Speedbumps in Boise

Our first race of the year was in Boise, a few weeks ago, on the first weekend in May. I apologize for the long delay in posting, but things have been a little crazy.

Not only was Boise our first race of the year, it was our first entry into a major NHRA Divisional race, just adding to the butterflies. To top it all off, it was also Emily’s first time behind the wheel in eight months. To expect everything to go swimmingly would have been foolish. As such, we didn’t expect much. Good thing…

I drove the rig to Boise on Thursday, April 30th, tagging along with our good friend Ed Hauter. We met up before 6am at a nearby interstate exit and made the eight plus hour drive in a bit of a rush. Ed had a new engine in his car and was hoping to get there in time for an afternoon test session. Unfortunately, we missed the test session by a half-hour or so. But we got there without incident, set up our pits, and prepared for the next day.

Emily drove over from Pullman Thursday night and met me at the hotel (after a quick visit with her beau Mike, a Boise guy). We scurried to the track early on Friday, hoping to get in a couple of good test sessions in the books.

As you may have read from posts here, I had completely redone the car from the frame rails up. Not only did we have a completely rebuilt engine, now making about 890 horsepower (+90 over last year), but my serious case of “while we’re at it” meant we had all new electrical and electronics, a completely rebuilt transmission, new fuel pump, water pump and starter, all new plumbing, new tires, etc., etc. I even changed the way the car shifted gears. Basically everything that could make the combination different was changed. Sure, we have all new stuff, and some of the best stuff around, but it changed everything.

So we needed all the testing we could get. That was not to be. Our first pass was a bust because of a silly error. In warmup, we set the throttle stop in a kind of backward mode to test the “dead stall” (the RPMs when on the stop). We forgot to set it back. Funny thing about drag racing, going slower as you go down the track is not a good thing. So that pass, and any potential valuable info to be gained, was a bust.

Em Deep in Concentration

Em Deep in Concentration

Our second pass was better, Em was on her game and cut a great light, and the car seemed to run well. Too well, in fact, we ran far too fast. Our target in Boise is slower than normal (9.20 seconds vs. the normal 8.90), but we still ran well into the 8.70s. Something was wrong, the car didn’t seem to want to stay “on the stop”, but just kept going faster and faster. It was just an animal dying to run fast. Hmmm… what’s up with that?

We were also having problems with the car stalling out. It just wouldn’t idle right, and died after Em’s burnout. This problem only got worse. On the third pass, it died twice before the launch, and we got pushed off the starting line. Ugh. Talk about embarrassing. And no data… Not a great way to end our first day at our first Divisional race.

Saturday dawned with threatening weather, and the track in a hurry to get runs in before the rain came. So instead of getting the two or three more test runs in that we had hoped for, we were headed into Round 1 of eliminations. Without a good run to our credit. Ugh.

Overnight, Em and I had decided to change the carburetor jets to compensate for the thin air, hoping that this would mitigate the stalling problem. Boise’s Firebird is an interesting track, with a silly, long staging area and a 180-degree turn right behind the water box. OK, if you’re in a little car, but in a dragster, it means a two (or three) point turn. Makes for some fun, especially when the car wants to stall. We hoped our last minute changes would fix it.

Ready, Set, Go!  Wheels Up!

Ready, Set, Go! Wheels Up!

We scrambled, got ready, and got up there armed for round one. We were running a little roadster, and it all went well. No stalling, so that part seemed fixed.

Unfortunately, the “going too fast” part was not fixed. Despite slowing the car down a bunch, we ran an 8.91. Super if you’re in Seattle, way too fast in Boise (against the 9.20 index). So our weekend was done. As it turns out so was most of the racing for the day. They managed to get a few more cars in before the rain, but that was about it. Sunday was a “hurry up and wait” for most teams as they finished the racing between the rain showers. For us, it was mostly pack up and go.

We learned a lot in Boise: Emily’s still darn good on the tree, the car can easily run what we want, and we still love this whole racing thing. But we left with a lot to do, and fix. That’s part of the whole racing thing too. What we have going for us are some good friends, and great resources. We solved most of our issues the next weekend, with the help and advice from those friends. But that’s for another post. Stay tuned.

