Fear and Loathing On The Vintage Racing Trail: Carolina Sparks
By Brion Gluck
I have a confession to make.
One of my guilty pleasures is watching the primarily oval track series like NASCAR and ARCA make their occasional forays onto road courses. At Watkins Glens and Laguna Seca those cars have to turn right as well as left, and it’s laugh-out-loud fun watching racers used to the oval speedways trying to come to grips with a chicane while muscling those huge truck-sized steering wheels around.
When your car is built for one kind of racing, be it a road course or a superspeedway, taking it to a completely different kind of track is a challenge. After a weekend on the high bank at Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC, I have a much better understanding of that, and I won’t be laughing quite as hard at the NASCAR boys in the future.
Getting the Team Dark Horse 1971 Mach I ready for SAC 26, the 26th annual convention of the Shelby Automobile Club was a race against time, a much closer shave than I would have liked.
After making an epic 20-hour trip from Georgia to Florida to fetch the second motor built for Team Dark Horse by Coast High Performance, I had all of 72 hours to get the new mill prepped and installed before it was time to hit the road for Charlotte. The first CHP engine, as some may remember, broke it’s crankshaft at Road Atlanta back in May, setting off a scramble to find a replacement to make the next race.
The second CHP engine was almost identical to the first, a 347 small block stroker. The only real differences between the two were that this motor had Dart Windsor Sr. heads and was running a higher compression ratio at 12.5:1. I swapped the intake manifold, carburetor, distributor, water pump, pulleys and oil pan from the blown motor, and after about 11 hours of work had a long block bolted to the transmission and ready to slide into the car.
With the help of a pair of friends, the new motor went in smoothly and easily. It helped that I hadn’t had enough time to forget how take it out and put it in, since the last time we’d done this had been only a few weeks before!
During the downtime waiting for the replacement powerplant, I fitted a Fluidyne (www.fluidyne.com) 50mm plate-fin 20-row oil cooler connected to the sump with No. 12 Earls fittings and an Earl’s 180-degree thermostat in a billet sandwich fitting. The Fluidyne cooler dropped oil temperatures from around 230-240 at Road Atlanta to a rock-solid 200-205 at Charlotte, even with air temperatures in the high 90s and running at the rev limit for extended periods on the oval.
Fluidyne was also the source for a new radiator, a part designed for a 93 Mustang that held less coolant than the old unit, and was smaller and lighter. The tighter fin package was more efficient, and despite the smaller surface area dropped coolant temperatures on the track from 220 or so to 200. Cooler is better, and the performance of the Fluidyne units makes it easy to see why they’re all but universal with NASCAR teams.
A completely new fuel system was waiting to feed the new engine as well.
FuelSafe (www.fuelsafe.com)supplied us with a 15-gallon fuel cell. This tank has a number of nifty features, including a urethane fabric bladder to keep the cell from rupturing during a crash, a mount for a fuel-sending unit that let me start using the stock Mustang fuel gauge again, and a clever internal trap-door mechanism that makes sure the fuel pickup stays covered until the last drop of fuel is gone.
The cell feeds a Barry Grant (www.barrygrant.com) BG220 Pro Series road racing pump and BG5000 filter. The electric pump can move 220 gallons per hour, as the name suggests; plenty of capacity to keep the fuel pressure high on our small block. Earl’s No. 8-sized Pro-Lite lines (www.earlsperformance.com ), which we added a protective fire sleeve, are routed through the passenger compartment to carry fuel from the rear to a Barry Grant regulator on the firewall. The fuel system is now amazingly simple, robust, and easy to maintain, and that will pay dividends in preparation time in the future.
With all the new fuel and oil plumbing, I decided that an upgraded fire suppression system might be a good idea as well. Firebottle (www.firebottleracing.com) was the source for a refillable 10-pound Halon system, with a remote T-handle activator on the instrument panel just below the gauges. The system has three discharge points: One is pointed right at the driver, another at the fuel cell, and the third in the engine compartment is aimed at the engine oil lines.
There was so little time to get ready for the race that there wasn’t time to break in the new engine properly. We just fired it up, set the timing to 36 degrees, and let it run for an hour before packing up for five-hour drive to Charlotte.
Friday morning of the race weekend dawned with clear blue skies and quickly rising temperatures at the speedway, and I hit the track with the car for the first time with the new motor.
