selection of drivetrain parts (we also swapped halfshafts, which was easier than replacing our ripped cv boot), the entire vehicle is pretty much a junkyard special.

Now, I'm looking forward to spending some quality time at pick-n-pull this week, sorting receipts to reclaim a truckload of core charges.

- 2 busted engines
- 1 transmission (actually, we're keeping that, along with one of the spare turbos)
- 2 halfshafts, 4 steering knuckles, 2 calipers, and 2 rear drums
- 1 battery
- 6 steel wheels

Now here's a picture from the last race:
From reno fernley lemons

Thunderhill is going to be AWESOME.

Monday, August 24, 2009

anyone looking to rent industrial space for less than 75c/sq ft?

As some of you may remember, when we last left the Mystery Machine, she was making a horrible hammering noise and blowing out magic black smoke, having retired from Reno Fernley with less than an hour left in the race. So we towed her home, in all of her family-appeal majesty, parked her in one of the back lots at work, and took a couple of months off.

The engine does still run, but with the noise it's making, its lifespan is probably measured in minutes of runtime rather than days, especially since I'm pretty sure there's no oil left inside it. (Lots of it on the outside, though.)

With August rapidly coming to a close we went on the hunt for possible replacement engines. The 4-cyl 2.5L turbo is moderately rare, having appeared in only a small subset of the k-car line, so we were thinking we might have to settle for something naturally aspirated, or maybe the more common straight-6, and graft on one or two of JH's spare turbos after the fact.

But I guess maybe Cash for Clunkers put a run on turbo minivans, because a local junkyard scouting run turned up not one but five possible candidate replacements. Sure they're from pick n pull, but surely between five of them we'll get enough good bits for one or two working engines, right?

We turned up bright and early Sunday afternoon and pulled the best-looking one. (Best-looking by virtue of still having the oil cap on. Though it also has 200k+ miles on.)

Here it is, getting winched out and carried away, following a couple of hours of high-precision cutting and prying loose:
From Mystery machine rebuild

From Mystery machine rebuild

Since according to JH (a devoted viewer of How it's Made), these minivans are assembled with the body being dropped onto the whole pre-assembled front end, engine to running gear, we pulled the entire extremely long block as a unit -- engine, transmission, turbo, etc. It even still has the power steering pump attached. I also picked up the matching computer, just in case. We basically used every part of the animal, on the theory that everything comes in handy eventually.

The extremely empty carcass of the donor van:
From Mystery machine rebuild

Now if only we had a garage.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

good morning america?

Bizarrely, Good Morning America was filming at Reno-Fernley. They have an article posted here:
24 hours of lemons: The best of the worst

There's a video link from there, too.

Despite the mystery machine theme on the crush-ee in ABC's People's Curse footage, it's not actually us. :-) That's older footage from a previous event.

Here's the real People's Curse from Reno - Jay Lamm's VW bus.

I also gave what I suspect was an unusable interview for channel 8 news in Reno. (Made so by the prevalence of cursewords - oops.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

the longer story

So now we do the longer race post.


We towed up to Fernley on Thursday night, with the racing seat zip-tied into the van and a few remaining to-do items: cv boot, harness, roll cage padding, fix that broken wheel stud...

We went up in convoy, with Laz's ambulance towing Ling Ling, the mystery machine behind Jinnah's RV, and our ambulance bringing up the rear. We left pretty late, and rolled in outside the closed gates at Reno-Fernley at 4:30 in the morning.

CHP takes an interest in our convoy (and our 70mph towing speed):

Stopping for gas in Nevada:


Friday dawned bright and painfully early. Gates opened at 6:30am and by 7:30, we were prepping the van. After a bunch of frantic work we got it out on the track and discovered that it did, in fact, run.

Sadly, between getting thing finished and prepping for Tech inspection, we got about six total warmup laps on the track - one each for Jen and Jinnah, and maybe four for me. This increased Jinnah's total track experience prior to starting the race on Saturday morning to a total of one lap.

Ling Ling with her Teddy Bear ronal wheels:

The Biting Monkey car:

Jen in Velma costume:

When Tech inspection rolled around, the inspectors were (in retrospect, justifiably) aggrieved at our broken driver's front wheel stud. It was broken because it was hard to change (it's a pound-out stud, but you have to get the hub off to pound it out, which requires removing the steering knuckle and using a special MOPAR tool to push the hub off the knuckle). The far easier fix is to replace the whole knuckle, so JDH and Laz went to pick n pull, and that's exactly what, amid a raging dust storm, we did.

(Jinnah got his little girl to help out with the ratchet wrench on the caliper bracket bolts, which is approximately the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life.)

Our four and a half year old Scooby:

Scrappy loves to drive!


Saturday morning, we re-Teched, and went through bullshit inspection (in which our receipts are checked to make sure we've stayed within the $500 budget) with very little trouble, since the van is quite demonstrably an actual piece of shit. (It's listed in the carfax report as having been crushed twice, and honestly, we'd never driven for more than burnouts in the parking lot before we took it to Lemons, for fear the engine would explode the moment we tried to drive it.)

