Sometimes a racing weekend ends quickly and definitively, with a blown engine or ramming a wall. Other times, it can take almost the whole weekend to find out that what happened on Friday means you won’t be racing on Sunday.
I was coming out of the third turn at Savannah’s Roebling Road course in December at the Vintage Car Driver’s Association’s Historic Trans Am Reunion on my third practice lap when I felt a telltale stutter from my 1971 Mach 1’s small block.. No problem, I thought. I know what this is. It’s the same thing that happened two years ago at Watkins Glen: a piece of loose foam from the fuel cell must have made it past the fuel filter and was in the carburetor. Five minutes to fix it, and I’d be back on the track for the rest of Friday afternoon’s practice.
Up until then, it had been a fine weekend for Team Dark Horse, with clear but cool weather. I’d prepped the car Wednesday and Thursday at my home in Bluffton, S.C. then spent five hours loading the truck and trailer for the short trip to Roebling Road. I was a one-man team for this weekend, after friends in Ohio and Texas were unable to make it in to help crew. I’m used to this from my years as a motorcycle racer, but it is exhausting loading and unloading all the tools, spares and other equipment a car needs when you’re by yourself.
Friday morning, I stopped off at Island Ford in Hilton Head to show off the car to the parts and service guys, picked up some spare air dams at a sheet metal shop (unpaved race track infields have a tendency to eat them) and loaded up on Gatorade and snacks at Stop-N-Go so I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money for food at the track.
Roebling Road is only an hour from Bluffton, but I’d only recently moved to South Carolina and had never raced there before. I’d downloaded and printed the track layout from the Internet to learn the turns and try to keep from getting lost.
After picking a pit area in the infield near another Mustang team, unpacking and setting up tools and parts, it was time to go to the driver’s meeting and get tech inspected. Once all that was done, it was mid-afternoon and I was ready to get out on the track.
The first two laps I took very carefully since it was my first time on the course. The car was running great, until the third lap when I felt the slight hesitation when I got on the power. No biggie, I’ll just pull in the pits and fix this, I thought. Five minutes and I’d be back on the track.
I pulled back into my pit area, stripped my driver’s suit down to my waist so it wouldn’t get greasy, and had someone help me pull off the hood. I knew exactly what had happened. The foam in the fuel cell had been replaced last year, and one or loose fragments must have worked past the filter and were clogging the squirters.
Unscrewing the squirter from the carb throat with a big phillips head, and if luck had been with me I would have simply pulled the screw and squirter out, leaving the needle beneath it in. Unfortunately, the piece of foam was pressing the squirter and needle together, and both came out as I pulled. Gravity being stronger than the foam, the needle fell straight into the throat of the carb.
I could look in and see the needle sitting on top of the closed throttle butterfly. How to get it out? A magnetic screwdriver wouldn’t work; the needle was stainless steel. A screwdriver covered with grease to stick the needle to it seemed a little too shade-tree, plus I didn’t want grease all over the inside of my
nice clean Holley 750.
It would be easy enough to just pull off the carb and remove the needle that way, so I unbolted it from the manifold, unhooked the throttle linkage and disconnected the accelerator spring. The moment I disconnected the spring, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. Like it was in slow motion, I watched the butterfly snap open and the needle fall into the darkness of the single-plane Victor Jr. intake manifold below.
What’s really good for airflow is really bad for things rolling around. The needle rolled down one of the carefully port-matched runners and I was like a contestant on the old Monty Hall show – Doors #1 through #8, which one has the needle?
I took a bent coat hanger, attached a piece of duct tape to the end and spent 15 or 20 minutes pushing it down each of the runners to see if I could get the needle to stick to the tape. No joy. Finally, I took a flashlight and a mirror and saw that on the driver’s side bank, one of the intake valves was sitting wide open.
Given the way my luck had been running, I had the feeling that the needle was sitting on top of the piston beneath that open valve. If it wasn’t there, it was somewhere in the intake manifold and either way the manifold would have to come off for me to get at it. I changed out of my firesuit and began removing more parts. With the manifold off I had a much better view of things, but still no sign of the needle.
By 4 p.m. I knew that Friday was gone and my only goal was to make practice and qualifying for Saturday. I didn’t have a lot of choices as to what to do – the needle would ruin the engine if I didn’t get it out.
As darkness fell and the night air grew chilly, I began dropping the headers and clutch linkage so that I could pull the heads. By 7 p.m. I had everything apart, and sure enough, the needle was perched right on top of the piston. After showing it to anyone I could find, I put it back in the carb where it belonged and began putting things back together. By 11 p.m., when the track closed for the night, I had 90 percent of the car back together and drove home to Bluffton for a much-needed shower and a few hours of sleep.
At 6 a.m. I was back at the track drinking coffee to try to wake up and fight off the bone-cold chill in the air. It was still dark and the tools were hard to hold even with gloves on after a night outdoors. An hour or so of work, though, and the engine was done.
It fired right off and the timing was dead on at 36 degrees advance. I actually thought my luck was changing. The engine sounded crisp in the cold air, my wife and two sons were arriving to watch me run, and I still had an hour before the morning practice.
I began running through my pre-track checklist. When I checked the oil, the dipstick was covered with a milky oil and coolant mix. Eternal optimist that I am, I guessed that the coolant was simply residual water
from the disassembly and reassembly of the heads. A quick oil change would fix that.
When I’d reassembled the engine, I poured in nine fresh quarts of expensive synthetic racing oil (Mobil 1). What drained out of the sump this time was over 12 quarts of liquid. It wasn’t just a little bit of water, it was a lot of water.
Off came the cylinder head covers to make sure I hadn’t just forgotten to torque the heads properly.
All of the nuts on the studs were the correct 115 foot-pounds save the very last one under the brake booster. That one was loose to the hand, and checking the stud I could see that the threads had disintegrated in the block. I carry a lot of spare parts and tools, but not the ½-inch 13 helicoil I would have needed to rethread the block.
So much for the morning practice. Knowing it was a long shot, I tried a Loctite thread restorer kit and
torqued the stud. It held all the way to 40 foot-pounds, which was very impressive but a long,
long way from the 115 I needed.
I pulled out the stud again and decided to get creative. I had nothing to lose at that point. Fillingthe hole with two-part expoxy and retapping was an even longer shot than the Loctite, and failed just as miserably.
By then, it was qualifying time and I knew I wasn’t racing that weekend. I took my 3- and 9-year-old sons Griffin and Julian to watch the others run.
Julian stayed behind with me to help in the long process of packing up and reloading the truck and trailer while my wife Beth took Griffin home. As we spent four hours loading up, other racers came over to commiserate.
Alex Quattlebaum, one of the founders of the VCDA stopped by the pit and asked if I was leaving.
“The car is done, I’m tired and I just want to go home,” I told him. “Stay for the oyster roast,” he said. That perked up Julian’s ears. He wanted to try the oysters, so we got out of the truck and headed to the pavilion.
Alex stood up during the roast and recounted the story of my lost weekend to those who hadn’t heard it. To my surprise, he presented me with an award from the VCDA for representing the spirit of vintage racing. (Having your car break lots of times in interesting ways is not uncommon in vintage racing, but I don’t know if it’s really the spirit of it!) I was very touched by the gesture; it really meant a lot to me.
Julian wore the medallion they gave me around his neck as we sat together eating oysters. And I started thinking about the next race.