For the SAC event, almost all of the 1.5-mile Lowes tri-oval was included along with a short road course section laid out in the infield. As you entered from pit road, you made a sharp right at the first turn of the road course, leading into a left-handed sweeper, a double-apexed right-hander, and then into a short infield straight.
The infield was nearly all in third gear, ending with a left-handed slightly uphill turn with a hump, that abruptly deposits you right into the first turn of the tri-oval.
Going from something approximating flat to a 24-degree bank is a hard, and I mean hard, transition when wound out in third gear. It felt almost like hitting a curb the first few laps; the car just slamming down onto the bank as the G-forces loaded up the suspension.
I was into fourth gear almost instantly, drifting high up against wall as I came out of the second turn of the oval onto the long back straight, shifting into fifth as I headed into the third and fourth turns.
Initially I was touching the brakes and downshifting into fourth at the end of the back straight – I was flat out in fifth at 170 mph, which is a lot faster than I would ever expect to be on a road course. I kept a high line through turns 3 and 4, and hammered in fifth gear down the front straight back to the entrance to the infield. Then it was hard on the brakes to make the turn onto the road course followed by a hard left turn off the banking and a few carefully chosen prayers that I’d miss the wall with a large tire barrier in the corner. Pretty scary stuff, and it took a few laps to figure things out.
By the end of practice Friday, I was taking turns 3 and 4 in fifth, just lifting a little on entry to set the chassis.
While I was getting used to a NASCAR tri-oval, the Mach I had to adjust as well. One of the first problems we had was from an unexpected source – the mirrors. Despite tightening the screws on them to maniacally tight levels, the force of the air at 170 kept folding them back against the sides of the car.
Fortunately, the SAC event included a swap meet, and a quick shopping trip procured a pair of Cobra-style aluminum billet mirrors. Those had no trouble staying in place, and I could keep an eye on the ex-Winston Cup cars running on the track with me.
There wasn’t much we could do at the track about another problem. The suspension loading from the high bank was so strong that the car was literally being pushed into the track, scraping the headers in the turns and generating an entertaining shower of sparks for the other drivers and spectators to see, and a nasty sound for me to hear. By the end of the weekend, the bottoms of the headers had been ground completely flat.
Since we were one of the few Trans Am cars at the event, I spent most of my practice time dicing with the Winston Cup cars, which could easily blow past me on the tri-oval with their better aerodynamics, gearing, and horsepower. I could hold them off in the road course section, but once we got back on the high bank they would pull away.
In traffic together on the tri-oval, I got schooled in what it means to have your air taken away.
Joe Blow in the McDonald’s car was trailing me going into turn 3 and despite having my foot buried against the floorboard, Joe easily pushed the nose of his stock car up against my bumper.
One moment I was riding on a rail, the next moment my car was doing the samba, shaking it’s rear end toward the wall.
First thought: You lift, you die. So I kept my foot down. Second thought: So that’s what it feels like to have the air taken off your spoiler. Third thought: Oval track racing is harder than it looks.
Blow pulled out and passed me in turn 4, thankfully returning my spoiler to effectiveness and my heart rate to something approaching normal.
By Saturday, I was turning 1:29 laps (by comparison, the Winston Cup cars were turning 1:21s and 1:23s.) There were still a few more seconds to be found at the turn onto the road course, but overall I was very pleased with how my heavy, square-bodied 30-year-old was performing against cars designed from the outset to be raced.
The only thing that broke the entire weekend was a rocker arm stud due to lack of oiling. Another trip to the swap meet and $4 later, we had a stock Ford rocker arm and stud to replace the failed Comp Cams part.
Everything was perfect, except for the weather on Sunday. It rained all morning, and SAC probably wisely decided not to risk trying to race in the wet. After all the mechanical problems the team has had over the last several races, not racing due to rain was a major disappointment. It shouldn’t detract from the excellent job Rick Kopec, national director of the SAC, and the rest of the event organizers did, though. They put together a tremendous weekend.
Two hours after the race was cancelled, the sun came out and it was a beautiful afternoon. A good omen for next time, or so I hoped.
Barry Grant Incorporated
1450 McDonald Road
Dahlonega, Georgia 30533
4850 East Airport Drive
Ontario, CA 91761
Earl’s Performance Products
189 West Victoria Street
Long Beach, CA. 90805
Aircraft Rubber Manufacturing ,Inc.
63257 Nels Anderson Road
Bend, Oregon 97701
Safety Systems, Inc.
4858West US Highway 36 Modoc, IN 47358