The International Challenge at Road America (aka the Hawk, the KIC and the July vintage races at Road America) will always be one of, if not my favorite weekends of the year. I started attending yearly with my family in the early nineties and stepped up as a competitor in my 914-6 in the late-nineties keeping the family tradition alive. Of the 16+ times I’ve raced at the event I can count the number of times I’ve had significant mechanical issues on three fingers. This past weekend I added a fourth finger into the mix. Humor me for a few minutes as I set the stage.
Wednesday morning I hit the road with my family pointed towards Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, home of Road America, AKA the best place on earth (at least as far as any car guy/gal is concerned). Five of us packed into my pickup with trailer hitched behind us hauling everything including the kitchen sink. Above and beyond the race cars and associated parts we had more food than an all you can eat buffet, bicycles, scooters, life jackets, party rafts (you read that right) and much more. We left on time, made good time and we arrived at the track arguably the earliest we ever have on the Wednesday prior to the big racing weekend. We got our paddock space all setup, and with our work complete at the track, we retreated to our lakeside rental cabin for some fun on the lake. Seemingly we were off to a good start.
I hit the track bright an early Thursday morning for the elective test day. I quickly got up to pace and successfuly completed the first practice session of the day. Pulling the car back into the pits the engine sounded a bit off. The header sounded like it was loose. Sure enough upon investigation one of the nuts backed off. It was an easy enough fix until I learned the opposing nut on the flange was stripped on the stud. So much for good hardware. I tightened up the no-longer-missing nut, dropped the car back on the ground and fired it up. The exhaust was still leaking. Turns out I blew out the exhaust gasket. There was more work ahead.
It was then after poking around the car a bit more that noticed a healthy stress crack in the rear suspension mounting ear that wasn’t there during my pre-race inspection. My 47 year old car that’s been beaten on track since new and having been performance enhanced more than a steroid popping athlete it was showing signs of defeat. This is all despite a comprehensive chassis stiffening last winter. With the exhaust leak still present I then had to also deal with finding a welder and conducting a field repair. Fortunately, the super-nice racer two trailers over had a welder. Within an hour I was back in business.
Shortly thereafter I hit the track for my second practice session of the day. The car ran great. I was getting faster. The third session rolled around and I continued to find time. Then the car died on me on track. This was a perfect opportunity to test out the optimzed tow-strap I installed to ease future flat-tows should the need arise. I’m convinced if I hadn’t added the strap I wouldn’t have been in the predicatment. Stupid tow-strap. The best motorsports safety crew in America towed me back to the pits and we start trying to pinpoint the issue. I replaced the cap and rotor. The car wouldn’t start. We inspected the plugs and checked for spark. Everything seemed fine. We looked for loose wires and came up empty handed. Finally we tested the coild resistance. It wasn’t registering at all. I grabbed a spare coil form my parts stash, installed it and the car fired right up. Problem solved. We proceeded to the racer welcome reception for dinner and at least one beer to celebrate our mechanical victory.
Friday morning rolled around along with another round of practice sessions. I elected to sit the morning session out to properly fix my stripped exhaust manifold nut. It took quite a bit of time, namely for two reasons. First the bolt was in a really hard to reach location situated tightly within a bend of the header and bound on the other side by the oil return tube. Nicking the latter with a high-speed cutoff wheel or drill would quickly end my weekend. Second, we didn’t want to hastily remove the nut and end up damaging the stud itself. Naturally getting the nut removed took longer than expected and we ended up damaging the stud. Still, I held out misguided hope that I could snug a new nut on to replace the old. While I was able to do so, as soon as I reached the “just about snug” point the nut started to spin just like the old one. Shoot. I waved the white flag in defeat. There was no way I would be able to fix it at the track, at least not without removing the engine and spending a lot more time busting my knuckles. I decided to take my chances with the leaky header.
That afternoon I went out on track for the second practice session of the day and wouldn’t you know it, I got to spend quality time on-track with the safety crew again. This time an ignition wire, surely knocked loose from our failed coil diagnosis, decided to get eaten by the engine cooling fan before I even made it around turn one. Fortunately it was an easy fix. Unfortunately I was getting worried about how the car was running. The header gasket clearly had blown out. The engine was backfiring, shooting flames and popping like nobody’s business out of the passenger bank of cylinders. The decision to park the car or continue soldiering on weighed on me heavily.