While We’re At It

I promised an update on the engine, and you’ll get one.  On Tuesday we’re taking it to the dyno, and you’ll get a full report and pictures after that.  But I’ve been working hard on the car, and Em’s all over me for a blog update in the mean time, so here you go.

Perhaps the most fun part about winter with a race car is the chance to take a look at what you have, and imagine how it could be better.  So this winter, as I started getting things out of the car, I began looking at improving things.  And I got a bad case of the “while we’re at it”s.

The current case of it started with a simple little problem.  As we started working on the engine, Bob pointed out that we really should fix the fuel pressure gauge.  You see, the engine was out and the fuel lines were on the floor, but it was still reading pressure.  Probably should fix that.  And it would be great if it was in the dash, so Em could know if there was a problem.  OK, maybe we can work that out, I thought.

Empty Dash

Old Dash Now Empty

Then, we realized that with the new vacuum system we should probably have a gauge for that too. And that created a problem, a really crowded dash. Or what could be called a “10 pounds of stuff, but only a 5 pound bag”.

In addition, we wanted to have the Racepak record those pieces of data.  This isn’t a big deal, as it can record all kinds of things.  But the dash was a real problem.  Fortunately, Racepak makes a neat electronic dash (the IQ3) that easily connects to our existing data recorder.  So, the answer was simple: replace the tach, water temp gauge, and oil pressure gauge with the IQ3.  And we’d get all the other data there too.

This means rearranging the whole dash, and building a new one.  I’m up for that, I thought, no problem.  Of course, that caused another problem: the Dedenbear CC3 delay box wouldn’t fit on the dash in the new configuration.  That’s OK, they make a smaller box (the Lightning) that has all the features we need and will fit.  Then the next problem, all the switches wouldn’t fit.  Tried a new Painless panel, but it wouldn’t fit either (gotta love the narrow chassis…).  So I ended up returning it, getting all new switches from Painless and committing to redoing the existing switch panel as well.

All in all, I ended up gutting the dash, and starting over.  A project I was looking forward to.  Until I got into it.  The more I tore things out, the more I found that needed to be fixed.  Wires that were patched, some were undersized, and some that were completely unnecessary now that the Racepak was going to handle it all.  So, another case of “while we’re at it” came, and a complete rewire of the car was added to the to-do list.

Gutted Car

Gutted Car

And if that’s not biting off enough, as I got into the rewire job, I found more and more that needed to be done. Several circuits that should probably be on relays were not.  So in came a Dedenbear Multiple Relay Center, a neat solution to the problem.

The back panel behind the seat would need to be organized, with the new vacuum system, and much of the wiring was connected to it.  It would also be nice to move the radiator overflow catch can up there (from back by the read end).  And it would be a neat place to put the relay center.  So a new back panel had to be crafted.

When I stared laying all of this out, I realized the MSD ignition box was a) old and out of date, and b) bigger than ideal for the space.  And if I got a new MSD 7AL-3 box, I’d have the latest box, and would have an even better place to put the relay center.

So, a serious case of “while we’re at it” has resulted in a car that is completely gutted.  I’ve spent so much time tearing it apart, I’m not sure if it will ever go back together.  But I’m sure it will… with time.

Unfortunately, I only have a month.  We’ve decided to do our first test session on April 10-11.  That gives me very little time to stop tearing things apart and starting to get them back together.  It will all start with the engine and a trip to the dyno on Tuesday.  Stay tuned.

Engine Work

Bob Johnson with our Block

Bob Johnson with our Block

As I noted in the last post (here), we managed to get the engine out of the car and over to the home/shop of our wonderful engine builder Bob Johnson. Bob had the thing torn apart within something like an hour, or at least it seemed that way.  The guy is amazing.  And given that he does all this work in his garage, his den, his kitchen, his driveway, etc. he has the most understanding wife in the world.

