Category Archives: Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car

Optima: Battle of Birmingham

My third and final Optima USCA event of 2018 is in the books. I’d gone into the event with high hopes, but sadly I ended the weekend with my sails deflated.

After having recently installed the awesome new ECUGN in the car, it was running great. More than great. It was awesome. Full boost in every gear, correct AFRs, traction control. I was primed to kick some doors down. But it was not to be. This weekend was yet another lesson in bottlenecks and balloon squeezing.

But first, let’s talk about Barber Motorsports Park. I’d heard that this track was something to behold. The stories didn’t do it justice. I’ve been to some nice golf clubs. This place was nicer. The grass was perfect. There were sculptures hidden all over the place. There was a giant metal spider in the infield.

Arrival Friday afternoon was uneventful. The format was a bit different due to some peculiarities with the track and a PCA event running that day. I listen to the Optima podcast regularly, so I had the scoop on how it was supposed to work. When the time came, we made an orderly transition from the side lot to the paddock. It took less than an hour. Bit props to the staff for pulling that off.

Saturday morning at Barber Motorsports Park

Saturday is autocross and D&E day, and those went well enough. The autocross course was on a section of the facility called the proving grounds. Instead of a giant flat piece of asphalt, it was a series of curves around beautifully manicured grass islands, with an enormous banked turn in the back. I’d never driven on a turn with this kind of banking before, so I decided to push the limits early. I found them:

Lesson for corner workers: Run perpendicular to the car, not away from it.

My best run was a 39.3 I think. It was a mid-pack finish. The car didn’t feel as sharp as I’d hoped. Here’s the in-car of the best run, check out the Buick pulling 1.9g on the banking:

But the lack of sharp handling? Well, Brian Mason managed to catch me running from a vantage point up on the hill, and well, watch this boat pitch and wallow:

So, either my shocks have died, or the extra power and braking has imparted forces on them that they can’t handle properly, or a combination of the two. Either way, this thing is all over the place. I’ll need to fix that. Soon.

GTV Doing D&E

Then, on my last few runs, I started having issues with the car wanting to stall and popping. A quick check under the hood found a melted MAP line. That’s bad. On a speed-density system, if the MAP signal is wrong, the fueling is wrong, and you can damage stuff. Fortunately, the ECUGN has a failsafe. I have a backup table loaded that registers RPM vs. Throttle position, and specifies what the MAP reading should be. If the reading from the sensor is too far from that table, the ECUGN switches to the table. That keeps the engine fueled properly even in the event of a MAP line failure. the issue is at low throttle inputs, the MAP signal wasn’t far enough from the table value, so it switched back and stalled or popped.

Melted MAP line

These melted MAP lines would turn out to be a recurring theme for the rest of the weekend.

I did pretty well at D&E this year. 26th overall, scoring 74 points. I think that’s my best D&E finish ever. And I needed it. My middling autocross performance didn’t do me any favors.

Sunday was track and speed stop day. Hoo boy is this track fun. It’s technical, lots of elevation changes. Plenty of places where the wrong line will hang you out to dry. I loved it. For one session.

My best lap was my first lap. 1:56.9. I caught up with some of my compatriots and never got around them. The car felt great except in the downhill braking sections. Once again, the shocks weren’t up to the task. For instance, in the lap video above, you’ll notice a little screw-up braking through the corkscrew. The rear tires came off the ground. Oops.

Sadly, on the last lap of the session, my transmission temps hit 220, and fluid burst forth from the dipstick tube, running down on the exhaust, and creating a spectacular cloud of smoke. At the same, the car backfired, which led many observers to think I’d blown the engine.

But no worries! It was just that stupid MAP line melting shut again! Damnit.

And to top it off, the studs that hold the turbocharger to the exhaust manifold backed out and the gasket failed. Steel studs don’t like extreme heat cycles, and they finally gave up.

So, back to the pits. I shuffled off to the parts store to get some brake cleaner and more tubing. I cleaned up the engine bay as much as I could with the brake cleaner, and I replaced that melted tube again, this time covering it with some DEI branded high-temp sleeving. I cinched down the nuts on the turbocharger as much as I could and headed for the Speed Stop.

I managed a clean set of runs. But, at the end of the right side, the car stalled. The replacement MAP line didn’t quite fit right at the sensor nipple, and it was leaking. It also couldn’t build boost quickly because of the exhaust leak. Unable to address the issues at the track, I loaded up and headed home.

