This past weekend, I loaded up and headed for beautiful Charlotte, North Carolina, where the season opening Match Tour was taking place at the ZMax Dragway.
This was my first out of town tow with the new-to-me tow pig, and what an event to end up with for a tow. Three hundred sixty miles through the mountains towing with a 28 year old truck with 235 horsepower.
I wish I could report a trouble free trip, but I did have several snags preparing for the event and getting to it.
The big problem of the last month: electrical gremlins. I drove the car to the car wash one day, and it died on the way back home. Turned out that a questionable ground had fried the ECM. I pulled the entire engine harness from the car, resoldered all the splices, checked every wire, removed the circuits for the fans and the now-removed electric brakes, and got a new ECM and chip.
Then, on the trip down, at the bottom of an exit ramp just past Knoxville, the fuel pump in the truck’s front tank decided it didn’t want to run anymore. No worries, I switched to the rear tank and finished my trip. Ironically, after sitting at the site and cooling off for two days, the front pump came back alive and ran fine until the front tank was empty. I’ll be replacing it this week.
But the event! ZMax is a drag strip that happens to have a HUGE parking lot. It’s a surprisingly grippy sealed asphalt lot, behind the grand stands. Thanks to the grandstand elevation, it’s probably the best site for spectators of autocross in the entire country. They can see the entire course from about forty feet above the pavement.
How huge was the lot? The course was 60-70 seconds long depending on the class. The design was very good. It was fairly simple, kept speeds down, was fun, and didn’t result in a lot of cone hits. Considering the event was overbooked by 25 drivers, the lack of cone hits was a Godsend.
I drove poorly. First even of the year, new front suspension setup. New engine with new power delivery. New brakes. I found myself being tentative expecting the car to push, or getting on the throttle a tad early expecting more lag, and stopping short. The brakes work so much better I found myself coasting through a lot of features because I got on the brakes way too early.
My best run was in the 68 second range. The class winners for CAM-T were in the high 62s. It’s a big gap, but it also was a big course. I think I can chip away at that with more seat time.
Things I learned, besides “drive better?” The car needs a new fuel pump. As boost climbed above 12psi, the fuel pressure leveled off and the AFR started leaning out, ending up around 11.9:1 at 15.7psi. Not enough to cause knock, but I was only at WOT for one or two seconds at a time. I’ll be replacing the pump and filter and cleaning up the grounds and pump wiring this week.
Onward to the Optima Event at NOLA motorsports park!
Three weeks before I was slated to leave for the Optima NJMP event, I was at the National Street Rod Association Nationals in my hometown. They had an autocross course set up, and I ran on it. A lot. In fact, I burned second gear in the transmission. Oops
Not to worry, the fellows at Boost Crew Motorsports had a Stage 3 (all billet internals) transmission ready. After a liberal application of money lubricant, I had a new transmission. One good for something stupid like 1200 horsepower.
But it’s never that easy. After installing the transmission, when we put it into gear, it stalled. Turns out the transmission had the torque converter lockup feature removed. My torque converter still had lockup, and the transmission was pressurizing the clutch all the time. it was undrivable.
So, back apart it came. We mailed the torque converter to Performance Torque Converters and they removed the TCC mechanism. I go the car back together the day before I needed to leave. Down to the wire. Again.
So, after getting the car back home, I packed it. Tight.
The trunk was crammed with a pop-up tent, a jack, spare parts and fluids, tools, and cleaning supplies. In the back seat went my racing wheels, luggage, and cooler full of food and drinks. On Thursday morning, I set off for New Jersey.
The ride up from Kentucky to Millville was actually uneventful. It was a 13 hours slog, but I made it to my hotel and settled in for the night.
The next morning, my plan was simple: Find a car wash, and then get to the track and get the car tech’d.
Finding a car wash was harder than it should have been. The wash closest to the hotel was automatic only. The second wash I found was huge. Two buildings of self-service bays, but only three bays were working, and none of the change machines worked.
The third wash I found was just right.
Once I got to the track, I nabbed a super swell paddock spot, right next to the Optima trailer.
I unpacked the car and set up my tent. Then I ate my lunch.
A paragraph about NJMP: New Jersey Motorsports Park is awesome. Two tracks. A go-kart track. Clubhouse. Concessions. INDOOR BATHROOMS. If you get an opportunity to run at this facility, do it.
