Huge Photo Upload

I’ve finally updated our photo gallery with over 100 new photos in more than 20 new galleries from events over the last three years.  Yes, it’s been a long time in coming, but it’s definitely worth the wait!  Check it out here.

Of special note are the 50 photos by our friend, and photographer extraordinaire, Tamara Kenyon of tk-foto.com.  Some of the most amazing images, from the Boise Halloween Classic, that really captured the Emily, the racing, and the new car.  Thanks, Tamara!

Welcome to Our New Home

Welcome, everyone, to our new updated home on the web.  After letting the site get admittedly stale, we’ve done some major house cleaning, and moved to a new, much faster host.  We’re hoping that you enjoy our new web site, we would love your comments on it.

We’d like to thank Tamara Kenyon, a Boise-based photographer for all the wonderful images you see in the header.  She’s a great photographer, and a good friend, be sure to look her up at tk-foto.com.

Soon, after all the dust settles up here in the virtual world, I’ll be updating you on all the recent changes to our racing program, and our plans for 2012.  Stay tuned.

Bumps on the Road to the Future

I’ve been pathetically lame in updating the blog lately and for that I apologize. But you see, I’ve been really, really busy. Since the last entry below, things got ugly. We were starting toward a new car, and planning for the future, as you read, and then… Well:

Trailer

In preparing to travel from here to Texas to pick up the new car (1,800 miles each way) I thought I should have the trailer checked out.  I had noticed in the last few trips that the curb side seemed to look a little lower in the rear view mirror than the street side.  I measured, and yes it was.  I crawled underneath and was concerned about some things I saw.

I called our trailer guy, he said to check with a body shop.  I called our body shop and they said call a truck company.  I called the Kenworth factory (here in Seattle) and they referred me to the best truck frame shop around.  I took the trailer to them and they said: please don’t drive this trailer on the road.

While the main frame rails and the inner connections were fine, the outriggers that go from the main frame to hold up the entire box of the trailer were a mess.  Literally every other one had a cracked or broken weld, one was even hanging there only by the screws into the floor. And the welds that weren’t cracked looked like they were done by a shop class dropout.

So the question was, how to fix it?  The right way is to 1) remove the contents, 2) remove the cabinets, 3) remove the box, 4) remove the floor, 5) weld up the main frame, and then reverse the process.  I said, really?  They explained that the welds that are crucial are the ones that run along the top of the outriggers (the welds most frequently broken) and they take all the stress.  Sure you could try to fix it from underneath, trying not to set the wood floor on fire, but you’d never get the crucial part of the welds.  It would just break again.

Picking Up the New Trailer at T&E

The long and the short of it: we needed a new trailer.  After much research, I decided that we should get a well made trailer that would last.  And that meant a T&E.  So just before the new year, I placed an order for a new T&E trailer.  Just after my birthday in March, I drove out to Herscher, Illinois to pick up the trailer and drive it home.  With the help of my good buddy Ed Hauter, we drove 2000 miles, and 38 hours straight to get it home.

And that was only the beginning of the trailer story.  Because, of course, I had to remove the brand new CTech cabinets from the old trailer, move them to the new T&E, and completely outfit it.  And clean up the old one and sell it.  That’s an off-season’s worth of work alone.  But I had a car to build on top of that, and then…

Truck

It was just a short trip to Sears to pick up a sander.  In, out, maybe a half hour.  I had just pulled out of Sears, and was waiting at a light when WHAM!  I was rear-ended by an 88-year-old guy.  At speed.  It wasn’t clear he had even slowed down.

The good news is that no one in either vehicle was hurt.  I was fine and so was our dog in the back seat.  The old man was fine, so was his wife with the walker, and their 44-year-old nurse sitting in the back seat (why wasn’t she driving?).  That was where the good news stopped.

His Buick

His car was totaled.  It was a Buick Century, of course, and it was leaking all kinds of ugly things, and running at high speed.  I quickly got out and told him to shut it off.  As I went back for my license and insurance info, I heard him restart it.  He just wanted to move it away.  Ugh.

Truck Damage

And the truck was damaged pretty badly.  It didn’t look too bad, but the body shop confirmed that the frame was bent.  Double ugh.

After much thinking and debating, I realized I didn’t want to try to tow a new, even larger trailer with a truck that had been “fixed”.  I trust our body shop, they are the best.  But I just didn’t want to worry about it.

The Beautiful New Truck

The instant it was repaired, I took the truck directly from the body shop to the dealer and traded it in on a new 2011 Denali Dually.  All my friends convinced me that I would be much happier with a dually, and they are right.  It tows wonderfully, and has all the creature comforts.

So, aside from the building a new car from scratch, we have a new truck, a new trailer, and more projects than you can shake a stick at.  That’s why it’s been nine months since my last update.

But the good news is that it’s almost all done now.  I promise a prompt update that will bring you up to speed on the new car.  And it’s exciting new technology.  Stay tuned!