So, the event was disappointing for me, but at the same time, not a total washout. I still managed 307 points, which puts me at position six in GTV for the season. With two events left, it’s possible for a select few people to leap ahead of me, but there is still a slim (slim) mathematical possibility I could land one of the at-large bids to the invitational event in Vegas. I’ll know in October. It’s out of my hands now.

As for the rest of the year, well, how about the rest of this week? The SCCA CAM Challenge is this weekend in Peru, Indiana. So far I’ve already replaced the burned up transmission fluid and removed a lot of melted electrical conduit. The melted conduit has been replaced with DEI sleeving that should hold up better. The leaking MAP line has been replaced and also properly heat shielded. The turbocharger comes off tonight so I can replace those worn out steel studs with Inconel studs and lock bolts, and I have a new set of springs and AFCO shocks slated to arrive Thursday that I’ll throw in Thursday night.

So stay tuned! CAM East this weekend. The next big event for me after that will be the inaugural SCCA Time Trials Nationals at NCM in late September!

A huge thank you to Boost Crew Motorsports for help getting the ECUGN going and a list of other small bits of assistance that made getting there at all possible, and big props to the FM3 crew and Optima for putting on yet another fantastic event!

2018 Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car – NCM

This weekend went well. It did not go perfectly, but it went well.

The third leg of the 2018 Optima Search For the Ultimate Street Car visited NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, and for the third year in a row, I was there. For the first time, I had my daughter with me as my crew chief. We loaded up in the Period Correct Tow Pig and headed south.

Friday went just like any Friday at one of these events goes. Arrive unload, tech, hang out. I scored all my D&E points for equipment working properly, got the stickers on the car, walked the autocross course a few times, and met up with Eric Brown for dinner. I had a sandwich nearly dropped in my lap, and retired to the hotel for a mostly sleepless night.

Saturday morning began the festivities. It wasn’t that hot on the thermometer – mid-high eighties – but it was HUMID.

This year, instead of running the autocross as a free-for-all, they’ve split the classes into run groups. GTV was in the second run group, so I had the morning to stew for a bit before taking my shot at it.

I managed my best autocross run in the first session, my third run, a 31.8. At the moment, that was good for fourth in class. But others got faster as the day wore on and I didn’t. I ended up ninth, which is still respectable, and just a tenth faster would have launched me several spots up. Spots 3-9 were inside the same second. It was close.

A comedic moment: As I came off the course on one of my runs, I noticed James Greenwell running at Optima Jim McIllvane, who was sitting at the finish with his camera, screaming, “Please tell me you got that!”

What Jim hadn’t gotten was my car picking the front wheel several inches off the ground coming out of the last turn of the autocross. Another photographer caught me packing the tire in another turn, and that shot has already made the rounds on Facebook.

And before you ask, my GoPro failed me. It got video, but all the GPS and accelerometer data was corrupt, so no track maps or G-meter data for this weekend, which sucks. I’m pretty sure I was pulling some major Gs, especially on the road course.

This is my *second* best run. The camera didn’t catch the first one. Somehow I switched it to still mode and it didn’t record. Doh.

Further, two weeks ago the Kentucky Region SCCA had an autocross at NCM. Same surface, similar conditions, so it’s a great opportunity to see if my upgraded GN1 intercooler worked:

Two weeks ago on top, Optima on bottom.
Two weeks ago on top, Optima on bottom.

Data doesn’t lie. The new intercooler reduced my average intake temperature by 11 degrees, and the minimum temperature by fourteen. And this is just a 30 second autocross. You can see the intake temperature plummets with airflow through the core.

Design and Engineering went well. I went in with a plan, and executed it. My standing at the end, however, was disappointing. Despite really good scores, others had better scores. My nearly stock body work and original 30 year old paint were my weak spots, netting me scores in the middle fives out of a possible eight. My drivetrain and suspension scores were in the middle-to high sevens. I have to figure out a way to goose my body scores, and name dropping more parts vendors will help. I managed to not run out of time this year, so if I repeat that speech, I have space to add some more detail. I may need to work on some props, too. I got better D&E Judging scores than NOLA, but ended up with fewer points because of how the series assigns points. They rank everybody, first to last. Your rank is your point total, not your actual judging numbers.

The line for D&E gets long sometimes.

The road rally was uneventful. Just a quick jaunt north to Mammoth Cave National Park and back. Wednesday rode along. The highway travel made it apparent my tires had seen better days. The rears had several flat spots on them, making for a rough ride. However, the A/C in the Buick works fantastic, and after being out in the tepid swamp air all day, we had it blasting on max, icicles forming in our noses. Several people apparently got lost, though. Which sucks.

