Monthly ArchiveSeptember 2017

Anatomy of a failure

So, after my disappointing engine failure at the Optima NJMP event, I was left with the big question:

What happened?

Well, after pulling the engine and tearing it down and reviewing the data logs from the event, even having an oil sample analyzed, the answer is clear:

Several things.

Dealing with things like this requires patience. I want to understand what broke and why it broke. Without fully understanding those things, I’ll just break it again.

Pulling the engine

Step one is getting the engine out of the car. Not a big deal. This is my second time doing it. Had it out in just a few hours. Before I started pulling it, I drained the oil, taking a sample to have analyzed. No water came out, which was encouraging. But the oil did settle in the pan with a nice metallic sheen on the surface. That wasn’t encouraging.

After getting the engine on the stand, I got the intake manifold off and saw the first hard evidence of what I was dealing with. The passenger side head gasket had clearly failed at the top of number six.

Busted head gasket at number 6

It managed to push the gasket out far enough that it contacted the pushrod, likely contributing to the noise. Once I got the head off, the effects were more obvious.

Head off, steam cleaned piston!

You can see pretty clearly the damage to the gasket. On the bright side, the water that got into the cylinder steam cleaned the top of the piston for me. The gasket also mostly re-sealed, which is why I was able to drive the car off the track and onward to the paddock and eventually onto the trailer. Yay?

The driver side showed signs of damage, too. But not nearly fantastic enough for pictures.

At this point, I was feeling encouraged. Maybe I got away with just a head gasket? Time to flip it over and pull the oil pan!

Oh God.

This isn’t good

That, my friends, is bearing material. Lots of it.

The number one cam bearing was damaged, as well.

Number one cam bearing

I pulled the number three main, and it was trashed.


Number three main bearing shell. That groove at the top is supposed to go all the way around.

At this point, I just took it to the machine shop so they could clean it. They found the top shell of the number one rod bearing was missing. The rod journal had been ground down 0.018 inch from the original size, and the cap and journal were discolored from the heat. The crank was trash, and so was at least one rod. The wear on all of the bearings was offset, too.  The crank bent. I bent the crank. The crankshaft bent. Holy crap.

So, that’s the physical damage. But what caused it?

Well, figuring out why the head gaskets failed was easy once I saw this chart:


The green line is the knock count. As boost climbed past 20psi up to 24psi, it starting pinging. A lot. I couldn’t hear it when it was happening. When it hit 24psi, the heads lifted off the block and the rest is history.

But the bearings?

OIl analysis, check out the highlighted numbers

OIl analysis, check out the highlighted numbers

Yeah, bearing wear. And checking out the slightly elevated number on the 8/5/2016 sample, it appears they’ve been wearing since I put the engine together. I think I screwed up something in the front cover and oiling system when I built the engine last time. They wore, and then the detonation event just finished them all off.

So, the total damage? Trashed crank. Trashed rod. Block is fine but will need some finish machining. I’m going to need a rotating assembly, new cam, and a properly constructed front timing cover and oil pump.

So what’s next? A lot. As is usually the case, it costs almost the same to put upgraded stuff into the thing as it would cost to just rebuild it as it was. I’m forging it all. All the things. Forged. FORGED!!!!!

And a few other plans. Stay tuned.


The road to (and from) Optima NJMP 2017

I must be insane.

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.

New transmission!

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.

Parked in Millville

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.

Super parking!

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 line for D&E

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.

I’ll be back.