I went to tech once it opened, and scored full points on the D&E equipment section! I’d been docked a point at NCM for non-functioning reverse lights, but those were fixed.
The rest of Friday was just hanging out and talking to people. Closer to six, I pitched in and helped the autocross team set up the autocross course, then we went to dinner and back to our hotels to pass out.
Saturday was pretty much the same as it was at NCM. Get checked in, then run the autocross and get D&E judging done. I had prepared a statement for the D&E part, and read through it for the most part, but I think I needed to memorize it so I could look at the judges more and the tablet less.
The autocross was fun. The pad at NJMP is much smaller than at NCM, so the course was very different. But it was a hoot. The bigger hoot was the competition. By the end of the day, Larry Woo won GTV by a second, but places two through 11 were separated by just 0.5 second. After moving my way up to 7th, two guys threw haymakers on their last runs and bumped me to 9th. But I was only 0.4s out of third and 0.5s out of second. The car ran fantastic. The new transmission didn’t puke fluid out of the vent like the old one. The new alignment took out most of the push. For the first time, I really felt like I wasn’t fighting the car to get it to turn and could really concentrate on the course. The front tires wore evenly, and my pressures stabilized at 36psi. Prior to the alignment fixes, I was running 38-40psi.
After we finished up with the autocross, there was the road rally. Unlike NCM, which was just a 30 mile jaunt down I-65, this had us snake our way through southern New Jersey to Ocean City and back. I had to stop for fuel on the route and learned abruptly that you’re not supposed to pump your own gas in New Jersey.
But I did anyway. Sorry!
In the evening, they catered a meal for us, and I ended up with a few friends at the bar until past ten.
Sunday was Speed Stop and track laps. I ran in the Novice group again. After our orientation laps and our first session, I got straight into line for the Speed Stop. They ran it as a side-by-side autocross again with a drag tree start. I only made one pass, then headed back to the paddock to let the car cool off before my next track session.
Checking tire pressures, it stayed right at 36 like it had the previous day. Still no transmission fluid out of the vent. Everything was working great.
My second track session, I tried to drop the hammer a bit more.
Now, there had been an incident during our first session with contact between two cars, and they’d asked us to leave more space. I won’t give too many details about the crash, other than to say it completely reinforced why if you go four wheels off, stay off until a corner worker guides you back onto the surface. So I had to hang back a bit to keep out of the black Camaro’s trunk. How much he slowed me down is evidenced by the seven mile per hour difference at the end of the straight from the beginning of the video to the end. I had hoped to pass it on the next lap, but alas, it was not to be. The car blew both head gaskets not long after the video above concluded.
Thanks to a quirk of Cometic MLS gaskets, though, the car made it back to the paddock. When MLS gaskets fail, they usually just leak, not blow out completely. So the car still ran. It made a hell of a racket, but it ran. But it wasn’t going to get home.
Thankfully, people seem to like me, and a friend had space in his trailer. I stayed around to help tear down the Speed Stop course, then we headed home. We stopped in Hagerstown for the night, then got to Louisville about three in the afternoon.
Now the good part: results. Despite the failure, I did better than at NCM. Scoring 53 additional points. I completed all elements of the competition. I improved my D&E score. I improved my track lap time, and while my autocross placement was only slightly higher than NCM at 9th in my class, I was WAY closer to the front runners, even after adjusting for the shorter course.
My Speed Stop score was the big disappointment, since I only got one pass. I know I could have shaved a lot more time off Speed Stop with a few more runs at it.
Overall, I ended up 16th out of 23 in my class. The competition was so close, though, that I think if I can get the car to survive the event I can crack top ten easily. Speed Stop and Hot Laps really killed me. I was 19th in class in both with limited runs. Just a second off my Speed Stop time would have bumped me up into the top ten for the class, and a second was easily obtainable. I think with another session of practice and some clean air, I could have taken at least ten seconds off my road course time, too. Not sure I was going to go 1:13s, but 1:17 was definitely feasible.
But coulda woulda isn’t did. What I did was not what I’d hoped, but still an improvement over last time. And now I have a grudge against NJMP. So I’ll be back next year. I’m starting the teardown on the engine this weekend. All indications is the damage is limited to the head gaskets. Fingers crossed that holds true as I dig further in. If it is, I’ll pull a few PSI of boost out of the engine for the track day to safeguard the head gaskets. If there’s damage further in, I’ll have to evaluate my options.