Early Start on Next Year

After our ugly second half of the year, it was clear something had to change.  We were in danger of the invoking the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

We ended the year with several key observations:

  1. We can be successful.  We went to the fourth round in a very competitive division race, and we won a PNSCA race.  We were as high as 8th in the division, and 3rd in the PNSCA.  Emily can drive, I can give her a winning car, and we can make it work.  If we hadn’t been nibbled to death by gremlins in the second half of the year, we would have easily met our goals of top 10 in the division and top 3 in the PNSCA.
  2. Our car is tired.  It’s clear that, as much as we love it, a 13 year old hardtail car just isn’t competitive anymore.  We had numerous problems with breaking welds, many brought on by the added horsepower we need to keep pace with the class.  And a hardtail car, which requires us to carefully log and compensate for every bump in every lane of every track, just can’t cut it.  At the very least we’d have to tear the car completely down and have it checked and rewelded in many places.  And we’d still have a 13 year old hardtail car.  Hmmm…
  3. We have to fix the fuel system.  We spent much of this year, and a good portion of last year, fighting a terrible stumble on the hit of the throttle.  At the end of the year we lost three consecutive first rounds due to this problem.  We kept thinking we’d found it, but it came back.  Time and again.  That definition of insanity…

So, while we know we can win, we need to fix some things to really be competitive.  First on our list is that aging chassis.

Gutted Car

Over the last two years, I’ve done a lot for this car.  As you’ve seen, I’ve completely rewired it, built a whole new dash, added state-of-the-art electronics, completely overhauled the engine, put in new fuel, CO2, and cooling systems, and generally done a lot to bring it up to date.  But it’s all based on a chassis that just can’t cut it in today’s world.  It’s time to fix that too.

We looked at several options, including “back-halfing” the car, where you tear out the rear end and put in a modern four-link suspension.  But it’s pretty expensive, and we’d still have an old car up front.  And we could end up with a Frankenstein’s Monster, where nothing is right because it’s not all designed together.  The motor area, where we had all the welds break this year, would still be old, we’d have to fix that too.

I started looking at options for a new chassis.  There are a number of people making very nice cars today, almost all of them are 4-link cars – cars with a suspended rear end that can quickly move to take out the nasty bumps in the tracks we tend to race on.  People like Worthy, Mullis, and Undercover all make nice cars.  But ever since I saw my first TNT Supercar a couple of years ago, I thought: that’s the car to have.  Beautifully engineered, clean, and outfitted to the max.  They are done by a guy named Tommy Phillips out of Texas, and they are raced by a lot of people who win a lot of races.

Emily and Joe Monden

I researched TNT and discovered that while Tommy and company put the cars together, the chassis is in fact made by Joe Monden out of Gainesville, Texas.  The more I researched Joe, the more I liked what I saw.  Here’s a guy who knows what he is doing, is a straight shooter, and builds incredibly nice cars.  I looked at a car a local rep had for sale, and it was close, but didn’t meet our needs.  So we decided to go meet with Joe and look at having him build us a new chassis.  Em and I went down to Texas, visited his shop and he won us over.  We put down a deposit on the spot.


A new Monden car, just started that day

One of the reasons we decided to have a car built for us is because we’d both like to drive.  Our current car is an 18 car, that is, it’s 18 inches across where the roll cage meets the frame.  That is tiny, a car made for a small driver.  A driver like Em.  But I can’t even get my keister part way in it.  Today’s standard is 23 inches wide, into which I fit just fine, thank you.  But of course Em loves the current car.  It fits like a glove, all the controls are easily within reach, and she’s snug as a bug.  In a 23, she is dangerously loose and can’t reach anything.

To fix this, we’re having Joe make the car with adjustability in mind.  The pedals will move (a standard feature in most cars), the dash will have two positions, and the steering wheel will have two positions as well.  We’ll also be having a poured-in foam insert made to give Em the safety and security of feeling nice and tight in the seat.  All of these features can be changed over in about an hour, meaning we could have a weekend where she drives one day, and I drive the next.  Or more commonly, when she’s off making a living, I could go to a weekend race by myself and have some fun.

A Monden car ready for the body

Joe builds a state-of the art car, with a fully-triangulated four-link suspension.  This is a new concept for a dragster, one that very few cars have.  What this means is a much more stable car.  In a typical suspended car, the rear end can twist a great deal under the incredible torque that the engine exerts.  This can be OK, as the suspension is just responding to the load.  But it means you have to fiddle with the springs and shocks to adjust it just right.  With a fully-triangulated suspension, the back end can’t twist, and it’s so stable that Joe just builds it with one spring/shock package.  Less to adjust, and a much more stable car.

TNT's first mono-shock car

This is such a radical idea, that TNT has only started to get cars with this suspension, even though Joe’s been building them like that for quite some time.  We saw the first one made with it for TNT when we were there, and it was specially made to have both the new and old suspension.  Just in case.  I’m sure once some of their customers try it, they’ll love it.

