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.