I decided to take the car into town for the police escorted race car parade and councours d’elegance in the village of Elkhart Lake. My six-year old son accompanied me in a makeshift seat on the passenger side of the car crafted for specfiically for the parade into town. It was really fun sharing this experience with my son, but the whole time I couldn’t help but think how bad the engine sounded. That night I decided to park the car for the weekend and drop out of the races.
Saturday dawned, and given I wasn’t running anymore, we decided to take in some races. We watched my race group, a couple others and took in the weekend from a different perspective, that of spectators. For anyone who’s ever raced, watching just doesn’t compare to competing. We poked around the shops, chatted with friends and wandered the paddock. I bumped into a friend and told him I parked the car for the weekend, noting I just didn’t want to create any further damage. He suggested his Porsche mechanic take a look. I naturally obliged and after a cursory inspection the mechanic gave my car a clean bill of health. It wasn’t exactly running like a top and while the engine didn’t sound perfect, he said there was no risk of running it as is and made some adjustment to the carburetors while he was inside the engine compartment. With renewed spirit I decided to run on Sunday, pending a successful warm-up session Sunday morning.
It rained all Saturday night and we woke to continuing showers Sunday morning. It had tapered to a very light drizzle and I was relatively optimisitic that my eight o’clock warm up session wouldn’t be too wet. I wavered on whether I should keep my slick tires on the car or swap over to my treaded street tires. I opted for the latter and boy am I glad I did. A whopping eight cars made the starting grid and after we made no more than half a lap the skies opened up and it began pouring. I tiptoed around the track dodging puddles and carefully focused on keeping my car pointed in the right direction. I was glad when the checkered flag dropped to end the session. My race was scheduled for 4:15, nearly eight hours away, and if the weather forecasters were correct the sun was supposed to be out by that time.
Sure enough it was still raining Sunday morning when we left for the track, but it had tapered to a very light drizzle. I wavered on whether or not I should run on my slick tires or swap over to my treaded tires. I opted for the latter and boy am I glad I did. Shortly after hitting the track with the eight other brave soles who decided to brave the rain, the skies opened up and it began pouring. I tiptoed around dodging puddles and trying to keep my car pointed in the right direction. I was glad to see the checkered flag drop ending the session. I got the car settled back into our pit and commenced the eight hour wait until the 4:15 feature race. According to the weather forecasters the skies were supposed to clear by then, but would they be right?
Four o’clock rollled around and, would you believe it, the sun was shining. I made my way to the race grid to line up for the race. Normally I’d be gridded in the top-ten of the thirty-some car grid, however having not completed a timed lap on Friday or Saturday due to my mechanical woes I was gridded at the back of the field. Dead last to be exact. On the bright side I knew I had a fun race ahead slicing through traffic and picking off the cars ahead of me. The pace car led us around the track for the pace lap. Engines roared in anticipation of the race start. The field rounded turn fourteen and the pace car pulled off the track signaling that the race start was imminent.
The green flag dropped and everyone mashed their accelerator pedals. I picked off a couple cars before reaching turn one. In the stretch between turns one and three I passed a couple more. Cresting turn six and leading down through the 7/8 complex a competing Porsche 914-6 blew his engine and I snuck around him to avoid falling prey to the oily mess that was sure to follow behind him. For the next few laps I picked off another couple handfuls of cars. I worked into a rhythm and eventually found myself running by myself. I’d run out of cars to pick off and ran essentially by myself into the end of the race.
When the checkered flag dropped I crossed the line in 12th place overall and 2nd in class. Had I caught up to the car in front of me I would’ve snagged second place. Oh well. It wasn’t a bad finish given I started in dead last. Had I started the race where I probably should’ve been gridded I would’ve probably finished in 8th or 9th. Regardless, a day at the track regardless of finishing position is better than a day at work, right?
The problem with racing is as soon as you finish the current race you begin thinking about what’s next. For me, with any luck, my next race will be the Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival back at Road America in September. I have a lot of work ahead of me to get the car prepped for that race. The clock is ticking. Will I win the race against the clock to get the car ready? You’ll just have to wait and find out.