Once he had the engine apart, he started going over the parts and checking out their condition.  We bought the car from the world famous Jack Beckman, and the engine is the very one that he used to win the Super Comp national title a few years ago.  But it has had 290 runs since the last rebuild and we just weren’t sure what the inside was going to look like.

We’ve told Bob that our objective is to get a good, solid, and reliable engine, and get a few more miles-per-hour at the top end.  We’re not trying to build an exotic 1200 horse monster, and we’re trying to keep the expenditures under control.  So with that in mind, we started with the idea of saving most of the parts, yet still shooting for 900+ horsepower (up from what we think is somewhere in the low 800s).

Cleaned Up Pistons

Cleaned Up Pistons

Bob had mostly good news after the teardown, even for an engine with that many runs.  The pistons were in very good shape, with just some galling on the wrist pin area.  It seems the wrist pins were a little tight last time around and not enough oil got in there.  But in general, they looked great.

The heads are an older style, but are in good shape so we’re going to run another year with them.  A new set would cost another $3k, and would mean we’d need new pistons.  That’s an expense we hope to wait another year to confront.  We are pretty sure that, next year, we’ll need to go with new pistons (see below), so we’ll tackle the new heads at that time.

The block, a great Merlin piece, is in very good shape.  He had it honed and almost all the scratches came out.  There are some remaining, but we’ll live this year with them.  Next year we’ll tackle the project of going to a slightly larger bore size with its accompanying requirement for new pistons (see above).  But the block looks super, and now that Bob has painted it all a pretty black, it almost looks new.

Cleaned Up Block

Cleaned Up Block

We are going to replace the intake manifold.  The current one is an older one, and Bob’s pretty convinced that a new Edelbrock Super Victor intake will give us a solid boost in horsepower.  Mercifully, these aren’t that expensive, and rank high in the bang for the buck sweepstakes.  Bob’s going to tweak it to match the heads and we should have a super combination.

We’re putting in new valve springs, just good insurance for another year of smooth running.  But the valves themselves were good to go after Bob cleaned them up.  We’ve decided to go with a new camshaft as well.  The Comp Cams guy suggested we needed some more duration on the exhaust, so here again, we’re making an investment with a good return on the investment.  And of course we’re replacing all the seals, bearings, and gaskets.

The last major update to the engine is we’re going to install an active vacuum system to provide negative manifold pressure.  This will replace the puke tank we have in the back of the car, and should give us a solid increase in horsepower.  Bob’s never seen a vacuum system add less than 19, and he’s thinking we’re likely to see something closer to 30 additional horses over and above the puke tank setup that we have today.  This will require new valve covers, and we have a special surprise coming there.  Stay tuned.

Most of the parts arrive here this week, so Bob can get it back together soon.  Then we’ll head for the dyno to see how much we gained in the way of horsepower.  Next up is the transmission.  We’ve found some issues there, but that’s a subject for another post.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more updates.

Winter Work Begins

Now that the holidays are behind us, it’s time to start thinking about the next season of racing. But there’s a lot of work to do before we get there. It’s time to get the hands dirty again!

We put something like 80 passes on the engine this year, and it already had a couple hundred on it before we got it. That means it’s long overdue for a freshen. And there are a number of parts that are at or close to their certification dates; we need to get those out and replaced. So just from the strict maintenance perspective we have work to do.

But, we also have some improvement goals as well. For the trailer, I’d like to get a better weather station. While our current unit works, it is cumbersome, needs 110v which requires us to run the generator at all times, the pager is flaky (dying at the worst possible moments like in the staging lanes), and generally is technology from the early 1980s. I have a new one in my sights, from Family Software. I also have some other improvements, like air and electrical lines to the pit side of the trailer and a new awning. But those will have to wait for the incessant snow here to finally disappear and outside temps to get above frigid…

For the car, our main goal is to get a few more miles per hour at the top end. In Super Comp, the faster car has a distinct advantage, being able to see the opponent throughout the entire run — and can play all kinds of “finish line games”. We don’t really want to play those games, we need a few hundred more passes behind us before we’re at that level. But if we’re closer to our opponent’s speed, it will make it hard for people to play those games on us. So I’d like to see our top speed, currently around 168, move into the low 170s. This simply takes more horsepower, which just takes more money — of course.