We had a great visit with Joe and are extremely excited about the new chassis and body.  We should see it in a couple of months, and I’ll be driving down to Texas to pick it up.  Then it will be a winter of moving everything (engine, tranny, electronics, etc.) from the old car to the new car.  Essentially building a car from scratch.  It’s a big project, but I needed something to keep me busy.

In addition, we have some plans to address #3 from our list above.  But that will have to wait until later.  I’ll be sure to keep you updated on progress and on the more exciting changes to come.

An Ugly End to the Racing Year

When I last wrote, we were feeling good about all the work we’d done to chase down and squish all the gremlins we’d been experiencing.  We’d welded up all kinds of things, and were headed to Woodburn to try to improve on our 3rd place in the PNSCA points.  Everything looked so hopeful.

But then reality reared its ugly head.  In our first test run at Woodburn, the car wouldn’t shift.  This was a problem we’d had in Seattle, and had assumed it was electrical in nature.  I had changed the ignition box to fix it.  It was a gremlin we assumed was long since dead.

After some brilliant diagnosis by our friend Ed Hauter, we discovered the shift linkage was off by about a sixteenth of an inch.  It worked fine on the jackstands in the pit, but on the track, with the car under load and the chassis arched, the linkage was just out of alignment.  We fixed that, and made a marvelous second test pass.  The clouds had parted, birds were singing, all was good.

And then reality hit again.  In round one, facing the number one guy in points, the car stumbled so hard on the starting line that it actually died.  Had to get pushed back.  Ugh.  This stumble was also a gremlin we thought we had vanquished.  Apparently not.  After tearing apart the carburetor that night, we made another beautiful test pass in the morning on Sunday.  And again, in round one, facing the Saturday winner, it did it again.  Died on the starting line.

The result was that we dropped from 3rd in the PNSCA points to 4th.  Still above our 8th place finish last year, but one short of our goal of a top 3 finish this year.

Licking our wounds, we made the long haul to Medford for the last Division Six race of the year.  Long conversations with our carburetor guy, and some tweaks done, we were ready to go.  We rolled off the trailer, and made a series of pretty good test passes.  We were ready to go.  Maybe, just maybe, we could move up from 12th in the points into the top 10, our year’s goal.

But it was not to be.  In round one, the car stumbled so badly that Em had a ridiculously bad .200+ light.  And the day, and the season was over.  We are currently 17th in Division Six, and we hope to not fall any further when the final race of the year in Vegas happens in early November.

This was such a promising year.  We were as high as 8th in the points.  We went to the fourth round of a divisional event, as far as we’ve ever been.  We won a PNSCA race.  We were on a roll.  Until our 14-year-old chassis just got tired and caused a chain reaction of disaster after disaster.

All is not lost.  We have a fix for it all.  And some exciting news about next year.  But that will have to wait for the next installment.  Look for an update in the next few days.

Chasing Gremlins is Not Fun

Back on the 4th of July, we got our first win.  It was the first time we ever packed up and went home NOT having lost at the end of the day.  It was amazing and wonderful.  Almost a dream.

Headed for a Win in Mission

It was also the last time we had a clean weekend without any car issues.  Since then, we’ve lived a nightmare of “if it’s not one thing, it’s another”.

We went right from the high of that win in Mission, BC to the National event in Seattle the next weekend.  National events are their own special nightmare of hurry-up and wait.  We drove directly from Canada to the lineup for parking at the Seattle track.  That was Sunday night.

Then Wednesday, it was time to choose a pit and park the rig, a four hour ordeal of waiting and waiting for your turn.  Thursday was tech — nothing but tech inspection.  A two hour round trip to the track for a 5 minute tech inspection.  Friday we got two time runs the first chance to actually run the car, five days after we had brought it to the track.  The runs were OK, but not great.

Then Saturday we had round one.  Which we lost in an ugly fashion when the car unexpectedly ran well off the prediction, for reasons we still haven’t figured out.  Within a week we went from the highest high to the lowest low.

We had a two week break, then we went to the divisional race in Spokane.  We went to the test session on Thursday, and ran a perfect 9.05 right out of the trailer.  We made another fantastic run that day, and thought “the magic is back”.  How wrong we were.

The next day, the first day of time runs, we couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, with three runs that were way off the number.  Then we got a fourth run that day, and the car twisted and squirmed so hard off the line that Emily actually had to get out of it.  We couldn’t figure out what could possibly be wrong, so we went to bed.

In the Lanes

The next morning, when checking the car over, I discovered that one of the motor mounts had broken, completely in two.  Fortunately our friend and expert welder Jeff Yoder was there and was able to weld it back together.  But we missed the first time run that day.  The next run was dead on, so we figured we had it nailed.  And maybe, just maybe, it explained the terrible runs the day before.  Except it didn’t really fix it.

The next morning, Jeff noticed that we had two cracked motor plate mounts.  He came over, expertly welded them, and we thought, “phew” we dodged a bullet on that one.  And maybe had fixed all the motor mount issues.  (Except we hadn’t, as we found out later.)

