Every July thousands of auto enthusiasts flock to the small village of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for what you might consider the Midwest’s vintage motorsports mecca. The event, that draws people from far and wide, currently referred to as the WeatherTech International Challenge (WIC) with Brian Redman presented by Hawk, draws a dazzling assortment of nearly 500 race cars. . While the name has changed over the years based on the highest paying corporate sponsor, the event continues to be a showstopper. I’ve made the trip for 20 some consecutive years and will continue to do so for as long as I am able. It’s that good!
After a couple agonizing years attending the event as merely a spectator, this past weekend marked my 16th visit as a participant in my 1971 Porsche 914-6. It also marked my first full race weekend back behind the wheel of this car in two and a half years. This particular event is regularly the highlight of my summer, so needless to say I was very excited. After weeks of planning and preparation I packed up my wife and kids and hit the road for Road America on Wednesday morning. As is always the case, the drive always seems longer when you’re excited to get somewhere. It doesn’t help when the five year old in the back seat repeatedly asks, “are we there yet.” I thought this was only something from the movies, but my son proved it was a practice many kids possess. We did finally get there, however, and slowly got situated at the track.
I never truly get excited about a race weekend until I’m there and my paddock space is all setup. Getting setup at the WIC always seems a little more difficult, given there are 500 participants all vying for their share of pavement. Turns out we had a great reserved spot that allowed for easy ingress. We then began the process of setting up what seems like everything you can fit into a 24 foot enclosed race trailer, including all the accouterments you’d associate with a childcare service. You may laugh, but at one point race spectator and close friend of MHCC, Dave Tobin, asked me if my pit space was a day care or a pit setup. Every morning as I unloaded scooters, miniature chairs and other kid related items I asked myself the same question. Truth it, though, it was a lot of fun having my kids there. More on that later.
Thursday was an elective practice day and I spent the morning getting reacquainted with the car. With upwards of 2,000 laps at Road America it was less a matter of where to go and more a matter of re-learning my shift, braking and turn-in points in the 914. I got up to speed pretty quick and had a lot of fun doing so in the first two sessions of the day. I was consistently running 2-3 seconds a lap faster than my typical average pace and I was getting into a great rhythm. Unfortunately, the fun turned to concern during the third session when second and third gear suddenly disappeared and fourth and fifth were nearly as difficult to find.
With one lap to go in the session I managed to limp the car around track and into the pit lane. I literally faced an uphill battle, however, when I had to get the car from pit lane up a hill to my paddock space with only 4th and 5th gear available. In retrospect I should’ve gotten a tow, but I soldiered on with the clutch slipping away as I worked up the hill in fourth. Once finally parked under my tent, I was greeted by the pungent odor of clutch disk and an ominous plume of smoke coming from the bell housing.
Ever the mechanical pessimist that I am I immediately assumed the worst — that there was a catastrophic internal failure with my transmission. In the heat of the moment I immediately started tearing away at the car. I first checked out the shift linkage in the cockpit. Everything looked fine. I then checked the linkage at the back of the transmission. That was fine too. The firewall bushing, one that I recently replaced, also looked fine. Following a hasty oversight, which I’ll share shortly, I then enlisted the help of my friend Tom to pull the transmission out of the car.
Neither I nor Tom are strangers to pulling 914 transmissions at the racetrack. Tom helped remove and reinstall a transmission two or three times at this same event about five years ago. In fact, Tom still complains about the nasty gear oil smell that he can’t seem to get out of his team shirt. But I digress.
We made quick work of pulling the transmission. I then pulled the gear stack out of the case and, what to my surprise did I find? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The gear stack looked perfect. No chipped teeth. No mangled syncros or dogteeth, just a perfectly operating stack. Following a second opinion from a Porsche transmission guru who’s forgotten more than I’ll ever remember we determined nothing was wrong with the gear assembly. Ugghhh!
I checked the shift linkage one more time, and sure enough, I completely overlooked one of the shift couplers. On close examination the bushing was completely gone and there was a good inch of movement in the coupling. Fortunately the aforementioned Porsche guru had the parts needed at the track. Unfortunately we didn’t have to pull the transmission out of the car after all. Oh well, I suppose it was good practice. We spent the next 90 minutes buttoning up the car so it would be ready for Friday’s practice sessions.