During inspection, all cars manufactured by formerly Chrysler-owned companies were given obligatory Fiat decals, to celebrate Chrysler's recent purchase. As the most prestigious member of the former Chrysler field, we were granted an enormous Italian flag, mounted on a plumbing pipe scaffolding, to fly from the roof of the Mystery Machine. (Another team had previously refused it, but we thought it was kind of jaunty. Their loss.)

Lining up to start the race:

Extra mirrors to improve the visibility problems:

(We'd replaced the windows with aluminium plates, mostly so we could paint over them, which reduced the normal visibility to laughable. We also added a truck mirror on the driver's side, which helped a lot.)

Jinnah getting ready to drive the first stint:

He promptly laid down our fastest lap of the day. Because the organizers loved our van, they decided to start timing the race when we crossed the checkered flag after the warmup laps, so for about two seconds, until the rest of the track started to whip past, Jinnah and the Mystery Machine were in first place.

I went out second, and eventually brought her back in early with a flat rear tire. I could feel it starting to vibrate suspiciously right before we had to stop for a red flag. Since I was sitting on the back side of the hill my radio wasn't working. I tried to contact the camp:

Me: (yelling to trigger the radio's vox mode) CAN YOU HEAR ME?
Radio: (silence)
Driver in the car behind me: YES! YES I CAN!
Driver behind me: HI! DO YOU KNOW YOUR TIRE IS FLAT?

When we took it off it wasn't visibly punctured - we later decided that we might have popped a bead from cornering pressure and let the magic air escape.

Later that evening, pretty much everyone we talked to was like, "Wow, every time I saw it go around a corner, that van was up on three wheels." I mostly credit Jinnah and Jen with this. Still, despite our fully expecting the van to end up on its roof, it never did.

The Mystery Machine itself was a huge hit. We got a lot of visitors, most of them thanking us for being predictable and easy to pass (my grandmother would be so proud.)

The Unsafe At Any Speed team:

They blew their engine shortly after starting the race, and despite desperate attempts to find another, could not replace it in time. Sadness.

We hung out with the sharks later that evening:

The Knights of the Round Track team, pitted across from us, unfortunately spun a bearing on the warmup day, and were out of the race for good:

The Knights of the Round Track team across from us spun a bearing (just like Ling Ling, only they couldn't find a replacement in time), Huey Newis and the Lose to our right blew both head gaskets on their 80's mustang, and the 280ZX team to our left blew a clutch.

Our Siamese twin team Pandamonium shocked everyone involved by finishing the day in tenth, after spending the entire Thunderhill race dogged by miserable electrical problems.

Walking around the pits we passed a half dozen teams pulling engine, clutch or transmission swaps late into the evening. The Unsafe At Any Speed team tried desperately to source a replacement engine, without luck, while the Squirrels of Fury swapped their Saab's 2.4L engine for an ancient 1.6L Audi donor.


When we rolled up to the driver's meeting on sunday morning in the mystery machine, spilling out of it like a clown car, we found this rather nice pic of the MM staring back at us from the rack outside the official photographers' van:

The Mystery Machine out on the track, flying her flag proudly:

The Huey Newis and the Lose guys wrenched through the night to replace both head gaskets on their 6-cyl mustang. They got her running again by Sunday afternoon, and managed a triumphant return to the track with about an hour left in the race.


The voted victim for People's Curse was the pink Swine Flew car, rebadged after solid showings at the Thunderhill lemons and the earlier 25 hours of Thunderhill NASA endurance race. But there was a lot of good will floating around all weekend, and apparently there were enough write-in votes asking for nobody to get crushed, that Jay volunteered his own VW bus for sacrificial crushing in place of the Swine Flew car.

Around 2pm, the Mystery Machine - which up until then had been running stunningly well - called in reports of smoke in the cabin. We checked her out, refilled the oil, and sent her back out on the track. But soon enough Jen brought her back in again, this time massively overheating, in a cloud of evil black oil smoke.

(Jen reports her life flashing before her eyes when she saw multiple teams running toward her with fire extinguishers.)

When we popped the hood the second time, there was oil splattered everywhere - hood, firewall, motor, grill - and black smoke everywhere. (Laz helpfully popped by to suggest pouring ice water on it to cool it down.)

We tried to identify the source, which appeared to be everywhere, and finally narrowed it down to the rear main seal, between the engine and the transmission. With an hour left in the race it was pretty clear we were not going to make it back on the track. (I'll admit: I sniffled like a little girl.)

Shortly after that the checkered flag came out, and all the cars came pouring back in. Ling Ling finished seventh overall, fifth in class.

The Mystery Machine drivers:

The Pandamonium drivers:

And a departing message from one of our neighboring teams, written in chalk on the asphalt:

Couldn't agree more.

Going home:

Coming home, we kept score:
# cars slowing to take pictures of the Mystery machine on Hwy 80: 17
# cars nearly crashing while taking pictures of the mystery machine: 2
# trailer tires damaged during the trip: 2
# ambulances which blew an alternator on the way home and drove home on battery power: 1

And lastly...
# race cars now parked in the storage lot at work, awaiting the next race: 2