In the first round of eliminations, we pulled up against Michael Dalrymple, the number 6 car in the world, and the leader in the division.  And we beat him, soundly.  That put a spring in our step, until we lost in the next round to Andy Morris, another divisional heavy hitter.  But we escaped from our gremlin-filled weekend with some good points.  And left number 8 in the division.  Not bad.

We next headed to Bremerton for a PNSCA race.  It was a disaster.  On Saturday we had a truly weird run, in round one, of course.  The car left the line, went on the stop (eased off on the gas as controlled by the delay box) just as it should, resumed hard acceleration, then … strangely, went back on the stop!

After spending all kinds of time trying to understand what went wrong, we discovered that all the twisting and torquing of the frame (caused by the broken motor mount) had broken a wire into the delay box, causing it to reset halfway down the track.  That was incredibly hard to find, but easy to fix.  But in the process we discovered that a weld holding the dash in place had broken, so we had more damage from the motor mount issues.

The next day, we discovered more damage.  Strangely, after our first two time runs, the battery was very, very low.  Normally it’s at something over 80% after a run, now it was at 20%.  I checked the alternator, and sure enough, the connecting wire was quite subtly broken.  A clear result of the twisting of the engine in the frame.  And of course, I couldn’t get the new one connected to the alternator because the connecting screw was a mess.  Fortunately, we carry a spare alternator, and it was quickly in place.  But we still had to rush to charge the car.  And that threw us all off our game.  We lost in round one.

The Fam Watching the Winners in Bremerton

We went the next weekend to the divisional race in Seattle.  The first test and tune run was a cold morning, and the track was a mess.  Emily had to get out of it, after the car got almost sideways, resulting in a throwaway run.

In between runs, our friendly welder, Jeff, came over and noticed that, we had four broken components to our motor support system.  The two thrust rods that prevent the engine from twisting in the frame looked OK but were broken.  And that had caused the previous failures (see above), as well as slightly cracking even the welds Jeff had done in Spokane.

The next run was fine, so we were feeling pretty good.  Except, when I checked the car over, the motor mount on the other side had broken.  Fixing the thrust rod that connected to it, had finally put enough stress on it to break it.  We rushed to Jeff, he welded that together, we replaced it, and we went to bed feeling OK.  Maybe, just maybe, we had finally found and fixed the last of the motor mount issues.

The next day, now the only time run day due to advancing weather, was an unmitigated disaster.  The morning began with Emily getting into an ugly scooter accident in the pits within minutes of the first run.  She scraped up her shin and hands, torqued her right wrist, made a mess of the scooter and badly bruised her ego.  Then we rushed up to the first time run.

It was not good.  The car strangely leaped off the line, like it wouldn’t hold on the transbrake.  It was an embarrassment and a disaster.  But both she and I wrote it off to her pain in the wrist and not being able to hold the button.  So we didn’t fix anything.

How wrong we were, when the car did the exact same thing on the next test.  Again, more embarrassment in front of a good crowd.  Ugh.  When we got back, I discovered that the ground for the transbrake was barely connected, almost falling off.  Another consequence of the terrible torquing and twisting of the car.  And a great explanation for the problem.

So we went up for the third test session, and not only did it do it again, but it acted so bizarrely that Emily shut it down at about 60ft.  And had to get pushed back off the line.  The ultimate embarrassment.  Oh… my… god.  I checked everything electrical over under the dash, found some OK, but not quite tight enough ground wires, and we went sulking home.

The next morning, I awoke with the brilliant thought that maybe it was a loose ground or wire elsewhere.  So checked the entire rest of the car, and found… nothing.  At the last minute, I decided to change the transmission and torque converter.  It’s an ugly job in the garage, and a really tough one in the pits.  But with the great help of our friends Ed Hauter and Greg Pessimier, we got it done.  Unfortunately we missed the only time session of the day, so we had to go into round one blind.

But confident that we had fixed everything, we went up ready to kill in round one.  The car held on the line and left wonderfully.  And… never shifted.  Holy cow, what else could possibly go wrong?

Lining Up against Dale Hrenko

The weekend was a nightmare, but we’ve had time since then to lick our wounds.  The tranny and converter when off to their respective doctors, and I ordered replacements for the ignition and delay boxes.  Maybe we can put this all behind us.

But, as you can probably guess if you’ve stuck it out this far in this sordid tale, both the transmission and converter were deemed “good as new, not a thing wrong” by their respective doctors.  So there was no explanation for the bizarre behaviors we saw.  In desperation, today, I swapped out the ignition box.  It’s the venerable whipping boy of the drag racing world, if things are not working, and you don’t understand why, change the ignition box.

On Friday, we head off to Woodburn for our last PNSCA double-header with a car that’s got all kinds of things welded back together, a transmission and converter that worked at the beginning of the year, and a brand new ignition box.  Join us in crossing every finger and toe you can find, that we’ve finally got it all back together.

Thanks for reading this long, and long-overdue, entry.  We’ll let you know how we do.

Starting the Season Anew

Well, we’ve been delinquent in blog updating, but not in racing updates.  I’ll let Em fill you in on the racing side of the equation, but I’m well overdue in telling you about all the updates I did over the winter to the trailer, and the car.