Huge thanks to Brad Lay and Boost Crew Motorsports for a herculean effort getting me a working transmission; Brian Mason for getting me home; Dave Melton for keeping me in my place; Brian Preston for keeping me entertained; my GTV competitors for a great run on Saturday; and all the Optima and FM3 staff that makes these events possible.
Owing to an uneven fender overhang that’s existed since I bought my Grand National, I’ve always been suspicious as to whether or not my car was straight or had been in an accident before I got my hands on it.
Even after I replaced all the body bushings and yanked the car straight (as far as my measurements could tell), the uneven overhang persisted. It finally bugged me enough I called up a body shop here in town known for frame work and building race cars, and had them put it on their frame rack to measure it all.
Turns out the car is straight as an arrow and square as Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The fenders themselves are misshappen. Good ‘ol 1980s GM quality.
So the overhangs will remain, but the chassis is 100% healthy, even after all the racing I’ve been doing with the car. I have just a few things left to get installed before the season starts: a brace to keep the engine from rocking over too far under load, and new oil cooler lines. Both are in my possession and likely will go on this weekend.
Well, the 2016 racing season is fast approaching. Interlaced with the work on the basement I detailed in my last entry were preparations for this year’s autocross season.
The Buick was re-classed into CAM-T for 2016, which moves me away from modern supercars like the Camaro SS/Z28 and the 2015+ Mustangs and toward old buckets turned into supercars, like Mary Pozzi’s amazing Camaro.
That staring me in the face, the car was definitely in need of some improvements. It had issues with tire scrubbing at high steering angles, which caused some horrible understeer, and the transmission needed some reinforcement. I also found a cracked brake rotor.
My first Christmas present to myself was a set of SpeedTech front control arms. These replaced my ghetto-fab combination of SPC adjustable upper arms an truck ball joints. I’d always had concerns about the ball joints breaking on me. The tuck balljoints didn’t quite fit the taper of the spindle. The arms also ended up being
asymmetric, which caused the car to dive to the left under hard braking and turn-in was inconsistent. I also combined the arms with lower ball joints that are 1″ taller than stock. This keeps the higher effective spindle height and the improved camber curve I got with my old truck ball joint, lowered the front of the car an inch, and the arms allowed nearly an additional degree of caster along with nearly one degree of negative static camber. Using a taller lower ball joint required some bumpsteer correction. Kits to do it cost $150 from places like RideTech, but I managed to piece it together using parts from Speedway Motors for about 2/3 of the RideTech price.
The ride of the car with the new arms is much better than it was on the old setup, I’m anxious to see if they actually improve things.
A power steering cooler has been added, sandwiched in between the A/C condenser and the radiator. That operation resulted in a broken reservoir nipple, so I had to replace the reservoir. I also adjusted the lash on the steering box hoping to tighten up the steering.
A cracked brake rotor has been replaced and front bearings have been re-packed with fresh grease.
Lastly, a CK Performance shift kit went into the transmission. This kit reprograms the valvebody and eliminates the 1-2 and 3-4 accumulators to firm up the shifts and improve kickdown. This kit came highly recommended by the Boost Crew Motorsports.
All the fluids have been replaced. New Royal Purple 10w30 in the crankcase, Valvoline synthetic in the transmission, Amsoil in the rear end, and Wilwood Racing fluid in the brake system.
The one major modification that’s missing? Tires. I’m holding off on those until the “go-to” tire for 2016 is identified. That may not happen until May. The new arms also give me enough clearance in the front of the car to run 275mm tires, but those sizes would require new wheels. We shall see how that pans out over the course of the season.
After a year of wrenching on this Buick, I’d let the garage get away from me. It was a mess. Such a mess that it really wasn’t a good idea to do any intense work, and I have some intense work planned for this winter. Things like replacing the body bushings, measuring all the suspension points and plugging them into some suspension software to see if I need to fix any of the mount points, a shift kit in the transmission, and new seats/restraints. All of that requires a clean floor and plenty of space around the car.
After two days of work, I’m happy to report the garage is ready:
Floor is clean, tools are all put away. I still have stuff on the floor on the sides that I need to get hangers for, but:
Both cars fit, and I can walk all the way around both of them and open the doors with the garage door shut. My next installment will be a new PCV system for the Buick. A new PCV system that will hopefully end my issues with oil being forced out of the valve cover vents. Stay tuned.