Fortunately, we have been very lucky to find a super engine builder just a few miles from our house. Bob Johnson is a local legend, having raced and built engines for years. He’s been building a lot of engines for people in the our local association (the PNSCA), and is the nicest guy you want to meet. And he’s a member of the NHRA’s sportsman advisory council, which is helping to set the rules for sportsman classes.

Car without Engine or Tranny

I’ve been talking with Bob about freshening the engine for a couple of months, but just never found the time to get the engine out. The other day he came over and we got the engine and transmission out of the car. It wasn’t hard to do, except that when it’s 40 degrees outside (with snow all around) it sure makes it a little chilly. But with Bob’s expert help, Em’s help and support (and a painful trip to the trailer for a couple of tools), and the occasional sun break, we got it done in a couple of hours.

Bob took the engine and the tranny back to his house/shop to begin the work. He’s going to get the engine all torn down, and give it a thorough going over so we can decide what to fix, or update. His son is going to take the transmission and put it into a new SFI certified case.  We’ll send the carb to get a full once over as well.  When we get it done, we should have a great engine and a nice solid transmission and converter.

Our goal is to take the engine from an estimated 850 horsepower today to something just over 900.  Bob and I think this is a reasonable goal given the engine combination we have, and we should be able to get there without having to resort to boring it out to 572 or other more extensive modifications. Just to be sure, and to make sure we get just the right new torque converter, we’ll be running the engine on a dyno when it’s complete. That will let us tune it just right (eliminating some of the tune part of our first test-and-tunes with the new combination) and give us some solid baseline numbers for the future.

The only weird thing is that the car is now sitting in the garage almost naked.  It’s so weird to go out there and see just a rolling chassis with a hole where the engine and tranny used to be.  The one saving grace is that Em and I got a chance to run the engine before we took it out — how great it was to hear it and smell it running again.  Can’t wait until we get it all freshened and ready for the spring, then we can really run it in earnest!

I’ll keep you posted as we decide our next steps in our constant quest to make more horsepower.

PNSCA Banquet

Last night the Pacific Northwest Super Comp Association had its end of the year banquet.  Like any such event, it was a great chance for all the racers to get together, celebrate the champions, reminisce about the past year, generally wish it wasn’t cold and rainy outside.  Unfortunately, Emily couldn’t make it, with too much homework to make the 10 hour round trip worth it, so I had to represent EMDUB Racing myself.

The event was held at an interesting place, the Nifty Fifty Bar and Grill, which besides being a bit of a dive, offered a challenge when it was realized that you had to be 21 to enter.  While none of our racers were underage, some of their families and significant others were.  After much negotiation with the establishment, including threats to move 50+ guests to another location, we eventually convinced them to allow the others in — if only through the back door.

Once that was settled, the annual meeting began.  We decided on a couple of rules changes and drafted elected  folks into the leadership positions.  Ed Hauter graciously accepted the president’s job, John Young the vice-president, and Connie Woodruff the secretary-treasurer job.  And I got drafted volunteered to be the webmaster.  The PNSCA.com site is over a year stale and needs some help.  Good thing I have nothing else to do…

Then followed festivities.  There was a nice round of door prize handouts — the members all brought things, and Dale Green, the engine builder to many in attendance, brought loads of nice things for the crowd.  I won a case of brake cleaner that was brought by Terry and Bambee Haddock (the Funny Car driver), a couple of hats, and other small items.  I love it, I’m almost out of brake cleaner.

A wonderful letter from Steve Iverson was read.  Steve was involved in a horrific crash at the Seattle national event this July.  He crashed violently just as Emily and I were walking past the finish line.  We saw up close the car and a rear wheel bound past us in a shower of sparks.  After the better part of an hour of rescue including cutting him out of the car, he was taken to the hospital.  He spent more than a month there, and the PNSCA took up a collection to help him out.  Steve was told by his wife to never race again.  Well, that didn’t last long, he couldn’t attend the banquet because he was driving to Texas to pick up his new car…  Racers are hard to keep down.