Last winter was all about the car.  I rewired it from front to back, built a new dashboard, replumbed everything, updated nearly everything there was to update.  And it paid off.  We had a great season last year, finishing 8th in the PNSCA and in the top third in the division.

But the trailer was still in need of a lot of work.  While it generally worked for what we were doing, it surely was not a “looker” on the inside.  Storage was unorganized, things didn’t close quite right, and there was enough leftover stuff from the previous owners to fill every nook and cranny.  The Home Depot particle board cabinets were far heavier than they needed to be, a situation not helped at all with the Pacific Northwest’s constantly wet climate.  Maybe in dry SoCal particle board is OK, but where we lived, there had to be a couple hundred pounds of moisture in those cabinets.

So in early March, the trailer was gutted.  Down to the bare walls.  My good friend and PNSCA president Ed Hauter helped with the tough work, and we cleaned out everything, talking almost 800 lbs. of cabinets and junk to the dump.  The walls got three coats of fresh white paint, the side rails were removed and painted, the 120v electrical was completely checked and rewired as necessary, and preparation was made for new cabinets.

After much research, I ended up going with custom made CTech cabinets, some of the nicest out there.  The new cabinets are not only beautiful, they are light.  Even on the pallets, they weighed less than half the particle board cabinets, with almost twice the storage space.  And they work like a dream.  They have fully roller drawers and self-latching everything.  If it’s closed, it’s latched.  What a dream!

With more than a little help from friends and family, the new cabinets were installed.  Then went in new lighting inside and out, a new pit radio, new speakers outside, and a new air conditioner for those hot summer days.  I even put up new decorative trim to hide the electrical, replacing the dented and tired metal with elegantly curved hi strength plastic.  All fresh and white, and beautifully equipped, the trailer was gorgeous, now both inside and out.

Then I loaded all the gear in, each in its own bin, all carefully labeled.  It looks great, with a place for everything and everything in its place.  I was feeling pretty good.  Until, I finally (after a month of work) took it back to the storage place.  On the drive back, I noticed that the marker lights didn’t work.  Hmmm…

Then Em reminded me that they had failed at the end of last season, and I neglected to fix them.  Great…  When I had the trailer completely apart, with all the wiring just sitting there so I could diagnose and fix it, I forgot to fix the trailer lighting.  So I brought it back, tore it apart, and completely rewired the rest of the lights from the back, all around the top, replacing every light with new LED lights, and running new wires for it all.  Finally, at the very end of the job I found it, a wire pinched between the new cabinets and the wall, shorting out everything.

Frustrating, yes, but at least it was now fixed, and it looks great.  The lights work, the cabinets look great, and we were ready to race.  Until I came to load the car…  I had redesigned the layout to allow the car to go in backward, so there would be plenty of room for a golf cart, the quad, whatever at the back.  I even got new ramps and bumpers to make the door work even smoother.  This all, however, created a million problems.

Number one was that the car scraped the floor going in.  So badly one time that it ripped a huge pizza slice shaped tear in my beautiful new floor (see last year’s trailer update).  To get it in and out, I had to jack the front up, and that’s almost impossible to do with one person.  Even when I did get it in, with the help of the winch, I neglected to realize that putting the engine in front of the trailer wheels would make the trailer very (very, very) tongue-heavy.  The truck handled terribly, almost dangerously, even with the fancy air bags in the truck.

It was back the the drawing board.  At Boise we loaded the car in front first (like always) and it went in and out like a dream.  And it rebalanced the trailer.  That was decided.  But with the new cabinets, the car couldn’t go in as far, so there was no room for the quad.  Ugh.  To quote an old SNL sketch with Roseanne Rosannadanna, “if it’s not one thing, it’s another”.  We loaded the quad in the back of the pickup, and bought a used scooter from Em’s boyfriend to use as pit transportation.  It fits behind the car perfectly, and we hated the old, nasty quad.  But of course, the scooter needs repair and tuneups…  I’ll update you on that at a later time.

Despite all the setbacks, we have a wonderful new trailer, it works wonderfully for our needs, and it looks downright professional.  Maybe it won’t make the car work any better, but we sure like it more, and that can’t hurt.

Season Ends with a Whimper

Getting from where we are all the way to Medford, Oregon for the NHRA Division 6 season ending race is no easy task for us.  It’s over an 8 hour drive from Woodinville, even longer when towing the trailer.  And getting there from Pullman (where Em is these days) is even worse.  The drive would be in excess of 10 hours each way, quite a bit more than makes sense for a weekend.  And the flights all seem to involve a layover in Seattle or Portland for several hours.

HiLifeIf you add all this to the fact that the Medford race is on Friday and Saturday, and not the usual weekend schedule, and it makes for an interesting travel dilemma.  But we worked it out.  I schlepped the trailer down on Tuesday, so that Em’s brother Stephen and I could move him into his dorm room at Southern Oregon University on Wednesday.  SOU is just 20 miles from the track, so that worked out well.  Then I set up the trailer on Thursday, and picked Em up at the airport after midnight.  A quick five hour nap and we were back at the track ready for our Friday test sessions.