Come Friday morning I took the car out for a morning qualifying session and was pleased to see that the car was shifting as it should. Later that day I went out for the second qualifying session with plans immediately thereafter to get the car cleaned up for the race car concours and associated police escorted parade into the village of Elkhart Lake. If you’ve not seen or heard of the race car concourse at this event it’s surely something worth seeing. 125 plus race cars that should never set a tire on public streets make the roughly three mile drive into town where thousands of spectators line the streets to welcome the cars for a car show on main street. I’ve participated in it many times, but the stars just didn’t align this time. It started raining immediately after my last session and the forecast predicted heavier rain. Due to the fact my car has an open top and engine that’s generally exposed to the elements, I didn’t really want to take on water if it poured. For these reasons we decided to tuck the car safely in the trailer and grab an early dinner at the famous Schwarz’s Supper Club.
Saturday greeted us with light misting and I was a little concerned it might continue to rain harder. The rain never materialized, however, and when I hit the track for the last qualifying session that morning the sun kind of peeked out. Come the afternoon qualifying race the sun was shining. I was gridded 12th overall and 1st in class for the five lap qualifying race., directly behind another 914-6 and in front of a Datsun 510. When the green flag dropped I got a decent start, but the car in front of me got a good jump and opened up a sizable gap. On lap two the Datsun behind me snuck around me, however on lap three I was able to get around him and move into 11th position when another car ahead went off track. We diced back and forth for the next couple laps and in the end the 510 got back around me. All told I ended up finishing where I started in 12th place and first in class.
The grid for the feature race on Sunday was assembled based on top times from the qualifying race on Saturday. Because I was dicing back and forth with the 510 in the qualifying race I ended up giving up some time and therefore started the feature race in 16th place overall. I was sandwiched between a great looking Martini liveried 911 in front and freshly rebuilt 911 that I knew very well behind me. Both proved to be lively competition as soon as the green flag waved.
The first half of the race consisted of me duking it out with the Martini 911. Eventually I got by, but in doing so the orange 911 behind was able to close the gap. He got by briefly, but I managed to get back around him and gain some breathing room. In the remaining laps I caught up to the well-prepared Datsun 240Z ahead, but I didn’t get a chance to mount an attack. When the checkered flag waved I finished 15th overall and 1st in class, just half a second behind the Datsun. It was my best finish ever at the event and probably one of the most fun, given the exciting battles for position. In fact shortly after the race ended and I returned to my pit area, the drivers of both 911s stopped by to remark on how much fun they had.
It’s funny how a long weekend of racing can quickly come to an end and how things start to move a bit more slowly. The transition from racing on track to towing a truck and trailer home always requires a bit of self control, you know to stay within the speed limit and consciously try not to ride the bumper of the next vehicle in front of you. This is all combined with efforts to overcome the monotony of highway driving and your bodies signals that it’s getting tired. Every now and again, however, something happens that heightens your senses. In my case it was the unexpected blowing and associated deflating of one of my trailer tires. A loud explosion was followed by a rhythmic thumping and vibration from the rear of the rig.
The successful weekend of racing was capped off with an extraordinary tire blowout once we crossed back into Minnesota
With my racing reflexes still on high alert I immediately found a gap and moved two lanes over to the shoulder, sheltered under a bridge and by the extended shoulder space under said bridge. With a trailer filled with tools I wasn’t too worried about getting the tire changed. When I hopped out of the truck to access the trailer I was greeted by a Good Samaritan who stopped to help. On second glance I realized it was Blake, an old college buddy who happened to be spectating at the races that weekend. He had no idea it was me with the flat and simply stopped after seeing what he characterized as a spectacular tire explosion. With his help we made quick work of the flat, and no exaggeration, we had the tire changed and were back on the road in less than eight minutes.
We made it home safely on the spare tire and wrapped up an otherwise successful race weekend. It was a great weekend to reunite with the car, my favorite racetrack and my friends and family who tagged along to cheer me on. As I sit at home typing this now it’s clear that things are moving a lot more slowly. I’ve already got to planning for the next event at Road America, VSCDA’s Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival in September. It’s a more laid back version of the July event. If you enjoy seeing old cars race around you should really consider attending.