Then the awards were handed out.  Nice payouts all around, all the way down to 10th.  The winner for the year was Bob Woodruff, who gave a moving and emotional speech thanking all those who helped make it happen.  It was great to see him win, even though he beat out our friend Rick Dearinger by one point.

We ended with dinner that was, well… not special.  I’ve seen less grease on the floor of a race shop.  And they had but one waitress for 50+ people.  Took most of an hour for the food to just be delivered, a few plates here, a few there…  But the beer was cold and the company was warm.

It was a great evening, fun to get together with some super people, and it was just the proddding I need to get the engine out of the car for a freshen.  Better get on that right away.

Now It’s My Turn

After a year of watching, wrenching, and worrying, it seemed only fair that I, Chris, get a chance to experience this whole driving thing.  And it certainly couldn’t hurt for me to know in more detail what it was all about when it comes to tuning or setting up the car.

I have been a fan for 35 years, watching racing at Milan and Norwalk since my teens.  I have seen more passes down the track than many people I know.  But, other than a couple of forgettable times as a teenager, I’ve never made a pass down the track in earnest.  So when the email from Frank Hawley’s School advertising a new class in Las Vegas came, I was intrigued to say the least.

After much hemming and hawing (along with begging and pleading of my forever tolerant wife), I decided to go for it.  I signed up for the class in late September.  Now the nerves could begin in earnest.

My biggest concern, strangely enough, wasn’t about driving the car.  I pretty much knew what to expect there, having been through it with Emily in January.  It was about fitting in the car in the first place.  I’m not a small guy, and I’ve been denied seats on roller coasters and other tight fits in the past.  My fear was compounded when, just days before the class, someone from the school called to warn me that there was a non-zero chance I wouldn’t fit in.  Ugh.  I’ve been working out, Emily and her Mom even talked me into a “90-day Challenge” at the gym.  I’m getting smaller.  But these things are tiny…  And I don’t do tiny very well.

When the time finally came, that cold morning in the desert with a whole group of other nervous students, I was awfully close to panic.  Would I license?  Would I like it?  Would I simply fit in the car?  I’d been up most of the night with these concerns.  But Frank is good at this, and he settled most of it down…  Until it came time to get in the car.  I picked out a fire suit, gloves, helmet, and neck ring and waited my turn.

When I finally wedged into the car I was amazed, I actually fit.  Sort of.  I told the guy who came to strap me in how worried I was, and he said “oh, don’t worry, we’ve squeezed way bigger guys than you in here”.  And he strapped me in.  But the helmet was so uncomfortable and the neck ring so thick that I couldn’t see the dash.  I made it to the line and made that stumbling first pass that everyone makes, to 200 feet, and quickly wrenched myself out of the car.  I had done it.

Two more passes that day and I was through day one…  With a welt on my forehead, and a pit in my stomach.  Boy, that car sure hits hard on the launch.  And that helmet and neck ring hurt.  And I can barely get in and out of the car, the bruises in my armpits from wriggling out of it were painful.

I even, for a moment, considered not finishing day two.  But when Frank said in his day two chat that comfort was key, I decided to do something about it.  I asked for a new helmet and neck ring, and you’d be surprised how much easier it is to drive when you can actually see what you’re doing…

I was never really comfortable, though.  And it wasn’t all about the fit.  My lights were just this side of lousy.  It turns out 165 mph is pretty darn fast (who would’ve guessed?).  And I never really got the whole “I love this, gotta do more” feeling that I really expected.  Don’t get me wrong, it was cool, but…

So I completed the course, and got my license.  I’m now NHRA license number 6304 (matches Em’s 6104 nicely).  But I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.  We’re really not in a position to add another car to the stable.  We have a trailer that really only will work for the one car, the economy is taking a bite out of everyone, and it wouldn’t be popular on the home front.

For now, I’m ecstatic that I am licensed.  I understand a lot more about what Em is going through — maybe I’ll be a little less of a butthead when she makes a mistake.  I make enough for both of us anyway.  And we’re both really looking forward to getting back to the racing next spring.