Friday went well.  We got three time runs in, and ran only two-thousandths off the number (8.898) in our last test.  We were ready and armed for Saturday’s eliminations.  So we left the track early, grabbed some Mexican food for dinner and hit the hay by 9:00.

Saturday dawned as a beautiful day, if you didn’t count all the smoke from the nearby forest fires.  We got one test run in the morning, but we blew it.  We were a bit nonchalant, and forgot to turn the CO2 bottle on, resulting in a wasted run.  But that’s OK, we had great numbers from the day before, we were armed for bear.

We lined up in round one against one of the heavy hitters.  Steve Williams (no relation) is a VP of K&N, the big automotive filter company, and was 8th in the world last year.  But we were confident, the car was running great, Em was on her game with great lights, we had good numbers, we were ready.  Until we actually ran.

medfordFor reasons we couldn’t understand, we ran a 9.01 — way off the mark.  We were baffled.  And the data didn’t help.  For some reason, the car lost a huge amount of time to 60 feet, Em’s light was a relatively slow .037, and there was a weird blip in the RPMs right off the line.  We spent an hour trying to figure it out.

Until we gave up and tried to load the car in the trailer.  First gear was gone.  We had blown the transmission’s planetary gears.  Ugh.  So we loaded up (in second gear), packed up the car for the trip home, and booked Em an early flight home.

We went to say “congrats” to Steve Williams as he lined up for second round.  He said, “I was really surprised to see your car fall back so quickly in that round, I had looked at your time trial numbers and was expecting you to be right there.”  How cool is that.  Respect from a guy who’s competing for the national title.

That made our weekend and capped our year.  Sure we’d blown a transmission, but we’ve got plenty of time to fix that.  And we have accomplished so much this year: 8th in our association, well into the top 1/2 in NHRA Division 6, and we’re currently in the 35th percentile out of almost 1300 cars in the world.  Not too shabby for our first full year of racing.

So even though our season ended with a whimper, we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to next year.  Look out Division 6!

If It’s Not One Thing…

There’s an old saying: there are million ways to lose in drag racing.  It’s been true for us, we’re finding all kinds of ways to lose, at least in round two.

We’ve had a remarkable run of success, especially for a team that’s been racing for less than two years.  We haven’t lost in round one in the last seven races, since early May, and that’s wonderful.  But the only way we’ve made it past round two is via a bye or a no-show.  And we have found a lot of different ways to keep that ugly streak alive.

For a couple of months we have struggled with a terrible stumble when the throttle is floored at the line.  Instead of smoothly going up to the RPM we want to leave the line at, the engine would gasp, stumble, and burp, then get up to speed.  The graph here shows you a good run, in green, and the stumble, blatantly visible in red; the vertical line is the green “go” light.  In a sport where hundredths of seconds are a lifetime, clearly a delay like this is a problem.

Green is good, red is not

Green is a good run, red is not

But as you can also see from the graph, in the worst cases the engine would never even make it to the desired RPM before it was time to go.  So the whole run would be messed up, far too slow, and we’d lose in a big way.  Ugh.

The real killer of this problem is that it wasn’t consistent.  One time we’d get a great run, the next it would stumble badly.  As I stood at the line, I could hear it gag, and know we were in trouble.  Then we’d look at the data, and see clearly the issue — we love the Racepak V300SD data recorder, it shows these problems in glaring clarity.  No guessing why we ran so badly, just look at the graph.

We fought the issue for months.  We tried bigger accelerator pump squirters, bigger and smaller air bleeds (both idle and intermediate), even changing the way Em hit the gas.  Nothing worked consistently.  At the Seattle national event, we had it badly on the first time run.  I called Patrick at Pro Systems, our carburetor guru, and discussed several options.  But debugging problems at a 2000 mile distance is hard.

While trying to adjust the level in the float bowls, I asked our friend Rick Dearinger for help.  He discovered that the rear bowl just kept filling, and flooding the engine.  Sometimes.  We took out the needle valve to check it.  And there it was, a chunk of rubber blocking the valve from closing.  Sometimes.

Simple Hole, Complex Problem

Simple Hole, Complex Problem

The real kicker was that I recognized the piece of rubber.  It came from the fuel line I had installed to solve another problem, the engine was stalling at the end of the track under hard braking.  That rubber line connected the two float bowl vents, and it needed a vent hole cut in it.  I was sure I had cut a nice clean hole.  And yet the little piece we found was a dangler from that cut hole.  Ugh.

But wonderfully, removing that little piece of rubber completely solved the problem, and it ran consistently, and perfectly ever since.  Thanks Rick!  We fixed the problem just in time to get a great second test run in at the Seattle national event.  Then, as Em noted, we went out and beat Rick in round one.  Sorry, Rick…

Leaking CO2 System

Leaking CO2 System

We were so excited that we had won a round in a national event, we missed the fact that we had a leak in the CO2 system.  We had noticed it before the first round, but we needed to rush to the staging lanes and we had enough for round one.  Unfortunately, there was not enough for round two.  But we were so giddy, and rushed, for round two, we didn’t fill it.  So we found another way to lose — no CO2, no throttle stop, and no shifting.  Ugh.  And our losing in round two streak was intact.