Wednesday using her serious face.

Sunday was the nail biter day. The Hot Lap Challenge and the Speed Stop. This year, we were running the entire NCM 3.14 mile Grand Full course. Now, I’ve searched the webtranets, and I am confidant that what you are about to see below is the very first footage of a Grand National completing the Grand Full Course at NCM. Either parade laps or at speed. First. Ever.

Track Map, courtesy NCM Motorsports Park

For those not familiar with NCM, the track is crammed into a sliver of land along I-65 just outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. It is in proximity with the National Corvette Museum as well as GM’s Bowling Green Assembly plant, where the Corvette has been built since the 1980s. In order to get such a long track stuffed into a small tract, it loops back on itself several times. There is no runoff. Armco barrier and concrete walls everywhere. A mistake will put you somewhere unpleasant. On top of that, the track is enormously technical. Large elevation changes, blind corners, and very high speeds. It’s daunting.

My first session ended with a billowing smoke screen behind the car and the distinctive smell of burnt transmission fluid. The 20 minute sessions were too much for the parts store synthetic I had put in the gearbox. It overflowed out of the dipstick tube, hit the exhaust, and made a scene.

A quick trip to the Winding Road race shop for some Mobil1 ATF, a cut up gas can for a drain pan (thanks Darrell!) and the completely burnt stuff was out and fresh new clean fluid was in. I also shortened the rest of my sessions. As soon as I saw I was catching up to traffic, I went ahead and pitted.

And I caught up to traffic a lot more this year than before. It feels good to be passing instead of getting passed. I passed a 370Z, a C6 Corvette, a C4 Corvette… I think a few more but I forgot already.

My best lap time ended up being a 2:34.8 during my second session, which is damn good considering this is a 1987 Buick. Good for eighth in GTV. I backed the time up with another 2:35.2 in the afternoon, but by then the track was hot and the tires were greasy, and I was tired and making dumb mistakes. Hell, in the video of my best lap, you can see me screw up deception and go two over the rumble strips.

My third track session ended early due to fuel starvation. Despite having half a tank of gas in the car, I pulled enough Gs in the sinkhole the fuel pulled away from the pickup and starved the engine nearly enough to stall the car. Oops.

And how about the intercooler? This isn’t a scientific comparison, because the tracks were totally different, but this is my manifold temp chart from Putnam Park two weeks ago (light green) overlaid with my temperatures from NCM (dark green). You can clearly see I’m cooler everywhere, and the ambient temperature at NCM was higher than it was two weeks ago at Putnam.

Manifold air temp chart
Manifold air temp chart

I love it when I can prove money I spent actually accomplished something!

The fourth session was no faster than the second, so once I started catching traffic, I pitted. No sense in cooking the transmission further.

Speed stop did not defeat the car this year! But, I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. Eleventh in class. My times were competitive, but just a few tenths too slow. I probably could have picked up more time with more attempts, but by the afternoon, I was TIRED. Reaction times were suffering. My pad knockback issue in the rear of the car also made for an inconsistent pedal, which makes consistent speed stop runs difficult.

I got video of my speed stops, but I can’t correlate the video with the results, so I’m not going to post them here. They’re not terribly riveting viewing from inside the car.

All in all, I finished ninth in class, but even more surprising – I’m now in third for overall season points! Consistency and attendance gets you there. Now, I’ll have to really crush it at Barber Motorsports Park in August to keep that position.  I really need a nearly 400-point event to lock it in. Any number of people will surely jump ahead of me after the Pikes Peak event, which I’m not going to be able to attend.

But the series only counts your top three. So a good showing at Barber could put me back up close to the top, and with everybody above me already having an invite to Vegas, the class winner invite could fall through to me. If the stars align and I hold my nose just right. I also need to buy a lottery ticket and find a rabbits foot to rub on.

Conclusion of a successful weekend!

By the end of the day, the car was back on the trailer, and had gotten there under its own power and seems to be no worse for the wear (besides the tires, I think they’re close to shot. Oops).

Big thanks to Brad Lay and Boost Crew Motorsports for helping me with the car. This engine didn’t miss a beat this weekend. A huge shoutout to Slambert Performance Engineering for helping me with the exhaust repairs after Midwest, a shout out to the Optima  and FM3 folks for putting on such an awesome series of events, and a HUGE thank you to Tim Thompson for lending me his trailer.

Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car, NOLA

So, with the season upon us, it’s time again for a weekend recap.

I spent the weekend of April 14 driving to and from New Orleans, Louisiana for the second round of the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street car.

After my shakedown cruise to Charlotte for the SCCA Match Tour last month shook what I thought was most of the bugs out of the system, I embarked on my trip to NOLA with a fresh front fuel pump in the truck and a completely new fuel system in the Buick.

Data logged during my runs at the ZMAx dragway indicated my fuel system wasn’t building pressure as boost rose past ~12psi. The most likely cause was the return line was simply too small to bypass enough fuel. This hypothesis was bolstered by the drop in voltage seen when the fuel pressure plateaued.

The solution was a completely fuel system replacement from Racetronix. New sender assembly, a 450LPH pump, and new lines. A -8 feed, and a -6 return. It’s enough pump and line to put the car into the nines in the quarter, though I have no intentions of ever actually trying to test that.

The tow to NOLA was uneventful. I arrived on site early Friday as I normally try to do and got the car tech’d and stickered.

One of these rigs is not like the other

It was immediately clear from my parking lot mates that I was overmatched in the financial resources department. By a lot. But punching above my weight is what I like to do, so carry on.

Saturday morning threatened a deluge, and the event staff wisely got things going early. We managed three dry runs before the monsoon hit. The rest of the day was spent trying to stay dry, and getting Design and Engineering completed.

My best autocross run was good for fifth in GTV, with some very fast drivers in front of me. I was not ashamed of it at all. I think I scored 25th raw time overall for the entire event, which was top third. I’ll take it.

The car’s performance was pretty good, though I did feel it nose over at full throttle a couple of times. I still need to be more aggressive with it. The car pulled 1.3g in several places, but the sweepers were much less, which means I’m not pushing it far enough.

But I was pushing it hard enough to pick the wheels off the ground. Yes, the car was packing the inside front tire in turns, consistently. I’ll need some stiffer rear springs to push it back onto the ground.

D&E went well also. Again, I think I was 25th or so overall for the entire event, netting 73 points in the category. At the end of the first day, I was sitting in view of a podium finish in GTV.

Then Sunday happened.

The first road course session was reconnaissance. We all were learning the track and everybody in my run group was running in the 2:10 – 2:15 range. The car handled fine. The new brakes worked fantastic. It was such a joy jamming the pedal down and having the car immediately slow down, and do it rapidly.

After the first track session, I headed over to the Speed Stop challenge, and that’s where it all went off the rails. At WOT at the top of second, the car just died.

Then it did it again.

Back to the pits. I found this:

That’s not right

My charge pipe had come out of the coupler. So I put it back in. Went to run another speed stop, and it popped out again. Got it back in, then it popped out at the throttle body. Got that tighened down and it started leaking where the turbo outlet goes into the intercooler.

I missed the second track session of the day and burned up all my morning speed stop runs troubleshooting this. It was frustrating.

I ate lunch and completed my Road Rally requirement. Since the normal rally had been cancelled due to the rain the night before, we were tasked with getting a photo of our car at a local golf course. When I got there, another driver was there and was nice enough to get a picture not just of my car, but me with it.

Me!

Then, the afternoon road course session started. I though I had locked down the hoses, so I went out for another round. I got one crappy lap in before the hoses blew off. Additionally, at WOT before the hoses blew off, the car was leaning out to 12.4:1 AFR, so I was lifting. I topped out at 128 on the front straight and screwed up turn one, then had a pretty good lap. No drama. Could have gone a lot faster. Caught a Corvette in the twisties, but he walked me on the straight because I couldn’t put my foot down.

Shortly after this video ends, the hoses blew again. I limped it off the track and back to the pits.

I was able to piece the hoses back together enough to manage two clean speed stop runs at half throttle.

At the end of the day, I was 7th in GTV (out of 15 registered, but only 9 showed up). I scored 343 points, which isn’t terrible at all. But it was disappointing considering the car could be a lot faster.

On the bright side, at the end of the weekend, the car was still showing 23psi of hot idle fuel pressure fresh off the road course. The engine is still healthy and holding up fine. I have new rear springs ready to go in, and new charge tube couplers and clamps are on the way.

So, despite the bad outing, the only real tweaks are rear springs, new hose couplers, and add some WOT fuel to the tune.

My next event will be with the Central Kentucky Region SCCA at UK’s football stadium on April 29.