Then we went on to Mission, British Columbia for both a Pacific Northwest Super Comp Association race and the Canadian National Open event.  We showed up for testing on Friday, and made some wonderful passes.  We are getting a handle on tuning the car.

We still had the nagging CO2 leak, but constant vigilance and topping off the bottle kept it at bay.  These kind of leaks can be tough to find, usually you listen for a hissing.  At the track, where it’s more than a tad noisy, this can be hard.  I recently had some quiet time at home, found it, and fixed it.  I also bought some bubble leak detection fluid, so that I can find and fix these at the track.

But in the true spirit of “if it’s not one thing…”, we had another problem at Mission.  The dreaded red light.  We had all red lights in our first several passes.  Usually I just write this off as something Em can fix:, settle her nerves, add more time in the delay box, something.

Another Red Light in Mission

Another Red Light in Mission

But this time it was serious.  These were not just red by a few thousandths of a second, but red by a lot, like several hundreths of a second.  Sure we could add that much delay to the box, but there was something else wrong.  We’ve never seen red like this.

While we worked to figure out what the issue might be, we had racing to do. We ran the PNSCA race on Saturday just putting a whole lot in the box and hoping.  It worked in round one, but we lost in round two with a red light to our good friend Ed Hauter.  Again, the round two jinx got us.

After much discussion with friends, we determined that the car was hopping out of the staging beams.  There are infrared beams across the track that control the start and measure the times all down the track.  At the starting line they are just an inch or so off the ground, down track they’re five inches off the ground.

The way you determine when you’re “staged” (ready to race) is by blocking those beams with your front tires.  That also is how they start the clocks, when you leave that beam.  Normally, you leave the beam by rolling forward.  After careful observation, I was able to see that the car was actually doing a small wheelie (lifting the front wheels) out of the beams.  That’s much faster, and was what was triggering our red lights.

Just Right Lift

Just Right Lift

Normally you want just a little lift (see the picture).  The left wheel will always come up higher, the torque of the engine twists the frame, so you want to look at the right wheel.  This picture is perfect, just a tiny bit of lift on the right front.  But the Mission track was stickier, the car was running great, and that right front was coming up several inches.  Enough to leave the beams, enough to make a red light.

The only way we could think of to solve this was to add weight to the front of the car.  But we didn’t have the time or equipment to do that in the pits.  So on Sunday for the Canadian National Open, Em put .050 (aka “a ton”) in the delay box and we went up for first round.  And it worked.  We had a perfect 8.900 pass and Em had a .005 light.  Of course, this was really a .055 light with the delay…  But we won, qualified #1 in the field, and went on to round 2.

Of course, that .005 was too close, so Em put .060 in the box, figuring a .015 light would be great.  And, if you’ve read this far, you can guess the next chapter of this story.  The weather was sweltering, the track was slipperier, and the front end didn’t hop up quite as much as it had all weekend.  So her otherwise good .020 light turned into a glacial .080 light with the delay, and we lost in round two.  Yet again…

Emily, Jason, Jack, Jenna, Chris

Emily, Jason, Jack, Jenna, Chris

Home again, with a chance to fix things, I had a great talk with our old friend Jack Beckman and he gave me several solutions to the wheelie problem, without adding weight.  As Jack said “why would you take a wonderfully light car and add weight to it?”  We already have trouble with the car bouncing on rough tracks and return roads, why make it worse?  And adding weight is a crap-shoot.  How much is enough?  How do you tune it?  It’s a very clumsy tool.

Instead, Jack gave us two other ways to solve the problem, both easier and more tunable than adding weight.  But I’ll save the details for the next blog.  When we’ve actually fixed it.  And maybe won a round two…

We’re headed into the next race in Bremerton (our local track) next weekend, the 15th and 16th with many things fixed, and a renewed determination to fix our round two jinx.  Hope to see you there.

Of Friends and Fixes

Em updated you on how we finally got our Boise bugs nailed and ran better in Bremerton (but not quite well enough to get a win light…).  I thought I’d tell you how we did that.  It’s really a testament to what good friends we have, and I love to talk about them.

We had several problems in Boise.  The first, and probably easiest to fix was a stumbling problem, where the car would stall after the burnout or even on the launch.  Em recounted how embarrassing that was, so I don’t need to reiterate that.  However, we fixed that problem by realizing that Boise is at a very high altitude, and that we were probably pushing too much fuel through to match the thinner air.

Bob Johnson, our engine builder, and I had debated on the dyno whether to leave the size 96 jets in the carburetor or to go back to 95 (smaller means less fuel).  Since it made just about the same amount of horsepower with either, we decided to stick with the 96s. But Boise seemed to need the 95s.  Bob was pitted next to us and helped us figure that out.  Less fuel works better with the thin air, so that fixed the stalling problem.

Bob "the builder" Johnson

Bob "the builder" Johnson

The other problem, however, was much more confusing.  The issue was that the car wouldn’t stay “on the stop”.  And that requires some explanation.

When we leave the line, the car launches and then immediately goes on the throttle stop.  The throttle stop is a device between the carb and the intake, and its job is to slow down the car for just a couple of seconds, then get out of the way.  It does two things: it slows a really fast car down to the 8.90 seconds we need to run, and it provides us the ability to tune the car to within the thousandths of a second we need to run in this incredibly competitive class.  We run a Dedenbear TS6 stop, and it’s a wonderful, top-of-the-line device — very consistent and very tunable.

The problem we were having in Boise is that the car wouldn’t stay “on the stop”.  That is, it would drop to the RPM we had set, but instead of staying there for the duration that we had chosen, the car would continue to accelerate.  Fortunately, we have a Racepak data logger on the car and could tell that this was happening.  Without the logger, the car would just look very fast, and we wouldn’t known what was happening.  In a future post, I’ll show you some output from this wonderful device and walk you through the myriad things it tells us.

The question then became, why?  Why would it not stay where we set it?  Was the stop broken?  We tested it, and it appeared to be working.  But working in the pits is not the same as on the track.  Maybe something was broken inside the stop?  I didn’t know.  But with Bremerton just a few days away, I couldn’t take a chance.  So I ordered another throttle stop from our friends at Jegs just in case, and had it shipped in by air so I’d have a spare.

But I didn’t think that was it.  Something else was going on.  As a “hail Mary pass”, I tossed a quick email to our friend Jack Beckman, the consummate professional racer who sold us the car and has been the source of much wisdom.  I explained the problem, and pressed “send”.  Within 30 seconds, my phone rang.  It was Jack.  We discussed the problem, and he came up with a half-dozen ideas, from loose intake manifold bolts to a flaky carburetor.  Then I casually mentioned that we’d changed the way the car shifted… and all heck broke loose.

You see, after our test session in Seattle, Bob the Builder had suggested that, rather than shifting at a specific time down the track (like 1.2 seconds) we should shift when the car reaches a specific RPM (say 7400).  It made complete sense, that’s the way you shift your car by hand – crank it up, shift when the revs get so high, and so on.  It’s also the way to get the most horsepower out of the engine, it would be operating in the peak horsepower range longer.  The car would go faster because we were running in the engine’s sweet spot, and because we’d be shifting out past the time on the stop, it would be more consistent.  So I changed the car to shift on RPM before we got to Boise.  (My winter re-wiring job had made this an easy change.)

Emily, Jason, Jack, Jenna, Chris

Emily, Jason, Jack, Jenna, Chris

When I mentioned this to Jack, he went bonkers.  Why would I do such a thing?  Who suggested it?  Has that person won the Super Comp world title, like he had?  And so on…  But, I said, it seems to make sense.  Well, it’s wrong, he said.  Why?  That’s where it got interesting.

It’s because the car is just too darn powerful, and the changes we made to get more horsepower over the winter had made it even more so.  With the car in first gear, the engine is too strong, and just continues to accelerate, even though the throttle stop is restricting the fuel intake.  It’s like a wild horse, just striving to be free.  The huge engine just needs to run, and if you give it muscle (by leaving it in first gear), run it will.  The trick is to shift into second really quickly.  He even suggested that, with all our additional horsepower, we should move from last year’s setting of shifting at 1.2 seconds, down to shifting at 1.0 seconds.  Our buddy Ed Hauter (the PNSCA president) said that some people who run the really big engines (the 632s and such) don’t even shift, they run in second gear the whole way.

This seemed a little “out there” to me.  Why would what gear we’re in change how the throttle worked?  But hey, as Jack said, he’s won the world championship, so it was worth a shot.  And again, the re-wiring I had done over the winter made the change easy.  I even made it so that we could switch back and forth at the track with just a chip change.  And off to Bremerton we went.

The change was almost miraculous.  From our very first run in Bremerton, the car stayed on the stop just like it was supposed to.  Our only problem was that it was still too fast.  But that was solved by slowing down on the stop and staying there longer.  Soon we were back in the game, and ready to compete in this ultra-competitive class.  Thanks, Jack!

Funny thing, the next Monday, my new Drag Racer magazine showed up and there was a tech question to the editor about this same issue.  And the answer was just the same.  Shift on time, and shift early when running on a throttle stop.  Counter-intuitive yes, but it works.  Oh, and on that same Monday, I sent back the new throttle stop I ordered, because we clearly didn’t need it.

So thanks to Jack for his help.  I even called Jack on Saturday at Bremerton with another small problem, and he always took my call, and dispensed great wisdom.  Bob, too, has always been there to help, even when I’m being stupid.  Thank you, Bob, for always taking my call, and for not laughing (at least to my face) when I ask a stupid question.  It’s friends like you who make racing so rewarding.